I don’t know what it means that our exhibition was formulated around the idea of the vanitas, other than it served as an expression of the accumulated angst, annui, and exasperation, along with the intensified sense of our own mortality that the last year has built up within us. After the bushfires of 2019 and all the fun that has been COVID19, there is a sense of exhaustion and dragging sobriety that now coats our imaginaries like so many metaphors of ash or airborne pathogens. This world has over the last two years become stranger, more threatening, more concrete and abstract, more precious and harder to bear until even our joys are had under the weight of their own shadows, the fading sense of all light, the social distance of all intimacy. “Alas, for we were born to die” is a phrase we understand a little better after this last year.
To think of the exhibition now that it is hung and I have walked around it, from existing object to existing object in such and such a position, and of such and such a disposition, I can see a continuity that maps onto it like a topography. As though the ideas it contains had arisen from within the artificial landscape they now described: inside the cavernous remains of the industrial ruin of Carriageworks, and within the neatly incongruous unbuilt environment reminiscent of office cubicles established for the exhibition. Somewhere between the vast shell of the past and an incomplete future, a whole bunch of artworks that reference the mortality of man. This clever arrangement is the organic result of ideas. Put ideas together and ultimately they will talk to each other. The conversation will have more or less coherence dependent on its constituent parts and their ability to occupy positions that both differ from one another and communicate across that difference. It is the logic of self organising activity, the aggregation of autonomous agents acting independently from one another to collectively produce order.
The particular order of this exhibition, I would like to argue, is perhaps the product of this last year that we have all shared, and yet experienced within an isolation that has become more explicit to us. As each of us contemplates our common demise, we do so from an individual place, full of the details of the life that is only our own and which is threatened with its own particular extinction. There is a consistency across the works in this show that cannot be attributed to any explicit coordination between the member artists and reminds us that as isolated as we are from one another, our experience is still an experience of the same world. As we say, it is an order that has emerged.
The sense of continuity across the works is first produced by the palette of greyscales and muted colour and the self deprecatory quality of the works. Against the exuberant and colorful declarations of some of the exhibitions surrounding it, The Bitter Crust cohered in a unified blanket of banality and abjection. From a pile of found clothing unceremoniously dumped in a corner of the space by Flavia Dujour to Karen Golland’s ontologically challenged perspex boxes of rejected photographs. Georgie Pollard’s fungal painting was made by abandoning her materials to an army of microbial assistants. Leo Cremonese’ landscape painting is so small that you can barely see its detail and Greg Pritchard’s collection of death themed two dollar shop desiderata arranged on a badly painted set of box shelves. My own work was made by dipping fruit and vegetables in quick set concrete as a lazy man’s eternal form. If you didn’t know any better, you might think we didn’t much give a fuck.
I wish I didn’t give a fuck. That would be nice. For my own work, I just didn’t give a fuck about making beautiful things that participate in a shallow fantasy of eternal truth, or even persistent truth. I was pleased when the ephemera that actually supported the eternal forms rotted out and emptied them from themselves. Across the room Greg Pritchard’s tawdry display of cheap crap mirrored this mood with an array of objects that commonly represent our most reverent concern for beauty, spirituality, truth, life and death, all lovingly mass produced in plastic. Greg had beat me to the punch, presenting an array of eternal forms that were themselves the decay of their enduring values, all the more ironically because they were produced in a material that is killing the planet because it doesn’t degrade. Even the smell of cheap perfume he sprayed on his work was worse than the smell of rotting fruit from mine.
Right next to our little race to the rancid, Leo Cremonese hung a charming little landscape. So small in fact that you would have a hard time making out what it was a landscape of, but if you took the effort to bend down and squint into it, you can make out the Australian bush. On the left of the frame there is a cave with what at first glance looks like the remains of an Aboriginal campsite or midden but on closer inspection reveals that these little remnants of man are a collection of objects recognisable in the Western tradition as a vanitas. The painting functions to unflatter the viewer in a series of sleights or tactical moves. Beginning with its diminutive scale, the painting disallows the large and flattering view we are accustomed to in a landscape. The size of the work requires the viewer to approach it closely in pursuit of its image, but which only brings one to confront the materiality of the paint. Playing on the self important tropes of art history, Cremonese in a way is saying that this painting is not painted for you, no landscape is made to be viewed by a human being, even if it is available to do so and you are not the sovereign subject of this scene.
Speaking of which, that little collection of detail that cannot help but evoke our historical representations of Aboriginal presence as the romantic remainder of a disappearing people is instead a reflection of your own disappearing culture. It is you that faces extinction: voila vanitas. At the heart of this work is an awareness that the vanitas, for all its efforts to evoke or inspire the humility of the viewer, still centres human concern for our own mortality as the ultimate indulgence of vanity.
