Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Mike Parr and a short rant

This Friday sees the opening of Mike Parr’s survey show at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG). Or at least I think it does. With no advertising, media attention or announcements I really only have word of mouth (oh and something from a friend on Facebook) to confirm that Mike Parr is indeed having a show in Hobart.

Mike Parr is one of Australia’s most well-known and respected living artists. He is known for his confronting performances (see my previous post for a description of his piece in the Sydney Biennale), where he sews his lips together, cuts the heads off chickens, or holds his finger over a flame for as long as possible. You can probably understand why I’m excited about his three-day performance Cartesian Corpse, which will see the normally fairly dormant TMAG open 24 hours a day for the duration of the event.

I will be writing on Parr’s performance and exhibition (which will be co-hosted by Hobart’s new gallery Detached) later in the week. However I thought I’d just have a quick rant about the lack of advertising on Parr’s show, simply because this in not the first time this has happened in Hobart.

Art events tend to be kept incredibly hush-hushed in Tassie. In Sydney, in contrast, announcements of art exhibitions and events can be viewed in the newspapers, on the side of buses, billboards on the waterfront, and yet down here word of mouth seems to be the preferred method of communication. To the outsider who is denied this game of Chinese Whispers, the Hobart art scene is non-existent, and yet Hobartians complain constantly that it’s hard to get art ‘out there’, that mainlanders overlook this state’s vibrant art scene and that we get little acknowledgement in the country’s numerous art magazines (although I believe that there are notable exceptions, such as Realtime and Artlink).

Take another example, for instance, the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA). Michael Edwards, the director of Contemporary Art Services Tasmania (CAST), at an exhibition opening a couple of months ago, announced that we should be very excited about all the recent developments in Tasmanian art, such as MONA, Detached, the proposed redevelopment of the TMAG, the new Peppermint Bay Gallery, and the possibility of the quarantine shed on Hunter Street being turned into a large art space with the ability to host large travelling exhibitions/ blockbuster shows (that is, if developers, excited about turning every possible building into cafes and boutique accommodation, are fended off). Yet, he said, while everyone on the mainland is excitedly watching Tasmanian, no one down here is talking about these developments. About a month later, The Australian newspaper ran a story on MONA, which alerted the buffoons at the local paper, The Mercury (ironically owned by the same company), to the fact that perhaps art could be news after all (yes, that’s right, The Mercury doesn’t cover art because it’s ‘not news’). Later that week the Mercury ran two gushing double-page spreads in the Saturday and Sunday papers on David Walsh and his impressive MONA.

It’d be wrong to focus on just the Mercury as the reason why the word just doesn’t ‘get out there’. It appears to be a symptom of what I see as an inward-looking local art scene. The Hobart art scene is vibrant, experimental, refreshingly uncommercialised, and incredibly supportive. The art scene has also given me opportunities in relation to curating, writing and my own art practice, that I’d surely not have if I were living in a city such as Sydney or Melbourne. That’s one of the reasons why I’m writing this blog, and one of the reasons why I bemoan the lack of publicity given to exhibitions such as Parr’s.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Site-specificity at the 2008 Sydney Biennale

In the previous two posts, I discussed a couple of notable issues surrounding the 2008 Sydney Biennale – gender equality (or rather inequality) and the curatorial decision to include historical artworks amongst the work of current artists. This post is concerned with site-specificity at the Biennale, and will examine the use of the term ‘site-specific’, the works that worked, as well as the use of Cockatoo Island as a venue in relation to site-specificity.

The free Biennale guide boasts that ‘in another first, the Biennale will exhibit more than 30 site-specific artists’ projects on Cockatoo Island’. Having a particular interest in site-specific art, I could hardly contain myself on the free ferry ride. The Island had a great number of artworks (which in the end, took five hours to visit all of them), and I had neatly marked out my route on the map the night before. First stop was TV Moore’s work in the Dog-leg Tunnel. Escape Carnival was made for the Biennale and is an amazing site-specific work. A friend later told me that she had entered through the other, western, end of the tunnel and had surprisingly different experience, for the work inhabits the entire long, dark and dingy tunnel with sound, with a room near (my) entrance hosting a projected image of a man eternally running through the tunnel.

