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Digital dialectics

Samara Mitchell

This blistering display of fuel-injected narcissism is almost art-defying: watching a bunch of young men squeezing the most out of their car cylinders in the small hours of the morning. Burnt is a series of video installations produced by Mike Stubbs (see interview, RT69) exhibiting at Adelaide’s Experimental Art Foundation. At first glance, the axle-grinding maleness just about slaps you in the face.
Mike Stubbs, Jump Jet Mike Stubbs, Jump Jet
Within a dual-screened installation titled Donut, the artist gleefully re-enacts his adolescent days in Bedford UK, flooring a customised car around a parking lot and leaving a trace of arabesque designs on the asphalt in his wake. You can almost smell the burning rubber searing off the car’s tyres as Stubbs demonstrates his circle-work in a neoplatonist pursuit of the perfect donut.

The twin loops of footage glare at one another from opposite ends of the gallery as I sit in their crossfire, straining my peripheral vision. Going nowhere hard and fast, a group of young men and teenage boys accelerate their tyres into an oblivion of black smoking liquid, plumes of noxious smoke enveloping the car and the driver like a magic cloak. This is interspersed with teenage crowds at a car rally and overhead footage of Stubbs as he executes a series of spectacular turns.

Glancing from side to side I catch subliminal glimpses of a young woman’s face in close-up-made up like a 70s porn star—and the voyeuristic snapshots of female friends, limbs suggestively interlaced. Plenty of psychoanalysts after Freud have posited theories about the relationship between ‘programmed’ cellular death on a biological level and its affect on consciousness. Nature’s last-ditch effort to propel the genes further down the timeline means that libidinous male energy flows on the precipice of physical danger. It has also been suggested that displays of narcissism mask an underlying sense of incompleteness. This notion of absence, combined with the subconscious fear of death may go some way towards explaining some ritualised acts of destruction, performed in order to attain a form of completion. Via the use of subtle symbolism Stubbs hints at a circular narrative within the work. In one scene he pushes a toy car around a woman’s navel, as if to suggest a return to childhood. A poem pinned to the back wall of the gallery between the 2 screens perhaps captures the artist’s return. The text reads in part:

A boy from one town / A small Island
In England / A small Island
Wanting to make a mark / Wanting penetration
To leave a trace / Afraid of the bigger boy
With the longer stare / The faster punch
A bigger gun

The white heat of the poem’s youthful defiance leaves a mark as indelible as the streaks of rubber left behind on the road.

On a smaller screen in the corner of the gallery, a much greater scale of self-destruction and hopelessness is exhibited within a work titled Tyne. The river Tyne runs through the metropolitan borough of Newcastle, in the North East of England. A long-range lens on a hand held video recorder films a young man perched on the cold, meatless structure of the Tyne Bridge spanning Newcastle and Gateshead, presumably about to jump. In stark contrast to the rebellious heat of Donut, there is no warmth to be found here. Below the bridge, a crowd of rubbernecking voyeurs waits for an outcome from the indecisive figure far above. On the ground, an onlooker can be seen grinning and talking on his mobile phone. The man on the bridge too, looks to the screen of his mobile phone, apparently with no messages, or no reception. In a culture so inured to second-hand information, reality TV and surveillance, social responsibility and duty of care is readily handed over to figures of authority: police, the military or anybody in a uniform.

The intensity of immanent conflict screams throughout the exhibition space from the sound of a Harrier Jet coming in to land in a piece called Jump Jet, made on location at RAF Wittering. Donning the headphones of this installation is rewarding, if only to gain temporary relief from the assault of jet engine noise passing overhead. The heavy respiration of a man in pilot uniform and oxygen mask (presumably the artist) is suffocating. Media reports of strikes over petrol prices in Britain are overdubbed with bleakly humorous comments from the artist, mocking the increased consumption of fuel as the public’s response to the overall shortage. Far from being a symbol of national security, military presence stirs social tensions into a judgement impairing state of crisis.

City of Culture is a ten-minute DVD essay screening of footage pertaining to the City of Newcastle-Gateshead’s failed bid for the 2008 European Capital of Culture. This footage is contrasted with audio recordings and video-texts of an incisive conversation between Mike Stubbs and Neil Ramy, the CEO of the Newcastle-Gateshead initiative. The tone of the conversation critiques the ostensible values attached to the ‘branding’ of public spaces for the benefit of tourism and cultural development. Cities that use selective framing to promote the attractions of the city, whilst editing out the ugly bits, as Stubbs suggests, may be doing wonders for the image of the city, not necessarily passing on those benefits to the people who live in it. The complex issue of developing the esteem and economy of a community—both inside and out—is put into sharp relief with the complementary screening of Cultural Quarter. Based on images acquired from Schedule D Productions, the film captures an event on the street below a set of inner city flats, depicting a group of children and teenagers progressively demolishing a parked car. Adults and passers-by view the spectacle with a detached interest until the police arrive, signalling the game has come to an end.

The installations in Burnt are perhaps not at a scale that matches the potency of their content. They work exceptionally well as interdependent pieces however, revealing Stubbs' artfulness at reframing seemingly “impartial observations” as subtle and engaging social commentary.

Mike Stubbs, Burnt, Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide, April 21 - May 20

RealTime issue #73 June-July 2006 pg. 28

© Samara Mitchell; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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