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.