Are you tired of CGI dominating cinema but you still want to enjoy some illusions? Are you tired of the virtual world where windows of illusion disguise the operating system? Then you need the meta-cinema of Ian Burns.
“Contemporary technology overvalues invisibility in the delivery of the screen-based image. I find this a bit sinister. For me, this cult of the virtual is often the antithesis of the embodied experience that art viewing, when at its richest, is often about. The structure that supports the contemporary screen is not just a technological one, but a social and political one. I try to emphasise technological presence in my work, not just to relish its possibilities but to also expose its limitations and flaws.” – Ian Burns (ACMI blog)
You don’t need to know any art theory to appreciate the art of Ian Burns; the whole thing is exposed. All the wiring is visible, the little video cameras, the materials are all familiar ordinary things that you could buy down at the shops. It is a magic trick so good that the magician can show how the trick is done and you still marvel at it.
There is the appeal of the idea of an artist/inventor playing with artistic experiments like Leonardo da Vinci or Marcel Duchamp. Reminding me that the history of engineering started with Hero of Alexandria (c. 10–70 AD) making toys steam engines and other entertaining mechanisms and that currently computing technology is being driven by the games industry. Not surprisingly Ian Burns trained as an engineer.
There is more to the art of Ian Burns than a few video tricks. Burns describes his work as “meta-cinematic”. He gives the audience both the illusion and the crude reality that created it. It is about the satisfying that basic psychological drive to get to see the back of things, to know what is behind them. This knowledge does not destroy our interest in the illusions anymore than an atheist looses interest in religion (most atheists know more about religion than the religious) or watching a puppeteer pull the strings, instead it adds another level of interest to the work.
In his ACMI exhibition, “In the Telling” Burns sequences his kinetic devices to create separate shots for a simple road movie. We all have these dreams of escape, it is a simple illusion but the art is in the telling.
Ian Burns is the Commission Artist for the 2012 Melbourne Art Fair and is also on exhibition at ACMI. I first encountered Ian Burns art two years ago at Anna Schwartz Gallery and it left me wanting more (see my blog post: Ian Burns “and then…”).
Following my January blog entry asking, “Where is the Political Art?” I have been thinking more about this issue. I am interested in writing more blog entries about political art. People have told me quietly that my search for political art is misguided because good political art is so rare.
I have tried various ways of writing about political art. Writing about Melbourne’s public sculpture as a demonstration of the collective consciousness has provided a longer view of Melbourne’s culture and politics. Examining the history of these sculptures and their commissions tells more about politics than political issue based art – I will return to explain why. Writing about street art provides a different focus on political issues, as well as, an arena where political activism mixes with art. I have written an article about political graffiti and I reported on a forum about politics and street art at Sweet Streets. I have been disappointed by most of the other political art that I’ve seen this year. 2010 was a year of mild art controversies, compared to the heat of previous years; there was the storm in teacup with Sam Leach’s Wynn Prize controversy and even Van Rudd’s run for federal parliament was mild.
Subscribing to A Cultural Policy Blog provided me with a bigger picture of the mainstream politics of arts policy. I have also been exchanging emails with Sydney based artist, Stephen Copland about political art. “The word Political is often misunderstood as is the Romanticism but that is a long story.” Stephen Copland wrote to me. The extent of this long dark shadow of Romanticism is described in Philip Pilkington’s excellent blog entry about Gabriele D’Annunzio. (Reading about D’Annunzio’s exploits will disturb the ossification of your political thinking if you are right wing, left wing or anarchist.)
Copland suggested that I consider Arthur Danto’s essay 1984 “The End of Art” (I was already familiar with the essay from my thesis research). “The End of Art” Arthur C. Danto The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (Columbia University Press, 1986) and I had just finished reading this essay when I visited “Contemporary Encounters” at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia.
“Contemporary Encounters” is art from the NGV’s collection acquired through the Victorian Foundation for Living Artists. As I was looking at the exhibition I kept on thinking about Arthur Danto’s point that art history only makes sense going in one direction and wondering if this collection would make sense if it was from 26 years ago (in 1984 when Danto wrote “The End of Art”). Certainly the technology, the flat screen video monitors and the tiny video cameras, used in Ian Burn’s assemblage would have been larger and more expensive in 1984 but it would not disturb art history as video art as Nam June Paik had already combined assemblages.
In “The End of Art” Danto examines versions of the history of art and in his own Hegelian account of art history has art becoming pure spirit – philosophy – and therefore the end of art. A history of art implies a future for art (or a post historical stasis as the end of art is not a secession). For art to have a future implies a political theory for the direction of art.
Perhaps I need to refine the vague and fuzzy question that I posed to myself – something about political art. What is the grand narrative of art history? Basically, what kind of the story could be told about all of art and how would contemporary art and street art fit into that story? So my conclusion to how to write more about political art is to think and write more about art history.
The exhibition was so good that I had to turn around and go back into the gallery and look at it again. I don’t write this blog to gush about exhibitions but I feel compelled to write that this was the best exhibition that I’ve seen all year. I went back to Anna Schwartz Gallery the next day and saw it again. It is that good.
Why is it so fantastic? It has the charming aesthetics of bricolage combined with slightly banal illusions to a glamorous jet-setting life. Ian Burns combines video installation, sculptural assemblage and kinetic art. It moves. There is sound. It is a whole lot of fun. There are illusions and the magic behind the illusions is revealed. The three dimensional nature of these sculptural assemblages provides different information as you walk around them. On one side you see the video monitor with them image and on the other side you can see the image being created.
The way that they image is created is such a disappointment and so exciting at the same time. It is disappointing to realize that the images have been made so cheaply and exciting to see the effective ingenuity of how it was done. Simple camera and theatrical special effects have been employed.
The video illusions that Burns creates are comments on the superficial illusions of everyday life. Watching the sunset on a beach of golden sand while the waves gently roll in might look like paradise but the image is created from tiny video camera placed amongst a length of clear PVC pipe, a lightbulb and a mannequin holding a boogie-board posed like Botticelli Venus. Burns art asks if the image lives up to the bricolage of electronics, furniture, toys and other objects used to create it.
Burns combines his academic degrees in engineering and art. His use of materials is paradoxically both elegant in the solution and inelegant in the odd collection of ordinary household materials that his assemblages are made from.
Out of all Marcel Duchamp’s art that has been repeated and regurgitated by contemporary art, his very last posthumous work, has been not often been emulated. “Given: 1) the waterfall and 2) the illuminating gas” is a curious work. People hardly knew what to make of it, a diorama scene with a few illusions (the curators are surprised that the primitive motor driving the waterfall mechanism still works). To Duchamp’s “Given: 1) the waterfall and 2) the illuminating gas” Ian Burns adds “And then…”