13 December 2006

Hearts of Darkness in the Australian Gothic

In his essay ‘Australian Gothic’, Gerry Turcotte frames the idea that ‘long before the fact of Australia was ever confirmed by explorers and cartographers it had already been imagined as a grotesque space, a landed peopled by monsters. …it was for all intents and purposes, Gothic par excellence, the dungeon of the world. (Turcotte, 10) As he further establishes that a ‘Gothic mode’ existed in Australian literature from the comparative observations of a European settlement at odds with a strange and hostile environment, the continuation of this ‘mode’ is not unlike the current thread running through Australian video art as evidenced in the exhibition Australian Gothic.

Underpinning this mode is not entirely an easy matter. The historic term ‘gothic’ is, in itself, a direct translation meaning ‘bad German style’ coined by Renaissance scholars as an insult commonly used to describe medieval architecture and the decorative arts from the eleventh century onwards. And lets not forget the contemporary evolution of goth subculture from the late twentieth century loosely based on modern adaptations of Neoromanticism: these all play out a significant roll in contemporary art but to inform a gothic mode through video art requires a different understanding that has more to do with Goya than it does with Anne Rice or The Sisters of Mercy.

In Two Birds with One Stone, Brendan Lee gives us a taste for this role by dissecting aspects of Australian 'badlands' cinema where he reinvents a prison meeting room.
'Filmed in a menacing blue hue, two prison inmates by the name of Scumnuts and Pigkiller, speak in aggressive tones, their actions embellished by a vibrating projection screen which 'assaults' the viewer. Created in the Australian prison genre, Lee takes his inspiration from movies such as Stir, Ghost ofthe Civil Dead and Chopper. He considers the language of film, why we are no longer shocked by violence and how easily we can be seduced by imagery.' (Bullock, 2006).
Originally exhibited at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2006, Two Birds with One Stone positions itself to what Roger Ebert asks: ‘is everybody in Australia a few degrees from true north? (Ebert, 2001) The unsettling nature of Lee’s video work draws close proximity to Australian national cinema yet the oddity found within the subject is that these recreations invite the viewer to articulate these themes through an uneasy and at times, abusive framework. The dark, noir-like scenes seduce the viewer with its Caravaggio-like thespian compositions until the violent dialogue between Scum nuts and Pig Killer takes hold of a darker level where the viewer is ultimately confronted and challenged with Lee’s attention to disturbance.

As with his earlier works that employ similar conceptual tactics, such as the video installation Role Model (2005), Two Birds with One Stone establishes visual strategies not unlike the seductive and stoic barbaric-ness of Goya’s Coloso (1810-12). Both works, which share similar lighting and tonal values, convey a quintessential gothic mode in that the implicit nature of violence looms within the suggestion of barbaric overtones – it is the alluring to what has just happened or what might occur that holds a central power over the viewer.

The same sort of dark imagery lurks in Alex Avtzoglou’s One Two Red Blue. The surreal and grotesque nature of Avtzoglou’s video work draws personal influence from experimental silent film such as Georges Melies Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902) and circus-themed cinema/theatre. This often psychologically disturbing ménage of noir-like images taps into a stream of picto-historic references stretching from Surrealist film to Stan Brakhage that follow the exploits of two female circus performers. Interlaced within this narrative is a performative sequence by which one such character seductively strokes and fondles a large dead Octopus to then massage the creature into her face and through her long draped hair.

This particular work is surprisingly sumptuous in colour and light that brings about the same kind of barbaric seduction that Lee generates in Two Birds with One Stone. The viewer cannot help but consider Avtzoglou’s clever positioning of aesthetics as a pleasing and somewhat comforting assurance that such delicate images provoke a disturbing undercurrent hiding beneath the artist’s bag of cephalopodan tricks.

