Australia at the Royal Academy

Iconophilia is pleased to post the text of Ian McLean’s talk given at the Royal Academy symposium on November 1st, 2013.

‘Anxious identities: Reinventing Australia in a changing world’

A child of the Enlightenment, the conception of Australia was inadvertently set in train by the Royal Society 245 years ago, coincidentally the same year that the Royal Academy was established. I say inadvertently because the Royal Society had its eyes on Venus, not Australia. An afterthought of Cook’s secret mission to explore the South Pacific after the transit of Venus, Australia was unintended and unloved from the beginning. Be that as it may, the result was its birth as an idea and eventually a nation.

Beginning with these thoughts is my way of acknowledging this venerable institution, the appropriateness of the exhibition ‘Australia’ being here, as well as a mentor, Bernard Smith. He believed Australian art began under the sign of the Royal Society not the Royal Academy, by which he meant it was about nature and science, not neo-classicism and fine art. I think he put too much weight on this difference. For me they were essentially the same institution: each an arm of the Crown and Empire. Nineteenth-century Australian art is a happy alliance of neo-classicism, naturalism and science, and so has a natural home here, in Burlington House, which the Royal Society and Royal Academy shared for 100 years. Half the art in this exhibition, the first half, really belongs to it. It is the art of Empire, not Australia, which conveniently narrows my topic to the other half of the exhibition. Continue reading →

Public Aesthetics and Public Ethics

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What makes public art fair game for political graffiti? This 1969-1972 monumental untitled sculpture by Margel Hinder occupies a courtyard space in Woden, Canberra. In its time, such art was resolutely apolitical. In those days, such examples of public art were a source of cultural pride. Untouchable. However one might now say that the concept of the public in the space of public art enables the kind of transgressive political action we see here. I’m not sure I know how to unpack the ethics of anti-aesthetic actions such as these. Graffiti on works of art maximises attention, as we see from recent examples around the world. But does it also diminish the politics of the action? And today there’s a topical piece at Hyperallergic. Food for thought in every direction…

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Public art can be dangerous for your health (and psychological wellbeing)

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One of my favourite works in the Australian National University’s sculpture collection used to be Witness, by the renowned Indonesian/Australian artist Dadang Christanto. Comprised of aluminium forms attached to the skeleton of a eucalypt tree, it looked for all the world like a flock of Sulphur-crested cockatoos that had lobbed into the branches of the tree, as they do. Commissioned in 2004, when Dadang was artist-in-residence at the School of Art, for quite some time it stood in splendid isolation overlooking the shores of Lake Burley Griffin. Subsequently, in a wind storm, some of the aluminium forms detached themselves and fell to the ground.

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For the last five years there has been a dodgy star-picket and wire fence to keep spectators at bay. Now (shock! horror!) the whole area has been surrounded by a vast backyard fence! It is now framed in a way such that the original work has a radically inappropriate new visual component. Now I know (and I’ve argued on this site) that reframing is a particularly Canberran discourse – witness the way the experts and architects at the National Gallery have redesigned and reframed The Aboriginal Memorial – but this is example of what is technically known as outsider design. Or is this Occupational Health and Safety gone mad? In which case, what about the psychological health of the artlovers like your iconophile who have to walk past it every morning?

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There are ethical and moral rights issues at play here. Was the artist consulted? If so, we will need to reconsider whether the work has been transformed in some way into a sad statement about art in the public domain. Was anyone asked whether this was an appropriate addition to the work? If so, there is an interesting question of curatorial responsibility at play. Alternately, perhaps this is a test case for public art more generally? The Skywhale, for example, could be flown behind a giant fence, and then nobody would be unhappy. Except me.

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If you read my previous post, you will realise that a debate has erupted in the skies over Canberra over what constitutes appropriate forms of public art. Patricia Piccinini’s Skywhale, which was commissioned by Centenerary Director Robyn Archer, has flown into a storm of oppobrium. People don’t like it, people hate it, people love it. It’s inoppobriate. The peeps think it should better represent them.

Whoa! Since when has public art been required to represent the citizenry? Except, perhaps, indirectly, in representing the wisdom and foresight of those who commission the work, and those whose responsibility it is to design and curate our public spaces… And, in this democratic age, if you don’t like this one, how about that one?

So why on earth has our ex-Chief Minister, Jon Stanhope, arisen from his siesta on Christmas Island to bag Robyn, and her political mistresses, his political allies, in such a virulent manner? Is it perhaps to distract our attention from his own parting gift to the excessive collection of mostly minor and mediocre works that were acquired as a result of the percent-for-art scheme (now defunct, subsequently abandoned by the ex-Chief Minister in the face of voter angst). But this final excruciating ensemble (by whom I can’t tell you, I couldn’t find a plaque, perhaps they’re sitting on it) has an interesting story…

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When the ex-Chief Minister was the Chief Minister he convened a panel of experts to advise on the expenditure of the percent-for-art. They recommended against this work. Very well, decided the then-Chief Minister, I don’t need a panel to tell me whether or not I like something. We’ll have it anyway… The panel was dissolved. The money was spent.

