Wrapped in Rhetoric: Musings on ‘politics’ 

Anthony Gardner, 2006
Broadsheet, Volume 35. No 3

It does not seem so long ago that one of Australia’s best young critics, David Teh, appeared to hit the nail on the head when he claimed that ‘[c]ulture and politics are very carefully kept apart in this country, especially at the public and institutional level’. The argument was convincing: activists had daubed the Sydney Opera House with the slogan ‘No War’, branding the rhetorical ‘timelessness’ of culture and non-politics of tourism with an ever-pertinent protest; security had been breached and the ostensible ease with which terrorists could strike soft targets made the world (and rational thinking) seem on the verge of collapse. ‘Citizen and soundbyte’, argued Teh, ‘are swept into the vacuum called the politics of fear’. Barely three years later, the weak rhetoric of panic is still pervasive, but it would be foolhardy to believe that culture and politics remain divorced. Art’s public institutions in particular can’t seem to get enough of that political stuff. While the 2006 Biennale of Sydney, Zones of Contact, drives the beat of ‘political art’ in Australia at the moment, Melbourne institutions are humming along to its tune: an investigation of socio-political connectivity at Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces’ Octopus 6: We Know Who We Are; video footage galore from sites of geopolitical conflict in the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art’s The Unquiet World; while the enfant terrible of Melbourne, Azlan McLennan, dishes up more beheadings in a new artist-run space in Abbotsford. But with the stakes of politics growing ever higher – especially as the Middle East devolves further into disaster – Australian art’s turn to this thing called ‘politics’ seems increasingly conventional at best and, at worst, downright opportunistic.

Wandering into The Unquiet World, for example, inspires a curious sense of déjà vu. This isn’t just because of the line-up of increasingly familiar names: of present notables such as Michael Leunig, fresh from his duck-fest at Melbourne’s 2006 Commonwealth Games, and everyone’s favourite Iraqi blogger, Salam Pax; or old ACCA faves in a possible teaser for next year’s Australian contingent at the Venice Biennale. Nor is it simply that the exhibition echoes, because a compact sidebar to, the sprawling leviathan of Zones of Contact. What is striking instead about The Unquiet World is the literalism with which it generally presents ‘politics’ in art: not as process, or even as a dialogue with art’s histories, but strictly on the level of representation. As I have noted elsewhere in relation to Zones of Contact, this is indicative of an orthodoxy to art’s ‘contemporaneity’: art and artists from the so-called margins of the (equally so-called) international art world are increasingly chosen and ‘made visible’ to that art world because of the sites of geopolitical conflict from which they come and/or which they present as the prima facie content of their documentary imagery. That is, certain artists’ biographies and/or works are presented as representative of, and as indexes to, events and sites seen in news feeds. This is largely maintained in The Unquiet World: a bank of televisions presents documentary footage of the much-disputed oil pipelines criss-crossing the Middle East and the neighbouring former Soviet Republics in Ursula Biemann’s Black Sea Files (2005); in a nearby black box, George Gittoes’ and Salam Pax’s documentaries forge a self-contained space devoted to contemporary Iraq; in the next room over, Nathan Coley’s documentaries on the ‘Jerusalem syndrome’ sit adjacent to Lida Abdul’s videos of performative acts in Afghanistan. My beef is not with the quality of the works, nor the frequently voiced yet conservative claim that if I wanted to see documentaries, I would set myself in front of the television to watch Dateline or Foreign Correspondent. My concerns lie elsewhere: in the reduction of ‘politics’ to a curatorial checklist of conflicts made topical by news reports; in the assumption that art’s ‘politics’ be merely reactionary (and thus subservient) to such reports; and in the treatment of ‘politics’ as, in effect, a readymade, absorbed fairly easily into an exhibition so as to make the latter seem as ‘timely’ and ‘inclusive’ as possible. By presenting these works together in a compact space, not only are individual artists or works reduced to being representative of particular conflicts (an undoubtedly questionable metonymy), but the complex differences between and particularisms of those conflicts are collapsed and made shallow through spatial conflation. Iraq, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland, the Caucasus and Israel become one great conflict zone that both viewer and curator can flit around at will within the microcosm of the gallery.

