Arlo Mountford: A Path Less Travelled

Arlo Mountford’s animated works reconceptualise an understood history of art by asking us to look at what we know and experience it in new and unexpected ways.

Words: Amita Kirpalani

Photography: Kristin Gollings

On describing the great contemporary hang-up of efficiency, Justin Paton, curator for the 2011 Anne Landa Award for Video and New Media exhibition, suggests that the contemporary reflex to pick up our hand- held devices and pin point our exact location to determine the shortest possible route to the next is one way through which we are making the world a smaller, more navigable place. This is almost the opposite to the way we generally approach art, which is just why Paton is interested in artists who, like Arlo Mountford, map out a “much less direct journey”, performing “imaginative travel” to ask simple but powerful questions.

This idea is explored in Mountford’s work The Lament presented for the Anne Landa; a two screen digital animation of two Watteau paintings titled The Embarkation for Cythera, 1717, and Pilgrimage to Cythera, 1721. The original paintings create a situation where we are unsure if the partygoers, as they celebrate love, are arriving or departing. Mountford takes this situation and amplifies it an animated loop, so we see the characters arrive and depart in the first painting and then appear again in the second painting. A couple become caught in infinite courting while cupids endlessly circle Venus, the goddess of sexual love and devotion. The idea of animation is almost anathema to this bucolic scene. Mountford has subverted the chaste message of the original paintings, unsticking its revellers and setting them in an endless loop such that they appear like Bacchanalian dinner party guests who just refuse to leave.

Art history in architecture is the focus for another of Mountford’s fictions: each art institution houses its own version of history told through artwork. For his work in Melbourne Now at the National Gallery of Victoria, Mountford showed the video installation Walking the Line, 2013, referencing Paul Klee’s description of drawing as “taking a line for a walk”. In this work, stick figures wander through artworks housed in the NGV collection, including Fred Williams’ Pilbara Series from 1979-81, and Mark Rothko’s Untitled (Red) from 1956, tracing lines found in the works.

Mountford examines the complexities of war history through a similar prism. He was recently commissioned to develop moving backdrops for two dioramas made for the First World War galleries at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Louie McCubbin (son of Fred- rick) created the originals in the 1920s, but they have since been lost. Mountford’s work is based on documentation of the sites that the dioramas depict, taken by Official War Artists – including George Lambert, Arthur Streeton and McCubbin himself – and photographers from the First World War. Both backdrops move in real time, and are eight hours long each, transitioning through different re-drawn paintings.

Mountford could be described as an art super- fan, and for his latest work – which will premiere at Melbourne’s Sutton Gallery in October – he could best be described as an Otaku; the Japanese stereotype for someone obsessed with anime and manga. The new work references the iconic 1979 Japanese anime Galaxy Express 999, which Mountford recalls seeing as a child. He describes the plot as “a disillusionment in modernism commonly found in popular science fiction of the late 1970s”. Mountford restages the final apocalyptic scene of the film – arguably one of the most important contributions to Japanese anime – and sets it against the backdrop of Le Corbusier’s National Museum of Western Art (NMWA) in Tokyo, where Mountford spent time in the 2012 on an Australia Council residency.

Sutton Gallery co-director Elizabeth McDowell says that this is “the first time Arlo has looked at the canon of western contemporary art from the perspective of the Japanese avant-garde”. Mountford suggests that the work “sets up the modernist building as a symbol of misguided progress and the world of anime as the hero … the intention of the project is to blur the lines between art history, Japanese history and narrative and popular anime culture, creating a melting pot of comparisons, juxtapositions and ideas”.

In Galaxy Express NMWA we encounter the familiar black glyph found in previous work by Mountford. He is the classic dot matrix stick figure, found on most public warning signs and toilet doors. Strangely, for a guy who is around a lot of art he has no eyes, but he does have a mouth.

This character’s role varies wildly from killer to comedian to un-judgemental flaneur. In 2006’s The Pioneer Meets the Wanderer for example, he is depicted sun baking on holiday when Duchamp’s bicycle wheel washes up on the beach beside him and his female companion. The couple nonchalantly turn and leave the beach, while a can of Piero Manzoni’s Merda d’artista pops up and bobs away in the shallows.

The sardonic situation of art history in this way makes Mountford’s work so compelling. It’s a kind of end-game post-structuralism meets browsing- through-the-NGV-bookstore-poster-section. Mountford’s method is also in a sense psychoanalytic, in that he retrieves the lost or nostalgic image – paintings we recall from doctor’s waiting rooms and Year 10 art class – and reanimates them. This kind of journeying isn’t efficient or time saving, neither does the work provide a comprehensive history lesson. Here nothing is precious, all structures are malleable and, as Mountford suggests: “when you start playing [with a painting in the animation process], everything is artifice”.

Arlo Mountford will exhibit with Sutton Gallery in Melbourne from 11 October to 8 November 2014.

This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 70, OCT – DEC 2014.

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