Emerging and established Australian video art

Over the last ten years, Australian video artists have developed a refreshed attention to the sublime and the subliminal in their creative practice. While media and communication technology has offered a change in the way artists create, archive, show and access their work – from affordable, higher quality cameras, and easily accessible file storage to the instantaneous distribution from social and digital media platforms – the tools of image making may have advanced, yet the poetic and conceptual enquiry behind such image production has remained constant. ​*Sublime/Internal/Subliminal* brings together a cross selection of emerging and established artists who reflect this constant.

Throughout the last five years, for example, global events have brought a unified social disruption – from Brexit and the war in Syria to the US election, mass refugee crisis and climate change, just to name a few – yet many artists have reflected these disruptions in more overt political commentary inasmuch as they have, at the same time, travelled inwards to reflect on their own poetics and subliminal grasp of the world around them.

Reflecting on this, the works selected in the show cement a three part conceptual rationale representing the sublime, the internal, and the subliminal into the one central philosophic space. With that said, each of these perspectives congeal a singular outcome for the viewer to arrive at a point of uneasiness, whether this be literally or more suggested. I am reminded of a recent photograph by Quique Kierszenbaum from The Guardian titled ‘The Worst View in the World’, depicting an inside view of Banksy’s new hotel ‘The Walled Off Hotel’ which depicts an outwardly view from the hotel guided by a gentrified tourist telescope looking straight onto a graffitied cement slab from the current barrier wall ‘separating Israel from the Palestinian territories.’ (Graham-Harrison, 2017) The similarity in this instance is that Kierszenbaum’s image makes use of the archetypal elements of classical German landscape romanticists, notably Friedrich, and places these props into a quintessential representation of conflict governed by the fortified separation wall thus combining a sublime, an internal and a subliminal contextualisation into the one kind of visual thematic.

One of the more interesting notions about this approach is that the idea of global political resistance is emerging as a non political methodology for artists whereby their work is, as located in Boland’s ​Camoufleurs video for example, interconnected with the absence of a pronounced quietness which, in the context of this exhibition, speaks of the sublime. In Boland’s piece, the effacement of stillness is transcended to represent an eerie absence not unlike the Hitchcock principle of representing screen tension with the effacements of something that is just about to happen or has just occurred. We know that by these tableaus of adolescent boys role playing soldiers that one day, perhaps, sooner than later, their fantasy of playing soldier might translate into the actuality of war where the heroicness of battle is replaced by unspeakable trauma, genocide and murder. With the recent images of the wars in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, the reality of combat transmitted from the technological immediacy from social media reminds us all too closely that the age old entrapment from governments and kingdoms to encourage the predatory romanticist propaganda of militaria to an unsuspecting youth is alive and well and in the case of Camoufleurs, Boland positions this Hitchcock precursory with great skill inasmuch as the viewer brings with them their own cultural memory attachés. As the characters manually play with and pop bubblewrap, these sublime representations of gunshot fire unite our own awareness of battle through the innocence of these fictionalised boys playing men in the intentional manipulation of truth. I am, of course, reminded by Baudrillard’s notion of simulacra whereby he considers that ‘illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible’ (Baudrillard, pp.164-184) for in itself, and, moreover, the intangibility of not only Baudrillard’s comments but also the dialogue brought about by the strategies employed from Boland’s conviction posits the stillness of ​Camoufluers into a space that requires no explicit explanation into the overarching meaning of the work. From its pending silence, the implicit effectiveness that renders such work as sublime is as much to do with the visual linkages Boland enacts as it is with the simplicity of how such linkages are mediated. This brings into question the great vulnerability of the portrayed characters romanticising the glory of battle without the conscious determinism to recognise how these actions of false heroics negate the transcendence of morality to what the popular early 1930’s anti war movement slogan often attributed to Bertrand Russell states ‘war does not determine who is right – only who is left.’ (Montreal Star, p.108)

