The following review by Justin Clemens covers the visual arts exhibition accompanying the Double Dialogues Five “Art & Pain” conference; an exhibition organised by Alexander McCulloch Art at Gardner Contemporary Art, in Burwood Road, East Hawthorn. Ironically, perhaps, the exhibition was opened by Michael Meehan, a novelist, who had little difficulty identifying a certain commonalty between the visual and the literary arts practitioner, namely, the need for attention to detail, for grounding one’s work in the immediate, the sensuous, the particular, out of which more universal themes begin to emerge.


The alleged links between “art” and “pain” are today familiar to the point of cliché. The image of the tortured artist still dominates Hollywood representations; from Vincent van Gogh to Jackson Pollock, what everyone expects from an artist is indigent poverty, sexual dysfunction, drug or spousal abuse, and existential pain beyond the reckoning of ordinary human beings. In this scenario, triumph over pain-and-adversity through aesthetic sublimation — i.e., daubing canvases in such a way that reproductions will become universal staples at the gallery shop — nonetheless doesn’t heal the artist’s ineffable wound. Indeed, if the artist is indeed a real artist, their pain should drive them to a lamentably early if lucrative and narratively satisfying grave. In fact, “pain” is held to be so crucial to the life and work of an artist, that it simultaneously provides the cause, content, meaning, goal, and justification of art. Art is the art of enjoying pain; of transmuting and transmitting such enjoyment to others, often in ciphered or disavowed forms.

Yet this Romantic conception of the integral bond between art and pain collapses so many registers of meaning together, it’s probably worth unpacking them. After all, are we speaking of physical pain, like stubbing one’s toe or getting a paper cut? This doesn’t, on the face of it, seem an elevated enough topic for art. Or are we speaking, not of accidentally inflicted physical pain, but of another deliberately inflicting such pain? This places us in the realm of torture, not art. Then again, depictions of torture have always been central feature of art, from the innumerable Christian depictions of Heaven and Hell to the wrenching distortions of Francis Bacon. Or are we speaking of deliberately inflicted pain on the self, by the self? Extreme pathological masochism has surely proved a rich vein for contemporary performance artists, not to mention boutique S&M shops for suburban yuppies. And what of a split self, that repetitively imposes pain upon itself as if on another? The left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing — but still, it is doing it!

So even the most minimal sort of thinking about such categories — of the myriad varieties of physical pain — suggests how physical pain is always already enmeshed with all sorts of psychological, political, ontological torments, and that these torments are themselves caught up with the productions of art. Neurosis, perversion, obscenity, systematic social inequities, peculiar compactions of accident and power, sexual distance, demented ambitions, natural disorder — the complexity and varieties of pain perhaps find their most striking and subtle expressions in art. Given, however, this long-standing and complex set of relationships between art and pain, explicitly presenting an exhibition under such a rubric can appear redundant and tautological (sic.). Yet it also has the immense virtue of illuminating or underlining what might otherwise just go-without-saying, returning you to what it’s all meant to be about. Into the bargain, such a theme then poses a further question: is pain really what art is about?

That, at least, is what I found myself asking as I circulated through the works at this exhibition. Like any decent show of contemporary art, it’s quite patchy: some of the work is overly earnest to the point of seeming fraudulent, too caught up in received banalities about what pain is to do anything other than offer sad-arsed repetitions of what was already empty repetition. Before several of these works, I was certainly wincing with the sort of pain that no artist would presumably wish to cause in the spectator (errrgh, kitsch!). But I was also impressed by the fact that — despite a certain lack of technical mastery in some of the works — they could also be genuinely moving, and in quite surprising ways. Moreover, it was great to see such a range of media and genres, of inventive responses to the topic of Art & Pain. Drawings, prints, photographs, oils, washes, digital-art and more, commingled promiscuously in the double room of the gallery space, all offering their own takes on the topic.

For some reason, the cartoonists provided both the most literal and most metaphysical responses. John Spooner’s brilliant International Back Pain Day depicts an enormous fat-arsed white guy clutching his lower back; he is seated on the back of an Asian woman on all fours who is scrubbing the floor. Clinically stripping away the stupidities, self-delusions and self-pity that typically accompany first-world discussions of pain, Spooner manages to present, in the stark black and white lines of a single, simple image, the systematic global divisions between man and woman, rich and poor, obese and starving, ruler and slave, West and East, leisure and work, between those who can complain and those whose suffering must be in silence, divisions inscribed in the most basic affects of every human being. One (clearly insufficient) translation might be: Every little twinge you feel is a sign of your domination over the world’s oppressed; enjoy it while you can, you fat bastard! I can’t think of a better Australian political cartoonist than Spooner; or, at least, one who manages to be so effective without lapsing into mollifying moralising.

