Review: Life Inside An Image

Matthew Buckingham, Gerard Byrne, Melvin Moti, Fiona Pardington, Elizabeth Price, Amie Siegel, Judy Watson. Curated by Hannah Mathews, Francis Parker, and Helen Hughes. Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, 1 October – 10 December, 2016

This exhibition requires a level of commitment: the total running time of all the works combined is longer than most mainstream films. But unlike watching a movie the audience is free to travel between the different sites and archives within the exhibition’s extended reflection on the future and past of the museum. Gerard Byrne’s new film commission can be regarded as the catalyst for the show: the unpronounceable Jielemeguvvie guvvie sjisjnjeli, translated as Film inside an Image (2015-2016).(1) Shot in a large natural history diorama in Stockholm, this is a site for the reconstruction of what once seemed natural.(2) The diorama is caught between the real and artificial: the glass roof allows the scene to be lit by the soft light of northern European winter. But the audio track of birdcalls is unconvincing, and becomes more so as it echoes around the rooms of the exhibition. In the film the camera tracks past all the animals on display, from the coast to the forest and back again. In this glasshouse the animals play themselves, after death, in costumes of their own skin.

A speculative approach to history unites Melvin Moti’s No Show (2004) and Matthew Buckingham’s False Future (2007). Both works depart from a real historical incident in order to weave a semi-fictive narrative. In 1943 the majority of the works in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg were removed, hidden in the Urals. Moti’s opaque film restages this event, showing only a grand empty room fading into dusk. In the audio track a caretaker is conducting a museum tour for a group of ‘comrades’. We hear the soldiers being instructed in the correct methods for viewing art. Into the empty frames the group of soldiers project the beauty of the women pictured, imagining almond eyes and translucent robes.(3) Buckingham’s False Future also begins with an absence, detailing the story of a missing filmmaker, Louis Le Prince, whose invention preceded the Lumière brothers by five years. Over a single scene of a bridge a narrator reflects on the qualities of early film. Buckingham’s 16mm film is physically present in the space, drawing our attention to the material qualities of this analogue form, and the illusion of movement produced by 24 still frames per second. As René Bruckner has stated: ‘The film image does not simply appear; its movement appears by disappearing into those un-photographed moments, or intervals, between successive photographic instants.’(4) Moving film is punctuated by darkness. Buckingham’s work speculates about the films that could have been in the five years before the Lumière Brother’s ‘invention’. It seems all films are full of non-film. All archives are based on what has been excluded.(5)

In Judy Watson’s the keepers (2016) we are drawn inside what some audiences will recognise as the British Museum in London; past the ionic columns and imposing foyer, and down into the vaults. As a Waanyi woman Watson has long been concerned with the fate of indigenous anthropological material.(6) This film has been shot as if the camera was held against the body. Hands search through draws; opening and turning over what they find. Some of the first objects encountered are glass-plate negatives, and old photographic prints. The focus-pull deployed in these scenes results in an uncanny sense that the eyes in these old photographs are focusing on us.(7) This unsettling sense of the archived object coming alive is heightened by a very faint audio of aboriginal women singing. There are curious details that can be gleaned from the tags and labels attached to the spears, oars, and bags that come into view. But the searcher in the museum is held at a distance by officious blue plastic gloves.

The theme of cultural displacement continues in Amie Siegel’s Double Negative (2015), which consists of two black and white 16mm films, printed as negatives, at opposite sides of the room. The subject of Double Negative is an icon of the universal style of modernism: Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. In an absurd antipodean twist, a black copy of this white house exists in Australia. The black Savoye is home to the Aboriginal Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.(8) The presence of Siegel’s work in Australia, on Kulin land, calls for a reflection on the circulation of models of European modernism, and the nature of this antipodean displacement. The image of a black swan is, perhaps, a reference to a problem in philosophy: the statement ‘all swans are white’ was true, from a European perspective. But now we are in ‘the antipodes’, where everything is upside-down and inverted, and where black swans do exist. The material form of this work sustains a sense of uncertainly, for all my looking I could not quite put the logic of the materials back together; I could not decide if I was looking at a black or a white swan.

The exhibition, Life Inside an Image, was curated collaboratively, with the selection of artists extending outward from the initial commission of Gerard Byrne’s new work. There is a consequent lightness to the thematic of the exhibition. The show doesn’t argue or demonstrate, and the curatorial theme does not over-determine the works. In Watson’s the keepers the archival drawers are closed tight and the light snaps off. This is an abrupt end to the film that suggests that these objects will stay where they are—kept by the museum. As Derrida states, ‘the archive is never closed. It opens out of the future’.(10) It is the responsibility of its keepers to inherit its violence, and bet on this future.

 

(1) The title of the exhibition takes its name from this work. Jielemeguvvie guvvie sjisjnjeli, can be translated into ‘film inside an image’, or ‘life inside an image’.

(2) A theme shared by Byrne’s New Sexual Lifestyles (2003) and A man and a woman make love (2012).

(3) This projection or mnemonic recall also brings to mind Sophie Calle’s What Do You See? (Rembrandt, A Lady and Gentleman in Black) 2013, a project that asked museum staff to reflects on artworks stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990.

(4) René Thoreau Bruckner, ‘The Instant and the Dark: Cinema’s Momentum.’ Octopus: A Journal of Visual Studies vol. 2, (Fall 2006), 22.

(5) In Derrida’s reading the archive is, amongst other things, authoritative: the archivist dictates what must be preserved. Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: Chicago University, 1996), 4.

(6) See for example Judy Watson, our bones in your collection (1997) and our skin in your collection (1997).

(7) This sensation of the photograph looking back brings to mind Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, especially Barthes’ sense of wonder at the fact that he was ‘looking at the eyes that looked at the emperor’. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (London: Jonathan Cape, 1982), 9.

(8) www.aiatsis.gov.au

(10) Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever, 68.

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Judy Watson, the keepers, 2016 (still). Courtesy of the artist, Milani Gallery, Brisbane, and Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne

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Melvin Moti, No Show, 2004 (still). Courtesy of the artist and Meyer Riegger, Berlin and Karlsruhe.

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Gerard Byrne, Jielemeguvvie guvvie sjisjnjeli (Film inside an Image) 2015-16 (still). Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery, London, Milan and New York.

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Amie Siegel, Double Negative 2015 (16mm film still). Courtesy of the artist and Simon Preston Gallery, New York.

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Matthew Buckingham, False Future 2007 (still). Courtesy of the artist and Murray Guy, New York.

Tamsin Green is an artist and writer based in Melbourne. Her work is informed by histories of photography and performance practice. Recent solo exhibitions include Covers at Bus Projects and Theft: Prints and Drawings at the Eildon Gallery, Alliance Française, Melbourne. Tamsin’s work has been supported by grants from the Australia Council for the Arts, and the City of Melbourne. She currently lectures at Monash Art, Design, and Architecture.

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