Group portrait

Atul Dodiya’s Kochi–Muziris Biennale installation in a disused laboratory comprised upwards of 200 framed photo-portraits standing on half-size partitions and benches, and hanging on walls. Snapshots taken with a digital camera showed mainly artists and other participants in the Indian art scene, all the individuals in ones and twos and threes, interspersed with the odd art-historical figure and a few David Attenborough-style wildlife pictures.

As a giant, glorious collective portrait of a community, Celebration in the laboratory was multidimensional but reminiscent too of all those many earlier group portraits of artists. Dodiya’s installation was hugely inclusive and at a point intimate, but struck me as capturing a pathos now bypassed elsewhere. The Indian scene (this scene described by Dodiya) is I guess roughly an equivalent size to the Melbourne scene, all up, but I couldn’t think of such a project being conceived, let alone staged, in Australia.

Celebration in the laboratory communicated something of the purpose and confidence of the Indian contemporary art scene in its current state. People seem to know one another. Infrastructure, like the architecture, is generally very low to the ground. Cross-generational networks are visible. Shared knowledge and enthusiasms between artists matter.

International art events are like international airports. If you have one, people come. If you don’t, they won’t. It’s the event design that needs to be right. The Kochi–Muziris Biennale was the inaugural Indian biennale, and it was also the first opportunity I know where you could get to see serious volumes of contemporary Indian practice and come to some awareness of its details yourself.

Atul Dodiya, Kochi–Muziris Biennale, Kochi, Kerala, India, 12 December 2012 – 13 March 2013.

Atul Dodiya, ‘Celebration in the laboratory’ (detail), 2012

Atul Dodiya, ‘Celebration in the laboratory’ (detail), 2012

Atul Dodiya, ‘Celebration in the laboratory’ (detail), 2012

Atul Dodiya, ‘Celebration in the laboratory’ (detail), 2012

Atul Dodiya, ‘Celebration in the laboratory’ (detail), 2012

Falling into a hangover. Don’t show images fast

So I’m wondering …

I was in Greece recently talking to two brothers about the situation there, and they presented Sweden as a utopia. Social democracy. It worked. Did it work? Could it work over a sustained period of time? How might you get some?

One month later I was in Klaipėda, Lithuania, at Falling from grace, a contemporary Swedish art group show based on the hangover of post-social democracy. An exhibition expressing the fall towards a lower economic standard of living in Sweden. A fall from grace for whom? For the rest of us who wish we were there, symbolically if not in reality?

Magnus Petersson’s series Sealed comprises photographs of scaled views of the Swedish family countryside home, a disappearing tradition. As models they present an ideal to aspire to. The rooms reflect a warm, soft, all-enveloping glow, which Petersson has referred to as ‘a soft Hammershoi or Tarkovsky-like afternoon glow’. Coming from the other side of the world, it felt like Vermeer—a glow from inside a house, warm and suggestive of a robust life unburdened by a harsh sun or thongs. Like all models, the images have a stillness to them, and this renders their time fixed, dead, historical. While I was drawn in by the glow and symmetry, I couldn’t help but feel like I missed the party. That I had come too late.

Ninia Sverdrup’s videos Urban scene XII: petrol station and Urban scene XIV: corner store, felt like an antidote to being too late. The work was slow. A fixed camera captured the happenings at a petrol station at night, a corner store during the day. The videos were based around ‘to have time for’, a luxury. The images had the slow plod of a moving Philip-Lorca diCorcia urban/suburban environment: nice light, easy life, boring possibly. So, while beautifully rendered, without the sound they seemed common and easy to pass by and dismiss, but once I put on the ear-phones, the sounds of these scenes began unfolding. I felt the push-pull of the tension of nothing but life happening. Certain sounds were heightened, not of conversations, but of the space, the creaks and moans of these urban environments. These scenes began to suggest that to have time (which is always a luxury), is to enable better hearing, better light and easier daily rituals.

