The Abyss

‘Hardly anything can shock us,’ ‘The Abyss’ curator Naomi Evans tells me. ‘And yet art is still the place where our buttons are pushed, knives poke at painful places.’ Evans’ challenging major group exhibition brings together the work of 25 contemporary Australian and international artists, each dedicated to the ‘push and pull’ of seductive and repellent images.

The exhibition came about through discussions Evans had with museum director Angela Goddard and artist–academic Natalya Hughes on the subject of the ‘grotesque’. Such discussions, Evans explains, brought forth the potential of contemporary art to function ‘as devices that keep us looking at content that is often unpalatable, problematic and sometimes horrific’. This was the starting point of ‘The Abyss’.

Natalya Hughes, Woman V, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 155 x 114cm © The artist. Photograph: Nicholas Aloisio-Shearer. Courtesy the artist, Milani Gallery, Brisbane and Griffith University Art Museum, Queensland

‘But before long’, Evans goes on, ‘I found that I personally was also drawn to an aesthetics of the creative act that can be seen in materially driven works as well, through the lens of the informé, and instances where conceptual and linguistic playfulness and in-between zones grate against each other, and which remain unreconciled’ and ‘exert a powerful magnetism’.

Such magnetism — a combination of both desire and revulsion — is on display in this exhibition, whose many works traverse time, national and cultural contexts, and approaches to at times uncomfortable, yet somehow alluring, subject matters. A bronze sculpture by Krista Berga, My rage fingers my strength (2018), depicting a female form with vulva distended and cuts and slashes to the body shares the space with a digital piece by Tyza Stewart, Screen shot 2013-01-04 at 10.49.11 PM 2 (2013) presented on a laptop as a jumble of candid teen images, ages unknown, the explicitness of sexual images obscured by folders on a computer desktop.

The body is a key battleground across the works of the exhibition. A video by Ian Haig Another brutally satisfying video (2014) uses body horror by abstracting creative kills from Mortal Kombat videogames, while a painting by Gordon Hookey, Payback Painting (2005), is more body politics, with its anthropomorphised crocodile, Aboriginal iconography, and speared and beheaded white man. ‘Hookey doesn’t pull his punches’, Evans says. ‘If he wants to depict an assassination of John Howard, he does it.’

Ian Haig, The Video Hole, 2016, single-channel video work (Maya animation, 1920 x 1080 HD, mp4 file), colour, sound, no dialogue (Sound Darrin Verhagen), 10 mins (loop) © the artist. Courtesy the artist and Griffith University Art Museum, Queensland

But in addition to being a canvas onto which violence is enacted, the body also functions in ‘The Abyss’ as a channel through which we can observe and confront our own discomforts. ‘Our bodies have the capacity for sensuality and appreciation of the erotic’, Evans says. ‘And yet an abject quality has been noted in responses to bodily workings, emissions, consumption cycles.’ One example she gives is the feeling of repulsion at pulling hairs from the shower plug. Another example is menstruation, which is disturbing for some.

Yet Evans is also careful to clarify that when it comes to the strategic use of ‘seduction and repulsion — that is the push-pull. I do not mean it in terms of gender.’ Instead, in drawing together the works for inclusion, she sought out ‘art that had that kind of ‘punctum’ where expressivity, raw emotion or freedom is delivered in ways that take us to a place where contradiction and vacillation between positions is possible.’

‘I think the ‘seductive and repellent’ is not so much an exhibition theme as it is a device or tactical engagement with issues’, she says. ‘Like whether art has to mean anything, or where it is used more overtly to criticise or to crook a finger for us to look, to internalise, to really think.’ This drew her to artists such as Dieter Roth, who challenges authorship, stability and aesthetics, and Carolee Schneemann, whose video Interior Scroll — The Cave (1975-1995) uses explicit imagery ‘to punctuate’.

Evans sees herself as ‘an intuitive curator’, and undertook a detailed process of dialogue with both artists and colleagues. This curious combination of intuition and consultation comes to embody the goal of this exhibition, which can be surmised as ‘an attempt to describe the gap where you are prelingual or feel blank, without subjectivity’. She is referencing Hal Foster’s ‘Death in America’ article here, which posits that there is no subject in shock: ‘That is why I called the exhibition ‘The Abyss’.’

Dr Joseph Brennan is an art critic, magazine editor (National Safety) and media scholar based in Sydney.

Griffith University Art Museum
Until 28 September 2019