Tag Archives: NGV

The National Gallery & Nationalism

There is a vast unexamined area of the reason for national art galleries along with a lack of coherence in explaining why they exist. This lack of coherence and examination rests on another idea that lacks both coherence and examination, the nation state.

National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art , Gwacheon, Korea

National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art , Gwacheon, Korea

The idea of nations and geography makes the artist is built into the very structure of most major art galleries, after all they are often called ‘National’ or ‘State’ galleries. The artificial divisions these gallery make between nationalities and even races perpetrates the idea that the nationality or race is important. (The NGV has a separate gallery of artists who identify as aboriginal.) This nationalism is reflected in the hanging of the art although it does not help our understanding of art history nor the appreciation of the art anymore than hanging the art on the basis of the artist’s gender. The underlying assumption is that there is an underlying core aesthetic to a particular nationality or race is absurdly racist and is not supported by any evidence.

John Burrow writes “For Hegel, in the last part of his Philosophy of Right (1852) (324, 325), it was crucial that the State, in war, could call on the citizen to sacrifice his life. War was no longer, as in the eighteenth century, an affair merely for mercenaries. The State’s right to individual’s life was not just an instrument for his protection (the contract theory), or for the production of welfare (Enlightened Despotism), but a higher spiritual entity than the individual. The requirement of his life was not tyranny but self-sacrifice, submission to one’s own higher will and participation in the life of a higher entity.” (John Burrow, A History of Histories, Penguin Books, 2007, p.459)

The nation state is a religion, a belief in a higher entity. God might be dead and buried but the nation state is very much alive. Several assumptions are made about the sacred nation state but given that nation states are a human invention only a few hundred years old it is not necessary that any nation state exists.

The claim that the state has a right not to be divided and that protecting that state, in the words of Radovan Karadzic before the UN tribunal in the Hague, “holy and just.” (The Independent 20/3/10)  The assumption that a nation state has a right to exist implies that it is a higher entity. This higher entity, the god of the nation, has a unique history, a unique culture, if not a unique language and national identity, is legislated, paid for and demanded by the nation state. Where there is no evidence of this unique culture it must be invented, developed and manufactured. It is assumed that there is such a thing as Australian art but nobody assumes that there will be Australian philosophy (philosophy in Australia is predominately Anglo-American philosophy with a little bit of continental European philosophy).

 

National galleries are must have items for countries as if they were playing some giant game of Sid Meier’s Civilization but what are the benefits of having a national gallery, like the NGV: “the richest treasury of visual arts in the southern hemisphere”? (The National Gallery of Victoria is a wonderful example because it is now a “national gallery” without a nation since the independent colony of Victoria federated with other Australian states.)

Is the nation state to coil up like old Smaug around its treasure, exuding power and basking in the envy of others? To have a national collection that to use in soft diplomacy to representing the state? As an educational tool to train future artist and designers to better the nation’s productivity? As infotainment, a tourist attraction to bring customers to the city’s restaurants and hotels and improve the tax revenue? Or is it to be sold off when the city goes bankrupt as was suggested for the Detroit Art Gallery?

 


Sculptures in the Moat

In March 2014, a homeless man Gary Makin went snorkelling in the NGV’s moat collecting the coins. He was arrested – he should gone equipped with a buskers licence and told the police that he was a living sculpture. He would have been the most artistic thing that has been in the NGV’s moat for years.

That was until a few days ago when street sculptor, Will Coles placed some of his concrete giant soya sauce fish into it.

The moat of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) is now mostly empty, except for the prosaic coins and fountains. Once there were sculptures standing in its waters. Geoffrey Bartlett’s Messenger 1983 stood in the moat before being moved to the sculpture garden in the back of the NGV. Four years later Deborah Halpern’s Angel (1987-89) stood in the NGV’s before being moved to Birrarung Marr in 2006.

Deborah Halpern, Angel, 1987-89

Deborah Halpern, Angel, 1987-89

As a psychogeographer I am fascinated by the moats around Australian cultural institutions. There is something curiously medieval about moats. There are moats at Melbourne Zoo around some of the enclosures; there is also a moat around La Trobe University’s Bundoora campus. A moat, even an ornamental one, creates a clear separation between one area and another.

At the time of their design, La Trobe Uni opened 1967 and the NGV in 1968, their architects were clearly expressed with these moats the cultural divisions in Australia between the cultured and the barbarian hordes. The moat around the bastion of culture that is the NGV on St. Kilda Road symbolically removes it from the rest of the world, creating a fortress or a sacred island to protect the art inside.

