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Monthly Archives: May 2014

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?

 

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Wrapped & Revealed

Callum Morton’s exhibition Neighbourhood Watch at Anna Schwartz Gallery is a lot of fun. Morton’s art is generally a lot of fun; Morton’s Motel is a familiar sight to drivers on the Eastlink Freeway and would also be familiar to listeners of the Triple M breakfast show where mistaking Morton’s Motel for the real thing has become a long running joke.

The game of Morton’s Neighbourhood Watch is a guessing game. If you have lived in Melbourne and are sighted you should be able to guess the identity of the wrapped statues. All the wrapped statues are familiar public statues that are located in Melbourne’s major streets and parks even if only their feet are visible underneath the brightly coloured plastic wrapping. What might also confuse the guess is that although the statues are a quarter of their actual size, the simplified plinths on which they stand have only be scaled down to half their size.

They are all memorial statutes but do we remember? The exhibition could have been extended into a social sculpture with a survey to find out which of these five statues were most recognised and which had been mostly forgotten.

I could go on about these wrapped statues, with reference to the work of Christo or Man Ray, but I think that I’ll use this to segue to another sculpture exhibition Revelations – Sculpture from the RMIT Art Collection at RMIT Gallery. RMIT’s art collection has the benefit that many of the best sculptors in Australia have at one time been students or staff or both. A lot of what I have to say about RMIT and sculpture can be found in my catalogue essay for Revelations “From Great Men to Landmarks”.

Revealing what is in RMIT’s sculpture collection makes an exciting sculpture exhibition that tells the history of sculpture in Melbourne from plaster casts of the Parthenon frieze, through modernism to contemporary sculpture. The exhibition also supplements the Inge King retrospective at the NGV (see my post) with more work by King and other members of the Centre Five group, so I would urge anyone going to the King exhibition to also see Revelations.

It is a great time to see sculpture exhibitions in Melbourne.


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.


Then & Now

“Like seeing gnomes out of the corners of your eyes, stencils appear and disappear in surprising and crafty urban nooks and shadows. Replicating like most good ideas tend to do, Ha-Ha, SYNC and DLUX took their obsessed stencil messages off the streets and into a gallery in 2003. Outing the mythical icons and images in Melbourne advanced the opening of the gates across the world. Ten years later and the shadows part once more into a painted world of imagination, humor, and collaboration.” – Russell Howze (San Francisco), stencilarchive.org & author of Stencil Nation

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“HaHa is an authentic street artist and poet of the city . We have worked together during my trip in Australia in 2009 and it was really great to have meet HaHa and his beautiful stencils. ” – Blek Le Rat

“This site doesn’t normally do announcements about upcoming shows, as you will know if you have visited it before. But sometimes I like to put up information about a show that promises great things or is by artists who are really significant in the scene.” – Alison Young, Images to Live By

“Now & Then” at Second Story Studios in Collingwood has to be the most overhyped exhibition of Melbourne’s stencil art; so many people are praising this exhibition as a landmark before it has even opened.

The best part of the exhibition were the collaborative works that brought the three artists and some of their original stencils, along with some new ones, back together again. These works were nostalgic for those who remember Melbourne’s streets a decade ago. They are a condensed version of what happens on the street. The accretion of stencils rather than a single stencil, the mixing of style that is an essential feature of hip-hop, is what makes these works outstanding – I wish there was more of it on the streets.

It is well over a decade since this Melbourne street art scene started to happen. Late in 2002 Ha-Ha, Sync and DLux first met at the old Blender Studios. In 2003 they had a group exhibition, “Cut It Out” at Hush Hush Gallery in Hosier Lane. No-one was keeping track of exactly what they were doing to begin with because to begin with it was just a bit of fun. Back when the street art started Ha-Ha, Sync and DLux were spraying their stencils everywhere and writing their name up large with rollers on the walls of the abandoned factories around Macauly Station.

A bit over decade later Melbourne’s street art scene has blossomed and become internationally famous. Digital cameras and photo sharing are now ubiquitous and the audacious, punchy appeal of street artists still captivated a still growing audience. New forms have developed, there are more artists, a larger audience, more collectors and more recognition. Ha-Ha is listed in the top fifty street artists in the world.

The artists have also changed in the decade, what was fun has become their life.

DLux has started to paint freehand combining “sunset palette” with “toilet block graffiti” scrawled across it unfortunately his painting technique doesn’t always match these ambitions. Sync has also abandoned stencils to create ordinary and passé abstract paintings; his recreations of his old stencils on scraps of reclaimed wood were selling well at the exhibition.

Only Ha-Ha has kept working and developing his multi-layer stencil technique. He has added to this with the mixing of different faces and now adding “subliminal text” to his images; the words “magic” and “sex” appear in the hair of Ha-Ha’s Marilyn Monroe.

