Personal and national identity are the preoccupations in Workin' Down Under, a show of recent work by Australian artists at Wood Street Galleries. But there's also room for exploring surveillance culture and for razzing Hollywood tropes.
Over such grounds the playful work of Tracey Moffatt ranges freely. In her Being Under the Sign of Scorpio series, in a couple dozen digitally rendered photographic illustrations, Moffatt -- donning wigs, makeup, costumes, sunglasses -- theatrically incarnates famous Scorpio women. There's Bjork, recumbent on a volcano; Georgia O'Keefe observing what looks like a nuclear explosion; Catherine Deneuve peering over a waterfall; Indira Gandhi, Shere Hite, Wilma P. Mankiller, Doris Lessing, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Marie Curie. There are lots of conflagrations and psychedelic skies; curiously, many of the women are seen from the back, or otherwise rendered faceless.
Moffat gets both more pointed and more shamelessly entertaining in a couple of video collaborations with ace editor Gary Hillberg. The 10-minute "Doomed" is a spectacular montage of appropriated movie earthquakes and monster floods, freeways and train trestles collapsing, cities exploding, jungle villages crushed. Through the finely tuned absurdity of repetition, the happiness we derive from watching (and, apparently, depicting) our own obliteration suggests the child's joy at sweeping aside the blocks he's just stacked.
Moffat's "Love," by contrast, stitches moments from what must be 200 movies into a single archetypal romance 21 minutes long, from lovey-dovey Cary Grant murmurings to Susan Sarandon gunning down a rapist. Forced embraces, nasty words, drinks tossed in faces, arpeggios of slaps -- chortling, tsk-tsk-ing or secretly thrilling, we get to have our vicarious pleasures both ways.
More ponderous, but in a good way, is John Gillies' video installation "Divide." In a small gallery, two wall-sized screens face each other. One loops through a series of short sequences depicting sheep observing the camera. On the other unreels a cryptic, 25-minute narrative about four men and a horse moving across the countryside, occasionally crossing paths with a large herd of sheep. Save a strange song sung by an anomalous costumed Chinese performer, no one on screen is seen to speak (though we do hear a voice counting sheep). In voiceover, a woman reads from the Old Testament, about God sending Abraham to conquer the land of Canaan, while promising to "bless them that bless thee, and curse them that curse thee." But who, in this symbolically fraught meditation on a country colonized by herds of shepherds, is blessed, and who cursed? And why did I chuckle whenever I glanced at the sheep-only screen, its subjects so dolefully long-nosed, so earnestly dim?
Denis Beaubois' deceptively simple video installation "Accidental Contract" comments sharply on surveillance. The artist, seen on one big screen, has a sign reading "Warning: You May Be Photographed Reading This Sign" stuck to his back, as he stands facing a wall. Behind his back he holds a small video camera and a microcassette recorder, both aimed at a busy city street. The other screen shows what his camera sees. Many passersby don't notice him; fewer pause; and fewer still notice the larger camera stationed in the alley across the street -- the one that's taping both Beaubois himself and whoever stops to gape at him. Beaubois reminds us, among other things, that when we watch, we may also be getting watched -- but not by the person we think.
Meanwhile, John Tonkin's "Personal Eugenics," is a digital interactive station where mouse clicks let you remake your photographic image into some imagined ideal you've named, and then tape the new-you printout to the wall. But the possible variations of form to the original photo are fairly limited, and most of the few hundred participants ("Mickey"; "Jo") so far have ended up looking nothing like what they say they want to be ("a real architect"; "younger") -- which, of course, might be Tonkin's point.
Looking to the past as well as the future for signs of identity is the quietly affecting video work of Christian Bumbarra Thompson, who is of mixed Aboriginal and European ancestry. His "Desert Slippers" is a brief loop showing the artist and his burly, splendidly mustachioed father, dressed in matching blue T-shirts to exchange a traditional, shoulder-pounding Aboriginal greeting. And "The Sixth Mile" is a four-frame video projection: Two frames depict Bumbarra's father brushing the seated artist's dark hair, while the other two show the artist himself brushing the hair of two small blond children, presumably his own offspring -- a concise rendering of the continuity of kinship in a world of ethnic flux.
Workin' Down Under continues through Dec. 31. Wood Street Galleries, 601 Wood St., Downtown. 412-471-5605 or www.woodstreetgalleries.org