Kalle Brolin’s Images of debt, in contrast, was fast. So fast that the microfiche whirled in a blurred Citizen Kane-like flurry. Brolin presented a video-portrait of a child (Mattias Abrahamsson) who had been portrayed in a Swedish newspaper throughout his life up to adulthood as a metaphor for changing levels of national debt in Swedish society. In the style of Seven Up!, the video showed how each year the newspaper would show an image of Abrahamsson growing and a note showing the corresponding size of the national debt. Brolin contacted Abrahamsson and his video was interspersed with a running commentary of Abrahamsson’s experiences and present life. As each year rolled through, the microfiche whirled forward and you felt analogue time passing, a historical medium showing a lost time. Images of debt managed to capture the discomforting way in which economic circumstances can make us feel we are more statistical data than human beings. Seeing a young man discuss how at times he didn’t really want to have his photo taken, and how ‘they’ came into his home, I began to feel that I was seeing the crevices in a symbolic ideal. The fall.

So, coming from Australia and knowing how I/we like things slow, I couldn’t help but wonder who we are. Are we Sweden, with a good social-democratic life and economic fortitude, or will we always aspire towards contemporary Europe and its diminishing middle class? In 2013, will we be the party or the hangover? And at what speed and in what light will we show our images?

Falling from grace, Klaipėda Culture Communication Centre (KCCC), Lithuania, 18 January – 21 February 2013.

Magnus Petersson, ‘Sealed’, 2005

Ninia Sverdrup, ‘Urban scene XII: petrol station’, 2011, HD video, 8:30 mins

Kalle Brolin, ‘Images of debt’

Beam me up Scotty (1): eulogy for a leader

So, my favourite tweet from the evening of 23 February came from @FakePremierTed a couple of hours before the official 7 pm kick-off for the 24-hour White Night event. Premier Ted Baillieu (albeit Fake) dutifully declared: ‘White Night Melbourne tonight. As Arts Minister, I have to smile at the hippies and pretend I like them. The things I do for opera tickets’.

Which got me thinking, as I periodically do, about the idea of culture by osmosis and the probability of this event acting as a blanket-cum-diversion-strategy for a neo-liberal cost-cutting agenda. Why? Because surely it’s cheaper to put a whole heap of cash into a one-night affair than invest in quality art education and its long-term effects. There does seem to be an inherent irony in a situation that elevates Ted (the real one) as our culture-loving leader when he is also the head of a party that has slashed funding and, as such, access to TAFE education, resulting in the closure of visual arts courses that don’t appear to make money or result only in vocational activities that make the one-eyed economics-focussed establishment happy (2).

This is why there is something about Liang Luscombe’s complex social-functional-design-object artworks (3) that rings true. A shelf to use, coins to steal food with and some things that just need to be said. Yes Our TAFE does need to be saved because if funding to TAFE is not returned, if we don’t consider the type of arts education we are providing (and receiving) at all levels, then the next generation of artists may be spawned entirely from the upper-middle classes who make fake coins from mining and reside and eat wherever and whatever they like. Actually, why would these people even bother becoming artists? Regardless, you know where I am going. We live in a complex space of masked stealing and failed state obligations: file-sharing, crowd-funding, health and education cuts.

I know you like the arts, Ted, and were moved to ‘sing’, but you were watching opera while ‘the people’ were doing a Zumba class.

Not that I am averse to Zumba. Heck, I spent a good six months taking a class twice a week in a temporary gym/stink-box at the Carlton flats—and loved it. I’m happy to dancercise to tracks-that-you-only-hear-in-supermarkets-but-somehow-know-all-the-words-to for two hours a week. Perhaps I’m too cynical. I love crowds and I like art, I’m just suspicious of Ted’s motives and pissed off about the TAFE cuts. To be frank, rather than shuffle through the laneways of Melbourne ‘looking for culture ’cause I’m told to’, I’d much prefer to meander through the Edinburgh Gardens and come across an absurd shrine to Mick Edwards (or Swami Deva Pramada as he was also known), contributor to the first four or so albums by ELO who was killed when a 600 kg hay-bale rolled onto his van in 2010.

A folly such as this (the shrine, not Edwards’s death!) is perhaps harder to contextualise. Sure, I might know when to pop over to the picnic-cum-opening for cheap beer and a chat with friends. Even more so, I like knowing that Aunty Joan, who has lived in North Fitzroy since day dot, might chance upon Oscar Perry’s hay-bale atop a previously sculpture-less plinth (4) that she has walked past umpteen times and ponder the recently deceased Edwards, rekindle her love of ELO, go home and put on her copy of Eldorado, play air-trombone to the fanfare at the beginning of Boy Blue, and then sit and reminisce to the title track while drinking a portagaff and googling art and contemporary prog. Aunty Joan may of course prefer Woody Guthrie and Russian Caravan tea, and might instead google the why, what and where of hay-bales spontaneously combusting.

