Rex Butler Review


Group Show


POLTICAL art always suffers from a dilemma: as political, it has an argument to make; as art, it must be complex, ambiguous and open to several different interpretations.

This second requirement is usually expressed as the work "putting forward a number of points of view without choosing one" or "allowing the spectator to make up their mind".

In this, the political work of art is typical of the wider condition of art today, brilliantly diagnosed by the critic Michael Fried as "literality: a state in which the work of art depends on its beholder, is incomplete without them, has been waiting for them". The work of art becomes like a mirror reflecting viewers’ prejudices and preconceptions back at them, allowing society to see itself in all its glory and misery.

It is a rhetoric we currently see everywhere, every time a curator says that a work of art is "about" some issue, without telling us what it is saying about it; everytime some reviewer speaks of a book or movie "bringing some important issue to our attention", without telling us what it is saying about it. And so it is with these four most recent collections at the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane.

The first thing to say about the shows - three large scale installations and an exhibition of photography - is that they look good, or at least engage with the extremely difficult spaces of the new IMA.

The long middle room there is an art graveyard, looking much like a low slung airport hangar or the inside of a slightly too-warm refrigerator truck.

It is presently occupied by Chris Howlett’s Weapons On the Wall - a screaming jeremiad against what used to be called the military-industrial complex. Howlett covers the walls with mock-Time covers declaring Henry Kissenger a war criminal, includes videos of terrorists beheading hostages, and erects placards with slogans as "No Blood for Oil" and "Stop Killing People for the Benefit of Americans".

It’s an aggressive, snarling visual cacophany - a kind of anti-universe of murder and pain, with sex and sport as the new opiates of the masses. You"d think, then, that the catalogue writer could come up with something better than: "There are no simple answers to the questions being posed, only a never - ending series of linked ideologies, oppositional arguments and conspiratorial connections."

Either Howlett is saying that our contemporary "society of the spectacle" is complicit with the war in Iraq or not; either he wants to analyse the relationship between young soldiers brought up on violent computer games and Internet porn and the hyper-real battlefield in which one no longer sees one’s opponent or not.

It is not enough to say that the viewer can make up their own mind - in this the work would precisely be part of that same mobilisation of vague threat and indeed that it opposes, would merely substitute one non-existent conspiracy for another.

We see the same thing with the show by Nat & Ali, not only but also... a similar looking scatter piece in which the artists have apparently upended the contents of their studio in the gallery.

It’s predictable, if depressing, that the only time art ever gets on the front pages of the paper is when someone disputes an artist’s will, when someone claims to be indigenous and they’re not and when a work of art sells for more money than the Prime Minister will earn in 100 years.

But it’s just as uninteresting for artists to take this situation as their subject matter, artificially producing such scandals and then letting them resonate in a solipsistic echo chamber.

Another of the works - Pat Hoffie’s Drift - was not the most immediately challenging of the works, but was the one most conscious of the difficulties of doing political art.

The work is simply a long corridor made out of masonite that replicates the dimensions of the so-called SIEV X, a boat which sank off Indonesia in September 2001, drowning 353 asylum seekers.

Dark rumours circulate around the event - if the Australian secret service did not actually sink the boat, it is likely that overcrowded and under-resourced vessel was heading into our waters and did they knew an nothing about it.

The work does not hector or narcissistically refer to itself, but simply presents the facts, allowing us to imagine what happened in a room in which an image resolutely refuses to form.

This is an article published in the Courier-Mail in 2005 titled "Lets Get Political" by Rex Butler.

Dr Rex Butler is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English, Media Studies and Art History at the University of Queensland. Has written extensively on Australian art and published or edited four books: An Uncertain Smile [Artspace, 1996], What is Appropriation? [IMA, 1996, 2004], A Secret History of Australian Art [Thames and Hudson, 2002] and Radical Revisionism [IMA, 2004]. Has also written two books on theorists: Jean Baudrillard: Defense of the Real [Sage, 1999] and Slavoj Zizek: Live Theory [Continuum, forthcoming]. Writes regularly for the Courier-Mail newspaper in Brisbane and is the Brisbane correspondent for ABC Radio's The Deep End. (Contemporary Visual Arts+Culture broadsheet, vol.34 No.2, june-august 2005, p.74).