Ten Thousand Views

Murray McKeich was telling me last week that he’d always thought of Footscray as a series of layers, anyway. His reference wasn’t to the suburb’s cultural makeup, but its architecture: Victorian structures renovated to breaking point sometime during the 80s and later made over with a thick, shifting carapace of Vietnamese-English signage. The skin of the ‘scray is mutable, its stretchmarks clearly visible. Such striations also mark the recycling of space. Take a stroll around the corner from the mall and you’ll probably spot the guy hocking pirated CDs and DVDs in what looks suspiciously like a service corridor – the wall crammed with available titles. Walk into the chemist and notice that a travel agency is subletting the corner.

Thuy Vy, Hoang Tran Nguyen and Murray McKeich no doubt had these kind of spatial specifics in mind when they billed their exhibition as an “exploration of generational, historical and everyday layers that inspire life “west of the west”. As such, ten thousand views could be seen as not so much an exposition of discrete artworks, but a riff along the folds of place and time.

Hoang Tran Nguyen’s large scale, colour photographs bring a wide-angle lens to the ‘taking place’ of the past. Both of Hoang’s images were taken at historically loaded sites in Vietnam: the first, Street Scene, was photographed at the same location as the 1968 photograph of a Viet Cong execution at the hands of a Lieutenant, now canonical in media representations of the Vietnam War. The story behind River Scene has its birthmark not in the archives of media history but in Vietnamese folklore and myth: as the site in North Vietnam where, in 43 AD, the legendary Trung Sisters committed suicide after failing to halt the invading Chinese. Although there are other stories that suggest the sisters disappeared into the clouds, or that they drowned in a river, the site itself is accepted as the basis of their legend.

When exhibitied together, River Scene and Street Scene don’t appear to be interested so much in the facts (what happened when, and why?) but with making links between events of the past and the physical terrain of today. This soldering of memory to space also extends to the environs of the gallery space itself: with one mounted on the flour, another on the wall, the installation tentatively evokes the “memory maps” of the Renaissance, in which data memorised and recalled by traversing an imaginary architecture in the mind. It’s the soundtrack that jolts the viewer into the present. As Hoang notes: “the voice recording is of an excerpt from one of Nguyen Tuong Van’s letters to a friend before he was executed last December in Singapore for drug smuggling. The excerpt reads “When I am gone I will be closer to you”. The recording was made in Melbourne last week, and is read by one of Van’s friends. Mixed in with the eulogy are the sounds of birds recorded on the Australian subtropical East.

Hung from the ceiling in the adjoining room are two of Thuy Vy’s black and white digital prints. Entitled Ancestor I and Ancestor II, the images are the first in an ongoing , typological series documenting the faces of Vietnamese elders. The compositions are designed to resemble a formal ID shot, or passport photo, but with proportions just slightly larger than life. Their titles also recall the photographs of the deceased used as icons on family altars to remind the living of the continuing presence of their forebears. Staring directly into the camera, Thuy’s subjects emerge ghost-like from the inky dark of the studio. The detail and clarity of their faces act as an invitation to scour for evidence.

Belying this clarity, the surface of each print acts as a semi-opaque barrier between what is withheld from the gaze and what is revealed. After talking to Thuy I discover this drama neatly encapsulates the social context of his subjects. He tells me that in Vietnam it is the elders who are respected as both the decision-makers and the consultants, presiding at the head of the familial hierarchy. But with migration the elders’ ability to act is curtailed, and they often become heavily reliant upon their children and grandchildren. Ancestors I & II embody the (family) drama of the photograph as site of social power.

Whereas Thuy and Hoang invoke the documentary mode, Murray McKeich foregrounds practices of collecting and display. For the production of Rice Paper Skin McKeich amassed a series of found objects which were then imaged on a flatbed scanner and fed into custom designed software which automatically collages the objects. The objects collected were found in both Footscray and along Victoria’s East Coast during a recent family vacation. These radically different environs are digitally compressed into hybrid compositions that shift over time. Rendered in the dark tonalities of McKeich’s signature style, the cyber-surreal tableaux generated by the algorithms are potentially infinite.

Scrolling in layers at differing speeds across the screen, McKeich’s animation ushers the viewer along the immersive surfaces of terrain vague that is at once intimate and shell-shocked, suggesting the psychic assembly lines of a Postindustrial Unconscious.  Somewhat surprisingly, the work received its title from a very prosaic argument over what to have for dinner a couple of weeks back; “I wanted hamburgers but the kids wanted rice paper rolls, and the kids won. I’d been having some trouble that day scanning these banksia roots I’d collected… And it struck me that if I wrapped the roots in wet rice paper, it might be more effective. But later I was thinking that it’s actually an apt metaphor, with the translucency and the layering”.

The title of this exhibition was lifted from a series Murray called A thousand pictures of Footscray, a work catalytic for the meeting of the three artists. We are all familiar with the effects of “ten thousand views” in CGI, from video games through Hollywood to Duracell commercials, where the 360 degree panorama conjures the action of a panoptic view for a seated audience. In contrast, the temporalities of “ten thousand views” rouse visitors with the action of the longue durée, slowing the pace as the out-takes accumulate.

Amelia Barikin & Scott Brook