Good behaviour

In preparation for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, 4 million households in Beijing received etiquette guides which focused on things like how to queue correctly, that when standing in public one’s feet should be in the shape of a ‘V’ or ‘Y’ and, my favourite, that there should be more than three colours represented in any one outfit. While in Beijing last month as part of an ICI Curatorial Intensive I also learned that, post-Olympics, less specific behavioural guidelines linger in the city. The word kequi, for example, features on street signs and noticeboards mainly around tourist attractions. It was explained to me that this word roughly translates as ‘good or ideal behaviour for a guest’.

We were warned moments before meeting him that what Ai Wei Wei hates more than Communism are pretentious academic discussions about art. We were also warned that there was every chance he would be less than chatty due to the fact that police had, days before, confiscated his passport once again. We were encouraged to ask questions instead of hanging back for a lecture. Rather than a bad mood however, it was the large white arc of a scar etched across the back of his head that I first noticed about him as we followed him through the courtyard, and into the studio itself. Ai Wei Wei designed the complex, a modernist concrete bunker of sorts, in which we sat. Twelve (intimidated and more quiet than usual) curators to one artist (and two cats) didn’t feel like an honestly productive or a productively honest ratio.

And what eventually and surprisingly emerged from the initially lack-lustre Q and A, was a lengthy conversation about long-term collaborations between artists and curators. Mori Art Museum curator Mami Kataoka spoke of the pressures of being the artist’s eyes and ears at sites where Wei Wei’s travel was (and continues to be) restricted. It’s totally personal. Beyond constraints such as gaol time, which ignites a project with a specific urgency, was the sense that simultaneous development, and in-depth understanding (theoretical, practical and methodological) sit in sustained communication, if not collaboration, over time.

This studio visit was conducted with Philip Tinari, director of Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art, Beijing, and Kate Fowle, director of Independent Curators International, New York, co-hosts of the ICI Curatorial Intensive with 12 participants, and 2 of 12 guest speakers, Rodrigo Moura, curator, Inhotim, Brazil, and Mami Kataoka, senior curator, Mori Art Museum.

Organic happenings

Drawing has been a great friend of Rhys Lee’s for as long as I’ve known him. Rhys went through a graphics course in Brisbane with fellow artist Matt Hinkley, but Rhys was always keen to get a little looser and wilder than graphic design would allow. Spending time throwing lines around with spray cans as a youth lead to very exuberant painterly works early in his career as an artist.

On a trip to New York a couple of years ago Rhys expelled about 100 large ink works on paper that he later spread across the walls of Block Projects. I had the opportunity to live with Rhys for a few months down at his abode in Aireys Inlet when we were both between lives in late 2010. We’d come home from the beach nice and salty and Rhys would do a few donuts on the sandy driveway just to liven up an otherwise peaceful day on the coast. We’d then rest on the couch most of the day. Rhys knows how to rest and he knows how to play. He also knows how to keep the house in tip top order while chaos reigns in the studio. When his batteries are fully charged he rises from the couch, walks over to his kitchen table and spills ink or moves it around with old brushes until something appears; maybe a monkey or a hazy memory of an evening in Peru. The cathartic process and drawing and mark making can be fully felt in Rhys’s work. The murky organic happenings that lie deep beneath the surface of a person can come forth and be present through this type of art. We watched this documentary on Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart); how he said during an interview that he paints just because his arm needs some exercise between concerts. We loved that.

Rhys has recently drawn a bunch of lovely raw patterns that Lisa Gorman has turned into wonderful fashion clothes for her spring/summer collection this year.

Lisa Gorman’s collaboration with Rhys Lee can be seen in Gorman this September.

Rhys Lee is represented in Melbourne by Utopian Slumps.

Lisa Gorman and Rhys Lee collaboration

Lisa Gorman and Rhys Lee collaboration

Rhys Lee, Aireys Inlet

Rhys Lee, preliminary painting

Rhys Lee, designs for the Lisa Gorman collaboration, ink on paper


Konnichiwa Osaka

Osaka feels like a very cool city, cosmopolitan. I often found myself thinking, any minute the locals will just break into something I can understand, but of course it didn’t happen.

Real Japanesque at the National Museum of Art, Osaka, looked at the practices of artists born after 1970. It comes way after super real and superflat. It felt international, contemporary, but was not looking to the West. An accompanying text actually suggested Western art practices were at an impasse—that contemporary art in the West hit a wall around 2000.

There were no black rooms, no heavy production or technically complicated stuff. The curators wrote that these artists were interested first in the idea of how a work of art could be ‘new’. What would that be like? They suggested that this newness, for these artists, is about returning to earlier Japanese art and configuring displays that assume an inquisitive audience.

