Only the rich can afford to live as though they have nothing. Where being rich was once about the indiscreet accrual of objects proudly displayed as trophies, good taste dictates that wealth now disappears from view.
Free of clutter there is space to consider contrasts: book shelves with only a few sleek volumes dotted here and there to frame the objet d’art generous kitchen spaces with sleek work surfaces echoing the obsidian rectangles of living room screens; vast white walls that witness the passing of the day. And then suddenly that restful blankness is juxtaposed with the presence of art. Some say that art fills a void, perhaps meaning that it has a spiritual presence in our secular lives, yet it also happens to be literally true. Large paintings fill large spaces.
Del Kathryn Barton’s recent solo exhibition Satellite Fade-Out was a massive undertaking. Put together in just four months to fill a gap in Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery’s exhibition calendar the artist produced twenty-four works. A huge diptych For The Feeling, measuring 240 by 360 centimetres, was accompanied by a group of eight works at 163 by143 centimetres each, and a series of works on paper at more modest sizes. If you were serious about buying one of these paintings, you needed physical space as much as you needed virtual credit.
Works of this scale wouldn’t be all that remarkable if it weren’t for the fact that Barton’s paintings are also hyper detailed, with much layering of imagery and acreages of hand-painted dots that form their backgrounds. I’d been told that Barton and her two assistants had worked seven days a week to meet the short exhibition deadline. You could easily imagine those hundreds of hours spent hunched over canvases, steady hands patiently dotting the various sizes and densities of coloured spots, perhaps with some soothing music in the studio to keep the spirits up, and plenty of green tea.
Painted on black backgrounds the dots weren’t at first all that obvious to the eye but, as you got in close, the swimming detail of Barton’s work revealed itself. Along with the dots were cross-hatched lines, squiggles, and elegant pen loops that tied the central figures to the backgrounds. Pictorially Barton’s work continued her interests in hybridisation, found in the mixing of animal, human and non-human aspects in her figures, such as a bird with human breasts, phallic plants, or human faces that remind one of uncanny robots.
The title of the show made obvious one aspect of Barton’s work that hasn’t often been remarked upon; that it contains a massive amount of information. Satellites gather and disseminate data as they orbit the Earth and, perhaps in reference to this, Barton’s imperious figures appeared two-dimensional with snatches of starry night sky glimpsed through their cut-out bodies. Online data occupies no real space, its limitless perspectives folded down to the quanta of transmission. While Barton’s works suggests such streams of information – the dots akin to pixels – it is a kind of information in stasis, analogue and fixed. The tradition of the Baroque that’s conjured here plays on this style’s obsession with visual puns and illusions, space and asymmetry, all deftly suggested and updated, but left flat. Beyond Barton’s figures are the stars – but sadly they’re just an illusion.
Meanwhile, living space in the real world is at a premium. It feels as though space has never been less available despite the continuing creation of something out of nothing. In the novel Idoru (1996), William Gibson describes the unsettling reaction experienced by one character when viewing future-Tokyo’s skyline, buildings that build themselves upwards thanks to microscopic nanobots within. Cruising by Sydney’s once beautifully desolate industrial zones now turned into row after row of apartment blocks, one gets a sense of that Gibsonian unease.
In his exhibition D.95 (Display Sweet) at Sydney’s MOP gallery last July, Gary Carsley playfully evoked the language of the hard-sell dream-talk used by real estate agents to boost such units. To accompany the installation a room sheet advised that the work was ‘a rare opportunity to enjoy a true park lifestyle in an unrepeatable just listed first release redevelopment’. The work, it was claimed, offered a ‘perfect blend of highly desirable modular living’ with ‘super attractive amenities and convenient transport options all at your door’.
In MOP’s small front room (Gallery 2), Carsley had mounted around the walls a continuous Lambda print that created the effect of a multilayered trompe l’oeil, as though you were looking out the windows of an apartment at a park, but confused in scale, location and distance. The background imagery was made up of artfully stitched together scenes of Chinese gardens from various locations around the world including Sydney, New York and Berlin, but surprisingly also from locations in Asia such as Hong Kong, Suzhou, Shanghai and Singapore.
This panoramic image, like many of the print works that Carsley calls ‘draguerreotypes’, includes close-up scans of artificial wood textures inlaid where natural wood would appear, such as in tree trunks. The resulting confusion created between close-up and distant objects in this process creates a strange push-pull between the illusory qualities of the trompe l’oeil and the magic eye-like effects of the fake wood grains. Into the gallery space Carsley had placed IKEA chairs and tables that had been re-surfaced with elements of the background print so, at the right angle, it appeared as though they might disappear right into the picture.
