What: Dying in Spite of the Miraculous
Where: Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces
Artists: Jeremy Blake (USA), Ulla Von Brandenburg (Germany), Bas Jan Ader (Netherlands), Joachim Koester (Denmark), Justin Lieberman (USA), Mel O’Callaghan (Australia), Saskia Olde Wolbers (Netherlands)
Curators: Emily Cormack, Alexie Glass-Kantor, Simon Maidment & Brett Sheehy
Presented by: Melbourne International Arts Festival and Gertrude Contemporary
When: Until 6 November, 2010

After Sophia Hewson and Mia Salsjo’s opening at Lindberg Contemporary (which Georgina has reviewed here), we jumped on a tram and headed straight to Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces for the opening of Dying in Spite of the Miraculous. The exhibition, which is part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival, features video based work from seven artists from Australia and Internationally.

I’m going to jump straight to telling you about our favourite film by Dutch artist Saskia Olde Wolbers, titled Placebo (2003). Set in a hospital after a car crash that was a failed murder/suicide attempt, it tells the story of a troubled love affair. It is a tale of deception and delusion which had me spellbound for the entire length. It’s is so well written that the narrator drew me in, further and further, with every word. It reminded me of being read to as a child. My own vivid imagination at that age, exchanged for the sci-fi-like landscapes and visuals created by Wolbers. These matched perfectly with the story, were incredibly dynamic, and added so much mystery.

saskia olde wolbers

Initially it appeared as though the imagery was some form of digital animation. I was amazed to discover that wasn’t the case at all. Instead, the sets were constructed by hand and actually took years to complete. The hospital (shown below) is actually a modified cage submerged inside a fish tank.

saskia olde wolbers

Placebo is inspired by the real life story of Jean-Claude Romand, a pathological liar. He pretended to family and friends that he was a doctor, before going on a killing spree 18 years later when his true identity was likely to be uncovered. In the same way that I was amazed someone could deceive the people closest to him for so long, I was also completely blown away by the powerful illusions created by Saskia Olde Wolbers’ intricate models.

After purchasing a glass of wine, I lent against a wall at the back of the gallery to admire the colorful video installation by American artist Jeremy Blake, titled Winchester (2002). The imagery I saw first was very abstract and painterly. Described as ‘moving paintings’ his work is a hybrid of painting and digital media.

winchester Jeremy Blake 2

After watching for a while, representational images were introduced. You can see in the picture below, a silhouette of a man with a Winchester rifle, together with the Winchester house, a 160-room Victorian mansion in San Jose.

Winchester Jeremy BlakeJeremy Blake, Winchester (still), from Winchester trilogy, 2002; DVD with sound; 18-minute continuous loop; courtesy of the artist and Feigen Contemporary, New York; © Jeremy Blake

The house was built by The Winchester Rifle heiress, Sarah Winchester. Following the instructions given to her by a clairvoyant, she kept 22 carpenters at work, 24 hours a day, for 32 years. The reason being she was told that the spirits of thousands of people killed by the Winchester riffle, were now seeking vengeance and would ultimately kill her too. To save herself she had to build, and continue to build, a house for herself and the spirits. If she stopped she would die.

In an interview by Torben Olander, Jeremy Blake says the Winchester House, “reminded me of the American obsession with massive scale and the sort of upper class monster houses that are being built in contemporary suburban America. I liked that the first one was build to house ghosts, because it captures something truly American about how we are working hard in this world, to get to the next”.

Sadly, Blake went missing on 17th July 2007 at Rockaway Beach in Queens NY. Police reports state that a woman called 911 to report that she saw a man walking out into the ocean. Blake’s clothes and wallet were reportedly found along with a suicide note which referred to Blake’s long-term partner, filmmaker Theresa Duncan, who had committed suicide just one week earlier in their apartment. In an article published in Vanity Fair, Blake said that he and Duncan were being followed and harassed by Scientologists prior to his disappearance. The reasons for the couples’ deaths however remain open to conjecture.

The sole Australian artist, Mel O’Callaghan, had two films in the exhibition. CHOP (2010), on 16mm film, shows a man using all his energy to crush what looks like a boulder of cement inside a darkened room, until he is physically unable to continue.

I was particularly attracted to her second work, To The End (2007) which was a HD video, on continuous loop, which featured a man walking on the beach, in and out of the water. His footprints made beautiful circular patterns in the sand, but also showed that his was walking without purpose, and retracing his own steps. He definitely appeared to be lost. While the video was absolutely beautiful, there was something unsettling about it. The man’s situation almost felt hopeless.

Mel O'Callaghan

In her work O’Callaghan explores the inevitability of both hope and disappointment through life. She uses metaphors in both of these films; the characters showing the persistence of human will against the lack of meaning, or futility, of the situations they find themselves in.

Dutch/Californian artist Bas Jan Ader’s I’m too sad to tell you features a single shot of the artist crying in front of the camera. This short film runs for approximately three and a half minutes and I watched the whole thing twice. During the film I was somewhat confused and intrigued. Although you could see the tears running down his cheeks, there were moments where it seemed like the artist was almost laughing. I think he was truly fighting back intense emotions in order to try to get his message across. What he was trying to tell us, or why he was so sad, we’ll never know.

bas jan alder I'm too sad to tell youbas jan alder I'm too sad to tell youI’m too sad to tell you, Bas Jan Ader, 16mm, duration: 3 min 34 sec
© 1971, Mary Sue Ader-Andersen

I’m too sad to tell you is the most popular of his work according to Wikipedia, and was filmed in 1970, five years before Bas Jan Ader took off on an extremely long journey across the Atlantic, in what would have been the smallest sail boat ever to complete this trip. The passage was part of an art performance titled In Search of the Miraculous. Radio contact with Bas Jan Ader was lost after only three weeks into the voyage. The boat was discovered, half-submerged, of the coast of Ireland 10 months later, but his body was never found.

The whole exhibition had a thread of mystery and intrigue running through it. The lines were blurred between what was real life and what was fiction. Between artist and the characters. Nothing could be completely explained and I think that’s what I loved so much about it!

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