Being there—experiencing the art of Louise Bourgeois

I was at a gathering the other night where I mentioned that I was planning to write my next Stamm piece on the current Louise Bourgeois show at Heide.

‘Oh God, blah blaaah … the mother, the father, the nanny … how many articles have I read about that!?!’

‘Nooooooooooooo!’ I say, ‘I’m going to write about how I felt about seeing the work’.

‘Oh yessssssssssss … what?’

‘Well, for a start, how great it is to see something in the flesh.’

Anyway, I can’t remember the rest verbatim but really that’s the gist, isn’t it? Rhetorical, I know, but I think the reason that so many people admire and engage with the art of Bourgeois is not specifically because of the narrative that she says is mostly the basis for the work’s inception. It is our, the audience’s, often visceral and thus extremely personal response to it that really gives the work its gravitas. It has the concerns of the individual and the universal in its measure. Or maybe I am being vain about the human race. I can see the spiral starting to turn …

The Bourgeois work shown at Heide has an addendum show that sits not quite alongside it, but next door, and is a grouping of work by Australian artists (also an audience) responding, ‘speaking to’ the art of Louise Bourgeois. The catalogue, which addresses both exhibitions, contains essays by the Australian artists. Some are more formal than others. My favourite was Patricia Piccinini’s. It put a lump in my throat the way Louise Bourgeois’s art did. It was personal, like the sculptures made of worn towels that Bourgeois had used until threadbare to dry down her body and perhaps the bodies of her family. Piccinini writes of her aspiration, or, perhaps more accurately, her admiration of the practice of Louise Bourgeois, of her solace in finding the work of a woman artist in the wake of so much art by men, a woman’s art that in all its contrary devices was ‘just as strong, just as magnificent as the massive works that surrounded it …’, whose work touched her ’emotionally in a way these other works didn’t’.

The most poignant thing I felt about seeing the show was seeing the work up close. Understanding its tactility, detail and the scale; identifying the types of fabric in the cloth works: bathroom towels (hers), deconstructed clothes (hers again) and reconfigured vintage vestiges, ribbed jersey pulled inward as an orifice, the particular waffle weave used in thermals to keep you warm now constituting bodies headless in an embrace (with a prosthetic leg attached to boot). I admired the tenuous poise of the Spider/Mother sculpture under which I stood. I scrunched up my eyes as I squeamishly squinted at needles puncturing spools of thread and then there was the stitching all over bodies and heads, and the weave in a damask of text. I relished my relationship to the materiality of the objects themselves, a feeling that could never be experienced through an image alone.

Louise Bourgeois: late works, 24 November 2012 – 11 March 2013; Louise Bourgeois and Australian artists, 13 October 2012 – 14 April 2013, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, Victoria.

Louise Bourgeois, ‘Couple IV’, 1997, fabric, leather, stainless steel, plastic

Louise Bourgeois, ‘Spider’, 1997, steel, tapestry, wood, glass, fabric, rubber, silver, gold, bone

Louise Bourgeois, ‘Knife figure’, 2002, fabric, steel, wood

Semi-urban tragedy: The sad caravans of Stefan Gevers

Sometimes I feel like an emotional wreck. I don’t know how to express myself so, frustrated, I end up in a heap, dejected, rejected, bereft, if not by anyone else, at least by common reason, or rationality. Isolated, even abandoned, inarticulate and mute, feeling unloved and lonely. A self-indulgent deluge of descriptors plagues me.

There are often unexpected parallels in daily experience. I am writing a response to an exhibition of artwork that I encountered a few days ago when I could see the beauty and pathos encompassed in the metaphor of Stefan Gevers’s renderings of derelict caravans. But today I suddenly relate to them in a much more immediate and personal way.

There is a tension in the work where the composition depicts a precarious position, a weighted possibility that is a snapshot of a situation. Will it (the caravan) tumble and slide further into decrepitude, or just teeter there for that little bit longer—a stasis—this way, that way, never knowing which. These images are executed lovingly with care and precision, muted colours, fading with nostalgia; some are watercolours. But it’s the use of coloured pencil and charcoal which softly shades the paper giving shape to the sagging forms that I like most. Gevers depicts a figurative death in an almost nondescript yet desolate landscape that verges on the romantic. It could be a wrecking yard in Fairfield, rural backwater or the middle of the desert. The ravaged curtains, broken glass and rusting tin evoke the melancholy spectre of a beauty born of neglect. Here we see the remains, the cadaver, the corpse of a broken heart, or quite literally a broken home.

Stefan Gevers, Secondhand serenade, Stockroom, Kyneton, Victoria, 8 September – 7 October 2012.

