Images of an
inventive construction

The Age 4.2.1992

The 1980s was notable in photo­graphic history for the pre-emi­nence of staged imagery as opposed to the traditional approach of “the captured image’ — photojournal­ism and the like. Terms such as “fabri­cation” and “directorial mode” sprang up to describe the shift towards a work­ing approach, where artists assembled the parts of a picture — still life, tab­leaux or collage — instead of going out Into the real world to find the subject.

‘A Constructed Reality’ gives a fair idea of these trends, especially in Aus­tralia, although it does so without much style; the exhibition is poorly lit, too sparsely hung and lacks sufficient text to give the pictures meaning to a general audience.

The inventiveness of the artists in constructing their images is remark­able. however. New Zealander Boyd Webb and the team of Farrell and Par­kin, for example, create elaborate melodramas where the theatricality and staginess show through, as in a school play. Others, such as Chris Bar­ry and Robyn Stacey make large and visually impressive montages using re-photographed imagery. The work is predominantly big, colorful and public, much of it derived from TV and movie culture. Quiet, contemplative art seems to be out of fashion, a sign of the times.

The work of Fiona Hall and Christine Cornish stands out in the exhibition. Hall is one of our most prolific and restless artists. In a career that goes back to the early ’70s she has produced vastly different bodies of work that show her delight in mastering a range of techniques and traditions. There is no one Fiona Hall style. The series ‘Words’ consists of small human figures shaped out of cut tin. In some, their poses spell out words such as ‘Display’, ‘Write’, ‘Mirror’ and they are placed against apocalyptic backgrounds of fire and smoke.

In one, a naked female figure stands facing us with hands cupped to her ears. The word ‘Mirror’ is finger-paint­ed on one side and reversed on the other. It is difficult to describe the strangeness of these images.

The Cornish series is called ‘Natura Morte’, a traditional name for still life. These are very dark, formal images of simple objects such as stones and wood­en toys, framed in black. They are ex­tremely severe and uncompromising images and their darkness forces the viewer to peer inside the print. This makes looking a deliberate act, but re­veals only mystifying objects. Mystery is at the heart of this work; these sol­emn, ceremonial images work as ob­jects for meditation on mortality.

Ideology is the main concern of most of the artists, whether it derives from feminism (Cindy Sherman), as a way of deconstructing media culture (Robyn Stacey) or investigating ethnic issues (Tracy Moffatt). Although the work has a high moral tone, personal experience and private belief — at least in the modernist sense — play no part. Post­modernism virtually precludes individ­ual experience as a subject for art, questioning instead the hidden ideolog­ical structures of society.

But who determines which ideolo­gies are to be questioned? The Stalinist term “ideologically unsound” was of­ten used in the 1980s and not always in jest. Its use in criticising certain types of work points to one of the main prob­lems in recent photography. The politi­cal homogeneity of much art, such as appears in ‘A Constructed Reality’, means that one ideological front is ac­ceptable; that is feminist, multicultur­al, deconstructivist.

The very notion of art as far to the right as this is to the left reaching gal­lery walls or being supported by the journals is beyond the realms of possi­ bility. This is not to wish for fascist propaganda in our galleries, but only to point out the institutional barriers to a different voice. Post-modernists tend to question all ideologies, except the ideology of ques­tioning ideologies.

This is what gives rise to accusations of a new academy. There is diversity, but only within certain limits. These limits are set in the academic institu­ tions where the artists study and teach, in the critical magazines thai so care­fully nurture them, and by sympathetic curators and funding bodies. The prod­uct of all this is a stratum of middle-class professional artists whose work is polished but largely predetermined. The difference between this academy and that of the 19th Century is that today academicians believe them them­selves to be the avant-garde.­