Now there are no sculptures in the NGV’s moat; Will Coles sculptures have been removed. Now there only a few fountains including the curved steel fountain at the city end of the moat, Nautilus dedicated to the architect of the NGV, Roy Grounds.

Then there is the famous water wall entrance of the NGV that still delights small children. Originally the NGV had more courtyards and fountains, regularly spitting out jets of water amidst rocks. I find fountains in art galleries quaint, but there are a surprising number of water features in art galleries including MOMA.

Recently a friend asked me if I would move on to writing about fountains now that I had completed writing my book on public sculpture (Melbourne’s Sculptures – from the colonial to the ephemeral, due to be published by Melbourne Books later this year). I feel a kind of dread and can already smell the chlorine.


Martyrs, Gladiators, Tourists and Spectacle

Seven rooms of magnificent paintings by Italian old masters from the 16th to 18th centuries make up the NGV’s exhibition, Italian Masterpieces From Spain’s Royal Court, Museo Del Prado. Some of the rooms have themes; still life, ancient Rome and religious art. The exhibition is nothing like visiting the Prado, the paintings are more spread out, it more curated and there are more works on paper on display that are well worth seeing for the artists sketching out their ideas.

Guido Reni, Italian 1575–1642, Saint Sebastian (San Sebastiano) 1615–20, oil on canvas, 170.5 x 133.0 cm Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid (P00211) Spanish Royal Collection

Guido Reni, Italian 1575–1642, Saint Sebastian (San Sebastiano) 1615–20, oil on canvas, 170.5 x 133.0 cm Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid (P00211) Spanish Royal Collection

Two works seemed to sum up so much about the collection: Guido Reni’s Saint Sebastian, 1615-20, that clearly shows the influence of Caravaggio and Jusepe de Ribera’s Women gladiators fighting, 1636. I like Ribera’s paintings but not when he is portraying cruelty, which he is in this painting and in his martyrdom of Saint Lawrence (there is another painting on this subject in the exhibition by Valentin de Boulogne). Ribera reality is touching, shown vividly in his Allegory of Touch; his cruelty is too touching.

Jusepe de Ribera, Spanish c.1591–1652, worked in Italy c.1611–1652, Women gladiators fighting (Donne gladiator combattenti) 1636, oil on canvas, 235.0 x 212.0 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid (P01124) Spanish Royal Collection

Jusepe de Ribera, Spanish c.1591–1652, worked in Italy c.1611–1652, Women gladiators fighting (Donne gladiator combattenti) 1636, oil on canvas, 235.0 x 212.0 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid (P01124) Spanish Royal Collection

The cruelty in these works is enough to make you step back and ask yourself why are you looking? Is it because it is very well painted? Why has the sacred blood in Christian iconography and archaic Roman funerary rites has become the subject of art?

The sensationalised suffering of martyrs and gladiators from the Prado’s collection now serve slightly different propaganda model for a different empire. Italian Masterpieces From Spain’s Royal Court, Museo Del Prado is part of the NGV’s very successful Melbourne’s Winter Masterpieces series of exhibitions. The income from religious tourists that once made the relics of martyrs a good investment for a city has been changed and now importing exhibitions of Italian masterpieces is a good investment for Victoria.

At the media preview for the exhibition the Minister for the Arts, Heide Victoria MLA, along with demonstrating her art history education and boasting that the NGV had a better Tiepolo, spoke about the impact on the economy of the Melbourne’s Winter Masterpiece exhibition series. The NGV, ACMI and the Melbourne Museum attracts 4.3 million visitors a year and with each visitor spending on average $83.72 that brings in $360 million. Melbourne’s inner city hotels, restaurants and bars all share in the profit of being in a city with an event and spectacle based economy.

What could be more spectacular event than the Italian Masters from Spain’s Royal Court? The very names of Raphael, Titian and Tiepolo are, in themselves, a spectacle. The art of the 16th to 18th centuries was about the spectacular; the technique, composition, subject matter, colours, size and, even, the cruelty portrayed are all created to be magnificent, impressive, spectacular.

The institution of the public art gallery is an invention of the nation state, a spectacle created to suit the needs of the state. The now famous decoupling of painting and sculpture from religious and royal propaganda functions that occurred in France after the revolution and gave birth to art collection of the Louvre only happened in France. In Spain there was no such divorce. The great royal collection of the Prado was a just that a royal art collection, and very much the collection of one man, Philip IV of Spain with lots of family portraits and lots of the artists that he loved. The old accession numbers written on the left hand side of the painting, in red or white paint, are still clearly visible and show that the collection is about ownership.

