There are many exhibitions that must have been fun for the artist but leave viewers in a state of mild perplexity. The Museum of Contemporary Art has two such shows at the moment – shows that can be broadly appreciated, but not loved.
Energies, the survey by David Haines and Joyce Hinterding, is almost over, but it would be a shame to let such a unique event escape comment. There are few areas where contemporary art can actually progress any further, which is why we see so many variations on the same old stuff. Technology provides one of the only available pathways, and for the past 20 years Haines and Hinterding have explored everything from capturing Very Low Frequency radio signals to finding ways to photograph the sun; to making artificial odours by manipulating molecules.
In addition, they have an ongoing interest in the occult (another form of “unseen energy”) and have built an energy gun called a ‘cloudbuster’ by following the instructions of rogue psychologist, Wilhelm Reich.
It’s an impressive body of work but virtually the only piece that has a strong visual presence is a massive, wall-sized projection called Geology (2015). This is a realistic-looking landscape created entirely on the computer. Viewers can manipulate this panorama and even explore two subterranean levels. It’s based on gaming software, but in Haines and Hinterding’s imaginary world nobody gets killed.
There are many opportunities for audiences to interact with these works. Touch one of Hinterding’s drawings that look like large circuit diagrams, and you will hear a scratchy, static noise in your headphones. Sniff Haines’s home-made fragrances and you might get a hint of the seaside, or of damp earth. It’s fascinating in a rather nerdy way, but often seems more engaging in theory than in realisation.
In the very good catalogue that accompanies this show, one becomes aware of the range of ideas and metaphors that underpins Haines and Hinterding’s work, but in the gallery it comes across as a series of science projects.
So what are we to take away from all this? Curator, Anna Davis, puts it succinctly: “a sense of wonder”.
The artists’ enthusiasm and curiosity are palpable, with each piece laying the groundwork for a new departure. The scope of their investigations goes from the minerals found in the earth’s crust, to the cosmos itself. There’s probably no comparable body of work anywhere in the world, although it’s an art that impresses upon reflection, not in the immediate experience.
There is another form of ambiguity in the MCA’s other survey, Aleks Danko’s My Fellow Aus-tra-aliens. On one hand it’s good to find an artist who refuses to buy into the superficial celebration of the suburbs found in so much Australian art of the past two decades. On the other, there is fine line between a critique and an unpleasant sense of superiority.
For people who have spent much of their lives in suburbia there can be nothing especially thrilling about one of Howard Arkely’s lurid pictures of a brick bungalow painted with an airbrush, but it’s another matter to sit in judgement of the spiritual and intellectual complacency of such an environment. Is this haven of the lower middle-class lifestyle a blight on our nation or the preserver of civilised values? Danko (b.1951) has chosen to highlight the negative aspects, and has found no shortage of material to support his viewpoint.
The artist was born into a family of Ukrainian refugees settled on a quarter acre block in Adelaide in the 1950s. Like Jeffrey Smart at an even earlier period, he grew up with an appreciation of the insular nature of the Adelaide suburbs – a culture-free zone in which all aspirations were broadly materialistic. Coming from a non-English speaking background, Danko was intensely conscious of the homogenising nature of Australian society at that time, as celebrated and satirised in the novel, They’re a Weird Mob (1957), and Michael Powell’s film adaptation of 1966.
Danko’s early work, heavily influenced by Marcel Duchamp, consisted of visual gags – notably a series of hessian bags emblazoned with the words “Art Stuffing”; and tombstones or bronze paperweights carrying the label: “Heavy Aesthetic Quality”. The implication is that so much of what is written and said about a work of art is produced by words, not the object itself. Once a piece enters the world, whether it be a painting of a kitten or a hard-edged abstraction, it is at the mercy of any interpretation whatsoever.
These works are typical of the early 1970s, when the art object was under assault from all sides. In the following decade Danko would produce quirky sculptures out of clay that resemble maquettes for a Surrealist architecture, presenting their own titles like the framed words in a Magritte composition. There is an amateurish, home-made aspect to these works, but they are too wry and self-conscious to be attributed to anyone but a highly sophisticated artist.
This was also the time Danko made a short film in collaboration with Joan Grounds, “we should call it a living room…” (1974-75), which has become a classic. It shows, by means of time-lapse photography, an arm chair and its surrounds being gradually overrun with rampant vegetation. It’s a vision of entropy, as nature reclaims the throne room of the suburban castle.
In his works from the mid-1980s to the present, Danko creates large-scale installations with repetitive forms and a concentrated use of text. He is as deadpan as any Minimalist in Day In Day Out (1991) which consists of rows of tiny houses that resemble the pieces on a monopoly board. Each house is a fortress with blank doors and windows. Their repetition produces a deadening sense of conformity and regimentation.
Perhaps even more deadening are his collections of banal expressions, fragments of received wisdom or banner headlines. In Songs of Australia Volume 16 – Shhh, Go Back to Sleep (2004), the walls are lined with red house silhouettes overlaid with lines such as “Clever Country”, “The Arts Can Be Fun”, or “In the National Interest”. Most of these statements are empty, some are mere bigotry. The title of the show, My Fellow Aus-tra-aliens, harks back to John Howard’s trademark way of beginning a speech. It’s probably the only thing most of us can remember from eleven years of public addresses.
By teasing the word “aliens” out of “Australians”, Danko mocks the simplistic nationalism that was such a large part of the Howard platform, reminding us that all Australians, apart from the indigenous variety, are of immigrant stock.
He must have been even busier gathering slogans over the past few years. He might consider Julia Gillard’s “Going Forward” to Tony Abbott’s “Stop the Boats”, or lately “Death Cult”. Joe Hockey would be a particularly fertile source of embarrassing one-liners – “Lifters and Leaners”, “The End of the Age of Entitlement”, “Poor People Don’t Drive”, and so on.
From drawing attention to the way works of art can be etched in people’s minds by words, Danko now seems to be saying that our entire mental universe is in danger of being shaped by clichés, slogans and headlines. There’s a simmering anger in this installation, no matter how routinely each statement is re-presented. “Chatter” – a word that recurs in Danko’s work – has replaced thinking.
“You’re talking a lot, but you’re not saying anything,” as David Byrne once sang, in lines that apply to the current state of political discourse. It is the people who live in those little suburban houses who have the power to force some sense out of our politicians. Instead, it seems that suburban complacency and paranoia are the two fundamental forces upon which political parties have come to depend.
Despite the best efforts of generations of radical artists it is almost impossible to find instances in which art has helped to bring about political change. Danko’s brand of consciousness-raising acts like a mirror reflecting the mediocrity of Australian public life. The difficulty is that by staging these installations inside an art institution he is chiefly addressing those who hold the same views. This means the work might be seen as an aloof commentary on the benighted masses. It becomes a matter of ‘us and them’, when it may be more productive to accept we’re all in this mess together.
Energies: Haines & Hinterding
Museum of Contemporary Art, until 6 Sept.
Aleks Danko: My Fellow Aus-tra-aliens
Museum of Contemporary Art, until 18 Oct.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 29th August, 2015