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Monthly Archives: August 2012

Does Australia need a culture?

“To begin uncontroversial: some philosophers live in Australia. The question is whether that fact makes any difference to the way in which they philosophise. It is sometimes said that it cannot, since philosophy is a cosmopolitan subject. But we talk without hesitation about ‘British philosophy’, ‘French philosophy’. Is this just shorthand for ‘philosophy in Great Britain’, ‘philosophy in France’? Let us suppose that it is not. There might still be special difficulties in talking about ‘Australian philosophy’. Should we take special steps to cultivate an indigenous philosophy, or, at least, to link philosophy in Australia more closely to other forms of culture in Australia.”

John Passmore, “Australian Philosophy or Philosophy in Australia” abstract of paper, Australasian Association of Philosophy Conference, Uni. of WA, 1988. The paper has since been published in Essays on Philosophy in Australia ed. Jan T.J. Srzednicki & David Wood.

Some artists, fashion designers, writers, etc. live in Australia but this does not necessarily mean that there is Australian art, fashion, literature, music, etc. An arbitrary political boundary does not imply that a different culture exists within that boundary.  I have serious doubts that there really is an Australian culture, many more doubts than I have about the existence of Anglophone or Francophone culture or, even, hippy culture. And the more that the politicians try to manufacture one, with Australian citizenship tests, “Australian values”, etc. the more dubious I become because cultures grow organically and cannot be manufactured.

When ever the need for a national style is mentioned I always think of art nouveau, which was intended by the architect Victor Horta to become the national style of Belgium. As a successful style of architecture it inspired many other architects and designers and became a successful international style. Local styles and traditions are only the marginally successful styles, surviving due to local traditions and tastes, but unable to successfully spread any further.

A culture is more than just an identity, as you can have identity without an accompanying culture. A culture is “not a heap of unrelated phenomena but an organic whole” that “is extended in time”, conscious of its past and present and projecting itself into the future. (R.A.D. Grant, A Companion to Aesthetics ed. David Cooper, Blackwell, 1992, p.100) A lifestyle is a temporal heap of unrelated phenomena that may be more or less manufactured. Traditions are not a culture, as traditions do not project themselves into the future but remain fixed in the past. There may be Australian lifestyles, Australian traditions and Australia slang but those things alone do not imply an Australian culture.

What does Australia need a culture to do? And, can a culture do this? Irish, Scottish and Greek culture was needed to prevent complete assimilation into larger alien empires. Hippies saw their proto-culture as a viable, competitive, environmentally sustainable, alternative to the conformist consumer lifestyle. Culture could be described is a kind of mass reaction to a perceived threat that attempts to equip its members to combat the perceived threat. In doing this it is clear some cultures support some horrible and stupid ideals, including racism, sexism, homophobia and violence; it is less clear, what good, if any, any culture does.

Although shallow nationalism might be very popular in Australia there is no taste for deeper cultural analysis. So I am asking readers to comments if they think that Australia needs a culture and, if so, what it needs this culture to do. I would suggest that instead of debating whether Australia has a culture it would be better for the people in Australia to be concerned about the extent that Australia is civilized. Civilized by having a constitutional protection of human rights, civilized in its treatment of refugees, civilized in keeping its word when signing international laws and treaties, the kind of civilization is more important than any culture.

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“The Elaboratorium” – Art and Science

“The Elaboratorium” by the Scale Free Network at the Counihan Gallery is an exhibition that attempts to unite art and science. To the puzzlement of many a science student, atheists and cultural commentators we don’t see enough art about science. (Except in the areas of scientific imaging – scientific imaging has become so much better and is producing amazing and beautiful images. There was a very brief time in the 19th century when painters were the best people to recreate ancient temples or prehistoric animals but now we don’t have to recreate the images, so where does this leave the artists?) The problem with art and science collaborations is that it often produces sterile mules; a fertile collaboration that will generate the next generation of artistic and scientific collaboration is difficult to produce.

The Scale Free Network (SFN) is a collaborative group of artists and scientists (a “scale free network” is a scientific way of say social network). “Combining the interdisciplinary skills of artist Briony Barr, microbiologist Dr Gregory Crocetti and art teacher Jacqueline Smith, SFN works with creative combinations of science and art to design participatory experiences for children and adults.” The strength and weakness of the exhibition is really aimed at all ages.  I’d seen that kind of thing before as a child; as the son of a zoologist I went to see many science exhibitions and it did leave me with a strong impression about the quality of work in these exhibitions.

“The Elaboratorium” takes its name from a 17th century term to describe where chemical substances were made and ‘elaborated’ upon. The best parts of the exhibition are the digital projections they are impressive compared to the average art gallery video installation. Digital projections of water-life recorded at 100 -400x magnification along with the shadows cast by the lab equipment and the “suspended circles” of rotating drum skins. Accompanied with classical music looked like a theatrical version of science.

