Vernon Ah Kee The Tall Man
Harun Farocki War at a Distance
Gertrude Contemporary, Melbourne, 7 October - 5 November 2011.
The pairing of Vernon Ah Kee’s Tall Man with Harun Farocki’s War at a Distance at Gertrude Contemporary brings together two artists whose sympathetic styles blur the boundaries between reportage and video art to make powerful social statements.
Tall Man depicts the events of the 2004 Palm Island riots through a four channel video installation, a wall of text taken from Shakespeare’s Macbeth and a drawn portrait of Lex Wotton, the tall man at the centre of the video work. Race relations, repression and national identity are at the heart of Tall Man, but the cleverly edited video also reveals Ah Kee’s love for Palm Island – a place he has ancestral connections to. At the end of the work the island is shot from a helicopter and the scrubby island appears lush and green, floating in deep blue water. It’s a vision of the island rarely seen in the media – a natural wonder and precious homeland.
War at a Distance unites four of Farocki’s video installations concerned with questions of technology, physical presence and disconnection. In Eye/Machine (2000) war zones are shimmering grey fields marked by coloured blobs. The camera that watches over a prison yard becomes a gun in I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts (2000), spraying harsh chemicals over the inmates when they begin to fight. In Serious Games 3: Immersion (2009), soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder undergo treatment by playing the encounter that led to their breakdown as a virtual reality game. Across two adjacent channels, the soldiers talk through the events while moving through the virtual Iraq. In the middle of a session led by an army psychologist, one of the soldiers asks, on the verge of tears, “Do I have to go back in there?” The moment is so emotionally charged that even after I discovered the man was an actor playing a soldier in a training session for therapists, I felt distressed. Relief was found in Transmission (2007), a work about touch. Visitors kiss sculptures, place their feet in the devil’s footprint and press their ears to a large marble slab. It is said that Jesus was nailed to the cross on this slab, and that hammer blows still echo inside the rock.
There is beauty in these politically charged works. Shot on low quality video, there are moments where the hazy, pixelated vision of a battlefield, targets marked out by brilliant colour, is as dazzling as any purely aesthetic work. Undefined figures merge with the unstable ground. There are moments where the materiality of the image overshadows the message. Farocki and Ah Kee are well aware that this is a slippery place to be, but by presenting work that both interrogates and enacts the problems of seeing from a distance, they allow us to question the images we see and reassess our part in the world viewed.