Avant-Garde and Kitsch

The historical opposition of avant-garde and kitsch is finally reconciled in the work of Damien Hirst, as demonstrated here in this masterly performance of self-parody. Not only is this manifested in the buttons (see Ben Davis’ review) which you can buy for 75p, or the 19.95 cufflinks, but also to the fifteen Iron-on Spots, above, which I bought for ten quid.

Such trinkets may appear to be superficially kitschy, in the contemporary sense, yet perhaps they are also a key to a characteristic of the rest of Hirst’s enterprise? Compared to other critics, it has been Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker who has worked hardest to extract some value from what he saw at the New York Gagosian venue of the global exhibition: “Hirst is originally unoriginal, to put it positively: a master of supererogation. His work comprehends all manner of things about previous art except, crucially, why it was created. It smacks less of museums than of art-school textbooks. What may pass for meaning in the spot paintings is the sum of their associations in the history of abstraction.” Despite his scathing reservations for this kind of art, as he concludes, the Hirst phenomenon produces only forensic pleasure: “In the course of one fair and square taunt after another, Hirst surely marvels at what he is abetted in getting away with. “The Complete Spot Paintings,” to his credit, makes no bones about what a certain precinct of the world has come to.”

Comparing the outcome of The Spot Paintings spectacle to some shady forms of post-GFC dealing, Schjeldahl evokes Marcel Duchamp to try to makes sense of Hirst’s strategies: “Duchamp remarked that art is created partly by its maker and partly by its audience. Hirst dumps pretty much the entire transaction into the audience’s lap. The result is art in the way that some exotic financial dealings are legal: by a whisker.”

What Schjeldahl failed to extract from this use of the Duchampian formula is the presence of the shadowy third agent in the creation of meaning, which is the dealer. Of course there are other agencies which confer status on a work of art – notably museums and auction houses – but in this instance the figure of Gagosian himself participates equally in the transaction which leads to the appreciation (if that is the correct word) of this particular body of work.

When you visit a Gagosian gallery, the door is opened for you by a black-suited doorman, apparently groomed to be excessively polite. When Axel and I visited the Gagosian in London, in each of the galleries sleepy black-suited guards outnumbered the viewers. Three young women sat behind a row of computer screens. Another well dressed young man sat at a desk in the shop, where the prints, books, and trinkets such as the Iron-On Spots (above) were for sale. Strangely, despite the apparent similarities, this did not feel like a museum, the role of which is, in part, to strip the work of art of its commodity status. In museums, works of art are no longer for sale. In the Gagosian Galleries, you are made to feel as if you are privy to the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, outside of trading hours.


And so I found myself sharing with Peter Schjeldahl the perverse necessity to search for meaning or aesthetic value in the paintings themselves: “I can enjoy looking at one for a while, but to like them would entail identifying with the artist’s cynicism, as herds of collectors, worldwide, evidently do. Hirst will go down in history as a peculiarly cold-blooded pet of millennial excess wealth.” It is interesting, in its own way, to stare at coloured circles, separated by a white ground, to see what you see. And yet there is just enough white ground separating the dots for there to be no discernible cumulative colour-effect, as one comes to expect from abstract paintings, when the subject and content of which is purely the interaction of form and colour. In the Hirst spot paintings, even this effect is denied the viewer. It is an aesthetic of excessive denial.

When Clement Greenberg wrote his groundbreaking essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” for the Partisan Review in 1939, both the word “kitsch” and the concept of the “avant-garde” meant something altogether different. And yet the argument still resonates, over the years. In those days, Greenberg’s use of the word “kitsch” evoked its Germanic origins, referencing a conservative “popular” and academic visual culture. By contrast, the avant-garde was seen as a “bohemian” outpost of bourgeois high culture. Nowadays, kitsch is seen as a phenomenon of jokey bad taste and retro-inspired fashion, and the avant-garde is primarily dependent on its institutional and museological contexts. These are the contemporary meanings that enable Clement Greenberg’s original title, the dialectic of which once appeared so contradictory, to have become perfectly reconciled in Hirst’s practice. But don’t feel sorry for the poor investors, they’re well protected – by the men in black.

The Great Game

Nobody knows just when a board game titled “Safe Travel through Afghanistan” was invented. Most likely, it was some time in the 60s or 70s, when it was safe to travel in Afghanistan.  Not earlier, given the presence of the Ariana Boeing 727 in the center of the image. Nevertheless, here it is, reproduced in the form of a carpet, probably made in the last few years.