To an extent, this turn to ‘politics’ as readymade is understandable. Art historians and critics have long bemoaned art’s struggle for topicality and relevance in an ever-burgeoning industry of pragmatism rather than aesthetics and purpose rather than reflection. This, in part, explains the equally burgeoning interest in the academic endeavour of Visual Culture, as a counterpoint to art history: all currents within the image stream are ripe for analysis, particularly if, like the Abu Ghraib photographs, they stem from reports of war and atrocity. It also underpins the recent attraction to art’s engagement with theories of ‘the event’ – not necessarily in the sense of a rupture that transforms a pre-established worldview, as articulated by theorists such as Alain Badiou or Thomas Docherty, but once again on the more literal level of mediatised geopolitical ‘events’ to which artworks and exhibitions can refer. It was this latter definition that lurked throughout the first two symposia for Zones of Contact: ‘the event’ as something recorded and archived by media corporations and that can be put through the post-production wringer by artists intent on ‘revealing’ truisms such as the fragility of memory, how news sources can be biased in their presentation of information or how the actual experience of events always exceeds their representation. The words ‘transnationalism’ and ‘transculturalism’ rolled off tongues with surprising ease, as though a video’s presentation of an ‘event’ (a funeral in Belfast, a bombing in Baghdad) can of itself provide a transnational dialogue. What I increasingly find is something quite different. The recurring advocacy of localised ‘events’ in art works, and the treatment of those events as readily pluckable readymade ‘politics’, instead ensures that it is the critic or curator who is best able to show off their ethical and political – that is, ‘transcultural’ – prowess through their skills of re-organising (or conflating) different zones of conflict in a separate microcosm. To show off their ‘event’ management capabilities, if you will. In other words, artists run the risk of being limited to localised politics, events and the mediatised rhetoric surrounding those events, for the broader benefit and transcultural sensibility of the administrative gatekeepers of art.

These are, of course, generalised musings about a certain curatorial and critical approach to the current discourse of ‘politics’ in art and its various forms of currency for art. But they provide an intriguing counterpoint to a number of emergent approaches taken by various artists from Australia – and particularly a younger generation of artists – to politics, events and their attendant rhetorics of nationalism played out within local media. I briefly want to highlight two particular works here, both of which are performative in their relation to local politics. The first is Mathieu Gallois’ Containment (2006), a reconstruction in cyclone wire of cells in a detention centre. The turn to mediatised politics is clear: these camps for holding asylum seekers (and others) have long been a hot potato for Australian politicians and journalists alike. They have also appeared in a number of local artists’ works, from Rosemary Laing’s large scale photograph of the Woomera Detention Centre, Welcome to Australia (2004), to Pat Hoffie’s Maribyrnong (2005), an installation created for the Museum of Contemporary Art’s 2005 exhibition, Interesting Times, and that recreates a cramped room from Melbourne’s now-defunct Maribyrnong Detention Centre. If Laing’s and Hoffie’s works ultimately return the detention centre to a form of visual spectacle – the former by focussing on the starkly symmetrical form of Woomera’s wire fencing, the latter through low-level lighting that transforms the cell into an enigmatic film set – we must recognise a crucial difference in Gallois’ approach. The experience of wandering through his reconstruction suggests the possibility of a crude empathy for the cells’ inhabitants, a sense of claustrophobia induced by the waves of wire fencing that seem to press against the tiny space of each enclosure. This feeling of empathy is, of course, an increasingly rare affectivity given the ongoing demonisation of asylum seekers in Australian (and international) rhetoric. Yet it runs the risk of being a weak form of connection with the actual inhabitants, a sense of empathy easily experienced and just as easily forgotten. It is the potential weakness of this humanistic impulse that informs the politics of Containment. The cyclone wire both asserts the viewer’s containment within the installation and, because of the fencing’s porosity, the ease with which one can escape its confines to the relative freedom visible beyond it. An empathic claustrophobia is thereby both sensed and dispelled, not just to maintain the viewer’s privileged safety (though this is arguably the case as well), but to spark a deeper reflexivity on a politics of empathy.

