Handmade Media

‘Handmade Media’, Return to Sender, exhibition catalogue, University of Queensland Art Museum, 2012, edited by Michelle Helmrich, pp 61-80, ISBN 978-1-74727-050-0

Only now, when you re-visit this work about twenty years after it first became familiar, do you realise, with something of a shock, that our attitude to images in general, and photographs in particular, has changed profoundly.

It is impossible to think about the art and photography of the late 1980s and early 1990s made in any city in Australia – Brisbane, Melbourne, but most especially Sydney – without also thinking about the pervasive presence of ‘theory’. The semiotic theories of the image, developed by people such as Roland Barthes in the 1960s and 1970s and widely read in Australia in the 1980s, imagined the image as a complex machine. In semiotics, images produce meaning through the interaction of layers of denotation and connotation. They became personally significant through the pricks of a personal punctum that pierced the skin of the image’s public studium. These devices of visual linguistics were linked in with other written texts through further mechanisms of ‘anchorage’ and ‘relay’. Within the psychoanalytic theories that were also widely read at the time, images mainlined larger political power structures directly into our deepest desires via yet more processes of ‘the gaze’ and identification.

By the 1980s, too, theorists such as Paul Virilio or Jean Baudrillard had amped up Marshall McLuhan’s universal theory of the media from the 1960s to an apocalyptic, millenarian fever pitch. Baudrillard’s lectures, which took such grand titles as ‘The Precession of Simulacra’ or ‘The Evil Demon of Images’, were translated into English and published in Australia.1 To Baudrillard, images had ‘a force of seduction in the literal sense of the word, a force of diversion, distortion, capture and ironic fascination’. To him, images contaminated reality, so that the real could no longer exist in and of itself, but was always preceded by the image. This had short-circuited representation as such. Baudrillard declared that the ‘image has taken over and imposed its own immanent ephemeral logic’ on reality.2

In retrospect, the millenarian manifestos of the postmodern media theorists of the 1980s appear shrill in the face of the more recent orders of image exponentiality brought about by social media and the internet. Today it feels slightly absurd to endow the individual images, which congeal themselves out of the mist of pixels we now inhabit with anything like the ‘force’ they once seemingly possessed. We are now less concerned with their ability to compromise our experience of the real itself. But, in the period treated by this exhibition, the hyperbolic language of theory gave images a strange prestige. Such theories endowed the artists who engaged with them a sense of power and centrality that seems, at least to me, quite distant now, when artists appear less concerned with breaking images down, or pulling meanings apart, than turning images to account once more. In retrospect, also, artists from this period seemed relatively untroubled by qualms about engaging head on with the big issues of national identity, historical memory and gender politics. They did this without recourse to autobiography or personal anecdote, which nowadays might be necessary to permit or authorise such an intervention.

Australian art of the late 1980s and early 1990s assumed that the viewer came to the artwork armed with a set of conceptual tools – borrowed from political, psychoanalytic, feminist, semiotic and media theory – with which to discern the mechanisms of representation and simulation that lay dismantled before them for their connoisseurial delectation. What was on display to such an audience member, cum media critic, was the elegance of the artist’s dismemberment, the nicety of their dissection, and the finesse of their excoriation.

In order to dismantle the image it often had to be refabricated as an auratic sculpture. New objects were built from old images in a loving labour that turned visual codes into physical artefacts, semiotic procedures into sculptural events, and human performances into pantomimed tableaus. And what I love about these works is how handmade they often are. Many, while taking the requisite ‘critical stance’ towards our mediatised landscapes, were nonetheless handcrafted in the sense of the word that entails all of its loving, nurturing connotations. Media images appeared to be undergoing a technological apotheosis during this period that gave credence to the millenarian temper of the times. TV had been regularly beaming its glowing images instantaneously around the globe since the 1960s. But, in early 1991, Desert Storm in Kuwait was the first war to be televised instantaneously into our homes, complete with its celebrated ‘slam-cam’ footage transmitted from the nose cones of smart bombs. As well, thick, glossy, art, fashion and lifestyle magazines continued their reign, and in Australia were sliding off the printing presses in slicker and thicker wads at unprecedented numbers. But to the young artists on their subsistence budgets, the resources they had at their disposal remained the conventional ones long used in the twentieth-century atelier. In 1990, Adobe’s Photoshop was still at version 1.0, and years away from becoming the commonplace verb it is now; while readily accessible video compositing software such as After Effects, and photographic-quality digital printing,  let alone the World Wide Web, lay a good five years over a still-distant horizon. So, in this period, even those images targeted at the very hypercentre of the mass-media experience had to be made by hand.