Now if only we could get the damn thing to fly away, everyone would be happy.

So is it the purpose of public art to incite controversy?

Public art is never universally loved, or hated. And Skywhale is not to my taste. But I’m with Robyn Archer when she says the Piccinini Skywhale is there to evoke “powers of imagination that allows wonder and curiosity into our lives.” And when our ex-Chief Minister Jon Stanhope (who must suffering sensory deprivation on Christmas Island, along with all the refugees he’s looking after) says the commission is “arrogant” and “self-indulgent” and should have been vetoed by the current Chief Minister. But how does that differ from the myriad examples of his own taste plonked all over the town, that we have to continue to live with? And let’s not forget that he caved in to political pressure and abandoned the 1% for art scheme…

What Skywhale isn’t is as significant in this debate as what it is. It isn’t safe, parochial, or self-referential, and it signals adventure, challenge, and invention as it’s seen and appreciated all over the world. Publicity you can’t buy. The risk is, judging from the reaction, that’s false advertising…

Conceptual / Minimal

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How myths are made: Marina Abramovic remembers Lake Disappointment.

In his cover story for The Weekend Australian Review, Tim Douglas interviews Marina Abramovic in Abu Dhabi. However the account of her experiences in the Australian desert three decades ago leaves a seriously problematic trail for its account of her cross-cultural relationships.  (“Primal Performer: Artist Marina Abramovic was transformed by a desert epiphany.” Weekend Australian Review, March 30-31, 2013, pp. 6-7.) In this promo piece for the upcoming Kaldor project, Douglas gives us the latest version of Abramovic’s story:

Following an appearance at the third Sydney Biennale in 1979, Abramovic and her artistic collaborator and lover Ulay – German artist Frank Uwe Laysiepen – trekked out to  central Australia and requested to meet the indigenous people of Western Australia’s Little Sandy Desert, near Lake Disappointment [according to Douglas' interview]. That meeting [he relates] would become the best part of a year living with the local Aborigines.  “For me, Aborigines are the most natural human beings: they live not in the past or in the future but in the present. They have a story and a meaning  for everything, “ she says. “In that desert I spent a lot of time just sitting down: meditating, listening to the silence. This is what opened my universe.”

According to Douglas’ interview, it was in the desert that Abramovic had her epiphany:

…what she terms a “non-rational extra sense of perception”. “I walked out of that desert after a year and had this realization that, ‘Wow. I see things differently. I am new.’”

The historical account tells it somewhat differently, as history is wont to do. In The Third Hand: Collaboration in Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism (Sydney, 2001), in a chapter devoted to these artists, author Charles Green concludes his description of Ambramovic and Ulay’s experience as a form of contemporary “primitivism.” What follows is how he comes to this conclusion: Continue reading →

Who would have thought relational art would become so lucrative?

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Nearly two decades ago Nicolas Bourriaud coined the term ‘relational art’ to describe “a set of practices which takes as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.” (Bourriaud 2002: 113) Relational artists are, he said, orientated towards collective rather than individualistic expression, and envisage their art as a political rather than aesthetic project. Nowadays everyone is a relational artist, or so it seems.

With the latest acquisition by the National Gallery of Australia of the work ‘A–Z homestead unit’ by the Californian relational artist Andrea Zittel, it is the presence for ten days of the Canberra/Melbourne artist Charlie Sofo that will provide the work with its social context, as he “customizes” the work, (according to the Gallery blurb) and blogs his experiences. Sofo has been invited to inhabit this diminutive “dwelling” – on his own terms – using it either as a space for work, for thought, or to sleep over.

In itself, habitable art has been around for a lot longer that relational art. In the mid-seventies, the Californian/Australian artist Marr Grounds, together with his two dogs Mutt and Pete, “inhabited” a sandbag bunker (entitled the “art thing”) that he had built under the stairs in the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

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People visited, and contributed to his evolving concept of a participatory art practice: visitors to the “art thing” poured sand onto prepared “art bit” cards, and took them away as their own work. Grounds’ motive was as much a commentary on the elitist climate of the art world as it was an experiment in a “democratic” mode of practice.

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Like the later work by Tim Burns and Michael Callaghan in the same museum, living in the gallery space was a deliberately disruptive gesture aimed at challenging the prevailing modernist dogma of art’s autonomy from its social context, intending instead to  re-conceptualise the gallery as a social space.

If these were some of the precursors of relational art in Australia, Zittel’s work occupies another world indeed. Like a piece of DIY backyard furniture, if it were more functional, and a lot less expensive, it’s the kind of thing you might buy at Bunnings, the local hardware store. More like a commodity than a piece of sculpture, it gestures towards lived spaces, without having to function in anything but a nominal manner as a space in which anyone might actually live.

