Art

A 30-year retrospective of Ronnie van Hout’s work includes a dazzling variety of distorted sculptural and filmic self-portraiture, with the effect of interrogating what is real. By Lisa Radford.

No one is watching you: Ronnie van Hout

An installation view of No one is watching you: Ronnie van Hout.
Credit: Christian Capurro

As you enter the relatively empty foyer of the recently opened Buxton Contemporary on Southbank Boulevard in Melbourne, you quickly realise you are being addressed by a pyjama-wearing almost-man in cow-cum-leopard-print gumboot-cum-slippers. This 2016 figure, a Ronnie van Hout sculpture cast in polyurethane, with crudely rendered head and oversized hands, stands steady – legs as tripod support, his right arm pointing out to you accusingly, limp cigarette in hand, the other holding a microphone. It is a classic pose, one Ozzy Osbourne might have taken, implicating you, writing you into the narrative. But this is karaoke gone awry.

The exhibition signage reads “No one is watching you”. You are not so sure. Above the front desk, a screen relays the video playing on an exterior screen that frames the entrance. A man wearing dungarees – in alien mask, then a horse mask – walks slowly through a suburban overgrown backyard, circumnavigating what I think is a shed. Cut to a classic horror-film full moon, borrowed by the artist, and with Jim Morrison’s psychosexual hymn – which I first heard in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now – playing in reverse over the looping footage. “The End” seems an apt beginning, and sees Paul McCarthy’s Painter collapse into a serial-killer zombie slasher. But the horror never unfolds, we are trapped in a melancholic walk, hovering between imminent death and burgeoning pathos.

Curated by Melissa Keys, this exhibition – No one is watching you, a 30-year retrospective of van Hout’s work – is the second since the Buxton opened in March. Designed by Fender Kastalidis to house the collection of property developer Michael Buxton, bequeathed to the University of Melbourne, the building unfolds from the entrance – a large, naturally lit foyer opens into a medium-sized gallery and then a large Kunsthalle-type space of two floors. It is unassuming to some degree, larger than the façade reveals.

Van Hout is originally from Christchurch, New Zealand, but has been based in Melbourne since 2000. Having exhibited since the ’90s – his history is rich and prolific – he has also played in a Black Sabbath-inspired band, Into the Void, on which a documentary of the same name is based. He has studied and made film, taught and travelled and toured, and is renowned for work that uses his own likeness while avoiding self-portraiture or narcissism. Macabre yet vulnerable, van Hout’s works at Buxton Contemporary are experienced like a sculptural film, rolling out solid states of psychological encounters. Van Hout is well loved and respected, exemplified in the generous curation of this exhibition, which makes evident the desire of the artist. In a time preoccupied with self and the individual, these works and their arrangement speak not only of masculinity and being an artist but also of the fragility and farce of identity, of it being a collectively shared conscience.

Entering the first gallery, the concrete floor hums with a feedback loop. We find paintings, or rather tablets, from a present future. One is labelled “Figure 1: Drawing of UFO”, the other inscribed by the artist’s son; something loved and something alien, an introduction to the abject relation that is family – to be known, but always unknown. We walk past Failed Robot (2007) lying on a plinth, staring into the middle ground, before we reach the middle of the gallery, where two robots, their masks removed, reveal van Hout himself as an alien-human sitting on frozen furniture seemingly sourced from an ex-Soviet state or secret service interview room. Mirrored and posed as if on a stage, the van Hout robots have an audio speaker between them creating a force field of sound. This feedback loop is the hum of a substation. What is to happen hasn’t happened yet. This – van Hout’s version of a 1972 Robert Morris work – sees Morris’s three-hour narrative removed and replaced with the indeterminable.

The bunkeresque architecture of the gallery, once part of the old Victorian Police Depot, makes itself relevant. The figure in Punk on a bed  looks out the door only to find a shadow of himself in the glass and an empty institutional courtyard. Ceiling heights change throughout the gallery, in tune somehow with the varying scales of van Hout’s work – miniature, life-size and other. Psychological in proportion and purpose, the transitions and reversals are both familiar and isolating, and are ultimately emphasised by the disconcerting repetition of forms and motifs – the mysterious, never-entered shed owned by van Hout’s father, robots, aliens, apes, sausages and turds.