Stefan Gevers, ‘Rite of spring’, 2012, charcoal dust and pencil on paper

Stefan Gevers, ‘Broken dreams’, 2012, charcoal dust and pencil on paper

Stefan Gevers, ‘Stop over’, 2012, charcoal dust and pencil on paper


Some local birds

Why not, I thought. Go local. Pat Brassington’s had enough press already! So has ACCA. It just so happens that my friend Ben Sheppard has a show on round the corner from my house at Counihan Gallery in Brunswick. Excellent! I can walk there! And it just so happens that my friend Amy Jo is sitting the gallery when I walk in. Buoyed by the welcome, I am met with a thoroughly enchanting array of—and take this as you will—cocks and balls. This is where some local vernacular comes in—seriously mate! And they were grouse! And he used pen, mate—PEN!

Le coq is a fastidiously and beautifully executed collection of sculpture and drawings—iconic, playful portraits of roosters and cockerels. These portrayals are juxtaposed with spheres made of myriad strokes and coloured inks, steel twisted and painted with bright baked enamel like balls of messed-up string. There is the piqued and curious gaze of the rooster that’s come into contact with the alien ball, reminiscent of the opening scene of 2001: A space odyssey, where early man is met by the ominous black slabs. Not only in a compositional sense but also in energy and execution: the random versus the precise and deliberate, representation versus abstraction; the works embody a state of flux.

These proud and plumaged birds, always slightly on edge, with a jaunty expression, can be seen as metaphors for characters that populate our world. Heads held high with the gait of a barrister off to court, the pluck and adornment of a Gangsta Rapper or, locally, a self-consciously nonchalant young man in tight skinny jeans rolled up at the ankles, bright socks peaking out, going to buy bread at the Albert Street Safeway.

And then some.

Benjamin Sheppard, Le coq, Counihan Gallery, Melbourne, 16 August – 16 September 2012.

Benjamin Sheppard, ‘Where to next Pepin?’ (detail), 2012, ball point pen on paper

Benjamin Sheppard, ‘Tribal act’, 2011, ball point pen and black felt on paper

Benjamin Sheppard, ‘Not listening’, 2011, ball point pen and black felt on paper

Benjamin Sheppard, ‘Tabarin’, 2011, ball point pen on paper

Benjamin Sheppard, ‘Je pense, donc je suis’, 2012, ball point pen on paper

Same, same but different or three I liked best

I passed through the sliding doors of MUMA at Monash’s Caulfield campus. How things have changed since I was a student here. We weren’t lucky enough to have this in 1992. Well anyway, as I passed through, the first thing that met my knees, and then my eyes, was a long flat arrangement of objects, mostly tinged with a curio and vintage flavor.

I couldn’t help think of the book I had recently begun reading: AA Gill’s The golden door, a book which describes migration from Europe to America, and more specifically opens with the author describing a museum in Bagshaw, England, and the ‘Edwardian way of things, collected indiscriminately and rigorously, with the global kleptomania of Empire and the desire to calibrate, measure and stuff everything possible’.

Back at MUMA, Patrick Pound had put together a collection of things to do with wind (a.k.a. The museum of air). Why wind? Wind is elementally transient, yet it is always around. It is an invisible force that animates all things through which it passes. It’s actually quite amazing to think of wind that way, as a sort of ineffable force, yet here I was looking at a whole lot of stuff that made wind seem corny and kitsch, like a ’70s pop song or band. I think there was just such a single among the display. It made me smile to see the commonality in the disparity and I smirked at the ‘wind’ jokes and then I thought about themes and the desire to fetishize, to maintain themes in collections. That’s often what people call a hobby. Context is everything, or not?

Context was the thing so purposefully missing from Kit Wise’s recording and transcript of the Hindenburg disaster in the form of a hypnotic and disturbing video text piece missing the almost vital clue of visual footage. A long-gone journalist bears witness to the unexpected and horrific explosion and fire of something, but we know not what. The anachronism of his expression did not dull my empathy for what he had seen and what I could only, at that moment, imagine.

The work I liked most was contained in a dimly lit room. I’ve been to too many What Is Music?-type performances not to love this! Inside were four dot matrix printers, like robots, a quartet! Unwavering and hermetically sealed in glass, programmed to print sound only. Of another decade, old enough to be redundant for their intended purpose but here recontextualized as instruments.

AA Gill suggests that the rarefied and ratified Western European museums of yesteryear are out of fashion. That the purpose of installing a culture of condescension from an Imperialist society imposing its values upon all others it patronisingly considers exotic is redundant and politically incorrect. I’m pretty sure he’s right. Like major international curated exhibitions, Liquid archive gave space for a contemporary collation, contemplation and re-imagining of memory and artefacts of times passed. That seems to be in right now.

