Sydney

Superflex

Artspace, Sydney

Superflex is a collaboration among three Danish artists (Jakob Fenger, Bjørnstjerne Christiansen, and Rasmus Nielsen) working on the front lines of ecological activism. They investigate global energy needs, propose solutions, and, like a mini-Peace Corps, collaborate with Western and African engineers to create new, earth-friendly technologies. In 1997, they constructed and patented a simple, portable biogas plant that effectively produces cooking gas and lighting from human and animal waste. (In conjunction with a small African organization called SURUDE, they have installed pilot units in several Tanzanian villages, with some success.) Superflex has a website—www.superflex.dk —and publishes slickly earnest, full-color brochures about their projects. For their recent exhibition, they printed stodgy pamphlets about “Biogas Basics,” “Microbiology,” and the “Global Environmental Benefits of Biogas Technology.” Their patented biogas system satisfies several design criteria: It is efficient, cheap, and user-friendly (and it even appeals to local farmers’ pride). Better still, it looks like a large, glossy, orange balloon—or an enormous overinflated ’60s water bed. On the concrete floor of a white art space, it is also a perfectly acceptable simulacrum of a “Bad Girls” toy from the early ’90s. In the installation titled Biogas in Africa at Artspace, the orange ball was accompanied by didactic texts and diagrams on the walls which traced the human-waste-to-useful-fuel cycle.

At first, Superflex sounds like another fictional construct of the art world—similar to General Idea’s 1971 Miss General Idea contest, Res Ingold’s Ingold Airlines, or the imaginary artist Seymour Likely (created in 1988 by a Dutch collective). In this light, the metaphorical implications of human and animal shit transformed into hot gas are irresistible. All the evidence, though, suggests that the artists who make up Superflex are genuine, and it’s clear that they aren’t at all concerned with signature style as an index of authenticity, and even less with preserving the dividing line between art, industrial design, and engineering (as Dan Cameron points out in an essay on their work in the catalogue accompanying the show). Why, then, do they show in an art gallery? There’s a long tradition of useful art that has developed alongside and often in rigorous ethical opposition to the more established Earthworks. Helen and Newton Mayer Harrison, for example, created large-scale projects for ecological regeneration in Europe and the US. Superflex, like the Harrisons, seems to see art as a framing device and the gallery as a “safe house.” The similarity between Superflex and the Eco-art tradition from which the Danish collective emerges would seem to lie in shared attitudes toward real-time intervention and its consequences and a belief in genuine action according to a profoundly humanist ethical and social perspective. The difference, visually at least, is that Superflex is very much in tune with the ’90s. They understand, therefore, that extreme demands on the viewer’s patience and time can’t be compensated for by the production of a museological spectacle, for there isn’t the attention span. They calculate that the impatient viewer’s boredom with booklets and educational videos will be incorporated into the work of art as a gatekeeping device, and that the resulting deadpan, highly ambiguous spectacle of self-improvement will bridge the gap between the village and the museum. Their sophisticated artistic “work” is emblematic of wider shifts, which allow that the author of a work of art needn’t necessarily be its maker and, finally, that the limits of a postmodern perspective are at the very limits of representation and categorization.

Charles Green