Exhibition review Flight/Flight: Alex Rizkalla Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide SA 27 April - 21 May 1995
Experimental Art Foundation
27 April-21 May 1995
Reviewed by Stephanie Radok
On 7 May, V-E Day 1995, fifty years after the capitulation of the Germans in World War II, leaving the garden with reluctance, I go to the EAF to see the latest exhibition.
In the darkened space with a series of old-fashioned slide projectors, the fans of which make a soughing noise, Alex Rizkalla presents a flashing on and off sombre black and white image sliced into a series and shown on several screens to make it seem like animation. Three or four women, naked, run across the earth in front of some men, perhaps soldiers, possibly fellow prisoners. It looks like an image from Nazi Germany, from a concentration camp, an image of humiliation and degradation. The women run but there is no flight in the sense of escape. Watching for a time it is possible to follow one figure across the fragmented screens as if she runs, something like Eadweard Muybridge's nineteenth century scientific photographs of motion.
In the context of this old black and white photograph, a woman's body is a Gestalt, both strange and amazingly familiar, a design, a shape, archetypal as if from the Garden of Eden or from some basic inventory of shapes, an "Ur"-shape. Nakedness is symbolic, a sign yet not a sign, exposed, very exposed and personal in this photo yet not personal not private, belonging to all images of nakedness as well as belonging only to that person. It is hard to say what I mean but something like the impact of the naked body in Bill Henson's photographs, erotic and symbolic and surprising.
My instinctive response to this image is pain, it is like a preliminary to a scene of torture or for that matter a horror film. Some of the horror of the Holocaust was seen recently on TV. When these images were first seen it was said they should be shown every few years, as was also said with records of Hiroshima, so that people should remember. Never again. Yet atrocities multiply, Kampuchea, Timor, Uganda, Bosnia, Rwanda are names linked with genocide today. Memory has failed, images are superfluous, these names suffice. Is genocide normal rather than abnormal, a regular human event rather than an anomaly?
There is an affront in Rizkalla's work, why now? Like an old newsreel the work jerks and stumbles and tries to burn sorrow in the air, again and again witness, feel shame, apprehension, sorrow, humiliation, fear, unwillingness and thus nausea, why this? The exhibition notes say that the show is about memory and history, certainly not an Aeroplane Jelly memory, but nevertheless a twentieth century specific memory. If I was not a person of a certain age at a certain time I might have another explanation for the image. An ethnographic study might explain it to me in a plausible way as some mating or 'bride' ritual. Does the jerkiness of the slides characterise memory for everyone or is memory more of a circling for some of us? Birds circle in the air, particularly homing pigeons over their homes, making a noise a little like the repetitious noise of the fans of the old-fashioned (unstreamlined) slide projectors used in this show.
Behind the projections of the women in the extension of the gallery hang twenty white vests, on to which a veritable battery of slide projectors on tall stands project images of pigeons which look like more like stamp engravings of pigeons than pigeons in flight as their wings are not blurred. Why pigeons, why not ducks? Sitting ducks, stool pigeons, are the women on the other side of the wall perhaps collaborators though their heads are not shaved, is their guilt or innocence able to be determined by the viewer or a tribunal? Do the white vests relate to dinnersuits or innocence, collaboration or co-option? The work has a tremendous aesthetic neatness but is determinedly minimal, perhaps too much so.
It is curious that at the same time as Rizkalla's work is on at the EAF, the Contemporary Art Centre has a show in which Lisa Tomasetti also shows a filmic work centering on repetition and a very minimal approach. With a simple but noisy filmloop Quench deals with the swallowing gesture, variously accompanied by water or petals. It suggests thirst, greed, lust. As with Rizkalla's "Flight/flight" the anachronism and associations of black and white photo-imagery lends it some dignity and a link with the past, with the beginnings of movies, yet it does not have the provenance of his image. However Tomasetti's work also emphasizes a stuttering motion, a flickering of the head and the eyes as if we are about to fall asleep or dead drunk, reel across the floor, but the room and our head is spinning and flying up and down so that a strobe-like effect shows us the infinitesimal mortality of the moment. Nietsche's idea of Eternal Recurrence comes to mind.
Rizkalla's exhibition is prefaced by a question raised by Ludwig Wittgenstein: "Suppose I wanted to replace all the words of my language at once by other ones: how could I tell the place where one of the new words belongs? Is it images that keep the places of the words?"
It seems to me that if you wanted to replace all the words of your language at once you could do that, in your study, on the street, in the mountains, by the fjord in Norway, in the pool or the bath, but if you wanted to talk to another person, if you wanted to socialize then you would have to seek agreement, and it is most likely that you would start with concrete objects to start naming anew, though on the other hand much communication proceeds via voice and facial movements.
Is it images that keep the places of the words? The answer is of course yes and no. Duck "and" rabbit.