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.
Richard Bell: Lessons on etiquette and manners, Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, 5 February – 13 April 2013.