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…
Entries Tagged 'ARTISTS' ↓
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.
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?
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.
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…
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.
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…
exhibition slideshow here at Milani Gallery.
Minimal \ Conceptual is the first in a two part exhibition exploring the transition from minimal to conceptual practice in Australian art. Part one includes the work of Ian Burn, Peter Cripps, Robert Hunter, Peter Kennedy, Nigel Lendon, Mel Ramsden and Normana Wight. Part two will focus on the dematerialisation of the art object into other forms of practice, and will take place in 2014.
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 →
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.
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.
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.
Followers of Ai Weiwei may have already read these blogposts (translated to English) from the mid- and late-2000s, here reprinted at The China Story, within a chapter on China and the blogosphere. TCS is published by the Australian Center on China in the World at the Australian National University. The reprinting of these texts, in the context of the publication of the Center’s annual Yearbook, may have contributed to the censorious approaches to the Australian Government, and the Center directly, made by representatives of the Chinese Embassy in Australia. The Center has now published its correspondence on these events here.