Monday, May 23, 2016

Review: Birchs Bay Sculpture Trail

This year marks the eleventh anniversary of the Birchs Bay sculpture trail.  Originally called ‘Benchmarking Birchs Bay’, the recent name change to ‘Art Farm Birchs Bay’ reflects the expansion of their art program, which now includes art and craft workshops and an indoor art gallery: the Old Distillery.

I’ve visited a number of their previous trails, and have watched it mature and develop into a diverse and thought-provoking exhibition. Of course, there are a few of the usual twee sculpture trail offerings, such as mosaic flowers, and stick and shell constructions. But on the whole, the current exhibition easily rivals major public sculpture events in terms of scope and artistic engagement with the surrounding environment.

It’s about a 45 minute walk through the bush. We initially wind our way through the working farm, including a pear orchard, which is quite appropriately scattered with oversized ceramic pears.  After crossing a plantation of Tasmanian native pepperberry trees, we wind our way up to the natural bush trail.  I walk with my small dog, who seems particularly attracted to the sculptures with a lingering smell (especially the caged oyster shells).  The trail is on private land and presumably relies on their café revenue to partly fund the initiative, but visitors are nonetheless encouraged to bring their dogs, their kids, and a picnic.  At one point I encounter a family of picnickers (including a happy Labrador) enjoying the incredible view over the Great Bay to Bruny Island.  For awhile, I’m followed by a family who’s playing a game of ‘guess the price of the artwork’, with the ‘answer’ printed in the accompanying catalogue.  Artwork sales are obviously important to the exhibition’s financial sustainability, but I also have a tendency to get distracted by price tags. As a result, I walk the rest of the trail without reference to the catalogue, enjoying the unexpected artwork encounters sans map. 

Dean Chatwin, Nature's Way, 2016. Image credit: the artist.
The standout for me is Dean Chatwin’s witty installation, Nature’s Way.  His sculpture mimics the design of Tasmanian street signs with one exception: like a weathervane, a gust of wind will alter the sign’s orientation.  On one hand, the structure is an unexpected aesthetic intrusion, but it’s also such an everyday object that it’s comfortingly familiar, even natural. At the time of my visit, ‘Nature’s Way’ points to a barrier of bush scrub, although it could just as easily be pointing in the direction of the working farm.  We might think we can control the world around us, but as the sign suggestions, nature will ultimately have its way.

Unlike Chatwin’s work, which deliberately stands out against its surroundings, Sally Brown’s ­­­­Web, Net, Lace (2007) has weathered and faded over the years.  The cobweb-like structure high between two trees is easily missed, particularly if you’re buried in the sculpture map.  Each year, a couple of sculptures are acquired by the owners and remain permanently along the trail, aging sympathetically to their surroundings.  There are sculptures by a number of fairly high-profile Tasmanian artists, such as Brown and Marcus Tatton.    Brown’s other permanent work is a field of metal flowers dotted around the upper trail.  Like ­­­­Web, Net, Lace, the flowers are weathering and rusting, blending with the surrounding environment despite the material’s industrial roots.

Mike Limb, Cello
I’m conflicted over Mike Limb’s descriptively titled Cello.  While the subject leaves me cold, there’s a lovely relationship between the curled strips of rusted steel around the instrument’s bridge and the scraps of bark littered around its base.  Julie Milton’s Eucalion mimics the surrounding environment more directly – a steel and acrylic version of the surrounding natural grasses.  I also enjoy Keith Smith’s Cuckoo Nest made from ‘beach float-some’, including shoes, rope, fishing nets, and hats, although I wonder if the awkwardly-located rusted metal birds are really necessary.  The sound and light elements of Edith Perrenot’s towering sculpture aren’t working on my visit, but I’m nonetheless intrigued by the cheeky figures peering out from the golden vestibules.

Keith Smith’s Cuckoo Nest (with my dog Pip)
We have a couple of high-profile art philanthropists in Tasmania who understandably receive a lot of media attention, but we’re also lucky to have a lot of smaller, privately-run art initiatives, such as Art Farm Birchs Bay.  I urge you to check it out.

This review was originally published in the May edition of Warp Magazine.

Friday, June 12, 2015

On the Recent Changes to Australian Arts Funding

I started this piece at the opening of the Venice Biennale.  It was going to be about all the tote bags I’d scored, the outrageous outfits, and my lack of party invitations.  The fact that Arts Minister Michael Brandis opened the new Australia pavilion didn’t even register until the following week when he announced massive changes to arts funding.