1. From a bumper sticker reading ‘Beam me up Scotty, there is no intelligent life form on this planet’, which spawned our abridged and shared evacuation chant. The phrase was apparently never actually uttered in the Star Trek series, but we all know it and as such it’s perhaps an example of cultural osmosis.

2. See Ann Stephen’s address to the AAANZ conference in November last year about the importance of TAFE in fostering an inclusive and rich culture.

3. Liang Luscombe’s Jonas Bohlin (from Spring Street, the office and the vending machine), 2013, was exhibited in Navel-gazing, curated by Brooke Babington and Melissa Loughan at Utopian Slumps early this year.

4. Plinth Projects is a new artist-run public-art venture codirected by Daniel Stephen-Miller and Jeremy Pryles assisted by a gang of other artists including Sam George, Carla McKee, Ben Ryan and Isabelle Sully. The project, launched on 3 March, is funded by the City of Yarra. The committee isn’t paid but the artists exhibiting get a fee.

Oscar Perry, Harvest showdown/Early classics, hits and rarities, Plinth Projects, Melbourne, 3 March – 2 April 2013.

White Night Melbourne documentation courtesy Piero and a conversation we shared on the night of 27 February 2013, Meyers Place, Melbourne

Liang Luscombe, ‘After Jonas Bohlin (from Spring Street, the office and the vending machine)’, 2013, mixed media, 40 x 45 x 180 cm. Photo: Christo Crocker

Liang Luscombe, ‘After Jonas Bohlin (from Spring Street, the office and the vending machine)’, 2013, mixed media, 40 x 45 x 180 cm. Photo: Christo Crocker

Oscar Perry poses with Yarra Mayor, Cr Jackie Fristacky, Plinth Projects opening picnic. Photo: Kobie Nel

Oscar Perry, ‘Harvest showdown/Early classics, hits and rarities’, 2013, Plinth Projects opening picnic. Photo: Kobie Nel

Oscar Perry, ‘Harvest showdown/Early classics, hits and rarities’ (detail), 2013. Photo: Kobie Nel

In the hood

I first saw a reproduction of In the hood by David Hammons in the late 1990s, in a Phaidon publication called The art book. Still at school, my experience of art was limited to a love of Brett Whiteley, Jean-Michel Basquiat (as memorialised by Jeffrey Wright in Julian Schnabel’s then-recent film) and perhaps a few other things I can’t readily recall. In hindsight, The art book was an editorial undertaking doomed to be a selective failure: a full-page reproduction of Hammons’s work was bound together with alphabetically arranged examples from the entire history of Western art as if sense could be made from a random throw of the dice. But this contrast meant In the hood stood out simply because it echoed well beyond the canonised art history the editors had largely chosen to surround it. Its ideas arrive in sharp focus yet as a ‘work’ it is barely there. Perhaps because of this combination of difference and pitch-perfect clarity, when leafing through the book choosing ‘favourites’, In the hood would invariably fall into my late-adolescent top five.

Now in a private collection, In the hood was recently installed at the New Museum in Experimental jet set, trash and no star, an exhibition that attempts to historicize the year 1993 in New York City. In a nice, if obvious, example of the art of curating, In the hood was presented alongside Gabriel Orozco’s Yielding stone, a work of similar material restraint and clarity (and another ‘favourite’ of sorts). Both works display that good ideas can be carried by the slightest of means. Like the exhibition itself, this pairing was at once deeply meaningful and frustratingly oblique.

NYC 1993: experimental jet set, trash and no star, the New Museum, New York, 13 February – 26 May 2013.

David Hammons, ‘In the hood’, 1993, athletic sweatshirt hood, wire

Gabriel Orozco, ‘Yielding stone’, 1992, plasticine ball, street debris


Backyard shed jams

The centre-piece of Tim Price’s painting show in the back room at Utopian Slumps appears to be Backyard open city, which is the idyll, a utopian idea of a painted backyard. Happy painter, crafty as he is, all-consumed by his perspective of the scene. There, deep in middle-class contemplation, a responsibility to be cynical seems to arise.

