The wild ones

Ho Tzu Nyen

There is something profoundly adolescent about the works shown in I thought I knew but I was wrong: New Video Art from Australia, at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Gallery, Singapore. I mean adolescent both as a set of characteristics including hormonal rage, awkward growth and identity crises, as well as a process of transition, a rite of passage from the culturally stable state of childhood to the socially stratified status of adulthood.

This sometimes rather painful process of becoming is best evoked by Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s Adolescent (2002-4) which documents a group of partying teenagers. The video begins and ends with ‘Spin the Bottle’, a game where a player has to kiss another according to the random dictates of a bottle spun. Yet the very mindlessness of this kiss betrays both the inchoate and potentially liberating force of the wild desire simmering beneath adolescent skin. Adolescence is an interval or a caesura between two states. It is simultaneously the no longer and the not-yet; a state of nothing and the possibility of being anything. This is why looking at teenagers can sometimes be such a painful activity—not only because of the horrible things they do but also because of the awareness of the essentially ephemeral nature of their existence. They always seem to be in the process of fading out, knowingly awaiting the eventuality of their incorporation into the airlessness of the social system. This precarious instability is aptly expressed by the hypersensitivity and hyperactivity of Courtin-Wilson’s camera in its oscillations of focus and nervous jump-cuts—an aesthetic sense formed within a nexus of music videos and Dogme films.

Set adrift from childhood, yet not ready for adulthood, adolescence is very often marked by a prevalent need for self-identification through imitation of existing social codes (the punk, the skateboarder, the geek, the rocker, the jock, etc). In a similar way, video art seems to operate via an adoption of the language of various other media—not only conventions of film and the music video, but also the established models of pictorial practices such as painting and photography. Hence, the use of slow-motion in video art can be understood as a breaking down of movement into discrete moments and graspable pictorial frames. To put it another way, the slow motion brings the temporality of video back into the compositional concerns of the painterly. This is exemplified by the slowed-down food fights and skateboarding stunts of Marcus Lyall’s Slow Service (2003) and Shaun Galdwell’s Kickflipper: Fragments Edit (2000-3) respectively. A different form of slowing down occurs with Lyndal Jones’ He Must not Cry (2004), where a number of men (some of whom are actors) are asked to cry on screen. This painfully theatrical exercise thus functions as a series of portrait-like studies. Patricia Piccinini’s Plasmid Region (2003) and In bocca al lupo (2003) can be described as non-human pictorial tableaus, populated by digitally created mutant organs or organisms. However the perfect synchronisation of the soundtrack with the pulsations of these forms also brings this work very close to the modus operandi of a music video.

The music video is activated by Philip Brophy’s Evaporated Music 1(c) & (d) (2000-2004) in a very different way. Here the soundtracks of a series of pop music videos are hijacked and put through a series of punishing, and often hilarious distortions. The habitual sound-image synchronicity that characterises the bulk of commercial audio-visual mass media products is dislocated. The strength of this work depends in large part on the adolescent, anarchic glee of Brophy, and its insidious parasitism upon the readymade form of popular music videos.

This tendency of video art to perpetually appropriate for itself systems of language belonging to other media is analogous to the processes of mimicry that so often marks adolescence—the hysterical imitation of Elvis, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, etc. In fact, watching the excerpt from Monica Tichacek’s Lineage of the Divine (2002) was like looking at an Elvis, or rather Matthew Barney, impersonator. In their curators’ note, Alexie Glass and Sarah Tutton explain that the work revolves around a “New York personality and ex-Warhol acolyte Amanda Lepore” and is also a tribute to the late performance artist Leigh Bowery. This practice of art-world self-referentiality, and almost everything else about the video—from the sets to the costumes and the purposefully obscure gestures of the characters—constantly invokes the spectre of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle. This process of doubling is difficult to discuss at greater length as I have neither been able to watch Lineage of the Divine in its entirety nor am I familiar with Tichacek’s oeuvre. Encountering one’s doppelgangers is always an uncanny experience. Moreover, it must be recognised that the line between mimicry and mockery is a very fine one. More precisely, one can also never be quite sure if an attempt at imitation is a strategic one. For mimicry, and its accompanying sense of a certain failure can very often serve as a method of individuation (eg I’m the Chinese ‘Elvis’) or even as an anti-oedipal weapon to subvert and parody one’s very own idol.

A sense of sheer delight and joy in being bad copies characterise the Kingpins’ Welcome to the Jingle (2003) and Versus (2002). In both, the 4 female collaborators appear in an entire ensemble of iconic ‘models.’ In the first, the Spandex-wearing, big-haired rock gods of the 80s, Kiss, are updated with a 90s ‘Jungle’ remix. In the latter, a snarling Steve Tyler from Aerosmith is pitted against Run DMC accompanied by a bevy of bearded ‘bitches.’ Thus the process of cultural colonisation is convulsively affirmed to a point of radical over-dose, and imitation gives way to the production of monsters.

Not unlike the futile task of a schoolmaster trying to keep teenagers in check, attempting to categorise this wild bunch of video artworks must be a nightmare for any curator. Glass and Tutton have gone about it by dividing the works into the categories of Persona, Space and Play, but these are so loose and interchangeable that they border on meaningless. Yet at the same time, I think that the curators are well aware that the very failure of these divisions is what precisely foregrounds the very nature of “New Video Art from Australia” today—a field of practice not yet ossified into the adulthood of discipline and one which, for better or for worse, does not yet possess a language of its own.

There is something terribly embarrassing and painful about adolescence. But also at the same time, something undeniably vital and heartbreaking in the naïveté of its rabid indiscipline—like an as yet unfulfilled potential.

I thought I knew but I was wrong: New Video Art From Australia, curators Alexi Glass and Sarah Tutton, Asialink and Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI); organised by Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Gallery and MAAP; MAAP in Singapore—GRAVITY, Oct 22-Nov 17

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg.

1 December 2004