Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Kate Sylvester's designs - "anachronistic, ridiculous, Machiavellian, perverse, pompous, arrogant, completely glorious" - say Paul Bibby and Kate Geraghty in The Sydney Morning Herald today.

Or, at least, the "blurb" for the show (Rosemount Australian Fashion Week, 28 April – 2 May 2008) says this. Sylvester's website contains no photo like this one, though it has shots of a large number of other outfits displayed in Sydney.

The portfolio is titled 'Royally Screwed' but the website says she loves A Clockwork Orange - the movie (1971) based on a book (1962) by Anthony Burgess the writer says was notorious at his own expense (Flame Into Being: The Life and Work of D.H. Lawrence 1985; in fact Burgess equates Lawrence's plight in producing a book of monumental prurient interest, with his own) - and there are pictures of Magritte, a Belgian symbolist artist who is also famous for shock value rather than, say, for technique.

Sylvester is on to something, however much the RSL denies its relevance. The current taste for 80s pop may be glimpsed, here too, in a taste for 20s and 30s noirishness. In fact Neville Brody, the great typographer and graphic designer of the 80s, underscored in places the similarity between the two eras (rigid, totalitarian).

We see dark, brooding youth but it's aligned with a crippling sense of propriety that the online world foregrounds and does not mitigate, as early cyber pundits averred. Life's limitations are everywhere the same.

Modern tribalism is no joke, but there's no escape. It defines us in the public sphere according to two actors on stage at Parramatta's Riverside Theatre. One, Fayssal Bazzi, is Muslim, and then there's Will Snow.

Snow. Light, nice, pure, blank, placid. The diametrical opposite of fundamentialism. Or is it?

Sylvester is asking. Are we listening?

Online, you cannot escape flames by rigor or imagination. You're either 'with us' or 'against us'. Sylvester is perspicacious and it's fun to see her 'likes', which also include Georges Braque and Jackson Pollock.

Artists working in eras when 'saying something' was possible. Early and high Modernism evoke images of struggle and eventual triumph. It was against such as Derek Robson, of the RSL (quoted in the story), that they struggled.

On the other hand, to celebrate dogmatism and triumphalism is sort of neat, as reverse psychology. Artists create within structures: within the public sphere.

And it was within those structures - Anzac, 'king and country', country and city, freedom and tyrrany - that the artisans of Sydney (machines, poverty) and the cockys off the tablelands (sheep, wheat) struggled in the tumultuous first half of last century.

In a way, Sylvester is celebrating (not the point of view of either side, but) the face-off, the struggle itself:

  • Furtive glances down a dark street in drizzling rain.
  • Echoing footsteps receding, stopping, a door opening, silence.
  • A fugitive's breaths as he hides behind a wardrobe in the corner of a room searched by soldiers with guns and rope.

It's pure genre, sure. Nowadays, only within such a framework (so tempting to latch onto cliches!) does expression appear possible.

The 50s is cliche (was when I was an undergrad), the 60s is cliche. The 70s is done and gone. The 80s - you had retro 80s nights in Newtown last year. So let's go back to the 20s and 30s. Back to the time when newly emergent forces, combined with the potential of industry and capital, toyed with such novelties as 'democracy' and 'popularity'.

Let's go back to 'our' roots.

Many have rightly feared the negative potential of the demos with its short-sighted politicians and its endless desire for betterment - at whatever cost. 'Nationality' is such a powerful force that, unleashed without control, it may lead to a million deaths (Belsen, Van).

In the world of United Nations and bilateral agreements everything is suddenly organised behind closed doors - in back rooms and hallways on golf courses - and in blank-faced offices along major city streets.

We no longer see process and so we deny the media the licit franchise it once possessed. But the alternative?

The alternative is the public theatre of war, but war, we know, has unknowable outcomes, including the 60s counter-culture and the liberalisation of the West that followed. The RSL may hate war, but it has added value (as the corporates say).artists create

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