Doris Bloom - 'The u in you' at Millennium II
by David Brodie
Doris Bloom's last show in South Africa, 'Newspaper Pictures' (2000), attempted to explore how visual information shapes our perceptions. The artist's central concern regarding the dominance of visual data is that it leads to a form of vision that is "desensitised" to the subject matter of its sources. According to Bloom, what we are left with is a mode of looking that embraces only the seductive forms of such information.
This brief recap reveals that the artist has been engaging for some time with what she sees as the growing dominance of visually based information, and how we assimilate it. As such I approached her new show, 'The u in you', with a great deal of interest. Interest in seeing how far she has taken her development of a language that claims to overturn the dominant tools of visual information. Interest too in that, since September 11, sensitive questions about the role of visual information, and the power of controlling the visual image, have been reinvestigated with great fervour.
Artists have dealt with their September 11 trauma in various ways. Some have sworn that painting must now be dead forever, that frivolity is impossible. Others have demanded their right to seek joy and beauty, a return to the sensual pleasures of painting. Whatever the reaction, it seems fair to say that the relationships between art and reality, fact and fiction, subsequently demand to be considered in a less superficial and more thoughtful way.
Entering the space at Millennium II, I was confronted with Bloom's only large-scale work on the show, an oil triptych. Having prepared myself for any number of emotive responses, the last thing I expected to feel was absolutely nothing.
The painting is not much to look at. Technically, it is quite unexceptional. The left panel shows a body lying in the foreground, a gunman on each side, rifles aimed and ready to fire again. Each gunman has a cloth or turban of sorts on his head. The centre panel is a bleak yellow wash. The right panel shows the twin towers directly after being hit by an airplane.
Bloom does not offer any new insights into the events she portrays, and there is nothing in her frenetic painted renditions of burning buildings or soldiers that evokes any sense of informational revision.
Bloom has said: "The parallel between the single person and the undifferentiated mass encountered in the media rendition of the world is brought out by working the canvas both to relocate myself and to transfer my own impulses to the image ..."
If Bloom is seeking to reinsert a concept of selfhood into what she sees as a threateningly undifferentiated mass of visual data, and if, as the title suggests, she is offering us a chance to locate "the u in you", I'm afraid I didn't find it. Rather I had the feeling, especially with the painting and video, that I was viewing work that had quite simply been overpowered by its source material. In the seeming absence of critical process, the work supports the very systems of visual coldness it purports to be challenging.
Bloom's performance on opening night was also difficult to interpret. To the sounds of didgeridoo, flute and drums, the artist hand-painted a larger-than-life portrait of Marike de Klerk on the gallery walls. While the artist worked, dramatic music floated through the space, as if to persuade us of the sincerity of the moment, the sacredness of the performance, and ultimately the significance of the ritual being performed.
And herein lies my criticism: in what is perhaps Marike's final humiliation, I am convinced that what was really being performed for us was a contemporary reprisal of the myth of the artist as creative genius. We were invited to witness the quasi-sacred ritual of the artist at work. Marike played no further role apart from that of a recognisable media prop that has accrued a significant amount of emotive potential, so adding to the performer's power.
Sixty small works on paper made up the rest of exhibition. The potential enjoyment of the small works was made infinitely more difficult because of their placement. With 20 or 30 works hung right next to each other, in two rows, none of the drawings could really stand out and be enjoyed. While I appreciate the conceptual goal behind the hanging of the work in such a manner (a chronology in progress), the space could have been used to much greater effect.
For this reviewer, Bloom's attempts to reformat visual information codes, to create a fissure in mass media imagery in which she may place herself and her impulses, do not succeed. In what I perceive as a lack of critical concern, the artist does not manage to produce work that elevates the mass of media information to a realm that promises a sense of self-reflection. Instead, she is complicit in the games of emotive or cognitive manipulation she seeks to transgress.
Until February 7
Millennium II, 19 Jellicoe Avenue, Rosebank
Tel: (011) 880 5270
Hours: Tues - Fri 11am - 6pm, Sat 12pm - 5pm