The changes include the establishment of the ‘National Program for Excellence in the Arts’ (it deserves inverted commas), the funding of which will be transferred from the Australia Council for the Arts (Ozco) – a move that will disproportionately and deliberately affect individual artists, particularly visual artists, filmmakers, writers, and small and/or regional arts organisations.  Tasmanian artists and audiences should be concerned.  

In Venice, Brandis basked in the reflected cultural prestige of the world’s largest visual arts event, rubbing shoulders with the Australian art world’s most influential players.  I guess it wasn’t the place to announce cuts to the very organisation that administers Australia’s involvement in the biennale.  To give him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he hadn’t decided yet.  One of the stated aims of NPEA is to encourage cultural philanthropy, and as the pavilion was largely funded with private money, perhaps it inspired Brandis’ scheme.  Unfortunately, it's only ever financial donations that are acknowledged on golden plaques and programs, not the in-kind support provided by artists who often go unpaid or underpaid for their essential work.  If we stopped participating tomorrow, the cultural economy would collapse, which explains why last year’s Sydney Biennale boycotts were so threatening to the status quo.

I did attend one party at the biennale by the way.  I wasn’t invited, but the champagne was flowing and the art was terrible.  I guess I was a welcome rent-a-crowd.  The Sheikh had evidently paid a large amount to stage the exhibition (it costs $30,000 just to register as a collateral event), but as the saying goes, money doesn’t buy taste.  Ozco isn’t perfect, but if we leave it to rich individuals to decide what is and isn’t supported, the diversity of Australia’s art scene will undoubtedly suffer.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Paris beckons

In a few months, I'll be off to Paris to stay at the Rosamond McCulloch studio at the Cite Internationale des Arts.  The studio was a bequest by the late artist to the Tasmanian School of Art (now Tasmanian College of the Arts) to allow former students to undertake residencies in the oh-so-cultural city.

My time in Paris will be spent examining the dialogue between pre-Modern art and architecture in a number of key buildings, including churches and palaces, in order to expand my existing knowledge on contemporary site-specific art practice.  My PhD thesis, which I submitted in late 2012, examined site-specific art in Australia’s public museums.  One of the aspects of site-specificity that I have become interested in, but for many reasons was unable to pursue in my thesis, is the pre-twentieth century relationship between art and architecture, as well as other models of site-specificity such as Visionary Environments (large scale installations, often defined by the maker’s lack of formal art training, and are thus often associated with Outsider Art).

When theorists define or describe site-specific art, they usually look at art from the 1960s onwards, viewing the art form as a relatively recent trend that followed the art ideals of Modernism.  However, my belief is that we can extend our knowledge on contemporary site-specific art by examining the way in which pre-twentieth century art was usually made for a particular site, purpose, and most importantly, made in dialogue with architecture.  For instance, the altar pieces that we so often see in museums, cut-off from their original environment, were not designed as stand alone artworks, but as an integral part of the church and site.  My intention for Paris is to examine the relationships between altarpiece and museum (such as the Louvre), and in sites such as the Saint Chappelle, altarpiece and church.

The two other models of site-specificity that sit outside the contemporary notion of the term are the before mentioned Visionary Environments, and the studio as museum.  For some reason France has many of the most famous Visionary Environments.  A few of the sites are close to Paris, so I will also do at least one day trip during the residency period.  The ones high on my list Ferdinand Cheval's Palais Idéal (Ideal Palace) in Hauterives, south of Lyon; Adolphe-Julien Fouré’s Les Rochers Sculptés (Sculpted Rocks) in Saint Malo, Brittany; Raymond Isidore’s la Maison de Picassiette in Chartres (an easy day trip from Paris).  These environments are built around existing structures, often using local found materials, and while they are not site-specific in the critical sense of the term, they have an interesting relationship to site.  Similarly, I am interested in examining the relationship between art and environment in Paris’ studio museums, such as the “l’atelier Brancusi” outside the Pompidou museum, which is an exact reproduction of Constantin Brancusi’s studio as dictated by the artist in his will.

My other key aim is to not turn into a blimp thanks to a surplus of eclairs and cheese. Exciting times.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Commercial Scene

Tonight I'm heading to Sydney to help set up the Constance ARI stall at the Sydney Contemporary art fair.  Constance was invited as one of two ARIs to showcase work by local emerging artists, which is an indicator of the gallery's national reputation (unfortunately, we just found out that the recognition doesn't extend to the state funding body - the gallery will not be financially supported from January next year.  But that's another story...).  I've never been to an art fair, but I've wanted to ever since reading Sarah Thornton's Seven Days in the Art World, which profiles over seven 'days' the auction, the crit, the fair, the prize, the magazine, the studio visit, and the biennale. It's an amusing snapshot at a world full of contradictions, myths, personalities, and most fascinatingly for me, the commercial art scene.  I read it in 2008, the year I commenced my PhD.  I realised that although I had an honours degree in fine arts and was a budding arts writer and artist, I really had no idea what went on in the commercial art world.  I had never been to a high-profile art auction, the Venice Biennale or an art fair, and most commercial galleries I entered made me as nervous as entering, say, an Hermès shop.

