BY Jennifer Higgie in Reviews | 01 JAN 98
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Issue 38

Zones of Disturbance

BY Jennifer Higgie in Reviews | 01 JAN 98

Redolent with memories of power games and control, a disused 19th century school building was an apt location for the exhibition 'Zones of Disturbance', for which curator Silvia Eiblmayr brought together over 40 artists whose work is concerned with anxiety, disruption or uncertainty.

War zones are the least abstract of places for those who have experienced them, and entirely abstract to those who haven't. Artists from former Yugoslavia presented work that, with its lack of equivocation, emanated both a restraint and fury that made much of the other work look a little pale, a little self-obsessed. It's hard to be affected by worries about cyberspace after you've witnessed a small boy talking bluntly about his dad 'being slaughtered in the front line' in young Bosnian artist Jasmila Zbanic's video After, After (1997). She asked children in an elementary school in Sarajevo 'what are you afraid of?' and videotaped their replies: 'a witch', 'a mortar shell...' Belgrade artist Milica Tomic's elegaic video XY-Ungelost - Reconstruction of the Crime (1997) was made as an 'attempt to save the memory' of ethnic Albanian demonstrators killed in 1989. Projected on two huge screens, it showed strange, staring figures that fell again and again, leaving only the imprint of their bodies in the snow - which, like the memories of the perpetrators of violence, will conveniently melt and disappear. Alma Suljevic, also from Sarajevo, stressed the insularity and isolation of war zones by covering the windows with maps of the mines planted around Sarajevo, and the floor with asphalt and poetry.

There has always been a terrible gulf between what people experience and how that experience is represented. Belgian artist Johan Grimonprez's video Dial H.I.S.T.O.R.Y. (1997) fuses violent images taken from the TV news, quotes from Don DeLillo (contemporary fiction's great pessimist) and the music of David Shea interspersed with The Hustle, a disco classic from 1975. Apparently the artist 'discusses our contemporary catastrophe culture... as the disasters from all over the world invade our living room... ' but it's hard to understand how harrowing images accompanied by a narration that veers between generalisation and de-contextualised quotation constitutes a 'discussion' of media intrusion. The work provides an example of an artist perpetuating the very same insensitivities that he claims to be critiquing; as Brian Massumi commented in one of the many catalogue essays 'Life's a soap, when it's not a disaster with your name written on it'. The group Personal Information also used the technique of quotation in their video Ohneland (1995), but to much greater effect. In between interviews with people who had been directly affected by racism, the narrator quoted Thomas Mann: 'Language is a civilisation...The word, even the most contradictory, is extremely binding. To be bereft of words means isolation'.

Memory, as a 'zone' that's had its fair share of attention in Western 20th-century culture, was another recurring theme. When does the present, a time that's been more recorded than ever before, become a memory? William James' once stated that it lasts only about three to twelve seconds. American artist Phyllis Baldino rose to the challenge with her work In the Present (1996), which comprised 50 images projected onto two walls for no longer than a few seconds. Brevity made the banal absurd: a glimpse of cheese in paper, a white rosette between two white legs, a visit to the dentist. I watched it a few times, and each time remembered different fragments. Like the Russian proverb 'he lied like an eyewitness', French artist Pierre Huygue's video Remake (1995), in which two actors attempt to perform Hitchcock's Rear Window, explores the dissolution and restructuring that lie at the heart of the re-telling of familiar tales. So is history made.

That people manipulate each other with varying and often concealed degrees of power isn't a particularly illuminating insight. When dissected, however, it can reveal the subtle permutations of control and influence. British artist Graham Harwood's CD-ROM Rehearsal of Memory (1996) was made in collaboration with a group of people from Ashworth High Security Prison. The viewer clicked onto different parts of a projected image of a body to summon stories, poems and reminiscences, a complex allusion to the infinite narratives and ill-expressed desires that shape and inhabit all of us. Australian artist Tracey Moffatt's Scarred For Life (1996), a series of photographs with text, also bounces from the springboard made from the moments that shape us. The title alludes both to the ritual scarification ceremonies of tribal culture and the mental scars that we accrue and which become, in hindsight, emblematic of rites of passage.

The meanings we inherit from our environments and our families are allowed, in all their incoherence, to emerge slowly in Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila's extraordinary film Today/Tanaan (1997). Its economy and restrained Surrealism occasionally echoes Tarkovsky: small moments split open to reveal dense, articulate symbols of despair, regeneration and self determination - a man decides to die and looks for shadows on a road, a dog licks a sobbing man's foot, a young girl's voice explains 'My dad's crying. Last night a car ran over his dad... '

New technologies occupy spatial and temporal zones whose parameters seem to shift and extend by the hour. Australian artist Francesca da Rimini's interactive web environment You enter deep doll space Zero (1997) is a cyberspace memorial, a 'zone for sightings of spectral disturbances'. While I wondered why spectral bodies would want to inhabit a technology far cruder than their own, the work was permeated with a spooky awareness of cyberspace as a black, immeasurable hole, a place of unexplored territories and imaginative possibilities. Although ghostless, Christian Lahr's [DP] = DISPLACED PERSONS OR [SNTN]SAY TO (1997) gave me the chills. Surrounded by eight loudspeakers that broadcast a computer-generated conversation, Lahr's allotted classroom became a twilight zone, an interactive site between virtual and real space. Paradoxically, however, the interaction was based on inaction - the conversation would only continue if the viewers stood as still as sculptures. Who's looking at whom in cyberspace? Communication is predicated on receptivity, a mutual exchange. My only solace was the knowledge that it was me, not the non-people having the conversation, who had the option of getting up and walking away.

Jennifer Higgie is a writer who lives in London. Her book The Mirror and the Palette – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and she is currently working on another – about women, art and the spirit world.