WARNING: This post contains some explicit images and may not be suited to all readers. If you are not of a legal age, or are offended by adult oriented and sexually explicit material, or if it is inappropriate to view such material in your current location, you should leave this page. You have been warned!
Who: Christopher Koller
What: Killing Time
Where: Kings Artist Run Initiative, Level 1 171 King St, Melbourne
When: Until 23 October 2010
We went to this exhibition on its opening night and being an artist run initiative, the gallery was absolutely packed. There were a few things that we couldn’t get to see because of the crowd, but there is plenty to write about the things we did!
The gallery was split into three main sections.
In the first, there was a large projection of a scene from a driving range in Japan. It is night-time. The bright fluorescent lights light up the entire range. We see a large expanse of grass stretch out before us. From a point behind, white golf balls are propelled into the air at random intervals. The sight of the ball diminishes as it moves away from us until it disappears completely. For 20 minutes, golf balls fly through the air into the night sky. Dotting the grass in the distance like snowflakes. After some time a mechanical arm comes past, hoovering up the balls, to reveal once again the green grass. The video starts again.
The scene is almost meditative, providing a space of stillness for self-reflection, in a place where one might not usually expect; a driving range. Amongst the bustle of the crowd inside the gallery I found a moment of tranquility watching this video. Unfortunately it was the only work we could see in the first gallery as there were just too many people.
Mizuno D301 (still from video), 2004
Single channel video, 20 mins
The middle gallery was dedicated to works relating to the ambiguous murder of poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, who was allegedly executed in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War, due to his leftist political affiliations, liberal sexual preferences and anti-fascist views.
On one wall, a video on a LCD screen was playing, entitled A One-Legged School Teacher, Two Anarchist Bullfighters and a Poet. Koller retraces the steps to the site of Lorca’s execution site, who was apparently executed together with the people that the title of the work suggests. Filmed with a hand-held camera, the footage is shaky as Koller walks through the forest and up and down hills. The footage is montaged with scenes from what looks like a hedge-maze. The video is unsettling, but at the same time it encourages quiet contemplation. The subject matter encourages one think about the kind of society that led to the deaths of these people, the injustice and brutality, the terror they must have felt walking through this same forest to their execution, just because they were considered “unsuitable” by the State.
The video is presented together with a large-scale photograph of the execution site on the opposite wall. On the adjacent wall, a curious black and white silent film is projected. Called The Shadow, this video is a re-enactment by Koller of a scene played by Lorca, who was an actor in a student theatre, during a recital of the 17th century play Life is a Dream. Lorca plays the part of the Sombra (the shadow) and from the few seconds of film that survive as documentation of the event, Lorca is seen to be swathed in black veils and moved like a ghost across the stage. In Koller’s version, he dresses up like Lorca, but also carries a pine tree branch, both a reference to the pine forests that have since sprung up around the site of Lorca’s death and a traditional symbol in Japanese Noh-theatre that represents a sublime place where good and evil no longer exist.
SPOILER ALERT and explicit content ahead. If you are planning on visiting the exhibition, our review from this point onwards includes spoilers, so it’s up to you if you want to continue reading. For those who are offended by explicit material as per the warning at the start of this post, I suggest you do not continue reading!
Exploring the eradication of the unacceptable is not uncommon in art, music or culture in general. Artists have often brought to our attention the prosecution, isolation, and prejudice faced by people who do not fit within the normative roles of society. In the third gallery, Koller further explores the lives of these people, but avoids the clichéd in both subject matter and representation, focusing on obscure aberrant situations that people find themselves in, either by choice or due to a psychiatric condition.
Four videos are projected back to back. The first three videos are part of the series called ‘Aberrant’. The subject matter is what the name suggests. They visualise stories that the artist has found in various newspaper clippings and articles by re-enacting reported scenarios.
The first video in the series is Loop. The video features two men who had obviously been engaging in some strange sexual activity, lying on a mattress with socks strewn everywhere. One man is slowly stroking the other and both looking quite distant. Most of the video was just this same shot; the two men on the mattress. Every now and then though, for a few seconds, flashes of another scene would cut into the footage; the men engaging in some sadomasochistic act with socks tied around them.