Five years on and I have a PhD, I've been to the Venice Biennale twice, and I write for Australian Art Collector. I feel more comfortable walking into a contemporary commercial art gallery (the ones with Picasso paintings on the wall like the one I ventured into on Rodeo Drive earlier this year still freak me out), and I've been to one dodgy art auction. Hell, I've even bought art from a commercial gallery, even if minor.  But I still feel very much an outsider. I am part of the academic edge of the art world; I'm a maker, a writer, a museum invigilator, an ARI committee member and, most significantly, I live at the end of the world: Hobart (or at least that's how some of the international articles about MONA like to call it). 

My first Venice Biennale visit was in 2009.  I was lucky enough to receive a travel grant from the University of Tasmania to present a paper at a conference held in conjunction with the biennale. It was during the peak visiting season - late July - and it was crowded, hot, massive, and super exciting.  My second visit was in 2011. I worked as a team leader at the Australia pavilion during the opening month.  The vernissage - the three days of private viewing before the hoi poloi are let in - was overwhelming.  It was a scene that not even Thornton's book had prepared me for.  You could smell the wealth and exclusivity. Women stumbled over the gravel giardini in their ridiculous heels, men in full suits sweated (artfully, of course) in the June sun (although one man made a point of wearing a toilet seat around his neck), and I even saw one collector walk through the curated pavilion with what was presumably their buyer, pointing at a sculpture meaningfully.  Mega yachts parked outside the giardini venue, the largest of which was occupied by a single man wearing a pair of gold speedos to match his bronzed and buffed skin. Openings were held in ornate of Venetian palaces, and the guests were largely those who had donated enough money to the art foundation in question, which essentially 'buys' you a ticket.

Will the Sydney Contemporary art fair be like the Venice Biennale? Of course not. We don't have that kind of wealth in Australia, nor the draw of the biennale itself. However, I predict I will feel like an outsider.   I'm looking forward to expanding my art education by attending the four day event.  I look forward to people watching, some of the talks (if I have time), and of course viewing the hundreds of artworks on display.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Museum as Art: site-specific art in Australia's public museums

I'm finally at the pointy end of my PhD - the bit where you're trying to decipher the doorstop Chicago Manual of Style, work out how to resize images, and battle Microsoft Word's tendency to switch back to US English spelling half way through a spell check.  I know it's not my usual blog writing style, but here's my abstract anyway:

This thesis critically examines site-specific art projects in Australian museums from the late 1960s onwards.  Despite the fact that site-specific art practice is relatively widespread, there have been few in-depth or systematic studies published on this subject, particularly in terms of its historical and theoretical foundations.  More importantly, there have been no in-depth studies explicitly on Australian site-specific art, and so my research aims to extend the existing knowledge on this art form while applying it to an Australian context. 

Because the site-specific field is vast, I narrowed my research to focus on artworks located in museums, including art, natural history, cultural history museums, historic houses and sites, and botanic gardens.  The inclusion of such a wide range of museums is in part due to the fact that the artistic projects in these institutions vary greatly.  Additionally, the comparisons between art museums, and those in which art is a (usually) temporary visitor reveal certain aspects of Australian culture, values and colonial history, than discussing art museums alone.  The title, ‘the museum as art’, refers to the role of the museum as site, subject and medium in the site-specific works of art under examination. It reinforces the significant relationship and dialogue with the museum in question - the museum is an integral part of the artwork.

The key aim of this thesis is to identify and critically analyse significant site-specific art projects undertaken in Australian museums by both local and international artists.  I also critique existing theoretical writings about site-specific art, particularly the paradigms established by Miwon Kwon and James Meyer and devise my own working models as applicable to museum-based site-specific art.   The aim is not to replace these paradigms, but to expand on existing models using local and more recent examples.  Although this thesis focuses on Australian site-specific art practice, and the way in which Australian museums construct knowledge and reflect national values, my models are equally relevant to international museums.

