Surviving Interpretation

Uncategorized Apr 07, 2005 No Comments

The plain fact is that most contemporary art is no more complicated in it’s meaning than a dog scratching itself. This is not a bad thing. In a world where visual art must cut through the static of the everyday world, art works which are untroubled by subtlety, nuance or ambiguity will find their audience much more quickly than things that feel complicated. This is why so many international artists trade on a very limited notion of what their work is meant to be about. Big ideas like “gender”, “race”, “sexuality”, “the environment” and “the body” are perennial subject matters for contemporary art.

Although perhaps not that familiar to people with little exposure to contemporary art, these big ideas are now so wide spread they have become generic themes. A curator can construct group shows, solos shows and retrospectives purely around the theme. It’s not as though these generic themes are completely exhausted, it just takes a very talented artist who can bring anything new to them and given that the formal styles of expression in contemporary art are so narrow, it’s probably impossible.

Mona Hatoum is a contemporary genre artist whose work is about the contested space of the body. How does she do it? She makes objects, videos, paintings, photographs, sculptures, performances and texts which evoke some anxiety about the body as a political space, a sexual space, a private space, a medical space and so on. Her strength as an artist may be that she elucidates her ideas so clearly and yet, when looking at her retrospective at the MCA, you feel that it’s also her biggest liability. A giant cheese grater might evoke a social space – the kitchen – and turn what would normally be considered a safe object into something “threatening” – but it leaves little room for interpretation. Once the sensation of a normal sized object made large recedes there’s very little left to consider. Look a giant cheese grater!

Hatoum’s video works are not only conceptually generic, their execution is classically styled. Don’t Smile! You’re On Camera is the documentation of a performance work from 1980 where audience members were tricked into believing that a black and white video camera could see under their clothes. As the camera was moved around, people reacted to the idea that their personal space was being invaded. Typical of the early video works from the 1980s included in the show, the piece was a completely orthodox – screened on a large TV, accompanied by wall text written by the artist, typed out on an old manual type writer and accompanied by stills from the video printed on a b&w proof sheet, it was as though we were looking at a work from Studio International circa 1976.

In a more recent video work called Corps e’tranger from 1994, the audience views a video of an endoscope camera being inserted into Hatoum’s anus, vagina and mouth – the space of her body invaded both by the camera and by the audience. What’s so surprising about this work is how unsurprising it is – it’s the kind of work that any one of a number of artists may have already done or would imagine doing. It’s a testament to the thoroughness of Hatoum’s work that she’s prepared to pursue the obvious to the final indignity and pain of allowing an art audience to view her insides. In an accompanying room sheet, the artist explains that the work had been conceived in 1980 but wasn’t made for 14 years until she got an invitation to make a video installation at the Centre Pompidou in 1994. Better late than never.

Throughout the show Hatoum demonstrates that she’s equally at home with every form she touches. Every piece is like a mini message that reinforces the theme of her entire body of work. The construction and fabrication of her sculptures, photographs and videos is flawless – every possible personal idiosyncrasy has been removed. Australian artists who aspire to the kind of career that Hatoum has achieved should take note that any trace of discernable personal identity must be erased from their practice before they will be admitted to the international touring circuit of contemporary art. Expressionism will not be permitted. All work must service the ‘big idea’.

The only piece in Over My Dead Body that really invokes some kind of experience for the audience is an installation called Light Sentence. A chilly, heavily air conditioned room has a series of wire mesh lockers arranged in a U shape. The only illumination is a single naked light bulb hung in the middle. As you walk around the installation, the light bulb lifts slowly up from the floor as the cord is rewound, throwing moving shadows onto the white walls of the gallery space. With the chilliness of the air, the ambiguity of the wire cages and the moving shadows, something interesting is born inside the work. What is the relationship between the movement of the visitor and the light? That there is no explanation is the heart and soul of this piece – it’s interactive, it isn’t didactic, it has mystery and engages the senses in a way none of the other works achieve. It allows some individual interpretation and that’s the only personal space this artist hasn’t completely occupied.

The Art Life

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