The art of the dead

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
The Conversation /
June 29, 2013 /

Click here to view original /


Over the last couple of weeks, nearly every exchange I’ve had with anybody has involved me espousing the greatness of the mystery mini-series Top of the Lake.

This piece is not about Top of the Lake per se, nevertheless, I’m going to tell you quite forcefully that it’s the finest 350 minutes of television I’ve watched this year.

Do with that information what you will.

Moments into the first episode and there was a beautiful shot of a sparse landscape with some brightly coloured shipping containers. Immediately I thought of Jeffrey Smart. Days later the artist would die.

Not that my magical thinking neurosis is that out of hand yet (read: it probably is), but in the space of a few days, I finished the last episode of Lake, Smart died and I went along to Philip Brophy’s “Colour Me Dead” exhibition at the Ian Potter Gallery.

My passion for patterns, of course, dictates that these events simply had to be connected.

I wrote about the “Hungry Vagina” installation from the Brophy exhibition days after I went and was supremely confidant I’d penned all I planned to about him.

All, at least, until the Herald Sun reported that women’s groups had apparently found some of Brophy’s images “distressing”.

Suddenly an exhibition I believed I’d already written sufficient about was interesting once again.

The apparently-troubling images were those contained in Brophy’s “The Morbid Forest” video.

Specific – if clichéd – mention in the Herald Sun “exposé” was that the gallery, the artist, were publicly funded. Which of course, simply had to prompt evermore of my words.

The night I went to see “Colour Me Dead”, Brophy talked the small audience through “Forest” while it played on a screen behind him. A central theme, he explained, was that cinema often pilfers from art.

As someone thoroughly convinced that Top of the Lake was giving a few quiet nods to Smart, I thought Brophy made an excellent point.

In real life, bodies found in water are invariably disgusting, bloated visual nightmares. In cinema, they are often delicately surrounded by billowing fabric, looking more asleep than dead.

This is because cinematography, as in paintings, often does beautiful things with ugliness. Not a new point, but surely one worth repeating.

Not for a moment am I downplaying the distress anybody felt going into the exhibition: offence is personal, subjective.

Equally, I think there’s always a valid point to be made about pop culture’s preponderance for images – often eroticised – of brutalised women.

But I think this was part of the artist’s point.

To contend that inclusion of a video that plays with these ideas is, by any means, an endorsement or celebration of violence against women, is delusional and bizarre. At best it’s grounds for a trigger warning and more-than-justified publicity.

Maybe if I were less convinced of Brophy’s contention and maybe had I not been so crazily dazzled by the cinematography of Top of the Lake perhaps I too might have frowned a little. But I didn’t. Because any engagement with art, with cinema, is underpinned by a lifetime of our own experiences.

And that’s a good thing.

Private distress – felt in a gallery that people chose to enter – is not grounds to stir up the oh-my-God-kill-me-now boring debate about public arts funding.

As someone who has on the odd occasion – insert evil cackle – been the subject of Concerned Citizen writing to my employer and requesting my sacking, I’m probably a bit disproportionately passionate about this issue. But my employer has a very standard line about the University of Melbourne supporting academic freedom. It’s one that I think equally applies to all publicly funded creative expression.

You don’t have to like it, but your right to say it is supported. Equally so is your right to rise up and complain vigorously.

P.S. Is there any victory more delicious for an artist than having the Herald Sun condemn you? As I pen a tome on masturbation – due for release next year – I won’t hesitate in divulging that there is something truly heady about my imaginings of an Andrew Bolt article headed “We fund this wank?” Spectacular!

© Lauren Rosewarne