The chapters in this thesis are arranged thematically, centred around significant art examples which are in turn used to illustrate wider issues relating to site-specific art practice.  In analysing a large number of art projects, I have observed a range of strategies used by artists working in museums. Firstly, an artwork may respond to the physical or spatial aspects of the museum.  Artworks also frequently interact with a museum’s collection or archives, or question the institution’s representation of history or social constructions of nature.  Others mimic museum classification strategies or highlight ingrained display methods that have become normalised, almost invisible, to the average visitor.  More functionally, the work might be used by curators to enliven tired museum spaces or communicate aspects of history poetically, allowing for speculative histories or subjective responses – methods unavailable to regular historians.  Lastly, an artwork may seek to preserve intangible heritage or highlight gaps in knowledge or history, particularly when it comes to the representation of Aboriginal Australians or women.

I argue that current site-specific art practice reflects a move away from the Modernist frame, illustrated by the growing popularity of non-art museum sites and converted ex-industrial ‘raw’ spaces, particularly since the mid-1990s.  Theorists such as Kwon and Meyer tend to ignore the pre-Modernist philosophy towards art, where art frequently sat in dialogue with the site.  However, contemporary site-specific art practice, although distinctly different to the pre-Modern site/art relationship, indicates an acknowledgment and celebration of the unavoidable influence of exhibition environments on works of art.

At the start of this research, I questioned the notion of an ‘Australian art’; however, I can now demonstrate that site-specific art, more than any other art form, has the ability to address distinctly Australian concerns.  It can reveal how a nation’s museums not only reflect, but also develop and promote particular values and knowledge.  The very marginality of art practice makes it an ideal method in which to critically examine cultural assumptions and norms, and despite the risk of site-specific art projects becoming a form of institutionalised institutional critique, I have demonstrated how artworks can question institutional authority and highlight gaps in knowledge in a way that curators, historians and museum directors simply cannot.  By recording a range of artistic interventions in Australia’s public museums, and analysing them in relation to both existing site-specific theories as well as my new extended models, this thesis demonstrates not only the complexities of site-specific art practice, but also the role that art can play in interpreting, challenging and re-presenting existing knowledge as mediated by the museum.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

18th Biennale of Sydney: a walk on the island

My contribution to Ewa Partum's courtyard installation
I spent last week traipsing around the Sydney Biennale – an exhibition that seems to be growing larger every year.  The popular Cockatoo Island is used as a site for the 3rd event running, as is Pier 2/3, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), and a new addition: Carriageworks.  Unfortunately, there is nothing in the botanic gardens, which is disappointing because many of my favourite works from the last biennales were sited there.

Ricardo Lanzarini, Cockatoo Island
The artworks on Cockatoo Island this year are, on the whole, far more in dialogue with the site than previous years.  We’re so used to viewing art against ‘neutral’ white walls that the constructed environment of the Modern museum has almost become invisible.  Comparatively, when art is placed in complex semiotic sites where the surrounding environment is very obvious and at risk of overwhelming the art, it’s important that artists and curators take this into account.  Four years ago, I commented on the Biennale’s promotion of ‘more than 30 site-specific’ artworks supposedly on Cockatoo Island.  As a buzzword, site-specific art makes for good press releases, however punters are confused when the works don’t actually relate to the site.  This year’s Cockatoo Island artworks include some site-specific artworks, but far more that are suitably installed in dialogue with the site without being strictly site-specific.  For instance, Ricardo Lanzarini’s drawings in a utilitarian-looking room on the top of the island are clustered near the pipes, doorways and other existing features (The artist also has a series of intricately drawn books made from cigarette papers displayed at the AGNSW). 

The roofless structure that houses Tiffany Singh's installation
 Also notable is Tiffany Singh’s colourful wind chime artwork installed in an oddly-shaped roofless structure on the western end of the island.  From the outside, the bamboo chimes are barely audible, yet within the sandstone walled structure, accessed by a small opening that requires the viewers to crouch on entry, the hundreds of chimes clatter loudly with the movement of the wind.  On a sunny day, the dark shadows cast by the grid of coloured chimes and reverberating sound completely surrounds and involves the viewer

Tiffany Singh, Knock on the Sky Listen to the Sound

In keeping with my obsession with artworks that construct the lives of fictional people within exhibition spaces, I appreciate Iris Haussler’s He Dreamed Overtime, sited in a cracked sandstone house on the top island.  However, when I challenge the invigilators on the story of the mysterious island caretaker, it is obvious they needed a bit more lying practice.

Iris Haussler's He Dreamed Overtime (installation shot)

Nicholas Hlobo, Ingubo Yesizwe
Peter Robinson, Gravitas Lite
 I also enjoy Nicholas Hlobo’s kelp-like installation, Ingubo Yesizwe in the Docks Precinct, where it’s initially unclear whether the mound of sewn black rubber, slumped on a boat ramp, is an artwork.  There’s no fancy lighting or plinths here.   