A reflexive performativity equally informs a second approach to contemporary rhetorics of events and politics, a performativity on the artist’s part rather than the viewer’s. This approach is, to an extent, familiar from Mike Parr’s ongoing protests against, and (as Edward Scheer notes) distant suffering with detention centre internment. However, Parr’s younger peers explicitly reject his shock-jock tactics. For Support Can Make A Difference (2006), Ash Keating gleaned posters that had wallpapered Melbourne to advertise the Commonwealth Games and that, after the event, were being torn down and discarded. The posters had transformed city walls into sites of nationalist propaganda, imploring Melburnians to cheer Australian competitors on because ‘support can make a difference’. It was, of course, a hollow claim: among the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on Games organisation was a contribution to make (certain parts of) Melbourne appear spick-and-span by temporarily removing homeless people from city streets and painting over much of the city’s extensive array of stencil art (mistakenly perceived as graffiti). Support for the post-Games welfare of the homeless was, as widely expected, minimal. For both Games organisers and the current vogue for ‘politics’ in art, then, ‘the event’ stands as an endpoint in itself; for Keating, however, it is precisely the return of the repressed, the voided and veiled quotidian after ‘the event’, that demands attention. Keating returned to various hotspots for Games advertising in Melbourne (such as Flinders Street Station) covered head-to-toe in the wasted promotional material and performed literally as the residue of the event. Keating’s concerns are explicitly environmental and social, in his metaphors for the homeless, the discarded and the disregarded in daily life. Yet he also provides an implicit and important rejoinder to contemporary art discourse: while the latter turns to ‘events’ to rhetoricise its ‘politics’, Keating redirects an event’s promotional material – literally wraps himself in its rhetoric – to provide a politicised intervention. That intervention, in other words, is not just socio-environmental but discursive: more needs to be considered beyond the localised ‘event’ to constitute an adequate politics.

Keating is not alone in wrapping himself in rhetoric so as to stage a politicised action. The strategy frames Tony Schwensen’s recent durational performances – the stultification of the artist under the pressure of nationalist rhetoric, as in his video Be Alert But Not Alarmed (2004). It is also central to a work shown alongside Support Can Make A Difference in We Know Who We Are: Zehra Ahmed’s canny Permission to Narrate (2005). Onto a wall streaked with Arabic text, Ahmed projects the image of a man dancing to a rap beat. As the projected light strikes the writing, it causes the man’s figure both to illuminate and appear barred by text and discourse – a clear metaphor for the overwhelming demonisation of Muslims in first world infotainment and, in turn, the barring of Muslims and Arabs from that very public discourse. All four artists assert a reflection and remediation of rhetorics of ‘politics’ and ‘events’ in both the public sphere and, equally importantly, the filtration of those rhetorics through art discourse. The turn to the ‘local’ and indeed the national is neither an endpoint (as increasingly evident in ‘transnational’ and ‘transcultural’ criticism and curatorship), nor a validation and celebration of the ‘local’ or ‘Australian-ness’ as we saw throughout the appropriation strategies of the 1980s and early 1990s. It is instead an imposed rhetoric that some artists are increasingly struggling against, so as to articulate politicised interventions and strategies beyond its fashionable confines. As art increasingly relies on a literal understanding of ‘politics’, one filtered through images and discourses of localised ‘events’, a younger generation of artists from Australia are beginning to assert more reflexive relations to the presumed ‘politicisation’ of art. Given the recent reliance on art and cultural events as the primary means to exhibit contemporary practice in this country – in particular the Adelaide and Sydney Biennales and the Commonwealth Games cultural festival – these artistic interventions may well provide important insights into what a post-evental art may look like.

  1. David Teh, ‘Art and Politics Estranged’, Broadsheet, 32/2, June-August 2003, 10.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Anthony Gardner, ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’, in R. Keehan and N. Bullock (eds.), Zones of Contact: A Critical Reader, Sydney: Artspace Publications, pp. 13-18.Ibid.
  4. See, for example, the medieval art historian, Hans Belting’s, anxiety about ‘relevant’ analysis in ‘Image, Medium, Body: A New Approach to Iconology’, Critical Inquiry, 31/2, Winter 2005, pp. 302-319.ony Gardner, ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’, in R. Keehan and N. Bullock (eds.), Zones of Contact: A Critical Reader, Sydney: Artspace Publications, pp. 13-18.
  5. Alain Badiou, Being and Event, trans. Oliver Feltham, London: Continuum, 2006; Thomas Docherty, Aesthetic Democracy, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006.
  6. See, for example, Edward Scheer’s discussion of Parr’s performances (including Close the Concentration Camps [2002] and Aussie Aussie Aussie Oi Oi Oi [Democratic Torture] [2003]) in which his eyelids and lips are sewn shut. Parr’s process mimicked the self-harm undertaken by some asylum seekers in protest against the conditions of their detainment: Edward Scheer, ‘A Vast Field of Lyrical Agression: Politics and Ethical Spectatorship in Recent Durational Art by Mike Parr’, Broadsheet, 33/2, June-August 2004, pp. 23-6.i

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