Magazine article Art Monthly

The Future's Not What It Used to Be

Magazine article Art Monthly

The Future's Not What It Used to Be

Article excerpt

Chapter Art Centre Cardiff 21 September to 4 November

The title of the show is a riddle of reflection and reversal. I assume that the future that 'used to be' was heady, utopian and modernist. Such a view of the future is no longer sustainable and, like our planet, is flagging. The exhibition envisions the future and the present as a confluence of survival and absurdity mediated through the perception of time.

Vernon Ah Kee has described the experience of placing his hand on top of a prehistoric rock painting of a hand, the paint as vivid as though it had been painted yesterday rather than 20,000 years ago. To make contemporary art as an indigenous Australian might be described as placing oneself between a rock and a hard place: between a jargon of authenticity and the confusion of form and meaning of a dislocated culture. This contradiction is manifest yet resolved in Vernon's large-scale, conceptual text work: a commissioned installation for a light box stretching across several doorways outside the entrance of Chapter. The text is a quote from the native American Chief Seattle, upon the consignment of his tribe to a reservation and the sale of land to create the present day city of Seattle. It reads 'theendoflivingandthebeginningofsurvival', and the removal of spacing from the words gives the statement the formal character of a pattern poem. Chief Seattle was a significant diplomat who did his best to help his people survive genocide. His original speech from which the line was taken was probably translated into 'trading English' used for barter. His words were embellished and transformed in the 1970s by a screenwriter and became stereotypically synonymous with the then emerging issue of ecology. Vernon is keenly aware that dislocation and the overwriting of culture and language shape the experience of indigenous peoples: he has chosen a fragment of text that remains uncompromisingly potent.

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Centrally placed and framed by the doorway as you enter the exhibition, The Long Awaited, 2008, a tableau by Patricia Piccinini, is a gentle grotesque. An ageing long-haired mercreature--part human, part seal, part manatee--languishes on a day bed in the affectionate embrace of a young boy. Flecks of trimmed hair and traces of dandruff rest on the boy's sweater and skin. Where his young hand touches the creature's shoulder there is a heightened juxtaposition of hairy wrinkle and smooth, marbled innocence.

More realistic than a waxwork, the tableau is nonetheless theatrical. The mixture of novelty and age is unusual and surprising. Piccinini's wider body of work thematically plays with the idea of genetic manipulation. The figures are oddly shaped, sleepily institutional clones for which we have a duty of care. Unlike Diane Arbus's photographs of real-life human anomalies, these works are close to film props and remain somewhat cuddly. Although Piccinini's clones are provocative on many levels, from another perspective the works remind one of urchins: Victorian genre paintings of, say, a chimney sweep boy with a tear in his eye. Such painting evoked great sympathy in the bourgeois viewer for an individual's plight, but when confronted by the disenfranchised politicised as a class, the aesthetics of sentimentality quickly evaporated.

Described by the curator Deborah Smith as an epic work, Matt Bryans's Untitled, 2007, involves erasing newspaper portraits and clippings. …

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