Controversial Art Exhibition

Uncategorized Apr 14, 2005 No Comments

The exhibition generating the most talk at the moment is Turning Tricks: Old School Magic by New School Artists curated by Soda_Jerk – which we discussed here briefly on Monday (see below) – because one artist, Hannah Furmage, included a baggy of heroin in her work A Groundbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. There have been a number of curious comments made on the story but before we get to that, let’s discuss the rest of the show.

As we were laving the gallery on Friday, we happened to find a piece of paper on the street outside the show with someone else’s notes on the exhibition. They looked something like this:

“Soda_Jerk (aka Dan and Dominique Angeloro) are Sydney based artists remix artists who artists who work at the intersection of photomedia and installation. remix They oftenfrequently often utilise work with the detritus of pop culture remixing samples of rental videos and tabloid magazines into new works. For their upcoming solo show at Phatspace Gallery (June) – will be tapping into the image of tabloid magazines. They have had remix video pieces works commissioned by the National Gallery of Australia and the National Museum of Australia.”

We didn’t know any of that, we’d just seen Soda_Jerk’s art in various other group shows around town and thought their work above average. Discovering that the duo make installations using found materials made us wonder if the entire Turning Tricks show wasn’t an elaborate extension of their own practice, particularly when the show has one of the best installations around and boasts a very glossy and professionally produced catalogue. Hmmm.

Anyway, as a theme for artists, magic and trickery is a rich field. It was Tim Storrier who once told us he believed the best training a young artist could have was to leave art schools and head straight to the magic shop. Mores the pity young artist haven’t heeded his advice as there is a distinct lack of plastic dog turds and hand buzzers in contemporary art.

It must be said that the exhibition Turning Tricks is beautifully and lovingly staged, despite what some nit pickers have been saying. Although all the video works (bar one) are crowded down the back, the exhibition has a very light and airy feel, which is a Godsend considering how dense group shows can be in small rooms or with too many artists. The back room with its three video installations has the feel of a side show alley with the overlapping sound, spooky lights and painted black walls. The only thing missing is a pop up skeleton.

Actually, the art work by the duo Ms and Mr, looks a slot like a ghost train ride. Called Ta-da! Turning The Three Sisters to Foam¸ a video work with a 5.1 Surround Sound set up, it’s a garish theatrical narrative of cheap special effects and a nonsensical (and non existent) plot. More like some kids playing with a video camera and special effects in a garage, the video is complemented by a series of drawings pinned up behind a wall that’s only accessible through a narrow doorway. The drawings purport to be an explanation of how certain illusions within the video work were created when they are in fact nothing of the sort being instead a kind of fantasy catalogue of conjurer’s magic.

The Magical Man by Simon Yates is a nice play on the idea of who actually pulls the strings in a magic trick. The work is a remote controlled man in a top hat which hangs from a bunch of helium filled balloons. With a deft touch, you can make the man walk around a little bit and scare people as they walk past the window of the gallery. It’s the only work show that allows the viewer to be the magician and for that reason probably one of our favourites.

Sam Smith’s work Cyclorama – as much as we liked it – seemed a little out of place in the show. Using a combination of very glossy looking special effects to cerate a video work that features a CGI landscape a la an early Michael Jackson video, the artifice of the piece (the trick if you like) is explained in an accompanying drawing. As far as we could make out, the drawing called Storyboard explained the camera angles in the video and how the expensive looking set was in fact a cheap set up. Unfortunately, the ‘reveal’ of this trick is still contained within the virtual world of the video and behind the glass of the TV set it remains as inaccessible as ever.

David Lawrey’s Jason Goes To Hell looked great but we’re not certain what we were looking at. A box with mirrored shelves at different angles and tiny figures inside ,we struggled to find some associations to begin understanding where this work was coming from. There was this one Sunday night when we ended up at the Taxi Club (actually, it was a very early Monday morning) and the card machines looked a lot like Lawrey’s mirrored box. The problem with this work is we put our money in the slot and nothing much happened. Luckily for us there were no Tongan transvestites offering to buy us drinks. (Note – don’t wear a pink Hawaiian shirt in public ever again).