As you struggle to understand your insignificance in the Australian landscape, over your shoulder, Michael Petchkovsky’s laser work is drawing the human form of anyone who happens to stand in front of it as a mode of ephemerality that only the most advanced technologies can achieve. Yes, stop thinking about yourself for once and watch the people amuse themselves in front of this technological whirligig. They pose in front of it with the same self-fascination as produced in any house of mirrors or at the end of any selfie stick. We love to watch the world recognise our existence, conform to our form, reflect ourselves back to ourselves. In fact we can’t resist it. Petchkovsky’s machine draws this form with a laser that refreshes at a rate faster than the human eye, creating a persistent image of the person standing in front of it. Take a photo of the image with your phone and you won’t get much, a couple lines if you are lucky. Petchkovsky accelerates the rate at which you disappear to that of the speed of light.
In contrast, Karen Golland took over 10 years of rejected and failed photos and entombed them in three perspex photo boxes hung on the wall that dissected our space. Despite the work literally sitting in the middle of the show, I wouldn’t blame you for missing it. The clear perspex exposed only the grey edges of nearly 4000 photographs, each box crowned with an unremarkable snapshot at the top. The sides of the boxes had the subtle striation built up out of the edges of the thousands of individual photographs creating an impenetrable cross section, a stratigraphy of lost moments that reveals none of its secrets. The visual insignificance of the boxes is belied by the thought that it is constructed of nothing but images made up of 4000 moments of one person’s life. The work has about it the solemnity of an urn, compelling one to ask is this all that a human life amounts to. The play involved in putting on display what cannot be seen and the fraught relationship between memory and forgetfulness contained within this display vibrates across its strange lack of presence.
Gus Armstrong’s photograph stands out as what at first glance appears to be the only sincere attempt at art in the whole exhibition. The large scale, luxurious print presents the rich colour and classical composition of the great 17th century tradition of the vanitas. But if ever your attention lapses and you actually look at the image, you will notice that one of the most striking features of the photograph is the deep blue trail of flame spreading across the bottom third of the composition. You will also notice at this point the strange collection of objects that are on fire. In fact there is little beyond the colour, composition and the backdrop that belong to the tradition that this work claims. The objects are oddly diverse and often unrecognizable. A chain, what might have been a milk carton, something that could be grapes but might be ball bearings, a plastic looking something in the background with the label 3m on it. It is an odd desultory collection without unifying principle, objects that gather together for no other reason than that they end up in your yard or your shed or your closet. The strangely inchoate and anarchic body of modern possessions as it is slowly consumed by the blue flame of an accelerant evokes the melted plastic and shattered glass, the shear, unredeemable garbage that is the result of a modern house fire.
Julie Williams also addresses the recent bushfires that ravaged regional nsw in late 2019. Also working in the medium of photography, Julie presents a triptych of burnt bush landscapes, dark ominous views over blackened landscapes stretching toward the hard black line of the horizon. Floating in the middle ground of each of these images is a phantom, another image, like that found at the feet of Holbien’s The Ambassadors. The photographs are double exposures, combining the image of the earth bounded by a horizon, and another image of the earth looking down on it from above. The combination of these two perspectives of the burnt earth creates the vanitas, the view across the earth as we living, stand upon it, worried by an image of the same object unbounded by time and living concern.
This combination of life and death in a single image is rendered literal with Georgina Pollard’s painting, Zombie which was made by wrapping cooked rice in muslin and placing it in the leaf fall at the base of a tree in the bush. The rice becomes a medium for bacterial culture, fungus and other microorganisms, which quickly grow and cover the surface of the cloth. The resulting decomposition was then stretched and the painting produced as the residual forms and colouration of the teaming life that produced it. While the painting is itself produced by the processes of decay, it is also literally a living artwork. At the same time, the title of the work and its clear extension of the logic of Andy Warhol’s Factory into the natural world suggest that our own culture proceeds by a similar dynamic.
Next to this painting, a pile of clothing collected by the up and coming young artist Flavia Dujuour has been unceremoniously dumped in a corner, perhaps to accumulate its own cultural residue. Her project, we are informed, consisted of spending a year wearing only clothes found discarded on the street as a gesture remarking on the fickle wastefulness of the modern fashion industry. The strange sacrificial act of dressing like a homeless person for a year as a symbolic exemption from the vast traffic of fashion ephemera that is choking our oceans and filling our landfill is at once a noble conceit and empty gesture. It changes nothing, and despite its fine sentiment, it still participates in the constant change of costume and posture that is the vanity of all art. Whether this is a profound comment upon this vanity or a superficial instance of it is a matter of indifference.
This theme haunts the exhibition rather than occupies it, suggesting that art as a mirror onto human vanity is a tautology, an instance of this vanity. How this common thread emerged can be speculated on, but not known. It was certainly not discussed in the planning of the show. It is possible that this group of artists living through an unprecedented fire season followed by a pandemic had each independently felt within the profound consequence of the nearness of death the futility of making anything to represent it. Perhaps it is a reflection on the fact that this apocalypse is man made, and that we as a whole seem fatalistically committed to see it’s logic through to its end. Perhaps it is the simple result that the subject of death is no longer a mere concept or fantasy. Who knows, all that we can be assured of is that the unified result reflects a common experience.