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Biennale of Sydney

Bad feelings, sporadic beauties

Jacqueline Millner

Jacqueline Millner lectures in the School of Communication, Design and Media, University of Western Sydney, and writes widely on contemporary art.

Daniel von Sturmer, The Truth Effect, 2003 Daniel von Sturmer, The Truth Effect, 2003
courtesy of the artist
In his book Pictures and Tears (Routledge, 2001), art historian James Elkins comments that our “lack of intensity” in the face of painting is a “fascinating problem”: “If paintings are so important—worth so much, reproduced, cherished, and visited so often—then isn’t it troubling that we can hardly make any emotional contact with them?” His book is an attempt to understand this phenomenon, by gleaning testimonies from those (exceptionally few) people who have cried in front of a painting. Elkins takes the involuntary rupture of the body’s integrity that is the shedding of tears as the most measurable evidence of an emotional connection with art.

Elkins’ observations provide a useful point of departure from which to consider this year’s Biennale of Sydney, curated by Lisbon-based Isabel Carlos around the theme of “Reason and Emotion.” In her brief and fragmented catalogue essay, Carlos suggests that her selection of artists was guided by the arguments of neurologist Antonio Damasio, who claims “emotion is crucial to human intelligence”, that “we have an emotional brain” and that feelings are “indispensable to be able to deliberate.” One of her aims “was to bring together artworks that create a total physical and psychological experience” and to highlight the “political and ethical aspect of stating that reason and emotion are inseparable.”

Given this purported aim, what is curious—and disappointing—is the overall lack of intensity that characterises the exhibition. There are too few works that address the theme in a compelling manner, let alone connect with the viewer emotionally, while the curatorial decisions too often appear arbitrary (or based simply on personal taste and cultural proximity). Moreover, the curator has woven the theme together with some highly suspect cultural stereotypes of the sensuous, fluid, resourceful South (emotion), and the rational, ordered and consumerist North (reason), putting an emphasis on the south within the exhibition. While this approach allows for the inclusion of a number of Hispanic, particularly Portuguese and Latin American, artists who have not shown in Australia before, it also perpetrates categorisations that have long been problematised, to the point where the curator’s authority is almost undermined.

Carlos has foregrounded the apparently self-evident emotional nature of intelligence by selecting works evoking a response that mingles rationality and feeling, an approach that has been roundly critiqued by several commentators (for example in Artspace’s collection of critical essays Criticism + Engagement + Thought). Not only is this considered a dead letter as a philosophical concern, it also flags as novel the truism that art is defined by the engagement of sense and sensuality. I would argue, however, that this has been far from self-evident in recent years, with the institutional privileging of contemporary works that are heavily indebted to conceptual and minimalist forebears whose concern was to expunge aesthetics from art altogether. In other words, it may well be innovative at the present time to assert that it is ‘contemporary’ to make art that is emotional, in the sense that it engages us in the full swoon of aesthetic experience and takes us beyond the intellectual and institutional games of conceptualism. Carlos fails to make the link and develop this fruitful line of argument by selecting works that deploy beauty and delight rather than promulgating what Paul Virilio calls “the academy of bad feelings”, an all too familiar approach whereby artworks aim to repulse or rebuff the viewer.

Despite the thinly argued curatorial rationale and the related lack of intensity in a great deal of the exhibition, certain individual works do indeed provoke complex and satisfying aesthetic experiences. For example, New Zealander Daniel von Sturmer’s kinetic still life The Truth Effect (2003) is simultaneously self-reflective and absorbing, analytical and lyrical, beautiful and conceptual. It comprises a suite of small-scale video projections of simple everyday objects animated to create various patterns. As we walk around a large tilted plane on which are installed 5 canvas-like screens, we are as likely to laugh with bemusement as gain understanding of the artist’s process. We also become aware of our own conventions of seeing. One screen depicts the interaction between 3 different sized rolls of tape, whose movements illustrate scale and proportion, fundamentals of painting and drawing. Another depicts the superimposition of one circle of colour on another on a spinning wheel, again referencing the building blocks of painting, while at the same time creating engaging op art with the simplest of materials. The work invites us to analyse the process whereby we create meaning by looking, to confront our assumptions about the banality of everyday things, and to enjoy the beauty of simple pattern, colour and composition.

Pat Brassington’s wondrous digitally manipulated pigment prints also can’t be accused of a lack of intensity; they provoke a strong and multi-faceted response. Her work on display includes Small Thing (1998), Bloom (2003) and Beautiful (2003). Like von Sturmer’s images, Brassington’s prints foreground their materiality: both artists’ work is digitally reproduced, yet they are hardly examples of the alleged immateriality of bits and bytes. Instead, these images engage us in a tactile way and assert their physicality, partly through an accent on texture, colour, weight and the presence of objects, but also by directly referencing the body. Brassington’s surrealist tweaking of the human form—her continuous transmutation of adult into child, male into female, human into animal and object into organism—ensures her images remain in that endless limbo where we attempt to categorise in order to make meaning. Her images occupy the site that French philosopher Julia Kristeva designated as that of abjection, where the split between mind and body this exhibition invokes is confounded, the site signalled by the rupturing of established boundaries, as when the body leaks, as when the eyes weep...

If we were to apply Elkins’ ultimate measure of emotional engagement, I admit there was one work here that caused me to cry: the excruciatingly frank and eloquent testimonies of female psychiatric patients at Sydney’s Rozelle Hospital, as filmed and edited by New York-based Venezuelan artist Javier Tellez. The self-possessed quiet integrity and restraint of certain storytellers was underlined by the overblown melodrama unfolding on the screen opposite, where the artist projected excerpts of Carl Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1927-8). In a scene that evoked Winston Smith’s conversion in 1984, one patient read a journal account detailing her journey from vehement resistance to ECT, to grateful appreciation of its effects. Another woman in her late 40s recounted her teenage experiences at the hands of mental health professionals. She ended by noting how little has changed; the cruelty that struck her then remains the definitive principle today. The pain of these women is powerfully denoted when the impassive face of Renee Falconetti as Jeanne fills the screen, finally devoid of affect and beyond suffering.

Reason and emotion, the relationship between them and their relevance to contemporary art hold great potential as means of engaging with current practice. However, this particular exhibition failed to take up this theme in a sufficiently critical, erudite and illuminating way. Nonetheless, in such an exhibition it is possible to find testaments to the power of the artwork to elicit an intense experience, to integrate beauty and concept such that they become mutually sustaining.

Biennale of Sydney 2004, various venues, June 4-Aug 15

Jacqueline Millner lectures in the School of Communication, Design and Media, University of Western Sydney, and writes widely on contemporary art.

RealTime issue #62 Aug-Sept 2004 pg. 40

© Jacqueline Millner; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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