There must be a name for the sense of anxiety generated by an exhibition of new media art. Neomediaphobia? It’s a bit cumbersome.
Even if the syndrome has yet to be titled its effects are very real. Having just taken twenty people into an exhibition of Contemporary Norwegian Video Art in Oslo, I’m in a good position to report on the symptoms. First there is a look of alarm as the subject realises he or she may be about to spend a couple of hours in a succession of darkened rooms struggling with images that are banal or incomprehensible, or both.
Next there is the attempt to regain composure. “I’m a mature, broad-minded person,” goes the thought. “Although I’ve had terrible experiences with video art in the past, perhaps this time I’ll see something really special.”
As one obscure, tedious video follows the next this initial resolve is eroded. Now comes a deadening sense of déjà vu – “I’ve been here before! This is like a nightmare repeating itself.” The penultimate stage sees the subject racing towards the exit, like someone holding their breath under water, desperate for a gasp of oxygen. Safely back on the street there is an overwhelming feeling of relief, and a renewed determination not to be lured into any more exhibitions of new media art.
The veracity of this description may be checked on a daily basis in galleries around the world, for there is no end to contemporary art’s appetite for video, which is seen as perennially glamorous and ‘cutting-edge’. At the same time most painting and sculpture is written off as a relic of an industrial age of art, when poor fools toiled away with brushes and other implements, making an awful mess.
The only problem is that the public – even that small percentage who regularly attend art exhibitions – has an unshakable preference for the old-fashioned stuff. It could be argued that the ubiquity of digital imagery has made us less rather than more receptive to video art. If a website doesn’t grab us within the first few seconds, we move on. We sample clips on YouTube, and change TV channels fifty times a night.
Hollywood is now catering to an audience of viewers with such minimal attention spans that a movie is judged boring if it runs for five minutes without a car chase, an explosion or a martial arts session. Look no further than the colossal success of Fast and Furious 6.
This is the world in which guest curator, Charlotte Day, was given the task of putting together the 5th biennial Anne Landa Award for video and new media arts at the Art Gallery of NSW. She chose to take a slightly oblique approach, focusing on seven young artists with strong performative interests: Lauren Brincat, Alicia Frankovich, Laresa Kosloff, Angelica Mesiti, Kate Mitchell, James Newitt and Christian Bumbarra Thompson. Since performance is the oldest art form in the world it could be argued that the only ‘new media’ involved are the devices used to record, edit and re-present these activities.
The title comes from a work by Bas Jan Ader, a legendary Dutch conceptual artist, last seen heading out to sea from Cape Cod in a small sailing boat, as part of an attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean. That was in 1975 and Bas Jan Ader has never been heard of since, although his empty boat eventually washed up on the coast of Ireland.
Such a romantic end to a career has made Ader a cult figure, idolised by a new generation of art students who are increasingly preoccupied with performance. One might praise Day for being so completely in tune with contemporary developments, or wonder if her curatorial project is only a way of following fashions.
The Space Between Us sounds uncomfortably similar to We Never Talk About Love, the name of another contemporary art survey held at the AGNSW at the beginning of this year. They might almost be tracks on the same album by some sensitive pop idol. That earlier show was less than inspirational, and it is just as difficult to get excited about most of the works in the Anne Landa Award. As usual, it all sounds good in theory but feels dull in practice.
By “dull” I mean that too many works are idea pieces, lacking intellectual and visual excitement, devoid of productive ambiguities. Almost every work requires us to read a text in order to understand what is going on. Having read the wall label, the viewer says: “Oh yeah. I get it,” and moves to the next.
Some of the artists have been staging performances throughout the course of this exhibition, and this was probably more successful than the audio-video material. The physical presence of performers has a more vivid impact upon us than any number of filmed records. I walked through the gallery on opening night when Alicia Frankovich had populated the entrance foyer with people doing different everyday things. No act was special in itself but the cumulative impact gave the work a circus-like aspect.
It would have been more impressive if it did not seem so similar to the work of British artist, Tino Seghal, who is becoming an international art celebrity with low-key performances and interventions in museums. As a mark of his trendiness, Seghal was just given a Golden Lion for best artist at the current Venice Biennale. He also featured in the recent Kaldor Art Project, 13 Rooms.
Similarly, it would have been better to watch Lauren Brincat and a group of women ride up to the AGNSW on horses, on 12 June, and park themselves in front of the two bronze equestrian statues, rather than to view a video of the same performance held in Mexico City. It is even less engaging to watch Brincat standing motionless on a horse’s back in emulation of a statue of Joan of Arc. Bas Jan Ader would at least have made sure that he fell off.
Most of the exhibited works are very slight indeed. Laresa Kosloff photographed the way viewers interact with the AGNSW’s permanent collection, and overlaid the images with Whitney Houston singing “I have nothing without you” – a song to put one’s teeth on edge. The idea of studying museum visitors is hardly new, and the song makes the entire thing feel like a lame gag or a creditable school project.
Kate Morris had herself filmed jumping through a series of coloured glass panes, while James Newitt orchestrated a mock confrontation between two groups of demonstrators, although it is never clear what they are arguing about. Once again, it’s easy to imagine that it might be more engaging to be present when Morris undertook her glass-breaking leaps, or when Newitt’s mobs faced off against each other. The immediacy is lost when we watch these activities as mere records of an event.
Christian Bumbarra Thompson gives us nothing much to look at, with a sound installation based on a Bidjara word transformed by the sound of a bullroarer. If you were lucky you may have caught his one-off, 45-minute performance, Tree of Knowledge, which was held on 12 June. I didn’t, and so am in no position to comment.
The only artist that succeeds in making something impressive out of the ‘performance’ idea is Angelica Mesiti, who was the deserving winner of this year’s award. Her 21-minute video, Citizens Band, is a cut above everything else in the show. It owes much of its appeal to a very simple structure that features four unusual musical performances, one after another, in the manner of an intimate concert.
A woman from Cameroon makes a drumming sound in a swimming pool; a Mongolian throat singer performs in the streets of Paris; a Sudanese taxi driver whistles a plaintive tune, while sitting in his cab. In the fourth segment an Algerian man who looks as if he is blind, sings a song with bittersweet tone in a carriage in the Paris metro, accompanying himself on an aged portable keyboard.
These pieces of music and the circumstances in which they are performed, make us aware that each of these figures is living in exile, dreaming of the place where he or she was born. We don’t know whether they have moved by choice or compulsion, but their music is a way of forming a bridge between past and present, perhaps easing the pain of separation. Citizens Band is full of nostalgia and sadness but also suggests the resilience of these people. In this sympathetic, non-ideological portrait of four cultural refugees, Mesiti makes us see that one of the ways to survive in a big city such as Paris is to be able to travel home at will on the wings of music.
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Anne Landa Award 2013: The Space Between Us, Art Gallery of NSW, May 16 – July 28, 2013
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, June 29, 2013