‘Anxious Times: Strategies of Doubt’,
Un. Magazine, Vol. 2 No. 2, November 2008
We live in anxious times: of climate change and unprecedented biodiversity loss, economic instability, drought, war. The simmering presence of xenophobia thrown into sharp relief by the 2005 Cronulla riots, the former Federal Government’s merciless policies on asylum seekers and anti-terrorism, and most recently the global financial meltdown have all contributed to a destabilised cultural milieu where nothing is certain. There is a sense in which discrete forms of fear inflamed by political and social forces have coalesced into a general zeitgeist of anxiety.
But perhaps as curator Victoria Lynn notes, ‘It is not so much that we are actually [more] fearful, but that fear itself is more present today, as a concept, a justification, an irritant, political concern or strategy.’[i] If this is so in broad cultural terms, the spectre of disquiet finds its analogue in a panoply of recent exhibitions specifically premised on the condition of anxiety. Exhibitions such as Handle with Care (Adelaide Biennial 2008), Regarding Fear and Hope (MUMA, 2007), Revolutions: Forms that Turn (Sydney Biennale, 2008), Increase Your Uncertainty (ACCA, 2007), My Doubtful Mind (Linden Gallery, 2008) and Doubt (Conical Inc, 2006) all foreground the notion of anxiety and uncertainty and collectively provide an index of how these sentiments have permeated the contemporary artistic vernacular.
These interrogations negotiate a range of anxieties relating to socio-political, environmental, psychological and perceptual realms. Some of the exhibitions restrict their focus to only one of these threads; some see such strands as mutually embedded. Other exhibitions, conversely, view states of uncertainty as cause for celebration.
Victoria Lynn’s exhibition Regarding Fear and Hope, sited across two venues at Monash University, focused primarily on the socio-political dimensions of fear. The gnawing nature of fear was best emblematised by Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley’s neon work Fear Eats the Soul. Here, the myth of the Fall is reworked with reference to Werner Fassbinder’s 1973 film of the same title, an incisive portrait of German racism. Paranoia around racial difference was the presiding subject of several of the selected works, including Costa Rican artist Lucía Madriz’s short digital video Hispanic which presents a golden-tinged sunset scene with the word ‘Hispanic’ slowly bloating into the words ‘his’ ‘panic’ as the background moves from saccharine to sombre hues. Most of the works in Regarding Fear and Hope effectively reappraised the ingrained social fear of the ‘Other’ and identified fear or xenophobia itself as the repository of something malign. Collectively, the works presented a potent critique of the politics of exclusion.
This thematic was echoed across discrete works in the 2008 Sydney Biennale, such as Adrian Piper’s confronting video installation Black Box/White Box showing full-length footage of the infamous bashing of Rodney King, and Mike Parr’s unforgettable lip-stitching in violent empathy with detained asylum-seekers in the performance piece Close the Concentration Camps. Although neither works were recently made, the socio-cultural conditions to which they speak continue to resonate.
The stratified nature of anxiety was most comprehensively conjured by Felicity Fenner’s 2008 Adelaide Biennial exhibition Handle with Care. Fenner prises open the clichés of resilience and optimism so often used to characterise the Australian temperament, asking if national bravado might in fact harbour ‘a fear of confronting deep anxieties about our relationship to the world’[ii].
The exhibition used the motif of fragility in response to an array of socio-political and environmental stressors. This focus on fragility was not just a unifying conceptual framework but was also, as Fenner notes, materialised in the ‘visually or formally delicate’[iii] composition of the works themselves. Certainly Lorraine Connelly-Northey’s suite of rusted wire sculptures, which simultaneously mourn and recreate the possum skin cloaks worn by her indigenous ancestors, have a complex delicacy of symbolic and material affect. As do Sandra Selig’s almost unbearably fragile spray-painted spider webs.
In Janet Laurence and Suzann Victor’s works, the tension underlying the imperative to ‘handle with care’ is approached through the strategy of suspension. Laurence’s dead tree hanging inverted in the gallery space affixed with plastic tubing suggests medical intervention into natural vascular systems, and refers inexorably to dying treescapes. Victor’s installation of chandeliers encircled by a maze of water-filled glass tubes exploits the inherent fragility of glass to encapsulate both fragile balance and the nearness of destruction.
Anxiety over ecological destruction featured even more prominently in several other institutionally curated exhibitions in 2008, most notably The Ecologies Project (MUMA) curated by Geraldine Barlow and Kyla McFarlane and Heat: Art and Climate Change (RMIT Gallery) by Linda Williams.
Heat: Art and Climate Change clearly argued the anthropocentric causes of environmental catastrophe. Williams’ curatorial selection included artists such as Jill Orr, whose concern with environmental issues dates back as far as her Bleeding Trees series of 1979, and Bonity Ely, who contributed a reworking of her 1980 performance piece, Murray River Punch. These veterans were placed alongside younger artists like Ash Keating whose 2020? Project redirected tonnes of industrial rubbish to the gallery space at the Meat Market, reconfiguring the definitions of art and waste.