But of course they hadn’t disappeared, not really, and the illusion was far from seamless. And this was as the artist intended. D.95 (Display Sweet) celebrated its own artificiality in a way that was welcoming of the viewer’s participation, and indeed encouraged it. You got the idea easily but it was one that you could (quite literally) sit with in the gallery space and enjoy. Carsley complemented the MOP installation with the room sheet/poster (that was itself quite dense), and with an eleven-page transcript of a conversation between Tim Gregory and Oliver Watts, titled Sight Unseen, taken from a DVD by Louise Sykes, in which the chatting duo ‘imagine themselves where you are now’ (that is, in the gallery space). Carsley delights in foregrounding the slippage between the illusion and the sur-reality, building conceptual layers over and above the physical work, to the point that the project is the thing. This doesn’t stop at the gallery door either. The location of the exhibition was perhaps yet another layer; MOP is located just across the road from the gargantuan Central Park development of the old Carlton United Breweries site on Broadway, where in the very near future skyscrapers will sprout, one eerily reminiscent of Gibson’s nanotech, albeit an apartment building with a facade festooned with trees.
Carsley’s conceptual approach could be thought of as classically postmodern yet there is something of the Romantic imagination at play. Like Barton’s links to the Baroque, Carsley’s work collapses space and time, finding something deeper within the quotidian fantasy of the ‘unrepeatable just listed first release redevelopment’. As Frederich Schlegel noted, romantic desire is ‘an eternal oscillation between enthusiasm and irony’ – one could not think of a more perfect summation of Carsley’s ongoing project.
D.95 (Display Sweet) conflated the outer world into pleasing decor, an uncomfortable simulacrum that is as familiar as one of those animated back-lit waterfall scenes one might encounter in a Chinese restaurant and just as exotic, which is to say, a familiar kind of exoticism that while unremarkable, still seems like a hypnotic suggestion of the future. ‘By endowing the common place with higher meaning’, writes German philosopher Novalis, ‘the ordinary with mysterious aspect, the known with the dignity of the unknown, the finite with the appearance of the infinite [we] romanticise it. This procedure is reversed for the higher, the mystical, the infinite […] The humble self is identified with a better self … ’
If the infinite lurks in the detail, there is a distinct sense of this type of sublimity when you consider the scale of industrial production. The 2006 documentary Manufacturing Landscapes – Jennifer Baichwal’s portrait of photographer Edward Burtynsky that takes in the endless vistas of Chinese production, from the Three Gorges Dam to an anonymous steam iron manufacturing plant, to the chic living spaces in Beijing’s new suburbs – creates a sense of dread and abject helplessness in the face of a rapacious progress towards who-knows-what – a sort of endless progress.
Also made in 2006 was Superflat First Love, a collaboration between Japanese artist Takeshi Murikami and film director Mamoru Hosoda. Created to celebrate six years of Murikami’s own collaboration with French fashion label Louis Vuitton, the resulting film, which can be found on YouTube, is a stupefyingly depressing conflation of space and time. A school girl hanging around an LV store in Tokyo is inexplicably eaten by a small creature, a variation on Murikami’s DOB character. The girl falls into a strange zone with LV and Murikami logos which eventually turns out to be a portal in space and time, the girl emerging in the Vuitton atelier (Paris 1897) via a LV steamer trunk. The girl meets and falls in love with a 14-year-old Gaston Louis Vuitton who is making the prototype LV trunk. Psychedelic weirdness ensues as the girl returns to present-day Tokyo, eventually (and inexplicably) met by Gaston outside the LV store. The loop sits neatly as a narrative device – past becomes present; present connects to the past, time and space as one.
When Karl Marx suggested an erosion of human relations created by the ‘fetishisation of commodities’, he argued that the analysis of such objects ‘brings out that [the object] is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties’. Could Marx have envisioned that among those properties might also be the belief that consumer objects have the ability to literally transport the consumer through space and time? The LV film seeks to create the idea that quality is timeless and that love for the object is not strange or perverse, but romantic in the terms described by Novalis. It’s not real time travel, of course, but an idea of escape, one that is always promised but never delivered.
Art Monthly, March 2012.
Pic: Del Kathryn Barton, Satellite Fade Out 2, 2011.