David Rosetzky & the Art of Self Defence
Sarah Tutton

Since the early 1990s David Rosetzky has pursued a diverse, yet focussed approach to artmaking, to create a body of works that explore the interconnected themes of identity, subjectivity and inter-personal relationships. Working primarily with digital technology, portraiture and the language of consumer culture, Rosetzky has undertaken what can be looked upon as a series of creative experiments that investigate the importance of our relationships with those around us and our environment and to the construction of identity. Working within the paradox of a society that privileges the individual over the group while expressing an unprecedented desire for connection and belonging, Rosetzky is particularly interested in the ways in which the moving image, sound and object create works that rupture the relationship between viewer and art work – and highlight the hybrid and amorphus nature of subjectivity.

Audience participation is crucial to such an enterprise and to this end Rosetzky has utilised a number of strategies to engage the audience and bring to the fore the importance of the viewer’s identity to the production of meaning. Drawing not only upon the ubiquitous language of consumer and popular culture but also on the language of modernism and classical portraiture, Rosetzky’s work – aesthetically alluring and seductive – ranges from the hand-made to the commercially manufactured. Rosetzky’s choice of two related works at the Contemporary Art Centre SA exemplify various aspects of his practice – sculpture, photography and video installation.

Self Defence (2005), an immersive installation created specifically for this exhibition, reflects Rosetzky’s ongoing interest in the ways in which design and commercial display can be used in conjunction with the moving image, photography and other visual arts practices. Combining a sense of the playful with the sombre and contemplative, Rosetzky has utilised the gallery space to create a slightly foreboding environment that explores contemporary society’s increasing culture of anxiety and paranoia. Cut-out photographs of ‘beautiful young people’ mounted on acrylic sheeting are positioned on plinths at various points throughout the gallery. Each image has been perforated using a commercial laser technique, their bodies precisely mutilated and made porous. Branches of carefully sculptured wood pierce through the holes in the bodies, penetrating their exterior. Next to each figure sits a video screen projecting found images of brooding skies and ominous environments. Scattered around the photograph and screen is a black, sandy substance, at once toxic and seductive, that alludes to disasters past and future. Large-scale video projections at either end of the gallery – images similar to those on the discrete screens, each with an evocative soundscape – intensify a sense of impending disaster and chaos, immersing the viewer with trepidation.

Nature, human artifice and technology collide in Self Defence. Rosetzky’s ‘beautiful young people’ – their flawless skin, their impossibly art-directed attire – mimic the language of fashion photography and advertising and appeal to our commercially constructed desires and aspirations, our obsession in perfection, affluence and youth. Yet there is something slightly grotesque and theatrical about these images, something subversive and decaying. Their indifferent, obtuse expressions, cross-lit with blue-ish and amber tones, appear tarnished and brittle. Punctured by hand-made gnarled branches and surrounded by unsettling images of foreboding, their carefully constructed veneers begin to undo, the inevitable chaos of the outside world breaching the borders of protection, encroaching on their well-maintained semblance of indifference.

In many ways Self Defence marks a point of departure in Rosetzky’s practice. While continuing his interest in subjectivity and identity, and extending his experimentations with inanimate and animate objects explored in recent works such as Commune (2003), Self Contained (2004) and Ink Swim (2004), this new work is more overtly critical of the relationship between political posturing and the ways in which popular and consumer culture play upon our fears and anxieties. In a time circumscribed by increasing global conflict and racial and religious tensions and misconceptions, Rosetzky has turned his attention to the relationship between political conservatism and popular culture and the ways in which they work together – to construct identities that shore up the encroaching chaos and disaster, mess and mayhem of everyday life – to maintain the status quo. But how secure and impervious are these identities? How real are these threats from which we are protected? Self Defence is open ended. Like much of Rosetzky’s work this does not provide any simple answers or solutions. As a viewer one must face our complicity in constructing and maintaining the amour that protect our insular communities from a demonised outside.

Rosetzky’s photo-collages Ella, Aaron I, Aaron II, Hamish (2004) extend the contemplative and thoughtful mood of Self Defence. The untitled series has been developed from experimenting with photo-collage and animation in his single channel video work, Without You (2003–04) commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria for an exhibition of Australian and Japanese art Living Together is Easy. Utilising a labor intensive cut and paste collage technique, Rosetzky animated over three hundred individual images to create a collective portrait of morphing faces. Working with the natural contours and lines of these faces, he has literally cut away – peeled back – the exterior identity of his subjects, mutilating the physicality of their individuality. We no longer know where one face begins and the other ends, what is beneath and what is hidden. This series uses this technique, with images of three different characters layered one upon the other to create four different individual portraits that are simultaneously ambiguous and revealing – in the artist’s words ‘beautiful and horrific’. Rosetzky is interested in the interior lives of his subjects and the complex relationship between memory and identity, the ways in which our relationships with others are incorporated into our own sense of self. This layering of relationships forms an integral and fluid part of who we are – if we peel away this exterior, what lies beneath? Where do we begin and end in relation to those around us, our environment and our past?

Both the photo-collage portrait series and Self Defence exhibit Rosetzky’s trademark attention to style and detail. In direct contrast to the inherently chaotic, thorny nature of his subject matter, Rosetzky’s appeal to our desire for seductive and seamless imagery sets up an interesting contrast between the ways in which we see ourselves and in which others see us – the complexity of human relations and the disorder of everyday life. The fragile border that fortifies us against the intrusion of an unstable world is driven by fear and anxiety and bolstered by repression and artifice. What lurks beneath our carefully constructed veneers? In what way are we complicit with the powers that feed our apprehension and distrust of the unknown?


Sarah Tutton is Curator at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne.


This article was originally published in David Rosetzky, David Haines, exhibition catalogue, Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, Adelaide, 2005. Reproduced with permission.