The Australian JUNE 20, 2009 - by Christopher Allen


Ken Unsworth: A Ringing Glass (Rilke) - Cockatoo Island, Sydney until August 2 / Brian Eno: 77 Million Paintings - The Studio, Sydney Opera House, ends tomorrow.

Here is a beautiful poem by John Donne that begins: "I am two fools, I know / For loving, and for saying so / In whining poetry." Donne goes on to justify himself in a line that represents as important an aesthetic principle as Wordsworth's well-known definition of poetry as "emotion recollected in tranquillity". He says he undertook to write of his suffering because "grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce"; in other words, the very effort of articulating his feelings within the highly structured form of verse, with its constraints of rhyme pattern and above all of metre (numbers), would mitigate their violence.

In effect the work of giving order and shape to powerful emotions is an antidote to the sense of being submerged and helpless in them. We instinctively recognise this, which is why so much verse is written when we are young, in love or suffering bereavement.

Conversely, aesthetic expression itself requires constraints. A cry of pain does not become an expressive object because it is by definition inarticulate. We recognise the suffering of the person who cries out, but the cry itself embodies no meaning or insight into their pain; it remains merely symptomatic, pathetic but not beautiful. Artistic expression begins when we begin to find a language, a set of forms and symbols, capable of being bearers of meaning. Even the style of painting known as expressionism, which tried to suggest that the pictorial language was breaking up under tensions that could not be entirely controlled, remained in reality highly organised.

A similar intuition about grief lies behind a series of installations by Ken Unsworth at Cockatoo Island. Faced with the kind of suffering that can never be healed, the loss of his wife, Elizabeth Volodarsky, at the end of last year, Unsworth has produced a homage to her in the form that he understands and with the elements and conventions familiar from his earlier work.

Unsworth's title, A Ringing Glass (Rilke) comes from Rainer Maria Rilke's Sonnets To Orpheus (II, 13), first published in 1923. The part of the myth of Orpheus that everyone knows concerns his descent into the underworld, where he sings to the pitiless infernal gods and persuades them to allow his wife, Eurydice, to return to life. At a deeper level, Orpheus is the mythical prototype of the poet, standing for the magical power of language and music, particularly over death.

Weaving variations on the myth, Rilke meditates on the relation of life and death in the act of the artist, as though trying to find the ineffable point of equilibrium between the anticipation of death and nothingness and the paradoxical rediscovery of non-being as the source of life and becoming.

In the line that Unsworth cites, the poet evokes the mystery of a crystal glass that rings and shatters at the same time: sei ein klingendes Glas, "be a ringing glass".

The choice of Cockatoo Island for a work of this nature is an inspired one. The island can be reached only by a wonderfully beautiful ferry ride and, when you arrive, the silence and space and the elegiac mood evoked by solitude and emptiness where once there was such energy and activity - are all deeply impressive and worth the visit for their own sake, especially on a bright winter day in Sydney.

The installation is set up in the Turbine Hall, but Unsworth has chosen not to use the old industrial setting; instead he has built a completely enclosed suite of rooms, like a stage set, inside the original space. This may seem an odd choice, given the evocative nature of the abandoned industrial architecture, but as we saw in the Biennale last year, exhibited works can often be upstaged by an environment that is more interesting than they are. The whole work should be approached from the far end; that is, one should walk through the dog-leg tunnel before entering the Turbine Hall.

The first room is a kind of antechamber, with a video monitor and a documentary about the artist. From there we pass through a passage into the first important room: a gigantic skeleton hangs upside-down, partly collapsed on the ground. A mechanism is set in motion, a little glass bell rings - Rilke's glass, though it does not shatter - and a system of ropes pulls the skeleton up until it is fully stretched out; then it slowly subsides and strikes the ground three times with a cane.

We proceed to the second room and the most moving of the four main installations. It is dark, with an empty hospital bed and a television gone blank at its foot. The wall behind the bed is covered with the projection a starry sky. Gradually another projection appears on the right of this wall: a window, with clouds passing, and the shadowy image of Elizabeth's face. The mood here recalls Beckett, but with more tenderness than he usually permitted.

In the next room and the third installation, the hospital bed has turned into an infant's cot, flying up into the heavens with a pair of oars, surrounded by little winged angels, one of whom holds a handful of strings, connected to a flock of flying toy grand pianos. (Elizabeth was a fine pianist.) A mirror ball produces a constant movement of flickering light.

