One day all headstones will be electronic

Edward Scheer in the dark corridors of Voiceovers

Nalini Malani, India, born 1946, Remembering Toba Tek Singh, 1998 (detail), video installation

Nalini Malani, India, born 1946, Remembering Toba Tek Singh, 1998 (detail), video installation

Black and white video images of an old woman in an uncertain landscape. She wears the standard peasant dress with the scarf worn as a shroud. Close-ups of her eyes mingle with land and water, tears, younger women. Are these images from memory, herself as a younger woman? Is it a testimony to unlived lives?

I don’t know if the old woman played by Joyce Rankin in Louise Drinkwater’s moving electronic remembrance is the real subject of this piece but in a way it’s not the point. It is a piece which generates effects of memory and maybe even a bit of nostalgia and, not surprisingly, made me think of my own grandmother, long gone.

This is a Recording is a votive machine repairing “the web of time” as Chris Marker says in Sans Soleil. It is also a deserving winner of the 5th Guinness Contemporary Art Prize for tertiary art students. The Sydney College of the Arts should be congratulated for producing student work of this quality and maturity.

Iconographics: Antidotes to compassion fatigue

The video installations of the 5th Guinness Contemporary Art Project show how powerful good video art can be when it is presented properly. The curatorial focus and integrity of vision here are everywhere in evidence in Voiceovers which presents the work of 4 prominent figures in contemporary video art and suggests that this kind of art has the potential to effect the rescue of our tired media and our exhausted senses and re-humanise aesthetics as an experience of the body.

Nalini Malani’s Remembering Toba Tek Singh uses a triptych of video projections showing images of the atomic bomb blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki—the last orgiastic scenes in the final act of mass slaughter which closed WWII—framed by videos of 2 women holding ends of the same sari. In front is a grid of steel trunks containing bolts of cloth and small video monitors showing amongst other things images of the clear blue sky and the act of giving birth. The voiceover mentions bombs called ‘Fat man’ and ‘Little boy’ and the obscene ‘humanisation’ of nuclear war. Malani also notes that ‘Shakti’ (living energy or life force) was the name given to the Indian atomic bomb tests in the 1970s. Her point is, as the voiceover says, that in “using language as an anaesthetic, feeling dies.”

This installation is designed to counter this loss of feeling, to resist the anaesthesia which alienation induces and to act against the destruction which the dominance of military aesthetics (cf. Virilio) renders banal in our culture. The Benjamin resonance is unmistakeable. In Walter Benjamin’s classic essay of 1936, “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility”, he attempts the rescue of both technology and the senses from the fascist aestheticisation of politics and its spectacles of seductive power. He calls for a critical use of technology to counter the crippling “self-alienation” of mankind which he says has “reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” As the smart missiles with cameras attached rained down on Belgrade, who has not participated in this thrill of the destruction of bodies?

But Malani’s polemic is also gendered and after spending any time with her installation the feeling is that the very existence of these weapons is a persuasive argument for feminism, a point underscored in Shirin Neshat’s Turbulent, a critique of the compulsory silence of women in public space in Muslim societies. A simple opposition is generated with the 2 large screens en face. One contains the image of a man singing to an all male audience and then looking across the space at the image of a woman wrapped in a chador, who sings in turn. But her song is incomprehensible, a vocalisation of the body or a kind of semiotic chora. She performs a presymbolic message, running beneath and counter to the male dominated system of generating cultural meaning. For the detail of this piece I recommend the catalogue text by curator, Victoria Lynn, which places the question of the cultural emplacement of women’s voices “at the heart of Voiceovers.”

The pop star of contemporary video art, Mariko Mori, does her own less visceral performance for video. Kumano generates an auratic distance between the audience and the personae she presents. These pieces, like much of her work in video and photography, play with iconographies and project a simulated sense of the sacred, eg in the pastiche of the cybernetic tea ceremony. In a sense she is updating the imagery of the spiritual with the cyber-chick at the centre. And why not? Her task is made easier by her telegenic presence and the skill of the armies of assistants who produce exquisite images. Ken Ikeda’s ambient music score for Kumano establishes the mood of contemplation while we watch this cheeky play of cyborg signifiers.

Lin Li’s voiceover to the video Soul Flight reassures the viewer about the images we see. Her naked body prostrate on a mountain top while vultures tear at piles of blood and meat which cover her is explained as the performance of the sky burial. This is a remarkable piece of intense performance making for video and a powerful re-enactment of a liminal ritual: in between death and rebirth, sky and land, soul and body. The piece is, if anything, too short. We move from the images of the body, flesh and birds to ‘Afterwards we had a cup of tea’ all in a few minutes. It is a mild but pleasant shock and another example of what critic Susan Buck-Morss says is crucial to Benjamin’s enterprise, the restoration of the sensory experience of perception to the field of Aesthetics so that the construction of the modern human as “an asensual, anaesthetic protuberance” may begin to be undone. This is a theme of the work presented in Voiceovers which makes it surely one of the most important recent exhibitions of video art seen in this country.

Voiceovers, The 5th Guinness Contemporary Art Project, curator Victoria Lynn, Art Gallery of NSW, Oct 8 – Nov 14

RealTime issue #34 Dec-Jan 1999 pg. 13

© Dr E A Scheer; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 1999