The other three paintings will take you further afield of the pastoral. We’ll never be any good gives us a big old shit on an aeroplane apparently pushing aside a Francis Bacon self-portrait while Gina’s Dad surveys the Pilbara. More topical oddities occur in Bonus points, which shows a politician or miner with armed guards chilling with Aboriginal elders. Lastly, 500 ml mother brings us all home to the domestic lounge room where a deflated figure passes out as another figure sets up in front of a mirror/tablet to ponder their own worth. These are contemporary happenings rendered introspectively, caught in frame, making for a wholesome image for the artist. The paintings’ characters and situations suggest there is political observation without a pronounced message—perhaps it’s hidden in code. This could be frustrating to some, as if not quite enough: ‘Why go there and not go all the way?’ But within the ideal of Prices’s painting, the actual painting comes first and the political subtext later in a way that might prompt further enquiry and conversation.

While these paintings are deep, luminous and virtuosic, they are not conventionally fine. The aesthetic has a strewn-all-overness. They look quick, spilt, but equally can be considered slowly. The space is either beautifully defined or obliterated. The thin layers of cheap acrylic retain the texture of the canvas and allow Price to play with notions of painting as luxury.

Here, painting is backyard shed jams where the artist embeds himself within the world and keeps outside conversations rolling. In the tone of the late Robert Hughes, I conclude: Luxury goods as they are, there is a luxury they are not afforded.

Timothy Price, Nice painting, nice price, Utopian Slumps, Melbourne, 9 February – 2 March 2013.

Tim Price, ‘Backyard open city’, 2013, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 70 x 90 cm

Tim Price, ‘We’ll never be any good’, 2012, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 76 x 102 cm

Tim Price, ‘Bonus points’, 2012, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 61 x 80 cm

Tim Price, ‘500 ml mother’, 2012, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 65 x 90 cm

Comfort grunge

Despite appearances, grunge is deeply optimistic; it knows that the sacred and the profane cohabit (what a relief) and that if there’s enlightenment to be found in this world, it’ll be found at the bottom of a pizza box.

Woodstock cans were the currency of choice at teenage paddock parties. As funny and cringe-inducing are Stuart Ringholt’s crushed alcho-cans, Aerosol Woodstock, aerosol Heineken, 2009. With their drinking end replaced by a spray nozzle, these cans are some of my favourite works by Ringholt for both their succinctness and absurdity—the fuel and the medium of vandalism is one and the same. Delinquency one stop shop. The heavy-handedness consumer goods often bring to the art party is shirked off by the agility of Ringholt’s economic material poetry.

Hany Armanious’s Pizza box, 1989, records the ruminations of someone, probably the eater of the pizza (was this a shared or a solo meal?), in red texta punctuated by cheesy oil spots. The photographic print, edition of a trillion trillion, is the map of a mind gone off-road. The nonsensical notes are names, places, dates or addresses, references to the Bible and an Australian media mogul, the Star of David and a swastika. ‘Stolen ritual’ is underlined and given a tick. Inebriation and enlightenment aren’t such strangers and this is transcendence any cheap way you can get it. Does that make art, religion and a high the holy trinity? Whether the diner was stoner or shaman makes no difference because we’re used to joining the dots or allowing them to go unjoined. The scribblings finish with ‘you understood’, and yes I do, I really get you right now.

Drunk vs. stoned XIII, Neon Parc, Melbourne, 9 February – 9 March 2013.

Stuart Ringholt, ‘Aerosol Heineken, aerosol Woodstock’, 2009, aluminum, plastic, each 15 x 8 x 8 cm

Hany Armanious, ‘Pizza box’, 1989, inkjet print on paper, edn of a trillion trillion, 50 × 50.5 cm

Period piece

I am afraid of silence

I am afraid of the dark

I am afraid to fall down 

I am afraid of insomnia

I am afraid of emptiness

Is something missing?

Yes, something is missing and always will be missing

The experience of emptiness

To miss 

What are you missing?


