The Perth institute of contemporary arts has this last year said goodbye to Leigh Robb, and has recently announced their new senior curator – Eugenio Viola. We look forward to seeing how he develops the program of the institute over the next few years.
Unfortunately there are serious budgetary attacks being launched against institutes such as PICA. Perhaps in this economic context, the bright, colourful, busy shows PICA has put on this (last) year appear to be an attempt to gather a large audience and prove its worth as a response to these budgetary measures. Starting with the PIAF show, Secret Garden and running through Justene Williams: and the curtain breathed deeply and ending with Pip and Pop: when happiness ruled (missing hatched and Salon, the two perennial shows), these exhibitions have all been large installation works, but have also moved against the post-minimal direction of Leigh Robb’s early curation (emblematic of this is the work of John Gerrard and Jeppe Hein). These busy shows exhibit a tendency to hiding or sequestering things within a vibrant and confusing plethora of ornament and decoration, of patterns and objects. There is a heightened emphasis on joy that seems to pervade each exhibition; they all seem extremely celebratory.
It is difficult to read these works without thinking of and referring to Francis Russell’s Tyranny of twee? Essay in Cactus last year. His writing there seems strangely to predict this year’s curated offerings at PICA, and demonstrate remarkable prescience. These shows can certainly be read with reference to this broad yet useful classification of ‘the minute, pleasant, endearing, adorable, sweet, whimsical, sentimental and precious’. Yet this classification applies mostly to When Happiness ruled, though The secret Garden and The curtain breathed deeply certainly bear a connection to it by invoking the fun and playful attitudes of twee. However, the reason I wish to bring it up is because, in his essay, Russell invites us to consider that disregarding the work as superficial only reveals a failure of thoughtful and meaningful engagement with the work. He places the impetus on the viewer not to disregard these works simply on the most boring of registers: of taste.
Following on from this then, perhaps an appropriate concept to address the approach of these shows can be found in Jan Verwoert’s talk on Geoffrey Farmer: Speaking through masks. In it, he states that Farmer’s work has at stake within it the miraculous. He provides a counter example in Robert Morris’ work, which appealed to the ‘enemies of the miraculous’, the pragmatic/utilitarian mindset and the semiotic/representational mindset by ‘reflecting false expectations back to themselves’: the post-minimal trajectory of Morris’ work, is suggestive of both a viewer’s relationship to the gallery that is pragmatic, and a relationship to the institution that is interpretable.
If there is a concept that can allow us to speak about the silly, celebratory and trivial, perhaps it is this idea of the miraculous – an essentially magical construct that something ‘is what it isn’t and is not what it is’. This miraculous is not something necessarily always light and enjoyable however: in particular, Verwoert mentions the Snufalupagus as a character with particularly dark and horrible associations, a ‘dual scrotal monstrosity’ of a puppet that is the very uncanny terror of the homely. The darkness of the associations within this character are near to the surface, but that Henson is able to cross both the happiness and the quite terrifying horror of childhood and innocence is to the credit of his creation. The Secret Garden seems to inherit the legacy of Henson’s Labyrinth and The Muppets in this sense (though what it more clearly resembles is Wallace and Gromit). It is willing to look at dark subjects through the lens of the miraculous, the process of giving life to cartoon characters.
