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EXHIBITION REVIEW // NO PLACE (LIKE HOME)

 
James Casebere 
Landscape with House (Dutchess County) #2 2009 
digital chromogenic print 
© 2014 James Casebere, courtesy the artist and Jensen Gallery, Sydney
 
 

Review by Jacob Warren

‘No Place Like Home’, curated by Gordon Craig, is a current photographic and digital media exhibition at the University of Queensland Art Museum. Showing the work of four international artists ‘No Place’ focusses on the constructed world, be it miniature suburbs and post-apocalyptic cities or digital renderings and photo composites. The curatorial bent to this exhibition is how images of another, constructed (read unreal?) world allow for reflection upon the one currently inhabited. The exhibition is divided into four galleries; one for each artist and for each artist’s world.

James Casebere  Landscape with House (Dutchess County) #7 2009  digital chromogenic print  © 2014 James Casebere, courtesy the artist and Jensen Gallery, Sydney

James Casebere
Landscape with House (Dutchess County) #7 2009
digital chromogenic print
© 2014 James Casebere, courtesy the artist and Jensen Gallery, Sydney

James Casebere creates medium scale suburban landscapes using modelling board and various props. Once made, these little worlds are then photographed and edited. The four works on display at the museum are a part of the Landscapes with Houses series and picture a tight suburban landscape at stages in the daily cycle of routine. People are explicitly absent, however the cars and houses themselves are signs, just as in Dutch still life painting, of human presence. Casebere’s ‘still lives’ cleverly key in the time of day in addition to atmospheric editing through appropriately coloured houses on the horizon.

Casebere isolates his ‘still lives’ with sudden sky backgrounds. These are immediate and very frank, yet still hold a vacuity mirrored by the parallel readings of the term ‘still lives’. This undecidability creates a feeling that something is not quite right, in a dark, ironic or even playful way, Casebere toys with our want to pin down one distinct mood. Something is slightly off, but at the same time, everything is normal. Each viewer is free to inhabit this then open suburban world as if they were the presence which is alluded to by Casebere’s ‘still life’ affect. These works are secure, playful and inviting, yet we are always slightly wary of the host’s intentions.

Yao Lu  The beauty of Kunming 2010  C type photograph  Courtesy of the artist and Bob Hayward Fine Art, Brisbane

Yao Lu
The beauty of Kunming 2010
C type photograph
Courtesy of the artist and Bob Hayward Fine Art, Brisbane

Yao Lu, in the next gallery, takes us out of the local world and inserts us into a historical and political one. The Chinese photographer has created composite landscapes from micro and macro images of waste, waste management systems and China’s pollution prevention systems identical in form to traditional ink painting with soaring mountains, waterfalls, lakes and clouds. Lu shows us islands of trash with clouds of pollution, mountains of loose construction dirt piles wrapped to prevent it blowing off in the wind, all interlaced with the stamps of traditional paintings. Even the installation of the works resembles scroll paintings.

This exaggerated figuration is a comment on the changing Chinese and indeed global landscape. The provocatively ambiguous composite worlds present not quite a post-human landscape but a ‘human wastelandscape’. These morbid yet serene worlds open up reflection upon their possibility, a metaphor for the present state of China and also many other areas of the globe.

Giacomo Costa’s digitally created landscapes all share the presence of the monolithic: some massive force of nature or humanity which has annihilated human life. In these images we see the large scale (the city, the mountain, the sea) being dominated by an even greater force: in Consistenza #5 (2008) it is an enormous arch of ice and in the series Trace it is mysterious French words directed to some heavenly reader. In observing Costa’s works we are reminded that we are in another world to that imaged, and we explore them as such.

Giacomo Costa  Consistenza #5 2008  C type photograph mounted on Dibond  Courtesy of the artist and Dominik Mersch Gallery, Sydney

Giacomo Costa
Consistenza #5 2008
C type photograph mounted on Dibond
Courtesy of the artist and Dominik Mersch Gallery, Sydney

If Casebere’s world was ‘local’ and Lu’s ‘political’ then Costa’s world is ‘monolithic’. There is an acknowledgement of, a bowing down to, the forces of nature and the universe, no doubt spurred by Costa’s multiple near death experiences. In this world of monolith we can reflect precisely upon the unharnessable powers of the extra-human as well as the role of cultural, economic and political structures.

‘No Place’ highlights the crafted miniature post-apocalyptic interiors of American photographer Lori Nix’s series ‘The City’. This apocalypse was recent; as the animals at the natural history museum are just realising their freedom to wander (even if they are the exhibits), electricity is still running (Laundromat at Night, 2008) and the botanical garden is not yet completely overgrown (Botanic Garden, 2008). There is a sense of comfort and light heartedness because, just as in bad horror movies, nothing scary can happen during the day. Apparently Nix is fond of such disaster and horror movies and you get a sense of their distinct humour in her works. This could be a semiotic response to the miniature landscapes: with small being associated with toys and play, thus disarming the visual constructions.

Circulation desk 2012  (from the series ‘The City’)  Archival pigment print  Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York

Circulation desk 2012
(from the series ‘The City’)
Archival pigment print
Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York

In this world we seem to take on the role of investigator, survivor or play-mate, wandering through dilapidated buildings and environs based on Nix’s home city of Brooklyn, New York. No matter the degree of humour and comfort however, each image contains a dark anxiety of what is outside. As in Map Room (2010) or Circulation Desk (2012), we are unsure if our proxy persona will last the night.

Unfortunately, Nix’s work arrived late in Australia due to a snowstorm in New York, making the collection of the works from her studio impossible. For the opening, the gallery presented her works on slideshow on a flat screen television hung on the wall. Once the works arrived however, the screen remained and 40 seconds of soft-porn house music sound tracked footage of interviews about the works is now played on loop. While informative, the isolated wonderment of the images loses its edge to a vision guided by the mantra-like narration by the loop of what is to be seen. Sanding the edge so to speak does add to the humour in the images and makes their interiors seem more like real objects: miniatures.

Overall this is a cohesive and directed exhibition and is quite visually, as well as conceptually, stimulating. Casebere, Lu, Costa and Nix really do open up new worlds, new futures, be they temporally or spatially separated from ours. What it is that makes up our world, complex and overwhelming as it seems and is, is signalled to through our reflections on and ideas about the ‘unreal’, constructed worlds of these photographic artists. Affirming, politically volatile and poignant are some things that ‘No Place’ is in a world of immediate consumption, digestion and excretion.

Other worlds seem to need to be presented as counter examples to the present one in order for its ‘rational’ epistemology to be questioned. In other words, by seeing what is not the case, one can further narrow down what is, opening a space for critique and/or celebration.

‘No Place’ runs from 1 March to 18 May 2014, upstairs at the UQ Art Museum, open daily from 10am – 4pm.

The Queensland Festival of Photography 5 has started, and will run for the whole of April 2014. For more information on other participating exhibitions and the events taking place in conjunction with QFP5, please visit the festival website.

Jacob Warren is an Art History student at the University of Queensland, an artist, and curator.

Banner image credit:
James Casebere
Landscape with House (Dutchess County) #2 2009
digital chromogenic print
© 2014 James Casebere, courtesy the artist and Jensen Gallery, Sydney

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