Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Body Art

By Louise Martin Chew

Michael Zavros, Phoebe is dead/Mcqueen (2010)

Installation view of Charles Robb’s Total Theory (Vertical) at Dianne Tanzer’s stand at the Melbourne Art Fair. Painting behind is Juan Ford.

Martin Browne Fine Art at Melbourne Art Fair, 2010, with Linde Ivimey’s Bunny in foreground right

Our human relationship with our bodies is unique. Fraught, subject to millions of words, films, studies, it is endlessly psycho-busted, the bane of our cerebral existence. It is the Mercedes Benz Fashion Festival in Brisbane (7-13 August 2010), and clothes, décor for our bodies, are the order of the day, as outfits, shoes and bags are selected. What we wear, how and why, is being discussed and presented with its intrinsically moving personal memories, from now and from history, and what represents style is analysed, researched and dissected. A good, bad, or mediocre day can be utterly dictated (for so many women at the very least), by the reading on the scales in the morning. How we look shapes how we feel and present to ourselves - and others.

The body has also defined visual art since the beginning of time, being the first subject, never exhausted. Today, Michael Zavros’s Phoebe is dead/Mcqueen (2010) took out the Doug Moran Portraiture Prize, Australia’s richest at $150,000, with a painting of his daughter that imagines the worst event that may befall a parent. This highly successful work expresses the body’s ultimate betrayal, an emotional tour de force that, in its execution and its conceptual depth, transcends the personal. (See Art Monthly September 2010) 

Last week the Melbourne Art Fair began with Bill Henson’s keynote address – his first public comments since the scandal that erupted with his 2008 exhibition at Roslyn Oxley Gallery in Sydney. This scandal was, at its heart, about societal discomfort with the body, stimulated by the teenagers that Henson uses as models in his work. This discomfort is about fear - of nudity, nakedness and sexuality. On one level it renders humans faintly ridiculous. I have the odd surreal moment when I imagine my dog, chickens, and other animals (who observe us as we do them) discussing human necessity for obfuscation about base bodily tendencies.
The standout art works at the Melbourne Art Fair 2010 were also rooted in our complex relationships with the body in their expression of tendencies that are repressed, feared and marvelled at. As rigid as they were claustrophobic were Charles Robb’s new sculptural works in Dianne Tanzer’s stand. These life size figures self portraits dressed in protective suits were made of acrylic resin / hydrocal. The standing figure, Total Theory (Vertical), was encased in a bag drawn tight around the body with the bag open only a few centimetres around the mouth. Another, lying on the floor, was buckled in a frozen spasm, agonised, discomfited and discomfiting.

TrepanierBaer Gallery, from Canada, was one of a handful of international participants, and showed Evan Penny’s superreal, oversized silicon heads. These have a superficial similarity to Ron Mueck’s work, but their sliver thin distortion, only visible as you move around them, took them beyond simple spectacle into a realm of difference. And finally, with moving acknowledgement of the fragility of our bodies, is Linde Ivimey’s Bunny. This figure is also sculptural, constructed with a crafted bone exoskeleton. Her head has ears, a face without defined features but nonetheless portraying humility and acceptance, and she proffered up a liver in an open hand. This work is about bodily betrayal, the unknown that may steal within our organs and strike at our vitality. Yet Bunny seems patiently forgiving, acknowledging the body’s power. Intriguingly, all three of these works are self portraits.

There was quality and diversity in the art, and all the (usual) fun of the fair. But importantly, after a difficult year in the visual arts, there was also a real sense of vitality in its reception, with sales beginning with the Vernissage and continuing steadily throughout the four days. Perhaps this was influenced to some extent by the political vow from all parties, during an election, to overturn the recommendation of the Cooper Review to ban art for self-managed superannuation funds. Or perhaps it was as much GFC fatigue. Art in Australia has an audience and a devoted group is weary of negatives and keen to commit.

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