August 2009

Arts & Letters

Waste-makers

By Juliana Engberg

The aesthetic of detritus is everywhere at the moment. It’s as if the rubbish bin of the twentieth century has finally been put out for collection – with the legs of the ubiquitous female mannequin sticking out, of course (some things never change). Bricolage is back and collage is cool. This is art made from the excess of culture. It’s about the things discarded, the documents of defunct news and the thrown-away bits and pieces of consumption; the political fall-out and the military downfalls.

To launch its new spaces, London’s Whitechapel Gallery has given a major showing to the German artist Isa Genzken. The survey ranges from the ruined concrete-bunker shapes of Berlin Wall-era, post-Bauhaus buildings to a debauched parade of shop dummies and assorted toys required to perform adult games of uncertain psychological meaning.

Genzken’s Ground Zero – a series of propositions for the rebuilding of New York’s twin towers – oscillates between the cheery acrylic transparency of ecological sun-traps on the one hand, and hospital trolleys bandaged in protective foil and other medical accoutrements on the other. Her twin towers have become projected buildings and patients in need of care. In her assembly of bunkers and bric-à-brac, the earthy material of concrete has been overtaken by the glob and glitz of petrochemical compounds.

There is a tragedy in this work as it unravels from the utopian to the dissolute. The grunge evokes a world drowning in the piles of waste that belie its techno-sanitation. Genzken shows how collective material certainties are being eroded by the pixilated world of screens and artificial digital environments; in her work, history and narrative have their basis in delusion rather than cause and effect.

The neuroscientist Susan Greenfield fears that the brain is being altered by chronic immersion in screen culture, where people interact continuously with the 2-D world of digital repetitions, networking sites and video-game labyrinths. She suggests that such absorption leads to cognition based in the here and now, rather than a broader set of perceptions that produce the shaped understanding of narrative. In acute cases, Greenfield asserts, this can result in the diminishment of empathy.

Genzken’s dummies are the brain-dead drifters of this new age, in which cruelty is just another twist of the joystick. What saves Genzken’s apocalyptic junk from being ineffectual is its heightened tactility. We might be in dronesville, but at least we’re 3-D and required physically to encounter and negotiate our response; and her tableaux, in this sense, are morality plays. Genzken owes her groove to Dada and Surrealism, where mannequins became body doubles and automatons, and abject and discarded elements were rearranged to tell us about ourselves.

 As the world becomes more ephemeral, artists seek ways of remaking reality through material means. They return to collage, photomontage and bricolage as a response to late-twentieth-century self-delusion, juxtaposing images to create social and political commentaries. Collage, in particular, rearranges the fragments of culture to reveal tensions, broken images, hidden desires and collective myths.

The collages and photomontages of Australian artist Stuart Ringholt, for instance, force us to do a double-take. In his recent series of circle heads, altered sculptures and objects, ordinary vision is interfered with to set our perceptions working overtime. Such icons of modernity as Henry Moore’s sculptures, portraits of well-known figures and historical documents have been surgically incised and re-presented in collages that levitate heavy things, dislodge others and transplant anatomies.

Ringholt’s images have, in advertising parlance, ‘cut-through’. Like many artists working now, he wants to slow down our visual absorption and prick the smooth images of culture so that we question what we see – to create a kind of visual lesion that stops us in our tracks.

Ringholt is not as dark as Genzken. If anything, his re-arrangements offer playful encounters that restore a kind of optimism to the act of looking. Moore’s bulky, almost superceded bio-morphs seem lifted and refreshed through his intervention. Giacometti’s ‘double portrait’ – courtesy of Ringholt’s invention of an additional image of the artist’s head on the body of a woman – intensifies our engagement with photography, and its core concerns of facsimile and truth. One might even say that Ringholt’s topsy-turvy world documents fact in flux.

The British-based Australian artist David Noonan has another take on collage. Noonan’s recent large-scale assemblage ‘paintings’, made from cut-up and layered screen-printed canvas – and his 3-D prop figures made from plywood and screen-printed material and paint – reinvent the ‘group encounter’ of ’60s and ’70s performance art, and interrogate the tension between a two- and three–dimensional presentation.

Noonan’s prop sculptures of a man frozen in movement are particularly compelling. His construction of two slightly ajar ply panels causes a visual blurring that suggests movement, even while the figures themselves remain static. His large canvas works float images and groups as if people are animated in the still space of the sepia he works upon.

All of these artists want the viewer to become active rather than passive – to re-enter the material world and re-experience texture, proportion, scale and sensation. Noonan’s works, like those of Genzken and Ringholt, have a social dimension. The audience interaction – whether perception-based, in the instance of Ringholt, or physical, in the events of Genzken and Noonan – is central to the mission.

Collage is a methodology born out of cultural unrest. The ripping, tearing and cutting, and the reconstitution of found images, simulate the anxiety of the times. Collage emerged after World War I, when corporeal integrity was blown to bits in the trenches. It followed the rise of Communism and invented a parallel world of satire during the reign of the Nazis. It has lived alongside the dominance of certainty throughout the twentieth century.

A new and powerful image entered our consciousness on 11 September 2001. The smashing of planes into New York’s twin towers scattered paper, spewed smoke and catapulted bodies into the air in a horrible, real-life rupture. The re-emergence of collage, bricolage and photomontage reflects an attempt to make something creative out of a violent and excessive act. But it’s also a strategy to shatter the certainties of a screen-world without empathy or thought for consequence.

Juliana Engberg

Juliana Engberg is a curator and writer.

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