Liquid archive, Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, 19 July – 22 September 2012.

Patrick Pound, ‘The museum of air’ (detail), 2012, selected items from the artist’s collection presented as a site-specific installation

Kit Wise, ‘I cannot see it’, 2011–12, video installation, 1:29 minutes

[The User], ‘Quartet for dot matrix printers’, 2004, four dot matrix printers and personal computers, ASCII text compositions, network server, microphones, sound system, office furniture. [The User] is a Canadian art collective comprised of architect and installation artist Thomas McIntosh, and composer and sound artist Emmanuel Madan


The what and the why: Berlinde De Bruyckere

I once ordered an exhibition catalogue from overseas. It came in a brown paper package, beautifully bound, with a 10 x 8 cm image of each represented artist’s work. I lent it and lost it. I remember only one image from that book: a distended headless horse-ness. I saw a preview for Berlinde De Bruyckere’s show at ACCA and had to go.

It was a hazy recollection of a very small image and it did not prepare me for the vastness of scale when I walked into the exhibition space. Not even the ACCA publicity shots captured it. Headless horses merged together and hung. One (hind) leg tethered, the way they do in slaughter-houses apparently, to bleed the animals, ensuring tender meat. The work awed and overwhelmed me.

I went to the show with two students of mine, Therese and Linda. At first they spoke about the what of it. What was it made of? What was the artist thinking? What did it mean? I asked them to consider the why.

Later, another student, David, a former neurophysiologist, was drawn into the conversation. Immediately it was the what of the work that outraged him, or at least directed his moral compass: ‘The work employed intentional shock value and the use of their [the horses’] dead flesh as art was disrespectful to their being’.

I do love a stoush, so I interjected: ‘How much more respect is a leather couch?’.

‘Oh, but that’s functional.’

And so it continued. The neurophysiologist related how, as a research scientist, he had used animals, ‘but their deaths were for a purpose’.

‘Is art not for a purpose?’ I continued, teasingly.

Therese interjected: ‘Could it be that [David] had not reconciled himself to particular aspects of the work [he] had undertaken as a research scientist?’.

‘Perhaps that is true’, David admitted.

Next we all went along to the ‘On flesh’ discussion, one of the public programs that accompanied the show.

Among the panel members was a meat scientist from the CSIRO. We were informed that ‘slaughter-house’ is not the correct term when referring to a slaughter-house. It is properly called a ‘processing plant’. Of course.

An embalmer offered that we should learn to embrace death. He was good-humoured and compassionate. He had made black shiny maracas with his grandparents’ ‘cremains’.

There was a professor of film, and a psychologist with expertise in disgust. The psychologist spoke of cognitive dissonance. Finally, there was a chef and meat merchant, who relished meat. He was the only one on the panel who had killed an animal (with his father at age six), to learn where meat came from.

Afterward we had dinner at Cookie. The pork belly was excellent. Inspired or inflamed, our conversation went from Victorian England—serfs and landowners—to politicians and rulers and the countless soldiers sent to wars around the world.

I thought of Grünewald’s depiction of the crucifixion, how an image of torture and a depiction of death and suffering becomes an image of reverence and humility.

I think I thought of the why.

Berlinde De Bruyckere, We are all flesh, ACCA, Melbourne, 2 June – 29 July 2012.

Matthias Grünewald, ‘The crucifixion’, 1510–15, oil on panel

Damiano Bertoli’s ‘Continuous moment: Anxiety Villa’

I know, because the writing on the wall told me, that this installation is somehow the restaging of a play written by Pablo Picasso. I do not feel it is necessary to know the event passed in order to situate myself into the present work but I can’t help wondering. So I do it. I go to Google. But only later, at the end, when I am trying my best to assimilate the various perceptions I have gleaned and tried to extract from the work.

Now it strikes me quite fittingly that this milieu is at odds with a performative piece that is the original play. Yes, there is movement in the form of a video piece, but it is recorded. It is so unlike theatre, which is live and unique and ephemeral. In contrast Bertoli beckons you into a trance or a time-loop.

The work is literally and intentionally a pastiche—but the pastiche is heightened by Bertoli’s impromptu selection of objects and materials.

The projection layers imagery that is idealised and filtered by nostalgia: pictures of mundane urban streets, surreal kitsch eroticism, impenetrable esoterica and possibly a place—somewhere in Europe or maybe Paris. Its aesthetic and haunting discordant soundtrack remind me of the film CuadecucVampir by Pere Portabella: a sort of documentary of an event, stealing scenes from the feature being shot around it—the filming of Jesus Franco’s Count Dracula. Portabella’s film has parallels with Bertoli’s ensemble installation as well. Although it was made at precisely the same time as the event it was referencing, it also does not attempt to contextualise events or create a linear narrative and like Bertoli’s video footage it contains no real dialogue.