Made of steel, glass and chipboard-based building materials, it’s about the size of two double beds, and contains the kind of basic equipment you’d need for a camping holiday. However its functionality leaves a lot to be desired. There are no windows to open, no screens, and the mosquitoes are free to come and go through the gaps around the roof. The glass walls are enhanced by printed imagery which depicts a kind of abstracted reflection of a surrounding landscape. Other than the print imagery, there is nothing to suggest that this is a sculptural object, or a work of art in any recognizable sense. It is so loaded with other kinds of referents (to homelessness, to isolation, to incarceration, even) that it functions both as a kind of inversion of an aesthetic discourse as much as it suggests its impossibility as a space to live in.

While this work has been located on the lawns of the NGA sculpture garden, for it to have any kind of longevity it will ultimately have to be moved to a sheltered environment, or the galleries indoors. In that context its aesthetics will be rendered even more bizarre. One wonders in what context this could be shown… as some banal parody of Utopian Design, perhaps?

Perhaps it is only its rumoured price tag of $150,000 that will signify its institutional significance as a work of art. Clearly relational art is no longer a zero-sum game.

Author’s disclosure: Pete the dog also belonged to your iconophile.

Anti-Soviet Realism

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In late 1989 the last troops of the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan had left after a decade of resistance by the various forces of the mujihadeen. During this period of time one finds an extraordinary profusion of visual media opposing the Soviet occupation. Contradictions abound in the visual record of this unhappy decade. The non-traditional narrative carpets of this period constitute a form of indigenous modernism which occurs independent of other modes of contemporary visual art occurring elsewhere in the world. However the rug shown here is an exception to the rule. One of only two known examples, each of which differs slightly from the other, this remarkable image is clearly derived from the Socialist Realist style of the post-WW2 era, in a complex pictorial montage which depicts the heroic resistance of the mujahideen against the military might of Soviet heavy armour.

What makes the this carpet so unusual, and surprising, is the way it breaks with (almost) all the conventions of carpet tradition. It is proof (if we needed convincing) that carpet weavers could indeed “make anything.” Its design is familiar to a Western modernist eye insofar as it deliberately combines a number of models of representation in a mode of simultaneity – not unlike its 20th century precursors of cubist collage and photomontage. The production of an explicitly “Western” representation in celebration of the defeat of the Soviets makes another kind of claim for modernity – or rather, for a modernity that is not dependent on the exercise of Soviet military power. Continue reading →

Was Alighiero Boetti the last Orientalist?

Hopefully, yes. In the text below you’ll find me proposing that the work of the late Alighiero Boetti should be recognised as a contemporary form of Orientalist practice, despite all the protestations to the contrary. And further, that the surge of biographical and curatorial activity of the last few years – culminating in Boetti’s recent retrospectives at the Museo Reina Sophia, the Tate Modern, and the MoMA, another at the Fowler, and soon another at MAXXI – has produced its own form of a contemporary Orientalist discourse. This has been achieved in the Boetti literature through strategies of denial and negation which have amplified and exaggerated the artist’s original avant-gardist postures. This is posited through a strategy of inversion: the artist’s own denial of agency is set against the retrospective claims now made for his refugee camp workers’ “co-creative” “relational” “collaboration” in the production of his embroidered works. So suggests Mark Godfrey, his most recent biographer, and the Tate Modern curator of his retrospective. To the contrary, I argue that his workers’ anonymous, abstracted, and mystified representations, both in the work and in the literature, is but the latest manifestation of a contemporary orientalism.

Sceptical? Listen to this: “Ali Ghiero, the Bedouin in transit, camped next to the Pantheon” – exemplifies how the latest blurb from MAXXI has (even further) mythologised/orientalised his practice. See here.

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In recent years biographers, curators, and followers of the late Italian Arte Povera artist Alighiero Boetti have gone out of their way to deny the orientalist character of his work – in favour, even, of presenting him as a prophet of globalism. And yet although Tate Modern’s Mark Godfrey at one point recognises the inherent idealisation in Boetti’s engagement throughout the 1970s with his Afghan “Others”, he also remains convinced that, for Boetti, “Afghanistan should be understood neither as some “other” place untouched by Western civilisation nor as a culture somehow under-developed or ahistorical.”[1]  How can such contradictory views be reconciled? Despite all the evidence to the contrary, including Boetti’s opposition to the modernisation of Afghanistan and his problematic “relationship” with his outsourced workers in the refugee camps of Pakistan, in his recent biography Godfrey asserts his mode of production was evidence of Boetti’s  “determination… [not to] represent them… the peoples he met… as an exotic other.” Such are the twists and turns of the logic of denial and inversion in the Boetti story.

Art History 101 teaches us that Orientalist Art is characterised by analysis of the representation of “exotic” Others and the conditions of their presentation and reception in the Euro-American West. The consequences for an understanding of the historical context of the colonialist relations between ‘the West’ and its ‘Eastern’ subjects places such art in its wider socio-political context. So it goes, in university classrooms around the world.

Continue reading →