Other site-specific works included William Kentridge’s I am not me, the horse is not mine, which was supposedly made for the space and features projections on every wall, accompanied by a loud and domineering soundtrack (perhaps to the detriment of Shaun Gladwell’s work downstairs). As the work, like most of the art on Cockatoo Island, is housed in an abandoned warehouse, the boarded windows, stains, and the building’s infrastructure become part of the work.

Mike Parr’s work, MIRROR/ARSE, is housed on the top floor of a run-down two-story building. As you climb the stairs from the entrance, ominous sounds welcome you to what I easily describe as a house of horrors. Many of the small dusty rooms, with wiring exposed, holes in the walls and the odd seagull skeleton in the corner, host videos made throughout Parr’s career. The shrieks, screams, moans and crashes that echo throughout the building come from these often confronting videos, which document performances where Parr sews his mouth shut, holds his finger over a candle flame, beheads chickens, and chops off his (fake) ‘arm’, to name a few. If that isn’t enough to turn the stomach, your sense of smell takes a beating too, courtesy of the bathroom filled with buckets of urine; which, on my second visit had formed a skin on the surface of the liquid. On both occasions, I left the building feeling pretty unwell.

Now, I’ve had a couple of discussions with people regarding the site-specificity of Parr’s work. His use of a single title to describe the entire building indicates that even though the videos have been previously shown as single works, the building as a whole is a new work, whereas others believe that the building is a mini survey show. However, I feel it is important to take into account, too, Parr’s use of the building, the derelict structure, the bird remains, the bathroom, and his thoughtfully placed videos, some of which nestle against urinal walls, or sit behind bar-like structures. The videos have been re-presented in a noxious, repellent space that surrounds the viewer with nauseous stench, spine-chilling sounds, and some videos that I honestly couldn’t stay and watch they were so unnerving. In addition, as I made my way from room to room, the ancient dust crunching under my feet with each step, I found my anxiety levels rising. The trepidation I felt was in part due to the fact that I was fearful of what was in the next room, but also the sheer number of videos and sensual beatings; and even though there were fellow viewers in the building, I also felt strangely alone. The work is experienced in the existing site, and my experience of the artwork, which I've just described to you (my emotions, physical reaction, reading of the videos en masse, and total interpretation of Mirror/Arse), was very much determined by the site.

Another work was Vernon Ah Kee’s Born in this Skin, situated in the old toilets, suitably near Parr’s work. Rows of closely spaced toilet bowls line one side of the room, the graffitied, stall walls ripped away and tied up at the end of the bathroom revealing more homophobic, sexist and racist scrawling. The sign outside the bathroom rather diplomatically warns that ‘this room contains written and pictorial images from the industrial period of Cockatoo Island that may offend[;] these are in the form of historical graffiti.’ The statement makes it sound quite tame. The floor on the other side of the divided room is partially flooded, and like Parr’s work, the room definitely makes your stomach turn with its ancient stench. I don’t know if Ah Kee moved the stalls - the dust was disturbed on the floor surrounding the exposed toilets, so it is likely. In the case of Born in this Skin, Ah Kee’s work relates to the site on a number of levels – firstly by using the actual building as the basis of his artwork; by highlighting the ‘historical graffiti’ as it’s described, we are made aware of the island’s history as both a prison and shipyard, and more generally calls attention to the underlying racism that still exists in Australian society no matter how much John Howard or Kevin Rudd denies it. An indigenous Australian, Vernon Ah Kee’s work frequently critiques contemporary Australian culture, particularly the ‘black/white dichotomy’ as he describes it.

Cockatoo Island is a loaded location, unlike the comparatively neutral white walls of the traditional art gallery. It is a fantastic space, and as I wandered around the island, I imagined the wonderful things I could create if given the opportunity to make work there. The history of the Island, along with the physically challenging buildings and spaces make it a hard location in which to place non-site-specific artworks; and unfortunately, while the programme claims that there are ‘more than 30 site-specific’ works on the Island, I believe that only seven works could be confidently identified as site-specific. The works by Jannis Kounellis, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Micol Assael, Vernon Ah Kee, and the before-mentioned TV Moore, Mike Parr, and William Kentridge responded to the site in either a formal, social, conceptual or contextual sense.