Just as author Hans Belting argues that video art ‘attracts the attention of the public with the help of a kind of mirror’ (Belting, 87), One Two Red Blue acts as a mirror of the grotesque to temporarily lull its audience into a false sense of visual harmony as the jump cuts steer away from the octopus sequence and back into the childlike actions of our two circus performers; hiding in boxes and twirling Hula Hoops. Yet we are left pondering to the fact are we watching a surreal dream or is this experience through the waking hours? The dreamlike mirror of the gothic mode certainly has as much to do in Avtzoglou’s work as it does with Robert Hughes’s own account of being hospitalised after his near-death car accident by which he laments that in his dreams ‘time [was] wholly lost in their maze’. (Hughes, 9) And this is exactly what One Two Red Blue subscribes, to become lost in a series of moments where time no longer exists; only the surreal notion of a strange and repulsive desire lurks beneath a gentrified image dislocated through the logic of uncertainty.

Tammy Honey’s Threesome constructs a different type of desire through a similar kind of ‘mirror’. Based on her long-term investigation into the merger between the quest for fame through pop music and the visual nature of MP3 advertising, Honey brings to life three versions of herself in the one frame singing along to a headphones track with a nail biting, tone-deaf performance. It is hard to decide whether Threesome is a music video clip or a video clip about music. Either way it provokes a deeper level of examination into the reasons why some obsess with the desire for fame through pop music as evidenced in reality-television programs such as Australian Idol, and Pop Star. Moreover, like the CD Karaoke: So You Wanna be a Pop Star Vol. 1-3 (2003), Honey brings to our attention through these pop desires that an uneasy tension is created by these noted dissatisfactions of the every day life by dreams and delusions of chart-climbing fame and fortune.

Further, Honey carefully involves the idea of ridicule. Perhaps one of the most entertaining parts of reality TV pop music programs is the inability for talent-challenged contestants to recognised they cannot sing when in fact they believe without question their ‘talent’ has promise. Indeed, with quotes such as American Idol’s Simon Cowell ‘If your lifeguard duties were as good as your singing, a lot of people would be drowning’ it is hard not to see why Threesome places this performance brutality on screen. The viewer cannot help but to assume the preconditioned role of a judge in grading the performance we see projected in front of us. Yet this conceptual role forced onto the viewer, perhaps without himself or herself knowing that they are no longer a spectator or an observer but rather, now, a judge, demonstrates how a darker role of condemnation can be effectively used and, consequently, integrated through video art. One might argue that from this, other video work that uses parody and ridicule can also be closely liked to Threesome, in particularly Chris Cunningham’s ‘commentary on sex, cars and cellulite in hip-hop clips for Aphex Twin’s Windowlicker.’ (Weir, 39)

Brie Trenerry’s Sleep Paralysis (2006) also holds a dark embrace by subjecting the viewer to the artists collection of live flies especially bread (approximately 600 of them) for the work. We see a lifeless hand - perhaps dead, unconscious or maybe just asleep – posed in a delicate Renaissance-like stillness, originally exhibited in She Creeps at Spacement Gallery, Melbourne and Monash University’s Switchback Gallery, Churchill, in 2006.

Ashley Crawford describes this work as ‘deeply creepy, but its also infused with a kind of timeless elegance. Trenerry’s mastery of line is the key binding this gothic blue that combines images of nature run amok and hints of dark deeds’. (Crawford, 2006). And these dark deeds underpin the fascination of ‘what is about to happen next?’ Once the viewer gets past the notion of taboos – the ‘diseased’ fly crawling on the human skin without interruption – we might be forgiven in our quest to ask why this hand is not moving? Is she okay? Who did this? Is she dead?

Deeply emersed in an overtly romantic and tragic setting, Trenerry plays with her images by letting the central characters – those nasty flies –do all the work. Perhaps Sleep Paralysis has more to do with Honey’s Threesome in that the reaction each artists places onto the viewer can draw parallels, that of slow discomfort and mild irritation. Trenerry’s work is not only ‘deeply creepy’ but also deeply disturbing that further suggests a gothic mode in play – the seduction of aesthetics and the hidden oddities of horror.

