This year’s Sydney Festival follows the familiar pattern of being chiefly concerned with theatre and music. This comes as no great surprise, but it is important that the visual arts events are not treated merely as an afterthought. Olafur Eliasson at the Museum of Contemporary Art is the headline act, while the Campbelltown Arts Centre and Gallery 4a are hosting Edge of Elsewhere, a show that combines contemporary art from the Asia Pacific with works by local artists.
I’ll return to some of this material over the next few weeks, but this weekend represents the last opportunity to see two festival attractions: Lynette Wallworth’s video installations at CarriageWorks, and Circa 1979: Signal to Noise, a rather puny archival exhibition at the Seymour Centre supporting a day of seminars held last weekend on Sydney’s post-punk and electronic music scene.
Lynette Wallworth (b.1961) is one of Australia’s most celebrated international artists but she is barely known to local audiences. When her work was shown at the Samstag Gallery in Adelaide last year during the film festival, it was her first full exhibition in her native country. The three pieces at CarriageWorks are the first works she has shown in Sydney, which is nominally her home town.
This phenomenon reveals the new globalised state of the arts today, in which an artist’s nationality plays a negligible role. In the 1950s and 60s, Australian artists in London made a great fuss about their Australianness, regardless of whether this meant pictures of the Outback or a certain ‘rough and ready’ attitude. This approach persisted even into the 1990s as Australia sent a series of survey shows to international centres seemingly intended to demonstrate that local contemporary art looked exactly like the art being made in Europe or America. Weirdly, the rhetoric of a unique “Australianness” persisted, although it required considerable ingenuity to isolate this quality.
Nowadays an Australian such as Wallworth can exhibit her work in Britain, Austria, France or the United States, or even undertake a residency in Iran, without having to grapple with the idea of national identity. Her installations are universal in their appeal, addressing issues that transcend location and touch the broadest spectrum of humanity. Unlike most video-based art they do not allow us to sit and passively absorb a succession of images, they require a level of participation.
I discussed two works, Duality of Light and Invisible by Night, when they were shown in Adelaide in February last year. These pieces feel slightly different at CarriageWorks, yet not so different that I need go over the same ground. The third piece, Evolution of Fearlessness, features eleven women who have survived, war, torture, concentration camps and terrible acts of violence. Two of these women come from New South Wales, the others hail from Sudan, Germany, Iraq, Austria, Eritrea, Greece, Afghanistan, El Salvador and Chile. All now live in Australia, where Wallworth met and interviewed them.
Their stories are recounted in deadpan, harrowing detail in a booklet that accompanies the show. It helps to have read these accounts, but even without the words the piece has a remarkable poignancy. You step up onto a platform and place your right hand on a designated spot on a full-length screen. From the other side of the screen a woman emerges out of the shadows and touches her palm to yours, exchanging a few seconds of eye contact.
It is a moment of intimacy with a stranger, an instant in which we are invited to sample each woman’s strength of character or simply feel that she trusts us. That feeling would have been more compelling if the resolution of the images had been a bit higher. Instead, one can never escape the sense of confronting a projected image rather than a real person.
If one can surrender to the experience it is worth remembering that most of these women are refugees who have been given a second chance in Australia after enduring almost unthinkable ordeals. In most cases they travelled beyond pain and fear to a state in which they had to find a psychic strategy to concentrate on their own survival. No-one can ever be the same after such experiences. We stare into each woman’s face in mute anticipation of seeing some sign of what they have been through, and how it has been written on their souls.
Although the images could be sharper and the illusion of reality more profound, Wallworth has created a work that attempts to involve us – body and mind – in the lives of others. It is the immersive feeling that gives the work its power. For a projected image to touch on these dimensions is an unusual feat, broached occasionally by artists such as Bill Viola or Gary Hill, but rarely with the same directness.
The chief problem with Wallworth’s installations is that they can only accommodate one person at a time, which means that the queues can be tiresome, especially for Duality of Light. This is the penalty for trying to address each viewer as an individual consciousness rather than making a sweeping public statement. It’s a trade-off in which the quality of the experience is at odds with its accessibility.
Circa 1979: Signal to Noise, in the Sound Lounge at the Seymour Centre is a collection of fanzines, record covers, posters, defunct hardware, and other paraphernalia associated with an historic explosion of creativity in Sydney’s alternative music scene. The show is really a relic of last weekend, when a day of seminars was held in which the pioneers of post-punk and electronic music traded reminiscences and opinions.
I went along with no great expectations and found that two out of three sessions were conducted in a lively, humorous manner. Instead of the predictable nostalgia and self-mythologising, speakers discussed the past in a way that brought out the amateurish nature of their activities. This ‘grass roots’, D.I.Y. attitude helps explain why there was a vitality in the Sydney scene in those years from 1979-1984 that has never been repeated.
The final seminar provided a dreadful reminder of what eventually went wrong. In a series of film presentations, speakers proved that avant-garde music and video is often far more interesting for the makers than for viewers. All the boring, pointless, pretentious bits that had been missing from the first two seminars were given free reign. It is a mystery to me how anybody could get excited by Philip Brophy’s soporific remixes of Hollywood movies, while Jamie Leonarder’s home videos of his onstage antics were an embarrassment.
It is obvious that the punk revolution opened a door that could never be closed – or reopened. Punk was a rejection of the bloated corporate values that had infected popular music, but within a few years it had been absorbed and adapted by record companies that had overcome their shell shock and learned to surf on the new wave. But even as punk was going mainstream, there was a sustained period of fresh, independent musical experiments following in its wake.
In Australia this highly charged time coincided with the hangover of the Whitlam years, when students were paid a reasonable allowance with no obligation to give it all back. The cost of living was relatively cheap and there was more time for would-be musicians to experiment. Most importantly, there was no internet, no Facebook, no playstation, or any of the other staples of daily existence that now absorb the energy and intelligence that might once have been channelled into creative activities.
Tom Ellard from the legendary electronic band, the Severed Heads delivered an eloquent diatribe, critical of the lack of adventure and imagination that characterises the contemporary music scene. Stephen Mallinder, from British band, Cabaret Voltaire, said that he makes music for therapy nowadays. There’s certainly no money in it.
It must be said there never was much money in it, and this was one of the distinguishing features of that earlier era. Today’s world is more focused on the bottom line, perhaps necessarily, as it was easier to be a “romantic fool” as Ellard puts it, in 1979. You could make art and still afford the rent.
One of the significant features of the post-punk scene was that almost everyone was making videos as well as music. This blurred the boundaries between disciplines and foreshadowed the gradual colonisation of contemporary art by audio-visual media. Looking at these rather crude productions today, they are almost unwatchable. The same could be said about much of the music, which may be better described as noise. Nevertheless, the vitality of the historical moment cannot be denied. Somebody had to make that noise, and it was done with great verve and imagination. While speakers said optimistic things about the current alternative music scene, there was little to back up the positive sentiments. The values of 1979 are still attractive today, but it they may be harder to revive than the DNA of Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Lynette Wallworth: Invisible by Night, Evolution of Fearlessness & Duality of Light, Carriageworks, January 7 – January 24, 2010
Circa 1979: Signal to Noise, Sound Lounge, Seymour Centre, January 16-January 24, 2010
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald January 23, 2010