The project LuminousDark may have been titled Mirroring as it captures and reflects back to us the spirit
of our times. Light casts shadow, shadow absorbs light. Everything is nothing, nothing is everything.
Six artists from disparate backgrounds simultaneously illuminate and cast shadows. In recording their
own particular circumstances and identity they critique a broader societal and psychic instability, change
Tibetan artist Gonkar Gyatso collides religion, politics and commerce, propelling us with giddying force
into the local and the global with both humour and seriousness. We are not bystanders but witnesses,
implicated in his conflation of the East and the West, tradition and the present. The iconic references in
Gonkar’s subjects conflict with the everydayness of his materials – brand name stickers, pencil, paper.
It is difficult to avoid our participation in the text-based works by British artist Wayne Warren and Czech
artist Jan Smejkal. The artists manipulate the assumed transparency of language. Warren’s sculpture
What Does Nothing Look Like? speaks of everything that matters. The work’s large scale and apparent
weight yet actual material insubstantiality subverts logic and points to a psychic wilderness. Smejkal’
s staccato, disjointed text-painted canvases spell out fractured stories of our times. The paintings are
public affirmations; the intimate randomness of a diary entry is transgressed.
Chinese artist Huang Xu’s large format photographs belie the humble subject matter that inspires them
– discarded plastic shopping bags – the unwanted detritus of our society. The works play with scale,
texture and light to achieve a mysterious identity. What are these images, flesh, cloth, mineral?
The installations by Australian artists Tony Scott and Jayne Dyer blur personal and public space
and meaning. In his series on sight and sightlessness Scott erases information we expect to see on
ophthalmologist charts, disconnects or reconfigures the ophthalmologist’s apparatus – all the while
alerting us to societal and cultural blindness. In an age of increasingly paperless information, Jayne
Dyer salvages what may otherwise be pulped and constructs installations and photographs that
consider meaning through the loose proposition of the library. Art and language conflate and paper and
architecture become one as structures are built and dismantled.
MOMENTS OF LUCIDITY
Wayne Warren’s work is many-faceted. There is an immediate wit and playfulness leading to deeper
philosophical questions often associated with societal values.
The apparent flippancy of the image and the text in works such as Need / Want, reference our values and
life-style. The pretty coloured biscuits, with the words ‘Want’ and ‘Need’ on either side, point to the greed,
and materialism of our consumerist society and the inability of some to distinguish between the two. Warren
recounts a story told him by a friend who, on seeing the ‘biscuits’ remarked that in South Africa they provided
biscuits for the under-privileged as a source of nutrients. The recipients did not want the biscuits – they needed
Paul Klee’s, Tightrope Walker, is a metaphor for the balancing act of life itself – those who are fortunate
maintain the balance. Wayne Warren believes that we are connected in a meaningful way to life and the world
when we are able to realise balances between apparent opposites such as humour and seriousness; practical
reality and spiritual contemplation; aesthetics and confrontation.
The work in Tempting God exhibition, Adding 2”, is a pun on the contemporary Chinese performance work,
To Add One Metre to an Anonymous Mountain. In his work Warren uses objects to address issues of waste
and conservation. Discarded religious images are found amongst detritus such as bottle tops, used razor
blades, plastic cutlery, pins and clips. The uncomfortable relationship between the unwanted material objects
and spiritual icons creates further complexities in the work. Inherent in contemporary societies’ replacement
of traditional spiritual practices with material acquisition, are the massive problems associated with overuse
of resources and recycling. The issue of belief is also being addressed in the work of many young Chinese
contemporary artists – the shift from spiritual faith to a belief in the capacity of political, and more recently,
economic power to transform lives has been found wanting for the majority of people who are left with a
Despite his seriousness, Warren still manages to adopt an attitude of self-irony. He casts the objects in Adding
2” in latex for easy transport and sprays the result in gold paint. His ability to see and use irony enables him
to expose situational values without moralising or pontificating on right and wrong. He sees the yin and yang
of policies, practices, conventions as two sides of the same coin (or biscuit) – a circular continuum rather than
parallel paths. Although born in England, Warren embraces many Eastern philosophies and beliefs.
On one of many excursions to the Himalayas from both Nepal and Tibet, Warren was reminded that the
essentials for survival lay in a few small things like a torch, paper and a box of matches – ‘NOTHING else
In his recent book ‘The God Delusion’ the philosopher and atheist Richard Dawkins suggests that religion, so long the moral compass of humanity, can be revealed as nothing but the antonym of logic and reason. Worse still, the superstitions that constitute these most revered and indeed reviled of human institutions are not so much guides to a better life, but the wellspring of our collective failures and woes. Nobody, Dawkins suggests, can lay claim to a religion unblemished by tyranny, nor assert in the face of logic and humanist principles a divinity for which man is a naturally compassionate beast. Where Dawkins is certainly a leader in the field of religious critique, popular too in the press, concerns such as these are seldom if ever the subject of contemporary exhibitions of art. Although for several centuries previously the expressive endeavours of our kind were pinned to religious conviction, nowadays to be sure no such provisos exist. What the Enlightenment set asunder Modernity consigned to the grave, so much so that few in the contemporary arena would consider exhuming the corpse. Nietzsche in the end won the day and only the loonies oppose. This exhibition therefore is unusual, not so much for the artists it comprehensively features, as its preposition that the dilemmas of the current era are not merely modern inventions but rooted in our deepest and most ancient values and beliefs. Neither as one might expect is the curatorial focus didactically psychoanalytic in tone. What is posed and presented by this gathering are but some of the avenues available to our cultures and to ourselves as we approach and shape and fall towards a future we can scarcely begin to predict. The title, Post Eden, poses quite broadly a state of separation, though whether so wondrous a place existed and for that matter what life there really was like is something we can never know for sure. What concerns us moreover today is how we might tackle and survive the mess we’ve created so fully since then.
