PThe public fire has naturally had a bad reputation throughout history, from the bonfires of the vanities of Savonarola in the late 15th century and his own death by fire, to the burning of Nazi student books of 1933; there is usually something ominous about fires in public places, the glitter of mob rule. Here again, the burning of effigies can represent an act of political solidarity.
So what should we do with British conceptual artist Jeremy Deller’s latest installation for the Australian Center for Contemporary Art (ACCA), Father and Son, which burns (until midnight Saturday) in St Savior’s Church in the exiles in the Melbourne suburb of downtown Collingwood? A life-size gray candle by Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan posed in acquiescence to the corporate portrait tradition, it takes on a sero-comic horror as it melts before our eyes, a patriarchy crumbling in real time as as the numbers slowly drip to the ground.
Murdoch is a rather obvious choice for the installation, as a dominant symbol of the inordinate media power and political influence we can achieve in our present day, and Deller’s choice of Melbourne, Murdoch’s birthplace, is certainly deliberate.
ACCA Artistic Director Max Delany sees something sweeter, even contemplative, in the work.
“It’s a work on the passing of time. We have thought a lot about the play of light, its evolution throughout the day. We talked a lot with Jeremy about the soft light of remembrance.
Its position in the center of the desecrated church resembles a response or provocation to Michelangelo’s Pietà which, unlike this work, has the decency to hide in the nave of St. Peter’s Basilica. But then Deller’s use of the precarious medium of wax suggests a memento mori, a reminder of the impermanence of power.
A Turner Prize-winning artist, Deller has always been interested in the communal nature of public art, ritual and performance, and the reactions and presence of the public in his works constitute a large part of their meaning. The specific nature of Father and Son was kept a secret until the unveiling, so the herds of people who came to see him seem to have been drawn as much by the mystery as by the chance to experience one of the famous interactive pieces of Deller.
Joy FM’s Saturday Magazine producer Fiona Brook “knew something was going to happen in this space for some time, and knew nothing could be revealed, so it’s intriguing.” As people walk around, take photos and film with their phones, Brook contemplates the pace of change in the artwork and what it could mean politically. “Time is running out, but like a lot of things in Australia, it takes a long time for change to happen.”
Passionate about art, Charles Lai “knew about Jeremy’s work, and I knew there was no waiting before coming here”.
“We tend to be cynical about the Murdochs in this country and I think the work fosters that cynicism,” he says. The greyness of the lines suggests the colorlessness of the heritage, in a way.
One aspect that Brook and Lai both hold back is Deller’s sense of humor, a feeling that he might just laugh at Murdoch and his linear claims. Deller himself said of earlier work involving mixing acid house and fanfares, “there must be humor and absurdity, like in a lot of the things I do.” He avoids the simple joker; his works seem to start in the gadget realm and subtly transform into something touching and multi-layered.
What is certainly true is that there will be nothing left of the Father and of the Son between now and tomorrow, other than a pond of gray wax. By early afternoon, Rupert and Lachlan’s skulls were hollowed out and long rasta beads hung from their temples. Lachlan in particular seemed to cry tears of melted wax, for a lost kingdom or a worthless inheritance. Deller is a master of event art, and his fond tycoons are, as Delany puts it, “an invitation to a vigil.” One Melbourne seems delighted to attend.