Notwithstanding, the stillness of this work is not unlike the internal qualities of Douglas’s Circle of Fire. This epic emotional montage is a celebrational work from the artist who has endured long term life threatening illness which has recently seen Douglas as the recipient of a kidney transplant. By this very nature, his work looks inwards to reflect an uneasy tension into symbolism representing his struggle through often painful and potentially catastrophic medical procedures yet also prompts us the viewer at the same time to consider the implications of the world around us, and moreover, the nature of internal resistance and that of survival. The artist discusses, in his recent catalogue for ​Circle of Fire, the impact of surviving the processes of his treatment as being ‘altered with the DNA and living tissue of an unknown person, [which] loses one’s sense of self – the I or me – simultaneously becomes the other.’ (Douglas, 2016) where ‘the body no longer wholly belongs to the self as it becomes a product of 21st century bio-medical technology – a hybrid post-human body that lives in a constant state of deferment of one’s death (ibid.) When compared to the wider events of 2017, the stoic and heartbreaking tweets of civilians trapped in the conflict areas of Syria, for example, talk of the same kinds of uncertainty when faced with the deferment of their own deaths. These messages are an internal mirror of being trapped inside a partitioned location and waiting for oblivion with a sense of hope that it may be prolonged much the same way as the artist is trapped inside a failing body and waiting in hope for a compatible organ – in both cases, the end of life is a nanosecond away but the foreknowing of when that second will strike is never revealed. The work plays out the artist’s reflection of his deferment of death without any sense of nostalgia or sentimentality to instead populate the work with often bizarre costumed performances that one might argue to be a strange rebirth of the production design located in early Flash Gordon comics of the 1930s. This all, however, is an intentional visual strategy by the artist to evade our sense of the spectacle by reflecting his internal struggle for survival in a poetic resonance of brutal visual honesty. In one particular section of the video, medical practitioners preside over Douglas’s character in an operating theatre revealing the helplessness of his body undergoing intervention. The tension brought about to the viewer is manifested through the internalism of the main character – the audience suddenly sees the events through the eyes of the artist’s internal journey of his re-embodiment starting from the agency of pre-surgery performances as ‘I’ – his embodiment of a single DNA – to progress past the kidney transplant sequences in the resultant agency of ‘we’ – the uncertainty of sharing of someone else’s DNA with that of his own.

Monique Skurrie’s ​Catalyst Point builds on the third and final thematic of the subliminal. Here the viewer is presented with a series of short sequences each capturing a different vantage point of a singular event involving the outbreak of a zombie virus filmed with Go-Pro video action cameras mounted on each of the performers as they move through a central space. While Skurrie makes it clear that her work is primarily social commentary of the debate on vaccination, the artist also builds a strategic narrative that engages her audience to bring with them their own cultural memory of popular zombie cinema much like the same ways in which Boland uses collective memory in his own work. The notions of a rapidly infected virus has a broader appeal in both the stalwarts of the horror genre but where Skurrie’s use of the subliminal is at its most pronounced is from our own analogies of the fear of sickness and the methods by which we repeal such illness. Inadvertently, the viewer of Skurrie’s work is subliminally bombarded with some of our greatest fears manifested through the lack of determinism in the portrayed screen zombies whereby thoughts of infection, vaccination, and isolation quickly come to mind. This is the conceptual base which Skurrie taps into prompting us to feel a sense of forebodingness, nested in our ingrained paranoia of infection manifested as the silent narrator of the work. While this may engage the pronounced intention of Skurrie’s practice, the duality of both the cinematic references to zombies, and in particular, the recent contributions of Western cinema such as World War Z and ​Shaun of the Dead, and the subliminal juxtaposition of vaccinations and viruses, give the work a relevance to the viewer simply because such themes impact the viewer directly instead of something that might be detached or separate from a wider experience. Where this work becomes political is that the commentary of the resistance movement against vaccination echoes the sentiments of Skurrie’s methodology enabling the viewer to partake in the work by manifesting their own fear within the navigation of each character’s journey. Therein echoes the sublime reasoning of fear contextualised in how an audience might come to terms with illness as a condition of the sublime and further, how we might ought to consider the internal invasions of viruses through preventative measures as a combative resolution.

As these screenings examine further inquiry towards these three different kinds of attributes, ten Australian artists respond to such instances in times of global and outward change by engaging visual strategies to establish resistance and social commentary inasmuch as they do inward and quiet reflection through contemporary art.

Participants

Brie Trenerry; Kieran Boland; Darrin Verhagen (aka Shinjuku Thief) & Richard Grant; John A Douglas; Monique Skurrie; Liam Nguyen, Johnson Nguyen, Nora Ashqar, & Yue Shen; Shaun Wilson
Curated by Shaun Wilson

References

Poster, M (1988) ed. ​Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings, Stanford University Press, Standford, pp.166-184
Montreal Star, February 1932, ​The Reader’s Digest, p.108
Emma Graham-Harrison, ‘Worst View in the world: Banksy opens the hotel overlooking the Bethlehem Wall’, ​The Guardian, 4 March, 2017.