Why do we do the things we do

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Emily Floyd, The Cultural Studies Reader (2001) Photo; Eva Fernandez

For the exhibition, Why do we do the things we do, nine artists turn the mirror on their creative process with honesty and biting self irony. This group exhibition at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, Australia, curated by Jacqueline Doughty, tackles the often misunderstood process of making art, with many of the artists playing on the ambitions, anxieties and pressures that filter into their practice.

The romantic image of the artist as genius, or perhaps idiot savant, receives particular scrutiny. Doughty positions this selection of mostly text-based works in relation to the written artist’s manifestos that accompanied many 20th century movements, which she notes “are generally characterized by a boldness of language and a utopian conviction in their objectives and their methods”. While the text works in this exhibition are manifestos of a sort, they also lack any trace of the optimism, certitude and confidence of the heroic modernist artist.

Tom Polo‘s Continuous One Liners are a collection of roughly painted phrases on ready made surfaces which quote offhand remarks: “sore winner”, “well done”, “I’m worst at what I do best”, “maybe try video art”. This stream of consciousness narrative parodies the insecurities of the emerging artist trying to make it big.

Rose Nolan‘s monumental text work “Big Words – LESS IS HARDER” uses the visual language of 20th century propaganda to express the private uncertainties that would ordinarily be kept from public view.

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Rose Nolan, Big Words – LESS IS HARDER (2009) Photo: Eva Fernandez

Emily Floyd‘s The Cultural Studies Reader: 38 Topics for a Group Show parodies the theoretical impulse that can afflict artists in academic contexts – bunnies scrawl ambitious proclamations in wavering chalk script between building blocks, sporting key quotes: “My work is about the relationship between Malevich and electronica”, “I am making a post-colonial critique of history by restaging colonial paintings in alternate color schemes”, and “I am subverting the dominant paradigm”.

Despite its pathos, the playfulness of “Why do we do the things we do” keeps it from descending into melancholy, with each artist still striving to transmit an experience to the viewer. Doughty reflects, “It is the optimism of this gesture that encapsulates why we do the things we do”.