Someone must have thought it was a good idea to stage The Unquiet Landscapes of Rosemary Laing at the same time as Mona Hatoum’s retrospective. They share some of the same visual approaches – deliberate confusions of scale and material, odd framing, works that could be read as being about ‘the body’ or ‘place’ and so on. We would have thought the way to go with programing big shows like these would be to create contrasts, so if you didn’t think one show was so great, well, here’s a different one. But the approach seems to be – if you didn’t like that one, here’s another one quite similar.
Rosemary Laing is an artist who hasn’t quite had her moment yet. People speak of her as an artist who is about to have that moment and perhaps this MCA show will kick things off for her. With a new gallery representing her in Sydney and a body of work that demands attention – and looks great in reproduction – there’s really no reason why she couldn’t be big in the Henson-Moffatt-Piccinini mold of multinational editions and shows in far flung places.
But the impediment to having her moment in the sun is that work does not allow itself to be easily pigeonholed into a certain thematic boxes Sure, there’s the landscape, the body, the environment, the works seem to construct a narrative, but there’s also a maddening ambiguity to them that defies easy wall text summary. We really like Laing’s work for that reason and became increasingly enraged as we read the official explanations of what each series were meant to be. We know we don’t have to read the texts, but we feel compelled. Laing’s work are ineffably supported by gossamer thin surrealism but when they get nailed down to quotidian explanations, we felt like taking an axe to the walls.
Works such as Welcome to Australia – a photograph of the steel walls and razor wires of a desert detention centre – have little conceptual subtlety. The whole work is distilled in the title but hung next to a work such as To Walk On A Sea Of Salt – a photograph of a salt lake – the sequencing conjours up a narrative connection that’s a little bit more forgiving.
The Flight Research series of photographs feature a flying bride, defying gravity over the Blue Mountains. The works are staged in such a way, that although obvious, it doesn’t detract from your enjoyment of them. We kept thinking of the trampoline that would have been just out of shot, but the sheer joi de vivre of the works eliminate doubts. No wonder they are among Laing’s most popular pieces. Bulletproofglass is another series of works of the ‘flying bride’ but this time the hapless woman is shot in the chest. Falling from the sky, bloodied and surrounded by fluttering pigeons, the works seem incongruously theatrical next to the other series. You get the idea and then move on.
Some people like to be told what to think. We prefer ambiguity in art and that’s why we like Laing’s Groundspeed series the best. It’s a series of shots of natural environments – forests, fields, sea coasts – with patterned carpets laid out in place of the earth. There’s a subtle play between the natural and the artificial in these pieces and the simple reversal of context creates a rich field for imagination. Laing’s more recent pieces like Remembering Babylon #5 with its plastic heads floating in a desert dam and the Burning Ayer series which has furniture being torched in the outback, seem a little too calculating in their effects. We wondered too if burning stuff in the desert wasn’t a bit too obvious, what with Tim Storrier having made his later career with exactly the same visual idea. It looked good, of course, and we moved on.
Our obsession with seeing art as a contextual experience probably blinds us to the fact that no matter what anyone says about a work of art, people just end up interpreting it themselves anyway. On the way out of the MCA we noticed that at the coat check counter there is a guest book. Some tourists from the UK had written something about the Laing show along the lines of: “How can the MCA endorse the release of toxic chemicals into the air while not allowing photography in the exhibitions?” What it all boils down to is souveniring the experience and bad smells.