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21st Century Modern
2006 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art

Catalogue Essay by Edward Colless

Arlo Mountford
A spindly cage constructed from raw pine posts and slats held together by wire and dowelling, Requiem could easily be taken for a piece of cool, modern geometric abstraction. But if this is Minimalist sculpture, then it’s caricatured as a playpen, dressed in an innocuous IKEA style. And, animated on a video monitor on the floor, we can see the gang of unruly infants caught and corralled inside it. They make up an infamous if motley crew; Jake and Dinos Chapman, Marcel Duchamp, Patti Hearst, Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious, Guy Debord, Valerie Solanas…

These idols of artistic vanguardism and moral anarchy dance in a circle to the Sex Pistol’s punk anthem Anarchy in the UK; although – reduced to the sort of modular silhouettes that designate public toilets – their passions seem a bit burnt out. They hold hands convivially and move with the sweet decorum of an old-fashioned schoolyard game; ring-a-ring-a-rosy. And, as that morbid children’s song goes, they all fall down. One by one, the black bouncing balls that denote each character’s head are loped off and tumble to the ground as violently as if an invisible executioner was swinging an axe to the beat.

Motion sensors trigger the whole apparatus to switch into play mode when anyone steps into the room. Each time this happens the kids on the monitor start their demented dance and a mechanical gate at the top of the structure flicks open, dropping a large steel ball-bearing onto runners that wind their way down to the floor, like a huge version of the 1960s game of Mouse Trap or an oversized executive toy. These steel balls eventually drop onto the gallery floor, looking like each of the anarchists’ decapitated heads. The more people visit the work, the more heads roll.

The slapstick violence in Mountford’s computer animations is inspired by teen slasher movies, where sex invariably provokes psychotic homicide, but these violent sprees are always staged in art exhibitions. In fact, they seem inexplicably prompted by iconic works of modern art – or the gallery experience generally as an opportunity for sex and incitement to serial murder.

Mountford’s earlier installations frequently required viewers to stick their heads through portholes in a ramp, a deliberate allusion to performance artist Vito Acconci’s notorious ramp floor from the late 1960’s, under which he masturbated to his sexual fantasies of gallery visitors walking above him. The portholes in Mountford’s constructions resemble so-called ‘glory holes’; sites for anonymous and perilous contact in sex-clubs. Poking through Mountford’s ramps, the viewer’s head also becomes an artistic prize, like a wall-mounted trophy in a hunter’s den. In one installation, you stick your head up a hole on the underside of a shelf in order to watch an animation that, like an instructional diagram, depicts two abstract figures installing that very work of art, then putting their heads through the holes to check it – and being beheaded by a hidden guillotine. Their heads roll off the shelf and onto the floor like two balls.

This castrating violence is a game that induces desire, just as Mouse Trap does. As a sexual trap, Arlo Mountford’s Requiem is a ‘bachelor machine’, like Duchamp’s sterile sexual apparatus in his Large Glass. With Requiem, the balls are recycled by gallery staff to fuel the machine. Once triggered into action by its audience, the routine that produces and consumes art can go on indefinitely; that’s to say, as a long as you’re up for it.

Edward Colless