Almost everything in this room, taken separately, could be considered sentimental or even kitsch, but somehow this is not the overall impression. Importantly, it is not irony that acts as a prophylactic against kitsch, as in postmodern work, but sincerity.

The fourth installation has pieces of a grand piano suspended from wires, along with rocks and other objects, as though evoking a combination of Unsworth's and his late wife's artistic concerns. Again in the heavens is an enlargement of an oval photograph of Elizabeth as a child sitting at the keyboard of a piano.

One of the striking things in this room is Unsworth's love of simple, low-tech mechanical devices. Thus both a pair of drumsticks and a wooden bird, painted blue and perched on the piano's wires, are moved by the simple device of a flywheel. Even more significant - though so pervasive that one may overlook it - is Unsworth's love of suspension. This has been a theme in many of his works, among them what is probably his masterpiece: the Suspended Stone Circle (1985) in the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW.

The idea is obviously to take something out of its normal relation to the world, out of its place, and to free it from what most keeps it in its place, the force of gravity. And it is for this reason that rocks, which are the epitome of what is kept in place by gravity - heavy, close to the earth, half buried in the ground or in the bed of a river - are most suggestive when that condition is poetically annulled and they are made to hang in the air.

On this subject, everyone knows Unsworth's least successful work is the set of rocks attached to poles at Kings Cross in Sydney that has attracted so many disparaging nicknames, no one recalls they are titled Stones Against The Sky. The problems are many, beginning with the fact they are not real rocks but almost weightless lumps of painted styrofoam, or some similar substance. The suspended rocks in the AGNSW work because they are real, and there is real tension in the cables holding them in place; the fake rocks have no such presence. They wobble in the wind and a few years ago the inside began to weep and discolour the brown paint, whereupon they were painted a dull grey whose only merit is to make them less visible.

In addition, the site is the least sympathetic imaginable. The video playing in the first room at Cockatoo Island shows that Unsworth originally imagined the poles standing in a grove of trees. Real rocks, mounted on poles among trees, could be effective. As it is, the Kings Cross installation does Unsworth no credit; he should be the first to insist on its removal and perhaps consider remaking it in its original form in a park.

The remainder of the construction at Cockatoo Island comprises a room with a grand piano (where Elizabeth's name has been printed in place of the manufacturer's) and a ballroom, primarily built to house the private reception held at the installation opening, but also evoking the ballrooms of decades ago in which Unsworth and Elizabeth would dance.

Another and more visible installation project has been the illumination of the Sydney Opera House by Brian Eno as part of the Luminous Festival. The sails of the building have been covered, every night, in constantly changing patterns of light and colour.

Eno said in a recent interview in Sydney, "I try with all these shows to make them as seductive as possible... I personally am not interested in this idea of art being a sort of existential challenge... what I'm most interested in... is creating a situation in which you can experience some kind of surrender."

It is not hard to sympathise with this position when we are surrounded by the shrill voices of artists trying to engage in social critique; but there is also too much Biennale-style art that merely aims for a mildly sedative effect on the viewer. What gets lost between hectoring and soothing is the proper work of the aesthetic intelligence, which is neither. In any case, Eno's light installation is certainly sumptuous, rather like a slow-motion fireworks display.

Inside the Studio Theatre is an installation in the same vein, with a predictably soporific soundtrack and the unfortunate title 77 Million Paintings. Digital permutations of light patterns have nothing to do with the art of painting, however one looks at it. Paintings are more than pretty colour patterns, and even abstract painting of the most trivially decorative kind has to choose particular patterns and try to find ones that will bear looking at over time. Shapes that are meant to last for only a few seconds or that are constantly melting into new ones do not have the same requirements; nor do any of those configurations have any aesthetic meaning on their own since the whole effect is achieved through the constant and hypnotic shift from one to another.

It may seem churlish to object to a title, but names and categories are important. When Confucius was about to take over the administration of the prince of Wei's lands, he was asked what reform he would undertake first. "The only thing needed," he replied, "is the correction of terms." He proceeded to show how truth, justice and social order all proceed from the integrity of language.

When the aims and limits of the art of painting are already confused enough, adding more fuzzy thinking is hardly helpful. And speaking of confusion, has no one stayed awake long enough to notice the rather disconcerting shape of Eno's underlying pattern?