Did we dream this?

Keith Gallasch and Virginia Baxter examine crime scenes at Sydney’s Police and Justice Museum and the Australian Centre for Photography

Prelude: an opening

At the crowded opening of Crime Scene (curators Ross Gibson and Kate Richards, Police and Justice Museum), we move slowly through the key room of the exhibition, curious about the shots of empty streetscapes where murders, rapes and accidents have taken place and been duly documented by police photographers whose constant practice yields a certain eerie artistry. The titles are perfunctory. But there’s still a chill, as if the photographs were records of hauntings—for barely a second your brain involuntarily fills in the fallen bicycle and the body of the 7 year old next to it. Ghosts. Further along the exhibition room, no imagining is required. Or it’s of a different order.

Some of the opening-nighters turn away. Others move in, peering—are we seeing this? A murdered mother and son neatly placed beneath the frame of a bed, posed almost as if in prayer. This is almost too much. How can this be shared with those pressing in around you? You move on. An empty kitchen, mess, a solitary high heeled shoe. Rape scene. It’s a chilling celebration, this opening. A few days later in the Sydney Morning Herald, John McPhee reviewing Crime Scene, worries at what he sees as inadequate notification at the entrance to the exhibition of what it contains (Warning. Some of the images in this exhibition may cause distress.). “No warning can discourage the voyeurs, but what chance is there of a surviving victim or a relative recognising a place that would bring back horrific memories? Do we have the right to use such images to make an exhibition?” (John McPhee, “Still life captures death’s essence”, SMH Nov 24). It’s not inconceivable—most of the photographs are from 1945 -1960. With the review are 2 photographs, one of a badly dented car chassis (Bondi car accident circa 1956), the other, a full size reproduction of a photograph of murdered man in a Balmain living room, 1956, and what looks like blood on the walls. Who might open the Herald and recognise a face, the body, the room…

Crime Scene is fascinating and is about more than its set of carefully selected photographs; it is about crime, about photography, documentation and forensics, and cultural history. Interviews, computer-stored information and on-the-wall documentation open out the exhibition. Nonetheless, the photographs, in their simplicity and their immediacy, are scanned onto your wetware and over the coming days they’re impossible to delete. An uneasy feeling follows you about, like the day after you dream that perhaps you’ve murdered someone, that somehow you’ve been implicated…you are complicit.

Act one: Another opening

As openings go, Dennis Del Favero’s Yugoslavian War Trilogy exhibition at the Australian Centre for Photography last month is a memorable one. Blanche D’Alpuget speaks emotionally about her meeting with a woman who had survived the Bosnian rape camps and how despite her efforts to contain it, the pain of her experience seeped into the detail of her daily life. The speech comes after we’ve viewed the first part of the exhibition, Pietà, in Eamon D’Arcy’s rude structure in St John’s Uniting Church. Inside this room within a room, our perceptions vertiginously up-ended, we watch projections onto a bed on the wall in front of us, and a chair, and a fan, a clock…all white. Tony MacGregor’s soundscore evokes the racking grind of helicopters, surveillance, a sense of urgency, like a song you can’t get out of your head. The images are equally disturbing, especially as their significance unfolds in the narrative loop—a mother tries to trace her murdered son whose body has been used by soldiers for target practice. She wants to bury him. A hospital mends its war victims only to release them to certain death, the murderers await them in the street. Unlike the rest of the trilogy, this footage is raw, the bandages, the blood, the wound, the aerial view of pleasant farms and forests barbarised. It’s good to get out of this sensurround murder scene, though you’ve probably watched it three times before you’ve registered the loop. The nightmare recurs, already.

Outside the room, we’re offered incongruous glasses of champagne. We take them and move through the candle-lit vestry and out into the night where we have the sort of conversations you have at any opening though this time they all begin with D’Alpuget’s speech and how it somehow stilled us. This time there are not too many of us. There’s enough quiet to reflect. Reflection: Pietà is a loaded gun (small dark claustrophobic room, within a church, a vertigo-inducing room, a soundtrack that won’t let you alone, images that are fuzzy, breaking up, but too real). Is someone trying to put the smoking gun in your hand? No. Pietà simply puts you in the picture, or above it; you’re up there, looking down like…God? or the Serbian airforce…?

Act 2: Deeper in

We’re thankful for the time it takes to walk down Oxford Street to the gallery for part 2, Cross Currents. Inside the main gallery of the Australian Centre for Photography our field of vision is filled with huge black and white split-screen images of cities, male and female body parts, landscapes, forests, all stretched across the space, doubled and reversed and Rohrschach Test-like folding in and out of themselves, taking our eyes with them, drawing us in and in.

The disturbing effect of Pietà is at first doubled in Cross Currents by the scale and the device and again, the sound. But this time the view is eye level. We’re on the ground. In a train. In a hotel room. Closer. The black and white photography and the artifice of its showing, however, are a little distancing, this is not as literal as Pietà. The narrative, as you piece it together, seems at first banal. “Cross Currents looks at…(the) aftermath (of the war) through a narrative dealing with the relationship between a young mail-order bride who has fled from Croatia and the Serbian body-guard hired to ‘protect’ her after she is forced into prostitution in Berlin” (Del Favero, CD-ROM booklet). And it’s like a movie, the scale, the black and white evoking an earlier generation of war films; drab landscapes rattles by, soldiers walk ruined streets. But it’s a narrative you piece together and therefore invest in—fleshing out dialogues that speak of emptiness, imagining the relationship between these naked bodies in this neat Berlin hotel room. You watch over and over until it makes some kind of sense. Because you are not given the narrative in a straight line, you feel like an outsider, but out of the banalities you build an enormity. You know what happened, that war, you try to connect it with what you hear and see now…you try to make sense of this aftermath…which never stops.

