‘The Sceptical Image’, Sydney College of the Arts Galleries; in conjunction with The Image In Question conference, University of Sydney, August 2014
There are so many openings for scepticism (if not cynicism) in the contemporary environment of art in the university that it had to lead to fruitful reflection seeing it exhibited.
‘The Sceptical Image’ accompanied ‘The Image In Question’ conference at the Sydney College of the Arts and was billed as integrating creative art research into the conference. The show was an interesting collation of some vivid work by leading Australian theoretically-informed art practitioners, all of them associated as students or teachers with university art schools.
The conference led this integration with a video installation, ‘Madame B: Explorations in Emotional Capitalism’, by Mieke Bal & Michelle Williams Gamaker. Professor Bal, from the University of Amsterdam, has a long-standing reputation as a theorist and was also the keynote speaker at the conference.
If an image can be said to be sceptical, it may be because of the established ‘theoretical fact’ that internal to it is a double-take. It represents something that it is not, and which is no longer present. From this feature can be built a logic of paradox around the image, in which it is never what it seems, pulling in all manner of art-historical, political and philosophical scepticisms.
So, as the conference explored, ‘scepticism is part of the life of images’(1), and the explosion of photography, film and video means we now live in an image-saturated, image-proliferating world, challenging the traditional complacency that seeing is believing.
John Di Stefano’s ‘Merge’ and ‘Register’ were textbook renditions of the paradox. ‘Register’, a series of large photograms, utilised the fortuitous misalignments of data known as moirés, ‘common unwanted residue of digital and print imagery when pixilation or banding misregisters’, to produce cryptic abstractions.
‘Merge’, a video work, moved into greater and greater enlargement of an image, unveiling ‘microscopic structures’. While the abstract develops, indexality is preserved since it remains a photographic image. The artist finds ‘this disruption is indeed the ground for scepticism’.
Ryszard Dabek’s ‘Phantom Bid’ (video still, at right) makes the point vivaciously with a video setting of a catalogue of movie memorabilia from an auction by 20th Century Fox.
‘This is the chair that Tyrone Powell lent upon, this is the bottle from which Bogart’s shaking lips imbibed.’ Movie stills, studio promotional shots and catalogue images evoke the mytho-historical space of the Hollywood studio era, in the provenance of the actual object.
But, as the artist writes, freed from the context of the catalogue, the images take on ’their own blank strangeness’. Dabek is clearly informed by a concept of the uncanny, which has a developed theoretical provenance in academic debates over many decades.
And it is the uncanny look to the odd array of objects – toy bears on wheels, old cabinets, and scenes of actors in antique conviviality – that evokes the dislocation of these images from their context. This too is evidence of scepticism, and accounts for part of the visual delight. The sumptuousness of the era made strange is further proof.
Merilyn Fairskye’s ‘March’, an atmospheric and menacing work, traces ‘faultlines between empire and ordinary people’ in sequences showing navy shipyards, Russian monuments and sound grabs from Russian and British TV.
The artist is intent on affective reactions in this work – ‘There is a deliberate sense of agitation in this video’. Sequences are partial and elliptical, but subtitles remind you that ‘on 19 March 2014, Vladimir Putin formally annexed Crimea to the Russian Federation’, and there is recurrent footage of a chained-up dog barking. ‘The rest is up to you.’
A demonstration of ‘spectator-made meaning’ is intensified by the insertion of a small video loop at one side, replaying the conversation held by rebels as they discover that Flight MH17 was a civilian plane. Scepticism of a political kind is the connection with the conference theme.
A stand-out series from Tanya Peterson, ‘Available Light’, was six large inkjet prints of the late afternoon light on a hot February day, when bushfire fills the sky with smoke. They were accompanied by a ruminative piece of writing that draws in star maps and the aerial images of the bushfires taken at the time from the International Space Station.
‘When I think about photography, I think about light’, she writes. This is ‘thinking’ about light that is more than academic thought, and that shows the concentration of ideas in the visual that can animate theory in a way unique to creative work. Theorists struggle to articulate the specificity of practice-led research but Petersen’s work seemed to meet one criterion suggested by Lelia Green: ‘the only methodology available through which to pursue some research questions’. (2)
Other work in the show came from Cherine Fahd, Anne Ferran, Justin Trendall, Janelle Evans, Yanai Toister, Margaret Seymour and Stefan Popescu.
But now let’s suppose the whole thing to be an exhibition: the medium of a conference, the setting of the Sydney College of the Arts, the occasion of an international art theorist’s visit and keynote, the surroundings of the ‘Art and the Document’ research cluster as part of a university research self-description. Its place against the background of the research culture in higher education and the material base of salaried work in art etc.
What does it mean to ‘integrate’ creative art research? The curators, Merilyn Fairskye and Nicholas Tsoutas, note that the exhibition works respond to the theme of scepticism ‘within the conference’s context of critical inquiry’. Which seems to put the event squarely into the current necessity to make art a kind of research as per the instrumental priorities that have taken the university from hallowed hall to export engine in twenty-five years.
As Andrew McNamara puts it, in his ‘Six rules for practice-led research’, ‘the integration of art schools into the university-led, tertiary education framework is still viewed with scepticism as a de facto process of institutional and educational homogenization.’ (3)
Does the scepticism of the context vitiate the supposed claim to engagement with the idea of the sceptical image? Or does it demonstrate it? The staging of such an event rarely reduces to its instrumental ends. The art works in the show stepped around the way research dictates can flatten the artistic impulse, and they also avoided the inchworm effect of ‘measuring the marigolds’.
Do they stand for real engagement with the sceptical image in company with the more academic papers on the conference program? This is less sure, since the sceptical image was always a theoretical device invented for discursive purposes, and demonstrating the sceptical in practice is no more original than outlining the theory of it.
The exhibition can respond to ‘the theme of scepticism within the conference’s context of critical inquiry’ only by accepting that the context for scepticism is critical inquiry.
Creative arts research will be free of scepticism when it gets to define its own context for the (sceptical) image.
(1) All quotes are from the conference abstracts published on ‘The Image In Question’ website at http://www.theimageinquestion.net/ unless otherwise noted.
(2) Lelia Green, ‘Recognising practice-led research … at last!’
presented at Hatched 07 Arts Research Symposium available at http://www.pica.org.au/downloads/141/L_Green.pdf
(3) Andrew McNamara, ‘Six rules for practice-led research’ in Text Special Issue 14 October 2012: ‘Beyond practice-led research’
This review appeared in the January issue of eyeline