Some of the works like the “Particle Chamber”, a vitrine with polystyrene balls and a fan, failed to show anything exciting; you get that with science experiments – there is the real possibility of failure.

The viewing station parts of the exhibition are interactive but I can’t imagine that many people, except for children, who haven’t seen such images before. In keeping with the gallery setting there are samples of gallery dust and Ben Sheppard’s drawings from the exhibition in the next gallery space. There are other local elements to examine under the stereo-microscopes – I spent some time looking at the micro-cosmos of some local moss.


This Is Not A Book Review

The most amazing things that I saw walking around Fitzroy today (and there are many amazing things to see on Gertrude Street alone) was in the window of Artisan Books – the 7th Annual Artist Book Exhibition. There are more artist books inside; but these are three-dimensional (if not more considering the contents) objects and white gloves are provided for closer examination. There were 29 participating artists and slightly more books on exhibition (beautifully displayed – the elegant shelves of Artisan Books providing the prefect installation).

I was enchanted by the “Adventures of the Not So Well-Known Four” by Liz Powell brings back memories of Enid Bylton books (and the Comic Strip Presents “Five Go Mad In Dorset”). Also on display at Artisan Books is her “Tales of Daring Do”; the detail in these works and the collage of different elements makes them so appealing. Liz Powell is a NSW based a mixed media fibre artist and teacher. She who makes wonderful books complete with book boxes.

Melbourne-based artist, Sai-Wai Foo’s “The Early Bird Gets the Worm” is a magnificent example of paper cutting. I have seen many similar works by Nicolas Jones, a couple of years ago at Platform.

There are many other quality works in this exhibition; enough to appeal to many different tastes.

Image of book by Keira Hudson courtesy of Artisan Books

Image of glass book by Janis Nedela courtesy of Artisan Books

Around 2006-2007 I saw a lot of art made from old books. Old books have been stacked, folded and cut into new works of art. It appeared as if art made from old books has become a new genre; from Duchamp’s experiment, “Unhappy Readymade” (1919), a geometry book destroyed by the Parisian weather, repeated with variation until it become a genre. It was a wedding present to his sister Suzanne, who painted a picture of the book. Art from books was not a trend isolated to Melbourne – it is an international trend. At San Francisco Public Library in 2003 there was the “Reversing Vandalism”, an exhibition of over 200 original works of art created from the damaged books. There is now a book about it The Repurposed Library by Lisa Occhipinti  (published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang). And “Extended Shelf Life” by Megan Johnston reports on creative ‘upcycling’ of old books in the Sydney Morning Herald (7/1/2012)

I haven’t seen as much art from books since 2010 Stephanie Hick exhibition “A Short Season” at No No Gallery featured wreaths of paper flowers made from pages from old children’s books. Now that I know about Annual Artist Book Exhibition I hope to see a lot more.


Dada & Anarchy

Dada has long been associated with anarchy but how accurate is this association? There are many types of anarchists from the syndicalist to the anarcho-criminals. Anarchy is better able than most political movements to reinvent itself and it has done this numerous times already, from the bomb-throwing anarchists of the 1890s to the cyber anarchists of today. What kind of anarchists were the Dadaists? The short answer is anarcho-nihilists – here is a slightly longer answer.

Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst both read Max Stirner The Ego and His Own when they were young. When asked later in life what philosopher was of special significance to his work Duchamp cited Stirner’s The Ego and His Own. In 1899 a French translation of Stirner’s book was published and this is probably the translation read by the young Duchamp.

Duchamp was born in 1887, a time of anarchist bombing in Paris, something that would have had an impact on a young boy in provincial France. Woodcock describes the period of 1884-1914 as a fertile and productive period in anarchist development with the establishment of communes, schools and publications. There was also the violent anarcho-criminal tradition in France with the Marius Jacob gang operating between 1900-05, who robbed the unproductive, and the far more violent Bonnot gang in 1913. The Bonnot gang were non-smoking, tea totalling, vegetarians who read Max Stirner and loved of fast cars, women and guns.

Max Stirner (1806 -1856) was one of the young Hegelians, who developed an anarcho-nihilist philosophy in his book The Ego and His Own (1845). Stirner was one of the “The Free”, a circle of radical Berlin intellectuals. Stirner’s philosophy explains not only why the terms, anarchy and nihilism are often linked with Dada but rarely explored. Marx and Engles in the German Ideology attack Stirner’s philosophy because it places the “I” before the “we”. For the Marxists the material situation that determines meaning, for Stirner it is the individual that determines meaning, and for this belief Marx and Engles compare Stirner to the great beast of the apocalypse (quoting REV 17 in a religious frenzy to exorcise his philosophy).

