Saturday, January 30, 2016

Saturday Morning Musings - visual language, contemporary art and a visit to Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art

From time to time on this blog, more often on New England Australia, I have used the term visual language. The Wikipedia article provides a useful introduction to the concept.

On the New England blog, I have experimented with language as a way of describing the physical and built environments, including variations in those environments over space and time. I have also tried to look at the relationship between writing, art and film in regard to place and variations in place both geographically and historically. In many ways I'm trying to infer or even create a visual language since no formal one presently exists covering the areas that I am interested in.

On this blog, I have been more concerned with the changing structure and impact of visual language. My observations are neither deep nor especially profound. It's just a topic that interests me. The changing way we represent or remember things is based on a structured combination of knowledge, perceptions and relationships. They may not always be articulated, but the structure is there. You can see the impact quite easily if you think how often people will look at an art work and say I don't understand that or, alternatively, I like that.

Visual language shifts with time with changes in content, form and structure. It is affected by what we learn and choose to remember or forget. It is affected by events, by changes in our environment and by changes in technology. Visual language is an integral element of culture. It changes as culture changes, but its changes also feed back into cultural change.We are as we perceive.

I am familiar with certain aspects of the changing visual landscape. It would be hard not to be with youngest as a daughter. After all, I have been following her journey for some years now through early writing and illustration through the NSW Higher School Certificate into the latest evolutions. She operates in the interstice where games, comics, fan fiction, graphics, young adult fantasy, illustration, films and conventions coincide. She constantly experiments with platforms (most recently twitch), mode and content.

While I am familiar with some aspects of the changing aspects of the visual landscape, I have become increasingly conscious of gaps in my recent knowledge, especially in art.This has been peaking through in posts. So I took myself off to the Sydney Museum of Contemporary Art. It was a curiously unsatisfying experience.

This piece is Mikala Dwyer's  Square Cloud Compound (2010). MCA describes it in this way:

For more than three decades, Sydney artist Mikala Dwyer has explored the alchemical and contradictory nature of objects. Pushing at the limits of sculpture and installation her work reveals an experimental approach to materials that is influenced by art povera, dada and constructivism..
Recently acquired for the MCA Collection, Dwyer’s Square Cloud Compound (2010), is made of large swathes of brightly coloured fabric sewn into cubes that create a soft architectural structure. This mysterious enclosure is held down by tersely pulled stockings attached to the ceiling, floor and to painted poles adorned with lights and trinkets that function like totem poles, lampposts or gallows. Square Cloud Compound  is presented alongside a new wall painting produced especially for the museum and the MCA Collection. .

Accepting that it is a very bad photo, I was struck by the ephemeral nature of the piece. I wandered around it at all angles, studying the stretched pantyhose and other elements.I then went to the second floor gallery. This included the Tiwi Island display plus elements from the permanent collection. It was at this point that I began to wonder about my own visual language. Was that deficient? Alternatively, was I simply showing my age? Or perhaps both?

The Tiwi Islands Exhibition was interesting. This 2015 linocut print on paper, Murtangkala, is by Bede Tungutalum. However, I found that I have been somewhat submerged by Aboriginal art in recent decades, so perhaps didn't give the display enough attention.It was beyond that point that I began to find real problems.

There were two performing art examples, both video; one involved a group in the bush with masks, the second a man playing on a skateboard at Bondi Beach as a storm rolled in. I watched neither to the end, although the visual composition of the second was appealing. .

As I see it, one of the difficulties with performance art lies in the dividing line between art and performance. A second lies in the nature of the message, the reason why the artist undertakes the activity, the expectation of our response. By its nature, performance art takes time and therein lies the rub. Our attention spans have shortened. We may simply switch off before we have had the time to absorb anything.

There are exceptions. Many years ago while still at university, I watched a film clip of people going up and down an elevator in a Canadian department store. The message was about the nature of consumer society. We were watching it as part of a discussion group and then had to write a poem on our conclusions. I absorbed that piece. However, for most performance art I just turn off. I see enough of it everyday as it is.

Overall, I found the pieces on display from the general collection curiously unsatisfying. Some were visually appealing. this is Brook Andrew's "Loop. A model of how the world operates." The MCA describes the piece in this way:
Loop..... is part of an ongoing series of wall drawings using black and white patterns inspired by his (Andrew's) matriarchal Wiradjuri cultural heritage of western New South Wales, traditionally carved into shields and trees (dendroglyphs). In Loop Andrew has overlaid these monochromatic diagonals of traditional memory with slowly throbbing spirals of neon, to challenge the relationship to the inheritance of tradition in a society built on activities of trying to forget Aboriginal culture.
That is the curator's version. I found the last sentence quite problematic. That phrase - the inheritance of tradition in a society built on activities of trying to forget Aboriginal culture - seems to me to have no meaning..More precisely, to the degree that it has a meaning, it is simply wrong.

