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mad love for Australian art: An Exhibition Review

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The first thing I felt upon walking through the doors to Berlin’s Arndt Art Agency (A3) on Fasanenstraße was a titillating sense of familiarity. There, directly in front of me was—and unmistakably so—a Piccinini sculpture. It was like stepping into a transporter and suddenly I was back at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, staring in wonder at a startling hyper realistic figure of a young girl, completely covered in hair, lovingly cradling a strange, unidentifiable creature.

Similiarly, Piccinini’s Eulogy (2011) at A3 depicts a man gingerly holding in his hands an objectively grotesque-looking creature. The title of the exhibition, mad love, is therefore a most apt one, in that mad, erratic, irrational love is never objective but rather accompanied, always, by a caveat of subjectivity.

Reminiscent of André Breton’s conceptualization of “L’Amour Fou”, leading Australian contemporary artist, as well as curator of the exhibition, Del Kathryn Barton penned a statement—brimming from her subconscious and purposefully left largely unedited—that encapsulates the instinctive, unrelenting, and overwhelming nature of love.

“Body as pleasure. Body as machine. Body longing, always longing. Hungry body, filthy body. Body to run. Body to deny. Thinking body. Muscle Body. Body as instrument and song, as instinct towards life. Body light. Body dark. Evolutionary body, dinosaur body. Plastic body. Colour body. BODY as unmitigated surges of light and energy, just briefly, but oh, such, such love……… mad, mad love.” — Del Kathryn Barton, September 2016 (source)

It was with this method in mind—to not overthink and instead give way to instinctual feelings—that Barton contacted fellow Australian artists Brook Andrew, Pat Brassington, Dale Frank, Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, Patricia Piccinini, Ben Quilty, and Paul Yore to participate in the exhibition.

The mad love exhibition is directly supported by the Australian Government in the initiative Australia Now, with Germany as host for 2017. It is a program dedicated to showcasing Australian art to the world and tackling any misconceptions people may have of Australia, and of Australian art, due in part to the perceived distance between the country and the rest of the world.

Though the exhibiting artists are all Australian, the exhibition itself is not necessarily focused on Australian art and therefore should not be seen as a representation of contemporary art in Australia. At least, not a complete one. To stay true to her subjective view of “mad love, and to curate an exhibition in line with that philosophy, Barton approached artists whose practice and oeuvre closely resembled her own. Thus, the artists exhibited are representative of Barton’s subjective decision-making rather than a conscious effort to represent Australian art.

Of course, what the exhibition is focused on is the theme of “mad love”, and the aforementioned artwork by Piccinini is a great exemplification of this theme. Eulogy (2011) is an ode to the blobfish (yep, the alien-like-yet-at-the-same-time-also-human-like creature the man is holding does in fact exist in real life—well for now anyway) which are currently facing extinction. Despite its unsightly appearance, however, the man display signs of care and respect for the fish. It harks back to a point in Barton’s statement that reads: “Body light. Body dark. Evolutionary body, dinosaur body. Plastic body. Colour body”, where the physicality—the body—is irrelevant when it comes to mad love. Or perhaps more accurately, the object of one’s affection can be anything, any body.

 

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Sculpture: Patricia Piccinini, Euology (2011).

Courtesy the artist and A3.

 

I found myself thinking a lot of the time, whilst I was at the exhibition and after it, that the theme of “body” was maybe a better fit than “mad love”. Indeed, Barton’s statement mentions the word “body” an awful lot. Piccinini’s other piece in the exhibition, The Osculating Curve (2016), is of an amorphous body with snout-like appendages. There were penises. Lots of them. Two entangled torsos in Barton’s hard wet (2017). A painted hand. A crotch. Heads.

 

Patricia Piccinini, The Osculating Curve (2016).

Courtesy the artist and A3.

Del Kathryn Barton, hard wet (2017).

More body than depictions of mad love. Or perhaps not?

Do they have to be exclusive?

How else do we best express our innermost, ineffable feelings of love and desire than with our bodies? Mad, mad love is hard to contain, hard to articulate, and hard to understand. It must be elevated to and expressed in the physical, in its rawest and most honest form.

The late Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori’s three large colorful abstract paintings (Thundi [2010]; Dibirdibi Country [2011]; and Dibirdibi Country [2012]) demand your attention in its dynamism. The thick, heavy brushstrokes are unrestrained and wild, like an unorganized song or dance; like the frantic undulations of a mad love. The titles of the artworks inform us that the paintings are representative of the lands from which her husband and father had come, thereby positioning family, identity, and place as the focal point of Gabori’s expression. The physical act of painting, the movements of the body, is used to tell a story of love and loss.

Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, Thundi (2010).

Paul Yore also deals with the theme of cultural identity in his 2016 mixed-media work, Art is Nature—though in this case, it is given a different kind of treatment. The 112 x 104cm satirical piece is a regurgitation of stereotypical Australiana. Koalas, spiders, a snake, “Give us a beer mate!”—all true, yes, though very much demonstrating the outsider’s limited perspective of Australia. Running along the top, disharmonious letters spell out “Abject! Australian Art”, which at its most basic level, highlights an utter lack of pride or dignity. A deeper consideration of the term ‘abject’ brings our focus to the body and bodily functions, which so happens to be the main visual focus in Art is Nature.

 

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Paul Yore, Art is Nature (2016).

Abjection is the disgust at and consequent repel of something that transgresses and threatens our perception of a clean body. The abject disturbs the understanding of self and identity, system, and order. It is the moment where meaning breaks down and is simultaneously our reaction to such a breakdown. The abject is primal. It does not adhere to rules or restrictions. And that’s exactly what mad love is. “Feelings r not facts”, exclaims the koala whilst engaged in fellatio, an incredible feat within itself. Sometimes it just doesn’t make any sense at all.

Barton’s own contributions to the exhibition depict the frenzied nature of love, however, instead of embracing it, the young female subject in and stain through hair and flesh…….. and stain through fur and flesh…….. (2017) appears to be overcome by the madness, slipping into a catatonic state. Her wide, unfocused eyes and slightly parted lips make her seem detached and as though she is no longer able to make sense of the mayhem (depicted by the dynamic red zigzags) that has her trapped, bending and reducing her into an almost foetal position.

 

Del Kathryn Barton, and stain through hair and flesh…….. and stain through fur and flesh…….. (2017).
Courtesy the artist and A3.

 

The impacts of mad love seem to be a lot more forgiving for the two-headed figure in hard wet (2017), though a certain vulnerability is still present. Here the being is buoyed into an otherworldly stratosphere, encircled by plants and birds, offspring of mother nature. The result is an erotically-charged image that seeks to bring light to and elevate the notion of female pleasure and desire.

Beyond the expressions of unbridled, teetering-on-the-insane passion within the artworks of the exhibiting artists, “mad love” is overall a descriptor of the artists’ love for doing what they do, for the creating of art. It is the risks they take, doing it all in spite of the controversies that may come. It is the mad love Gabori has for her family and her country. It is the mad love Piccinini has for the unconventional. It is the mad love Yore has for transgression. And finally, the exhibition is a showcase of the mad, mad love Barton has for each of the exhibiting artists, each one offering a different insight into the human condition.

 

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The mad love exhibition is currently on at Arndt Art Agency Fasanenstraße 28, 10719 Berlin until September 29, 2017.