The art of the Italian masters, the spectacle of the royal bling of the Spanish empire is still functional to the National Gallery. The collection of the Prado and the exhibition at the NGV International are a kind of public relations, or marketing that Mazda, principal sponsor of the exhibition, are proud to be associated with. To build on this association there are two new Mazdas were parked in front of the NGV’s famous water wall.

It is hard to know if the Italian masters themselves would be disappointed or pleased that Spain was now close to bankrupt, that the Catholic church morally bankrupt and their painting currently on a continent that, was to them, a mere geographical speculation. Or would they simply move on to a patron with money?


Inge King – Retrospective @ NGV

Without a doubt Inge King is Melbourne’s most important sculptor of the second half of the twentieth century. Her importance comes from being amongst the first modern sculptors in Melbourne, her many public sculptures and her long life.

Inge King, Sun Ribbon 1980-82

Inge King, Sun Ribbon 1980-82

Inge King Constellation is a retrospective exhibition at the NGV Ian Potter Centre (Fed Square). In giving an overview of her life’s work the exhibition shows the point where King found her style and then how it developed. Her early works resembles various European modern sculptors: Jan Arp, Juan Miro, Henry Moore, along with a bit of Alexander Calder.

Sculpture was, until the 20th century, made from raw materials, clay, stone, wood, metal; then came assemblage, a particularly modern method because it requires previously manufactured materials to assemble. In 1959 King acquired and learnt to use an arc welder; it was with the welded assemblage of steel plates that she found her style. It was a style that was perfect for public sculpture. A field guide to recognising a King’s public sculpture would probably note they are assemblages of metal and mostly painted black.

King’s public sculptures are very familiar to many people in Melbourne. Her sculptures are across the city from Melbourne University, the Arts Centre to EastLink. Students and graduates of Melbourne University would be familiar with King Sun Ribbon (1970).

Inge King, Forward Surge 1972-74

Inge King, Forward Surge 1972-74

Forward Surge (1972-74 installed in 1981) fits perfectly into the curved architecture of the Arts Centre Melbourne and Hamer Hall, turning the horizontal curves of the buildings vertical. The curves delight small children who try to climb them only to have to slide back down when the curve becomes to steep. King remarks in a video interview that although she understands why the council wants to stop skateboarders using Forward Surge, because they have to repaint it, she is glad that skateboarders do use it.

As a member of the Centre 5 group King wanted to reunited modern sculpture with architecture. Her Red Rings (2008), located at the junction of the EastLink pedestrian and bike trail and the Dandenong Creek trail, are three steel rings painted red. The human scale of the Red Rings, 2.5 metres in diameter allows for people to move through them.

The NGV’s exhibition has many of the maquettes, at various scales, for these public sculptures. There is the maquette for the bird form, Sheerwater (1994) in front of the Esso building on Southbank.

Inge King, Sheerwater, 1994

Inge King, Sheerwater, 1994

The exhibition gives further insight into King’s interest in reuniting sculpture with architecture, one of the five objectives of the Centre 5 group that King was involved with. Her sculptures can be walls, screens and arches but they can also relate to architecture by projecting from walls or, made of aluminium instead of steal, hanging from the ceiling.

King’s arrival in Melbourne in 1951 marks the beginning of modern Melbourne; the beginning of an international outlook aware of Europe and the USA rather than provincial colonial view. King said that when she arrived Melbourne was “like opening a can of flat beer”. It was the arrival of post-war immigrants that saved Melbourne’s culture and made this contemporary, artistic city.

There was no interest in modern sculpture in Melbourne when King arrived and to make a living she turned to jewellery making. The exhibition includes two vitrines of her boldly modern jewellery; vambrace style bracelets set with opals, necklaces and rings with geometric elegance that can be seen in her most recent sculptures.

Given Inge King’s importance in the history of Australian art it is a shame that this exhibition was so disjointed. The exhibition is located in the large foyers of each floor of Ian Potter Centre, extending a bit into a gallery on the second floor and on the landings of stairs. Starting on the third floor with her earliest work, her classic black sculptures are on the second floor and her most recent work in stainless steel on the ground floor. Extending into the gallery space on the second floor allows the curator to include a mini-retrospective of King’s husband, Grahame King, a notable print maker.


