The inevitable body

Michael Lee Hong Hwee

This 2 hour double bill is a microcosm of contemporary Australian video art practice. More generally it suggests the human body as video art’s inevitable subject, given that the 1960s reconsideration of the human body in respect to issues of race, class, gender and sexuality coincided with the rise of video technology and the development of new art forms such as installation and performance art.

Transforming New Media: Art From Australian Aboriginal Artists features 2 works that question the representation and treatment of Indigenous bodies. Emotional Striptease (2004) by Christian Thompson is a large projection that reconsiders European photographic portraiture of Aboriginal people. A convention of Australian portraiture was the dressing up of Aboriginal people in Western costume, holding Indigenous tools and standing before naturalistic landscapes. Thompson upsets this convention by updating the subjects and backdrops with contemporary faces and architectural monuments. One wonders if the work might have been more effective as large photographs since the use of zooming to animate the otherwise frozen images comes across as a tad gimmicky.

Behind the Mountains (2004) by Jonathan Jones, Darren Dale and David Page is a more powerful and evocative piece. Three open boxes greet the viewer. At the base of each is the projected figure of a naked Aboriginal person in a foetal position. This work is a direct reference to the museological and archival practice of trading Aboriginal bodies for scientific study. Inside boxes that were used to store and transport remains, projected figures appear peaceful, eyes shut, fidgeting and sometimes stretching, leaving the audience to decide if they are having a sweet dream or nightmare, or if they are the phantoms of more than 10,000 Indigenous Australians whose remains are spread across the globe today.

Rather than lamenting loss, Ivan Sen’s Blood (2002), from the show I Thought I knew but I was wrong, celebrates the spirit that binds different generations of Indigenous Australians. Showcasing Australian families in front of their homes with raw camera moves and stylised image effects, the work manages to achieve the exhibition’s primary aim: to encourage viewers to take a “second look, to explore beyond initial assumptions and to experience some of the more transformative aspects of contemporary visual arts” (curators’ catalogue essay).

The show’s 22 single-channel videos are split into 3 thematic sections: Persona, exploring notions of identity and subjectivity; Play, examining modes of representation; and Space, studying relationships with the environment. All but 2 works feature the human body. These are by Daniel Crooks. Tram No. 4 (2002) and Static No. 8 (2003) are digital reconfigurations of a Melbourne tram and foaming surf. Even here the body exists implicitly in the works’ themes of human relations with the urban and natural environments. Crooks’ third piece, Elevator No. 2 (2002), digitally slices the bodies of suited office workers into tendrils, effectively transforming the human work environment into a surreal space more suited to aquatic life.

Several of the works question conventional representations of gender. In Versus (2002) the 4 female collaborators comprising The Kingpins compellingly enact iconic moves from rock and hip hop, music genres usually reserved for men. Mockery through conflation of male and female bodies in Versus makes way for parody through exaggeration in Monica Tichacek’s Lineage of the Divine (2002). The video features a curvaceous performer doing a Marilyn Monroe imitation, at first singing and dancing sensuously, then moving so vigorously that her endowments threaten to dislodge from her body in a comical subversion of men’s fetishisation of female breasts. Dislodgement is also found in Patricia Piccinini’s computer animation In bocca al lupo (2003), which confronts us with seemingly peaceful sack-like appendages, until violent tremors cause one of them to drop off. In Piccinini’s other piece, Plasmid Region (2003), we see breast-like blobs continuously releasing blood-clot growths, a poignant reminder of the body’s vulnerability to damage, disease and deterioration.

Found footage finds its way into the hilarious works of Tracey Moffatt and Philip Brophy. Moffatt’s Love (2003) is a remix of feature film sequences featuring interactions between male and female protagonists pieced together in a rather pessimistic, though at times side-splitting, narrative of human relationships. In Brophy’s Evaporated Music 1 (c) & (d) (2000-4), we see familiar pop icons Billy Joel and Celine Dion singing in unfamiliar croaky voices. Brophy manipulates pop icons into strange beings who hover uncertainly between animal and machine.

Portraiture gets an interesting facelift in several of the works. David Rosetsky’s Without You (2003-4) features a rather morbid illustration of the postmodern concept of the multiplicity and the instability of identity. One perfect-looking face turns into another, not through the clichéd process of morphing, but peeling–a curt reminder that one persona belies and bleeds into another. Less haunting but more emotive is He Must Not Cry (2004) by Lyndal Jones, featuring closeup shots of middle-aged men on the verge of crying. Face meets food in Marcus Lyall’s Slow Service (2003), featuring slow-motion vignettes of subjects being hit by custard, pea soup, flour and other food items, creating visually dynamic baroque patterns while evoking the conflict between making interesting art and wasting precious resources. Ethics and morality are not within the necessary purview of artists. Or are they?

Re-examination of art history continues with Craig Walsh’s Blurring the Boundaries (2001-4). Using a hybrid of sculpture, performance, film and model-making, Walsh successfully creates the illusion of gigantic carp swimming in the window of a Hanoi city building, upsetting everyday commonsensical relations between humans, animals and the environment.

On the other hand, Guy Benfield’s attempt to reinterpret Pollock and performance art is contrived. By the first of 14 minutes in Universal Love Action (2002) the video has already made clear its trick; by canting the camera at a right angle the performers appear to do gravity defying stunts such as dripping paint across, rather than down, the video screen. Suffering a similar fate is Shaun Gladwell’s Kickflipper: Fragments Edit (2000-3), which features the artist attempting to impress with his skateboard stunts. Conciseness remains the key premise of good video art.

By interpreting the representation of bodies in video art, viewers are able to contemplate the multifarious meanings of their own, weigh its potentials against its fragilities and consider the conventions and history of representation. In this regard, Nietzsche’s question of whether “philosophy has not been merely an interpretation of the body and a misunderstanding of the body” could well be considered in relation to video art. Watching a large video projection or walking into a video installation, viewers do not only imbibe the works visually and aurally; their own body’s images, sounds and movements also interact sensorially with those of the video in a kind of mutual haptic exchange.

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg.

© Michael Lee Hong Hwee; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2004