Many of the other thirty artworks were completely lost and overwhelmed by the space - if I were one of these artists I’d be pretty pissed off with the curator. For instance, the space in which Emory Douglas’ work was exhibited, was totally inappropriate for his 1970s activist posters, newspapers and films; the space actually worked against these historical items and as a result the important power of Douglas’ images and concepts was lost.

This raises the question: why was the word site-specific used so prominently in the press releases, and programs? Perhaps it was the curator’s intent that more of these works were to be site-specific – but that doesn’t apply to the significant number of historical works on the Island. The programme would have also been printed after the works were finalised so there was plenty of time to change the introductory page. The more likely answer, unfortunately, is that ‘site-specific’ is a bit of a buzzword in contemporary art, and the term is widely misused. Miwon Kwon, in the introduction to her book on site-specificity writes that the term ‘has been uncritically adopted as another genre category by mainstream art institutions and discourses’. She claims that the term is

conspicuous in a diverse range of catalogue essays, press releases, grant applications, magazine reviews, and artist statements today; it is applied rather indiscriminately to art works, museum exhibitions, public art projects, city arts festivals, architectural installations; and it is embraced as an automatic signifier of “criticality” or “progressivity” by artists, architects, dealers, curators, critics, arts administrators, and funding organizations.

Indeed, it seems that the Biennale organisers have been lured into misusing this word perhaps by the need for 'criticality'. However, I hope in 2010 this will be different - that the Biennale will utilise Cockatoo Island again, this time embracing the significance of the historic site.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A hierarchy-less Biennale?

The curatorial premise ‘Revolutions: forms that turn’ for this year’s Sydney Biennale wasn’t so much of an interest to me as the decision to include historical works amongst new art. The inclusion of works such as Duchamp’s assisted readymade Bicycle Wheel; Manzoni’s Artists Shit; Fischli and Weiss’ photographs of their wacky balanced objects; revolutionary posters and videos by activist Emory Douglas; documentation of John Cage’s 4’3”; and early video works produced in the 60s and 70s by artists such as Valie Export, Jerry Abrams, Dan Graham and Mary Kelly.

The old and the new works are mixed together and so there is no hierarchy placed on the works. To distinguish the historical from the newer works, it is necessary for the viewer to read the date pinned up on the wall (or, of course, the viewer might have prior knowledge).

So why am I so enthusiastic about this curatorial strategy? Well firstly, I believe that this strategy questions the current and ongoing emphasis on originality, and the idea that all art should be a 'proposition' (as conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth called it), which challenges the meaning and boundaries of art. By mixing up the historical and contemporary works, the modern and the postmodern, the various styles and movements, the concept of a linear history is tested. I was surprised by many of the works shown in the Biennale – works that I might have guessed were made very recently were in fact made half a century ago, and vice-versa. Maybe we haven’t made much ‘progress’, maybe those ‘boundaries’ that we’re constantly challenging don’t exist, perhaps 20th and 21st century art doesn’t have to be thought of as having a linear history. And this need not be a negative thing.

How tiring it is when you make a work, a work created in your own head, your own original idea, only to discover that someone made it five, ten, twenty, or even (perhaps a little less likely) a century ago. You’d never seen the work before last week when your friend or colleague showed you an image of this fateful artwork on the web or from a book. Shit. You can’t make the work now, you can’t exhibit it in that gallery that you’ve secured and paid for in four months time, as people might think you’ve copied another’s idea (even though you know that there are distinctive differences between your and that other artist’s work). Will they believe you?

Will we (have we?) run out of ideas? I mean there can’t be an endless supply of ideas, can there?

