Monika Tichacek, The Shadowers, 2004
Collection: Art Gallery of NSW

While teaching a subject on visual culture at the University of Western Sydney last year, I screened Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s seminal avant-garde film Un Chien Andalou (1929). Afterwards I received a complaint for not providing a warning of that scene where a blade slices into an eyeball. A few weeks later I received another complaint after showing Grace Lau’s (rather mild) genderfuck photography during a lecture about theories of the gaze. Dealing with such complaints is a tricky matter, and I addressed it by announcing that such work would not be prefaced with warnings. To do so would risk sensationalising work that is not really sensational, limiting discussion to simplistic rhetoric surrounding its supposed shock value. I didn’t want to be the embodiment of a classification sticker, delighting in warning others about the so-called perversions contained therein. Spoiling the challenging and visceral nature of some art and film with the odd disclaimer is like revealing the contents of a gift-wrapped package. On those occasions when I have provided an obligatory warning, a majority of students were expecting something far worse, were subsequently disappointed, leaving me slightly embarrassed.

It is this very spirit of repression that the Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) supports when frequently deliberating over “artistic merit” versus “high impact” sex and violence (though sexual violence is usually the only form of sex and/or violence they can’t figure out). Talentless bureaucrats masquerading as moral guardians of cultural production, the folks at the OFLC are very good at marginalising work that is for the most part, already very fringe, satisfying a minority audience who lodge complaints and leaving the majority of us who prefer making our own decisions very frustrated. Democracy is entirely undermined when minorities rule in this way.

Recent examples of films that were refused classification include Ken Park (Larry Clark & Edward Lachman, 2002) and Baise-moi (Virginie Despentes & Coralie, 2000). Films that nearly suffered a similar fate were Romance (Catherine Breillat, 1999), 9 Songs (Michael Winterbottom, 2004) and most recently, Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki, 2004). After Mysterious Skin was rightly classified with an R rating, a conservative Christian organisation that had only read its synopsis lodged a complaint. Containing paedophile themes, Mysterious Skin immediately rang alarm bells because apparently cultural production examining such themes must be immediately called into question. Arguably the real problem is the fact that it is a gay film dealing with paedophilia. Regardless, the OFLC stood by the R rating after reassessment, the complaint unjustified.

Mysterious Skin is the best narrative film I have seen so far this year and I’m relieved it’s getting released. The best non-narrative screen work I’ve seen this year to date is Monika Tichacek’s powerful video installation The Shadowers (2004). Also ruffling rightwing feathers because of its themes of sexual violence, The Shadowers marks the first instance where video art has been questioned by the OFLC. The production of video art has been around since, well, the invention of video, and only now have the OFLC realised that it requires classification. Had The Shadowers not set the precedence due to its unsettling content, the OFLC probably would never have cause for concern.

Designed to be a triple projected work within a darkened gallery space, The Shadowers is a mesmerising viewing experience because unlike much video art, it has an immersive quality that makes its nightmarish imagery all the more powerful. Its sadomasochistic imagery is even more confronting because of the richly seductive manner in which it is shot. The coupling of sexual violence with imagery that is non-heterosexual appears to be a recurring theme with some of the work the OFLC questions. Unsurprisingly The Shadowers is about a psychosexual relationship between two women.

The Shadowers is being noticed by a broader audience than art viewers, largely because when it featured in the survey show 2004: Australian Culture Now (Australian Centre for the Moving Image) it was moved from a prominent gallery position to a more secluded location after a series of complaints. Its impact was moreover diminished from being shown on smaller screens. When installed at Artspace in Sydney, the screening conditions were in keeping with Tichacek’s vision. But it was at Artspace that the OFLC caught up with the piece, requesting the gallery applies for classification. It’s safe to assume their response was motivated more by media coverage highlighting its controversial content than by an actual viewing of the work. Eventually the OFLC granted Artspace an exemption because the show was closing within a couple of days.

Artspace Gallery Manager, Tania Doropoulos said to the Sydney Morning Herald, “according to Australian law all forms of video art practice fall into this heading of ‘film’. You now need to make an application, get an exemption or make an application for classification.” Doropoulos also rightfully noted how “absurd” it is for “one particular type of contemporary art practice to be classified.” Classifying a film is an expensive process that would have a negative impact on artists because artists who often make very little money from their practice to begin with usually make such work on low budgets.

A glaring omission on the part of the OFLC is that no problems arise from the exhibition or publication of stills taken from the work. Moving images must be classified, whereas still art forms need not apply for classification. Sherman Galleries in Sydney showcased stills from The Shadowers instead of the video in a bid to avoid interference from the OFLC. While a double standard, the exhibition of stills to replace the video version intended by the artist, only serves to create an unnecessary aura of mystification. But Tichacek is probably enjoying intensified exposure she may not have received otherwise. It’s doubtful however that The Shadowers wouldn’t have made her famous. Like its “film” equivalent Un Chien Andalou, The Shadowers is a “video” that will be appreciated way beyond its time.

Essay for Machine.

Published by Machine, issue 2 in 2005.