Not surprising are the suggestions of cinema in Trenerry’s images that give rise to narrative structures closely linked to Film Noir. In a scene from Joseph Losely’s The Prowler (1951), Webb Garwood (Van Heflin), a policeman, bends down to the lifeless body of William Gilvray (Emerson Tracey) who lies motionless in frame. Arguably the most iconic scene of the film, Gilvray’s hand is extended outwards, perfectly still. Returning to Trenerry’s work, Gilvray’s pose closely interrelates with the fly travelled hand as the corpse or the sleeper holds darkened implications for the viewer in both scenes that Trenerry has carefully managed to compose.

Paying close attention to cinema of a different kind, Shaun Wilson’s Ubber Memoria series explores the imbeddedness of memory and its subsequent impact on places from vintage 8mm home movies. The series itself was filmed twice on separate visits to Southern Germany and London in October/November 2006 where the specific sites had been originally filmed by Wilson’s grandfather on 8mm film during the same months in 1956. This collection of noir-like images make up a total of 150 works belonging to a wider series (a selection of which are showing at Project Space exhibition) that Wilson himself describes as ‘video paintings’. The oddity of this series is what Briony Lee Davis describes as ‘a deep sense of foreboding’ (Lee Davis, 84) The various scenes in Ubber Memoria [IV] are slowed to 5% film speed which cause a random, clunky movement between frames that can be unsettling at times when offset by the conversion of 24 frames per second into 25 not to mention the griding and harmonious audio tracks blended together. Parts of the video are layered with old footage blended into the new as backgrounds contain a distant past filed with imperfects and lost memories.

The technique that Wilson calls ‘stacking’ is a painstakingly crafted with close attention to the imperfections of home movies and how they in turn, when grafted onto new film create what Leon Marven calls ‘deep time’. (Marven, 77) At first glance these works appear ‘pretty’ but as the duration of the video progresses one cannot help but feel discomforted by the schizophrenic film speed coupled with the intrusive stares of the characters looking straight at the viewer. We no longer become the un-noticed observer to find that we are, in fact, being observed. If Derrida was correct in describing the act of deconstruction as an indefinable decision which cannot be judged, Wilson plays with his audience by cementing two filmic examples of the past together that evidently watches the viewer through indefinability played out through a subtle and unforgiving gothic mode.

So from these mentioned works and others, finding the presence of this gothic mode in video art involves the seduction of imagery hinted with deeper and dangerous levels. While these examples are all but merely a small slice of a larger surface area, a common thread that unites these works are the attention to a darker side of image making masked through seduction. From Honey’s pop desires to Lee’s Scum nut’s and Pig Killer, the oddities of these kinds of works bring the ability to create mirrors of internal reflection that remix a darkened conceptual space into an uneasy and difficult territory.


[1] Hans Belting,
Art History after Modernism, Chicago University Press, 2003.
[2] Ashley Crawford, ‘John Abbate & Brie Trenerry’, Spacement online archive, Spacement Gallery, Melbourne 2006,
last accessed 9 December 2006.
[3] Natahsa Bullock, from the Brendan Lee artist website,
, last accessed 10 December 2006.
[4] Briony Lee Davis, ‘Boogy Jive and Bop’,
Artlink, Vol.24, No.2, 2004.
[5] Roger Ebert, ‘Chopper’, Robertebert.com.
last accessed Dec 10, 2006].
[6] Robert Hughes,
Goya, Vintage, 2004.
[7] Douglas Kellner,
Cultural Studies, Identity and Politics between the Modern and the Post Modern, Routledge,
[8] Leon Marven, ‘Brendan Lee, Shaun Wilson, Alexandra Gillies’,
Photofile, Australian Centre of Photography, No.
76 Summer 2006.
[9] Roger Scruton,
Modern Culture, Continuum, London, 2005.
[10] Gerry Turcotte, ‘Australian Gothic’, in Mulvey Roberts (ed)
The Handbook to Gothic Literature, Macmillan,
Basingstoke, 1998, pp 10-19.
[11] Kathryn Weir, ‘Jump Cut: Music Video Aesthetics’, in
Video Hits: Art & Music Video, Queensland Art Gallery, 2004.