Melbourne Now

Thirty-three years after that tumultuous turning point in Melbourne’s culture when Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault (aka “The Yellow Peril”) was installed and then removed from the City Square. Melbourne Now is yellow; the exhibition’s logo is yellow, at the launch of the exhibition the Minister for the Arts, Heidi Victoria was dressed in yellow complete with yellow nail polish. Back in the 1980s Barry Humphries suggested that Melbourne should be called “the big Orange”, in reference to NYC moniker, “the big Apple”, but the orange trams are no longer on Melbourne’s streets. In Peter Tyndall blog post for 21/11/13 (reproduced in Melbourne Now) Tyndall suggests that Melbourne’s colour is black – that appeals to me (ha ha).

Thirty-three years ago it would have been impossible to have an exhibition of the quality and scale of Melbourne Now. There were not enough quality artists or gallery space in Melbourne then. Now Melbourne has become the city that Robertson-Swann’s sculpture anticipated, a city where the arts and design flourish.

Daniel Crooks, A garden of parallel paths, 2012 (still)

Daniel Crooks, A garden of parallel paths, 2012 (still)

Melbourne Now is huge exhibition covering 8000 square meters of gallery space in both of the NGV galleries, and extending out of the galleries into the sculpture garden at the back of the NGV International and onto Melbourne’s streets. It is all free and will occupy most of a day; it took me over three hours to just to get an impression of the exhibition. I’m sure that I must have missed something and I will happily to go back for another look.

The exhibition includes so much – painting, sculpture, drawing, art publications, design, architecture, fashion, music, and dance. I will try to focus on a just couple of aspects.

Parents take your children to this exhibition; later in life they might thank you for it when it is mentioned in Australian art history and there is plenty to keep kids engaged with this exhibition at the present. Children’s activities include making experimental music with The Donkey Tail Jr. on the mezzanine gallery of the NGV (St. Kilda Road) and adding silhouette bird stickers to the sky of Juan Ford’s huge work You, me and the flock. The Dewhurst Family supported both these features of the exhibition. Much of this exhibition is interactive; you can also make your own jewellery, design your own shoes out of cardboard or sketch in the beautiful room of taxidermy work by Julia DeVille (sketching materials: black paper, gold and silver pencils and boards provided).

Street art is a major part of Melbourne’s current art scene and the influence of street art, graffiti and tagging is clear in Melbourne Now. There is Ponch Hawkes photographs of tree tagging, Stieg Persson’s paintings, Reko Rennie’s paintings, Ash Keating’s video and Lush’s installation: Graffiti doesn’t belong in the gallery? It is typical of Lush to get his tag up everywhere. Daniel Crooks’ a great video installation A garden of parallel paths and a Rick Amor painting Mobile Call also present views of Melbourne’s graffiti covered laneways. The walls of Hosier Lane, with All Your Walls, are also part of Melbourne Now. (I will write about All Your Walls in a later blog post when the project is complete on Friday 29th of November.)

Some of the artists in Melbourne Now

Some of the artists in Melbourne Now

Finally with such a large collection of contemporary artists it is worth doing a bit of statistical examination: 56% of the artists are men, 44% are women and 11% identify as indigenous Australians. Indigenous Australians are well represented in the exhibition given that, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics “Victoria had the lowest proportion of people of indigenous origin at 0.6% of the total state population”. I only counted individually named artists and not groups. Compared to statistical break down of the artists to be included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial with only 32% women and 7.6% artists of African descent (see Hyperallergic “The Depressing Stats of the 2014 Whitney Biennial”) Melbourne Now is very balanced and representative.


Street Art Big Time

Five years is a long time, especially with the internet and especially with a new art movement. Five years ago when I started this blog I dreamed of a time when street art would be in major galleries, now it is. There are currently two exhibitions at the NGV of what could be broadly called street art. Robin Rhode “The Call of the Walls” at the NGV International and Ian Strange (aka Kid Zoom) “Suburban” at the NGV Atrium.

On Friday afternoon Professor Alison Young gave a floor-talk at “The Call of the Walls”. Prof. Young spoke about street art moving from fringe to mainstream; the influence of commercial galleries, auction houses, the internet, street art tours and major museums. For some sages this might spell the end of street art, it is certainly the end of fringe phase but that doesn’t mean that all the energy and development has gone.