Going back to the Sydney Biennale…
What the exhibition demonstrates is that there is not necessarily a clear-cut distinctition between modernism and postmodernism (maybe there is no such thing as postmodernism?), that to claim that art has a linear history is flawed and misleading, and that perhaps originality and constantly ‘pushing the boundaries of art’ is not only not all that it’s cut out to be, but it’s also impossible.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Gender Representation at the 2008 Biennale of Sydney

In the previous post, I discussed the gender (in)equality in Hobart art galleries. In this post, I want to draw attention to the quite incredible differences in gender representation at this year’s Biennale. I counted just 38 female artists to the 116 male artists in the Artist Index of the 2008 Biennale of Sydney guide. In fact, as Bec Dean points out in her Column 2 article, 22 per cent of the artists are also dead male artists – a similar number to the number of women, dead or alive.

The director of this year’s Biennale – Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev addresses the issue of gender quotas in her catalogue essay, but argues that it isn’t relevant anymore:

“I have no quota for gender participation; however, being one of the last of the generation of people who emerged when feminism was crossing structuralism and psychoanalysis to produce the body of thought around post-feminism, I am naturally interested in these sorts of questions. I believe that these days, sometimes male artists are post-feminists in their practice… and sometimes female artists are extremely patriarchal in the authoritative way in which they might create a frontal, detached object of contemplation, which is not a feminist endeavour. So I would say that we have gone beyond gender quotas and it more about whether the work is post-feminist or not.”
Christov-Bakargiev, pp.31 2008 Biennale of Sydney Catalogue

I’d like to think we’re beyond gender quotas too, but when there are such discrepancies in the number of female versus male artists, it highlights the fact that perhaps they are necessary. I can’t even begin to imagine the furore that would’ve erupted had a male director curated such as small percentage of women into the biennale – does the fact that a woman has chosen the artists have an effect on the (seemingly) quite acceptance of such inequality? I certainly haven’t read anything other than a paragraph of Bec Dean’s article on the subject.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Gender representation in Hobart galleries Winter 08

I have tallied up the number of female and male artists shown at a number of high-profile contemporary art galleries this winter to examine the gender imbalance in exhibiting contemporary artists. I have used the Hobart Winter Gallery Guide for this project, so there may be a few mistakes. Unsurprisingly, there are many more male artists than female overall, and it also appears that you are more likely to get a solo show if you are male. Apparently, there are more female Higher Research Degree Graduates at the Tasmanian School of Art than male graduates, so there is no shortage of practicing female artists. So, what are the excuses?

The galleries included in the tally are: Carnegie, Plimsoll, Criterion, Inflight, and Bett Gallery

I have excluded CAST for now as their listing in the Winter Guide doesn’t list individual artists and their website is down. I have also excluded 6a for similar reasons. The TMAG is a bit hard to calculate, but off the top of my head I think that the last two solo exhibitions there – Leigh Hobba and Ricky Maynard- were both male artists. The Salamanca Arts Centre is a bit hard to list because of its extremely varied program and often short shows. The gallery that triggered this count – Despard – is also excluded because they don’t list individual artists in the Gallery guide. I’m hoping to start including these other galleries in the future but I thought I’d just get these numbers up first.

(Note: collaborative artists are listed as individuals. That is, a work made by two female artists, both artists will be counted as individuals.)

Okey dokey here are the numbers:
Female 4
Male 0
(Two females had solo shows)

Female 4
Male 9
(Excluding 1+2 Architecture)

Female 1
Male 4
(Two males had solo shows)

Female 4
Male 3
(Two male and one female had solo shows)

Bett Gallery
Female 1
Male 6
(Two males and one female had solo shows)

Female 14
Male 22

Total Solo:
Female 4
Male 6 (8 if you count TMAG)

Carnegie had a definite gender balance, but it bucked the trend by being dominated by Female artists.

Plimsoll, despite all of the University’s equality statements, has more than twice the number of exhibiting male artists to female artists.

Criterion and Bett, our two commercial galleries have a definite swing towards the penis. Significant?

Inflight is perhaps the most balanced. I suspect that being an ARI, Inflight gets a lot of artists directly applying for shows, as opposed to being curated or selected for shows. What does this tell you about curatorial practices in Hobart? Should I be recording the gender of curators too perhaps?

