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Tony Schwensen: Love it or leave it
Blair French

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As his contribution to the Biennale of Sydney's 'revolutionsonline' website, Tony Schwensen offered a link to a recording of Gil Scott-Heron's spoken word classic 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised' released in 1970, the year of Schwensen's birth....

In this context Scott-Heron's track is a form of historical document urging the renewal of cultural consciousness in an age of burgeoning infotainment consumption. It appears both raw and prescient; passionate and yet forlorn. For the revolution will of course, be televised (or web-streamed), wherever it is played out. And, as I suspect Schwensen would hasten to add, it will also be live - banal, painful, quotidian, but alive and real.

Tensions evoked in Scott-Heron's text can be found underpinning Schwensen's own very different, physical practice (driven always by performance even when finding final exhibition form in video and installation): tensions between the committed impulse to resistance and an awareness of the likely limited impact of such a stance; between belief in the potential and fundamental good of society and anger at its complacency and stupidity; between the oscillating efficacies of the real and its representation. Such conundrums fuel Schwensen's work. His practice is predicated on the urgent need to engage with the social and political complexity of the world - of people - with his own body and through extended periods of time. (Remembering that this is a world in which millions of individual assertions of presence and identity are platformed instantaneously via the virtual, 'don't touch', 'never connect' conventions of MySpace, YouTube, Facebook and the like.)  And yet it is a practice that assumes residual apathy as a key condition of the populace at large, in part because it itself stems from such a condition.

Schwensen's practice has a rare and singular, we might say appropriately 'elite' quality to it - no-one else of his post-conceptual generation in Australia is making durational performance of such intellectual ambition and formal rigour - yet is resolutely of the culture that both nourishes and frustrates it so. In particular, the work acknowledges opposition to self-reflection, to change, to independent (as opposed to self-interested) action as a default setting within Australian society. Nevertheless, it openly, even fondly, partakes in an Australian vernacular. Speaking from within, it conveys a form of fury with cultural lethargy, with a devaluation of social, political and intellectual capital that is amplified in the microclimate of the art world. As such, it is not afraid of becoming target of its own critique. Yet crucially the work never pretends to offer the ultimate agency to enact real social or cultural change. It poses questions and picks at scabs. It offers neither solutions nor salve. Schwensen's practice is a form of cultural resistance that never loses sight of its own probable ineffectiveness. But such a sense of futility provides no reason to cease work. As Schwensen spelt out in adhesive tape on the floor of the demountable hut housing his The art of watching (after Vermeer): Thorpe's feet, Pittman's knee, Bradman's house, Schwensen's arse performance of 2006: 'FAIL AGAIN FAIL BETTER'...


Schwensen made three major new performance works through 2007 before he left the country in the second half of the year to embark first upon a residency in Paris and then to take up a position in Boston teaching performance. Rise, 2007, the most ambitious of four works made by Schwensen at Artspace, Sydney, over a five-year period was intended, in the artist's own words, as 'a hundred hour meditation on stupidity, nationalism, delusionism, the devaluing of manual labour in the Western world both socially and financially, and the rampant and thoughtless consumption that has accompanied it with particular attention to its manifestations in contemporary Australia'. Political in intent, it formally fronted Schwensen with a new performance conundrum: what to do when there is literally nothing to do...

In Schwensen's work the artist is both a labourer - and labour is a crucial motif throughout - and a formal figure subject to his own experiments in action and duration. Both performance and installation forms of work are also finally manifestations - or shadows - of intellectual labour. Schwensen's work never looks effortless because it never is. It never looks easy because there is never ease. There is difficulty, awkwardness, even boredom. Just like the world...

This article appears in excerpted form. You can read the entire article in Art & Australia's Summer 2008 issue.


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