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Dying In Spite of the Miraculous

8th October – 6th November 2010

Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces

200 Gertrude St

Fitzroy, VIC 3065

Dying In Spite of the Miraculous is a group exhibition which explores the various psychological states we inhabit and experience as our lives play out in their very own choreographed moments. It is an investigation of the real and the unknown, it seeks to elucidate how sites play an indelible role in informing our ways of being whilst also exploring the grey conceptual spaces that often emerge between the artist’s concept and the finished work. Curated by Emily Cormack, Alexie Glass-Kantor, Simon Maidment and Brett Sheehy and presented as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival, this exhibition features the work of artists such as Ulla Von Brandenburg, Jeremy Blake and Meg O’Callaghan.

As you enter Gertrude Contemporary, the front space is shrouded behind a wall of languid fabric draped elegantly from the ceiling. You make your way through this shroud, meandering precariously through visible pathways before stumbling upon the viewing space. It’s an unnerving experience that is mirrored in Ulla Von Brandenburg’s work Singspiel (2009). This video work – shot in black and white and displayed directly onto fabric – documents a selection of staged arbitrary human interactions and intimate moments within the surrounds of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoy. The camera moves slowly and gracefully, using the hallways and rooms of the Villa Savoy as a character in its own right, informing and eavesdropping on each scene from the background. As spectator, you are drawn into these private moments, into scenes of supposed serenity, into realms of the personal which are exposed for all to see – you become aware that these misc en scenes are entirely choreographed with actors playing out pre-empted characters. Overlayed with haunting music which appears to be mimed by the characters in a stream of consciousness loop, this work is entirely unnerving – the vignettes appear to be woven into an elaborate reality, functioning on a plane between the real and allegory.

From blurred realms between performance and the everyday to narratives of fictional fantasy juxtaposed against a backdrop of strange biomorphic hospital interiors, Saskia Olde Wolbers work Interloper (2003) continues this exhibition’s exploration of internal psychological states. Here Wolbers appropriates a narrative which details a doomed relationship between a doctor and a mistress. It is a tale that is haunting and ultimately about the lust for someone against better judgement, as the protagonist spirals further and further out of control. This tale – told by a hypnotic and mesmeric voice – is overlayed against imagery of a sterile white hospital. The interior landscape appears to melt away into the ether no longer resembling the sterile lifeless spaces that we are accustomed to. It is a beguiling backdrop, as glossy white blobs float off hard surfaces morphing into something new and entirely different. These surreal landscapes invite the viewer to peer into their own private worlds, questioning and interrogating the reality that surrounds them.

Fantastical landscapes also featured prominently in O’Callaghan’s work To the End (2007), though this time on an immense scale. Windswept, desolate and harsh, the landscape is situated front and centre in this work as it dwarfs and eventually consumes the lonely male protagonist. Employing filmic techniques to illustrate his futile struggle to find identity in an exiled world, there is a sense of hopelessness that pervades in this video. Appearing as a spaceman in a barren landscape, O’Callaghan’s lonely explorer perilously teeters on the edge of being engulfed by the world that surrounds him – in one sequence he literally sinks into a bubbling bog – which can be read as a metaphor of nature’s predilection to both provide and take away life. Exploring human will and its unwavering search for meaning, O’Callaghan’s work is as much about the articulation of profound loss as it is a visual record of the poetics of place.

More human in scale but nevertheless extending thematically on notions of loss, premonitions of failure and distress, Bas Jan Ader’s work I’m too sad to tell you (1971) adopts a first person perspective in displaying his own emotional journeys extremely close to the surface. In this work – which engenders a more intimate and personal experience for the viewer – Ader appears emotionally vulnerable as he becomes resigned to the anguish he faces. It is sadness that emanates slowly from within and it is an internal grief that that we can empathise with as he cries. As Cindy Loehr argued – when reviewing a retrospective of his work held at the UCR Sweeney gallery in California – Ader remained aware of his ultimate inability to express the sadness he found in the sublime. This failure, which may have deterred him, instead became the focus of his work.[1]

At its core, Dying in Spite of the Miraculous is an exhibition which beautifully navigated the grey spaces between the illusory and reality, between existence and the metaphysical as well as exploring the various psychological states that accompany loss and hopelessness. Also featuring Joachim Koester’s work Morning of the Magicians (2006) which displayed garden imagery in black and white silhouettes slowly morphing into a hallucinatory enveloping darkness and Jeremy Blake’s painterly digital animations which explored Sara Winchester’s gothic mansion ingeniously renovated to ward off the spirits of the people that were killed by Winchester firearms, this exhibition successfully brought to the surface the multitude of internal moments that are repressed in the human condition. As I stepped back onto the footpath on Gertrude St, my surroundings seemed to melt away into the ether as I became preoccupied with thoughts of my own existence – a moment of internal retrospection sparked by this profound exhibition.


[1] Cindy Loehr, “Bas Jan Ader”, New Art Examiner, vol 27, no.6, March (2000)

Copyright Leon Goh & Eyeline Magazine 2011