BY OLIVER WATTS
Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? Do I not fill heaven and earth?
During APEC our own city was walled, we were threatened by CBD snipers, and told there was no place to hide. Following Security Blanket, shown at Jan Murphy, Brisbane this year, Panoply continues Seton’s interest in spectacles of state power, surveillance and control. Central to both collections is the assertion that there is a dangerous acceptance and lack of critique within our current democratic system.
Seton is a marble sculptor, traditionally trained, who uses this artisanal craft to contemporary ends. Prior to the 2007 shows Seton was known for detailed and realistic recreations of popular commodities, such as leather bags, couches, boots, doonas, money sacks and other objects, but ossified. It shows influences of the Super-realist sculptors of the seventies, such as Duane Hanson, John de Andrea and particularly, the woodcarvings of Fumio Yoshimura. The power of all Seton’s work is the transformation, like the Witch of Winter, that turns flesh into marble. Like a spell there is a haunting suspicion that at any moment life will return.
Part Minimalist, part Photo-realist, Seton continues art’s interest in the everyday, the industrial and the machined. Like a scientist he patiently clones things. Unlike, however, the coolly detached Super-realists, Seton’s work is politically and socially engaged and in a very contemporary way. Our cynicism is brought to account.
In Barriers, this project is made very clear by the inlaid inscription: Proceed/ About/ Your/ Normal/ Routine. Every word implies Foucault’s notion of bio-power: that the State controls us through our own bodies, surveilled and surveilling others, based on the binary normal/deviant. The barriers explicitly suggest the inside and the outside, us and them, the secured zone and the unsecured. But by focusing on the barrier or the wall itself, Seton is expressing something else about a post-terror, post-historical world. To go back to a simpler world, in contrast, Hans Haake in his work Oelgemaelde, Hommage a Marcel Broodthaers 1982, placed on one side of the room an oil portrait of Reagan (gold framed and behind silk rope) facing off, on the other side of the room, a photograph of anti-war, anti-Reagan, German protesters. The work set up a strong binary of authoritarian democracy separated from the truth (the popular movement).
In the early eighties though there was still a feeling that protests mattered. In late August 2004 when Bush was asked about the 500,000 protesters outside the Republican National Convention, in Madison Square Garden, and what his reply was to their claims over Iraq, he replied, “Isn’t Democracy Swell.” The post-historical, post-ideological, democracy has transgression and cynicism, in built. As soon as a new political issue is isolated, the trendy youth label has already sold a T-shirt with that slogan.
Barriers is a metaphor for the lack of an outside. Both political sides find themselves together on the wall. As Zizek suggests, if ideology now incites and accounts for its own transgression the only effective resistance is ‘to simply do what is allowed.’ By doing this Zizek shows that you refuse the game of ideology that asks to be transgressed. Full identification, to the letter of the law, undermines power through over-proximity. Barriers highlights the heavy handedness, the totalitarian over tones of police power by merely (re)presenting the barricade. Overthrow of government is not possible, nor is any attack on ideology successful; the only thing available is to personally (artistically?) frame the (national) fantasy.
Seton, however, still seems to believe in Utopia. In Please Do Not Lick The Artwork the possibility of political truth is reasserted. Seton is saying we gobbled up the spectacle of APEC, and the threat of terror, like children eating candy; there is a suggestion that if we could only grow-up, we could see the true state of things. Standing Manikin Target (SMT) also suggests that there is an us and a them. It is a perfect replica of an army dummy used for shooting practice. Aesthetically pleasing, it looks like a lost Brancusi but the modernist lines belie the robotics that, in the original, lie under a plastic skin. The arms are truncated because it is not a good shot if you hit the shoulder and the computer registers precisely the accuracy of the shots against this enemy facsimile. The truth suggested by SMT is provocative. It is restricted army ordinance that if you have, and you are not army, you must be a terrorist (or artist).
These works want to stir revolution and turn us all into outlaws. Perhaps in retrospect the array of commodity objects, from Seton’s past shows, have all lead to this point. He asks have all these products merely separated people from real political and historical issues. It is well to remember that even Oldenburg’s Pop, huge, moving scissors were meant to replace (castrate) the Washington Obelisk and were not benign. If Seton has proved anything it is that within the walls of the gallery, in this show, a critique of power was possible. It is a rhetoric of sameness and literalness. These works challenge police, army and the state with an ethical and aestheticised other, threatening power with its own lack. They are Doppelgangers.
See Douglas Crimp, “The Art of Exhibition,” in October: The First Decade, MIT: 1987, p 223-255, for a discussion of this work and plates.
Slavoj Zizek, The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? Verso, 2000, p.147