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Crescendo review (Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne)

When the Ring Cycle came to town late last year, so too did the ‘Wagner Question’: Can we appreciate Wagner’s artistic genius without engaging with the composer’s infamous anti-semitism or association with Hitler’s Third Reich?

Debate over this issue continues to plague Wagner productions across the world. In Israel, an unofficial ban on performing the composer’s music remains a point of contention. Some believe that celebrating the artist’s work is akin to denying the suffering of the Jews. Others argue that there is nothing anti-semitic about Wagner’s music in and of itself.

Either way, there’s no denying that Wagner’s formidable achievement has been tainted by the pages of history.

With Crescendo, the latest exhibition from the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, director Juliana Engberg leads us through the annals of history to reconsider their complex legacy — an unsurprising emphasis given that the show was curated to complement the staging of the Ring Cycle in Melbourne.

The exhibition comprises a group of film and video works by seven international artists. Six of the artists are European, while the work of the seventh, Canadian Rodney Graham, deals implicitly with Germany’s past. All of the works mine the seams of European history, the mysteries of mythology and place.

German artist Julian Rosefeldt’s, My home is a dark and cloud-hung land, is a four-channel film installation. The title of the work sums up the experience of living with the weight of Germany’s past. Through sublime landscape imagery, this film explores the relationship between the German people and the forest. An absurd oration in which the artist himself plays a chainsaw like an air-guitar, reminds us that forest mythology curiously sustained the Third Reich propaganda machine as well as Germany’s greatest artists.

Rodney Graham’s 35mm film, Rheinmetall/Victoria 8, also references Europe’s chequered history. The film involves close-up shots of a 1930s Rheinmetall typewriter – deemed the ‘Rolls Royce’ of writing devices – as it is slowly submerged by falling white powder. The film is screened by a 1920s Italian projector, the Cinemeccanica Victoria 8.

This striking work is more than a portrait of two iconic machines made obsolete by the digital age. The Rheinmetall company was co-opted by the Third Reich to produce guns and tanks during the Second World War. That is, the firm that brought us the ‘Rolls Royce’ of writing is also responsible for incalculable destruction. Submerged in snow, the Rheinmetall typewriter warns of the dangers of whitewashing history.

Finnish artist Markus Kåhre similarly deals with war in his untitled video installation. The video features a cast of historical figures that have been variously associated with war. Leading the ensemble is Hitler who sits front and centre, wildly gesticulating at a cabaret table. To his left is Albert Einstein whose letter to Franklin Rooseveldt on the eve of World War II led to the development of the atomic bomb. Here again, the knotty legacy of a brilliant figure is laid bare for reconsideration.

Crescendo suggests that it’s unwise to appreciate works of art such as the Ring Cycle without considering their broader historical legacy. As the looped videos highlight, history has a tendency to repeat itself unless we choose to examine its darkest junctures. This timely exhibition prompts us to reflect on the extent of Europe’s brilliant and complicated history — a history that has bequeathed us exquisite works of art, alongside acts of brutal atrocity.

Hans Op de Beeck, Parade, 2012
Hans Op de Beeck, Parade, 2012
Markus Kåhre, Untitled, 2011
Guido van der Werve, Nummer veertien, home, 2012
Ana Torfs, Anatomy, 2006
Ana Torfs, Anatomy, 2006
Markus Kåhre, Untitled, 2011
Markus Kåhre, Untitled, 2011

Crescendo is at the Australian Centre of Contemporary Art until 2 March 2014.

Featured image: Julian Rosefeldt, My home is a dark and cloud-hung land, 2011 

 

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