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Monthly Archives: September 2010

Arlo Mountford

Shepparton Art Gallery

We always want something more

Arlo Mountford loves to peel away the intertwined layers of art history, exploring, parodying, and subverting it in often humourous and outlandish ways. Born in the UK and currently practising in Melbourne, Mountford’s visual language which includes animated video works and interactive installations, references imagery of iconic artworks and popular culture such as Pac man, JFK, and You tube videos. We are all familiar with this imagery – works of art that we came across when we were in high school, pop culture icons that we encounter in the media as we go through our daily rituals and artworks that culturally inform how we perceive the world around us. It is this sense of familiarity that is picked apart and broken down as Mountford skilfully engages with and re-interprets these famous artworks to understand their context and indeed their subject matter within his own artworks.

Embracing the post-modern strategy of appropriation – the notion of taking references from established tropes and histories in order to re-configure them – Mountford’s work The Pioneer Meets the Wanderer (2006) is an animated homage to Australian art history. Here we encounter the rudimentary stick figure style figures which feature so prominently in his practice. Perhaps these black dot-matrix style figures are representations of Mountford himself, exploring and understanding the constructed world that envelops them – a kind of digital doppelganger? In The Pioneer Meets the Wanderer however, Mountford cleverly leaves this unanswered, as we encounter two figures lying aimlessly on a visually flat computer rendered beach as vivid blue waves lap onto the shoreline.

The relative calm of this scene is punctured as a unicycle unnervingly appears from the depths of the water. Seemingly random and out of context, it takes a few moments to realise that this is a reference to Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913)[1] – a key European modernist artwork which formed part of a series of artworks termed the ‘readymade’[2]. As the scene pans across, we become swept up in Mountford’s game of show and tell, as references from Frederick McCubbins’ The Pioneer (1904) and the film Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) begin to emerge thick and fast. After rocking out to a punk soundtrack juxtaposed with familiar sound grabs from the film, Mountford’s two art renegades negotiate an awkward encounter with two new figures. As they descend down a flight of stairs you notice that one of the new figures appears without a circular head, but featuring instead a series of interchanging motifs from iconic Australian artworks by John Brack, Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker – a visual slideshow of the Australian modernist movement. Not leaving any chance to re-contextualise art history, Mountford irreverently shows this figure being decapitated, concurrently dissecting and subverting the iconic imagery that came to represent a new modern Australian aesthetic.

Traipsing through the annals of Australian art history makes way for a self consciously ironic tribute to the artworks that framed the Abstract Expressionist period in America during the mid twentieth century in Return to Point (2006). There is a sense of playfulness and discovery that permeates throughout this video work which sometimes belies the serious nature of the social and cultural upheaval that inherently characterised this period of American art history. It’s hard not to at the same time, explore these social events as artists like Robert Rauschenberg, William de Kooning and Jackson Pollock created works that not only displayed a sense of brashness and bravado, but also exhibited a kind of new modern visual language that actively sort to subvert established art aesthetics. In Return to Point, Mountford skilfully renders and reinterprets these moments into flat two-dimensional representations – from Pollock’s vibrant movement as he haphazardly throws down paint onto a canvas to Rauschenberg’s appropriation of found materials to create strange sculptural works. Juxtaposing these flat representations against montages of the Kennedy assassination and a soundtrack which includes HAL[3]-like narration, Mountford provides the viewer not only with an artwork that explores social context and its role in the informing art history but he also carefully negotiates multiple conceptual layers – from representation versus the original work to the post modern strategy of parody. Aesthetically, the naive flatness of the animation positions the original images that they are based on, as somehow lifeless, detached from their original context. Describing this combination of the original and its digital copy in a recent work The Folly (2009), Mountford characterises this as a kind of conflict:

‘There is a conflict of sorts between the original images and my animation of them. When the redrawn images are static they are beautiful but when they move they become crude and simple because they are limited by their two dimensionality. The audience is reminded of the author and the work becomes about my concept and intentions.’[4]

It is this reminder of the original work and its author that ultimately promotes a visual double take from the viewer as they move between the moment of recognition and interpretation. In Return to Point, Mountford skilfully reconfigures these images, concurrently employing a strategy of wry social commentary whilst also investigating their place in art history.

Applying the same amount of cheekiness and wit when exploring the world around him whilst also critiquing our current media over saturation, We Wanted Something More (2007) is a work that expands on Mountford’s deconstruction of barriers between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. In this video work his trademark black figures reappear once again, sitting down to a game of chess. Making one carefully strategised move after the other, the relative stillness of the scene is fractured repeatedly by crass and often humorous YouTube video clips which document the everyday in its purest form. These mini scenes depict everything from acts of stupidity to the parading of hungry animals in front of a raucous audience – an act that could only result in grievous bodily harm. By animating and layering these banal and decidedly lowbrow YouTube videos – videos that gain popularity in an arbitrary nature purely fed by the internet – over a slow and mesmeric game of chess, Mountford positions the game of chess as an insignificant sideshow fading into the background. Mountford places these videos of slapstick stupidity front and centre, cleverly inverting established cultural hierarchies in one fell swoop.

Art institutions that play an integral part in maintaining these cultural hierarchies feature prominently in Mountford’s video work Murder in the Museum (2005). New York’s Guggenheim, Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Modern in London all act as backdrops in this animation that self-consciously parodies slasher films such as Friday the 13th (1980). In the first scene of this animated triptych, we witness a wheelchair bound protagonist aimlessly calling out ‘Becky, is that you?’ before he is ruthlessly stabbed in the head by a kitchen knife – the famous architectural spiral viewing platform of this building is then transformed by Mountford into a nightmarish spiral into death. In a deserted Museum of Modern Art, lovers caught in a moment of coital embrace in front of Barnett Newman’s sculpture Broken Obelisk (1963) are stabbed by an Indian hunting spear. Finally, a female protagonist is dismembered whereupon the killer cheekily pokes his tongue out and writes ‘DOM’ on the screen in digital droplets of blood. It’s hard not to have a wry smile on your face when you watch these mini narratives which act as humourous parodies of the movie genre but also morph into a critique of the reverence in which we hold art institutions. Mountford’s pop culture slasher/murderer is as much as subversive tool, as he is a character delightfully embedded with loads of black humour.

Always surprising, unnerving and humorous, you never know what lies around the corner in Mountford’s animations or what interesting situations his cheeky black figures will find themselves in as they playfully move from one scene to the next exploring the digital world around them.


[1] Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913) also features in Mountford’s work Return to Point (2006)

[2] The Readymades (1914-1923) by Marcel Duchamp was a series of artworks where an ordinary object such as a toilet bowl and bicycle wheel was appropriated and by manipulating this object, it became art. This represented a dramatic shift in how art was perceived – Duchamp’s series showed that you could create artworks from the everyday.

[3] HAL 9000, (1968) 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick.

[4] Cass, N. (2009). Artist as Higher Lifer, Flash magazine, Issue 2. Retrieved July 26, 2010 from: http://www.ccp.org.au/flash/author/naomi-cass-interviews-arlo-mountford/.

Copyright Leon Goh 2010 & Shepparton Art Gallery