As for TMAG… now that there is a female curator of art (well there will be in a couple of months), we might see a couple of female artists being granted solo exhibitions.

Once the CAST website is back up and I get info from 6a, I'll post some updated results. I'm looking forward to seeing what Spring shows us too...

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

An everything-is-opening-at-once night. aka don't you wish you hadn't made a vow not to drink tonight...

Last Friday was a bit of a bonza opening-wise. I only made it to four, but I think that’s a pretty good effort.

First off was Bill Hart’s PhD submission at the Plimsoll Gallery, which includes some of the best new media art I’ve seen in a long time. Bill uses text to create images that change and evolve. The text is often minute and in many of the works, the resulting image looks like it has been hand drawn with pastels or crayons. The handcrafted aesthetic seems completely oppositional to the way in which these images are created, as Bill uses complex computer programming to make his art. Many of the televisions are positioned behind white-painted frames, so that only the screen is visible to the viewer. This seems an interesting and deliberate decision, an attempt to avoid the connotations of the LCD screen, which are all too commonplace in galleries today. The frames additionally complement the ‘drawn’ effect of the images, and while the frames might have seemed a tad clich├ęd and over the top if they had surrounded a regular drawing, the very physicality of the painted wood somehow seems to enhance the glowing images contained within.

I find Bill’s work hypnotic. Words weave their way across multiple screens and for some reason I am reminded of the sperm scene in Look Who’s Talking. Others consist of words coming together to form vaguely familiar forms, one of which looks like the artist’s own head. Near by, ancient-looking script morphs into various hand tools – spanners, nails and hammers; and an adjacent screen, instead of using letters to create images, uses pale crescent-shaped forms, which look suspiciously like toe nail clippings. Etch.

It’s a shame that Bill’s submission is only open to the public over the weekend, and I hope that he has another opportunity to exhibit this body of work so that more people can see it.

The next opening on my trail is at Despard Gallery. The ‘Winter Show’ I think it’s called. It includes a number of emerging artists that Despard is considering representing. The reason why I don’t really want to dwell on this exhibition was that it only includes one female artist out of (if I recall correctly) six participants. I know that the art world is still predominantly a ‘boy’s club’ even though it’s a bit uncool to broach the subject, however when you visit ‘up and coming’ exhibitions such as this, where there is a blatant disproportion of men to women, it’s a reminder that equal opportunity does not exist in the visual arts. I’m considering starting a gallery watch – tallying up the number of women and men artists by some of the more high-profile Hobart galleries.

Trudging up Elizabeth Street to Bett gallery now... I can’t remember the name of the artist, and barely remember the photographs on exhibition, as they are quite frankly that unremarkable. So I’ll move onto the next gallery: the ARI 6a.

Amy Spiers’ Cubby consists of massive number of boxes and sheets stacked and arranged to create an adult sized cubby. 6a’s unconventional shape is an asset to works such as this. The entire gallery space has been turned into a cardboard environment with narrow hallways and low ceilings formed out of draped sheets. I feel myself regressing and have a strange compulsion to curl up in a foetal position in a secluded corner.

There are no children there when I visit (which is pretty late in the evening) and I suspect that they’d be a bit disappointed by this watered down version of an exciting concept. There just aren’t enough tunnels, nooks and crannies, narrow pathways and opportunities to get lost. It’s truly an adult cubby.

Outside 6a, the usual bbq and beer is served, but instead of setting up the barbie alongside the ancient but beautiful abandoned shed, it’s set up on the flat ground on which the building used to stand. Unfortunately, instead of trying to save it, the authorities apparently decided to knock the structure down. Nevertheless, the 6a crew have made good use of the new space, setting up a projector on the side of the gallery for a Singstar competition. It’s amusing to see something so daggy as a karaoke sing-off at Hobart’s (value judgement warning) ‘coolest’ gallery.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

June exhibitons in Hobart: 6a, Inflight, CAST

It seems appropriate that this blog is born in a great month of art in Hobart.

At 6a Gallery, Trudi Brinkman's show On the Other Side of the Mountain is a strangely amusing combination of video, installation and self-contained sculptural works.

