Thursday, October 29, 2009
The delicious shiver of anticipation I savoured on the Ghost Train as a ten-year-old at Luna Park came back to me at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art’s current exhibition for the Melbourne International Arts Festival, The Dwelling.
Disembodied voices, record players that turn themselves on, the sounds of gun shot and the crunch of angry footsteps are just some of the discomforting effects you’ll experience at this exhibition, curated by ACCA’s artistic director Juliana Engberg and organised by Hannah Matthews.
The home in Western culture is supposed to be a place of security and comfort, but crime statistics and the thriller genre suggest otherwise. The ghostly or monstrous can be as frightening as the humans who might want to harm us. The psyche, too, can be a terrifying, unpredictable place to dwell.
The non-living are particularly disturbing because they confound the opposites of presence and absence. If a house is said to be haunted, we talk about the possibility of a 'non-human' presence, but ghosts themselves were once human. Is any place ever really empty? And aren’t we all haunted, in a way, by our immersion in popular culture, our personal and family histories, and our own imaginations? Fairy tales, too, which most of us grow up with, echo the dark themes of sexual taboo and the fear of annihilation that structure the psyche.
These contradictory ideas and questions swirl about the exhibition, which can be enjoyed on both superficial and more profound levels.
Sofia Hulten’s ‘Familiars’ 2007 is a series of DVDs shown on small video screens throughout the exhibition space. They depict humans creating what seem to be ‘ghostly’ or uncanny sabotages of the normal domestic environment. Six glasses balance precariously on a stove top; a stain in a patterned carpet ruins the aesthetics; smoke oozes slowly and evocatively from a wooden chair.
These domestic objects bear the marks of human intervention, perhaps conflating the uncanny with the idea of humans leaving their marks on the material world. There’s also the question of whether conventional ‘scariness’ is compatible with the Western middle class ideal of domesticity, as well as a possible, gentle send-up of a middle class obsession with domestic rituals.
Crime and absence are both explored by Callum Morton in ‘International style’ 1999. Peering inside Morton’s large model of a ghostly white modernist home, with its huge, platform-like verandah and shifting disco-inspired lighting, reveals that it’s populated only by electrical apparatus.
These cords and boxes, themselves betraying human intervention, produce the soundtrack of a happy crowd of partygoers – the house, with its large uncurtained windows, is trapped in a time-warped modernist dream. Surely it must have wanted the lives of its inhabitants to be visible to the outside world in all their post-war consumerist perfection – indeed, the urge to look inside is invited, although it is rebuffed by this familiarly banal technology.
But the modernist dream has a dystopian outcome, dramatised by the disturbing soundtrack (make sure you stick around to the ‘end’). And that in turn evokes a thousand American 50s and 60s B-movies with subtextual critiques of modern life.
Modernism, with its obsession with the future, now becomes a receptacle of past, not-quite-buried societal and economic dreams. There are many different kinds of hauntings going on here.
Finnish filmmaker and artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s ‘The house’ speaks to a very different notion of the dwelling. I first saw this striking video installation at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2004 and I was just as impressed the second time around. The work operates so well on a visceral level that the complicated ideas it deals with seep effortlessly into the unconscious.
The installation plays out on three huge screens adjacent to each other. It appears to represent the testimony of a sufferer of psychosis, and has its basis in interviews Ahtila conducted with female sufferers. The subtitled text, which is a soundtrack rather than being spoken by the central character, offers a first-person account of a young woman whose internal reality is dissolving with terrifying speed. Vivid images of the character in her house, in a peaceful rural setting, map her disintegration.
The house begins as a receptacle of safety and domestic routine but then everyday sounds become disengaged from their sources and the external world begins to invade, such as when a cow casually wanders inside. Eventually, nothing is separate from anything else: ‘The ship you see on the horizon is the same ship as all the other ships, and this ship is full of the refugees who come to every shore’.
The house can be seen as a metaphor for the psyche invaded by mental illness, with its frightening and surreal sensations. This is augmented by the strong colours and clear and arresting images, all somehow heightened by the fact that it’s happening in broad daylight. This same contradictory brightness and the character’s release into flight suggest there are mystical experiences for the sufferer and ultimately a sense of oneness that is liberating. Ahtila’s work goes beyond the experience of mental illness to consider the breakdown of the boundary between the internal and the external in the areas of ideas, representation, and subjectivity.
‘Opera for a small room’ 2005, by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, crystallises and condenses the feeling of uncanny absence that Callum Morton’s work plays with. The ‘opera’ plays out in a life-size wooden structure with several window squares the viewer can peer through. The sense of decay, age and abandonment is powerful: what has this room been, with its dated suitcases, stacks of old records and shaky chandelier?
While there are traces of the loungeroom or even a radio broadcast booth, the room’s suggested past domesticity is subsumed among the clumsy apparatus. Five old record players turn on and off as if by magic to produce a static-y spoken narrative by a disturbed-sounding male against the strains of Puccini. Sudden lighting changes and creepy sound effects unsettle the viewer even as they propel the narrative forward. Surrounded by darkness, we are compelled to attempt to make sense of the mise en scène, the work corralling our own susceptibilities and imaginations.
Domestic horror is suggested by another installation by Cardiff and Bures Miller, ‘Cabin fever’, 2004. Again, the viewer peeks inside a wooden structure, this one smaller and offering only a single view of a diorama: a sparsely wooded foreground fronting a rural cabin with lit windows.
Here, lighting and sound tell a chilling narrative that is always playing both off stage and in our imaginations. Wearing earphones, the viewer is asked to provide much of the imaginative fuel, but braking cars, the sinister crunch of heavy footsteps and the muffled sound of a telephone ringing suggest that some rural version of Raymond Chandler is about to be played out!
An American dystopia appears in a different guise in David Haines and Joyce Hinterding’s ‘House II: The Great Artesian Basin Pennsylvania’, 2003. It’s a DVD projection featuring a gothic-looking house that made me think of the famous one in Hitchcock’s Psycho. Water gushes out of this grey, rather ghostly looking double storey and floods the foreground. The blown-up nature of the image made me think of Howard Arkley’s airbrushed effects.
The exhibition also features a video work by David Noonan and Simon Tevaks, and a 1983 hour-long film by Chantal Akerman, The Man with the Valise. I only caught the end of this because it was screening at particular times rather than on an endless loop – contact ACCA for screening times.
The Dwelling is showing at ACCA, 111 Sturt Street Southbank, until 29 November.