Nine artists only, given huge airy independent spaces, more like a solo exhibition each—extraordinarily generous in terms of similar survey projects.

Speediest (but still slow) were the prop-sculptures of Maoya Kishi built in situ.

Middle-speed were the documented performance works of Taro Izumi. These were smart and seemed to allude to or expand on some of the conceptual thinking shared throughout Real Japanesque. Maybe everyone agreed with this guy. There was a library machine for writing and erasing. A Richter-effect machine. A face wipe-out machine. What was left of a live rabbit interview, and some strange Franz West-type toilet closet.

Slow-time though, was the body of Real Japanesque—it was Zen-time, jazz beat time, measured by full stops and commas, transitions by breath, colour registrations, stains and material translation.

Katsuhisa Sato, Teppei Soutome, Kazuyuki Takezaki, Mayuko Wada—Blinky Palermo babies. Beginning or ending, winding, aimless, blue window, noise, He and She, Kyo accent, Water side and is it the daybreak?—some titles.

With these last artists it was as though you passed a gate and the senses untangled and began to travel individually, your eyes dilated, picking out movements and hints from zone to zone. Making-time ravelled up as much as unravelled and opened and extended a sense of the present to include future and past.

It felt good.

Real Japanesque: the unique world of Japanese contemporary art, National Museum of Art, Osaka, 10 July – 12 September 2012.

Maoya Kishi (artist installing)

Katsuhisa Sato

Katsuhisa Sato

Katsuhisa Sato, ‘Noise’, 2010

Teppei Soutome

Mayuko Wada

Taro Izumi, ‘Corset (library)’ (detail), 2012, video and timber construction

Mayuko Wada


In European vision and the South Pacific, published in 1960, Bernard Smith wrote that, ‘European observers sought to come to grips with the realities of the Pacific by interpreting them in familiar forms’. That is, European vision, brought to the Pacific as it ‘opened up’ to Cook’s 1768 voyage, carried with it a familiar frame through which to experience the ‘new’ world. Paul Carter, writing in his 1994 book The lie of the land, makes the same observation in more general terms, noting that ‘the coloniser produces the country he will establish out of his own imagining’. The constituent parts of this country—the landscape, flora and fauna, even the human inhabitants—come to serve roles calibrated to the shifting ideologies of colonialism. Perhaps they might signify abject fear or endless possiblity; the dark night of a pre-enlightenment world or the bountiful paradise of an untouched arcadia. Henri Matisse, visiting Polynesia in 1930, no doubt saw a vision of the modernist avant-garde reflected back at him, exactly, one might argue, what he sought when he set sail from Europe. Sixteen years after his visit, during what he romantically termed ‘reveries’, he would call forth his version of paradise to produce works like Oceania—the sky (1946). As is well known, along with other artists like Picasso, Matisse’s engagement with the art of Africa and Oceania is popularly seen to have underwritten the gains of European modernism in the twentieth century. But, as with any colonial project, these gains can now be understood as more complex and conflicted. Theirs was a vision driven by a European mythology of the authenticity of non-European cultural forms, an authenticity which we might now recognise as contingent on the voicelessness of these forms within the world of modernity. Matisse’s ghostly figure at the centre of one of Daniel Boyd’s recent paintings seems to attest to this—it is an unsettling presence, one which looms largest only in peripheral vision. Boyd’s new paintings suggest that to visualise paradise now is to witness the ghost of colonialism. We might realise that the paradise sought beyond the familiar boundaries of empire was no paradise at all.

Daniel Boyd, Kalimanrawlins, Melbourne, 11 August – 1 September 2012.

Matisse at the Pacific island of Tahiti, 1930

Daniel Boyd, ‘Untitled’, 2012, oil and archival gel on canvas, 162 x 257 cm

Daniel Boyd, ‘Untitled’, 2012, oil and archival gel on canvas, 300 x 197 cm

Daniel Boyd, ‘Untitled’, 2012, oil and archival gel on canvas, 183 x 137 cm

Daniel Boyd, ‘Untitled’, 2012, oil and archival gel on canvas, 137 x 102 cm

Daniel Boyd, ‘Untitled’, 2012, oil and archival gel on canvas, 93 x 66 cm

Peter Schjeldahl: The critic as squid

At one point in the pleasantly orchestrated conversation that was ‘An evening with “The New Yorker”‘, for the Melbourne Writers Festival, the art critic Peter Schjeldahl was likened to a large smoking squid. This reference to an outdated bad habit, and the old-school independence that one associates with art criticism in this age of institutional connections that pass as independent speech, had him up there with fantastic voyages to the South Seas to locate the elusive home of the giant squid. By way of reflection on the Antipodes, where such sightings might still be possible, Schjeldahl and his fellow New Yorkers—Henry Finder, David Grann, Sasha Frere-Jones and cartoonist Roz Chast—talked gallantly about a variety of themes. In my mind, there is no doubt that the island of long rambling essays in print about all and sundry are over unless you are the institution that is The New Yorker. With its quaint 1950s ambience and deservedly celebrated cartoons it is deliciously nostalgic, a form of guilty pleasure, like reading a Patricia Highsmith novel.