The video was inspired by the story of a pair of sock fetishists in the UK who duped thousands of British citizens into donating their socks to a non-existent charity, and then incorporated the socks as props in their private, sadomasochistic rituals. The police raided their home and found the floors covered with socks 18 inches thick. The pair was arrested for conspiring to commit acts of gross indecency and incitement to commit unlawful wounding on each other, and jailed for 18 months.
The second video called Spike was almost too horrid for me to watch. I get easily grossed out by acts of self-harming and needles in general. It is based on the story of a German veteran who was hospitalised for septicemia (a serious medical condition caused by bacteria entering the bloodstream and triggering an immune response, which results in inflammation and a slow shutdown of the body’s systems for handling infection and can be deadly) caused by obsessively pinning his war medals to his naked chest. What was incredible about this video was that it put you in the shoes of the veteran. It’s sublime yet completely effective in communicating his incredible isolation and madness to the extent that the man’s odd activity of pinning medals to his naked chest seemed completely comprehendible. I still needed to turn my head away from the screen at one point though.
The third video in the series is Shrink. I was incredibly curious about this one, and I would probably deem it my favourite work in the whole exhibition. In the starting scene we are in the man’s bedroom. Our vantage point is just above the bed-head and we see the man’s body in front of us from his chest onwards, lying in bed under a blanket. He has his legs propped up, with his knees bent. He turns on his bed lamp and slowly lifts the blanket revealing more of his body. We expect to see his genitals, but instead they were tucked under between his legs. The man strokes his crotch, between his legs, where his genitals disappear. He was stroking it in a manner that looked like he was admiring the fact that he has no penis and I started to read into this as a work about gender identity. He pulls his blanket back over his body and turns off the light. The scene cuts to black.
Next, we find the man in his bathroom. He is strapping his penis against his body with a some string. This seemed to further confirm my reading from the previous scene, about a man who wanted to be a woman. In the next scene, however, we see the him leaving the house in very ‘male’ clothing. Baggy jeans, baggy T-shirt. Why would one strap his penis like that if he was going to wear baggy pants anyway? The man stops at the door before he goes outside and looks into his pants, checking on his penis. I was completely confused. My reading up to that point had been invalidated. This man is clearly obsessed with his penis, but it obviously had nothing to do with the desire to be the opposite sex. What, then, could it be about?
For the rest of the video we continue to see the man being obsessed with his penis. Randomly, he would unbutton his pants and hold on to it. He does nothing to it, just holds onto it, gently. We also find out that he has a female partner, who would help him hold his penis, almost trying to comfort him. For the entire film, we never see these people’s faces but we could feel that, clearly, the man was afraid of something. I was thinking maybe he was afraid of castration.
At the end of the film, a blurb of text fills the screen. It describes a phobia that certain men have called “Koro Syndrome”, a psychiatric disorder in which the sufferer believes his penis is slowly disappearing into his body, and that this genital retraction will eventually result in death. I really should have seen that coming, considering the title of the work is Shrink. Still, I was incredibly fascinated at this point, as I had never heard of such a condition before. It also made me feel a sudden great divide between me and my male counterparts. I have often read that men have a great innate fear of losing their penises. It is something that I will never experience and therefore will never fully understand as a woman. Despite this, Christopher did an amazing job of conveying that fear to his audience. The entire video, despite being only 5 minutes, was incredibly engaging and, like the previous film Spike, put us into the shoes of the protagonists.
A great exhibition and one not to be missed.
Christopher Köller is an established Melbourne-based artist who makes photographs, videos and environmental installations. He has held solo exhibitions in Australia, Japan, England, Spain and Mexico, and his work has been included in group exhibitions in France, Italy and throughout Australia. Köller’s work is represented in numerous public and private collections including the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria, the City of Monash, Griffith University, the Bibliotheque Nationale of France, and the Sata Corporation Collection, Tokyo.