Art divas, shimmering ciphers

Leon Marvel

Ali, Nat

Ali, Nat

Ali, Nat

When Jack ‘Machine Gun’ McGurn and his boys came gunning for ‘Bugs’ Moran and his gang in a downtown Chicago garage 74 years ago, a soliton wave of loud, strange virtual particles began to reverberate down through the years, eventually passing through Darwin in 2003. Riding the crest of this virtual white-cap were 2 gals, armed with chainsaws.

The Arafura Sea doesn’t witness many breakers, nor does the local art scene play host to many art divas from the South, but on St Valentine’s Day, Nat & Ali stormed into the height of the Wet Season with a retrospective and a series of media spots that had the whole town agog, and asking, seemingly in one voice (in typical Darwin posh-art speak): “Who the fuck are these two?”

Well, Nat & Ali are 2 Melbourne symbiotes with decades of work behind them (telescoped into a couple of years, naturally—who has time for decades of work?) and enough pages to tear from their journals to cover at least part of a couple of walls in the 24HR Art Gallery. On the other side of the gallery is part of their 2000 installation, A Face in the Life of Nat & Ali and in the centre sit Nat & Ali Jnrs, 2 ventriloquist dummies who often take part in the proceedings (although since Nat & Ali-in-the-flesh have left, Nat & Ali Jnrs’ participation has been minimal, except to present a Zen-like air of intense perturbation).

While the makeover of A Face in the Life of Nat & Ali is undoubtedly impressive (are Nat’s cheekbones really that high?), it’s the carefully composed journal pages arranged on the walls that have the punters most intrigued. Immediately noticeable is the fact that Nat & Ali’s journals make no clear distinction between the rockstars, internationally famous artists, television talk-show hosts and TV stars whose images checker the pages, and the images drawn from Nat & Ali’s own career and lives. No hierarchical arrangement of text or image, no narrative derived from the contiguous placement of page or element, no difference between the Nat and the Ali (to artificially separate them for a moment, until the magnetic field that unites them becomes too distorted and they are crashing back together like 2 horseshoe magnets, pole to pole) and the famous—just-because—who smile glibly from the pictures torn from women’s magazines and newspapers. It used to be the case that artists only became really famous after they were dead, but as Nat & Ali ruefully acknowledge, who the fuck wants to wait that long? We want fame and art now! And…maybe they’re the…same thing. Cool.

This simple raison d’etre, the making of Nat & Ali’s career as artists into the subject of the artwork itself—the old serpent eating its own tail schtick—has been done before of course and the cultural trajectory that leads from dandy to rock star has been equally well documented, but there is a poignancy to this show that is entirely absent from the Big Players of this game (Jeff Koons, Madonna etc). Above all, Nat & Ali seem to be championing something a little greater than themselves: the art scene itself. Nat & Ali’s The Art Bar, represented here by an audio CD created for the show, fetishises one of the central activities of the gallery scene—drinking—in an affectionate homage to all their friends (and future friends) who gather for this ritual. It’s a sometimes pretentious scene, for sure; and sometimes frustratingly dull, but when it works, when a small community of artists and gallery patrons starts to generate those complexity vibes, well, interesting things start to happen. Nat & Ali recognise this and their work seems to be a gesture towards assuring its continuation.

The laws of complexity are invoked in Nat & Ali’s journal collage where strange telegraphic messages are formed through the simple device of underlining various passages in texts cut from popular journals and newspapers. We read disconnected passages, words and phrases—sex advice, a bit of a write-up about a Nat & Ali exhibition, a TV star’s appearance at a charity—and one gradually gets the sense that Nat & Ali are not so much makers of their own artistic destiny as conduits and condensers for the myriad random messages and images of the contemporary cultural labyrinth. We observe that while The Best of is about Nat & Ali, Art Divas to the Masses, Nat & Ali themselves become shimmering ciphers for the entangled web of popular culture, media celebrity and the art dance that somehow still manages to keep us entertained.

The Best of… Nat & Ali, 24HR Art Gallery, Darwin, Feb 14-Mar7.

RealTime issue #54 April-May 2003 pg. 31

© Leon Marvel; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2003