Das Platforms / Contemporary Art

Tony Schwensen: beyond pale

by Brian Mahoney

05 Nov 2012

Insightful social commentary? Purposely provocative? Or just plain smutty?

Most likely all three – and a lot more besides – because this is Tony Schwensen: Chimp makes frog suck him off (YouTube) at DB Project, Sydney, September 2012.

It’s the type of show that Bill Henson’s bête noire, Hetty Johnston, might have relished. Though perhaps not… the subject matter here is more relevant to Animal Liberation.

In the sixties it most probably would have had a police guard posted out front to prevent the minds of under-age viewers being sullied by the work in the gallery. That’s what happened to Frank Watters when his first gallery in Liverpool Street, Sydney, was proscribed by the Vice Squad with a Garry Shead show in 1966.

Today, a challenging image of a chimp forcing a frog to carry out unspeakable sexual acts doesn’t generate outrage or opposition. It seems that what animals do to each other is not for us humans to arbitrate on. Maybe the mind of the person who put it up on YouTube is somewhat suss. Maybe the mind of the artist… but, hey, it’s on YouTube, so it’s part of everyday life. Gritty realism, prurience and sexual curiosity are part of our world. And the kids at the Honolulu zoo where the video was filmed are laughing; in their innocence they interpret this only as fun.

Drawing the image on paper and the back of a well-worn skateboard, however, isn’t a case of the artist paying ‘homage’ to YouTube, or claiming a video as a ‘found object’. Or creating a new form of ‘still life’. There are deeper motivations for selecting THIS image. And it has little to do with attempting to taunt those who would censor abnormal sexual acts. To me it is about ‘excess’.

I’ll wager this is chimp as proxy for the planet’s dominant species. More specifically, it has overtones of how those in power reward themselves – excessively. It touches on how the inherent unfairness of life is growing more unfair. But is it also a picture of animal dominance and the manipulation of a weaker species as a type of Grimms’ fairy tale of what we are doing to the planet?

It brings to mind how those lucky enough to find themselves in the ruling class in so many parts of the world take all they can as their right – that’s what prompted the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, and the unrest we are now seeing on the streets in Europe.

You can’t see all that in a roughly drawn, almost cartoonish image? OK, I didn’t see it at first. I remember visiting a Tony Schwensen exhibition in the single room of Sydney’s Peloton Gallery a decade ago and seeing a colourful construction of kid’s floaties in a wading pool surrounded by plastic emergency road-block barriers. An inventive installation. Beautiful primary-coloured shiny items straight from Bunnings. But it was only after I left that it hit home that this was a work growing out of the mentality of the time: ‘fortress Australia’ barricading its borders from those who attempted to reach our shores by boat. Lock out the frail and persecuted in the way we tried to turn back the Tampa with its 438 survivors in 2001.

Tony Schwensen’s images often go deeper than initially suggested by their superficial jokiness and repetition. But unlike a daily newspaper’s resident cartoonist, Schwensen’s is a non-judgemental commentary – he is not forcing a sharp political or social viewpoint on us. He simply gives us an obscure image that works its magic the moment the lightbulb goes on and we suddenly understand what it is about. The veil lifts; the art comes alive.

In his videos the endlessly repeated action we are watching suddenly transforms from a quirky, banal ritual to something of serious intent. The persistence of repetition tightens the strings.

Sometimes he gives you a steer in the title (Be alert but not alarmed, 2002; Terra Nullius, 2009). Sometimes its not as obvious: Exasperations, Schwensen's 2009 exhibition at Sarah Cottier Gallery, had the artist surrounded by high wattage emergency lights, unable to avoid perpetual and ubiquitous surveillance. Some of his animated images are far more enigmatic (Banging head against wall (2011) or This is where we live, a video of Schwensen intermittently slapping his face). And some are more social insight than political depth-charge: Complain to an Australian about Australia Day, or Having a good look at yourself in the mirror (1999).

For me, his works at the single-room DB Project space conjured socio-political thoughts of how inequality leads to exploitation.

Think of Abu Ghraib. Or how the ratio of our top 50 company CEO pay packets to that of the average worker – now around 100 to 1 – is accelerating. In the US it’s disgracefully around 400 times, up from 43 times the average worker’s wage in the seventies.

Some stories come to mind. A Bloomberg report from February 2012, which reported how hundreds in India’s Uttar Pradesh starved as crooked politicians stole $14.5 billion of wheat and rice meant for the poor. How organised crime has expanded rapidly since the GFC, with banks desperate for funds turning blind eyes to the source of money they launder. How even the world’s leading banks rig Libor to make extra trillions in commissions on their loans to local government organisations. Wherever you look there are similar stories of those ‘on the take’ abusing their fellow humans – particularly where natural disasters, civil war and disorder, or interference by global powers creates massive disruption. (Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine spells out plenty of these examples.)

Monkey Business 1 at KalimanRawlins, Melbourne, in June gave more depth to Schwensen’s chimp theme, with toy-like costumes of chimp and frog slumped against the gallery wall, earning the title Chimp rapes a frog or eleven million nine hundred and eighty four thousand, nine hundred and eighty two views can’t be wrong. Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, as the saying goes. It breeds acceptance, as corporate brand managers will tell you.

The KaslimanRawlins show included a 45 minute video in which Schwensen dressed in a frog bonnet with chimp-shaped hands and feet. The title of this video performance: I’m a human being I’m a real human being or sometimes the frog, sometimes the chimp, sometimes both, never neither. It seemingly categorised each of us as perpetrator or victim; and each capable of role-reversal.

That is: before you throw the first stone at the egregious examples of exploitation by the powerful, first consider those that you may be abusing.