A Rum Go

Public galleries and museums have long played an important role in the careers of Australian contemporary artists. Freed of the constraints of an exhibition in a commercial gallery where even the most ambitious shows last a month and are just as quickly forgotten, a big survey show supporting a major body of work can change the course of an artist’s career.

Tracey Moffatt’s Something More at the Australian Centre of Photography in 1989, Adam Cullen’s Blind Side at the Experimental Art Foundation in 1999 and, more recently, Shaun Gladwell’s In a Station of the Metro at Artspace in 2007 were major statements that shaped the perception of their subjects’ future careers while declaring their positions as the major artists of their respective generations.

There is something of this will to greatness underlying TV Moore’s Rum Jungle at Campbelltown Arts Centre. Moore has been given the entire gallery to play with, staging a career survey that includes the entirety of his prodigious video work produced from 1999 to 2009, a selection of recent photo-paintings, sculpture, light boxes and recent video and film works. The gallery has been transformed, with its walls repainted a series of lurid colours – urine yellow, florid raspberry, chroma key green, midnight black – to contain and extend the works from their frames and into a gallery-wide installation of considerable intensity.

There’s no catalogue and no individual wall texts apart from an introductory blurb that explains that the show creates an “interdependent world” that is “… an exalting play of colour and appropriated cultural references from art history and pop culture placed in ecstatic collisions …” that in turn invites its audience to become “… immersed in an inebriating environment”. And for the most part, that experience works brilliantly.

The largest room of the Campbelltown gallery is given over to the monumentally scaled, single-screen projection of Tripasso in Wackyland (2014), a looped collage of 1930s-style cartoon characters dropped over a collage of random TV footage including basketball games, undersea creatures and funny cats, all set to a very serious piece of booming orchestral music a la Walt Disney’s Fantasia. The room has been painted yellow with matching carpet and it feels like you’ve been transported inside the artist’s liver.

The title series Rum Jungle is a sequence of faux art brut paintings of faces rendered in daubs and smears that have been photographed and presented in livid yellow metal frames, spotlit on purple walls. In perhaps the deftest move in the show, Moore’s “back catalogue” of video works are shown simultaneously via a bank of TVs, their soundtracks jumbled and blaring as a single separate TV monitor loops Moore’s heavily made-up face from the video Old Love in Song: In Death (2004), the elegiac fake opera of the original work here presented in reverse.

And it was about here that I began to wonder what Moore wanted to achieve with this massive project. He has already had that career-defining exhibition with The Neddy Project at Artspace in 2004. Perhaps 10 years later it’s a good time to realign the vision.

Moore’s art to me has always been a clever kind of ventriloquism, a voice self-consciously in search of authenticity. His early video works were musical performances that began as urban country and western crooning but which eventually evolved into faux operatics, complete with theatrical staging and lighting effects. His recent turn to painting seemed like a retreat from the absurd scale of those videos into something more immediate and manageable.

In Rum Jungle we now have another kind of lip-syncing, a full-blown attempt to evoke the gods of expressionist art: Moore twice name-checks Ian Fairweather in the show, the brilliant Scottish-Australian abstract painter who in 1952 built a raft from old Japanese wartime aircraft parts and then sailed out into the Timor Sea in an attempt to reach Indonesia from Darwin. How a lightbox image of two gorillas and Moore’s face equate to Fairweather is open to speculation.

Elsewhere, Moore’s The Forgotten Man (2006) is a straight lift of a period documentary about down and out bohemia in Sydney in the ’60s, all the subjects and the narrator’s voice replaced by Moore himself, while What Say u? Wii (2009) is Moore dressed up as a kid, lip syncing a young boy’s voice describing his favourite video games.

The problem for Moore and Rum Jungle is that authenticity isn’t something that can be manufactured. It either is authentic, or it isn’t, and the suggestion that the show equals a kind a delirium akin to being drunk overlooks the unfortunate reality of next day and waking up and wondering, dear lord, what was I thinking?

Published as TV Moore: Rum Jungle review – lurid images in search of authenticityGuardian Australia, April 2014.

©Andrew Frost, 2014

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