Writing mail, writing class: ‘The big east’

It was kind of an awkward week or so.

At the opening for Simon Zoric’s exhibition What I can and can’t do and what I will and won’t do, after being kind of startled by his carved wooden effigy, I was walking away from one of his works where Zoric had basically cut out the wall from his teenage bedroom because it contained the beloved Nirvana poster that needed to be shown. I was walking and thinking, ‘is it really from his bedroom?’, ‘how’s that ’70s blue paint’, ‘what’s with Nirvana?’, ‘it’s the ’90s again’, ‘Fuck, Kurt committed suicide’, ‘shit, I hope Zoric doesn’t die’.

At the precise moment of that last thought, I kicked the silicone cast of his Cock & balls. Zoric’s self-depreciating humor, quite obviously contagious.

On Saturday just past, I went to see Christos Tsiolkas talk about Class and Culture at Trades Hall in Carlton. I guess, other than being called a hipster, my question about class and its invisibility or slipperiness re-emerged—does the approach to definition un-render representation?

Kiron Robinson’s 8-minute video When I write I write for you begins with a sniff and ends with awkward laughter. It’s an 8-minute close-up of a tightly framed face. Reminiscent of John Cassavetes’s 1968 film Faces.

The Le Tigre song ‘What’s your take on Cassavetes’ begins with a kind of drawling voice:

we’ve talked about it in letters
and we’ve talked about it on the phone,

but how you really feel about it,
I don’t really know.

Which, however obtuse, seems relevant here.

Robinson’s short film, mini-doc, foray into a kind of cinéma vérité aesthetic straddles a monologue about family relations, siblings, age gaps and role models, footy, responsibilities, time and scale issues, pornography, masculinity, hierarchies and the need for an inability to take sides.

Robinson exhibited the work in an exhibition he organised called The big east, which involved seven artists exhibiting in two Scout halls in Heathmont on Sunday June 9 between 10 am and 5 pm.

I asked Kiron some questions, the first being, could I ask him some questions:

LR: OK. I’m gonna start really simply. How did the idea for the show come about?

KR: About eighteen months ago I moved out here (outer eastern Melbourne). It is not my ideal location and resulted in odd sorts of pressures in my life. As a result, I decided to make some work out of being in the middle/outer suburbs. When I started looking around I noticed there were lots of psychologically interesting spaces in the suburbs that I had not noticed before. The Scout halls I used, are two that I pass by on a run. Over about eight months of running by them, an idea emerged of what I could do, so I decided to see if they were open to being used and it turned out they were. The rest just grew from there.

LR: What I found interesting about the project was the way in which it forced us out of the safety of the CBD. There is an inherent irony in this, especially if we consider all the ‘danger, drunk’ talk of the media, ‘mayhem on the weekends’ blah blah. You turned us into Sunday drivers without cars or something. All the obvious, by-chance visitors are kind of amazing as well. Having worked out there at one stage, I liked catching up with my old boss again and hanging out with his kids in his hood.

The Scout halls were these interesting spaces where ‘contemporary’ seemed irrelevant. I know we talked about the upturned coloured plastic cups; Daniel Belfield’s Map easily blending in with the in-situ pin board; your film projected on a stand (can’t remember the word for this thing!) as if ready for rope-knotting demonstration; Eliza Dyball’s performance which could have been a team-building exercise; the Ryan sisters hiding from the world double-self-portrait-sculpture could have been real-kids playing real-games (albeit slightly sinister) and Cormick’s dirt-bike dinks slip easily into hoon territory. How did you choose the artists for the exhibition? And did you specifically choose the Scout sites for these artists?

KR: Yes, it is nice to be out of the CBD. It changes things in terms of whatever our expectations or preconceptions of the suburbs are and alerts us to our conceptions of art. I am alerted to this every time I go home (as I live down the road from the Scout halls.)

I was really stunned when the first visitors came by. I think up until the point of someone arriving I had been unable to marry up these two parts of my life, art and where I live, and having people turn up acted as a catalyst or a clash which alerted me to my own awkwardness in relation to how I see my life.

The Scout halls came first. I chose them really thinking about my own works (selfish yes), but then invited the other artists because of a psychological aspect to their works which resonated with the sites. I knew of all their practices obviously and like them as people and so thought it would be a good combo.

LR: I am going to latch on to something there about ‘liking the artists as people’. It is something I am interested in in terms of momentum and criticality. In some ways, it is traditionally opposed to the very notion of critical because its first encounter is recognising subjectivity and in some ways, the sentimental.

When you said ‘I knew of all their practices obviously and like them as people and thought it would be a good combo’, what is it about the combination of artists? I know there is a space of not-knowing that we are working in, or aim to work in, but what were you hoping to achieve though the exhibition and the relationship between the works?

