Hatched: National Graduate Show 2018

PICA Elham Eshraghian, Bohran AAR“All art is quite useless.” So said Oscar Wilde in the preface to his excellent novel The Picture of Dorian Gray; and so says the Hatched National Graduate Show through the vicissitudes of mediums on display in the exhibition. This is not to disparage the quite exemplary work of the artists on show. More so, any criticisms levelled at Hatched reflect a critique of the state of contemporary art in general. We shall return to this.

Every year the works of emerging artists, finishing their Fine Arts undergraduate degrees, are presented in conjunction with that of their peers from other institutions across Australia in the Hatched National Graduate Show. The exhibition forms a snapshot of the new wave of artists, and is also therefore an exemplary glance into the state of contemporary art; or rather, it is a glance into the future state of contemporary art.

There are some fantastic pieces on display at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts for the Hatched show. For instance, Mandy Quadrio’s Holes in History, an installation piece made from steel wool, found objects, shells, and bull kelp, catches the viewer’s attention directly they walk into the main gallery at PICA. Strings and clumps of unidentifiable material (without recourse to the catalogue or plaque) dangle from the ceiling, occupying much of the gallery space.

As a proud Palawa woman, Mandy’s work attempts to highlight the silences and omissions in Australia’s violent history of contact. The work hangs ethereally; unexplained and by no means didactic, Holes in History highlights silence and omission through the silence and omission inherent to the piece – the lack of information available to the viewer when viewing the piece.

In contrast, more traditional media are on display as well. For instance, Jessica Price uses screen-printing to celebrate the delicacy and complexity of the natural world, whilst simultaneously expressing her identity. The act of artistic creation, creating imagery derived from nature, is a form of communion with nature for the artist, a communion that connects her with who she considers to be the creator of the world.

Most presciently, the work by Elham Eshraghian, Bohran, is a visually arresting piece. Eshraghian’s work is a two-channel digital video-installation, over large screens that take up a large portion of the gallery room in which it is situated. The scale of the piece is overwhelming; as Eshraghian states in the description accompanying her work, the viewer is caught in an “affective poetic space.”

The piece explores ideas of cultural identity, displacement, and conflict, particularly with regards to the Iranian heritage of the artist, and Eshraghian’s piece was a deserving winner of the $40,000 Schenberg fellowship. The fellowship, and the show itself, represents a major stepping stone in the career of a young artist.

However, Hatched to me reflects an underlying issue inherent to contemporary art. There appears, in much contemporary practice, an unease associated with the making of art itself. Instances of contemporary art consistently seek to justify their existence through overly didactic engagement with current affairs, the presenting of information for a public that would otherwise, presumably, remain in the dark (for which, we might remind ourselves, we have journalists).

By contrast, other instances of contemporary art are irritatingly self-referential and self-conscious. They are post-conceptual; they no longer bear reference to medium, form, or concept. There are video-pieces at Hatched that seek to distract viewers from the medium of video with absurdism to highlight their own uselessness. They cloud meaning, feeling, or emotive expression behind layers of abstraction. This approach seems to apologise for art’s existence, or to mock the very practice of art making.

Which is fine, but this post-conceptualism has already been overly played out in the 1960s and 1970s, where institutional critique came to prominence and the modernist high-brow approach was challenged. That such approaches linger point to the continued and frustrating influence of postmodernism.

Boundaries and institutions must be challenged, yet both instances result in a “so what” experience for the viewer, which is for me art’s very antithesis. They scream that art is useless, pointless, or that it is informative and, by dint of the information, therefore necessary. The art itself is considered superfluous to the message.

For me, art is about emotional reaction. It is necessary for a different reason. It is a release from the necessities of life. It is intangible, an outlet for emotion through any medium available – we are in a post-medium world after all – and therein lies its value. Hatched, as a snapshot of the future state of contemporary art, reflects an entrenched tendency in contemporary art to degrade its own value or to overstate it.

So, we should set aside our hang ups about art’s necessity or uselessness and get on with the task of making meaningful work. I hesitate to single out any artist on show for my critique; it seems unfair to criticise the exemplary practice of an upcoming artist for an underlying institutional phenomenon. Indeed, perhaps their practice is governed by the requirements of a Fine Arts major. We might never know.

Art serves no technical purpose. However, art bears a more vital function, as an expression of individual emotion; a means through which we might engage with our world in totally unique ways. If the point to living is only about making life better, the world becomes a frightfully dull and pointless place, caught in an endless cycle of improvement. All art is quite useless, which is why it is necessary. There are some very exciting works at Hatched and there are some “so what” works. Your best bet is to go to decide for yourself which is which.

Hatched: National Graduate Show 2018
Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA) – Perth Cultural Centre, 51 James Street, Northbridge
Exhibition continues to 15 July 2018
Free admission

For more information, visit: www.pica.org.au for details.

Image: Elham Eshraghian, Bohran (installation view) – courtesy of PICA

Review: Karl Sagrabb