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Feature: The Women's Pages

Deferred detonations; thrilling pessimism

Robert Cook

Robert Cook is Associate Curator of Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Western Australia and an art critic for The West Australian.

Susan Norrie, Undertow (detail) Susan Norrie, Undertow (detail)
As I dragged myself from Susan Norrie’s eddy, my gait was little more than a palsied geek boy shuffle. The art world equivalent of sitting through Das Boot, the experience of eddy was posture-damaging heavy, it mooched around my body like some endless, sticky largo. Later, as it started to sink in, the experience changed in tone. With time to mull over how this 3-part show spoke to itself and out to broader cultural shenanigans, a surprising lightness glimmered through. What was cool about eddy was its sneaky, perverse mix of rhetorical and emotional density with a maxi-skip load of light-as-a-feather interpretative aftershocks. Maybe all this reveals is the difference between literary and somatic responses—the somatic is a direct punch to the breadbasket, the literary (or the exhibition-dream-work, take your pick) a deferred detonation.

Though I felt the effect of the readerly last, it was signalled up front in the juxtaposition of text works on 2 facing walls of Perth’s Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery. On the left were 2 large paintings, one grey, one a blacky maroon with under painting showing through. The texts are partially covered, partially readable; we scan these braille surfaces, our bodies set at a distance (thanks to museum conventions) and aching to reach out and confirm how the letters feel. This teasingly off-limits word play was mirrored by a slice of text from Ang Lee’s flick The Ice Storm. The segment we read is at the beginning of the film, when Toby Maguire sits on the train flipping through his Fantastic Four comic. He’s just had a kinda kooky weekend culminating in not having sex with Katie Holmes (of Dawsons Creek). (Always a plus in my opinion and, oddly, he had the same experience in The Wonder Boys). Anyway, the text is about the ways families hold us down like sludge and it’s impossible not to hear Maguire’s voice as we read, triggering all the resonances of this marvellous film (the interplay between the frozen ice and Christina Ricci’s intensely free bicycling figure, for example). The significance of this only becomes apparent, however, when we hit Norrie’s majestic Undertow. At the start it’s a pop cultural curve ball that gets you thinking about reading the surfaces of gallery walls, your own family dynamics, and whether Ang Lee’s Hulk will be as good as the hype.

The show’s other important segment is the thin rectangular room of black paintings from Norrie’s Inquisition series. The painterly equivalent of a floor-full of scurrying cockroaches, some are like scenes from one of Kossoff’s oily nightmares. Some are behind glass, Cornell boxes posted from an endless night. One is not really a painting but a concertina-ed fan of paper-geisha girl noir. Regal, elegiac, these also constitute a macabre theatre of the 2-D that gnaws at the gristle of formalism and the more dainty elements of the monochrome tradition. Their viciousness is amplified in the majestic Poisonous Fly Paper, good enough to mix even more metaphors about. A freaky, groovy Venus Fly Trap of a picture, it threatens to kiss you deadly, leering at you, aesthetically seducing you like a praying mantis out to bed some cute mantis tail. Okay, I wasn’t really that spooked, but in this beautiful, small room there is the feeling that Norrie is upping the ante in terms of the emotional and intellectual force that painting can offer at the interface of abstraction and representation.

It’s the sumptuous cinema of Undertow, however, that is the show’s lynchpin. Like walking into a Holmesian fog, the room is dull, lit only by the screens. Standing amidst them, we finally realise the Screen dudes were right: we’re part of the apparatus too. On one screen a young girl bobs along on the shoulders of a man. She’s watching the early bloom of the cherry blossom, thanks to global warming. On another, 2 guys fill a balloon and let it go. They treat the balloons the way Paul Celan treated stones—with reverence, awe and a movingly opaque symbolism. Other screens show aspects of environmental degradation, burning oil, cormorants stuck in oil, etc.

The final (or first, depending on when you find it) screen in Undertow features a scene from Orson Wells’ The Trial. The shot shows Anthony Perkins watching Naydra Shore carrying a large suitcase over the nondescript badlands. Perkins carries his own lighter box, and is relatively unfettered. From seeing the film and reading the book we all know that Perkins’ K is guilty, intrinsically so, bafflingly so. He is confused, though, because he thinks he’s a clean skin. Presented within Undertow, he is unburdened, the oil doesn’t touch him and we see him as a jerk, unaware of anything around him. Norrie is using K (as Kafka did) to stand in for all of us—we are all on trial for our slow-mo, first world terrorism against the planet. And we are jerks too when we fail to realise this.

However, what Norrie’s mobilisation of The Trial shows, is that our guilt is attached not only to environmental issues, but to our structural make-up—it’s part of the super ego. Here psycho-dynamics and enviro-dynamics are intimately entwined. Here’s where the importance of The Ice Storm kicks in. The undertow is intrinsic to us. We are glued in place by so many layers—family, spectacle, aesthetics, desire, gravity. There is no escape, and Norrie lets us know this while encouraging us to question this and question the hopelessness of this questioning. Which is to say that this is a Freudian show that turns on the logic of the death drive, the irreversible plunge back into the sludge and crap we came from when the dopey game of evolution began. When Norrie makes a plea for us to swim against the oily tide, she also makes it damned clear that to do so is impossible. It is this that saves it from being a one-dimensional “woe is the state of the world” exhibition. This makes it, strangely, even more thrillingly pessimistic.

I’m only skimming here. There’s a book-length commentary possible on eddy, in the same manner that Barthes did a job on Balzac’s short story Sarrasine in S/Z. Issues to consider for extra credit might be: whether it’s a coincidence that The Fantastic Four was the first comic to introduce a black character as a staple—the Black Panther. How does the work relate to Gary Hill’s Tall Ships— are we ghost ships in Norrie’s sea of screens? What are the precise connections between The Trial and Ian McEwen’s The Innocent? And how is film used as a substitute for theory?

You get the picture. Well, I hope so, because the picture got me too.

eddy, Susan Norrie, Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, Perth, April 6-June 1

Robert Cook is Associate Curator of Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Western Australia and an art critic for The West Australian.

RealTime issue #55 June-July 2003 pg. 5

© Robert Cook; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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