Anthony Gardner The Same River Twice, Art & Australia, 2009
The Same River Twice
By Anthony Gardner
‘The Same River Twice’ was a strikingly ambitious project helmed by two curators from Brisbane’s leading public art galleries. The Institute of Modern Art’s Director Robert Leonard, and Angela Goddard, the Queensland Art Gallery’s Curator, Australian Art to 1970, drew together eight international artists and collaborations in a two-part exhibition that spanned five months of Brisbane’s summer and autumn. More significantly still, it focused on one of the core concerns of recent contemporary art practice. This was the notion of the ’re’ as it has affected contemporary culture, from the restagings and re-enactments of historical events in a number of movies and theme parks worldwide (think Merchant Ivory period films or the earnestness of Old Sydney Town), to the so-called ‘historiographic turn’ of artists as they revisit and revise art’s past so as to rethink or even resolve the problems of the present.
These themes have often weighed heavily in other exhibitions, such as the revolutionary drives in Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s 2008 Biennale of Sydney or Marina Abramovic’s development of protocols for reproducing performance artworks in her 2005 series ‘Seven Easy Pieces’. For ‘The Same River Twice’, however, Goddard and Leonard brought a more playful and humorous spin to the topic, mixing renowned and less expected works from this relatively new art genre. This was evident from the project’s first instalment, which combined works by key figures from the emerging canon of ’re-enactment art’ — Irish and English artists Gerard Byrne and Jeremy Deller (working with filmmaker Mike Figgis), Thomas Demand from Germany and Pierre Huyghe from France — together with the high jinks of the Melbourne- and Berlin-based collective Slave Pianos (a group comprising Rohan Drape, Neil Kelly, Danius Kesminas and Michael Stevenson). Their installation, The execution protocol, or pianology: A schema & historo-materialist pro-gnostic, 1998—2008, continued their practice of mechanising grand pianos and transforming them into high-end pianolas playing experimental sound pieces from the historical avant-garde. The repetitive plinkety-plonks emanating from the robotic ‘piano, and the instrument’s presentation within an oversized execution chair a la Claes Oldenburg brought a vicious cutesiness to the surrounding works. Recounted in Byrne’s three-monitor video installation Newsexual lifestyles,2003, the tales of liberated sexuality drawn from a roundtable discussion printed in a 1973 issue of Playboy magazine’ including details of some women’s engagements with their dogs that go far beyond a walk in the park ’ became more silly than scandalous or sordid. Similarly, Goddard and Leonard brought a pathos and futility to the mix-ups between memory and fiction in Huyghe’s The third memory, 1999, and between re-enactment and performance in Deller and Figgis’s The Battle of Orgreave, 2001, that have been difficult to experience in other presentations of these works.
This combination of the amusing and the pathetic was extended in part two of the exhibition. British artist Emma Kay’s Shakespeare from memory, 1998, abridged each of the Bard’s plays according to the details remembered by the artist; some summaries remained completely blank, as though the relevant text had not yet been read, while others were relayed in colloquial English, riddled with blatant errors and the ever-so-slightly misremembered. American Omer Fast’s two-channel video projection Godville, 2005, directly tackled the tourist industry of ‘living history’ museums, presenting a series of interviews with ‘interpreters’ from a theme park in Virginia called Colonial Williamsburg. Fast had fractured and re-edited the interviews so that words taken from different discussions some conducted in historical character, others more personalised and emotional ’ were combined like a videoed ransom note, making the interviewees appear locked in a netherworid between lived and re-enacted histories, projection and experience, and hostage to cultural memory. In a side gallery, Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy’s video FreshAcconci, 1995, showed naked porn stars re-enacting Vito Acconci’s seminal performances from the 1970s, an odd yet fitting conjunction that ultimately teased out the fine line that both porn and performance art tread between the earnest and the ridiculous.
Indeed, it was precisely this path between that ‘The Same River Twice’ identified as the core of contemporary re-enactment cultures. Such remobilisations of the past are never simply nostalgic, just as they are not inherently full of potential. They cannot be boiled down to pathos, to memorials, to a long-dead past or a sense of amusement garnered from the naivety of our forebears. As this two-part exhibition correctly revealed, aesthetics of restaging and re-imagining operate instead between these various positions, perpetually countering the ease of forgetting while ensuring that the rethinking of history can be a continuing font of wry pleasure.
The Same River Twice, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane; Part 1:6 December 2008 28 February 2009; Part 2:7 March’25 Aprii 2009.