Peter Robinson’s epic mound of carved polystyrene chains, which sit on, around, and within the rusty machinery in the Industrial Precinct, also relates nicely to the site, the (for now) white plastic contrasting with the darkened waste.  Once I get over my initial ‘yeah, so, you can carve a chain, so what?’  (yes, I’m petty), it’s clear that in its scale and material, the installation is very successful.  Nearby are Philip Beesley’s Avatar-like hanging objects, Hylozoic Series, which react to the viewers’ touch and movement.

Philip Beezley, Hylozoic Series (detail)

As one of my friends remarked, the island is populated with ‘floaty’ artworks.  Adjacent to Beesley’s work are Ed Pien and Tanya Tagaq’s hanging fabric and rope mazes (supposedly representing rain), and Monika Grzymala’s installation completed with the Euraba Artists and Papermakers, which looks like seedpods being blown away in the wind in suspended animation.  While these three installations aren’t site-specific, they sit comfortably in the tall warehouse spaces

Erin Manning, Stitch in Time - A Collective Fashioning, installation shot

Li Hongbo, Ocean of Flowers
The ‘floaty’ artwork by Erin Manning, on the other hand, looks like something unfortunate washed up from Byron Bay, where scraps of hanging fabric and tulle surround a project table set up with thread and needles.  The work on the warehouse floor below – Li Hongbo’s Ocean of Flowers - is more considered.  The clusters of colourful accordion paper sculptures form a cartoon-like landscape though which viewers are allowed to walk.  Later, we are shown the shapes that form the basis of these happy looking objects: guns and bullets.  To be honest, I’m disappointed that the work can’t just be about the objects, that it had to be made out of war-associated objects.  Like Pien and Tagaq’s artwork, the installation is made more complex than it needs to be.

The basis of Li Hongbo's paper sculptures

Jonathan Jones, Untitled (Oysters and Teacups)
 As with the 2008 biennale, the iconic island tunnels are used for site-specific artworks.  Clustered around the bend in the Dog-Leg tunnel, Daan Roosegaarde’s light poles interact with the viewers’ movement.  Jonathan Jones’ ubiquitous geometrically arranged fluorescent lights are also triggered by our passage through the shorter Tunnel 1 (his other artwork is pictured left).  Jon Pylypchuk’s Esky miner creatures digging away at the northern end of the Dog-Leg are a humorous addition to the cave-like annex. 

Jon Pylypchuk, Spend the Rest of Your Life Mining this Death and it Will Only Bring You Dispair

Near the entrance to the tunnel is part of Fujiko Nakaya’s moody fog sculpture, which follows a similar work by the artist exhibited in the 1976 Sydney Biennale.  (Now for some trivia:) The 1976 work was renamed and installed site-specifically in the sculpture garden at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra – a place that, unlike Cockatoo Island, probably doesn’t need any more fog.

Looking out of the warehouse towards Fujiko Nakaya's fog sculpture (clouds extra)

Pinaree Sanpitak, Anything Can Break, MCA
 As I wrote earlier, the Biennale includes a substantial number of works, and while the island’s scale to an extent relieves the perception of overcrowding, the MCA is not so lucky.  Crowding aside, the MCA’s exhibition is pretty disappointing.  The comparison between the excellent exhibition of the museum’s acquisitions on level 2, and the underwhelming and congested biennale installation on 1 and 3, is pretty indicative.

The Biennale exhibition at the AGNSW is separately titled In Finite Blue Planet, complying with the art world’s current love of separ at ing wo rds (and its rarely for obvious reasons).  Evidently, the exhibition’s focus is on environmental concerns, however, there seems to be far stronger threads relating to craft, labour and work.  Gao Rong’s trompe l'oeil life-sized domestic interior diorama is painstakingly hand embroidered, Hassan Sharif’s installation consists colourful piles (each a separate artwork) of obsessively wrapped found objects, and Nipan Oranniwesna’s fragile City of Ghost is an intricate map formed with scented baby powder (I witness a child write his name in it on the biennale’s second day.  Good luck, invigilators).  Then there are the delicate cut-outs: Yuken Teuya’s Notice-Forest: Six Jewels carved out of branded paper shopping bags, and Jorge’s Macchi’s altered world map.

Hassan Sharif, various works (1985-2007)

The star of the biennale is Cockatoo Island, which has been the case for the last three events.  Then again, perhaps it’s as much to do with the spectacular machinery and nostalgic industrial fetish as the art itself.

...and maybe the Island Bar.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Glover Prize, The Mercury and a massive beat up

On Friday evening, the Glover Prize - a landscape art competition initiated by the community of Evandale, Tasmania - was awarded to Rodney Pople, who painted the Port Arthur historic site in the state’s south.  In this landscape stands the figure of Martin Bryant, who in 1996 went on a mass shooting spree, killing 35 people and injuring 21, thereby adding another layer of brutal history to the already notorious ex-penal settlement.

