Miércoles 22 de Junio de 2005, Ip nº 114

Shape shifters
Por Ted Snell

WHY spend three years at art school unpicking knitted teddy bears or making a forest out of plastic bags or creating a short film about singing vaginas? The answer is complex but the obvious response is that artists are free to express themselves in any way they choose and that an art education will always produce the unexpected. And now senior figures from the business world are increasingly recognising the benefit of an art-school education.
Last year Harvard Business Review reported the remarkable idea that the master of fine arts is the new MBA. With business degrees a dime a dozen, leading companies apparently are searching out graduates from art schools to help them solve the problems of the new economy. Graduates looking for employment must be able to differentiate themselves in some way and what has currency at the moment is creativity.

The arts have a clear lead in the creativity stakes and, as Daniel H. Pink points out in his article, it's harder to get into good art schools than some of the more respected business schools because an arts degree is increasingly regarded as the hottest credential around. The article quotes Robert Lutz of General Motors who announced a shift in thinking when he stated that his company was "in the art business, art, entertainment and mobile sculpture which, coincidentally, also happens to provide transport." Steve Jobs, chief executive of Apple, agrees, claiming he looks for social skills and a good drawing portfolio when interviewing potential employees.

So what is it about unpicking knitted teddy bears and stringing together plastic bags? The Hatched 05: National Graduate Show at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts provides an opportunity to see how this theory works inpractice.

Julie le Brun, from the University of Tasmania, is an excellent example of the kind of thinking Pink has identified as the hallmark of an art-school education. She has constructed a forest of kelp made from the ubiquitous green bags picked up in supermarkets and strung together on tall columns, transforming the gallery into a strange underwater environment that is seductive and threatening. Le Brun has not only found her own problem to solve but she does it using the simplest and most cogent means.

Her concern with the way we are destroying our marine environment with millions of discarded plastic bags had to be given a visual form that would encapsulate the danger. Her solution was to use the material to create an environment that would lure the viewer into what she describes as a "realm of abandonment", where the tension between the aesthetic pleasure of encounter and a fear of suffocation or entanglement may generate the realisation of what is happening to our sea and bird life. It works, showing the problem simply but without losing any of the complexity of the issues addressed.

Adjacent to le Brun's work, Bruce Mowson and Pia Ednie-Brown from RMIT University have installed another environment that one enters with trepidation. The problem they have identified is more solipsistic, requiring their participants to confront their own existence by stepping inside The Shower, a life-size rubber lung suspended from the roof.

Once inside, the latex skin of the booth envelopes you when the air is sucked out with an eerie mechanical whine. The thin walls press against your body until your breathing and your beating heart become intolerable and the claustrophobia drives you out into the relative comfort of the gallery. For the next few minutes the heightened sense of mortality and the mechanics of respiration deliver the punchline the artists have carefully crafted.

Although very different, these two works deliver a physical and intellectual impact. Whether by using the simplest construction or by engineering a technically sophisticated booth, they have done what we require of art: to make us think, to prick our complacency, to provide a memorable experience and maybe change us forever.

Also in the upstairs gallery at PICA is a smaller work that achieves similar results though with much less wow factor. Liz Deckers, who unpicked those knitted teddy bears, has also made a beautiful work on thin slices of red apple. Displayed at eye level the six cuts through the apple sit unobtrusively on the wall and it's only on closer inspection that you notice the delicate tracery of lines on their surface and only then do you read them as art-historical images of Adam and Eve.

The image is faint, the core of the apple vaguely sexual and the juxtaposition a catalyst for further connections that remind us how pervasive biblical stories and other myths are in shaping our understanding of even the most common of objects. This is hardly an earth-shattering revelation but Deckers's gentle whimsy and soft voice are greatly appreciated among the bombast of some of the other works on show.

Downstairs in the main gallery James Doohan provides a rare chuckle with his Exercises for a pneumatic head, a video of a man blowing up a series of balloons that obliterate his face. The video is projected on to a dome and the distortions further confuse the reading of what is occurring and keep you riveted to the image, wondering what variation of shapes will appear next. Both Deckers and Doohan have discovered there are different ways of viewing and interpreting the world and that flexibility and openness are fundamental principles in approaching any situation. Just the kind of skills you need in your studio, your life in general and, of course, in your large corporation as well. Instead of teaching skills that will soon be redundant or setting the parameters of learning around today's prescribed employment criteria, art schools provide an education in thinking and, in particular, in problem-finding and solving.

Not surprisingly, the search for identity and the compulsion to understand "who I am and what formed me" is an undercurrent in much of the work of these graduates. This level of self-absorption is to be expected from young artists following Socrates' advice that the unexamined life is not worth living.

One of the other benefits of an education in the arts is the opportunity to take time to delve into the big questions of existence and in the process give them a visual form that can be communicated to others. Personal inquiry and transformation through learning and reflection are important processes that underscore an education in the arts and are another of Pink's reasons for choosing the MFA over the MBA.

For Kelly Outzen from the University of Western Sydney that process led to singing vaginas. Her installation, behind a tacky red curtain and called Muff Music, is overwhelmed by its context but the video work is engaging and amusing. Like Jonathan Vencore, whose gruesome collection of "fossilised unmentionables" is carefully laid out in display cabinets, her work confronts society's difficulty in dealing with sexuality and our messy bodies. Humour is one way to break through that reserve and both artists enable us to see beyond protective stereotypes.

Over the years, Hatched has been full of such imagery and while not always successful it does indicate a level of inquiry, of healthy cynicism and of critique that is encouraging for the future of this country. The other constant at Hatched is a level of political engagement. This year graduates have tackled the abortion debate, the events of 9/11 and their aftermath, and the general sense of uneasiness and trepidation that has infected the world.

Greg Ackland's photographs explore the climate of fear generated in Western societies since the US initiated the war on terror. In his group of photographs, displayed in the stairwell at PICA, figures in protective clothing move through darkened spaces viewed through the eerie green filter of night-vision goggles. A student from the Adelaide Centre for the Arts, Ackland's chilling photographs give visual form to all those amorphous fears that have fuelled the contemporary sense of distrust and unease.

Using very different means, Kate James from RMIT has tackled a similar theme. In her work The World is a Dangerous Place she displays an apparatus designed to provide comfort and protection from the anxiety animals might feel. The odd headwear she has made to link her physically to a worried horse is a projection of our own angst in a scary world and, paradoxically, her solution only exacerbates the apprehension for both participants.

Over the past 14 years Hatched has surveyed the best work by art-school graduates across the country as selected by the institutions themselves. Working across a wide range of media and tackling topics as diverse as the environment, personal identity, the social politics of the new communication technologies and the history of ballooning, this year's graduates have provided an eclectic vision of contemporary Australian culture.

Not surprisingly, inclusion in the show is seen as an indicator of future success, a kind of litmus test of career potential. Just three or four artists may be selected by lecturers from each school and that stamp of approval resonates with the collectors, curators and dealers who trawl through the exhibition.

Despite a few obvious omissions in the past - Ricky Swallow, Australia's representative at the Venice Biennale this year, missed the cut at the VCA - many of those who are selected for Hatched develop strong careers in the years following their debut at PICA.

That element of prophecy and prescience is one of the show's great attractions. Inherent in its structure is the potential to double-guess the market, to pick the next art star, to identify trends and possibly, if Robert Lutz and Steve Jobs are right, to spot the next chief executive of BHP Billiton or Macquarie Bank.

Sadly, the show doesn't travel but the fully illustrated colour catalogue and the detailed website serve as a surrogates for those interested in future-watching.

  04/06/2005. The Australian.