It’s Archibald season, so if this issue lacks its usual rigour, be mindful of our distraction. Your Stammers have just emerged from two weeks huddled around a transistor radio, listening for any forecast of what excellence and sheer invention we might expect from the nation’s most prescient art prize, and awaiting the announcement of which artist is painting at the very vanguard of contemporary art. We took turns holding the aerial to the sky, and slept in shifts. The unbearable apprehension and hope of those days dissolved our differences and bonded us for life, in a way that recalled the lead-up to last year’s US presidential election—we prayed for reward of equivalent magnitude.
All right, yes, I’m joking. I’ll write nothing more on the reliably uninspiring Archibald because a) one should regard with suspicion those opinions one shares with Christopher Allen, and b) as a target for invective, it’s pretty low-hanging fruit.
When it comes to taking the piss out of the art world, no one boasts so comprehensive an arsenal as Richard Bell. Following are just three of his weapons, on show at MUMA’s Richard Bell: Lessons on etiquette and manners:
1. The cheap shot
Playing a Freudian therapist in Scratch an Aussie (2008), Bell is asked by his own therapist why he became a psychiatrist. His reply? To offset expenses he incurred producing work for the (notoriously mean) Biennale of Sydney.
2. The Louis Theroux
In Broken English (2009), Bell weaves through the crowd at a lavish GoMA opening wielding a microphone and all the propriety of an unhooked grenade. From the art world’s who’s who—happy to momentarily indulge a famous black artist—Bell solicits insights on the idea of an Aboriginal treaty. Stunned interviewees leak their inner dickheads.
3. The sting in the tail
Into the neat, accordion-style folder that I imagine he owned, Freud would have filed the ironic re-appropriation of Bell’s theorem (Trikky Dikky and friends) (2005) and the famously unsettling idiom ‘Aboriginal art—it’s a white thing’ of his Scientia e metaphysica (2003) under ‘tendentious humour’ for the weight and seriousness of their content. Bell’s acerbic, penetrating indictment of the categories which underpin Australian art production and reception is one of the great contributions to our nation’s critical discourse.
That Bell’s art is his passion, his medium for anarchic expression and his bread and butter adds a rich ambivalence to its humour. It was largely because he had been a finalist in several Australian art prizes that we were left aghast by the somewhat unorthodox method he employed to determine the winner of the Sulman—Archibald’s awkward cousin—two years ago. Suffice that Bell is as likely to be named on a future judging panel as Kanye West is to be encouraged to speak without autocue on a live-to-air telethon for survivors of a natural disaster. To his delight.
Alex Vivian has been making work at home. Watching the TV, in front of the fan, making things he’s collected go through processes. He conditions things. The works in this show are four small collages on ‘snack plates’ atop $2-shop canvas stretchers and a hat on a pedestal. The collages use a lot of materials to build up their presence. At first view from across the room they read like paint, deep, murky and worn. There is no paint, but Vaseline over square patches of coloured fabric gives a similar impression. Op shop jumpers, polar fleece and the nose of Goofy (which appears like the coarsest Band-Aid ever) are treated with Vaseline, dirt and toilet paper. The hat too has been thrown in the washing machine with a handful of toilet paper, making it wilt and abstract.
The process is one of public sublimation for Vivian. The snack plates he collects in Melbourne second-hand shops have a hypnotic bodily formality to them and a serial nature, alluding to masses of eaters. The toys and jumpers are like skins. Collectively, the rubbed-in dirt, Vaseline and toilet paper are the grubbiness of shared pasts. These abandoned and collected things feel frozen in time, ready for hell. Through his processes Vivian extends and amplifies the decay of their ‘lives’ within the gallery’s white walls.
In May 1985 an Australian woman and her husband working for the UN were kidnapped in Pakistan and held hostage. At some point during the months of search and negotiation the Australian Government flew the woman’s parents to the Afghan border and an area they believed the hostages to be. The helicopter touched down and the woman’s father stood looking out at the mountains. After a while he called, ‘Hello’.
I thought about this call out into space after seeing Danae Valenza’s call-and-response work in North Melbourne. Valenza’s operetta reinterpreted Kyu Sakamoto’s 1961 pop hit ‘Ue o muite arukō‘. Also in 1985, the Japanese crooner was killed in the Japan Airlines Flight 123 crash, the largest ever single aircraft crash. It lends a cruel irony to the title of his hit single, translated as ‘I will walk looking up’ (and continuing, ‘so that the tears won’t fall’).
