Terrorizing and amusing the occasionally staid Melbourne art community, Nat & Ali are an inseparable art-crazed duo. Having quickly earned a reputation as flamboyant self-promoters, their recent acts include a hokey aerobic workout session in leopard print and fluorescent pink leotards; a makeover session with movie star mirrors incorporating a 'before and after' series; and a float at a busy local street parade which brandished 'I love art' placards. A good dose of narcissism and kitschy chick humour pervades their self-conscious quest to be stars. Art is cool, they propose loudly, through such acts as stencilling their names and faces around Melbourne's walls and pavements.
For their show 'Friendship is ...' Nat & Ali filled the gallery with a version of a Japanese garden: a paradisiacal space complete with fine pebbled sand, a waterfall, a rockery with live plants, two white wooden swings hanging over a pool with ropes covered in leaves, and plastic 'Spring Time' flowers. The sound of saccharine string music, overlaid with the cooing of Australian birds, complemented the scene. And, although this time they didn't perform themselves, the artists selected dance students at the very cusp of womanhood, whom they instructed to swing continuously. Dressed in tight blue denim jeans and pink T-shirts, these girls soon developed a look of Lolita-like coquettishness and boredom.
Tapping into the openly infantile mood of popular culture, à la Virgin Suicides (1999) and American Beauty (1999), the event had the feel of a dream sequence. Aside from repressed sexuality, it was only the four-litre cardboard wine casks housing the speakers scattered around the garden that indicated 'the fall' into adult reality. Anything but natural, Nat & Ali's creation nevertheless seemed to speak of a desire for innocence. While undercut by humour (like all their work), the garden was egalitarian in its watery decadence, drawing on utopian longings that never seemed very far away - anyone was allowed to use the swings.
Working as collaborators, Nat & Ali join an illustrious list of artists who have dissolved their individual careers for the cause of art-coupling. Something like an Australian, Gen Y version of Gilbert and George, their principal aim is to make art that is as accessible as possible, and to be seen doing it. As one critic has already observed, while they operate as performance artists and 'living sculptures', they are upfront about their broader aim of attention seeking. But attention is in short supply these days, and art can't compete with the thrill and spills of mass entertainment. Perhaps this is why Nat & Ali are drawn to these tragic expressions of collective desire, producing events reminiscent of Jeff Koons' concretion of high and low culture into simple expressions of some kind of a will for happiness.
For 'Friendship is ...' Nat & Ali mined not only pop culture's casual utopianism but also the residual spiritual tendencies bubbling below it. A mock press release told us that this garden is Nat & Ali's 'friendship heaven' - just like those brochures put out by the more active organs of the Protestant church, with their Edenic depictions of the 'New World' landscape, bristling with rosy children playing with cuddly animals.
The social desire for the condition of happiness, of course, is aesthetically embedded into religious structures of all kinds. Denouncing 'the happy consciousness' - a culture in which guilt feelings have no place and an excessive, hollow well-being prevails - Herbert Marcuse in the 1960s proposed that artistic alienation had lost its bite. The 'great refusal', as he put it, is henceforth impossible. Indeed, Nat & Ali's joyous manifestations of 'false' consciousness do not rely on the avant-garde strategy of estrangement. Instead, what we seem to be witnessing in their generically crass but harmonious environments is a response to the soft control of democratic domination. Meanwhile, their role playing and ephemeral experiments enter the realm of local art mythology.