The Secret Garden, but mainly When Happiness Ruled, also recalls the cultural force that is the films of Studio Ghibli. One of the most interesting features in Ghibli’s films are that they are regularly set alongside, or in, an unspecified though recognizable copy of WWII, the shadow of the atomic bomb looming over the naïve and happy world of the hero who almost always finds a peaceful solution to the problem at hand – sometimes interpreted as the survival of humanism in the face of the absurd, apocalyptic, and potentially misanthropic. Though this model is often and justly lauded in opposition to Disney’s sometimes mechanical hero/villain dichotomy, it is worth nothing that Ghibli’s films are not without their own unaddressed assumptions and knowledges. For instance: a scene returns to me of Princess Nausicaa (admittedly not strictly Ghibli, but as the film that launched the studio, I feel it is an appropriate statement of intent) being given a gift by some children as she is led away as a hostage. This I thought to be one of the few scenes of the film that fell flat – resembling so much the manner in which children give our own monarch flowers as some token of fealty. Such a demonstration falls into the realm of symbolic and unreal expressions of care and responsibility and love – the princess in this film is clearly given power, unequivocally and with only the supposition of her continued care for her subjects as the basis for its justice. It is worth considering against Ghibli Takashi Murakami’s extremely successful marketing of the ‘super-flat’ as a model of understanding post-war Japanese anime culture: that it is a direct response to, and an infantilisation that is resultant from, being forced into American consumer culture after suffering the atom bomb’s deadly effects. Japan came to be protected against Russia by America’s nuclear umbrella almost as soon as the war was over, and it had no choice but to peacefully capitulate to its once-and-former enemy, and entering a new age of consumer culture – especially of anime. When Happiness Ruled takes some of the style of anime and of studio Ghibli’s contributions to that world, particularly in its resonance with an animist universe. Yet the exhibition, with its constant appeal to overwhelming the senses and yet also being small and sweet loses the devastating, and the poetic, and the political and cultural charge of Ghibli’s work. The video reel showing upstairs performs some of these functions, overlaying scenes of animated disaster with the world of the work.
Yet these shows are unlike Geoffrey Farmer or Wallace and Gromit or The Muppets. One cannot help but think that if the miraculous ‘is what it is not and isn’t what it is’ everything in these shows came close to, but never became, anything other than what it was. While When Happiness Ruled approaches sickening levels, it maintains that sugar is sweet, not sick, and while The Secret Garden reveals the very chemical basis of its construction in popping pills and smoking pipes, it does not ever move outside this utilitarian interpretation. The literalism of The Secret Garden demands interpretation (one of Verwoert’s enemies of the miraculous). It is as if the associations of Carrol’s white rabbit could not be left to stand and needed yet more explanation, and drawing out. The magic of stop motion, the magic even of hallucinogens is perhaps one of transformation, not just of admitting a perpetual dependence on chemical substance. In a way, this destroys the fundamental dichotomy of Henson and Wallace and Gromit: the fact that we know they are chemical beings made of plastic and fake fur, transformed by a trick in the mind and the persistence of vision, but that we still believe in them as miracles. Instead, it offers a mechanistic version of wonder, stuck in the high-school literature lesson that the white rabbit is just Carrol’s drug habit talking. The work yet fails where Henson and Aardman succeed – in the wonder of their creations (a man and his dog go to the moon, which is naturally made of cheese, puppets menace young adventurers, try to make sense of telephones). Wallace and Gromit, at the zero degree of twee, is already a work of great power – its achievements are miraculous.
Justene Williams’ show, The Curtain Breathed Deeply, moved away from the kind of child-like naivety or child-like aesthetics that both other shows have as their basic register of engagement, while still using a similar palette of materials that evoke the celebratory and the child-like. Of the three shows, it offers the most convincing model of how to approach this genre of the decorative and this mode of engagement while maintaining its critical framework. The most powerful room of her large installation addressed masculine and backyard culture – a series of video screens and fluorescents (a phalanx of phalluses) on a white ute, a variety of other sexually suggestive and explicit elements. While we can interpret the work with relationship to minimal art and the Australian backyard, perhaps the hilarity of those flapping erect penises, swinging to and fro like sausages on the barbeque, and that vagina that pops out from a wall are simply the most magical things that have been in PICA’s curated content this year. Like the toilet jokes of baroness Elsa von Freytag and Marcel Duchamp, they are surprising and humorous, and tap into the strange animation of objects in a way that the other shows did not.
Yet all of these busy shows seem to be attempting to transform the space into a fantasyland. Perhaps this is not such a bad thing, yet when three shows appear in one year that try and perform a similar kind of magic, even the miraculous grows tiring. There is something undeniably infantile about the frame of reference the works encourage. Even Justene William’s backyard is filled with the colours of a child’s birthday party. While I think there are various aspects of every work presented that are important, and interesting to think through, there is a lack of understanding in the works about what is at stake within them. While perhaps a jailer is the only one who would discourage escapism, these works are honey traps, and feel more like an intelligent sort of prison we have built for ourselves.
by Graham Mathwin