The giant squid came into its own for some more targeted critique in ‘The art game’, compered by ABC Radio National’s Michael Cathcart and featuring the recently anointed NGV director, Tony Ellwood. In this company, Schjeldahl shon as the bright light of free thinking on the fatal shore of institutional imperatives. Cathcart took the art versus sport line to frame the discussion around a series of ‘rounds’ about ‘art as a game’ or (with more arch implications) ‘art as a racket’, dwelling somewhat cynically on the comparison with combative sport, and relentless fixations on the score, time and money. And Ellwood, for whom I had more sympathy—promising at least to do something for post-1950s international art in the NGV collection—was also cautiously hamstrung by the need to stand up in defence of the realm (bolstered by comments about audience numbers and accessibility) in terms of celebrating our great national identity (most specifically, as Melburnian). By comparison, Schjeldahl, in a delightfully gentlemanly tone (over the course of the evening), said with glorious frankness, ‘I hate biennales’, ‘I hate museums’, ‘I hate all ideas of art as a form of civic virtue’, ‘I don’t have anything to say about the art market’, ‘I would go seek out a Rembrandt with flashlight in a subway toilet if that is where it is shown’. Beauty and high-mindedness, ‘You mean, like the moonrise over a Wallmart parking lot?’ Phooey, and hooray for the aesthete, for the risk in the thing—the critic as the elephant in the room, alias ‘The squid’.  Now there is a good idea for a cartoon …

The New Yorker ‘bringing Manhattan to Melbourne’ was a theme of this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival, 23 August — 2 September 2012.

Sasha Frere-Jones, Peter Schjeldahl, David Grann, Roz Chast and Henry Finder, ‘An evening with “The New Yorker”‘, Melbourne Writers Festival, Melbourne Town Hall, 24 August 2012

Michael Cathcart, Peter Schjeldahl and Tony Ellwood, ‘The art game’, Melbourne Writers Festival, BMW Edge,  24 August 2012


Some local birds

Why not, I thought. Go local. Pat Brassington’s had enough press already! So has ACCA. It just so happens that my friend Ben Sheppard has a show on round the corner from my house at Counihan Gallery in Brunswick. Excellent! I can walk there! And it just so happens that my friend Amy Jo is sitting the gallery when I walk in. Buoyed by the welcome, I am met with a thoroughly enchanting array of—and take this as you will—cocks and balls. This is where some local vernacular comes in—seriously mate! And they were grouse! And he used pen, mate—PEN!

Le coq is a fastidiously and beautifully executed collection of sculpture and drawings—iconic, playful portraits of roosters and cockerels. These portrayals are juxtaposed with spheres made of myriad strokes and coloured inks, steel twisted and painted with bright baked enamel like balls of messed-up string. There is the piqued and curious gaze of the rooster that’s come into contact with the alien ball, reminiscent of the opening scene of 2001: A space odyssey, where early man is met by the ominous black slabs. Not only in a compositional sense but also in energy and execution: the random versus the precise and deliberate, representation versus abstraction; the works embody a state of flux.

These proud and plumaged birds, always slightly on edge, with a jaunty expression, can be seen as metaphors for characters that populate our world. Heads held high with the gait of a barrister off to court, the pluck and adornment of a Gangsta Rapper or, locally, a self-consciously nonchalant young man in tight skinny jeans rolled up at the ankles, bright socks peaking out, going to buy bread at the Albert Street Safeway.

And then some.

Benjamin Sheppard, Le coq, Counihan Gallery, Melbourne, 16 August – 16 September 2012.

Benjamin Sheppard, ‘Where to next Pepin?’ (detail), 2012, ball point pen on paper

Benjamin Sheppard, ‘Tribal act’, 2011, ball point pen and black felt on paper

Benjamin Sheppard, ‘Not listening’, 2011, ball point pen and black felt on paper

Benjamin Sheppard, ‘Tabarin’, 2011, ball point pen on paper

Benjamin Sheppard, ‘Je pense, donc je suis’, 2012, ball point pen on paper

The green text