National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, until 18 February 2018
Realism has a long lineage in Western art. The ancient Greeks depicted bodily perfection in sculpture in accordance with their ideals of mimesis: accurate representation represented truth as well as beauty, i.e. the moral good. Viewers marvelled at the realness of 17th-century Dutch painting, particularly the still lifes, created in a booming materialist market. Art history eventually led us, via thesis and antithesis, to abstraction, the negation of mimesis.
Hyperrealism as a movement developed in reaction to that. The work of abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko may have been stunning and celebrated, but they seemed to lack intellectual content, even simple subject matter. (Which is ironic given how the CIA used the movement as political propaganda during the Cold War.) By the 1970s, artists were experimenting with mimesis again. Technology and postmodernist thinking together have now taken realism well beyond what the Dutch could have dreamed of, hence the “hyper”. Hyperreality, in sculpture and in video, goes beyond astonishing verisimilitude into a beautiful, ugly, fantastical, frightening future of what-ifs, in terms of both sociopolitical development and biological experimentation.
More than 30 artists from around the world have contributed 50 works, widely varied in scope and scale, to the National Gallery of Australia’s Hyper Real exhibition. Beyond the wow factor, they are, singly and in aggregate, deeply thought-provoking. They open up questions about beauty, bioethics, fact and fiction, even truth in advertising. They can be fanciful and politically critical at the same time. If artists created beautiful political propaganda in the past for the church and the state, the democratic era has encouraged artists to speak truth to power.
Australian artist Patricia Piccinini provides the core around which the others orbit: the NGA holds eight of her works and they seemed a natural starting point. Two works borrowed for the exhibition and assembled together sit in a dark central room. Bootflower (2015), a large egg-laying, blind, flower-faced creature with human-like skin, made of silicone, fibreglass and human hair, is both repulsive and strangely sympathetic. It pushes anthropomorphism into overdrive, as so many of Piccinini’s works do. Bootflower sits surrounded by another work, Meadow (2015), a mass of single-stemmed flowering plants, made of polyethylene and plastic. It is science fiction you can reach out and touch. And it is morally challenging.
The works that are sexually provocative, by contrast, are more banal. The wow wears off quickly. In Paul McCarthy’s That Girl (TG Awake) (2012–13), naked women lean back atop tables with their pornography-inspired hairless vaginas exposed. The figures don’t have the majesty or the sexual provocation of historic odalisques; they are candidly sculpted views of his “muse” that, for whatever the theory behind them, are ill at ease in our times. Replicating objectification does not constitute a critique of objectification.
The same eye-catching superficiality applies to Duane Hanson’s expressionless Two Workers (1993), who have downed tools and are taking a break, and Woman with a Laundry Basket (1974), a woman in casual house clothes holding a plastic basket with an oversized box of laundry detergent at her feet. Yes, the verisimilitude is expertly handled, but if one needs the catalogue to understand the aim of portraying the human condition thus – it quotes the artist on “subjects neither picturesque nor grotesque, but uniformly unideal” – then it has left the realm of visual art for the realm of reading.
Other 3D works are interesting for their verisimilitude, but the ones that linger in the mind tell, or half tell, a story. Tony Matelli’s Josh (2010), suspended centimetres from the ground, is unnerving before one knows the artist’s intention. Is Josh floating? Falling? Circling around him is engaging enough, until one stands directly in front of the eyes: the power with which they hold the viewer’s is unnerving. Sam Jinks’ Woman and Child (2010) is simply beautiful. An elderly white-haired woman, wearing a white shift, holds a baby in her arms: a generation-eliding Madonna and child for our secular times.
Along with Piccinini’s Bootflower, two other works stand out for scale and impact. Like Piccinini’s, they don’t need explanation and both are politically intense.
Old People’s Home (2007) by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu is a collection of life-sized elderly men, all wearing signifiers of nationality and rank, confined to wheelchairs: a sheikh, a priest, generals and more. They are in constant motion and this reviewer, for one, took some time to summon the courage to step into the midst of them, even knowing that sensors on the wheelchairs would prevent collision. This work is meant as a metaphor for the state of the world and the power of patriarchy, but it could also be read as memento mori: these men presumably once held power over life and death, but they, too, are passing.
The highlight of the show, perhaps, is the Russian collective AES+F’s latest video work, Inverso Mundus (2015). The gallery has set up a special circular room. Seven channels project onto adjacent large screens, with the group’s usual soundtrack of classical music booming in surround sound. As usual, too, the good-looking actors – including Australian collectors Penelope Seidler and Judith Neilson – are dressed and made up as though for a hip high-fashion shoot. The colours are saturated. Also as usual, just as you think you are settling into a new take on a known quantity, the content hijacks you. The world has indeed been turned upside down. Women subjugate men; the poor overthrow the rich; children dominate their elders; and animals, including strange hybrids that could have flown in from Piccinini’s world, use humans as we have used them. For 38 mesmerising minutes, we are transported to a future in which runaway capitalism, technology, science, art and ideology, and the backlash against them, have created a gloss of glamour over a terrible post-human dystopia.
There is so much to take in at Hyper Real, and each visitor will react viscerally to some things and shrug at others. Hyperrealism teaches us that reality itself is in the eyes of the beholder.
This is an extended version of the article that appeared in the December 2017 – January 2018 issue of the Monthly.