Two sopranos sung Valenza’s work to each other across Errol Street, one standing on the balcony of the Town Hall Hotel above regulars in the bar, and the other in an upstairs window of the opposite building. A cappella singing is hard to beat for a spine tingle. The unmediated medium—straight from the heart or at least the sternum. The simplicity of two people singing to each other went down easy in the quiet Saturday afternoon when most people in earshot were picking up some milk or putting on a load of washing at the laundromat.
It might have been a background accompaniment to your steak Diane at the Town Hall or the reason for your visit to Errol Street. Valenza’s work was without presumption that it had something to teach or that you might be better off having heard it (‘benevolent’ public art is my pet hate). The inconsequentiality of a tune sung and the deep lightness of a pop song made this bit of public art poetic not pushy. This was the anti-declaration voice.
The public intimacy of the voice was also in the reading of Fayen d’Evie’s text work ESSENTIAL MAKE-UP REPAIRS/I asked her if she had a favourite perfume and she replied ‘Chances, by Chanel’. An actress read the narrative to a packed front gallery at the opening of Can’t quite pin it down at TCB earlier in the month. The text recounts in third person the experiences of a transsexual woman over the course of many years and relationships while she becomes herself.
In the context of an abstraction show, and one of all women, this narrative helped refocus what was happening on the TCB gallery walls—abstraction working hard to get out beyond the break of the easily known and the clearly defined. d’Evie’s text work spun gender and abstraction outward into wider fields.
Can’t quite pin it down (Fayen d’Evie, Suzie Idiens, Mia Kenway, Heidi Kozar, Fiona Morgan, Renne Jaeger), TCB, Melbourne, 6 – 24 March 2013.
The whole lot: ‘Theatre of the world’ at MONA
The simplest signs or gestures, like […] lines of paint or holes, whether they come from an Aboriginal woman artist, or from Papua New Guinea, or from an Italian artist, Lucio Fontana, can all become symbols of the whole of the totality, that is, the representation of immaterial life.
Jean-Hubert Martin, 2012.
Responding to prompts to describe what she painted, the late Anmatyerre painter Emily Kame Kngwarreye famously stated, ‘(the) whole lot … that’s what I paint’.
This eliptical statement can be traced throughout the considerable literature on Kngwarreye’s work. It’s generally established that she was referring, in a holistic sense, to Alhalkere, her traditional country, and all that it embodied to a senior Anmatyerre woman of her generation.
But the provocation that her words hold for an art world inflected by the historical dominance of modernism still endures, a kind of ghost that haunts her work’s reception and points to another, more fraught possibilty.
Here ‘the whole lot’ becomes a statement of affinity, proof of art’s universal aspect.
This would go something like, ‘painting, and in particular abstraction, can heroically embody everything, even as it swings closer and closer to an apparent nothingness’.
This ‘doubling’—evident in so much work like Kngwarreye’s—is endlessly fascinating but it ultimately does your head in. The contradictions are almost immediately compounded by the historical anxieties that are still so apparent in Australia. So it’s not abstraction, but it is, or it is abstraction, but it’s not.
In his brilliant, sprawling exhibition Theatre of the world, just closed at MONA, Jean-Hubert Martin not so much ignored these difficulties as conflated them. Prevailing categories were endlessly dismantled only to be recast in new light, opening the doors to a kind of free-associative rollercoaster of sights and sensations.
He said somewhere that ‘the pleasures of a museum should be like that of a concert hall, or theatre’. I’d hazard that his exhibition was more unique than either; a dizzying experience where a kind of naïve enchantment quickly became the only common baseline.
On Martin’s stage a line is never just a line and art’s universal aspect is a given. Paintings like Kngwarreye’s become nodes within a vast network that traces new, more propositional ways of thinking through time. As an exhibition you might have hated it for its audacity if it hadn’t succeeded in such a compelling and entertaining way.
Steve McQueen crossed over in 2008 with Hunger. Gillian Wearing did it in 2010 with her doco/art film Self made, which got neither a major release or a spot in a film festival in Melbourne. On 17 March, at LongPlay in North Fitzroy, Doc(c)o Club returned with a screening of Wearing’s film.
A couple of friends-slash-film-making-colleagues have recently started this film club. Modeled on the reading-group-cum-book-club phenomenon, Kim Munro and Amanda Kerley began Doc(c)o Club with the idea of screening seminal, rare and innovative films that could generate discussion and dialogue. While Doc(c)o Club centres around screening and discussion, Amanda and Kim’s other project, Camera Buff Movie Makers, brings together makers interested in the production of short, essayistic films that question the limitations of documentary making. With funding for documentary film-making becoming harder to get, these projects have provided a way for Amanda and Kim to focus attention and help grow divergent ways of thinking about and telling non-fiction stories.
