Curated by Jasmin Stephens, this exhibition considers how five Australian artists produce a heightened awareness of their thought processes at the same time as creating work that anticipates viewers’ own narratives. Read Dr Jacqueline Millner’s opening remarks.
Opening Remarks by Dr Jacqueline Millner, Arts Writer and Associate Dean Research, Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney.
Jasmin’s theme for this show is intriguing, as it straddles what might seem paradoxical ideas. For, in the story of art, narrative and conceptualism have different historical roots, and almost antithetical ways of working. Indeed, one narrative is that narrative progressively receded in 20th century art, to the point that the art that was most institutionally prized came increasingly to talk about only itself (cf Greenberg). Well into the 70s, in the wake of conceptual art and in the aftermath of high modernism, it was still considered a put down to have one’s work called ‘literary’. Conceptual art was in a sense anti-narrative, certainly anti-immersion, anti-illusion, anti-myth, and ushered in the postmodern period that in one famous evocation is characterised by the end of grand narratives.
What is interesting about the works that Jasmin has brought together here—and I might add that they span quite a long period in the development of contemporary art, from the late 90s till today— is that they both immerse us in a narrative, but also make us aware of how narratives construct us; they invite us to riff off our own narratives and reflect on those stories we tell ourselves, and to consider how engagement with different levels and styles of narrative can change our understandings of the world. In other words, in these works we might see how the rigorous myth-busting of conceptualism, and what many believe is the hard-wired human desire for story, come into balance.
In Michael’s work for example, the deadpan painting of everyday, seemingly banal phenomena recalls the proto-conceptual paintings of John Baldessari that brought together sign writers (and their associations with direct communication), with philosophical insights about the nature of art. Combining nods to art history and the questioning impulse of conceptualism, Michael’s work also acts as a form of self-portraiture that invites us to imagine the story of his life, while thinking back to ours. What was my first job? Ugh, selling sausages to suits on a Friday night outside Customs House Hotel.
In Barbara’s work, we are physically immersed in several layers of narrative: the literal grand narrative of Heart Of Darkness, an exemplar of the western literary canon that Edward Said critiques in Culture and Imperialism, typed in screeds by the artist, as another type of narrative floats before it: documentation of the artist’s visit to Disneyland’s simulation of the deep, dark jungle of Western myth, which itself references several f-stops of representation: Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Conrad’s text in Apocalypse Now, his wife Eleanor’s footage of the process of making that film, their daughter Sophia’s comparison of being on location to that Disneyland ride, and the reworking of Eleanor’s raw material into a documentary on Apocalypse Now many years later, a film that evidences the shifts in the documentary form in the intervening period. This complex terrain of intersecting narratives and critical distance that constantly forces us as viewers to situate ourselves in time, in culture, are for me a compelling hallmark of Barb’s work.
In Alex Martinis Roe’s film we see another type of layering of narrative and conceptualism, where the stories of women’s collectives in Europe are contextualised by the artist’s own search for her location within the contemporary politics of feminism and art, and where what became the stylistic devices of conceptual art — the archive, institutional spaces — run parallel to conventional story-telling.
In Tom Nicholson’s beautiful meditation on the mediation of political stories outside our immediate experience, the conceptual devices of repetition, seriality, and rule-bound experiment — in this instance, the artist only collected news images of people holding the images of other people — structure the narratives that we spin out of these familiar but unique depictions of historical conflicts and traumas.
And finally, the story-telling impulses in George Egerton-Warburton’s paintings and objects, which feature strange scenarios and conjunctions, are countered in a compelling way by the conceptual approach that works against the suspension of disbelief by privileging process and self-reflectiveness.
So, congrats to the artists, Jasmin, and the gallery, and I hope you find here, like I did, the source of a rich interplay between story-fuelled reverie and critical insight.