Exhibition review White Hysteria Curated by Susan Treister Contemporary Art Centre, Adelaide South Australia 7 - 30 June 1996
Hysteria, as every school child knows, has its origin in the Greek word for the uterus or womb. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives the definition of hysteria as:
A syndrome (formerly regarded as a disease peculiar to women) whose symptoms include shallow volatile emotions, overdramatic behaviour, susceptibility to suggestion, and amnesia, tremor, and convulsions that cannot be attributed to any physical pathology.
Sound familiar? Then there is the hysterosal'pingogram - you probably think it's the name of a dance but it is a radiograph of the uterus and the Fallopian tubes. But enough of the dictionary. What comes to mind when the words White and Hysteria are combined? Maybe racism, perhaps the Klu Klux Klan?
The large group exhibition (over 75 heads, artists, writers, sideliners) entitled White Hysteria and curated by Suzanne Treister for the Contemporary Art Centre contains a casual discussion of the meaning of its title in an interview, between Treister and the Director of the Contemporary Art Centre Bala Starr, which comes up with a few pointers to the intended meanings of the show. It is definitely connected to race (though assuming someone's whiteness from either their name or the colour of their skin is tenuous at best.
Treister points out that she is Jewish though this is not apparent from her appearance thus then is white defined in terms of not black and really what is whiteness anyway?). In cultural and political terms White Hysteria may be a response to historical implosions, the gaze to Asia, an awareness of Muslim cultures, China, the identification of Australian art with Aboriginal art, multiculturalism, the pluralism that haunts us.
Treister states that she included " works which are symptomatic of the current climate in all senses not only the political... the sometimes strange, obsessive and often quite confined and off-beat areas in which some artists are now working". In some ways White Hysteria is a response to the recent Adelaide Biennial of Contemporary Art which I now remember feeling had a sense of "white trash" in its vacant despair and bereft aesthetics. Endgamism combined with nepotism, bile and a bit of fun.
The show includes a letter from Linda Levinson a friend of Treister's questioning what White Hysteria might mean and dying to be part of it (and darling, what shall I wear?). This lightness (admittedly a corrective to the frequently unshaded heaviness of solemnity in Adelaide's art groves) pervades the show and could, I suppose, be characterised as an example of shallow volatile emotions.
We are used to seeing works of art spread rather widely over white spaces. The way White Hysteria was shown in the manner of a garage sale was contrary to this tendency. A number of works were included that have been seen in other contexts for example Bronia Iwanczak's Chromed Bone 1994, Simone Hockley's Snowy Log 1995, Steve Wigg's After Ruscha 1994 being a palmtree made from carparts, David O'Halloran's Box 93-94 and Shaun Kirby's Lapsed Time 1995 funwagon. There was even a small sense of a retrospective of director of the Experimental Art Foundation Richard Grayson's work as the show included Grayson Industries, a tape that he made in 1986, Idea a plaster lightbulb from 1992, a clay statue from Lilliput 1995, Triumph a combine work with Steve Wigg, the potato prints called Works about the Real World 1995.
Local curator Christopher Chapman showed a video called ABSTRACT ART made with Peter Harding and a wall of drawings called The Unfortunate Drawings of Christopher Chapman, incidental scribble drawings some about art ie his work and others about William Burroughs, the bottle of doubt and new men who are cool like spreading ferns. Better hang on to your dayjob Chris. The slow and fast video tracked over objects in time to music, the music made the doped/dopey bleariness of this work quite humourous.
The guarantee in the show of a kind of limbo (how low can you go) fun, of a certain level of levity, of a beleagered fin-de siecle quality was explicit. The back gallery was called the therapy room for the duration of the show and while there were no performances in this room a series of sheets of paper with contributions from remote and near artist, writers and art-related aficionadoes were able to be collected by the paper and text hungry visitor.
Amongst these pages was one by Anne Graham in which she combines two excerpts from E. M. Forster's novel A Passage to India with two images of works by Anish Kapoor, Virgin and Shrine and two works by Gustav Courbet, The Origin of the World and The Source of the Loue. Each artwork or excerpt contains not whiteness but blackness in the form of a cave or opening or womb, blackness which, as it is unknown, may elicit hysteria and/or worship or wonder. Graham brings together these examples of the blackness of the womb, the womb of the virgin which is like a cave or a shrine or the source of a river to reflect on the nature of white hysteria.
Fresh to my eyes was Sophie Alstergren's Partie de la cote de ma coeur (part of the coast of my heart), a thinly made scratchy map on which the many barely legible names of the personal features which are appropriately Isles desolation or Mt Joy, Agony, uncharted territory and so on.
TTSS Paul Hoban's two paint skins mounted on canvas, one of which was white pieces of paper with holes punched out of them and the other was the holes.held their corner of wall as powerful but ambiguous images/objects speaking of the nightsky or the sea or textual/textural strategies. The sensation of the two works being the negative of each other added to the newspaper-blackened hands, graffiti and postered wall mystery palimpsest sensation achieved by their surfaces.
The show may have felt more conceptually rigorous if all the work had been anonymous. If this is hysteria let it be nameless hysteria, let no-one claim it .In being linked to a person, in being owned hysteria can lose its edge and become self-conscious and self-satisfied.