Robin Rhode “The Call of the Walls” occupies two spaces, the children’s room where parents with children were encouraged to draw on the wall. Robin Rhode’s photographs have the quality of break-dance in stop motion. Rhode positions himself in his photographs, influenced by the British body artists of the 1970s who saw the body as another media for sculpture (and spawned the international art phenomena of Gilbert and George).

Although most of the exhibition is photographs and Rhode’s videos use stop motion, which is essentially still photographs, moving images are the code to Rhode’s work. Rhode had a circular collage image titled “Zootrope” in case it wasn’t clear.

Robin Rhodes is from South Africa so there are some comments on the racial divide but he handles this with the same playful manner as in his other work. He does not have a graffiti, tagging, street background. He could have worked in a studio but he chose the street and the street aesthetic of painting or drawing on walls and playing with the urban environment is there in his work.

The opening of Ian Strange’s “Suburban” on Friday night was a big event; hundreds of people from Melbourne’s street art and art scenes having a look, drink and talk. It was an example of the interests and influences cross-pollinating in the NGV’s space: Prof. Young was talking to Rone, HaHa told me he was planning to go Blender’s opening after and I said hello to street art collectors Sandra Powell and Andrew King.

Ian Strange (aka Kid Zoom) is a former Perth based (now New York based) street artist. In this exhibition he has gone up in scale painting whole houses or setting them on fire. It is the complete transformation of a landscape, like Christo but in this case the landscape is the familiar suburban world of detached houses with gardens. All documented in high quality videos and photographs, weeks of work behind each image. The videos have the power and beauty of the potlatch of a Hollywood film where there is a massive explosion in slow motion that destroys everything. And all these houses waiting for demolition that Strange used reminded me of the housing bubble in the USA one of the causes of the current economic crisis.

Now that street art is in the major art galleries and museums there is a new energy and the promise of new types of works in the future. Both exhibitions use photography and video to document urban interventions, although Strange also brought big cut out bits of the houses along with him. And both Robin Rhode and Ian Strange’s exhibitions are an ample demonstration of this new energy and new pushing the envelop of street art that an art gallery like the NGV can bring.


Armstrong’s Melbourne Sculpture

“Bruce Armstrong’s name is synonymous with current sculptural practice in Melbourne.” Boasts John Buckley Gallery’s website. There is good reason for this boast Armstrong’s sculpture Eagle (aka “Bunjil”) erected in May 2002 at Bunjilway is now an iconic image of Melbourne. However, Bruce Armstrong is hardly a household name.

Bruce Armstrong, "Eagle", 2002

Bruce Armstrong, “Eagle”, 2002

Geoffery Barlett & Bruce Armstrong "Constellation", 1997, wood and steel, detail

Geoffery Barlett & Bruce Armstrong “Constellation”, 1997, wood and steel, detail

Bruce Armstrong was born in Melbourne in 1957 and studied painting and sculpture at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). He has sculptures in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Canberra. In the 2005 Armstrong was an Archibald Prize finalist with a self-portrait with eagle.

“Bunjil” is not an isolated work Armstrong’s sculptures have been around Melbourne for decades. There are two more of Armstrong’s eagles, “Guardians”, 2009 out the front of the Grand Hyatt Hotel on Russell Street. At Yarra Turning Basin there is a series of angled pillars, Armstrong’s “Constellation”, 1997, made in collaboration with Geoffrey Bartlett. His “Tiger” 1985 is out at Heide Museum of Modern Art.

Bruce Armstrong, Untitled, 1986

Bruce Armstrong, Untitled, 1986

Armstrong’s two lions beasts (Untitled 1986) once guarded the front of the National Gallery of Victoria but are now out the back in its sculpture garden. When Armstrong’s two lions untitled beasts were out the front I overheard a man and woman from the country who were looking at them. “I reckon I could do that with my chainsaw” the man remarked. I’m sure he could be I doubted that he would make the effort to move such enormous logs and do all the carving.

The muscular nature of the sculpture is part of what makes Armstrong’s work powerful, the monumental physical displays of power. There is an unrefined power to the statues of Bruce Armstrong, the large lumps of materials from which they are carved are still visible. His huge animals are usually carved from native red gum and cypress although the monumental 23-meter tall “Bunjil” is cast aluminium painted white.

Armstrong’s sculptures are totemic, in a Jungian collective unconscious way; it is serendipitous that his Eagle happens to correspond to the sea eagle creator, Bunjil, of the Kulin Nation. His public sculptures work as totemic features along paths or guarding gateways. And because of their monumentality they are treated with a kind of awe.


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