Hope Dies Last: Art at the End of Optimism

‘We’re all going to die…’

These words, written on the work Don’t You See (2018) by Nell, are a stark reminder, and push for acceptance of our inevitable fate: death; but not without emotional pause. Explored with humour, compassion, sadness and resignation, ‘Hope Dies Last: Art at the End of Optimism’ confronts our expectations and concerns surrounding mortality, extinction, suffering and failure. Hope, can be defined as a concept that suggests a greater emotional component than mere expectation and seen as an active psychological vehicle for conscious and unconscious reasoning. So what happens at the precise moment the exhaled breath of optimism leaves our body and filters through the illusory denial of severe and challenging circumstances?

Presented across two sites – Gertrude Contemporary and Margaret Lawrence Gallery at the Victorian College of the Arts – in partnership with Melbourne International Arts Festival, the exhibition, curated by Mark Feary, brings together a selection of Australian and international contemporary artists: Vernon Ah Kee, Tony Garifalakis, Eric Jong, Escape from Woomera, Andrew Liversidge, Todd McMillan, Tracey Moffatt, Nell, Sanja Pahoki, Alex Seton, Grant Stevens and Myuran Sukumaran; and Chicks on Speed, Mutlu Çerkez, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Tony Garifalakis, Nell, Walid Raad, Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook and Myuran Sukumaran, respectively. From Armageddon-like footage and potentially exploding suns to the plight of death row inmates and asylum seekers and the trauma of colonialism, their work addresses historical and current issues embedded in political, social and religious ideologies as a result, or cause of our impending doom.

Pahoki’s Bang Head, Repeatedly (2007) sits in the window of Gertrude Contemporary, luring us in by what can be mistaken for effective shopfront advertising. The flickering neon animation depicts a linear representation of a sitting figure continuously banging their head against the table, either a result of overwhelming frustration or dissatisfaction; perhaps boredom. Nevertheless, their physical and emotional pain is felt and witnessed by the red mark on their forehead. Driven by empathy, and slight annoyance, we dare to enter the deep shadows of the human psyche; despite the pounding headache.

Inside we struggle to stay afloat with Seton’s Life Vest (emergency) (2014), as our hopes of making it to shore are weighed down with its heavy marble cast; or suffocate from an air of despondency and premature burial with Liversidge’s confronting wall cemetery, DEATH (I-X) (2017). Faced with obstacles and saturated with negativity, the glass can remain only half-full.

Tony Garifalakis, Fucking Optimism, 2007, installation view, ISCP, New York, 2007, cut felt and glue, 120 x 95cm . Courtesy of the artist, Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne, Hugo Michell Gallery, Adelaide, Gertrude Contemporary, Melbourne, Margaret Lawrence Gallery, Melbourne and Melbourne International Arts Festival

‘So much for my fucking optimism,’ proclaims Garifalakis in Fucking Optimism (2007), a black-felt banner with an inverted red cross and overlaid text in a Gothic font. The work stems from a more comprehensive series of works remaking infamous suicide notes, titled Mourning Glory (2007). While we might imagine these letters to be angry about the world, these final words are consumed by self-criticism and regret of ever being positive, almost seeing the attitude as a betrayal.

The exhibition is a commentary on our profound disappointment with humanity and modern day values and ideals and disempowerment in world politics. Case in point, Garifalakis’ Branch of the Terrible Ones (Trump) (2013) and Branch of the Terrible Ones (Putin) (2013) at Margaret Lawrence Gallery, altered portraits of the two world leaders, superimposed with colour blocks and inverted crosses, are self explanatory.

Several works show signs of content or extend beyond death’s confines. The late Çerkez’s works were all given one important date; not of its fabrication but that of a future appointment, to duplicate the painting in what was to be a lifelong series: ‘the original and the copies, in two different chronological orders’, said the artist. In Dead: 4 August 2027 (1992), Çerkez’s lifeless body peers out of one half-open eye at the viewer; defying the limitations of both life and death.

In The Class (2005) and Death Seminar B (2005), Rasdjarmrearnsook works with six cadavers obtained from a morgue. Placing them in a white room with a blackboard, they are her students; there to ‘discuss’ and inform us about time and memory, and life after death. This concept is also explored in Nell’s The Ghost Who Travels Will Never Die (TALL BLACK) (2019), a hand-blown glass piece in the shape of a Pac Man-like ghostly hooded form which represents the afterlife or, more in sync with the artist’s Buddhist beliefs, rebirth.

The smiling emoticons in Nell’s Don’t You See? (2018) and Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Smile and The Whole World Smiles With You (2017) remind us that despite the final destination, hope’s perseverance eases the journey. It expands our ideas on death, destruction, failure and suffering to envision a different world despite the futility. Perhaps the glass is only half empty, despite the overflowing harsh reality of life’s dejections.

Gertrude Contemporary
Until 9 November, 2019
Melbourne

Margaret Lawrence Gallery
Until 16 November, 2019
Melbourne

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