An automatic sliding door opens to a large room, the scale of which is matched by a number of works, and this is just a selection. A painted resin owl sits on a painted resin head, its nose pecked off. Three owls perched across from it, hooting a string of “hoos”. In 1969, Bruce Nauman played his Violin Tuned D.E.A.D. Van Hout’s painted-resin silent sonnet, D.E.A.D pronounced dead (2004), a cast of his own head, blankly stares back at us sans nose, plus flesh wounds. Nearby, euphemistic salamis dangle from a table supporting a walking-dead, Shetland-pony resin figure of the artist in PJs, in a piece called simply Paul (2014). There are more men-children, in multiple, some attempting to levitate, but failing, between two chairs, as in Dave (2014). Behind them, semi-cinematic photographs from 1999 declare the laterally obvious Abduct, Monster, Hybrid. Everything is not quite right, the image a little askew, the making revealed, the illusion corrupted.

A voiceover bleeds into the space; it’s accented, familiar, van Hout himself. I catch the dialogue: “My feelings to certain people are immeasurable. Someone makes me measure it.” Eerily, an alien made of resin and named Ersatz (2002), meaning substitute, hangs on the wall like the handwritten sign around his neck reading, “Forget”. What are we forgetting? The original? The real? What is it that we don’t want to see? The chalkboard painting beside it reiterates the theme in a white contrived scrawl: “No one is watching you”. In this exhibition, it seems, beginnings are endings and that which is alive is also a bit dead.

In Planet of the Apes, there is a clash between human and apes. In I’ve abandoned Me (Chimp and boulder excerpt) (2003–18), the artist is both ape and human, cast looking longingly into a frozen screen, a sublime desert landscape, as existential as the gallery within which he sits.

Around a corner is the four-minute video Brett and Michelle (2014) and via headphones we hear a fraction of the confronting dialogue between two characters from Rowan Woods’ 1998 film The Boys. In the short extract van Hout references, the artist plays both the recently out-of-prison Brett (David Wenham) and his girlfriend Michelle (Toni Collette). Unable to escape prison, even though he has returned home, the presence and violation of sex, isolation, hatred and pain oscillates between Brett and his girlfriend. In this work, the psychopathic potential of language is not sublimated; it is entangled in the banality of any mirror relationship. In The Boys, time shifts between Brett’s homecoming and the period just after the crime. Rather than a document to the act of violence, the film is a reflection on origins of the brutality of the crime and the dysfunctional family associated with it. In van Hout’s Brett and Michelle, you wonder if there is an attempt to resolve this in the alternating loop of the artist acting as both antagonist and protagonist, criminal and partner, son and lover, perpetrator and victim.

There is more. Another floor takes us to 80 works – too many to engage with here. A mini-van Hout floating atop the stairs, like the alien in the first room that I can’t forget; a gallery-cum-bathroom room displaying sculptural texts reading “SHIT FUCK PISS”, “CONFUSED”, “STANDUP” and “SIT”, alongside a man-child Sitting figure II (2016) with mic, smoke and pink-leopard-print pyjamas. You can almost see yourself in the polished steel plinth, and in the embroidered fan paintings, the crawling resin-formed children of the corn and the giant hands falling in love to a soundtrack by New Zealand band The Dead C.

What appears as the “last” work seems apt for this ending: a collection of oversized, mannequin-esque, archetypal polyurethane and fibreglass painted male clichés. There are warriors about to piss on you, armed and helmeted World War II soldiers with camouflaged bodies and erect and flaccid penises, a Jesus zombie whose head bears van Hout masks. Here, masculinity is simultaneously performed and castrated while sunbaking in gumboots. 

Behind these Bad Fathers (2018) is a 20-minute film, King Vader (2018): van Hout, always looking at himself looking at us looking at ourselves via a lens of things we might have already seen. A question to fatherhood or a question to his son? It’s van Hout, of course, speaking to van Hout, using Darth Vader’s words to Luke Skywalker: “Perhaps you’re not as strong as the Emperor thought ... Release your anger. Only your hatred can destroy me.” Excerpts from someone using Minecraft to build a scene frame dialogue performed by van Hout and figurines extracted from the Star Wars franchise, about fathers, sons, power and history, before eventually fading to a square sun setting – the mortality of both fantasy and destiny; its Oedipal excess and loss.

I recently received a message from a friend working in machine learning. Mostly blurred, the image that was clear revealed a quote from Ecclesiastes, which read: “The simulacrum is never what hides the truth – it is truth that hides the fact that there is none. The simulacrum is true.” An apocryphal quote, its source declared later as a false attribution by Baudrillard, in whose book it appears. This imaginary quotation suggests reality is revealed by it being concealed in the disguise of augmentation. In van Hout's image, we trust.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 1, 2018 as "All along the watcher towers ". Subscribe here.

Lisa Radford
is an artist who writes and teaches. She currently lectures in painting at the VCA, University of Melbourne.