Not Dying, Changing

5 minute read
Michael Fitzgerald | Adelaide

Photography is dead! Long Live Photography.” Such was the title of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney’s 1996 show, which pondered the future of photography in our computer-generated age. With a Los Angeles Times photographer fired during the Iraq war after he combined two images for added impact, it’s a question that hasn’t gone away. Just this month, British painter David Hockney, longing for the days when photography was the domain of darkrooms, not digital cameras, said the art form was dying because of its inability to remain “truthful” and “authentic.”

Walk around the contemporary photo-media works of the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art – at the Art Gallery of South Australia through May 30 – and death is everywhere. For visitors who can prise themselves away from Mike Parr, filmed sewing his face together in a kind of grimacing death mask, there’s Adam Geczy’s video elegy for the Port Arthur massacre, and TV footage of the Moscow theater siege glimpsed through the living-room curtains of Linda Wallace’s installation Entanglements, 2004. Then there’s the wicked whack of Destiny Deacon’s bloodied boomerang in her enlarged Polaroid, My Boomerang Did Come Back, 2003. So do the images in this powerful survey – which goes to show that photography isn’t dead. It’s just got nine lives.

When Julie Robinson, the AGSA’s head of prints, drawings and photographs, curated her first survey show back in 1990, it was a more straightforward affair. Then, pictures simply stared back at audiences – looming larger, perhaps, because of the bold new type-C prints being adopted by rising stars like Bill Henson and Tracey Moffatt, but mute and mysterious all the same. Fourteen years on, Henson and Moffatt have been joined by a more raucous mob of artists, whose pictures answer back – or, to cite one of Moffatt’s videos, give Lip. “The momentum’s been building,” Robinson says of the rise of Australian photo media, “and it’s becoming more diverse.”

The 20 artists she has brought together in Adelaide explode the idea of what photography can be. There are the type-C seascapes wrapped round beach balls in Derek Kreckler’s Holey 1, 2, 3, 2003, which cleverly shows up the medium’s two-dimensional shortcomings. Then there’s the anti-war imagery scanned from the Internet and drawn over 4,000 Post-It notes in Silvia Vlez’s Not In My Name, 2004. Above all, the show attempts to free up the frozen image, capturing the shift in contemporary art from photography to video and back again. Exhibit A is Patricia Piccinini, mistress of the morph. For her wondrous meditations on genetic engineering, it’s only natural that she has spawned a mutant medium. Here Piccinini is represented by her Venice Biennale video, Plasmid Region, 2003, which shows a magnified plasmid cell slowly reproducing. How to love her offspring, including her often photographed “siren mole,” is a question her deeply disturbing work raises.

While the show highlights the inherent restlessness of the medium – in Craig Walsh’s video Cross-Reference, 2004, distracted crowds filmed at a music festival peer through one of the gallery’s fire doors – some of the best work in the Biennial is as still as a painting. Indeed, Rosemary Laing’s latest suite of photographs, One Dozen Unnatural Disasters in the Australian Landscape, sits charmingly alongside a new exhibition of the colonial painter John Glover. If his A View of the Artist’s House and Garden, 1835, shows how Glover tried to plant a corner of England in the wilds of Tasmania, so Laing’s Burning Ayer #1, 2003, illustrates a similar impulse to Europeanize the Outback. Here the photographer has shot a mountain of Ikea-type furniture dusted in ocher and shaped like Uluru – a supremely surreal image: Laing had the mountain flown in to a remote region of Western Australia, and the photo is untouched by any digital wand.

But if Laing is the drover’s wife of Australian photography, Bill Henson is its Caravaggio. Entering the Old Master’s new suite of seven photographs, which Henson has installed in a darkened room, is like entering night – or, rather, the twilight zone. His portraits of half-clad teens offset by landscapes of twisting roads and glinting industry capture life on the cusp – between light and dark, bush and city, innocence and experience. For Henson, something dies each time he releases the camera’s shutter. “It’s relentlessly fascinating and powerful to me for that reason,” he told Time last year. “Every photograph is a memento mori.”

If photography is dead, it has never looked more beautiful. And if David Hockney were to visit Adelaide, he would probably stop dead in his tracks before one of Liu Xiao Xian’s startling Lamda prints. For Liu’s Home series, the Beijing-born, Sydney-based artist has Photoshopped Chinese family portraits before painted backcloths of places like the Summer Palace and Tiananmen Tower, together with larger backdrops of tourist sites such as Buckingham Palace and Sydney Harbour. With these digital dioramas of hope and home, Liu suggests photography’s infinite possibilities, not its death. Here Hockney’s worst nightmare is Adelaide’s delight.

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