First up artist Wayne Warren, whose new sculptural pieces present consumer and religious items in a gilded jostle of detritus, speaks to the post-Eden condition as one in which material and cultural abundance amounts to nought but a squandering of resources. If we are to believe the biblical mythology, man was at peace in the primal garden until the temptations of knowledge intervened. It was from this first step however that all such industry and inventiveness ensued, our arts also blossomed and accordingly our troubles too were born. Warren for one has pondered the mythic Eden expulsion in his musings on culture’s vast evolutionary cycles, seeing the problems of the current era as rooted deeply in the distant yet psychically potent past. Like many with concerns for the future, he has questioned not religion per se, but the structures that we take so easily to heart. If Eden for example be a thing latently cherished then our connection to nature is conflicted. Accepting that our separation from paradise arises in a distant garden of pre-history then certainly, in this secular and uncertain era, our joyous return is doubtful at best.
In contrast artist Lindy Lee has long been a practitioner of Buddhism, so Eden and the expulsion of man is for her hardly a thing of concern. States of grace where they manifest, be they nirvana or emptiness or enlightenment are conditions to which one might ultimately and practically aspire. Suffering, which we are told is inevitable, is not a product of separation or loss or forgetting but rather as the upshot of causality. Lee’s sculptural Zen evocations, be they the moon in a delicate dewdrop or allusions to the end of time, addresses a perception of nature as both pervasive and karmically determined. These are beautiful images and ideas, yet despite their obvious appeal and allure, denaturing and the pawl of carbon pollution is as pervasive in the countries of the East as they are in the rest of the world. Lee’s Buddhist epistemology might be read as immediately environmental in tone, but rather more deeply they radically challenge our perception of time and our place in the world. Impossible though it is to articulate the enlightened condition, this at least offers a proactive alternative to the supposed self-induced fall from grace. Eden is not a thing of the past but potentially close to hand.
Somewhat more grounded in the body, Tony Scott peruses the expulsion from paradise as a metaphor for aging and mortal decay. His new installation pieces, works in which human figures are wired to antique medical devices, address the post-Eden condition as one in which suffering is an inevitable though workable part of the game. Conceived as testaments and reflections on the tribulations of bodily change, it conjures all manner of medical scenarios, from which none but the darkly humorous might find relief. Certainly Scott and Lee are polarities in this discursive doom-laden spectrum, commuting between enlightenment on the one hand and decay on the other side. I like in particular Scott’s oversized Chinese ear; a pinkish thing with acupuncture points illustrated. I know that traditional Eastern practitioners see the ear as tiny bodily map, but construed at the size of this sculpture I think also of Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ (c.1500), that weirdest of early paintings where ears quite like this one are deployed as menacing flesh-cutting creatures. Seemingly therefore even Scott’s work is informed by the Eden cycle iconography, albeit in its hellish demise.
Quite like subterranean stalactites, Jayne Dyer’s installation of scaled down skyscrapers and buildings hangs from the museum ceiling, making havoc with these monumental forms. As symbols of a modern utopia these steel and glass covered towers are both adored and maligned in our cities. From the outset they promised a pristine existence away from the mess and squalor of the streets. In New York especially, where conditions on the ground were foul, triumphal visions were ignited but faded as the millennium grew near. Without its towers the big apple was a feted and dirty bedlam, while those in their penthouse apartments were the kings of a new kind of clean. So much since then has changed. The Twin Towers are gone and our faith in city utopias lay shrouded in smog and doubt. Space also is mediated through the highways of the digital age, where networks rather than buildings are shaping the way we fashion the world.
Conceived by Reg Newitt as a project for the Today Art Museum, one wonders what Beijing audiences will make of these various visual artists whose lives, though strongly connected to this city, hail from sundry points abroad. Here in the Chinese capital Eden was never much on the cards. Utopian visions however, whether recently proletarian in nature or alternatively spiritually attained seem both to have suffered of late. If however, a crisis of belief is a condition that unites our world today, and certainly for many it is so, then the artists in this exhibition strike a chord of considerable worth. That said, the further dimension of this project, the likes of which is perhaps only alluded to in its title, is not so much the fashion in which loss or doubt is framed, but more the manner that each of these artists negotiates their response to an uncertain world. If this be post-Eden personified then it is one where creativity, and knowledge and scepticism are the tools that might in the end see us through.
Damian Smith, 2010