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.