KR: Mmm.

I have curated/organised a number of exhibitions. Basically it is about working with people I am interested in. I see it as an extension of my practice in that I do things and make work about things that I am interested in. I am not really into curating for the sake of curating. As such i feel no obligation to criticality. Rather, like my own work I just want to do something that interests me first and hope that others can also connect in their own way. It is the way most artists work I think. It is nice, as you kind of just put your subjectivity front and centre.

It is the psychological aspect of the Scout halls, which I think reflects a deeper psychology of the suburbs, what lies beneath, that I was really interested in and that I was hoping to draw out. There is an intrinsic anxiety within the suburban, the anxiety of the aspirational and it leaks out in all sorts of ways. I think partly I recognise this within myself and moving back to the suburbs has really heightened it in me. Maybe for me it is not so much the aspirational but the settling. The giving up that I associate with a regression of returning to a suburban setting. I wanted to work with that. There is a romantic aspect to the suburban that I was interested in as well. The Sunday drive, the ideal that it sells. I just find them a very tense place.

Simon Zoric, What I can and can’t do and what I will and won’t do, West Space, Melbourne, 21 June – 13 July 2013.

The big east, 3rd Heathmont Scout Hall, Melbourne, 9 June 2013.

Screen shot, Google search for Cassevetes faces

Screen shot, YouTube, Le Tigre, ‘What’s your take on Cassevetes’

Simon Zoric, ‘Nirvana’, 2013, poster, Blu-tac, bedroom wall

Simon Zoric, ‘Cock & balls’, 2013, silicone and crepe hair

Lane Cormick, ‘Only one way out of here’, 2007–13

Eliza Dyball, ‘Conformation in three parts’, 2013

Eliza Dyball, ‘Conformation in three parts’, 2013

Eliza Dyball, ‘Conformation in three parts’, 2013

Daniel Belfield, ‘A blanket woven from the laughter of my friends’, 2012, cotton

Daniel Bellfield, ‘Map’, 2013

Kiron Robinson, ‘When I write I write for you’, 2013, DVD

The cups in the 3rd Heathmont Scout Hall cabinets

‘Our Joey Scout Huturn Tree’ on the Scout Hall pinboard

Constant loss: ‘Third/Fourth: Melbourne artist-facilitated biennale’, and the 1980s at the NGV

To be honest, I thought that the NGV’s current show about the 1980s in the Melbourne art scene—Mix tape 1980s: appropriation, subculture, critical style—only transmitted the barest sense of the underlying social structure of the times. But then again, I wasn’t there. Afterwards I read Ashley Crawford’s review in The Monthly and although he notes that the energy and variety of the 1980s is ‘almost impossible to articulate comprehensively’, for him the exhibition ‘manages to embrace almost every aspect of this mayhem, and much of the vibrancy and energy of the period remains intact’.

So maybe success is in the eye of the beholder. Or—and I suspect this is more accurate—it’s easier to look back at something (a time or place etc.) if you already have first-hand memories of the subject. I assume Crawford was part of the fabric of the day, cutting his teeth as a critic and commentator alongside the artists, designers and critics whose works form the exhibition. Remove this nostalgic lens and what remains?

Of course the challenge that the curators behind Mix tape 1980s set themselves might be impossible, at least in the face of those in the audience for whom the 1980s remain a kind of mystery. I mean, how do you really communicate the meaning of a time and place retrospectively, especially when constrained by the collection policy of two decades ago?

I couldn’t help thinking about this in terms of another recent show that ‘surveyed’ a period—Christopher LG Hill’s Third/Fourth artist-facilitated biennale. Although the obvious difference between the two exhibitions is that Hill’s was embedded in a still-current moment, Third/Fourth rested under a similar nostalgic weight to Mix tape 1980s. By that I mean you felt yourself looking at this exhibition and thinking about a certain time and place. It just happened that the time was now.

If, judging by Hill’s exhibition, the best time to take the rear-view glance is just before the present merges into the past, then the best people to guide this view are those who still own the activities of making and thinking under review.

It’s not to say that Hill’s exhibition was anything but mysterious for those outside the recent pattern of art-making that it covered. But perhaps the fact it didn’t attempt to explain itself too clearly is what allowed it to accurately picture the underlying social aspect of a moment in the art world.

I couldn’t help picturing Third/Fourth at NGV as a kind of addendum to Mix tape 1980s. But then I wondered if these kinds of exhibitions fear institutions. Or is it the other way around?

Third/Fourth: Melbourne artist-facilitated biennale, Margaret Lawrence Gallery, Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne, 31 May – 23 June 2013.

Mix tape 1980s: appropriation, subculture, critical style, NGV Australia, Melbourne, 11 April – 1 September 2013.

