Faith in a Moshpit
As we clear and recharge our data cells at the start of a new year - turn off our personal devices even - we might take pause to ask what it’s all about. As our scrolling through seemingly endless shared miscellaneous information is thrown into relief, we might question what exactly we believe in. Might life be richer, simpler with belief in one creed? Rather than this surface skimming, scanning and sampling of multiple manifestations of meaning?
I’m enjoying decluttering and reflecting. But ultimately I embrace the ‘violent relaxation’ of an earth that’s been in an explosive state of diversification since it began. When it comes to faith, well, we ultimately aren’t going anywhere different to any other organism. Yet we still need social codes to be responsible to each other and our environment, beyond the ‘just do it’ slogans of the market.
At City Gallery Wellington this summer three artists offer on this meditation. This is art that makes the case for the public gallery as secular temple. Work that reminds us that it wasn’t so long ago that the visual images we surrounded ourselves with were talismans for what we believed in.
Violent Relaxation is a term coined in astrophysics for the collective dynamics of stars. I came upon it amongst other delightful fresh and resonant turns of phrase in the terrific spoken word of poet Jacob Blomberg with Camille Henrot in Henrot’s film Grosse Fatique. Awarded the Golden Lion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, this film employs multiple computer screen pop-up windows alongside a performance text escalating in pace and intensity to playfully collage a mash of creation stories, object theatre and science to tell the history of the universe.
Henrot has an exquisite eye for the music in juxtaposing colour, shapes and pattern. An image of white paint speckled jeans, meets a black and white of Jackson Pollock creating a splatter painting and then a screensaver of the cosmos. She lightly moves across reference material to suggest how all is bound in nature to the same galactic impulses. Filmed action by Henrot with both paint and brush and mouse arrow are a constant.
With shots of exotic dead birds being pulled out of endless museum boxes and drawers (the work was made as part of a residency at the Smithsonian Institute) Grosse Fatique reminds us that the vast database we grow on the internet remains curated by our select hands, and is more the death-preserving action of cataloguing things rather than the life-giving impulse that sees organisms constantly mutate.
Translating the work’s title as a non-French speaker is interesting in this respect. Dead tired? Tiredness from the weight and enormity of the data we’re exposed to? The grossness of that. The work speaks to our obsession with technology in capturing and collecting versus experiencing. In one potent image filmed by Henrot a frog is perched upon an iphone, on which a message waits.
Rather than moralise Henrot’s film feels celebratory, relishing the sensual magic of mingling text and image. Holding the world in the palm of the hand, watching with wonderment the connections swirl on a small sphere. It is a world created by the “many colours of earth mixed with saliva”. The strongest thread in Grosse Fatigue is the jism and jive of a world created through the action of sex.
One googled image Henrot pops up is a world map of schizophrenia. Suggested is the prevalence of a general contemporary state of confused or unclear thinking and false beliefs – hallmarks of this condition.
Grayson Perry’s large impressive 2011 tapestry meanwhile is titled a Map of Truths and Beliefs. It features world pilgrimage sites. At its centre our animalistic and cultured alter-egos are represented by the figures of a bear and a woman in folk costume presenting a badge with a diagram of different versions of paradise or the nirvana of the afterlife on it.
The iphone also appears in this work. A stylish woman enters the tapestry from the left wielding not one, but two. She represents the gallery-going viewer: someone with a world of beliefs at a swipe of their fingertips, but with a consumerist life that insulates them from following any real paths of discovery. Elsewhere a boy carries a set square, a measuring device echoing the colour matching instruments that appear in Grosse Fatique.
Perry writes that he “wanted to make a sort of altarpiece”. This is a work inspired by those medieval Christian works that provide a faith map of the known universe. That map here is of a hilled city such as London, with the river of Hades the Thames running through it. Faith here is not about creation but death, the air full of military aircraft and the ground crowded with the graveyards of a myriad of different temples. Each is labeled for a different site, and architecturally jumbled. Venice is a nuclear power station, next to Ground Zero as a pair of Tudor homes. Angkor Wat is next to Wembley, Silicon Valley to Stratford Upon Avon, Nashville to Hiroshima, and Robben Island to Auschwitz. Contemplated is how we test our faith by both going to war and commemorating death - tragic, joyful and banal.
Perry’s style is reminiscent of that of the outsider naïve artist, all folksy obsessive labeling, repetitive line-making, flattened perspective and bright colours, capturing the world and wisdom within prescribed borders. Except Perry does so with full smart consciousness of the context. It’s a great absorbing work, which makes me hungry to see the current Perry survey at the MCA in Sydney before it ends in May.
Next door Dunedin’s Kushana Bush set of 2014 works are the equal of those of these more celebrated international artists. She is one of our most outstanding painters. Bush provides a rich smart fusion of influences in her theatrical figurative painting, crossing time and geography, from Asian miniature and early European Renaissance painting on to modernist dances in line that evoke the theatrical likes of New Zealand’s Lois White.
While Bush shares with Perry a love of texture and pattern, and a wry cultural and historical-crossing humour, her work is in fact more complex for its more allusive meaning. This series of works could be a religious narrative a la the stations of the cross, yet refuses to follow any one thread despite different elements re-occurring (it would be stronger for weaving these narrative patterns through more dynamically, and this exhibition for showing less work).
My favourite works resemble backstage views of public performances of morality plays, where all forms of makeshift visual representation is confusingly on hand: hand and shadow puppetry, music, mask and costume. The use of simple technology to tell stories reminds me of Henrot’s work.
Also reminiscent of Grosse Fatique’s visual conception of the world are the way Bush’s works are all woven calamitous movement. Compositions are like a set of Jack Straws or pick up sticks often bound by the incidence of flecks of like things - the whites of eyes or of fingernails for example, in a pulsing struggling crowd.
This is not a world at peace. Rather it’s one peppered by brand logos like Nike and Adidas with each actor struggling in the mosh pit of life. Each body is off on its own individual pursuit, eyes full of fear and distrust. The absurdity of a world like this – the sheer mess of a theatre it creates – is highlighted.
Bush could just as easily have been paired with Henrot as Perry - instead they’re separated in the building. These significant works, which are likely to find favour with a far greater public than the Julian Dashper exhibition downstairs, are exhibited in the back rooms of the gallery, which is unfortunate. With the international festival approaching they’re worth a trip to Wellington alone.
- Grayson Perry / Kushana Bush and Grosse Fatigue by Camille Henrot, City Gallery Wellington, until 13 March 2016