The mountainous wood and plastic construction positioned in the entrance to the gallery, features in the video piece, which shows the artist taking it for a ‘walk’ around the streets surrounding the gallery. The usually busy North Hobart restaurant strip is eerily dark and devoid of cars, which is convenient as the plastic mound is nearly the width of the traffic lane. The image of the artist solemnly leading around the large, but evidently fragile, structure has a ridiculousness that cannot be ignored, and I found myself chuckling as I watched the projected image.

Other works included a heavy-looking plaster mountain hung from the ceiling by large leather straps. In the crater-like hole at the top of the mountain, a tiny wooden chair is nestled, and like the video work, I found this work quaintly humorous. Nearby, another work uses a tiny chair, which is both incorporated into and suspended from the end of a bended wooden stick. The work is easy to miss as it’s above normal head height, however the stick is brutally attached to the wall with a couple of pieces of gaffer tape, which I suspect have been carefully placed. Trudi’s love of hands-on making is obvious in this show, and despite the fact that most of the works vary dramatically in medium and aesthetic, On the Other Side of the Mountain is a beautifully unified show.

The other Hobart ARI, Inflight, has two exhibitions on at the moment. One is a joint exhibition called Out of Home by photographers Shea Bresnehan and Nicole Robson, and the other is Revue des Deux Mondes by sculptor Lucy Bleach. Shea and Nicole both completed honours in Photography last year at RMIT and the Tasmanian School of Art, respectively, and their work is united by the domestic, although in very different ways. Shea’s work includes morbid scenes of abandoned furniture and shadowed houses, creating dark moods through her manipulation of light. Nicole’s lightboxes on the other hand, show multiple images of the same small bedroom, although in each image the bedroom has been altered in its decoration. It seems incomprehendable that someone would go to the trouble of changing the decor of a room, from the wallpaper and curtains to the bedspread and ornaments, just for a single photo; yet with the exception of the bed and side-table, this is exactly what Nicole has done. As a result, each room has a different personality, and you could almost imagine the person who might have chosen that ghastly blue and white striped wallpaper with matching curtains, or the kitsch horse print above the bed, the frilled lampshade or the psychedelically patterned bedspread. At the same time however, the images seem highly constructed – Nicole’s taste veers towards the kitsch, and with some of the rooms it is hard to image that anyone could have such bad taste. I suspect that it is the embrace of the kitsch, the artificiality and incredible amount of labour invested in creating these images that actually attracts me to Nicole’s photographs.

As adjoining exhibitions, Out of Home and Revue des Deux Mondes work well together. The freestanding wall that Lucy has built in the centre of the gallery is approached from the edge, so that the viewer has to choose which side to examine first. I choose to walk around to the left, and am confronted with layers of hard packed clay in various earthy colours. The other side is made up of lightboxes which show shelves of old journals, one of which is called Revue des Deux Mondes. The scale of the texts, and the nature of the lightbox made the books look too real, similar to the uncanny feeling I got looking at Nicole and Shea’s work.

The other show I want to quickly note is Companion Planting, which just finished at CAST. Curated by Jack Robins, it features the work of Dean Chatwin, Amanda Shone, Lucy Bleach (again), Raef Sawford and Michelle Cangiano. I’m getting a bit sleepy so I’ll just mention Dean’s work, which stands out from the rest. On massive slab of concrete in the centre of the gallery, a hose and a battered-looking bubbler sits spilling out water, which flows away off the slightly tilted slab seemingly to nowhere. The topical work comes at a time of increasing water shortages and restrictions in Australia, and reminds me of my childhood when many people regularly hosed their concrete driveways to get rid of fallen leaves, seemingly oblivious to the fact that concrete doesn’t grow – no matter how much you water it!

Phew! In the future, I probably won’t be commenting on three exhibitions at once, as I think short and sweet is probably adequate. It was only because of all these great exhibitions being on at once, that made me want to write about Hobart art and thus inspired this blog. Hopefully local art will continue to be as inspiring.

Oh and I’m sorry if I have grammatical or spelling errors, in the interests of more, quick posts, you might have to put up with a few typos! Cheers, E