Brook himself seems to have a more nuanced view. "I like the idea of being hypnotised by a pattern, a pattern that can break the programme of how we are supposed to behave and what we are supposed to be doing," he wrote. "For me the pattern represents a matrix. It’s covering the surface and coding this structure and the people who experience it. It can take you somewhere else and I hope that’s what it does."

That I can understand. Did he succeed? Not with me, I fear. I passed it by as just another piece of visual wall paper. Now this may actually be the MCA's fault rather than that of the artist. We live in a visual wall paper world. Images are all around us. To achieve Brooke's objectives with a big piece, you actually need lots of places to sit, freeing the brain to observe different angles, breaking the bounds set by constant exposure to images. In terms of visual language, we are all suffering from the static created by constant over-exposure. We tune out, noting in a fleeting way before moving on.

My overall impression, recognising that this may be grossly unfair?  Beyond the current fashionable political and value concerns so earnestly explained in some of the descriptions, I left the gallery no wiser about either contemporary art in general or Australian contemporary art in particular beyond the hope that what I saw was not representative. I will return, for my original objective of filling gaps in my knowledge remains unfilled.  


Legal Eagle said...

I find a lot of contemporary art...underwhelming. No doubt I'd be told by artists that I'm a philistine for having this view. A lot of art seems to be described in very pretentious terms as well, which really turns me off. A friend of mine who makes fabulous modern jewellry and pottery says that she really suffers because she can't write about her art in that way. I think her stuff is fabulous. I really like art done with obvious skill - something that I couldn't have done myself, or I could only have done with a good deal of effort. When I see a pile of rice on the floor with neon lights around it (a piece of contemporary art I saw once), first, I don't really understand what the significance is, and secondly, I think that I could do it myself. It's almost like the whole point of modern art is to become unmoored from realistic representation and to defy any message, but that makes it unapproachable and confusing, in my view. As a language it often fails to "speak" to me.

2 tanners said...

Agreed on two major points. A lot of this stuff is just dross. And the deliberate misuse of the English language is a crime against literacy and serves to detract, or at best, unsuccessfully distract, from the poor communication of the artwork itself.

Anonymous said...

Interesting point on language 2T. Visited Archibalds last year and quietly laughed at some of the artists' descriptions of their work. The number of works which claimed to represent objectification was a little disturbing (to me at least, I am sure others would disagree). I have also been to the MCA and at first the lack of flowery language describing the works was refreshing. Then I came across several works which were described as "untitled". I did wonder how the "punter" wss supposed to make sense of something which the artist couldn't even title. The works themselves did not make a lot of sense to me except for a pervading feeling of darkness and negativity. I recognise that art is sometimes born of that, but I certainly don't want to spend my spare time walking through several rooms of it.

Anonymous said...

Here's another view of that same artwork: and here's another brief description of the materials used in construction: Material: Fabric, stocking, pins, beer, champagne, vodka, ceramics, found things, wood, rocks and lights

As this is a 2010 piece, which has been exhibited several times, I'm wondering how the artist manages to maintain the particulars of the construction at each showing? Or is that even important? Looking at the picture in my link to Roslyn Oxley, it seems very complex.

Or is the act of construction part of the artwork which we are supposed to consider?

Anyway - last link - the artist herself 'explaining' the piece: with the attached image seeming to be somewhat different. (Or maybe only partially constructed?)


Anonymous said...

I feel genuinely sorry for any artist forced to do the wankery surrounding their art. My wife's a ceramic artist and I'm sure she would be happier with a title and no text. And you can't just say "Don't read this, look at the artwork!".

Although now I think about it, Bertholt Brecht did use a number of techniques, all deesigned to remind the audience that they watching a play. He deliberately alienated the audience, implicitly asking them to think and judge the performance AND the message.

It must be Monday.

Jim Belshaw said...

Kvd, that sound cloud interview left me none the wiser! It may well have been part constructed. MCA may have bought it after the Oxley show. I wonder, do they take it down at all?

GL and last anon. Ah, the descriptions. I wrote on the A. exhibition at the time. Perhaps, to pick up GL's point re untitled, sometimes a title does help.

Ah Brecht. Monday is just a point in the week, you know. See your point. A long time since I watched one of his plays