Deliverer of Rants

published in Photofile No.85, Sydney, 2008
Cockatoo Island disused toilets - 2008

Having been asked twice now to write a rant for Photofile, I guess I should be honoured to be regarded as a deliverer of rants. Well, better to be a ranter than a numbed curator or drained editor who writes bland over-arching descriptions of grouped artists in a failed attempt to conjure forth a pseudo-zeitgeist logic to explain a curatorial/editorial impulse.

A hysterical example from the 2008 Biennale of Sydney free guide: “Sam Durant’s work takes a critical view of social, political and cultural issues, and explores the varying relationships between popular culture and fine art.” Really? I read this sentence – enlarged as break-out text in the layout – laughing and vomiting simultaneously. The claims made, the terms employed, the binaries upheld, the notions conflated – it all reeks of a pathetic belief in art as having currency, relevance, purpose.

Durant’s work for the Biennale – like so much contemporary art which peaked with Mark Wallinger’s Turner Prize-winning State Britain – echoes, quotes and paraphrases the stance of the ranter. As historian Richard Cullen Rath uncovers in his fascinating book How Early America Sounded, ranters were complexly imbedded within the oral/vocal nature of the New World wherein voice and the act of declaration took precedence over all other communication, which did not manage precedence until print dissemination codified societal exchange. The original ranters were not simply ‘expressers of free speech’ but acoustic semes within a non-Eurocentric ethos which was rebuilding its societal interconnections from the most meagre (and Puritanical) of means.

Being regarded as a ranter today means you are bound to be dismissed. Again, this is fine by me – especially in an era where the type of artists being almost automatically embraced are (to reference the Biennale of Sydney) the likes of William Kentridge and Janet Cardiff. Their humanist enterprise is predicated on lazy universalising truisms now shared between Hollywood and contemporary art.

A particularly depressing day for me in contemporary art was when I read Juliana Engberg’s curatorial statement for the inaugural 1999 Melbourne Biennale. Up to that time, the chief pleasure I found in contemporary art was its escape from the suffocating humanism that had smothered Arthouse Cinema. Up to that time, contemporary art could be genuinely amoral, fucked-up, insincere, messy, perverse, frightening, perplexing, unjustified. In short, it could be wholly displaced. But Engberg was aptly synching to the ensuing times which back then I had no idea would become as boringly self-important and neurotically responsible as what they are now. I remember thinking: fuck – art is now like Art House.

Sure enough, the end of the 20th Century saw contemporary art patrons wet their pants over epochal works like Shirin Neshat’s Turbulence – mainly because it has ‘beautiful ethnic singing’. Yes, Sussan Deyhim’s song and performance is majestic, but like so many uses of beautiful vocal music in audiovisual settings, its power is colonised by the image track. For at the end of the day, there is no difference between Turbulence and Hollywood’s hand-wringing squelching of humanism, globalism and universalism in the likes of Crash, Babel and The Fountain. The new millennium has replaced the potential for ranting Others with a glut of beseeching angels. With added reverb.

The Biennale of Sydney did contain actual rants – of differing kinds. It was nauseating to audit Mike Parr’s faux-liberationist re-programming of the Self in his performative rants. I felt trapped in a mid-70s dinner party debate – or stuck attending one of Joseph Beuys’ supposedly earth-shattering lectures. Conversely, Nikki de Saint Phalle and Peter Whitehead’s film Daddy (written by de Saint Phalle as a psycho-drama enactment of her own sexual abuse as a child) is a cacophony of paternal, patriarchal and chauvinist denunciation. It’s a chilling pantomime, embedded with the type of personal rant contemporary artists could only dream of unleashing. But the ultimate rant work was Vernon Ah Kee’s Born In This Skin. In a rare merger of Duchampian gesture, Godardian politique and Ice Cube lyricism, his reclaiming of the Cockatoo Island toilet block’s uncensored scrawled rants through an act of retitling stands as a gorgeously inflammatory artwork. The written words’ vulgarity was deafening in this Arthouse-cum-shithouse. You want to know what people think? Go to the toilet.

A CCP board member apparently once wondered why does Philip Brophy insist on using ‘gutter-talk’? Fucked if I know.

Philip Brophy – written on the Frankston line train, Wednesday October 1st, 2008. Dedicated to Crispin Glover.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © Vernon Ah Kee (sic).