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September 8, 2022
Art
‘Ultra Unreal’ at the MCA
Lu Yang, Hungry Ghost (still), 2021. Single channel digital animation, HD, colour, sound. Image courtesy the artist and COMA, Sydney © the artist
I have never understood the emergence of cartoons as cinema blockbusters in recent years. Meant as entertainment for adults as well as children, they are subject to the same artistic critique as more conventional cinema, and the voice actors are given the same credit as those who appear visually, as well as audibly, on screen. The rare glimpses I catch of such movies only remind me of the cartoons I used to watch on my grandmother’s television after school, while consuming mountains of sugary treats. Both were guilty pleasures that she and I knew my parents would have disapproved of.
Less unfathomable to me is the intrusion of the digital into visual arts. Since the modernist era, art has demanded scepticism and a more cerebral analysis in addition to – even instead of – the distractions of traditional beauty. Closer in style to the worlds of video games than the world of TV cartoons, and primed by the spread of manga outside Japan, art that makes use of digital technology presumes active engagement, rather than passive reception, on the part of viewers.
Ultra Unreal: New myths for new worlds, showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, is full of such examples. Comprising 18 separate artworks by six artists and collectives, and displayed across four levels of the museum (including foyers, galleries and theatres), the exhibition takes a considerable amount of time to trawl through. Some of it is amazing; some of it, I must admit, I skipped after a little sampling left me cold.
Lu Yang’s room contained the 36-minute wall-mounted video titled DOKU The Self (2022), which was mesmerising. Alongside six dramatic videos mounted in a circle in the centre of the room (with titles such as Hungry Ghost, Hello World and Hell), this work is a single-channel animation carrying a subtitled voice-over. The section that held me spellbound showed the asexual avatar in a clear bubble flying low over a landscape overlaid with scattered, concentrated human skeletons. Vultures then began circling, until eventually the avatar landed and communed with those birds. Next, he rose bodily through the atmosphere, shedding body part after body part until only brain and neural pathways remained, floating into the universe. It is not a depiction of a war zone, as I initially presumed with a kind of curious horror, but a meditation on the organic body, on self-consciousness and reincarnation.
Shanghai-based Yang, born in 1984, graduated from the China Academy of Art in 2010. A woman who uses both the pronouns “he” and “she” depending on the occasion (the MCA is using “he” for its notes and I will too here), Yang is interested in the vastness of the world, in cutting-edge technology and biology, as well as ancient Buddhist teaching.
“I wouldn’t want to be confined by my national identity, and even less so by my gender identity,” he told Artnet. “I feel that I am only a conscious being in the universe. But the media tend to fuss over my female body. Sometimes they simply attribute anything – even whether I am successful or not – to my gender … Therefore sometimes I use the pronoun he/him.”
His work, he believes, confronts the human condition in the abstract and so can be understood by anyone, independent of political, historical or cultural background. DOKU is a contraction of a phrase that refers to the Buddhist saying, “You are born alone and you die alone”.
Bhenji Ra and Justin Shoulder make up Club Ate, a Sydney-based duo inspired by their Fillipinx heritage and Sydney’s queer nightclub scene. In the MCA’s notes, they “aim to collapse the boundaries between art, club, community, dance and politics”. Club Ate’s two-channel digital video, ANG IDOL KO / YOU ARE MY IDOL (2021–22), contains dreamy, beautiful yet challenging sequences showing a group of men in drag wearing traditional dress, feasting and speaking quietly against a backdrop of night-time noises.
Another sequence of works is by the Japanese artist Saeborg who describes herself as “an imperfect cyborg – half human, half toy”. Like Club Ate, her work emerged out of the queer club scene, but that of Tokyo, with many of the pieces beginning as costumes for Department-H, a nightclub that has been around for decades, often made of body-enveloping latex. “Saeborg’s latex costumes allow her to escape the confines of the human body, its genders, and sex,” the MCA’s online notes tell us. They are intriguing in some parts, and rather nauseating (for this perhaps squeamish viewer) in others.
In Slaughterhouse 12 (2015), Saeborg asks uneasy, open-ended questions about society’s treatment of women in an installation that uses bright, toy-like depictions of livestock on farms as a superficially cheerful metaphor. PigPen Movie (2016), a second work on the same theme, was less cheerful. Watching an enormous latex sow giving birth to humanoid piglets behind bars, I found it thought-provoking enough but chose not to linger. Regretting the decision later, I found that a version of it on YouTube requires a confirmation-of-age sign-in to access it, and a warning that the content may be “inappropriate”.
It is tempting to skip the parts of Ultra Unreal that threaten to bore or be too much for the viewer. It might be worth more than one visit, once one is acclimatised to the mediums and themes this curation draws out. The show has received negative reviews from the usual suspects in Australian art criticism but, while we have recently been dazzled by a flurry of insightful blockbusters centred around, for example, Picasso, it behooves us to come to grips with where art is travelling now. Only time will tell where art history places its importance, as we know from the “call that art!” annoyance the Impressionists generated early in their day.
 
Ultra Unreal: New myths for new worlds is at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, until October 2, 2022.
Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.
I have never understood the emergence of cartoons as cinema blockbusters in recent years. Meant as entertainment for adults as well as children, they are subject to the same artistic critique as more conventional cinema, and the voice actors are given the same credit as those who appear visually, as well as audibly, on screen. The rare glimpses I catch of such movies only remind me of the cartoons I used to watch on my grandmother’s television after school, while consuming mountains of sugary treats. Both were guilty pleasures that she and I knew my parents would have disapproved of.
Less unfathomable to me is the intrusion of the digital into visual arts. Since the modernist era, art has demanded scepticism and a more cerebral analysis in addition to – even instead of – the distractions of traditional beauty. Closer in style to the worlds of video games than the world of…


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