I am imperfect but I’m lacking nothing

Maybe something is missing but I do not know and therefore do not suffer

Empty stomach empty house empty bottle

The falling into a vacuum signals the abandonment of the mother

This text is faint, it’s also behind glass—so it’s glary—and despite its oversized type face it requires pause. Occupying the same room is a collection of blunt, padded bodies suspended from a wire frame. Bourgeois’s overstuffed fabric forms are the opposite of the gallery’s hard architecture.

This confessional mode, in its restraint and control, and its sporadic, embarrassing release, acts like a kind of Butoh. Simultaneous channelling and restraint demands either great concentration or great drunkenness.

In an interview recently, Lena Dunham summed up the flawed character she has written for herself in the television series, Girls, as ‘a few years younger’ than herself. What exists in the lag between day one and the time when we start to form words in order to communicate haunts our speech and writing, to our advantage and disadvantage. Unfortunately, we can’t control who looks on. Fortunately, this gap gives us a mode of truth and freedom.

So let’s just say we’re making artworks that are barely disguised objects or tools for self-analysis. Let’s say we’re curating our biographies and hang-ups in an attempt to work them out a little. Let’s say that as writers we’re struggling not just to describe the material we are commissioned to, but rather struggling to describe ourselves. I guess this is all more compelling via a knotty, unresolved, self-questioning.

Louise Bourgeois: late works, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 24 November 2012 – 11 March 2013.

Louise Bourgeois, ‘Blue days’, 1996, cloth, steel, glass

Survival stories

Remote Aboriginal communities are sites of polarity. Yirritja and Dhuwa, Garth Brooks and Azealia Banks, boundless flood-plains and land permits, transcendent beauty and Third World squalor. Were you a privileged white girl with an art-history degree you might find a two-year stint at one of the epicentres of this opposition—a community art centre—divergently exhausting and exhilarating. You might feel your education building moment-to-moment, in tandem with new awareness of your ignorance. You might return to Melbourne feeling inadequate, barking at anyone who dares ask for your opinion on the intervention, thawing out in a puddle of tears.

Warwick Thornton’s 14-minute film installation, now showing at ACMI after premiering at dOCUMENTA, is based on Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and her children. Set against the carnage of the Thirty Years’ War (ask me why they call it that—it’s the only piece of war-related trivia I ever remember), the play follows a morally bankrupt canteen-lady whose decisions lead to the deaths of her three children. Brecht’s text illustrates the mercantile nature of war. It asks reader and audience to contemplate what price Mother Courage pays for her survival.

Believe it or not, Brecht’s apocalyptic, ideologically complex play is also seriously funny. After an attack leaves her daughter permanently disfigured, Mother Courage consoles her by pointing out that she won’t be the first girl raped by soldiers. Later, rumours of peace send Mother Courage into a funk, representing nothing more than her own financial ruin. Presumably Brecht was having too much fun writing the awfulness of the title character to provide a satisfactory explanation for his naming another one ‘Swiss Cheese’.

Thornton’s Mother Courage sits cross-legged on a mattress in the back of a dilapidated camper-van somewhere on the outskirts of Alice Springs, slowly filling a canvas on her lap with coloured dots. Her stoicism cuts against the fidgeting of her young grandson, squashed in beside her—polishing off Cheezles, drinking no-name cola, twiddling the volume knob of his ghetto blaster. A DJ dedicates his broadcast to Aboriginal prisoners.

Thornton sees his matriarch as ‘an empowered, resourceful sort who is reinventing herself and her culture’. I’m inclined to see her more as a victim of the worsening social reality of remote communities than an agent of cultural prosperity. In any case, Mother Courage captures the compromises made by those whose survival is at stake, and the disconnect between the conditions under which ‘tradition-based’ Aboriginal art is made, and the art market that consumes it. If none of that interests you, be seduced by one Central Desert boy’s aspirations to air guitar virtuosity.

Warwick Thornton, Mother Courage, ACMI, Melbourne, 5 February – 23 June 2013.

Warwick Thornton, ‘Mother Courage’, 2012, film installation

Warwick Thornton, ‘Mother Courage’, 2012, film installation

Warwick Thornton, ‘Mother Courage’, 2012, film installation

Warwick Thornton, ‘Mother Courage’, 2012, film installation