NEW04, the second in ACCA’s annual survey shows of contemporary Australian art, was described by the curator, Geraldine Barlow, as a ‘dynamic jostle of voices, [...] not a thematic exhibition’. If there was a common thread, the catalogue essay suggested it could be an interest in memory; and both reverence and reference did seem to be major concerns of the show. While certain works aimed at a culturally specific local debate, I was given the mildly euphoric feeling that I had stepped into a karaoke bar in which the audience lip-synched to the current Top Ten – with the artists performing virtuoso covers of golden oldies.
The first of the greatest hits was Stephen Honegger and Antony Hunt’s Tower Case (2004), a colossal hard-drive seemingly vectored into being at the entrance to the show. Like a Donald Judd mausoleum for Bill Gates, some form of homage was being paid. The massive, nostalgic design of the beige CPU shell could have been a stage prop from a Charlie Kauffman film, dealing with our quasi-Freudian relationship with the computer. We seem worryingly comfortable in the foetal position adopted at our workstations. Yet Tower Case was without a means of interaction – no umbilical keyboard – the surface hermetically sealed, acrylic over MDF, reminiscent of the textures applied to clad virtual structures in AutoCAD. As with Franz Kafka’s The Castle (1922), and unlike with Tomb Raider, you long for the contents of the mysterious architecture but never gain access or win the prize.
Guy Benfield seemed to be similarly manipulating our homage detectors. Old-school performance and a certain bohemianism are the fecund playground of Benfield’s imagination, here manifested in carnivalesque installation, video and drawing. The DVD loop Om Supreme Bhagavan (2004) showed three wigged, kaftaned performers pouring luminous paint onto a huge revolving circular canvas. Like human styluses, their afros, socks and a long-haired skull-codpiece (the last apparently reminding the artist of his Mum, an authentic 1970s commune chick and Action painter) were used to create the image on the spinning disk. The resulting orange and purple Supreme soup splashed tumescently onto the futuristic hyper-schlick furniture into which the painting contraption was inserted, which explained the state of the gallery. Benfield clearly had a great time. Like a Shag illustration, I wasn’t sure if I was looking at a love nest, love-in or some ritual inspired by Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo (1975). Either way, a protean sexuality/creativity was pungent; and in the end maybe Benfield was only aiming at triggering our senses: a pirate broadcast to the style antennae of the savvy.
Nadine Christensen’s exquisite paintings also spoke of look, desire and intoxication, but sotto voce. Her installation It’s Been a Long Time Longing (2004) consisted of intimate paintings in acrylic on board, with the floor of the gallery fitted with sea grass matting and a rocking chair at the entrance. Design-conscious in an anxious, combative way, Christensen perhaps more than any other artist in the show succeeded in synthesizing an entirely new language out of her influences. A dawn/dusk palette referenced John Keats’ poetic hour, a threshold moment of flux and becoming. Her trompe-l’oeil scenes of windows, doorways and glimpses between buildings also engaged with transitional spaces, through a subtle tactility reminiscent of still-life paintings by Francisco de Zurbarán. While acknowledging the kitsch filmic portrayal’s of the Wild West in spaghetti westerns of the 1960s and ’70s, Christensen’s imagery is not genre-specific, but rather caught up in conflicting responses to a beautiful, remote, ambient wilderness that could be South Australia as much as Central America. Parekohai Whakamoe’s moving installation There He Is (2004) evokes the complex role of myth, religion and history in contemporary Maori culture; although powerful, however, it was also perhaps over-romantic and a little laboured in comparison. Tom Nicholson’s banner processions Seven Days (2003–4) was similarly worthy but also seemed out of place and awkward. While his installation focused on ‘pages from a proposed book’, I wasn’t sure why the book itself hadn’t been followed through; the banners presented instead became too much like jubilant fascist trophies or heraldic devices for the subtle critique of political/geographical structures in which he was engaged. Finally Sangeeta Sandrasegar’s paper cut-outs and cast shadows ...and she spins and weaves them still, and continues to hang (2004), while attractive, appeared tentative and slight, unable to progress beyond the reuse of clichés (shadows as a spooky narrative/unconscious) without the added degree of irony or parody implied by other works in the show.
Yet these concerns may have been a result of their context rather than content. If imitation is the greatest form of flattery, then the big hitters of NEW04 were clearly devoted fans. In an unavoidably peripheral art community, acutely attuned to experiencing work remotely through magazine and monograph, such a sophisticated, knowing handling of ‘look’, which questions as well as cannibalizes, is to be not merely expected but admired.