Perhaps it was some mad spirit of ironic optimism that caused this to be transformed into a furry picture?  Or some lost-in-translation lack of understanding of the contemporary implications of the original graphic? Whatever, it certainly confuses one’s understanding of the emblematic use of the map of Afghanistan in all its other different political contexts. No matter what was its makers’ intent, iconophilia here shares it with you (wherever you may be) in our well-intentioned and peaceful tradition of greetings for the festive season…

(and thanks to Rob Little for the photograph).

art without artists

…not the way Anton Vidokle writes about it in e-flux. Or the fascination with the Outsider/Insider. If you’re still with me, see here for those who are simply anonymous.

Smee nails Venice: it’s intellectually fattening

Sebastian Smee has reviewed the Venice Biennale in The Monthly – and at last someone has some insights into the rise of hyper-realism. What was the attraction of the naturalistic effects of Ricky Swallow’s gelutong carvings, or Mueck’s and Piccinini’s special-effects modeling? Now SS has put this move nicely in context as a post-Duchampian aesthetic – as a form of one-upping the readymade, perhaps as a kind of fetishisation of the mundane. Touche. Hence the rise and rise of Hany Armanious – widely regarded as having a god-like touch by Gen-Y artists – but also the contributions of Mike Nelson, Murizio Cattelan, and Urs Fischer, plus Bruno Jakob’s “Invisible Paintings” elsewhere in the Biennale.  Cough cough. And then he mentions Mexico’s Gabriel Kuri, Sweden’s Klara Liden, and China’s Song Dong. It’s a good wrap.

The nail gets its final whack when Smee concludes that there is the “preciousness – the safety –  of irony” in all these ‘moves’ (of endgame art)…

“The beauty of irony, as Julian Barnes pointed out in Flaubert’s Parrot, is that “you can have your cake and eat it: the only trouble is… you get fat.”

PS and here’s another exhibition that could be the beginning of a thread…

is MONA a paradigm shift?

Seems that way to me. If the experience of the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart irreversibly changes the way you think about the potential of the art-architecture experience, the old guard had better look out! If MONA has established a new paradigm for museum practice in Australia, then how will all the other orthodox public and private museums respond? Mount a rearguard critique? Ignore it? Keep doing what we do? I think not.

In the few months since its opening, MONA has been seen by 163,000 people, and there have been more than 100 reviews internationally. (Some of the best are linked at the bottom of this post).  Sure, the MONA effect is individualistic, some say quirky, but certainly a challenging conjunction of architecture and art. Some say, a tad dismissively, it’s a twenty-first century wunderkammer. And if you are really threatened, professionally, you can argue that it’s not really a museum, but rather an egoseum, a private collection made accessible to a curious public, with none of the constraints and obligations attendant on public collections. Its owner, David Walsh, makes the principle of unpredictability his only standard, where any given event or manifestation is just one of “the multiplicity of things that could have happened”.

And yet, if Walsh and his architect, Nonda Katsalidis, have succeeded in making you think about art and its architectural setting in different terms, has it not also altered the standard by which you engage with works of art when you’re in all those other places? In future posts I want to think about such questions. In the meantime, let me show you why it took us an hour to get to the first work of art…

Your iconophile was traveling with Marr Grounds and his daughter Marina Ely, together with Pam McGrath (these photographs), plus Rebel Films‘ David Batty and Jeni McMahon, who are working on a biographical film of Grounds. It was Marr’s father Roy Grounds who designed the two original 1950s modernist houses on Moorilla Estate for Claudio Alcorso (the Courtyard House) and his parents (the Round House).

When you arrive from Hobart on the MONA ferry (which is a kind of mobile coffee shop) you wonder at the red ochre Cor-ten steel windowless forms which enclose the cliff face at the end of the peninsula. As you arrive at the jetty, you are presented with a long narrow staircase which takes you up to the original level of the Alcorso villa. The staircase is your first experience of the excavation of the site, and the sandstone becomes the key motif of the underground spaces which you discover when you eventually enter the galleries below your feet. But first, as you pass the steel and zinc structures, between the sandstone and concrete walls, and the first plantings, you are being prepared for the material qualities that you will experience throughout the building. It feels very good.

