Absence is all that is left behind by Robert George

One of the things I love about art is how it constantly surprises me.  In particular, when I stumble upon an exhibition that catches my attention, more so than one I have seen advertised and planned to see.  This was indeed the case when I wandered into Robert George’s exhibition curated by Kathryn Tsui, at Corban Estate Arts Centre in Henderson.

Warning: I’m going to make a reference to the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) particularly Season 6.  If you haven’t seen this season or the show at that (you should) it’s probably best to skip that paragraph until you watch it 😛

Displayed in a darkened room, George’s exhibition is bipartite: two videos run in succession.  They are projected onto white sheets suspended in the middle of the room, hung at a right angle to each other to form a corner.  The video featured on the left is the titular Absence is all that is left behind (2013, digital video and sound, 10 min.) and on the right is The Embrace of Night (Go To Sleep) (2013, digital video and sound, 10 min.)

Absence reveals itself slowly in a singular continuous shot.  A meditative chime rings out as if calling for silence.  Everything is bright white, burning the screen up like hot magnesium.  As your eyes adjust, a figure begins to just distinguish itself by the barest outlines.  The chime reverberates at regular intervals often timed with the figure’s graceful gestures.  She begins with her hands clasped almost in prayer; at other times her arms are outstretched, inviting you like a sensuous, otherworldly siren.  She ceases with arms crossed over her chest, content to drift into a tranquil slumber.

There is a sense of serenity and peace that emanates from this video.  Beautiful, enthralling, and introspective, it raises questions as to whether this is the afterlife or simply a dream.  And if so, is this George’s vision of the afterlife or a snippet from his dreams?  I think he presents a fairly neutral space void of detail, which allows the viewer to infer as they choose and develop their own narrative.

[Buffy spoiler alert in the paragraph below]

Watching this awoke a number of memories and thoughts.  I felt that the work was like a visualisation of Buffy’s description of Heaven after her resurrection in season 6 – somewhere warm, where she was at peace and nothing had form.  Additionally, George’s video is reminiscent of Ho Tzu Nyen’s The Cloud of Unknowing (2011) that was recently exhibited at the 5th Auckland Triennial.  In particular, the colour white bridged the link, which not only brings about associations of purity and innocence, but also mourning and funerals, as it is understood in Asian cultures.

The other work is similar in its visual and sound dynamic, and treatment of notions such as mortality and consciousness.  I found Embrace to be a much darker work: it looks as if it is set underwater with multiple figures (mermaids?) one which appears to be performing a dance; others look as if they are swimming… or perhaps drowning.  The video is quite jarring, a chop and change of a multitude of scenes.  Some are sped up, some are slowed, and others are repeated, reversed or mirrored.  This unsettled sensation is furthered by aggressive, clamouring sounds.  And like Absence, the experience differs depending on the viewer and what they want to see.

This work made me think of the space halfway between life and death.  The submerged aspect of Embrace I found especially haunting and ominous, at times evocative of Inhale | Exhale (2012) by Vincent Ward.  The sounds are rampageous and scratchy like amps gone bad, or that time I went Spookers (I’ve only been once, which was probably enough for me 😯 ).

Yet you cannot help but watch it, as there is a certain tragic beauty to the video.  It requires a number of viewings to absorb the fragmented imagery, each viewing offering up something you hadn’t seen the previous time.  I found the expressions of the figures greatly contrasted the shadowy ocean depths, and like the figure in Absence, they appear animated and almost at ease.  But perhaps that is further evidence that what we are seeing isn’t quite real.

By projecting onto near translucent sheets, it makes the videos seem dreamlike and hazy, leading you to question what it is that you are seeing.  This translucency is compelling, allowing the works to materialise on the walls behind the sheets, generating a ghostly spectral effect.  The use of sheets could also be a reference to beds and sleep, where the unconscious mind can be unleashed.  Even afterwards when I left the room, the imprints of the videos remained in my mind like phantoms.  Though I am curious about how my memories of George’s work will alter over time.

Have you heard of artsdiary? It is a great website filled with photos of local exhibitions.  The link below is of an image of George’s videos:

Robert George’s exhibition at Corban Estate Arts Centre, Henderson, is until Sunday the 1st December 2013.  Guest performance artist Terry Faleono will be providing a live performance this Saturday 9th November from 11am – 1pm, be sure to check it out!