17 March 1988

Review: Reanimator

Reanimator, Artspace, Sydney
17 March - 3 April, 1988

Reanimator was curated by Catharine Lumby, and featured works from Janet Burchill, ADS Donaldson, Matthys Gerber, Lindy Lee, Mark Titmarsh, and John Young. It was also mounted in tandem with an academic conference/ film festival, The Illusion of Life, which was devoted to animation; although no specific links between the two events were foregrounded. All the works had been exhibited in other shows - none were produced especially for Reanimator. Catharine Lumby also produced a catalogue essay.
The works took up the margins of the gallery and seemed to look "inward" - hardly remarkable that paintings be hung on opposite walls, but these particular works, when bundled together, took on an unusually animated character, standing as emblems for each artist, conjuring a curious stand-off of "personalities" pitched into conflict.
In this context the works addressed themselves and each other, ignoring an imaginary viewing subject. My own subjectivity disintegrated under Tippi Hedren's gaze out of Unfurled #3, 1988, by Janet Burchill. ADS Donaldson's Self Portrait (Type) II and V flatly refused to produce the Self, and so I came away learning nothing about that artist. Both Lindy Lee's and John Young's works were hung at navel level, and even on the floor resting up against the wall, showing scant regard for the fact that most peoples' eyes are at eye level. Lee, however, did "speak" openly and candidly about Succession and Simulation - not to me in particular but to anyone willing to listen, now and in the future. And Young's anti-futurist Untitled slate slabs featured dates from the next century which are way past my bedtime. Elsewhere Mark Titmarsh's Spectacle of One Hundred Acts reveled in the life-force of its own fictions and ontology, while Matthys Gerber’s painterly testament to the surface of personality, Closer To Thee, quietly committed suicide in a Vegas hotel room on the other side of the gallery.
The show drew a mixed "critical" response from some commentators. Christopher Allen writing in the Sydney Morning Herald claimed in a savage and flawed review that Reanimator (1) possessed "no other reason for being than as the illustrations to Catherine Lumby's prose", which (2) "makes it almost pointless to talk about the pictures". (3) "We have to ask first what the text is doing."
I would like to answer each of these points in turn: (1) even if the works were intended as "illustrations to prose" why would that devalue them? More importantly who conjures such intentionality? Obviously Allen, "the critic", does; (2) Why should Lumby's prose hold such dominance over the exhibition? Yes, from a certain viewpoint, it is pointless to talk about any "picture" (sic), but, isn't that the point, that we talk about that? (3) Just who are we going to ask what the "text is doing"? Do texts only do one thing? Or only one thing at a time? Do they do anything at all, besides save lives, win wars and give way to further text?
Allen concluded in hysterical fashion: "The show is ... [an] artificial concoction of an exhibition as an excuse for appallingly bad writing, with a total insensitivity to either ethics or politics." This lucky man still lives in the Golden Age of Universal Standards and Values.
Art will always engage morality. That's given. But why impose these all-or-nothing, no-exit imperatives? Is there no space for a knowing modesty on the part of players? Reanimator's real strength was that it knew it was "more of the same" - that is what made it different. It spoke of its own conventionality, of its own status as a re-run in prime time.
For Reanimator recognised the eighties as an instant replay; when everything, finally, had already ready happened; where everyone already knew about the value of Knowledge, and the value of Art. Having endured unprecedented inflation, knowledge - like talk – comes cheap; and the only value Art possesses is its price tag. Reanimator confirms that to be an artist today one needs more than just good references.

1. Christopher Allen, "Junk Art. Just lie back and savour the cliché" Sydney Morning Herald, July 30, 1988

First published in Eyeline