Panorama: are we there yet?

Daniel Boyd, Nadine Christensen, Sarah Goffman, Fiona Lowry, Bennett Miller, Arlo Mountford, Joan Ross, Caroline Rothwell, Bernie Slater, Jemima Wyman Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, NSW 27 January 2011 – 13 March 2012

Joan Ross When I Grow Up I want to be a Forger 2010, animation and video, edition 1/5, 3 minutes. Animator: Ben Butler. Sound: Sumugan Sivanesan. Image courtesy of the artist and Gallery Barry Keldoulis.

The original panoramas were a product of the Age of Reason, a part of a world surveyed in a 360-degree vista, with man (almost always man) at the centre of all things. They were usually engravings, but later in the 19th century, photographs came to prevail. Given time, words change meanings. "Panorama" still implies “all-encompassing”, but now it may have a narrative attached.

The latest take on the genre pays some level of homage to its historic pedigree, but also takes on recent interpretations. It is a deliberately abrasive exhibition but the bumptious qualities of Caroline Rothwell's aggressive sculptural creatures suit the cavernous spaces of Casula’s Turbine Hall while smaller works are well-accommodated in the side galleries. The first image that confronts the viewer is a large version of Bernie Slater’s Alan, a headless portrait of Mr Jones that manages to describe his shock-jock rage in red scrawl over a black and white photograph of him sitting at a 2GB mike. The panorama of the popular media is defined by the rage of right wing shock-jocks, but Jemima Wyman’s camouflage series of mock-guerrilla soldiers serve as a reminder that the left has its own visual language and cultural blind spots. These staged photographs are less satisfying than Nicholas Al-Jeloo’s stark documentation of the remnants of Assyrian Christianity in the Middle East.

There is a different mood with Joan Ross’s When I grow up I want to be a forger which demonstrates a clever use of Monty Python style animations inserted into Joseph Lycett’s landscapes of colonial New South Wales and Tasmania. The convict artist's idealised pastoral landscapes 'sold’ the idea of Australia as Arcadia to the other side of the world and yes, he was a forger of bank notes and a faker of landscape. BBQ This Sunday BYO plays with the image of the southern night sky transformed into a flag, celebrated by Indigenous Australians. The colonising intruders fly in on a magic carpet and sail on ships, change the appearance of the original inhabitants so that they wear fluoro clothing, and a kangaroo hops by with a bag of sausages. Spirographs turn into smallpox to devastate the people and in turn these become fireworks, swamping the sky and becoming the subject of a new, tawdry, flag. Ross shares a gallery with Caroline Rothwell’s Endless Column, which makes beady black coal look, as it is decoratively strung between walls, almost like a giant necklace. I’m not sure how her work fits with the curatorial argument for a cultural and geographic panorama, but aesthetically they do all work together. Those purists who wish all works included in an exhibition to have a close connection to its underlying argument may prefer to respond to Fiona Lowry’s pastel pink and mauve evocations of 19th century style - albeit in fuzzy soft focus – as they imply both narrative and vistas of a distant land.

Arlo Mountford’s two works are more in sympathy with both the concept of ‘panorama’ and with Ross’s work – and this is not just because they are videos. STAND UP and The Triumph are however an odd conjunction, and were not helped by being placed together in the echoing caverns of Casula. STAND UP is a parody of stand up comedy, with an animated black disk sprouting aphorisms from Debord and Jorn. Each one is delivered as though it is a punch line in a joke and is greeted with canned laughter. Is the joke in the telling, or in the response? Unfortunately the laughter is too loud and its noise overwhelms The Triumph, which is its nearest neighbour. This is doubling annoying as this is a complex work that deserves a long look. The title and the core images come from Pieter Breugel’s painting, The Triumph of Death (1562), but instead of a sustained meditation on the horrors that Death can and will wreak on a godless people, Mountford has produced a multilayered ironic panorama of visual and aural histories of art, replacing Breugel’s demonic skeletons with simplified black animations of musicians as well as artists – enacting elements of 20th century art history.

Histories and geographies; distant visions and microscopic quotations – combine to create a panorama for our time.

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