Review from "Signs of life"

By Helen Stuckey


Ugo Rondinone installation in the exhibition Signs of Life was like being in a strange,
existential movie. Made up of two works, you entered a semi-darkened room in which four
video monitors, displayed high like surveillance equipment, showed film footage of a figure
walking and a girl dancing in slow motion. Opposite the entrance was a wall of roughly finished
timber planks, painted dark green and in the centre, a pink window overlooking the city.
Combined with a soundtrack of the artist repeating a languid dirge, the intimacy of the video
work coupled with the pink-tinged city view seemed happy and infinitely sad, melancholic and
Rondinone was one of the fifty-six International and Australian artists featured in Signs Of
Life the core exhibition of the 1999 Melbourne International Biennial. The exhibition was
located in the heart of Melbourne in a run-down office tower, a former post office and
telephone exchange. As an exhibition space it was a building that came with no institutional
baggage and exuded no apparent story of its own. The scale of Signs Of Life was in itself an
event defiantly requiring more than one visit to view. The multiple floors allowed for a real
sense of exploration and discovery; the levels differing dramatically in character; some open and
flooded with natural light others a labyrinth of dark corridors and rooms.
The exhibition included a large number of video works all of which had their screening
environments adapted to their particular needs. These included the domestic scaled interiors of
Andrea Lange and Gitte Villesen, the very conventional theatrical settings of Deimantas
Narkevicius and João Penalva and the more deliberately sculptural spaces of Aernout Mik and
Smith/Stewart. These architectural environments encouraged differing viewing regimes; the
couches in Lange and Villesen's domestic suites fostering an intimacy that reflected the works
subjects and encouraged conversation and reflection amongst their casually seated audience.
Narkevicius and Penalva's conservative cinematic presentation emphasised the works
engagement with film; Narkevicius deconstructing the role the cinema has in propaganda and
Penalava's work addressing the gap between the audiences assumptions for viewing created by
this frame and the actual demands of his work. Not all the video works were isolated within
discreet environments. Susan Phillipsz’ Susan, Barbara, Joan & Sarah: A Song Apart drew
the audience across the large open space to a hidden corner where the Phillipsz sisters sung
harmonies on four separate videos. The work addressed, amongst other things, the notion of
erasing distance through the shared communication of music.
Most of the work in Signs of Life capitalised precisely on the potential of the architecture,
exploiting the opportunity to change the actual building, the building’s vistas and its spaces in a
manner uncommon in a usual gallery context. Like Rondinone's work, Ricky Swallow's series of
kinetic tableaus were displayed with the city grid laid out below, exploiting the given panorama
offered by the building. The work utilises the shells of old portable record players into which
the tiny futuristic tableaux are built. The archaic mechanics of the turntable enables Swallow to
include one repetitive animated action in each model. In Model of Surveillance a figure seated
at a giant observation panel circled slowly. In Model for Chimpanzees with Guns a gun toting
ape faced terrorist (or resistance fighter) turns cautiously holding a circle of figures at bay on
the roof of a grey office tower. The repetitive mechanical action of the models combined with
the scientific precision of Swallow's miniatures, added to this understanding of science as a form
of oppression and control. Surveillance is a major theme in Swallow’s dioramas, made most
apparent in his panopticon and laboratory scenes but also in his voyeuristic scenes of urban
terrorism as in Incident at the Dinosaur Park. Viewed through Swallow's paranoid
constructions the city below, miniaturised like the tableaux, becomes a site of hidden and
sinister activities.
Not all works have benefited from their environment. Terri Bird's Fashioning a Future and
Other Fictions of Being didn’t survive beyond the frame of the gallery’s generous potions and
sat forlornly in no-space like a piece of partition that the wreckers missed. The drama of Dan
Shipsides climbing wall (The Penguin on Newcastle Beach – A migratory Tale) was also
undermined by the rawness of the building and the decidedly unheroic sound of a tinny radio
playing in the background. This simple sign served to locate his actions no longer within the
noble and conquering performance of the mountaineer mapping the unknown, but the everyday
bravery and problem solving of the tradesman suspended on a building site. Conversely the
building's context revived works that may have seemed tired and familiar in a gallery. On the
upper floor of a city tower the experience of standing in Nikolaj Recke's Untitled clover field
of sweet smelling grass looking down at the busy street below offered a charming sense of lost
Recke's work touched on the theme of longing that was manifest in much of the exhibition but
perhaps most evident in Robert Gober’s Untitled 1995-97. This work featured an open
suitcase inside of which a drainage grate showed an underground chamber where clear water
flowed in a rock pool. Just glimpsed are the legs of a man and child. While arguably the work
exploited the romantic childhood fantasy of escape and adventure from the everyday, the
curator, Juliana Enberg, finds in it "baptism, hope and the feminised man".
The fairytale qualities apparent in Gober's work are also evident in Mariele Neudecker's tableau
I don't know how I resisted the urge to run. Darker in its imaginings, Neudecker's miniature
forest elicited responses "midway between panic and enchantment". Displayed in
claustrophobic conditions and lit by a single light in the darkness, the work seemed secretive,
hidden away in a tiny room of its own. Easy to miss, its dark and cramped space enabled only a
few people access at a time.
Monica Bonvicini's A violent, tropical, cyclonic piece of art having wind speeds of or in excess
of 75Mph! was equally moody but more violent, and used the existing architectural space and
machinery. In a small room Boncicini installed two giant fans that noisily buffeted anyone
standing between them, making it difficult to remain in the space. There was a certain irony in
this work as the wind, one of the elements of nature that architecture strives to protect us from,
was turned inwards, serving to make the viewer acutely aware of the environment.
John Frankland's installation also dealt with architecture of the building with a more
contemplative and sophisticated take on the minimalist aesthetic. The Telephone Exchange was
a shell with only the most rudimentary fitout and Frankland's work offered the only fully
finished surface, a gunmetal plastic skin stretched tautly over the structure sealing it with
hermitic precision. In the neglected building, the effect was not the architectural trompe l’oeil,
which worked so cleverly with his faux lift lobby at the Pictura Brittanica at MCA a few
years back. Instead, there was a sense of unease between the work distinguishing itself as
simultaneously having the only suitable level of finish and having a most decidedly unreal level
of finish.
Perhaps the most curious of the exhibition’s resonances, was the future of the building itself.
Marked for renovation into apartments after the close of the exhibition, the most surreal
moments were perhaps when agents took potential buyers to view the site while work was still
on show. Collapsing any distinction between real estate value and visual culture, wannabe
investors were forced to glean what life of luxury might be lived post-Biennial, through the lens
of the ruptured architecture space of Aernout Mik's video/installation depicting buildings and

Helen Stuckey 1999