Stirner’s philosophy explains the psychological basis for the Duchamp art: the questioning, attacking, proposing, joking, suggesting, tongue in cheek Duchamp’s art. There are many points of comparison both Duchamp and Stirner were restless individuals; their total rebellion against all ideals, ironically interpreting history by references (Stirner to Biblical texts and poems by Goethe and Schiller, just as Duchamp’s art is full of allusions to Da Vinci, Courbet and others). Another aspect is their use of pseudonyms, due to their own sense of alienated identity (Stirner aka Johann Casper Schmit. Max Stirner could translated as Max the Highbrow or Ironbrow or Max Headroom).

Max Ernst and Hugo Ball had studied philosophy at university and so it is likely that both had read Nietzsche. Francis Picabia (1879 -1953) claimed that he had met Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) but it is unlikely to be true and if it was it can’t have been a very meaningful connection given Picabia’s age and Nietzsche’s advanced syphilitic condition.

Richard Huelsenbeck expresses Dadaist existential nihilism. “The dadaists were interested in two main facts: shock and movement. They felt that man was in the hands of irrational creative forces. He was hopelessly wedged in between an involuntary birth and an involuntary death.” (Huelsenbeck, Memoirs of a Dadaist Drummer, New York, 1974, p.160)

The most surprising and practical connection between the Dadaists and anarchist is that Man Ray studied art at the Ferrrer School in New York City. The Ferrrer School was established run by the anarchists, Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldberg after Berkman’s release from prison for the attempted assassination of industrialist H.C. Frick. The school was named after the Spanish anarchist, Francisco Ferrer. Berkman taught and lectured at the Ferrer School but didn’t actually teach Man Ray. Man Ray didn’t care about the politics he was attending because of its quality and cost (free).

Not all the Dadaists were anarchists for their whole lives; Tristan Tzara became a Communist.


Art Gallery Addict

I was an art gallery addict. I realized that I was an addict when I went to a market research group discussion about going to public art galleries.

It was the usual market research set up, an office meeting room with a group of 9 people, 6 women and 3 men, chips, orange juice and stale sandwiches and a researcher leading the discussion. All the subjects considered themselves to be regular visitor to public art galleries. There was another group for people who did not consider themselves to be regular visitors to public art galleries. The research was being conducted for the regional art galleries of Victoria.

We were asked how often we went to an art gallery. Most of these people said that visited one gallery every week or fortnight. I had to admit that I go to 3 – 4 galleries a week, sometimes more.

It must have been an odd group discussion because everyone was taking notes on things to do, names of galleries to visit and events to look forward to. I was in a room full of art gallery addicts trying to find their next gallery to hit.

Fortunately being an art gallery addicts is cheap compared to many addictions. Most galleries and exhibition are free. Even better free wine and snacks at the opening, sometimes there is better quality finger food, sushi, smoked salmon, once I even had steamed crab. I used to go to a lot of the exhibition openings but these days they seem to fill the time with schmoozing rather than seeing more exhibitions.

Looking around at the crowd at an exhibition opening you have to wonder if they are collectors (unlikely), fellow artists (more likely), friends of the artist, just there for the free wine and cheese or are they art gallery addicts like me? I still see other art gallery addicts at these openings. Like Paul with his unruly hair and his single colour outfits, all blue one day and all orange the next, he is at every second exhibition opening that I go to.

I learnt something about myself from the other addicts at the market research session. Art gallery addicts are cheap and selfish. They are not snobs – they just want to keep this free pleasure and enjoyment just for themselves. They like the space and quiet of the galleries. They enjoy the chance to be alone with their thoughts and the simple pleasure of seeing something new.

Maybe I should set up an organization, AGAA (Art Gallery Addicts Anonymous) have a twelve-step program to ween myself off art galleries but I don’t think that I’ll kick the habit.


What kind of artist?

“People pay to see others believe in themselves.” – Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth

What do expect an artist to be? What kind of artist do you want to be? How does this persona of a particular kind of correspond to your art? How does it influence the perception of others?

There are many models for an artist, musicians, writers and other creative geniuses and so many different examples to follow. None of these strategies are guaranteed to work and so much depends on whom you happen to know and when you happen to be born. We are going to have to separate the myths and stories from the truth… be-careful what you wish for. The truth is boring meetings, sitting at a desk writing proposals, working in the studio… lots of work, even a con man has to work at the con.