When you reach the top of the stairs you realise you’re in for a lot of visual gymnastics. The spaces of the building often appear like a sparring match between an owner-builder and his architect(s). The ground plane of the original Grounds building is linked to the meandering concrete spaces of the gallery roof to the south via a synthetic tennis court. It was Walsh who was the advocate of this icon of suburban popular culture, which faces off the architect’s rejoinder, a stainless steel mirror which frames the Museum’s entrance. In one direction you are attracted to the view of the world outside, framed by the architect’s elegant transparent steel battlements and the modernist villas, while in the other direction the illusionistic mirror draws you in.  Continue reading →

is The Aboriginal Memorial a work of art?

On 6th November last year Djon Mundine gave a talk at the National Gallery of Australia about the place of The Aboriginal Memorial in the context of contemporary Indigenous art, following its relocation and redesign in the new wing. One of his key claims was that the historical moment of transition between art museums’ treatment of Aboriginal artefacts as works of art coincided with the recognition of authorship. According to this criterion, Indigenous artefacts in museum collections were recognised as works of art by the act of naming their authors.

In the discussion that followed his talk, one of the members of the audience noted that the 43 artists who created The Aboriginal Memorial were not named, which, by Djon’s criterion, called into question the status of the Memorial as a work of art. Both Djon and the Senior Curator, Francesca Cubillo seemed to agree that this was a problem which should be fixed. Two months later, all that has been changed is the addition of a short wall-text edited from an excellent brochure, written by Susan Jenkins in 1997 (which did name all the artists). The new additional wall-text reads:

The Aboriginal Memorial

The Aboriginal Memorial is an installation of 200 hollow log ceremonial coffins from Central Arnhem Land. The Aboriginal Memorial was created for the National Gallery of Australia in 1988 in response to the Bicentenary of Australia, a celebration of 200 years of European settlement. The path through the Memorial imitates the course of the Glyde River estuary which flows through the Arafura Swamp to the sea. The hollow log coffins are situated broadly according to where the artists’ clans live along the river and its tributaries.

The Aboriginal Memorial was conceived by Djon Mundine, a member of the Bundjalang people of northern New South Wales and at the time art adviser in Ramingining in Central Arnhem Land. Originally Mundine approached a small group of Senior artists including Paddy Dhatangu, George Malibirr, Jimmy Wululu and Dr David Daymirringu. However the project grew to include forty three male and female artists from Ramingining and its surrounds in Central Arnhem Land.

The Aboriginal Memorial with its 200 hollow log coffins – one for each year of European settlement, in the words of Mundine, represents a forest of souls, a war cemetery and the final rites for all indigenous Australians who have been denied a proper burial.

In 1987 the National Gallery of Australia agreed to commission this installation to enable the artists, most of whom were professional painters, sculptors and weavers, to complete the project. The Aboriginal Memorial was initially shown at the Biennale of Sydney in 1988. It was then brought to Canberra where it is now permanently displayed in the National Gallery of Australia.

The Aboriginal Memorial marks a watershed in the history of Australian society. Whilst it is intended as a war memorial, its is also a historical statement, a testimony to the resilience of Indigenous people and culture in the face of great odds, and a legacy for future generations of Australians.

The label remains the same, which itself perpetuates a historical mis-attribution. If you go to the website – here – to find the artists’ locations, clans, names, and stories, you will see that a significant proportion of the work was made by artists who live/lived somewhere other than Ramininging.

Elsewhere, the Gallery claims The Aboriginal Memorial as “one of the most important works of art in the national collection”.

Yet the question remains: does the absence of attribution – the artists’ names on the label which accompanies the work – render ambiguous the status of The Aboriginal Memorial as a work of art?

P.S. As noted in an earlier post, the right of attribution is recognised within Moral Rights legislation in Australia. And see other related confusions at the NGA here.

P.P.S. Links to the thread on this topic may be found here. Or type Memorial in the search box.

P.P.P.S. And for a wider perspective, read Melinda Hinkson (who describes herself – in this instance – as a “disgruntled anthropologist”) on the NGA’s lack of a relational approach to its presentation of Indigenous art. You can download her on-the-button essay from Arena 109 here: For Love and Money.

P.P.P.P.S. You can find the NGA’s own YouTube video here, which in a new description gives a account of funerary practices in the present tense, as if that is the way burial ceremonies still take place. A more nuanced account might say: “In the past…” or “Traditionally…” Otherwise, aren’t we getting a little more ethnographic than the Director might like?

