Telltale interactions

July 30 2003 By Robert Nelson

Centre for Contemporary Photography, Fitzroy
Until August 24

The death of narrative in visual art is often related to the rise of film. While it's true that some artists may have been discouraged by the grip of story-telling films, in fact there's no connection between artists rejecting narrative and filmmakers assuming it. Avant-garde painters of the late 19th century had abandoned narrative long before film became a popular medium.

There's an analogous myth that artists are spooked by film, as if the cinema stole their popular birthright. But the interchange between film and older forms of picture-making suggests mutual inspiration and reciprocating energies.

The development of new media has heightened the links. Aspects of film-making are accessible to visual artists, whose preferred genres are turning by degrees to lens culture and digital processes.

Meanwhile, film since the postwar period has been searching for a language and purpose that isn't confined to story-telling. And both film and art are now potentially overtaken by the new promise of interactivity.

Art + Film is dedicated to this fascinating theme. Curated by Natasha Bullock and Brendan Lee, it's not about art that is influenced by film. Many artists come to mind - like the filmic painter Stewart MacFarlane - who are not included. The approach involves an analysis of the relationships and the artists have been chosen on the basis of their peculiar deconstructive identification of filmic figments, resources and subcultural perversion.

Starlie Geike is the closest to MacFarlane, as her sculpture of a prone woman, draped in a curtain, but with naked legs protruding, is pornographic, erring on the side of the sadistic, which is so common in film.

Lee's anthology of death moments and Ricky Swallow's morbid reproduction of skulls speak to the fetishistic cruelty underpinning the action and imagery in film. The video installation by David Noonan and Simon Trevaks abstracts the mystery-horror genre in all its cliches of calculating trance, uncanny imagery and fear. And Philip Brophy's moving images of rocking skyscrapers, challenged by light shifts and sound (through headphones), extrapolate the threatening aesthetics of disaster that are so convincing in the cinema.

Film critic Adrian Martin's catalogue essay sets a very high bar for the works, exploring the history of film and its relation to narrative. It eloquently explains the contest of classical story-telling and aspirations to a purer audio-visual expressiveness. Upon the theory surrounding this watershed, the essay optimistically looks forwards to stronger interventions by visual artists, resulting in a more autonomous audio-visual art that works in and out of narrative and clinches new evocative powers.

Not all the works rise to this optimism. Chris Bond's key ring struck me as a bit precious; Christopher Koeller's banner-format photographs, though handsome in their own right, don't primarily reflect a film circumstance or technique; and Lily Hibberd's two paintings in phosphorescent colour - while undoubtedly dependent on shots from a film or video and perhaps allegorising screen afterglow - do not transcend their poor drawing and weak chromatic control.