John Forrest’s double-barrelled Hollywood Flesh I and Hollywood Flesh II couldn’t, on the face of it, be more different. And the face, in this case, is precisely the issue: the compulsive surgical mutations that Hollywood mass-media stardom demands. A star cannot have too many pouting toothy smiles or gaping eyes; a star must be prepared to be surgically corrected, though every cosmetic adjustment involves the self-erasing cutting-up of live flesh. The true artist here is the plastic surgeon, the artist whose art consists in the very invisibility of his art, operating on flesh that has dedicated its life to being nothing more than a transient and superficial distraction for absent masses. If Spooner’s images are tied very directly to the horrors of global socio-political domination, Forrest’s images convey, rather, a bizarre sense of the seamy, sordid abysses of post-modern celebrity: cartoon presentations of surgically-altered faces of film stars appearing at awards nights on TV…. And though his topics, techniques and effects are very different from those of Spooner, Forrest shares the ability to convey a singular process of thought through (only) apparently straightforward incisions of line.

The photographs, too, offered a range of modes. Two are by Peter Davis: photo-journalistic images, one of an old Tibetan lady Tsanchoe, surrounded by small children; the other of a feeding centre in Ethiopia in 1995, starving women clustering with their children (Davis provides, perhaps unnecessarily, short explanatory texts to the photographs). Two are by Kate McCulloch, both untitled: rusted machinery that opens onto nature; in one, a young man looks back at the camera through a metal frame. Two are by Claire Tonge, Escapedream 1 and Escapedream 2: black-and-white dissolves of trees and shadows. Despite their differences, what the photographs suggested — at least to me — was, first, just how crucial the sense of a human body is in pre-digital photography and, second, just how the camera lens de-materialises its objects. Even if no body appears within the frame, a photograph typically conveys a sense of that absence (and of the intervention, however attenuated, of its human operator); even if a body appears within the frame, there is a certain becoming-ghostly of that body, semi-frozen in a moment that is, by definition, over. Photography — perhaps more than any other art — is an art of the past, an attempt to frame and immobilize the pain of past time, of what has seen the light and gone. Photography: time…light…disappearance…pain.

Then there were the many pain-tings (ha ha), whose influences ranged from Impressionism through Expressionism to Hyperrealism. Ben Millar’s abstract St Georgeis layered with heavy swirling blue and cream brush strokes, and spotted, disturbingly, with little flecks of blood; Simon Fisher’s The Towers proffers a shadowy orange apocalypse, alight with dark vortices of fire (his other stuff is worth checking out, too); in Rob Haysom’s quite beautiful Denouncement St Andrew’s Crosses are deployed in a field on which small doors open onto luminous moulds and gangrenous vistas; and the tousled boy in Cassandra Laing’s In Sight is partially obscured by a hovering burnished globe. We see — how? — vision becoming opaque to itself, its own blockages and occlusions, insight as sight frustrated and turned back upon its own mechanics. These are memorable paintings, but I was perhaps most intrigued by Rena Littleson’s St Kilda Beach. While the work is marred by technical infelicities (it seems that of a talented student, rather than of an established working artist), the conception and composition were extremely effective — the beach deserted, yet scarred with the almost-surrealistic residues of annulled activity. And for some reason, I thought Chris Berg’s The Domino Effect was hilarious; though (perhaps intentionally) clumsy in its handling, I loved the men in squat grey toppers enigmatically disporting themselves in a blocky domestic interior. It’s rare to see something this inexplicably-but-genuinely-funny in the world of art.

Several of the painters also had sculptural works in the show. In Haysom’s comically-sinister The Meeting, suspended bundles of twigs, one pale, one dark, fail to meet, their rendezvous stalled by a little Perspex slab on which has been inscribed a St Andrew’s Cross (see above). Fisher’s nicely-titled Gangrel is a contorted weave of rusted metal. Anthony Green’s Martyr — a cross between a reliquary, a clock-housing and a trophy-case — condenses and preserves the shrunken head of a woman, accompanied by bones and other tiny false remains. And Laing has produced, in collaboration with Tony Nagelmann, an amazing piece called Body of Light: part-images on children’s blocks, stacked neatly away on a shelf in the corner. Again, like many of the other really effective works, it’s hard to say just what this work is doing or how it does it: it’s quiet, small, modest. But it somehow also conveys an intense sense of an etiolated, lingering sadness — possibly the more intense for the work itself being so restrained.

There’s much else in the show worth seeing, such as Peter Greenaway’s Siev and Dirk de Bryun’s N.O.A., and, as I’ve been saying, it’s worth checking out how the very disparate works in the show function under the overarching banner of “Art & Pain.” Physical pain, mental agony, anguish, suffering, etc. — it’s all here, in all sorts of forms. Perhaps, having spent some time wandering the exhibition, when you stumble out again into the daylight of the street, you might find yourself thinking that art is nothing other than the expression and enjoyment of your own pain, returned to you in a transubstantiated form by the hands and eyes of another’s. But you might also find yourself thinking, just like Sigmund Freud: what’s beyond the pleasure (pain) principle? And you might answer yourself: there’s not only death, but art.