Amanda and Kim have both engaged in documentary practice. Kim began her foray into the field with the short musical documentary, The rise of Leatherman (2008), following this with Nerve (2011), a made-for-television (in particular the ABC) documentary about the London-based Australian artist, Paul Knight, and his project to find two strangers interested in having sex upon meeting. Together, Amanda and Kim have worked on the short campaign documentary Save the Hope Street bus (Keep our hope alive), made last year following State Government funding cuts which saw the axing of the shortest bus route in Melbourne. The ‘economically irrational’ cuts to the service meant some 150 elderly citizens could no longer be self-sufficient.
Gillian Wearing’s Self made is a cross-over film. By utilizing processes and approaches not unlike her previous works, Wearing made a documentary film that not only traverses a kind of self-help, cathartic-reality TV genre but also a film that, in the end, tends to the dramatic theatrical. Wearing’s doco becomes drama as she weaves together scenarios determined by the film’s own participants and the workshops they have participated in with Sam Rumbelow, a method acting teacher. Scenarios involve a man who has planned his own death and identifies with Mussolini as his on-screen alter ego, a depressed and repressed middle-aged woman who becomes the heroine of a 1940s love story (this reminded me somewhat of Claude Chabrol’s 1970 film Le boucher), and the complicated relationship between a daughter and father, which is replayed via the restaging of Shakespeare’s King Lear. The process of fictionizing self-emanated facts highlights the difficulty of representation—in particular, Wearing’s participants’ complex relationships with themselves and the world.
The participants’ privilege of being able to cathartically engage with their past or present internal conflicts and then reshape that conflict via method acting reminded me of Salvoj Zizek’s 2011 article ‘Shoplifters of the world unite‘, published in the LondonReview of Books. The text examines the sloganless actions of the London rioters reacting to the shooting of Mark Duggan and their relationship to the European debt crisis through Zizek’s typical Marxist-Hegelian lens—those outside organized social space express discontent through ‘irrational’ outbursts of destructive violence. The rioters’ unspeakable and unrepresentable conflict with the present eventuated in several days of violence and looting; this was a space between rational and irrational, the representable and the unrepresentable, tentative and potentially volatile.
If Wearing’s film can be considered a fictional cinematic portrait of the lives of seven Londoners, I see a parallel with Colleen Ahern’s exhibition Cortez the Killer at Neon Parc this month (previously written about by Hannah Mathews for Stamm). This two-year project has seen the production of more than thirty portraits of a man based on the Neil Young song of the same name, a man Colleen can only imagine. The song references Hernán Cortez, a spanish conquistador who conquered Mexico for Spain in the sixteenth century. The song utilizes a historical narrative and then shifts to what seems like a personal first-person narrative. Colleen has painted the image of this man she cannot see and of whom there is no photographic portrait in existence.
Oil paint can be a slippery, manipulative medium. Sometimes the portrait is a collaged mash-up of faces, another is clearly a painting of someone (whom I am privileged enough to know is Colleen’s daughter) masked with a taped-on moustache and goatee. In the exhibition, we are presented with thirty questions of what a portrait is, what it can and what it can’t be, whether finely glazed and reminiscent of a Velásquez or loosely painted, facial features rendered awkward. I can’t help but think of the Shroud of Turin, or Robin Williams’s character Harry in Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry, a man who literally slips out of focus: portraits, pictures and leaps of faith.
In the end, through these works Colleen forces us to make our own assumptions as to who is being depicted and we name them accordingly: the Dave Grohl one, the Alex Vivian one, the Tony Abbott one. What we are left with, perhaps, is the melancholic loss embedded within an endless project. Painting a portrait is difficult at the best of times, but painting the portrait of someone whom one has to imagine, building the face, the structure, the tonality, the touch, is surely near impossible. Colleen gives us thirty paintings about the impossibility of portraiture and representation and the challenge of historical memorialization. Her serialized, fictional portrait of one person becomes a collection of individual portraits of a faceless many.
Note: Kim and Colleen are both very good friends of the writer. Gillian is not.
Colleen Ahern, Cortez the Killer, Neon Parc, Melbourne, 13 March – 6 April 2013.
(1) Something something video something was an exhibition curated by Blair Trethowan and Jarrod Rawlins and presented at Artspace, Sydney, in 2003 and Uplands Gallery, Melbourne, in 2002.