Bertoli’s accompanying photographic montages serve as reference points to the video and the sculptural installation. They show a motley bunch of characters on a stage yet on a flat plane. They are not in any particular spatial dimension and for the most part are independent of one another.

The installation of sculptures and found objects, set in the centre of a black stage marked-out with a white grid is static, an inert panorama reminiscent of a museum display, disjointed—join the dots, if you can.

The mannequin standing upright in a trunk recalls a character from the images. It reminds me of a crime scene investigation. A mannequin becomes a proxy for the missing one, roadside at the point of ‘departure’ dressed in the victim’s clothing in order to trigger memories.

Post-planning: Damiano Bertoli, Julian Hooper, Andrew Hurle, Alex Martinis Roe, Michelle Nikou, Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, 31 March – 22 July 2012.

Damiano Bertoli, ‘Continuous moment: Anxiety Villa’, 2012

Damiano Bertoli, ‘Continuous moment: Anxiety Villa’, 2012


Alesh Macak: 2 screens, 1 sandpit, music and bench, plus audience

The human remains presents as a type of epistemology. It provokes questions regarding our perception of self and with the super forces of existence and infinity.

Caspar David Friedrich meets the New Age in Alesh Macak’s metaphysical meditation on the sublime and our relationship to it. With a sound-track evocative of those hippy–trippy binaural beats and the kaleidoscopic mirroring of imagery (landscapes of vast rocks, flowing water, gushing waves, expansive skies, the natural and man-made world) becoming a regenerating mandala, no longer are we looking from the top of the precipice, now we are immersed; looking within it, through it, and beyond it. For me this is the most mesmerising and evocative element of the installation.

The sandpit (in the room, under the seat) is a benign paradox in relation to the transcendental imagery on the screens. It plants our feet firmly beneath the bench, a reminder of our biological embodiment yet it takes us on a journey of associative memories and sensory stimulation. Nostalgic of childhood, its confines are restricted yet it provokes play and the creation of imaginary (unseen) realms.

Meanwhile, in deep space entire galaxies explode and mutate throughout a multi-dimensional expanse of time that is impossible to comprehend.

Alesh Macak, The human remains, Westspace, Melbourne, 24 February – 17 March 2012.

Alesh Macak, ‘The human remains’, 2012

Alesh Macak, video still, ‘The human remains’, 2012

Alesh Macak, ‘The human remains’, 2012

The terror of n: Belle Bassin

In both style and content Belle Bassin’s recent solo exhibition, The terror of n, has a strong resonance with the work of 19th-century spiritualist artist Hilma af Klint. Both artists employ geometric abstraction, meticulous grid work and esoteric symbology that belie the formality, order and control implied by such approaches, instead quietly moving toward an unknown coda and potentiality that suggests a sort of transcendence.

Theosophy refers to systems of speculation or investigation seeking direct knowledge of the mysteries of being and nature. John Golding called theosophy ‘a world of vast, intangible and amorphous ideas’. In a sense, both artists attempt to portray enigmatic elements of parallel and invisible realms. Af Klint was considered a clairvoyant, claiming that her work was guided through a psychic connection on another plane. While Bassin’s work may not have been created in this way, it certainly speaks (albeit mutely) to interpretations and connections with and of multiple dimensions.

Nostalgia pervades Bassin’s work. There is a graphic sensibility that recalls the era of psychedelia and esotericism. In particular, The terror of n is reminiscent of a Luis Buñel film from the ’60s; the spectral O is a potential gateway to an elsewhere in which a gentleman appears as a sort of guide, cut from the books of another era. The work’s paradox implies a vacuum; the suspension of time and suggestion of movement.

Bassin’s work is an exploration of semiotics. The idea of mute language—a forever not quite narrative—is a central theme. Obscured movement and the frozen gesture reinforce the idea of semantic flux. The artist has created a world of limbo and potential where symbols are at once more than what they seem, yet not quite what they appear to be. Complicit font, an almost-alphabet of pictograms, seductively plays with this notion.

The exhibition itself is a tableau that simultaneously diverges and digresses to create a multitude of possibilities. In this way Bassin inspires the need for an interpretation but then disables one. It is precisely this disruption of flow that enables the viewer to search for a new one.

Belle Bassin, The terror of n, Fehily Contemporary, Melbourne, 9 February – 3 March 2012.

Belle Bassin, ‘The terror of n’, type-C print, 55 x 73 cm, 2012

Belle Bassin, ‘O’, collage and pencil on paper, 55 x 73 cm, 2012

Belle Bassin, ‘Complicit font’, pencil on paper, 73 x 55 cm, 2012