Sam Mendes’ award-winning film American beauty (1999) is punctuated by amateur camcorder footage of a plastic bag whirling up against a red brick wall, accentuated by the film’s iconic theme tune. So too, the exhibition of new works by Australian artist Ian Burns, Don’t try this at home, begins and ends with this cinematic image. On entering the anteroom that precedes the main exhibition space, the visitor joins two Barbie-style dolls watching what appears to be a projection of the familiar bag and autumn leaves. Seemingly hypnotised and literally suspended by the sight as the figures are, there is something slightly misplaced, unnervingly contrived, about the scene – is it the absence of the inevitable melody, or the awkward art-gallery context for a film of renowned international commercial success? Moving out of the darkened entrance into the brighter gallery, the second half of this work forces a rapid reappraisal: the back wall is sketchily painted as red brick, a bag and handful of leaves swirl under the direction of a scattering of white fans, while a camera records the whole and the wire trips unashamedly back across the floor to the projection.
|Ian Burns, A poor excuse, 10-12 fans, leaves, plastic bag, painted wall, two two-stage live-feed videos, projector, dolls, 2008; image held here|
It is a relief to see this piece ( A poor excuse, 2008) is attended by only three other works, as the technical complexity of each, while fascinating, would otherwise run the risk of overwhelming the content, which is worth as much closer examination as the technical wizardry. This is not the domain of super-slick gadgetry; rather the artist’s resourcefulness (aided by his engineering background) is expressed through the everyday, domestic appliances and simple paraphernalia of, in this instance, typical Dublin life. While there is demonstrably an involved studio practice behind the process and concept of Burns’ work, the individual elements are very much relevant to the particular locality of their exhibition. He does not attempt to shock in a Duchampian fashion with the startling sight of a sweeping brush in an installation; the provocation comes instead from the use of the inanimate objects in the contraptions which each create a moving screen image. Their latent power lies in the topicality of the works, the ephemeral moment of both contemporary social comment and fleeting visual, caught in a live-feed and instantaneously revealed and unravelled.
The homemade and homely quality of each work is perhaps most successfully exemplified in The Blank slate, 2008, in which a television screen mounted on a child’s blackboard broadcasts the restricted view from an aeroplane window of the wing and passing sky. Concurrently, the small plastic model of Air Force One, the bright-blue plastic clothes peg, the turquoise-handled brush, hooks, stepladder, wires and ubiquitous camera are revealed to us on the reverse of the easel with boyish glee and functional ingenuity. If his work owes something to the mad-inventor aesthetic of John Bock or the historical kinetic references of Roman Signer, Burns adds a political relevance here – a work that forces the viewer to look outwards from the American President’s perspective, a place of privilege meticulously reconstructed with the use of plastic toys. The cheeky absurdity stops the effect short of worthy political comment, and is surprisingly all the more resonant as a result.
Spirit and Snowshoe, both 2008, complete the group, again assemblages of found (or, more accurately, sought-locally) objects, camera and screen, with audio feed of whirring and clicking that subtly fills the space. The towering Spirit, somewhere between beach umbrella and symbolic totem, records and displays a grassy knoll with an idyllic rainbowed sky, a scene not dissimilar to the poppy field in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Peering up at the mechanism on the verso, this is in reality the culmination of a hotchpotch of colourful plasticity, light and movement. The patterns of the objects utilised in Snowshoe – tennis racquets, a chip-pan strainer, bubble wrap – twist together in rotation to generate the chillingly atmospheric icebergs that appear on screen. In this later example, the mechanism is at eye level, and the televised revelation is much lower, perched on the structure’s side. There is no resolution of which angle we should be viewing the works from, nor if they are distinctly sculpture, video or performance.
Burns not only allows us to peek behind the curtain of his puppet show, but absolutely invites us to see the strings, challenging us to consider them as intrinsic to the ‘finished’ work. He plays with notions of imagery, cinematically and in terms of our receptiveness to visual culture, taunting the viewer with their own blatantly active involvement in assumption-making. The sense of fun in the individual works – a carnivalesqe tangent of trompe l’œil, a game of clichés – does not preclude their deeper meaning. The essence of Burns’ practice is to exploit the interrogative function of art, and this is skilfully achieved in a group of works that evoke our curiosity and stimulate an examination of the layers of detachment between our perceptions and reality. It is worth highlighting that the shaky camcorder footage featured in American beauty was shot by an Oscar-winning cinematographer. The relevance of Burns’ work may lie in his manipulation of topical ironies and cleverly absurd methodology to permeate our understanding of perception. This is certainly not the work of an amateur.
Mai Blount is a post-graduate student at the Irish Art Research Centre, Trinity College Dublin.