SAYLE (Internal Painting ~ Valuable Gift)
253 Swanston St, Melbourne
10–15 February 2012
Whilst sitting his solo exhibition Deus Ex Machina at TCB art inc. in 2011, James Eisen was robbed. It seemed that the exhibition’s neon text, reading ‘Your going to cop a burg’, had cursed its creator. The situation was mitigated, however, by the fact that all that was stolen was a bag containing only an Avanti stovetop coffee pot. I was reminded of that story almost six months later upon entering Eisen’s most recent exhibition SAYLE (Internal Painting ~ Valuable Gift), and noticing an Avanti coffee pot supporting a fluorescent light in the large construction in the centre of the room.
The construction, titled SKY IS FALLING (INSTALLATION EXTERIOR I – INTERIOR II) 2012, consisted of a rectangular timber frame of approximately two by four metres, with one side covered in industrial plastic. At the base of the plastic sheet was an arrangement of plastic tubing, fluorescent lights and the aforementioned coffee pot. The corner of the space was occupied by the installation ATTENBOROUGH’S FEELINGS (POLIZE VERSIOΩ I) 2012, a composition of several sculptural elements, including a zebra-print-covered cone oozing foam and shrink-wrapped bolt-cutters, arranged around a framed collage of David Attenborough’s face and a picture of German riot police. The composition — shrine-like yet fragile and held together with blue plastic ties — was reminiscent of a bowerbird’s nest. Known for their unique courtship behaviour, the bowerbird steals construction materials and decorations from its environment or neighboring bowerbirds to build its habitat and attract a mate.
This notion of a ‘natural’ criminality echoed through several of the works, as did a sense of ambivalence towards the natural world. David Attenborough, whose solemn but inscrutable gaze is featured in a number of collages around the room, is understood to be an ambassador and advocate for the natural world. However in ATTENBOROUGH’S FEELINGS he finds himself trapped — consumed in a bricolage of both fake animal prints and genuine hunting trophies that are held together by aggressive-looking wires, cables, and ties.
The repeated allusions in Eisen’s work to criminality and security on one hand, and to animals and the natural world on the other, implies some connection between the two. The suggestion that crime is a ‘naturally’ occurring phenomenon has some troubling classist connotations, such as in the outdated late-eighteenth century naturalist notion of hereditary vice and the ‘criminal brow’. However, in previous works, such as the video Symptoms of following (Père Lachaise & Belgrave) 2008, which shows footage of the artist following birds around, sometimes in endless circles, until they fly away. Eisen engages directly with nature and makes himself the predator or threat, suggesting to me an awareness of the ethical dimensions of these interactions.
Leaving the exhibition, I considered a few similarities between career criminals and artists — both live lives of economic uncertainty, sometimes flush with cash, sometimes skint; both are considered a testament to the creativity of the human species, and both are prone to developing tortuous arguments and justifications for their work and actions. In Eisen’s work, this conflict is evidenced by a Joker-like flickering between playfulness and threat and is executed with a casual formal finesse.
Anusha Kenny is a curator and writer from Melbourne.