‘Third/Fourth: Melbourne artist-facilitated biennale’

Kain Picken, ‘Work won’t wait’, 2013, stainless steel and acrylic blanket, dimensions variable

Maria Kozic, ‘Self-portrait’ from ‘The bicentennial folio: prints by twenty-five Australian artists’, 1988, photo-screenprint, 60.7 x 47.8 cm (image)

Cool car park in Freo: Australian Centre for Concrete Art

The Australian Centre for Concrete Art is mostly 2D paintings on walls and not sculpted concrete as the name may suggest—big formal paintings on the sides of houses and shops in the CBD of Fremantle, WA. The original aim of the participating artists was to create a clique and define a distinction between their painting and that of their perceived copycats. As the project got underway, they transcended their chummy elitism and focused instead on rewarding the everyday viewer’s glance—the public person who opens their car door and peers up to see a 16 x 16 metre painting. In a way, it started as slightly pervasive, but the actually paintings hold a dignified respectful presence.

The AC4CA is like an open hive of living paintings. They get painted over in time, but during their lives within the grid-like streets of downtown Freo the paintings pop out into the pedestrians’ view, resembling characters due to their serial similarity. There is the mothership, a colossal painting commissioned by Alex Spremberg in the form of a 6-storey car park with conceptually painted ceilings, floors, columns and walls. A painting that has to be driven to be believed. There is a topographical offset to the landscape that surrounds it, the commercial zone, the horizon of the Indian Ocean and the massive cargo ships with their huge paint jobs. This urban beautification is feel-good and surreal in that the entire district of Fremantle feels oddly activated by painters engaging the high with low.

Artists involved in the project are Pam Aitken, John Nixon, Trevor Richards, Alex Spremberg, Julian Goddard, Andrew Leslie, Jurek Wybraniec, Helen Smith, Jan van der Ploeg and Daniel Gottin.

AC4CA project 16, David Tremlett, Cantonment St, Fremantle

AC4CA project 15, Jan van der Ploeg, Henry St, Fremantle

AC4CA project 7, commisioned by Alex Spremberg, Queensgate car park, Fremantle

AC4CA project 7, commisioned by Alex Spremberg, Queensgate car park, Fremantle


Funny games

The lingering stench of propriety and duty at the Heathmont Scout Hall was nearly as strong as the snags Kiron Robinson was cooking out the front. The framed colour photo of the Queen, the pine-panelled hall with honour boards, the texta instructions for the urn in the kitchenette, it was all there. Pip and Nat Ryan’s work in The big east, curated by Robinson, was like an amulet; both made of, and antidote to, the spirit of the Scout.

The sculpture sat in some dark place between the cultish initiation in the rec reserve car park, the smirking gags in the back row and the repressed angst of Scoutmaster. Speaking of grown-ups playing in a kids’ world, these adult figures in jammies and sleeping bags are about as cute as a double-dare suicide pact after lights out. A sculptural sardonic laugh, the work was an antidote to the dutiful and its absurdity soothed the pragmatic self-betterment that haunts the building. Flippancy keeps self-seriousness on the back foot.

The charts, codes, uniforms in the hall at Heathmont look a lot like all the other frameworks we build to face the terror of infinite choice. Laminated and framed on the wall, the Pathway to the Grey Wolf Award (tasks, skills, badges, rules for living) is the most basic of survival mechanisms; a self-imposed cell. We’re all agoraphobes. And handrails and cell bars are made of the same stuff. Painter Charline von Heyl describes ‘breaking the rules where there are none’ as a way of grappling with abstraction. Like a Scout gone rebel, the greatest freedom comes from having a rule to break, which is why the institution makes the best house of horrors.

The big east, 3rd Heathmont Scout Hall, Melbourne, 9 June 2013.

Pip and Nat Ryan, ‘slump’, 2013. Photo: Christo Crocker

Cub Scout Award Scheme Chart, the Pathway to the Grey Wolf Award, 3rd Heathmont Scout Hall

Ryoji Ikeda

I was reading about Ryoji Ikeda’s test pattern (No 5) as being perfect for iPhone documentation. How depressing. But it’s true, see my snapshots below.

Described as ‘a system that converts any type of data (text, sounds, photos and movies) into barcode patterns and binary patterns of 0s and 1s. Through its application, the project aims to examine the relationship between critical points of device performance and the threshold of human perception’. I’m not one for maths, but I am one for geometric abstraction. And critical points are, well, critical. But with such an undelineated and expansive data set, maybe the mesmeric power of this installation isn’t easily remembered now that I’m trying to do the work. And I’m reminded it’s important to do the work. Perhaps where the description above is actually ‘felt’ is in the midst of this installation where this giant barcode has a velocity beneath you; further encoding as well as encompassing your body within it.