‘Exhibitions that don’t have an inventive display feature are doomed to oblivion’, says Hans Ulrich Obrist. ACCA rebuilds its exhibition formats all the time, every time. There’s never been a baseline for its architecture or ambition, no opportunity for being nil, no bare bones—although ‘tin shed’ might suggest otherwise. Martin Creed’s The lights off (2005), was perhaps the nearest this gallery came to bare bones, but even then the lights were only turned off down the back in the art spaces.
New13 suffers from this lack of emptiness. Do architects design for emptiness? Can exhibition designers empty a space? Surely artists are concerned with gaps and disparities—slow lanes, fast lanes, material dexterity. The always-on hum of production-jazz adds a fog to any space. The artists in New13 seemed caught in the ACCA format, rather than any chance of the other way round.
ACCA was running a radio advertisement for New13 that I heard on 3RRR and the voice-over went something like, ‘come and see the art stars of tomorrow’. You have to be kidding?
From an artist’s perspective it’s worth asking, what is the point with New13? What is being learned or invigilated? Alex Martinis Roe, for example, might be better served by being included in the more conceptually defined Gertrude Contemporary exhibition Loosely speaking. Conversely, any of the Gertrude exhibiting artists might have been commissioned for New13. As an event, it could have paralleled something like Action/response in North Melbourne last month. Shock-horror, New13 could have comprised women exclusively, whereupon this impertinence might finally have had a serious structural airing (celebrations aside).
Melbourne’s fifteen years of boom-time museum building must surely be over. There are now so many larger scale art institutions: RMIT, Ian Potter Museum of Art, ACMI, NGV Australia and International, ACCA, TarraWarra, Heide and MUMA (I think that was the chronology), all of them entirely capable of affecting and nurturing content. So now, or soon, there is a chance again at an old phase, where priorities go back to content.
New13 (Benjamin Forster, Jess MacNeil, Alex Martinis Roe, Sanne Mestrom, Scott Mitchell, Joshua Petherick and Linda Tegg), Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, 16 March – 12 May 2013.
You need a bad operation
As Dr Octagon (aka Kool Keith/Dr Dooom—all personas fabricated by American rapper Keith Matthew Thornton) said, ‘you need a bad operation’. This was just before he gruesomely cut the body open, with ensuing sounds of screams, blood spurts, farts and confusion.
Robin Hungerford’s video, The fix, showing at Bus Projects in the exhibition Thank you very much, is a reminder of how over time artists have pursued the ritualised and bloody ‘bad operation’ genre as a rite of passage. Hungerford’s crude self-operation locates him in this motley crew, which includes Dr Octagon/Dr Dooom, Dana Schutz and the quintessential John Bock. At its most Bockish, The fix is agitatedly funny, especially when Hungerford sneers at the catching rips of his stockinged flesh (the Stanley knife just isn’t sharp enough). Once all his original organs have been removed, Hungerford’s hand rests in a pool of his own blood, finding comfort there. But the most insightful and amusing moment comes when Hungerford attempts to piece himself back together again. Because his flesh can’t quite hold the new organs, his symmetrical crucifix-like self-portrait is seismically pushed and pulled in and out of form.
In Thank you very much, curator Channon Goodwin has first and foremost presented the artists. So while this is an eclectic show, the presence of the artist is evident in all works. The show’s tension is created out of the way these artists manoeuvre us around the space, from the gentle nudging of Tim Woodward and Ms & Mr, to the jarring shoves of Erika Scott and Hungerford. The space we have for consideration is negotiated via fluctuations in pressure applied in this way.
I was shoved into Hungerford’s space, where I found the image of the operation compelling, but I left feeling as though I had been exposed to more. Through the operation I had glimpses of Hungerford himself as his expression responded abjectly to the conceptual gestures self-inflicted on his body. I was reminded that we are never merely looking at works of art, but also at the artists, and shouldn’t forget their influence over our perception of what is going on.
Like all good bad operations, the performance had to be crude, and I chuckled and snickered at all that had been exposed. But while I also had the feeling that it had been done to me—that I’d been cut somehow—I didn’t really know how I had been marked. Who was I in this farcical act? Why did I love the bad operation so much? Then a tune wafted through my memory …
‘Milton the monster’, 1965–68, produced and directed by Hal Seeger
I realized that, if in luck, with this kind of work we might feel as though we have seen and been Professor Weirdo … and Count Kook … and Milton … (all and none).
Thank you very much(Adam Cruickshank, Robin Hungerford, Katie Lee, Ms & Mr, Dell Stewart, Erika Scott and Tim Woodward), Bus Projects, Melbourne, 26 February – 16 March 2013.