2016: Issue 2: Dave Attwood: Don’t leave stones unturned [2]

David Attwood
David Attwood

Dave Attwood. 2016. Stones. Book and stack of magazines, faux marble vinyl tiles. Photo: Robert Frith – Acorn photography

Over the last five or six years Perth based contemporary artist Dave Attwood has built an impressive and expanding body of work that looks to embody, with an eye to absolute minimalism and succinctness, the morphology of cultural idioms. Unlike the minimalists and conceptualists that inspire him, Attwood’s work functions to produce, not a purification of the material support or a distilling of the essence of an idea or concept but, instead, the minimal material embodiment of a cultural reference. In past works, Attwood has nibbled an iced VoVo into the shape of Kevin Rudd’s head—making reference to the former Prime Minister’s victory speech in 2007—exhibited unused scratchies, and stuck yogo lids to gallery walls. Such works have all embodied a certain postmodern sensibility, an interest in maintaining the precision and minimalism that characterised a great deal of modernist art whilst also casting aside notions of purity and superiority—especially when it comes to questions of art’s relations to the mundane and pejorative. In his new exhibition Don’t Leave Stones Unturned at Moana gallery in Perth, WA, Attwood turns to the very question of the legacy of postmoderism, and, in so doing, raises question about the import of this concept both artistically and philosophically.

“What comes after postmodernism?” is a question I’m commonly asked by fine art students. It’s a question I can completely understand, since, it typically comes from a place of curiosity and excitement regarding the possibility of being a part of something new and radical in the history of Western art. When students ask this question there is often a sense of expectation that I, as the “subject supposed to know”—to borrow a Lacanian formulation—should have had my ear sufficiently close to the ground to have heard the distant tremors of some impending new epoch, paradigm, or theoretical movement. There are, of course, contenders for the position of the theoretical discourse that supplants postmodernism—such as metamodernism, altermodernism, or hypermodernism—but to offer any to my students misses the opportunity to serious unpack the question, and the potentially problematic assumptions, that underpins this question.

While postmodernism can be approached as a periodising tool, a concept that helps to demarcate certain dominant shifts in political-economy and subjectivity since at least the early 1970s, we can also approach postmodernism as a philosophical and aesthetic perspective that looks to critique the production of essentialist accounts of art that are often coupled with modernist historicism. From a postmodern perspective, the often fiercely defended distinctions between pre-modern and modern, or between, say, classical and romantic, expressionist and conceptual, are to be treated with a certain incredulity or suspicion. Such a perspective would certainly not ignore the importance of historical research and consensus, but would, instead, look to challenge drawing any rigid or essentialist conclusion from such a history.

David Attwood
Dave Attwood. 2016. Don’t leave stones unturned. Installation documentation. Photo: Robert Frith – Acorn photography.

This approach to the concept of postmodernism is evident in Attwood’s latest exhibition, insofar as his minimal installation raises questions about modern art history and the periodising of art. Placed on marble veneer tiles that Attwood has used to transform the gallery floor are a scant few objects, offering the viewer what initially seems like a cold and empty space. Such objects include a copy of Robert Hughes’s The Shock of the New—modified by a copy of the popular magazine New Idea inserted like a bookmark—Sasha Grishin’s Australian Art History next to a pile of TV Weekly magazines, and, in one of the corners of the gallery, a DVD case for the 1998 drama High Art. Presenting the viewer with an immediate visual pun the objects are underpinned by flawed marble, inviting the viewer to question notions of purity and veneration. The objects themselves raise a tongue-in-cheek point of comparison between great works of art history and the now antiquated format of the television guide, with the commercial function of the latter’s categories and chronologies linked to the purportedly noble task of the art theorist or historian who demarcates epochs whilst searching for that “new idea” that will perhaps cement their name amongst the greats of the past. The question that such a juxtaposition asks is whether or not the cultural archive one is thrown into today is too eclectic and vast to be subsumed within the hierarchies and categories of historicism. Moreover, Attwood’s work makes me wonder whether or not the an affirmation of minor and marginal histories can be the only response to the vastness of the web of cultural artefacts one has access to in our present situation, and that seemingly defy scheduling and tablature.

One of they key motivations for embracing this postmodern perspective that is so well-embodied by Don’t Leave Stones Unturned is its attempt to disrupt the presumed authority of certain key figures, institutions, or concepts in order to help something novel and potentially radical to emerge. Accordingly, and I’m sure Attwood would agree, rather than simply telling my students that some ‘x’ has arrived after postmodernism, I try instead to help the students challenge the expectation that someone else will decide what is happening—that is to say, what is significant—in art so as to encourage them to think critically and for themselves about art—both art that is being currently produced and the art of the past. Such a position is perhaps initially disappointing—and might even give the impression that I am dodging a difficult question—but, hopefully, it leads to a more creative and active participation in thinking through art and aesthetics.

by Francis Russell