STOP PRESS: 27 June 2011. At last the National Gallery of Australia has taken a step toward remedying the problems outlined above. It has only taken seven months.

But wait! Naming the artists is one thing. But it perpetuates the myth that these are all artists from Ramingining. Ramingining artists and others is the more accurate attribution.

At last the Australian equivalent of Picasso’s Guernica has been recognised by the National Gallery of Australia as the preeminent work of art of the Australian colonial era.

Another P.S.: Let’s see how long it takes to make some corrections? Jimmy Moduk is listed twice, Neville Nanytjawuy is missing.

A final P.S.: In June 2016 I published the following essay: Relational Agency: Rethinking The Aboriginal Memorial. https://emajartjournal.com/2016/06/15/nigel-lendon-relational-agency-rethinking-the-aboriginal-memorial/

Indigenous art in a Chinese frame

As introduced in a previous post, Quentin Sprague was recently involved in the No Name Station project, a residency for a number of Chinese and Australian artists and curators (and a writer) in the remote Gija community of Warmun in the North East of WA. The resulting exhibition opened in October at Iberia Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing, which will travel to Gertrude Contemporary in Melbourne in 2011. Here Quentin pursues some pertinent issues raised by the experience of the project:

“A project like this raises a number of questions about how remote Indigenous Australian works of art operate when seen from outside the established framework that exists in Australia. In a broad context of contemporary practitioners, without the presence of didactic wall texts, and across the barrier of language that exists in a place like China, an audience can only approach these objects as art – or so the logic goes. That is, in its Chinese frame, an awareness of relevant traditional, historical or contemporary contexts cannot be assumed to underlie any reading. So, what’s left when these various groundings are removed? What are other cultures seeing when we present remote Indigenous practice as a dynamic contemporary form?

Zuo Jing photographs Alex Hall, Great Northern Highway near Warmun, WA (author’s photograph)

For the Chinese artists and curators during the residency in July this year, it was perhaps hard not to approach Gija practice as a kind of ‘folk art’, and draw comparison to the practices of minority groups in China. So while dialogue with the urban based Australian artists was fairly easy to establish within the common grounding of International contemporary art, the practice of the Gija was much harder to place, at least in similar terms to how key practitioners are seen in Australia. This is not necessarily meant as a criticism – rather it is a response that I feel highlights differences in production and representation which, let’s face it, still presents challenges in the Australian art world, let alone in International contexts.

Representing cultural difference now forms a significant part of a global contemporary art discourse. This fairly recently emerged willingness on the part of artists and curators to actively explore points of cultural exchange can sometimes be a difficult process. As the No Name Station residency group discovered, actual cultural differences can be fundamental and although art practice can present a common grounding in these contexts it doesn’t necessarily offer up easy resolutions.

Installation view of No Name Station at Iberia Centre for Contemporary Art, Beijing, (L-R), Rusty Peters, Berrngalanginy, 2008, Newell Harry, Lloyd Treistino, 1967-2009 (installation in progress) (author’s photograph)

The image above shows Gija artist Rusty Peter’s work alongside the installation in progress of Newell Harry’s work Lloyd Treistino, an exploration of his family’s story of migration shown through selected family photographs and related archived materials presented in vitrines, including letters, watercolours and objects.

The desire to explore this area in regards to the representation of remote practice within wider frameworks raises a series of valid questions, often resulting directly from such difficulties. Like how to negotiate the contemporary in ways that resonate across truly different cultural contexts. And, what does ‘contemporary’ really mean when applied to remote practice anyway? Simply that the art is being made now? Maybe the term is best seen as a particularly Western one – one that emphasises innovation and change – rather than a concept projected onto a totally different tradition of cultural production that has largely emphasised the relative immutability of cultural forms. Does its use set up expectations that aren’t necessarily helpful when considering the real position of the work in question?

The argument can be made that the complex series of exchanges that the indigenous art object represents is perhaps its most interesting aspect in a contemporary art context. When presenting remote indigenous practice in an International arena, or anywhere really, the question of how to articulate its various realities in relation to broader notions of contemporary art is ever present. Maybe without this area being explored in the exhibition context, or at least without it being apparent to some extent to the audience, the work is presented with an unescapable element of artifice…”