Friday, April 27, 2012

AES + F, Allegoria Sacra, Art Gallery of South Australia

Visiting my family in Adelaide, South Australia, I have three or four non-negotiable activities, all of which fall within the city square mile. One of these is a visit to the Art Gallery of South Australia where I love to see the post-war Australian paintings. This visit, however, the genteel folk of Adelaide had made so much noise about their new director’s recent choice of temporary installation that I made a beeline for Gallery 15 on the upper floor to see the Russian collective, AES + F’s Allegoria Sacra, 2011.
Giovanni Bellini, Allegoria Sacra, 1485-88
Allegoria Sacra, the third part of a trilogy depicting, heaven, earth and purgatory, is apparently conceived after Bellini’s painting of the same title from 1485-88. Where Bellini’s characters are suspended on a terrace or landing, grouped according to their age, gender, social station, AES + F’s allegory is set in an airport. The modern airport is, as Foucault told us all those years ago, an other space, a place where all social hierarchies become alleviated as everyone waist, suspended in a time and place that is neither then nor now, here nor there. AES + F use this liminal space and time to explore the alienation, the stereotyping, the paranoia and destruction of the contemporary world. Characters are grouped, as they are in Bellini’s work, according to gender, age, and in an obvious contemporary turn, according to their race and religious persuasion. For example, we see young middle eastern men who we immediately interpret as would-be terrorists, two gay men with their perfectly identical twin girls who we assume are the product of IVF, a young boy with the SS insignia tattooed on his neck who wields a baseball bat, model-like white men and women who appear to have stepped off the page of Vogue magazine, and a group of Asian men who are identical in their physical appearance, dress, mannerisms, even their actions. 
AES + F, Allegoria Sacra, 2011

All of these characters proliferate across the 45 minute video. As still photographic images that are put into motion, animated through computer generated video images, what is most impressive is the self consciousness of the images. We perceive the motion as it happens, at times, morphing or stuttering as one image becomes another, as the figures at times awkwardly progress across the huge screen. As viewers we are carried along by the rich soundtrack, that, like the images, is at one and the same time foreboding, dark, and in the vein of all good Romantic aesthetics, energizing, filling us with awe and wonder.  Vivaldi’s Sorrows of the Mary, Handel’s Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline, Tchaikovsky’s final symphony, Chopin’s funeral march, all of which are manipulated by the Japanese composer Ryoji Ikeda
AES + F, Allegoria Sacra, 2011
The images in the airport flow into mythical, dreamlike landscapes that reminded me of De Chirico or Dali’s surrealist fantasies. However, in these landscapes Allegoria Sacra finds war, cannibalism, violence and death. Men are repeatedly seen as the progenitors of destruction, and women the caretakers of peace, a centaur as the symbol of strength and power in these hostile lands. These worlds are filled with monsters, rivers that lead to space stations, a jungle in which all vegetation has long since died. And then, outside the airport, all turns to a snow covered disaster, reminding of the hopeless narratives of airplane disaster films from the 1970s. There is apparently no going back from this to another world in which time and space are logical, controllable. Thus, Allegoria Sacra’s vision of the contemporary, multi-ethnic world of infinite possibility is at one and the same time, luscious, lyrical, and visually sumptuous, as well as being devastating, devastated. As worlds, art historical periods and movements as well as people of different ages, races, creeds collide, in a typical postmodern carnival, so do values and ethics. Pure of heart pagans come face to face with unchristened children, the righteous and blasphemous all await their fate in the liminal space and time of Allegoria Sacra.
AES + F, Allegoria Sacra, 2011

The lady sitting next to me on the bench kept telling me that the 10 metre computer generated, video animation image was poorly displayed. She kept telling me we needed to be sitting further away, at a distance where we could consume the entire screen in one glance. On the contrary, I was impressed by the proximity to the screen at which the viewing bench had been quite deliberately placed, in the centre of the nineteenth century hall. The work is displayed so that we are forced to read the video images as we would a classical history painting – from left to right as a narrative. But then I changed my mind. Having begun looking at and reading the video as if it were a historical narrative, on reflection, as one impossible scene morphed into another, I realized the only way to understand the work was to sit and let myself go, to flow with the rhythms and transformations, the morphing of figures and landscapes into unknown and unfathomable dreams, nightmares. And so, because of the beauty of the images, the richness of an albeit fragmented soundtrack, the work filled me with a sense of Romantic possibility. Thus, Allegoria Sacra became gorgeous much more than it was tragic. Surely then anything other than a literal understanding of the dramatic images becomes problematic, that is, if they become sumptuous and given to Romantic yearning?

AES + F, Allegoria Sacra, 2011

Ultimately, the impossibility of our place within this ill-defined world is perhaps what is most troubling about the piece. And this uncertainty is, in turn, no doubt responsible for the gamut of responses the work has attracted from Adelaide audiences. The provocative and radical Allegoria Sacra are, I hope, indicative of the challenges that Nick Mitzevich will bring to unsuspecting Adelaide audiences in his tenure as director. 

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