Tackling the unseen

Dan Edwards

Junebum Park, 1 Parking 2001-2002, DVD

Junebum Park, 1 Parking 2001-2002, DVD

Mirror Worlds—Contemporary Video From Asia reflects, often humorously, sometimes surreally, on globalised culture and its consumerist economy that both fuels unbridled change and provokes violent reactions.

Junebum Park’s 3 videos are typical of the exhibition’s tone. 1 Parking (South Korea, 2001-02) offers a bird’s-eye view of a car park where an enormous pair of hands hover over the scene, moving the cars about and pushing pedestrians along when they threaten the traffic flow. The impression of a controlling force guiding the city is enhanced by the projection of the image onto the gallery floor, placing the viewer in the position of the giant ordering the rapid fire activity below. In 15 Excavator (2003), the same oversized hands operate an earth moving machine on a building site, while The Advertisement (2004) sees them nimbly plastering advertising signs across an office block’s naked facade. The fast motion in all 3 works lends a comic edge to the unsettling representation of the myriad powers ruling life in the modern metropolis, with the hands evoking everything from the surveillance of traffic controllers to the more abstract ‘hand of the market’.

Chen Shaoxiong’s Anti-Terrorism Variety (China, 2002-3) similarly evokes unseen forces, this time of political and religious violence. The work comprises 2 screens angled at 45 degrees, each with an image of an urban skyline. One is Guangzhou, the other Shanghai; both feature ultra-modern high-rises, with some structures looking more like science fiction fantasies than buildings of the present. Boats glide across Guangzhou’s harbour, while in Shanghai pedestrians stroll in and out of frame and a major road dissects the screen, creating a strange disjunction between the futuristic skyscrapers and the familiar scenes of city life below. In the skies above, cartoonish silhouettes of jetliners periodically appear, moving like unconvincing models in cheap television sci-fi. Sometimes they come in groups, sticking to the buildings like flies caught on flypaper, before fading one by one. At other times the towers bend like blades of grass and permit the aeroplanes to fly harmlessly by, or else the tallest tower in each skyline curves like elastic before snapping back, launching the aircraft off-screen. Sometimes the planes simply fly into the buildings, to reappear on the other side transformed into missiles or doves of peace.

Anti-Terrorism Variety wryly evokes contemporary events, or rather our mediated experience of them, the iconography referencing everything from the 2D graphics of early computer games to handicam footage of the September 11 attacks. The Chinese setting also called attention to the universalising power of media imagery. More subtly, the ability of the towers to mould themselves to accommodate or avoid the silent onslaught graphically represents the capacity of the modern globalised economic system, symbolised by China’s 21st-century skyline, to absorb, dodge, or repel almost any force set against it.

Rashid Rana’s focus in 10 Differences (Pakistan, 2004) is more oblique. Mirror images of the artist face off across a screen, each raising and lowering a pistol in an uneasy stand-off. Both figures stand before identical tables decked out with formal cloth coverings and flowers, suggesting negotiating tables as well as a domestic setting. Finally, with an explosive roar, the guns fire simultaneously, and the screen cuts to 2 images of Rana’s bloodied corpse sliding down the wall and slumping forward. One image frames him in long shot, the other in close up, tilting to follow the bloody trail of his slide. The action and setting in each frame is a mirror image of the other. After a fade to white, the sequence returns to another face off, another blast of guns, and the 2 Ranas collapsing in an endless loop of escalating tension, violent outburst and death. 10 Differences suggests multiple readings. Some relate to the artist’s home, Pakistan, a nation founded on a violent split with a mirrored other. More broadly, the cycle implies that the constant threat of violence between opposing forces creates mirror images of tension and fear, with multiple viewpoints only becoming apparent in the aftermath of conflict.

Elsewhere in the exhibition Flight Rehearsals (2003), by Indian artist Kiran Subbaiah, draws more on the traditions of Surrealist cinema than the conceptual tropes of most video art. The work is a highly amusing meditation on the way our ordering of time contains and constricts our imaginative compulsion to flights of fancy. Beginning with an image of the artist sitting on a table, Subbaiah relates in a droll voiceover his attempts to learn how to fly. Practising only in the early hours of the morning to avoid being “discouraged by the interrogation of responsible people”, he discovers the secret of flight, which involves jumping into the air as high as possible and then jumping again before “gravity has time to act.” Naturally, his ability to fly brings an understanding of the language of birds, including the dawn crow of the neighbourhood cock.

With the coming of morning, Subbaiah’s flight is framed by a television screen and we track back into a looking-glass bedroom. A cooked chicken sits atop the television. An alarm clock rings and Subbaiah comes crashing to his bed in the extreme foreground. Initially, the clock appears to be next to him. However, when Subbaiah rises and walks over to stop the alarm, it becomes a very large clock at the back of the room. It’s difficult to convey in words the clever distortion of our sense of space. As Subbaiah turns off the alarm, his dream of flight on the television disintegrates into visual static. He turns the TV off, picks up a smouldering cigarette and takes a rueful puff.

Superficially Mirror Worlds’ most overtly comic and whimsical work, Flight Rehearsals is a complex interrogation of the relationship between our dreams and their literalisation in mass-produced moving images. It’s also an entertaining narrative, a surreal depiction of the mind’s ability to conjure images of the impossible, and a deadpan comment on the way the conditions of modern life delimit our ability to creatively and intellectually take flight.

Although more overly filmic than the rest of Mirror Worlds, Flight Rehearsals confirms the impression that the avant-garde of the moving image is now to be found in the gallery rather than the cinema. In an age in which the image is increasingly utilised to convey simplistic, one-dimensional messages of hatred, fear or consumerist pleasure, video provides a crucial means by which artists can intercede, interrogate and reflect upon our highly mediated global landscape. Small quibbles like chronic sound spillage aside, curators Zoe Butt and Bec Dean are to be praised for expanding the Australian Centre of Photography’s already broad ambit and exposing Sydneysiders to the work of our region’s artists in this most vital of contemporary forms.

Mirror Worlds—Contemporary Video From Asia, curators Zoe Butt and Bec Dean, Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney, May 27-July 10

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 37

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2005
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