The Magic Wand is Soda Jerk’s funky free standing wall. On the reverse side there is a TV set, and on the front a framed photo of an Asian kid and some woman. The Asian boy’s eyes are cut out and the TV screen behind has a couple of moving dots that from the front of the piece looks like his eyes are slowly moving back and forth. Consulting the brochure we discovered that the couple are in fact the schoolkid Vili and his teacher/lover Mary Kay. The foregrounding of how the work is made and the goofiness of the illusion are the most straightforward demonstration of a reveal in the show. As to exactly how Soda_Jerk’s love of true crime and romance relate to the magic theme of the show, we’re not certain.

Todd McMillan’s video/performance The Disappearing Act is the other piece in the back room but does not suffer from sound leaking from the other pieces. With the artist standing against a white background with his hands over his face, he counts to 100 Mississippis then disappears only to momentarily reappear and start again. Like his other performance work, the idea is elegantly simple and full of connotation. In the kids game of hide and seek, it’s the other people who disappear while you cover your face and count – so in that context, who is doing the disappearing act – the artist or the audience? That the work is also on video questions the notion of the ephemerality of the performance, gone forever but recorded. If only more video/performances were as minimal yet as rich as this.

Which brings us back to Hannah Furmage’s work A Groundbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The work features the artist talking to a junky at The Wall in Darlinghurst. His face ius pixilated as he talks about the depths to which he and his friends must go to get money to score. He tells a story about a friend who is not gay but who is a prostitute nonetheless and who survived a harrowing attack with a broom handle. As the guy talks, the artist is seen camera left making noises such us “oh no” and “oh my god.” Until the other day, the work also included what appeared to be a bag of heroin under plastic.

In the context of the show, we thought Furmage was saying that the trick was ‘turning tricks’ to make money to buy drugs – a process of turning something real into something ephemeral – the alchemy of drug addiction. Our first reaction on this work was to assume that it was completely sincere – that the artist was making some kind of statement about drug addiction and criminality on the streets of Sydney. Our remark to the gallery people that we’d have been disappointed if it had turned out the heroin was not real was based on that assumption. If there had been a media storm and the artist was sincere, we would have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with her defending her right to freedom of artistic expression regardless of the questionable wisdom of exhibiting a controlled substance.

Then all the weird media shit started to happen and we smelled a rat. Reading the notes for the show we saw this:

“Furmage has replied to the current show by creating another spectacle of true crime that has had many holding their breaths over the possible consequences. A Groundbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2005) cashes in on seedier connotations of the term “turning tricks.” In the spirit of a reality cop-show the undercover artist descended onto the streets of Kings Cross to buy some Heroin and ensnare the drug transaction on video. By choosing to exhibit the heroin along side this footage Furmage collapses the spectacle of art with the spectacle of crime. Is it real or is it an elaborate trick? The work baits authorities to make the call.”

Instead of a sincere attempt to say something it turned out that the work was a muddle headed attempt to create a media controversy. It’s unclear what that controversy was supposed to be about, whether the artist was inviting the media to beat it up, but since the work itself and the drugs, the video, the junky and everything else was called into question, it was just case of who cares? The artist, the curators and the gallery would not confirm to the media if the drug was real, so someone did it for them. After speaking with SMH writer Alexa Moses from the Spike column, the curators met with two Surry Hills detectives who “advised” to remove the “drugs” from the show. This they have now done.

The work in the end is a damp squib. It failed to go off. As an act of media manipulation the work lacked pretty much everything you would need to create fake “controversy”. Playing coy and not saying that the work was using real heroin removed the shock value of the piece and more than likely signaled to the journalists that they were being had. The truly disgraceful thing about this whole episode is that in a year’s time pretty much everyone will have forgotten about it but it’ll be sitting on Furmage’s CV like a minor victory. How dull.

The Art Life

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