This post is not exploring the merits of Rodney Pople’s painting per se.  Instead, I want to examine the media beat up by Hobart’s local paper, the Mercury.  The newspaper has framed this story in a way that misleads readers and incites anger.

The morning after the Glover Prize announcement, the paper led with the story ‘Bryant Painting Prize Outrage.’  This headline is misleading, simply because at the time that the story was uploaded to the Mercury website, 12.01 am, there was little outrage; no outrage in Evandale, at least.  In fact, there was no time for outrage, because it was uploaded only hours after the announcement.  Nick Clark does quote two people who were unhappy with the subject of Pople’s painting, writing that John Warren, ex-police inspector, is ‘outraged’.  Warren is then quoted as saying he’s “outraged.”  Warren also thinks that others should be ‘outraged’.  Anyway, you get the point. 

The Mercury wanted their paper-selling story on the Glover Prize, and by selling ‘outrage’ they got it (slight digression: in the Glover Prize’s nine years, this is the first time that the Mercury has really reported on it).  In the comments section under the online story, readers tell us they’re ‘outraged’ (funny that), furious, offended, and horrified that a painting that includes Martin Bryant could even be painted, let alone win a prize.  What was most worrying, however, was that people expressed their concern that Bryant’s figure took up the height of the painting.  Why would they think that his figure takes up the entire canvas, despite the fact that it’s barely visible on the actual painting until examined close-up?  Well, it’s because the Mercury cropped the image so that Bryant’s figure is far more prominent than it actually is.  Additionally, they have photoshopped the image to increase the contrast and brighten the colours.  The readers, therefore, are basing their judgement of the work on a photoshopped image and incendiary article.  To be fair, another smaller image is included with the online story – a photo of the artist and his painting in the background.  However, the painting is angled and hard to view.

The cropped and photoshopped image on the Mercury website
Rodney Pople: 'It is an eerie landscape, possessed not by the visible but by the invisible.'
Pople's painting as it appears on the Sydney Morning Herald website
Comparatively, other news outlets were less hysterical.  The Sydney Morning Herald (Martin Bryant Painting Causes Controversy; Landscape art prize for seeming idyll harbouring sinister side) and the ABC websites used the word ‘controversial’ to describe Pople’s painting, but both used the full image to illustrate the story, and neither of them used the same incendiary language that the Mercury did. Significantly, The Examiner, which is Northern Tasmania’s main paper (and therefore Evandale’s local paper), noted the painting’s notorious subject in their Saturday article (State's Darkest Hour Wins Glover Prize), but described the work relatively intelligently and quoted the judges and artist fairly.

On the Sunday, two days after the prize announcement, the Mercury (seeing it was on to something) printed yet another inflammatory article, this time by Brandt Teale: “Prize artist defiant onBryant”.  Not only did it give weight to ridiculous suggestions that the artist donate his winnings to a charity, but it also printed comments from the previous day’s online article. Now, everyone knows that for optimum mental health you shouldn’t read online news comments, let alone take them seriously.  The Mercury is notorious for its ill-informed and trolling comments, and as far as I know, has never reprinted comments in news articles.  So why did the paper give these people column space? With the exception of one (questionably) supportive comment, the reporter quotes their most ‘outraged’ readers.  Oh, and they again accompany the story with the cropped, photoshopped version of Pople’s painting.  In the comments section, the more subtle readers placed inverted commas around the word ‘artist’; others called for the painting to be burned, that what Pople had made was not art, that the judges were unqualified fools, and that it wasn’t a landscape painting because it had a person in it.  Yesterday (Monday), they found another ‘horrified’ person to interview, and ran with the headline “Killing ‘should never’ be art.”  Like the other stories, they paint the artist as heartless, intent on causing unparalleled pain to the community.  Again, the Mercury accompanied it with the cropped image.

What the Mercury has done is frame the story and public knowledge of this painting in a way that encourages controversy, anger, and what is looking like Australia’s favourite pastime: artist bashing.  We saw this same media beat-up in 2008 over an exhibition by well-known Australian photographer, Bill Henson.  It should have been a non-story, an exhibition by an excellent artist who has exhibited unchallenged in galleries around Australia and overseas, including a large survey show at the National Gallery Victoria and Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2005.  However, after a vocal activist complained about the works (without even viewing them), Henson’s photographs were confiscated by the police for further investigation, and he was labelled a paedophile by the many hysterical talkback radio callers and letter writers.  The media loved it.  One of the trashy morning shows surprised the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd with the blown-up exhibition invitation image of a naked child, to which Rudd, without taking a breath (or asking for context) judged as “absolutely revolting,” which of course fuelled the media flame further.

