John Hurrell – 18 September, 2011
You sometimes get the feeling Alwast just likes moving elements around on screen, enjoying the visceral sensations he can create within his audience, but that he lacks the tools to really disturb them. It is a problem within the medium that someone like Richard Killeen has as well. The difficulty in making images that are truly memorable.
20 August - 15 October 2011
Peter Alwast is an Australian artist highly regarded for his digital moving image projects, for which he won The Premier of Queensland New Media Award in 2008. For this show the catalogue essay is a conversation between him and Grant Stevens, another new media artist who has shown his own remarkable digital work in Auckland at Starkwhite.
At the IMA Alwast has two adjacent rooms for projecting his videos, each space an installation. The larger gallery has nine simultaneous rectangular projections while the smaller room next door has one, with two static images (one cut in reflective Perspex) on the floor and end wall.
If you as a viewer come to this exhibition expecting some sort of conceptual unity then if it exists perhaps the key to that lies in the small room. On a flatscreen on the far end wall is a coloured image of a city at night with a huge moon slowly rising up behind the tall buildings. The voiceover tells you the story of the artist’s Russian great-grandfather (b.1900) who living in Russia during the late 1930s when Stalin was in power, was foolish enough to make a joke to his workmates in a small oil company about Stalin’s ‘child bride’. The secret police came and whisked him away - never to be seen again - while Alwast’s great-grandmother and the children were removed from the family home and dumped at the railway station. (Aspects of the story have similarities with that of Nikita Mikhalkov’s astounding film Burnt By the Sun.)
On the floor in front of the screen is a large rumpled sheet on which is printed an image of the sea (a symbol for history perhaps) and on the opposite wall we see a Perspex cloud reflecting the film (the Russian nation maybe infused with the trauma of Stalin?).
Thematically the first larger room with its nine loops is much more complicated. On one wall is an animated image of a cross-section of a pale pink, paper spiralling shell morphing into different variations of its shape - and torrents of tiny letters pouring out of its centre. At the other end are a man and a woman walking towards each other on a long screen, moving but never meeting or talking. They might represent the artist thinking about meeting his great-grandmother when she was a young woman.
On the other - on the left - is a double screen, one stacked on top of the other. In the upper one are words written in cursive script that look inflatable like slender balloons, floating downwards into a grey sea and saying things like ‘thinking’, ‘working’, ‘shitting’, ‘eating’, ‘I am yours’, and ‘you are mine’. The lower one has a spinning black, blobby, cloud shape, hovering above paper strips streaked with paint and strewn across the floor, accompanied by showers of confetti-like Pae White discs fluttering downward.
Extending to the right along that wall are four other videos: a constantly rattling child’s mechanical tin top, leaning in a corner of a darkened room; sets of coloured coffins falling through a room’s ceiling; three sequences of open paper cubes, houses with their sides painted with daubed on windows or displaying portraits of a woman and Stalin, tumbling, wobbling and rolling as the cubes fall to the floor; more inflatable letters, rising up to the ceiling, flipped in reverse or in sections, sometimes including ‘you’.
Here are some of those loops for you to look at. As you’d expect, inevitably the gallery presentation exudes fragmentation, not just because of the spatially spread out nature of the videos and the highly inventive speculative level needed to construct a coherent ‘purpose’ or ‘meaning’, but also because of the formal mood of the digital technology of animation. It has a fairytale ambience, a nursery-room sweetness that doesn’t successfully sit with the brutality of the Stalin-era story. The pastel lolly colours and clean surfaces exude a chirpy optimism and innocence belied by the savage events in Alwast’s family history.
Although it is clear Alwast is interested in the post-structuralist construction of the subject as a conduit through which language flows, you also get the feeling he just likes moving elements around on screen, enjoying the visceral sensations he can create within his audience, but that he lacks (and perhaps wants) the tools to really disturb them. It is a problem within the medium (it seems perpetually sanitised and bland) that someone like Richard Killeen has as well. The difficulty in making images that are truly memorable.
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