At home, on the CD-ROM you can worry at it, over and over, discovering new details, new evidence. You start to see the faces of the players, glimpsed in a mirror, or their heads straining back away from their naked bodies. This is a worrying curiosity machine. The devil is in the detail. It takes you in. When you first open it, a widescreen image of a hotel room rotates on the horizontal and your arrow transforms to a viewfinder, on the window, the mirror, the TV and at several points on the bed. You open up slices of narrative voiced over the same imploding doublings you saw in the gallery. You go back to the scenes of the crimes. You know too much, but you never know enough.

Dennis Del Favero tells us later that in the installation of this work at ZKM in Karlsruhe, the lone viewer entered a room with a severely tilted and wedge-shaped floor. Interacting with the viewer’s movements the split-screen video projection beamed onto two intersecting walls of the room—rather than the flat screen at the ACP. The sense of being drawn in, dragged in, implicated, would have been even greater. The triggering of spaces and bodies more alarmingly involuntary.

If Pietà was brutal, and by now it feels like it was, Cross Currents is so darkly melancholic you could drown in it—the size of the images, the depth of the sound, the forever folding images, like currents cutting across each other into nothing (but an invisible force, yes, a black hole). There’s sadness in the telling made moreso by the wavering drone underscoring the dialogue, broken only by a sudden orgasmic groan, an inexplicable burst of children’s play, a woman’s cry, scary male laughter breaking into the room. Of course, when you open the door, the window, the TV, the bed…sound rushes in, the wailing of a high speed train or, quiet again, the simple untheatrical dialogue of the ‘couple’, the clink of glass, ice…The limited lexicon of sounds locks you in.

Act 3: Too deep

Motel Vilina Vlas is the third part of the trilogy and installed in the smallest room of the gallery. Another small room. Again, the frightening effect is doubled in the duplication of means. An horrific story unfolds in a blameless text and a set of cibachrome photographs. A woman survives the atrocities of the rape camps and a soldier who refused to take part is in turn murdered by his own family. After everything else, this, the most detached of tellings has the most murderous effect. It is silent.

Act 4: Penetration

The specificity of the stories, the ever increasing detail you find in the images, the links you make between these and what you already know about the Bosnian war and the eternal question, ‘how could they do it?’ (not quite yet ‘how could we?’—that’s something to wake up to at 3 in the morning), this is the work of the Trilogy. You are implicated by being put in the story/experience, by being told it (that can be enough–D’Alpuget’s story or Motel Vilina Vlas), or by allowing it in—eye, ear, the stomach it hits—and out again—I will tell you what I saw, heard, felt…The Yugoslav War Trilogy is penetrating. Nikos Papastergiadis declares in the essay accompanying the CD-ROM that the works are “more like meditations on the nightmares of modernity rather than they are declarations of abuse and injustice in a specific place.” It’s always good to claim some universality for a work of art, it’s a kind of relief and an elevation of the work as art, and they aren’t accusatory, but the devil is in the detail, and Del Favero and collaborators’ arsenal of devices are too potent, too penetrating, too specific, to induce meditation. Fear comes first, and disbelief, and anxiety that stays.

Act 5: The interpretation of dreams

“Although passed over in the general coverage of the hostilities, these events involving genocide, rape camps and sexual slavery are in many ways defining symbols of a war which consciously used sex as a cultural and military weapon.”
Denis Del Favero, The Yugoslavian War Trilogy CD-ROM booklet

This is a visceral work. It gets inside you and it’s hard to get it out, as if it’s attached itself to your organs. And to your brain—it’s psychological, not in the sense that characters are created with depth or that a narrator explains himself, but in the sense that it does its work on you, becomes part of your psychology. Knowing this of Del Favero’s work, we were anxious about even going to the opening. And in Cross Currents it’s psychoanalytic, as a kind of visual poetic, intended or not, the centre of the screen (where everything doubled is sucked in or pushed out) becoming an engulfing (war) wound, where tangled trees resolve into sudden pudenda, limbs and armpit hair condense into a groin, two breasts merge into one primal one, 2 brows (are they?) fuse into something anal, an eye is fish-eye lensed and doubled into a monstrous animal, that glowers at your voyeurism, but, look, there are tears waiting to fall…every orifice is open, forced or waiting.

Like a dream Cross Currents falls apart, starts up again, is remembered in fragments, is observed, is participated in, is triggered. Like a neurosis, that most waking of dreams, it is something to go over and over, opening the CD-ROM, entering the hotel room, clicking on the door, the window, the TV, the bed, the bed, the bed…

Meditation’s not the right word, the works are too urgent for that, too keen for you to feel their pain, too eager to implicate, to place you at this crime scene and to get you coming back and back…though not quite to pin the crime on you. They are too often noisy, too sudden for reflection. But melancholy, there’s something in that, later on, on the way home, the next day, a week later, a feeling, rather than an idea…the sad narrative of Cross Currents, the sense of aftermath, of unresolvable loss, the nostalgic wartime black and white, that drone, bodies folding into themselves, the sound of children’s play. It was once hoped that the evils of the first half of the century had been conquered, but they have come back and back, slaughters and genocides, astonishing inequities. Our anger and melancholy sit side by side, just barring the way to the black hole.

Dennis Del Favero, Yugoslavian War Trilogy, sound design Tony MacGregor, produced at tthe Institute for Visual Media (ZKM), Karlsruhe, Germany, 1999. Australian Centre for Photography October 1 – 24

Cross Currents, Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne, August 27 – September 25

Crime Scene, Police and Justice Museum, Sydney, November 13 1999 – October 2 2000

RealTime issue #34 Dec-Jan 1999 pg. 32

© Keith Gallasch & Virginia Baxter; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 1999