I wonder about transmission of unspecified data being a valid or, worse, compelling starting point. Deconstructing of the ever apparent. (The experience and the press release needn’t correspond of course, but I went to thinking around Ikeda and suspect it’s important to put music brain on this rather than art brain. And I wonder if the difference between the two brains is an allowance for abstraction. Perhaps the experience of music is a more pure unfettered enjoyment in pattern-making, hinged more directly to its own form, rather than a historical world beyond the form. Of course so much has been written on this. But it did make me think how listening can be quick and repetitive, and looking can be a slower unfurling.

Sometimes a blog link is as good a gift as you can get. I’m enjoying Love dog, even when it’s a bit maudlin:

The internet is so nerve-racking for me. I’m still not used to it. It’s like looking at an X-ray all day long—of yourself, of others, of a culture. Nothing feels safe. In an email, I ask my mother why even success (reblogs, retweets, viral attention) feels shitty on the internet. How I always feel sullied afterwards for some reason. How even when the response is good, it feels bad, and makes me want to hide even more than I already do. She writes: ‘But this is the disadvantage of publishing on line. With it comes instant gratification and instant humiliation’. The internet doesn’t require you to have thicker skin. It requires you to have no skin. Which makes everything feel painful unless you learn to feel no pain at all.

…There is a (crowd-sourced) project called Printing Out the Entire Internet. MOMA’s first poet laureate, Kenneth Goldsmith has rented a 500 square metre gallery space in Mexico City, with 6 metre high ceilings to be filled with sheets of A4 paper. An homage to Aaron Swartz, the co-founder of Reddit. Of course the project is being slammed by organisations such as Change.org as a maximalist monument to unnecessary waste. But that’s Goldsmith’s argument, unnecessary waste to somehow quantify and monumentalise unnecessary waste.

Ryoji Ikeda, test pattern (No 5), 8 June – 1 July 2013, Carriageworks, Sydney.

Ryoji Ikeda, ‘test pattern (No 5)’

Ryoji Ikeda, ‘test pattern (No 5)’

Ryoji Ikeda, ‘test pattern (No 5)’

If you can’t say something nice

‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing’, said Edmund Burke. Recently it occurred to me that this famous aphorism might have come to Burke on a visit to an exhibition of particularly dreadful paintings. Perhaps he scrawled ‘bad art happens when good people don’t point out that it’s bad’ on the toilet door of an eighteenth-century ARI and the whole ‘triumph of evil’ thing developed from there. Perhaps.

In the current issue of Artlink, Vernon Ah Kee decries the supposed proliferation of mediocre art from Aboriginal remote communities, and addresses the paucity of criticism that enables and sustains it.

Erudite and acid-tongued, Ah Kee has made a career out of inflammatory statements. But there isn’t much controversy here. It’s widely agreed that there aren’t enough people making the call on Aboriginal art. Many recognise too, that acclaim is often ‘well-intentioned’, incommensurate with the complexity or quality of the artist’s work. And the critical vacuum is not exclusive to Aboriginal art produced in remote areas. Not listed under ‘favourites’ in Ah Kee’s iPhone are those who argue that urban-based Aboriginal artists are over-represented in major exhibitions, and public collections.

Frequently the meaning and significance of work from remote art centres exists in language that is foreign and inaccessible to curators, critics, and audiences. When the work penetrates, it penetrates on Eurocentric terms. For instance, I’m an obnoxious American collector lamenting that ‘one sometimes confuses one’s Rover with one’s Rothko’. Or, I’m director of the Musée du Quai Branly, writing to Warmun Arts requesting that Lena Nyadbi lend her aesthetically pleasing designs to the tiles of my magnificently positioned roof. I disagree with Ah Kee when he suggests that these kinds of things mitigate the agency of Rover Thomas and Lena Nyadbi, as artists and people. Ah Kee has said ‘the only authentic Aboriginal people in this country are the urban Aboriginal people. They’re the only ones that behave autonomously’.

It’s been around forty years since a group of desert men were introduced to the contemporary medium of acrylic painting, in the settlement of Papunya, west of Alice Springs. Thought-provoking, inventive and genuinely compelling art is today produced by urban-based Aboriginal artists, and by artists working at Aboriginal-owned and operated (actually, not just notionally) art centres in remote communities. There’s mounting frustration with the preciousness and culture of entitlement that stymies discourse on all sides. Provocative quips about authenticity are tedious and obstructive, whether they slip from backward minds, or whether espoused by proponents of change.

A photograph I found on the internet of someone staring at the gap between two Mark Rothko paintings

A photograph I found on the internet of an eye-catching silhouette inexplicably wielding two paint-brushes in front of a Rover Thomas painting