'A tongue-in-cheek tour', review of ‘Hyperkulturemia’ by Miranda Johnson.
The Grand Tour was an exclusive educational holiday, primarily undertaken by sons of the aristocratic class in Britain, to “finish off” their education, escape the repressions of British society and assert themselves as the cultural, political and social elite. Andrew Nicholls’ “Hyperkulturemia” at the Art Gallery of Western Australia takes this narrative, with all of its implied debauchery, experimentation and excess, and slyly pokes fun at its over-the-top, camp style, whilst imagining and enacting the kind of pleasures these men may have experienced whilst touring the classical sites of Europe. It’s tongue-in-cheek, camp and slyly humorous, but also reflects deeply on the narratives of masculinity and its connections to culture and power, both in the past and present.
A combination of drawing, ceramics and photography, the exhibition takes as its starting point the affliction of its name – “hyperkultumeria” translates to “too much culture in the blood”. This affliction was thought to be a cause of the possibly-fictional Stendhal syndrome, named after the 19th century French writer Stendhal who spoke of the ecstasy he felt when faced with the immense artistic beauty of Florence’s city and museums – so much so that he collapsed into a faint. As recently as 2018, a tourist suffered a heart attack in front of a Botticelli, an occurrence that is echoed in the photographs that guide the viewer into Nicholls’ exhibition. Both images show the artist overcome with beauty in the middle of sites of Italian cultural heritage. In these images, the groups of camera-laden tourists, the reflection of a colourful information sign, and the sunglasses comically resting on the floor a few feet from the artist’s prone body make it unclear whether he has collapsed due to the overwhelming beauty of the art or the hordes of tourists, queues and selfie-sticks that have become the modern affliction of cultural tourism.
Straddling the past and present, Nicholls expertly weaves historical and fictional narratives of the Grand Tour whilst refocusing themes of cultural capital and fraternity in his present reality of the WA art world. A further layer to the show is the series of collaborative ceramics, made with local artists whilst Nicholls was in residence in Jingdezhen, China. This collaboration resulted in several intricately decorated Etruscan-style ceramic vases, referencing dramas from Ancient Greek mythology, including the tragic drowning of Hadrian’s lover Antinuous, Zeus and Ganymede, and Theseus and the Minotaur. By placing these vases at the centre of the exhibition, both the ancient Romans’ cultural appropriation and the dominance of Western art in our current (and historical) memory are centred, reminding the viewer of the many other historical centres of art-making that have been overlooked, appropriated or discarded.
These ceramics continue as a “memento mori” motif throughout the photographs and drawings, in the form of bones and skulls, framing some of the works in a morbidly decorative manner that beautifully reflects the numerous crypts, catacombs and graveyards scattered throughout European cities – particularly the heavily Catholic ones.
Whilst I understood the contrast between the fragile beauty of the youthful male form shown in the works and the reminders of death and decay surrounding them, I felt that the detailed handiwork of the collaborative ceramic vases and intricate drawings was a little overshadowed by the vast richness of this juxtaposition of bone and photographic image.
Exquisitely detailed with multiple narratives, high drama and wicked humour, The Last Judgement, a homage to Michelangelo’s iconic work of the same name, takes the original work’s imagining of the second coming of Christ and, using some of Nicholls’ friends and colleagues as models, reimagines this conversation between the damned and the saved souls of Heaven and Earth as, presumably, taking place in the male homosocial relations of the Perth art world. It’s a beautiful and surprisingly funny work, as the familiar faces of my colleagues and friends emerge from the campy drama of fleshy torment – and pleasure.
Similarly Via Appia Antica (after Piranesi), a composite image of Nicholls’ favourite sites of Italy, rewards a close look. Nicholls worked on this piece throughout his travels, over the course of two years, adding to it whenever possible. It’s an elaborate study of the architecture, landscapes and people of Classical antiquity, many of which are instantly recognisable as the iconic buildings, streets and bridges of today’s Italy. The work is again framed by ceramic bones, which, whilst striking individually, distract slightly from the intricacies of the drawn work. In this way, the exhibition as a whole provides a little of the overwhelming feeling of intense visual stimulation that presumably provokes Stendhal syndrome, with its robustly rich themes of flesh, decay and beauty. The drawn mountain-top of Vesuvius emerging at the centre of Via Appia Antica is a more subtle yet more chilling reminder of the inevitability of death than the “in-your-faceness” of the bones encircling richly-hued photographs of the muscular male form.
“Hyperkulturemia” is a study in contradictions – overwhelming and unsubtle in its glorious celebration of the relationship between masculinity and cultural capital, yet critical of this relationship, aware that other, more delicate narratives can emerge between the cracks.