Review of the 1998 Adelaide Festival Visual Arts Program February - March 1998
This review leaves many exhibitions aside, some not caught before they disappeared, some in order to concentrate on the ones which have stayed in mind longest.
Foremost in my recollection still are the two shows by visiting women artists, both American (one a long-time resident of the UK): Susan Hiller and Jenny Holzer. Considered together, they reveal strange congruences. Both artists concern themselves with human remains - Holzer with actual bones, indicated to be the bones of women killed in Bosnia, Hiller with more curious and various leavings, displayed in archaeologist's boxes.
Lustmord, Holzer's installation at the new University of South Australia Art Museum, the first show in this new gallery at City West Campus (just a step down the road from Hiller's Experimental Art Foundation show), drew most attentionamong the cursory media surveys of Festival Visual Arts. Its title was most commonly rendered as Rape Slaying, but the sinister overtones of Death and Desire in the original German sufficed.
In her talk to Artists Week listeners, Holzer described the purchase of the exhibition's constituent human bones from a New York dealer ("You can buy anything in New York"). Some outrage regarding disrepect to these remains surfaced in the audience, and some plain curiosity as to what will become of them after the life of this exhibition. Peter Ward, in The Australian at the time, affected to be unmoved by the bones in situ, and suggested that if Holzer's were the most shocking or 'new' item in the Visual Arts program for the Festival, he for one was unimpressed.
Hunting for sensation in the program seems misguided in any case, but Holzer's piece was certainly compelling. Bones were laid out with care in groups, on long tables, alone in an adjoining small room, and paired, in the main gallery, with vertical LED texts telling, in moving (in both senses) accounts, shreds of the tales of both rape victims and assailants. Holzer had also circled some of the bones with tin identity plates of some kind, apparently in an attempt to lure viewers to handle the exhibits in order to decipher their inscriptions.
In conversation, Holzer explained that her own compulsion to produce work around the theme of anti-female violence, of anti-female culture, is a constant urge, but one she actively suppresses for periods of time until it becomes irresistibly pressing. She does this because of the intensely taxing nature of the work she will then embark on. In the case of Lustmord, she immersed herself, as the piece makes apparent, in the grimmest of research. (At other times, in 'between' times, Holzer finds it a luxury to engage in the small-scale politics and logistics of the art world: gallery requirements and specifications, minor disputes, fitting installations to spaces...)
Because of the relative abundance of newspaper discussions of Holzer's show, it may have been difficult for the prospective viewer to approach it free of preconceptions. An unbriefed visitor entered a darkened room to be confronted with orderly arrangements of human bones, displayed as in a museum, for purposes of some kind of instruction, certainly not disarrayed so as to suggest violent death.
Lurid red and yellow electronic text marches up and down surrounding walls, snatches of first-person speech that eventually register, perhaps, as phrases gathered from survivors and, more disconcerting in their affectless tone, attackers in some mortal conflict. Directions to the actual events Holzer is referencing are not included in the installation.
The orderliness of the display of bones, on consideration, is what seems most emphatic. Tagged by the artist, as the legs of migrating birds are tagged by researchers, for identification, they sit blankly inert. Holzer has chosen to reject the option of imitating countless photos of the contents of mass graves excavated at innumerable atrocity sites. This, instead, is the anatomy lesson, the museum exhibit, the instruction tool. Fragments of human emotion scatter the walls, in constant motion, hard to decipher, like an accompanying low mumbling; one remembers the reiterated exhortation of those who uncover evidence of atrocites, for walls to speak. By contrast, the inertia of the patterned bones is hardly even a reproach. There they are, en masse, easy to read in this context. If we choose.
Susan Hiller's two installations at the EAF were both previously exhibited works, one, the vitrine-displayed archaeologist's boxes and their contents, a part of an exhibition called From the Freud Museum, the other, film and video clips on two large screens and one small TV monitor, called Wild Talents.
Regarding her art practice, Hiller recalls a time when commentators found her hard to place, especially her habit of incorporating anthropological techniques. She began her professional training as an anthropologist, and this habit of seeing, or at least the referencing of such a perspective, has become integral to her work. "Now," she says, "everybody's doing it."
By no means "everybody" is doing what Hiller herself is doing here. From the Freud Museum references anti-Jewish purges, and the Holocaust in particular. Hiller discovered some Holocaust-related documents on a London tip. Sigmund Freud and family, too, had fled to London, and the display of items in Hiller's piece imitates the display of the curiosities Freud himself collected, in the actual Freud Museum. Items signifying Holocaust particulars form only part of the EAF installation.
Each adjoining vitrine in a purpose-built, double-storey cabinet, contains a collection of items in a collector's box, its lid open and carrying a pasted-on piece of text. So a 'cowgirl' text is about a Wild West sharpshooter, while the items displayed are two cow-shaped ceramic creamers. Sealed glass bottles are labelled Mnemosyne and Lethe, while an accompanying map directs one to actual river-sites in Greece. Cunningly-fashioned light-filaments shine appealingly in the shape of iconic symbols of world religions. Samples of soil and rock from Greece and Australia are in other boxes. There are drawings of hand-signals, gestures. These are items of knowledge, popular wisdoms, insignia of beliefs held in common.
Items such as the Mnemosyne vitrine invoke, memorably, the whole apparatus of memory, and of forgetting ("These fragments I have shored against my ruins"); Hiller is considering the catalogue of human knowledges, the thingness, the specificity of her boxed objects, all worthy in themselves of further study, serving to underscore the hubris of all systems of knowledge, yet so engaging in their infinite curiousness as to instantly explain why the effort to describe, explain, link into chains of causality is taken up by all individuals and peoples.
Wild Talents counterpoints Freud; film-loops continue endlessly on two giant screens, composed of bits of documentaries and popular movies about children with paranormal powers. More knowledges, of a quasi-forbidden nature, available mostly to the young because 'innocent' or suggestible. The small screen in this gallery is crowned by more neon filaments representing religious knowledge. Raw emotion courses round this room: the film prints have been recoloured in browns and blues, with red on the TV monitor.
Links between Hiller and Holzer are apparent and intriguing, certainly not predictable, in the event, from their history of feminist art practice per se.
Very briefly, I'll mention Ceremony, Identity and Community at the new Flinders Art Museum in the city. Subtitled: "Australian Indigenous artists explore the role of new social forms and frameworks in supporting the community and nurturing the spirit", these artists are mostly female, some urban and white-art-world-hip, some 'traditional', many hybrid in the sense that dot paintings titled Community Nutrition Work 1998 or Establishment of the ... Women's Council must be. This show ranges from Valerie Napurrula Morris' painting about hunting possums to Destiny Deacon's Happy Birthday C-type photo. Extensive notes are provided by the gallery, and one wonders whether Deacon provided the statement about her work, like Dolly Daniels', referencing 'the ceremonial nature of fire'.
Curators, perhaps, are not able yet to include irony alongside simple expository rhetoric regarding Aboriginal knowledges as conveyed in indigenous art. A deferential tone is frequent (and perhaps proper):"Western cultures also have sacred and secret matters which, by implication and through the impostion of Western ceremony by some missionary organisations, were in the past mistakenly portrayed as superior to Indigenous ceremonial activity." Deacon herself, and others, are quite capable of multi-layering their 'texts'. This show repays a lengthy visit, and provides another perspective, inimical to any hovering complacency, on such discourse analysis as is indisputably going on in the work of Hiller and Holzer.