May 2006

Arts & Letters

‘2006 Contemporary Commonwealth’ at Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia; Australian Centre for the Moving Image

By Justin Clemens

You could be pardoned for thinking late capitalism will never let its minions sleep. These days, Australian cities lurch from one high-profile event to the next, without respite. À la the US military’s famous psychological experiments with sleep deprivation, Melburnians are being festivalled to death – drinking, dancing and consuming until they collapse like enervated zombies.

The city may have moved straight on to the football season, but traces of the Games remain, not least at Federation Square, where the flame still burns in the form of an exhibition of works from the ‘contemporary Commonwealth’.

The exhibition is both uneven in quality and uncertain of its rationale. Given that ‘contemporary art discourses’ noisily array themselves against ‘colonialism’, anything to do with the Commonwealth must fall under suspicion. The solution here is to proclaim that the art is reflecting on the iniquities of the past (and present), and stack up lots of different pieces. If this smacks of having one’s chutney and eating it too, who’s complaining?

I could barely stand still for Rodney Graham’s much-lauded video pieces, or for Yinka Shonibare’s filmic reconstruction of the assassination of Gustav III of Sweden. Shonibare’s intense colours are striking, but the video is too busy labouring to bite. Yet his Reverend on Ice (2005), a sculpture of a headless skater, has real wit. Better still are the extraordinary death’s-head-and-laser-rifle watercolours of eX de Medici, a Canberra tattooist. Her pictures are fastidiously detailed, the lurid muteness of metallic pigments describing coils of fronds and sockets. Tender (2003–05), Fiona Hall’s bird’s nests of shredded banknotes, is so delicate I nearly missed the allegory: art is a simulated economy in which nest eggs are built by destroying money. And Bani Abidi’s Pakistani pipe-band video rocks.

If nothing else, the exhibition is proof that a provincial athletics meet can inspire a half-decent forum for contemporary art. Who’d have guessed?

Justin Clemens

Justin Clemens writes about contemporary Australian art and poetry. He teaches at the University of Melbourne.

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