'Still Moving' - A catalogue essay by David Hansen, then Senior Curator of Art, Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery for Colin Suggett's first retrospective - RetroMOMENTS. The exhibition opened at the Melbourne Museum September 2001 and travelled Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and Tasmania until 2004.
I was always surprised that Colin Suggett's career didn’t really take off in the 1980s, when everyone in the museo-critical complex was talking about Baudrillardian simulacra. He is a remarkable maker and faker. His environments, structures, figures and faces all have a deceptive and disturbing superficiality, an artful, awful veneer of familiarity. They replicate everyday things (and thingness): a suburban housing estate, a briefcase, a carpet-covered appliance display stand, a plaster madonna, a beach, a mullet. Suggett takes his reference points from the real (incredible) world. He does not read fiction.
But simulacra are almost by definition inert. However closely-observed, however full of tricks and illusions, Suggett's diagrams or dioramas, scenarios or set-ups (whatever you choose to call them) are inventions, newly-thought and built from scratch. The "original" slices of life, the selected specimens of culture and politics are miniaturised and technologised, mythologised and aestheticized, pressed into the service of an active mind and a satirical eye. No dumb irony here, but a lively, flaying mockery. Suggett laminates his concepts with reality, but leaves the underlying structures visible: wit, scepticism and a darker anxiety.
These works move. It might seem obvious (especially in view of the artist's background in media studies) to describe the work as cinematic, but there is an important relationship to the fundamentals of film form in its spectacle and its framing, in the movie-still potency of its images.
Not only does the cinematic element imply duration (before and after the moment of the still), but many of Suggett's sculptures have an actual kinetic, real-time, performative aspect. Malcolm Fraser's mouth recites its script. The Hawaiian Sausages hula dance in their bubbling gravy. The post-operative tycoon in The $1000 chair breathes gently, almost imperceptibly. Whitegoods 1 blows hot air, Whitegoods 2 claps its click sticks in a video loop.
Stuck in front of the box, the viewer is captured by this frame of time. Occasionally, there is a necessary physical interaction: putting a coin in the slot (and, in the case of Ascending Madonna, retrieving it again), turning on the power switch in Whitegoods 1, examining the laboratory bonsai landscape of Beach Specimen with its magnifying glass.
In all cases there is a period of necessary engagement, the successful application of what Suggett's fellow Gippslander Clive Murray-White calls "linger longer" tactics. In Suggett's fictionalised, noired and special-effected mini-documentaries, we are held for the duration of the narrative, the completion of the electrical cycle. Alternatively, or additionally, it takes time to walk around the work, to adjust to its scale, to look behind it, to explore or to speculate on its materials, construction and mechanics.
In this examination period the image and its implications have a chance to settle. Past the gee-whiz reflex, beyond the clean lines of the object, after the laugh, there are implications. There are connections, complexities and quandaries to be carefully considered. Faith, death, ecocide, technology, capitalism, the military-industrial complex (the other complex, the one that was reading Sun Tsu in the 1980s rather than Baudrillard) national identity, fishing.
In Whitegoods 1, for example, the image-issue of Australia begins with a schematic map simplified to a mock-logo, a reference to the kind of corporate imaging that gave us the Commonwealth Bank vegemite sandwich. Finished in white powdercoat, this is nation-as-appliance, a mockery of democratic government: the power lead goes in and switches on near the red LED of Canberra. The structure is supported by cantilevered tube-legs, actually the frame of a bouncinette. The bouncinette is an Australian invention, a sign of domesticity, infantilism, unequal economics, possibly even the idea of Australian manufacturing. The power from Canberra produces only hot air. Pilate dries his hands in the roaring, parching desert wind from the heart of the nation. And this in a work made two years before the 1988 Bicentennial, XX years before Pauline Hanson was elected to Parliament.
Which brings us back to the issue of duration, and another thing about time. Goya viva sempre! Hogarth and Rowlandson rule ok! Ron Cobb and John Spooner are not too bad, thanks, mate. The choice of the right film still, the correct inflection of satire and its degree of darkness can carry an image and an artist beyond their time. Rather than passing into ill-remembered topicality, old-news retro-moments, the state of the art satire accrues meaning over time. Stories cluster on it like mussels on a breakwater.
The surgical strike horror, the exploding Janus-mirrored empty world globe head monster that is Zit Wars arose from fear of President Reagan's Strategic Defence Initiative; now we have (Son of George's) Son of Star Wars. The Oh No Zone, its drowning city gyroscopically poised over a colossal concrete wave plinth rising in turn from a glistening oil spill, was made at a time when global warming and the rising of the seas were little more than a few computer models and preliminary speculation; now we have a carbon credits trade. Fraser's jaw juts forward into the decayed decade of greed and the 1987 stock market crash. Fear of Flying intensifies with every terrorist hijack, and now with DVT. Kerry Packer sits in The $1000 Chair. The new wave of middle-eastern refugees feels the hot desert air of Whitegoods 1.
Cutting back to cinema (a jump cut, excuse me, but writing has been as fragmented by film language as the plastic arts), I see its fundamental manifestation: light on a screen. In film’s painting with light, its shaping of set and mood with a few well-placed spots, there is another point of entry into Suggett's work. Look at the lighting. With wall-based works like Mouthpiece and Zit Wars, distances and shadows are finely calculated, refining accent, contour, perspective and illusion. There is the moving back-projection of sky and clouds in Ascending Madonna, the darkening, endless reflections of suburban isolation in Grandview Estate, the lurid atomic sunset behind The Oh No Zone. There are several suns: the test-tube globe of Beach Specimen, the shaded kitchen downlight of Hawaiian Sausages and the flying saucer downlight of Beach. There is backlighting for the glamour star or product: crowns of light define the escaping human head in Zit Wars and the baroque cartoon love heart of Donation Box. Even The Oh No Zone hole itself is a neon halo.
In Colin Suggett's sculptures everything is outlined by electricity. You can always see the wires and the plugs. Power is visible, or rather vision meets power.
Look. Pause. Wait a minute. Watch the movie.
Lights out at midnight.
Hobart - August 2001