Unguided Tours

July 8, 2011
David Haines and Joyce Hinterding, The outlands 2011, production still. Courtesy of the artists and BREENSPACE, Sydney
David Haines and Joyce Hinterding, The outlands 2011, production still. Courtesy of the artists and BREENSPACE, Sydney

Having just returned from my own travels, I went straight to the Art Gallery of NSW to take another look at Unguided Tours: The Anne Landa Award for video & new media art. This is the fourth installment of this triennial exhibition, named in honour of the late Anne Landa, who was a lot more charismatic than so much of the video art that has appeared under her posthumous auspices over the past nine years.

For 2011 the AGNSW has engaged the services of Justin Paton from the Christchurch Art Gallery as guest curator. This was a bit risky, as Paton is a very good curator and an excellent writer, which is more than I can say about many of his Australian counterparts. If there was ever any possibility of the kiwi curator zooming past the local talent, he was given a vehicle with two flat tires when asked to put together this survey.

As the technology has advanced exponentially over the past two decades, it’s surprising that so much new media art remains completely uninteresting. The problem does not lie with the means, but the content. With every work in Unguided Tours, once a frame of reference is established the piece unfolds like clockwork. We don’t know the precise details of what will happen, but we get the general idea.

I’m afraid we are all hard-wired to crave what Adrian Martin, in a pointless catalogue essay, calls “the often-cumbersome intermediary of narrative elaboration.” I think he means a plot. Although they may incorporate elements of film language, video and new media artists are almost indecently eager to dissociate themselves from cinema. Some, such as UK artist, Douglas Gordon, spend much of their time making dreary art pastiches out of good movies.

It’s a melancholy fact that video art seems to become more engaging as it gets closer to cinema, and less so as it retreats. The seven artists in Unguided Tours all keep their distance, and ennui is the outcome. Each piece is an evocation of a place or an idea, or – in Charlie Sofo’s case – a celebration of randomness.

According to Justin Paton the exhibition responds to the modern obsession that messages and people should travel everywhere by the shortest, quickest routes. By contrast, the artists in this show are allegedly connoisseurs of digression. Like Olafur Eliasson, in his 2010 show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, they invite us to take our time, to enjoy the experience of the work without trying to unearth a meaning or a moral.

There’s something in this, as works of art should not be approached like riddles that may be solved and discarded. Most pieces require a certain amount of time and contemplation, but how much time is a matter of personal taste. The artwork that holds one viewer transfixed leaves the next stone cold. No matter what our criteria of value, we all like to believe there is a point to the experience of a work. Rather than just wasting our time, it’s important to feel we are getting something out of the minutes we spend rapt in close observation.

These are the experiences one may have with Unguided Tours:
Leave the GPS at home and stroll aimlessly around Melbourne. Watch a piece of forest opening up endlessly in front of one’s eyes. Explore a virtual wilderness, full of craggy rocks and crystal formations. Marvel at a huge, barren landscape in Nepal, reconstructed from thousands of snapshots. Examine a Watteau painting where all the characters move around like stiff little cut-outs. Enjoy a few dopey images generated by a junk sculpture or four.

Despite the curator’s eloquent introduction, and his obvious enthusiasm for these works, I struggled to get excited about any of them. The main obstacle was the second-degree nature of every experience, which means that an evocation of nature on a video or a camera does not touch one’s spirit in the way the real thing does. I know this echoes the received wisdom of thinkers such as Burke and Kant, in their discussions of the Sublime, but in defiance of the logic that motivates so much art commentary, I’ve always felt it is more important to be truthful than original.

We may be impressed by the awesome scale of Jae Hoon Lee’s reconstructed landscapes, but they have the flatness of wallpaper as opposed to the actual landscape. The same might be said about Rachel Khedoori’s three-minute loop of a forest, which is all rapid movement, but devoid of every other quality. A painting of a landscape may be less alienating because it is so much a function of the artist’s personal touch and vision. No matter how artfully manipulated, the camera image always feels as though it is merely the mechanical transcription of reality.

Arlo Mountford’s animated version of Watteau’s Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera (1717) is far less absorbing than the original painting, which I was examining in the Louvre only last week. The mysterious atmosphere of Watteau’s work, which never lets us know whether the revelers are coming or going, is partly a function of its antiquity. We feel there is a secret buried away in this picture that we will never learn, just as the real Watteau remains notoriously elusive. Mountford’s garish animation adds nothing to our perceptions of Watteau, and might even be accused of trivialising him. Paton seems aware of such a possibility, but decides that Mountford is an “exception to this rule”.

There is an off-beat humour in Charlie Sofo’s records of his walks around Melbourne that would make any viewer feel a bit indulgent towards this work. Sofo presents a mini-display of the tiny stones he extracts from the soles of his shoes, and zeros in with his videocam on every pussycat he spies on his travels. It’s fun, but it ain’t deep.

Ian Burns is also a joker of sorts, with his home-made contraptions – part-machine, part-sculpture, that read like satires on the special effects industry. Not even Ed Wood would have allowed some of Burns’s gimcrack ways of generating an image.

This reliance low technology is the very antithesis of David Haines and Joyce Hinterding’s computer generated virtual landscape, The outlands. The duo have used a piece of software called ‘Unreal engine 3’ to produce a landscape that may be explored by any viewer that chooses to manipulate two twig-like joysticks. Most gaming software includes numerous opportunities for avatars to kill and be killed, but Haines and Hinterding have managed to leave out all the violence, presenting a pure experience of landscape. They have created a game with no beginning, no end, and no eventual winner. It’s the kind of video game that would probably get Senator Conroy’s approval, although Tony Abbott would be instantly bored.

Haines and Hinterding won this year’s acquisitive award, which is fair reward for the only piece in the show that has a genuinely immersive quality. In other words, it is the only work that has the capacity to take us out of ourselves momentarily, and indulge the fantasy of exploring an imaginary terrain.

I stress the word “momentarily”, because I’ve never found these virtual landscapes very compelling, with or without opportunities to indulge in large-scale homicide.

And this, finally, is one of the perennial quandaries raised by new media: “Is this work really so uninteresting, or is it just me?”

There is a relentless buzz of excitement about the forward march of technology. Steve Jobs is treated like the modern Messiah, with people queuing overnight to buy a new model phone. Each new form of image making, from virtual reality to 3D TV, is hailed as a major advance on existing models, destined to supercede everything else. If you don’t have the latest gizmo you’re stuck in the Stone Age. But the mania for the new tends to disguise the fact that we are merely skating on the surface of events, while real action is what lies beneath. With art in particular, the fundamentals don’t change, they are merely explored with greater or lesser degrees of insight. The works in Unguided Tours are rock-solid examples of new media, but they feel like intellectual exercises, cousins to the crossword puzzle rather than the divine madness that is art.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 2, 2011

Unguided Tours: Anne Landa Award for video and new media arts, until 10 July.