Thus Robyn Stacey made black and white prints, which she hand-coloured using techniques that had been employed for decades in commercial photographic studios before they were re-discovered by the feminist photographers of the 1970s. She then, crucially, copied them onto medium-format transparency film and printed them onto Cibachrome paper. In the pulp-fiction series Kiss Kiss Bang Bang 1985, this extended process of hand application and mechanical reproduction created a generalised sense of the mass media’s generational memory. But when, in the series Redline 7000 1989, the hard metallic surfaces of the Cibachromes are bonded onto acrylic sheeting, the rush of a wide-screen cinematic experience seemed to be literally freeze-framing and materialising in the viewer’s presence.

Cibachromes are now a virtually extinct process, remembered with wry nostalgia by old darkroom hands for their unforgiving optical characteristics and extreme chemical toxicity. Then they were the epitome of mass-media aura made physically manifest. They appear again in Rosemary Laing’s work Untitled 1992, encased in Perspex boxes pierced by a giant steel needle. Works such as these are not concerned with the mise-en-scène of mass-media images, but with the constituent parts of their visual mechanics that have been stilled, re-dimensionalised, and made auratic in a gallery. To be effective, Laing’s works have to look as though they have been technically produced, rather than handmade in a studio, but, nonetheless, they revel in the same artisanal qualities employed in fabricating shop signs or hand-moulding surf boards.

Collage and juxtaposition were other studio techniques aimed at deconstructing the diabolical image. While Robyn Stacey might have materialised a cinematic cross-fade in Cibachrome and Perspex, Fiona MacDonald wove the body of one photograph, sliced into strips, into the body of another, creating a tessellated surface of colonial miscegenation. Tracey Moffatt and Lindy Lee used strategies of seriality and repetition straight out of a conceptual artist’s tool bag. Moffatt resurfaced a historical image of Aboriginality with the sheen of contemporary glamour. Lee revisited the unsolvable modernist conundrum of mobile image versus unique historical artefact by emphasising the auratic facture of the mechanically reproduced image with shifting washes of paint over fused Xerox pigment. In contrast, Jeff Gibson’s cheap and cheerful screenprints mined pop-cultural archives to create semiotic perpetual-motion machines by juxtaposing different, but formally related, images articulated across a double-jointed caption.

The Super 8 film format, originally developed by Kodak for the home movie market, also proved a remarkably versatile medium for the collating and colliding of mass-media sounds and images. Both pre-recorded and live TV could be filmed directly off the domestic television set — along with lashings of electromagnetic snow, colour oversaturation and cathode ray distension — and manually intercut, repeated and layered, either in the camera or through an editing splicer. In the hands of Super 8 filmmakers like Gary Warner the tiny frames of Ektachrome emulsion, each half the size of the fingernail on your little finger, and the film’s thin magnetic sound-stripe, became like a sedimentary repository for the powerful but evanescent electronic images and sounds that encircled the globe. In his Resistance Today of 1987 Australia’s role in the American Alliance was satirized through a mash-up of television footage that mixed the kitsch Hollywood genres beloved by other artists such as Robyn Stacey with contemporary news footage.

This aesthetic was also present in the video work of Mark Titmarsh and Ross Harley where the layering, repetition and juxtaposition produced by video’s phantasmagoric electronic effects once again presumed a contemporary viewer primed to recognise ideological cues and read mass-media codes, rather than psychologically invest in narrative exposition or original mise en scene.

Finally, performance and masquerade were other tactics used by the Davids of the studio to subdue the Goliath of the media image. Stacey’s friends dressed up and enacted historical pop-media typologies for her art-directed scenarios, while John Gillies and the The Sydney Front, again through repetition and juxtaposition, broke down the body’s universal demand to express itself into a disjointed language composed of isolating hysterical gestures.

Using this clever array of studio-based tactics, efficiently applied at an economical scale, these artists plunged into the centre of the maelstrom of mass images that obsessed the late 1980s and early 1990s, and re-fashioned them to address head on the biggest issues of the day: history, identity, and the mechanics of meaning itself.

In the decades that followed, the works produced by emerging Australian artists got bigger, bolder and brassier as newer and cheaper technologies allowed them access to much the same tools as were used in the mainstream media. But as the scale, definition and seamlessness of their works increased, perhaps their focus shortened. In general, it seems to me, younger artists increasingly feel that they need the passport of personal identity or autobiography to enter the territory of images, or that the paraphernalia of  ‘media production’ is needed to reinforce the denotational power of their works, rather than deconstruct it. So when looking at the works of the parvenu artists in this exhibition, produced after their arrival in the metropolises of the south, concentrate not only on their craft, but also on their ambition.

Martyn Jolly

  1. Jean Baudrillard, ‘The Precession of Simulacra,’ trans. Paul Foss and Paul Patton, Art & Text 11 (1983): 3-47; Jean Baudrillard, The Evil Demon of Images, trans. Paul Foss and Paul Patton (Sydney: Power Institute of Fine Arts, 1987).
  2. Baudrillard, The Evil Demon of Images, 14–15, 23.

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