I’m not dismissing the pain of the Tasmanian people.  The horrific incident at Port Arthur is a sensitive issue in our relatively small community.  Many Hobartians know someone affected by the massacre and it’s added to Port Arthur’s already bloody history as a penal colony.  The painting speaks the truth in saying that Martin Bryant is and will always be part of the Port Arthur landscape, which is why it’s so important to have grown-up discussions on this topic.  Nothing is solved by censoring artworks that address difficult or controversial topics, by calling artists ‘evil’ or calling for canvases to be burned.  However, I must admit that part of me questions the necessity of a pictorial representation of Bryant’s presence, and from many of the comments on the Mercury website, it’s this literal representation that worries them.

But why, if an image of Bryant is so apparently offensive and harmful to Mercury readers, do they not question the motives of the paper when they put a full-page image of the killer on the front page every year on the anniversary of the event?  A good friend’s dad, who was injured in the shooting, told me once that he stayed home each anniversary because he couldn’t stand seeing Bryant’s face littering the city, courtesy of the Mercury.

Pople’s painting is not the first to address the Port Arthur shooting.  A recent exhibition at Hobart’s Inflight gallery focussed on the event.  Another artwork, Matt Warren’s Cantus 35, was part of the 2007 Port Arthur Project, an exhibition at the historic site with an emphasis on site-specificity and place.  His work was the only one out of 23 that addressed the more recent but no less present tragedy.  A couple of years ago, he wrote in response to a question of mine:

When responding to a place, it is important to me have some kind of empathy or
find some personal relation to it. My family may or may not have a convict history, it's
fairly unknown to me. But … there was a very distinct reason why I chose the massacre as a subject. I had been haunted by a memory from the time it happened.

Cantus 35 stemmed from his own memories of hearing the sounds of gunshots over the radio on the 28th April 1996, recorded by a dropped and therefore image-less video camera.  Sited in the Sentry Box on the picturesque waterfront, the work used a gentle composition of harmonic sounds to try and “‘exorcise’ this memory and … instant negative response to the place and … somehow give respect to those who lost their lives as a result of the massacre.’  Warren’s use of sound and the isolation of each visitor as they stepped into the tiny Sentry Box were integral to the notions of respect and peace embedded in Cantus 35.  By not drawing attention to individual victims or statistics and creating an abstracted, but meaningful soundtrack (the thirty-five tones used in the piece represented those had died in the massacre), the work drew ‘little opposition.’

Is the difference between the public reception of the work simply due to Pople’s pictorial representation of Bryant?  I doubt it.  I also doubt that the darkened painting is more harmful than the Mercury’s annual front-page portraits.  The Mercury needs to wake up to their hypocrisy and consider whether they are doing their readers, Tasmanian artists and exhibitions justice when they mislead readers and frame debate with such a deliberate intention to mislead.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The New Museum Architecture (updated)

I started forming this list in a previous post this year following a visit to a number of galleries in Rome, which all showcased innovative architecture while retaining novel elements of the site's original function, such as slaughterhouse or factory.  I noted that the identity of many new museums is very much connected to this new style of architecture, yet the declarations of ‘innovation’, ‘difference’ and in some cases ‘challenging the notion of the white cube’, are ironically very similar.  While I wrote the original post in May, the ideas had been brewing for quite some time, particularly the notion of rust fetish in architecture.  Since I wrote the post, I’ve collected a number of images to illustrate my point, and rather than add them to the old post, I thought it’d be preferable to dedicate a whole post to the features of new museum architecture.

Art Gallery of NSW
Before I start on the new museum architecture, I’d like to highlight the epitome of the old/traditional museum architecture – the neo-classical sandstone building.  This could be the National Gallery in London, the Modern Art museum in Rome, or the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney.  The latter is a classic sandstone portico entranceway similar to that of a Greek temple, is flanked by bronze statues of horses and their riders, and surrounded by the greenery of the city’s domain and botanic gardens. Before the viewer even steps inside the gallery therefore, the very exterior of the gallery has suggested notions of reverence and devotion.  I’ve examined the semiotics of the AGNSW for my PhD and could bang on about it for pages, but I’ll save you and move on to the contemporary stuff. I just want to emphasise the fact that art institutions have always conveyed messages through their architecture; the new museum style may look different but the intentions are not all that dissimilar. While the newer white-walled galleries appear relatively neutral and unobtrusive in comparison to the distinct and heavy aesthetics of the older galleries and exterior, this neutrality is merely a façade, an illusion.