The focus on a younger generation of artists like Chris Bond and Christian Thompson and their response to environmental destruction was more pronounced in Barlow and McFarlane’s The Ecologies Project. In an interesting tactic, the exhibition included the iconic 1979 photograph of the Franklin River by Peter Dombrovskis: an image that was arguably the most important element in mobilising public support for the environmental campaign to stop the proposed damming of the wild Tasmanian river 30 years ago. It becomes the symbolic marker, not only for how the topography of environmental politics has altered over the decades, but how differently ecological concerns are expressed in the contemporary artistic vernacular. For artists like Andrew Hazewinkel and Ash Keating, detritus is now indissociable from our relationship to the environment, and for Ricky Swallow or Nick Mangan obsolete objects of everyday life become synecdoches for the life-world.
While these exhibitions make for sombre reflection on attenuated forms of cultural anxiety, such gravitas was irreverently inverted in A Constructed World’s mini retrospective at ACCA, Increase Your Uncertainty. Renegade in intent, the works by A Constructed World (aka Geoff Lowe and Jacqueline Riva) celebrate instability by confounding the binaries of author and audience, success and failure. For this artist collective, experimentation—with its attendant embarrassment or failure—is embraced. An emphasis on the open-ended and provisional is embodied in the materiality of the works themselves: found objects, scrawled text, sketches, post-it notes.
For Vikki McInnes, Director of VCA Margaret Lawrence Gallery, A Constructed World’s self-styled mottos like No need to be great, Stay in groups ‘reflects their anxiety about the breakdown of community—a particularly contemporary concern, extrapolating the failure of late capitalist society to care for or about its individual members.’[iv] The openness to supposedly negative terms like failure, and dialogue on the efficacy of working in groups was expanded in a series of public forums. By redirecting the focus from the artwork to the relations between the participants, A Constructed World create shared spaces that become, in their own words, ‘a working model of culture’.[v]
A more muted form of doubt was poetically explored in David Rosetzky’s No Fear, included in Jan Duffy and Alex Taylor’s co-curated exhibition My Doubtful Mind. This audio work lays a string of psychological musings on self-doubt over an ambient soundscape. Questions like ‘Do you admire certainty?’ and ‘Do you fear expressing your feelings, opinions, yourself?’ are spoken in an anonymous voice-over. The work mimics the style of self-help manuals and relaxation tapes with their mellifluous delivery and soothing sounds, coaxing the listener into considering their own inner landscapes of doubt.
Perceptual indeterminacy threaded its way through several of the works in the exhibition Doubt, facilitated by Kiron Robinson and Lani Seligman. This was most delicately realised in Simon Horsburgh’s Froth (2006). Placed on a reflective aluminium surface, this small sculpture of broken shards of light bulbs resembles a cluster of diaphanous bubbles and hovers beguilingly between its literal and figurative readings. Horsburgh notes of the work, ‘It’s the celebration of a moment, and I guess by extension, the uncertainty of those moments, those observations—the uncertainty that resides in the transformative potential of everyday material and objects.’[vi]
The curatorial style of each of the exhibitions negotiates the twin notions of anxiety and uncertainty in idiosyncratic ways, and each has an individual thumbprint. For The Ecologies Project, disparate artworks were grouped together in tight clusters, mimicking the feel of an ecological system: interlinked organisms in a state of growth. Increase Your Uncertainty accentuated indeterminacy in its scattered tents and provisional viewing rooms. In My Doubtful Mind the Victorian architecture of Linden Gallery was effectively chosen for its capacity to conjure memory and be dissolved and reconstructed through conceits of light.
Linda Williams deftly articulates the problematic of cultural anxiety when she uses the term ‘self-image’ to ask what kinds of new self-images artists are constructing in the face of uncertainty and fear[vii]. It’s a question that locates the zeitgeist at the interface of world and representation, and can be used to diagnose our times. The matrix of contemporary exhibitions premised on uncertainty and anxiety constitute a curatorial turn that pivots on a heightened awareness of complex cultural transformation. This turn gives primacy to an engagement with critical reflexivity—and all its eddying currents of doubt.
Special thanks to Vikki McInnes, Simon Horsburgh and Adrien Allen and for their comments on the subject.
Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley, Fear Eats the Soul, 2003, neon, electric cables, fittings and transformers, acrylic on timber, snake on frame: 160 x 133 cm, apple 25.0 x 25.0 cm
[i] Victoria Lynn, ‘Regarding Fear and Hope’, in Regarding Fear and Hope, Monash University Museum of Art, 2007, p. 5.
[ii] Felicity Fenner, ‘Fragile State’, Handle with Care: 2008 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2008, p. 18
[iii] Felicity Fenner, ‘Fragile State’, Handle with Care: 2008 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2008, p. 17.
[iv] Vikki McInnes, unpublished interview, September 2008.
[v] A Constructed World, Geoff Lowe and Jacqueline Riva, ‘Not-Knowing as a Shared Space: Part 6’, in A Constructed Word: Increase Your Uncertainty, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, 2007, p. 89.
[vi] Simon Horsburgh, unpublished interview, September 2008.
[vii] Linda Williams, ‘Reshaping the Human Self-Image: Contemporary Art and Climate Change’, in Heat: Art and Climate Change, RMIT Gallery, 2008, p. 5, p. 14.