In the most ancient sense there the artist as psycho-pomp shaman who by ecstatically manipulating symbols attempts to heal the world, to drive out the evil spirits, to appease the familiar spirits and soothe the soul. If this is the case then question becomes is this shamanic artist a real magician or a fake manipulating the audience?

Do you expect the artist to be naturally gifted or even crippled in some way mentally or physically, attributes of shamanism in some societies? Do you want the artist to be in a romantic way in touch with an endless source of creativity? This source of creativity is often tied up with ideas of race and land or both and raises the questions about the politics of your beliefs in race and land.

Does an artist have to be a genius and if so what kind of genius? – an idiot savant or a mastermind? Do you expect an artist to be technically excellent craftsmen or is the unique expression behind the execution of the art more important? It is praise to call a tradesman a craftsman and it is praise to call a craftsman an artist.  But this hierarchy does not mean that the distinction between the practice (what the person does) and the product is always clear and distinct. Some contemporary craft has become conscious of itself as an art, pushing the definition of craft to the artistic limit and questioning the very distinction.

Do we expect the artist to do everything themselves and suffer the fate of the sculptor, Charles Web Gilbert who died suddenly exhausted from carrying the clay for his latest monumental sculpture. Or do we want artists to work with a team of curators, craftsmen, technicians and engineers in a list so long that if it were printed it would rival Hollywood movie credits?

Is the artist a loner or part of the in-crowd? Are they expected to be the court jester, King Lear’s all licensed fool, pleasing royalty by making jokes about them? Or a prophet in the wilderness?

There is the myth of the artist coming from nothing, the discovered by the art world and becoming an instant success (after twenty years of hard work). Does that mean that there is an oversupply of crypto artists, hidden geniuses waiting for eternity to be discovered? Or do you have to create your own fame like Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Mark Kostabi? Media manipulation in the art world is not new; John Martin was a 19th century painter and self-publicist who had blockbuster exhibitions. In the post-YBA era do you expect artists to be famous superstar (the word was coined by Ingrid Superstar one of Andy Warhol’s stars) or do you expect them to be starving in a garret (like La Bohemia)?

Crypto-artists, zombie artists…

The idea of the artist as an authentic individual who creates their own identity through their work – what does the world expect of an artist?


Like This

On Friday evening I went to the opening of “You Like This – concerning love, life and FACEBOOK” curated by Vinisha Mulani and Alister Karl at Brunswick Arts. This is not the first exhibition about Facebook; last year there was an exhibition at Dark Horse, “Facebook project” but I didn’t get to that exhibition.

I liked the Brunswick Arts exhibition; each of the artists had their own wall, like in Facebook, except this was an actual gallery wall. Peter Davidson took this took this further and made an actual wall, instead of a virtual one, with a string time line, photos and index cards for each entry.

Jenna Corcoran “Facebook is a dirty word”, (blue wool and nails) 2012

I particularly like Jenna Corcoran’s “Facebook is a dirty word” (blue wool and nails). That is the problem, although most art is only looked at for a few seconds, Facebook is reducing everything to eye-candy and gossip.

Jamie Rawls video “like totally” was a montage of people using the word ‘like’. Like wow, man. “Like” is such a mild positive statement, it is also a simile drawing a comparison between two things, not an equivalence like a metaphor just a comparison. (Like Californians didn’t say like enough already before Facebook and, of course, everyone wants a dislike button on Facebook – a thumbs down to massacres, dictators and other ugly things.)

The rest of the exhibitors were not as focused on Facebook as the concept of liking which was explored by Vinisha Mulani with a series of photographs that visitors were to attach blue like stickers. Or internet stalking explored by Alister Karl with a creepy computer installation, “Stalkbook”.

Facebook is so ubiquitous that it is hard to sum up. In the past I used to see travelers in Internet cafes reading Hotmail, then it changed and every computer screen was on Facebook. The two most obvious ways that Facebook has changed art in Melbourne are Facebook events for exhibitions and Facebook entities. Facebook events allow the galleries a better idea of how many people might be attending and to communicate with those people intending to attend. This free alternative to advertising in publications like Art Almanac, InTrouble and other paid gallery listing. Brunswick Arts exhibition was put together and promoted through Facebook.

And Facebook provides a forum for artists and galleries to communicate directly with their patrons. As a forum, Facebook has lead to the creation of a kind of micro bloggers who post regular photos and other information.

It hasn’t been a dramatic change. Facebook has been a small influence on art, mostly street art. I “Like” the seepage between the internet and the street.

Peter Tyndall writes in his blog about the way that social media and the sculpt society. Art Business has a page of do’s and don’ts for social networking for artists. I have a Facebook page for myself as a public figure (art critic). You can “Like” Black Mark, Melbourne Art & Culture Critic’s Facebook page.

Like this on Facebook.


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