I’ve been to more than one lecture or specialised tour led by Museum staff, where they’ve stressed that “we’re not the usual white cube gallery”.  One such gallery was the Istanbul Modern.  Their reasoning? The gallery, which has prime views over the Bosphorus, used to be a shipping warehouse. They’d retained the exposed pipes on the ceiling, emphasising their presence by painting them red. Yet, their walls were white, the painting areas neatly partitioned off, and the video works were tucked away in what might be called a ‘black cube’. The gallery used the same strategies of neutralising the space as most contemporary art galleries. What I found most interesting was the anxiety about being labelled a ‘white cube’ space, and perhaps the misconceptions about the term.  I think it also explains the popularity of industrial to art centre conversions, where original features are retained.  By retaining original pipes, machinery, railway tracks, roughly hewn wood pillars, scarred walls, they distance themselves from the most literal interpretation of ‘the white cube’, and the ideology explained in Brian O’Doherty’s influential text.  But maybe industrial nostalgia is the new ‘white cube’?  The art world has a rust fetish.

Here are some of the features of the new museum:

1. Angles. Not right angles, other angles.

NGV Australia,  Melbourne
Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), Melbourne

Guggenheim, Bilbao
Tel Aviv Museum of Art (source: VISI)
staircase, CaixaForum Madrid
2. Floating (or unlikely) staircases.


Macro, Rome
cage staircase, Istanbul Modern, Istanbul
Spiral Staircase, MONA, Hobart

3. The walls are mostly white, even if they’re self-aware of the white.  Sometimes they’ll have a few coloured walls just to show that they’re slightly subversive.

GOMA, Brisbane
Macro, Rome

The red to break up the white, Macro, Rome

4. (speaking of which...) A touch of red.

Ceiling, Istanbul Modern

5. Sexy concrete: polished for the floor; brutally raw or curved for the walls/exterior.


Istanbul Modern
Cer Modern, Ankara, Turkey
The Tel Aviv Museum of Art (source: VISI)
6. At least one ridiculously large room, which will often accommodate small objects.  You will look up at the skylights or beams on the roof (oh, so far, far away) like you would in a church.  The room will make you feel insignificant and humble. Art is god.

Macro, Rome
Macro, Rome
Olafur Eliasson, The Weather Project. © Olafur Eliasson. Photo © 2003 Tate, London
Olafur Eliasson, The Weather Project (2004), Tate Modern, in the turbine hall

7. They have toilets with weird sinks. You may or may not get them to function. (I wish I'd taken a photo of the Macro sinks, but I feel a bit uncomfortable taking photos in bathrooms)

Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), Brisbane

8. The building has an industrial past, popular past functions include slaughterhouses, factories, power stations or shipping warehouses:

Macro (ex-slaughterhouse, Peroni factory)

Istanbul Modern (ex-shipping warehouse)

Detached, Hobart (ex-Church)
Cer Modern, Ankara, Turkey (ex-railyards)

Tate Modern
Tate Modern, London (ex-powerstation) 
okay, it's not a gallery per se, but Cockatoo Island's a popular venue for the Sydney Biennale (ex-shipyards, gaol). It's similar to the Venice Biennale's arsenale in this way.  The use of industrial structures for temporary exhibitions is a whole other post...

Carriageworks, Sydney, multi-arts centre (the old Eveleigh Rail Yards)
Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA)
Matadero de Madrid, old municipal slaughterhouse
CaixaForum Madrid (former electric powerstation). A fantastic mix of rust, old brick, and living wall

9. Exposed plumbing or other functional parts of the gallery (also to show awareness of the white cube shiz) 

Pompidou, Paris

Istanbul Modern

MONA, Hobart

10. Rust fetish.  If the rust was not already part of the building prior to its current function as a gallery, ‘new’ rust is manufactured.  Rust fetish not only refers to literal rust, but also aged features in general - old machinery, crumbling bricks, old graffiti...

ACCA, Melbourne (new rust)
Carriageworks, Sydney
Matadero, Madrid
CaixaForum, Madrid
10. Site-specific art that responds to unusual or novel aspects of the architecture.

GOMA, Brisbane
Daniel Buren, Dance Between Triangles and Lozenges for Three Colours, Work in Situ (2010)
, Macro
Julius Popp, Bit.Fall (2007) MONA

11. A will to get visitors lost.

12. A funky gift shop, expensive restaurant, and similarly overpriced café.  It will have all three.

Cer Modern
Tate Modern (image credit: Splash Magazines)
GOMA, Brisbane (with water dragon)
Istanbul Modern (image credit: Tesker)