Revelation in the new cathedral

Kevin Murray

Péter Forgács, Private Hungary

Péter Forgács, Private Hungary

There are now 2 cathedrals on each side of Flinders Street. For more than a century, visitors to St Paul’s Cathedral have been quietly contemplating the life of a Jewish rebel, celebrated in stained glass. Alternatively, we can now cross the road and descend into the Screen Gallery at ACMI, and be lulled by the glowing projections of lost lives.

These 2 ‘halls of light’, from the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 21st centuries, seem to fulfil similar needs. Urbanites are given the chance to step back from the world of dizzying possibility to contemplate the realm of presence. This odd symmetry raises a question. St Paul’s places the aesthetic delights of its architecture in the context of religious faith. What’s the context for ACMI?

ACMI is in the unusual position of evolving its own context: it takes the moving image out of the cinema and into the gallery. Rather than experiencing film while trapped in the dark by comfortable seats, conspiratorial silence and ushers, ACMI brings this ritual into the public domain.

The cultural politics of this transformation is an interesting story in itself. ACMI’s curatorial staff were mostly imported from Sydney. They brought with them a culture of reverence for the archive (see Museum of Sydney). The first exhibition, curated by Victoria Lynn, was originally shown at the Art Gallery of New South Wales as Space Odysseys: Sensation and Immersion; it made the most of the opportunity to realise the moving image as a spatial journey.

Prior to Lynn’s appointment as Director of Creative Development, former Director Ross Gibson sketched out a series of themes that would feature in the first years of operation. Since his return to Sydney, Gibson’s own curatorial work is limited to Remembrance + The Moving Image, a series of 2 exhibitions, of which Persistence of Vision is the first instalment to be followed by Reverberations.

Gibson’s Melbourne sojourn was critical. His slim-volume thinking helped extract ideas from their French incarnations and bring into play local experience. With Gibson came an understanding of the metropolitan archive as repository not only of historical data but also of mystic revelation. He brought Sydney light into the Melbourne darkroom.

On first visit, there is much in Remembrance to justify this graft. The signature work, Bourgeois Dictionary, by Péter Forgács, trawls a Hungarian film archive for wartime images. We are conditioned to associate this era with footage of jackbooted parades taken from official newsreels. By contrast, Bourgeois Dictionary shows us an almost defiant intimacy as middle class Hungarians play up for the camera. History becomes less a story of the masses and more a journey of individuals captive to their own worlds. The graphic design for Remembrance extracts a still from Forgács of a father and son ice-skating. The quest of the archive seems to be in finding such ecstatic moments.

But Remembrance doesn’t relax into nostalgia. The ‘eyes’ prevent that. Traces, by Naomi Bishops and Richard Raber, was commissioned by ACMI and drawn from donated Super 8 home movies. Their deft editing released a nascent poetry from its suburban context: short excerpts are punctuated by moments when characters frozen in film look out to the viewer, as though a spell is being continuously broken. This halting eye contact was reinforced by the naked characters lined up against an invisible screen in Versifier by Gina Czarnecki, and the piercing stares of Tibetans in Mind of Tibet by Geshe Sonam Thargye & Sue Ford. Such eye contact with the past threatens to unnerve the confidence of gallery visitors.

In a curious sideline, Remembrance stumbles on a popular suspicion about galleries. Though usually associated with the ‘Pete and Dud’ school of art criticism, the sense that the subjects of portrait paintings have eyes that follow viewers around the gallery bears some thought. It doesn’t take much analysis to understand this suspicion as a displaced recognition of voyeurism. While as omnipotent viewers we appear to have the power to gaze into the souls of painted subjects, we must also find a point of identification if that gaze is to be meaningful. Imagining ourselves in their position makes us the subject of our own gaze. In granting images on gallery walls the power of movement, perhaps ACMI is releasing the spectre of paranoia previously consigned to tired jokes. Yes, the eyes are following us around the gallery.

It is the gift of Remembrance to take such things seriously. In her review for The Age (May 3), Philippa Hawker used the exhibition to meditate on the role of cinema as a house of memory. In an article of surprising seriousness for a daily newspaper, she writes, “Much of the exhibition invites us to summon up our own memories, to engage with the memories of others and to conjure up other images; to imagine unseen, unrecorded, unmemorialised stories.” This seems the ultimate testament to Remembrance—that it gives a Melbourne writer licence to publish a reflective essay for a general audience. We step back from the escapist world of cinema to consider the inner fantasies that draw us to it.

So is this what ACMI has given us?—a kind of confessional for delving into our internal cinema (or what Saint Augustine called “a cloister of my memories”)? That might be so, but I think there is something more going on.

In going from cinema to gallery, the moving image is transformed from a diachronic to a synchronic medium. In Remembrance, this process is almost machine-like. The curatorial mechanism for this transformation is the dissection of continuous works into discrete parts that are screened simultaneously. Permission was sought to present the 6 parts of Aleksandr Sokurov’s epic Spiritual Voices on simultaneous screens. Andrish St Clair’s single video of his Trepang opera performances is cloned to form an installation. Classic cinema is kaleidoscoped into splintered reflections in Les LeVeque’s 4 Vertigo. This pervasive curatorial method goes beyond personal memory and works at the medium itself.

Difficult questions are raised. Is this film dissection a way of carving up cinema into bite-size pieces small enough to fit a contemporary attention span? Does this synoptic overview of cinema befit the transcendence of narrative, as we move into the realm of metadata and sampling?

But there is nowhere to ask. Though the curatorial method in Remembrance raises important questions, they are abandoned by its thematic framework. The evangelical call to visitors fails to measure up to the structural experiments at play in the exhibition itself.

I can understand the reticence. Federation Square represents an investment in the elite arts that is out of step with a populist state government. It’s reasonable that its prime tenants, National Gallery of Victoria and ACMI, take great pains to present work in its more accessible form. And politically it seems to have worked.

But such populism also comes at a time of increasing insularity in contemporary art, with few opportunities to encounter experiences beyond the self-referential. Tying the exhibition to a theme that brought our attention to the media might have provided more room for thought.

In terms of cultural chemistry, there may in the end have been a little too much Melbourne and not enough Sydney in Remembrance. The works themselves call for something that touches on the mise en abyme, time travel and Batman’s cave. Not just remembering, but also looking back.

Remembrance + the moving image, Persistence of Vision , curator Ross Gibson, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, March 21-May 25

RealTime issue #55 June-July 2003 pg. 22

© Kevin Murray; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2003
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