Smee


Come feel the disdain
A grungy, adolescent lack of interest in other people's opinions, and money, doesn't get the message across, writes Sebastian Smee 22mar07

YOUNG artists regularly get the urge to make unsaleable art, or at least art that looks as if it doesn't want to be bought. The tendency, which reappears as reliably as the figures on a cuckoo clock, happens in reaction to the kind of art that sits up and begs to be bought. And it happens in reaction to the art market going crazy.

It's happening again now. You can understand why. Artists emerge from art school to confront a weird, at times arbitrary-seeming system of buying and selling that infiltrates every aspect of the art world ("the art world": a phenomenon frequently confused with actual art). Feeling excluded, ill-equipped or just plain disgusted, they quite naturally want to thumb their noses at it.

Elaborate systems are in place to nurture and encourage such impulses, as most of these young artists know.

This foreknowledge may undercut the force of their punkish disdain, but it doesn't completely wipe out the possibility that surprising, independent-minded art may result.

Enter this year's NEW07, the fifth in a series of exhibitions designed to showcase new talent. Hosted and heavily promoted by Melbourne's Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, it is backed by considerable institutional grunt. Curator Juliana Engberg is the director of ACCA and one of the country's most influential curators of contemporary art. She has played a leading role in shaping Australia's contribution to the Venice Biennale, which this year sees an unprecedented six Australian artists participating, three of them in the Biennale's glittering core show, curated by the event's US director Robert Storr.

One of the three is Christian Capurro; he is also one of seven artists (two working as a team) commissioned by Engberg to produce work for NEW07.

Capurro has a rear-guard, retro-sounding Marxist take on things, mediated through French thinker Georges Bataille's ideas on on sacrifice, wasted expenditure and economies of destruction. His best-known project involved passing a copy of Vogue Hommes among various people, each of whom was asked to rub out a single page and value their labour at the rate they were paid at in their usual jobs (if they had one). The 267 hours, 49 minutes expended on the work of erasing the entire magazine came to $11,349 worth of labour. Sophomoric though the exercise may sound, the resulting object has an intriguing beauty.

Capurro's latest work in NEW07 is a series of pornographic images transferred to single sheets of paper, then laboriously whited out until only a ghost of the original image remains. The results, once again, suggest that his strained conceptual ploys do at least produce visually compelling work.

Art that makes a show of its disdain for commerce has a rich pedigree. Capurro's gambit, for instance, follows in the footsteps of Robert Rauschenberg's erased drawing by Willem de Kooning. (Rauschenberg asked de Kooning to give him the drawing that he proceeded to rub out: an exercise in creative destruction.)

But contemporary art has a necessarily short memory; a sense of novelty is endangered by too much awareness of what has preceded you.

Engberg claims to have picked up on "a shift in artistic practice" with her selections for NEW07. She describes the shift as "a return to the low-tech aesthetic of recycling found objects and a reinterpretation of materialism".

This is code for another artistic revolt against market forces. What it means in practice, unfortunately, is a series of windy installations of arbitrary stuff - videos, photographs, paintings, tyres, op-shop detritus - that demand interpretation just as they affect a grungy lack of interest in other people's opinions, and their money. (There is a correlative to this contradictory state in the human life span; it is called adolescence.)

I happened to see the show on the day of the opening. The artists were still setting up and some of them kindly gave me personal introductions to their work. The better work - by Nick Devlin, Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro - made such explanations largely redundant. The weaker offerings, by contrast, absolutely required exegeses, not to mention footnotes and appendices.

Devlin, who works in the tradition of video artist Nam June Paik, has set up two stacks of obsolescent television sets facing each other. On the screens of one, stacked in a shape that mirrors the human figure, sections of the viewer's body, filmed by hidden cameras, are played back in various orientations. On the screens of the other, stacked in the shape of an apartment block, voyeuristic, mostly obscured footage of the goings-on inside strangers' apartments in New York are played on a loop.

The grainy footage, in beguiling hues of green, grey and blue, puts one in mind of Hitchcock's Rear Window. The two parts of the work add up to nothing obvious, but they relate in an intriguingly cool, almost diffident way.

Healy and Cordeiro have moved on from their winning, if by now rather laboured, penchant for packing up miscellaneous flotsam into neat cubes. This time they have disassembled a caravan and neatly laid out all the constituent parts in a rectilinear configuration that covers the gallery floor. If one can't get too enthusiastic about the result, the work at least gestures at a tension between form and meaning.

Damiano Bertoli has an installation of random stuff that would take several paragraphs to describe. Take it from me: there are links between them all. But you are unlikely to alight on them without the artist alongside to guide you. (A reproduction of a famous painting by Chuck Close, for instance, is included because the original was painted the same year Bertoli was born.) Should you care? With apologies to the artist, I would say no.

Brendan Lee has a similarly elaborate installation of car tyres, the front section of a Holden car, video screens and tricky lighting. Lee's enthusiasm for his ongoing project is infectious. He is interested in manifestations of Australian identity: car, pub and criminal cultures, nationalistic flag-waving and, in particular, Australian movies.

But there is a difference, I would venture, between being a Mastermind-standard fan of certain subjects and being able to make interesting art about them. Referencing ideas is not the same as effectively articulating them.

Finally, Anastasia Klose has an installation about bathos in the comic tradition of Bridget Jones's Diary.

Some of the photos and videos - of herself in Paris holding up a cardboard sign that says, in French, "I am an artist too", or about the death of her cat - are funny. But the challenge of filling an entire room and raising this schtick to a pitch of intensity defeats her.

NEW07, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, until May 20.