Then and now and the differences are enormous.

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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?


Of Wool & Slow Art

“I’m hopping that the sheep like the show.” Dylan Martorell told me.

Chaco Kato and Dylan Martorell, from the Slow Art Collective (SAC) have made a gateway for the Wool Week exhibition in the Atrium at Federation Square. A simple but impressive tent of red, orange, yellow and white woollen yarns, held down by eight giant balls of wool, framing the small exhibit of wool in fashion and furnishings. I was amazed that Kato and Martorell were able to pull off such a large elegant work that fitted beautifully with the Atrium’s architecture as often their art tends towards the chaotic.

Wool Week 2014 at Federation Square

Wool Week 2014 at Federation Square

Chaco Kato and Dylan Martorell are part of the Slow Art Collective (SAC) which has been around since 2009. The Slow Art Collective is not a fixed group, its members come and go. It continues to explore ideas around slow art and to challenge the conventional fast cultural exchange. Asking for a deeper reading rather than more.

The slow art is related to the slow food and the slow city movement in that it slows the pace down. Slow art involves bring what you are using in your life into art. If you buy materials they have to be re-used. Most importantly slow art is about slow exchanges of value rather than the fast, monetary exchange of value. It is about the slow absorption of culture through community links by creating something together an blurring the boundary between the artists and viewer. It is a sustainable arts practice, not an extreme solution; a reasonable alternative to deal with real problems in contemporary art practice.

Ironically some of the slow art is created very fast, spontaneous improvisation with humble materials and simple techniques. They have been very prolific in the last five years, only last Sunday I was listening Dylan Martorell audio art in the current exhibition at the Counihan Gallery. Visitors to the Melbourne Now at the NGV might have paused, as my brother and I did, in the SAC’s environmental installation, Marlarky made of recycled materials. Many of the SAC’s installations show an interest in functional architecture – their bamboo poles get used again and again.

A fortnight before I went to see Dylan Martorell and Chaco Kato at their Brunswick studio. I wanted to meet them after seeing their work for the last five years. They were busy working on one of the long bamboo poles, that have been used in many of their exhibitions.

Slow Art Collective at work

Slow Art Collective at work

There were boxes of wool in their studio to be assembled. The work is sponsored by Woolmark Company with a campaign slogan of “live naturally, choose wool”. The company and the campaign appears to be perfect fit for the SAC. After the Wool Week exhibition is finished the wool will be donated to the Knitting Group at Federation Square. In keeping with the idea of slow art the wool will continue to be used and reused.

SAC were attaching bundles of wool ready to be unrolled. They opened up the black plastic wrapping of one that they had prepared earlier, a great seed pods of wool, ready to spring out when installed. But it was impossible to imagine what the finished work would look.

The Wool Week exhibition at Federation Square also features three pens of sheep (rams, lambs and ewes). The sheep appeared to have no opinion of the products of their fleece but ewes were keeping a keen eye on the rams and the many people walking past.

Sheep at Federation Square

Sheep at Federation Square


Artists & Creators

People often write to me, or talk with me, with a fixed idea of what it is to an artist. (I will leave the “no true artist” fallacy aside.) An artist is someone who creates art. Before we rush to the big question of what is art; what is it to create something and remember that not all creators are artists, there are many jobs that require creativity.

detail of Evangelos Sakaris, “Word and Way”, 2001

detail of Evangelos Sakaris, “Word and Way”, 2001

There is the eye, the breath and the hand of the creator.

The eyes, or ears in the case of musicians, process the world in a unique mind. Creativity starts in the mind. Eyes are especially important to photographers. The eye as an extension of the mind interprets the world. It selects, organises and focuses.

The breath or the word, written or spoken, of the artist is also important to the creative act. The breath is of critical importance to poets and writers in finding their ‘voice’ but there are other creative uses for the voice. The director is speaking to actors before they perform, so the voice is not heard by the audience. The visual artist may also be directing assistants. Visual artist’s word has always been there quietly declaring that a work is finished. For many centuries the word of visual artists was overlooked until Duchamp and the Dadaists brought it front and centre again.

The hand of the artist has often been written about. The hand of the artist has been praised especially with pen and ink drawing, where the hand is clearly visible. The hand of the artist is also evident in virtuoso musicians and by extension the whole body for actors and dancers. The signature is seen as the embodiment of the hand, but no one is claiming that one creations directly from the hand of the artist are valid art, demanding the read novels in the original handwritten manuscript or decrying all novels after the invention of the typewriter.

Not that all artists use the eye, the breath and the hand equally, different arts emphasise different attributes or combinations. To assume that one way of creating is the only true and correct way is a mistake. To assume that all artists must use their hands ignores all the other ways of creating. The great man doing it all himself is itself a macho idea and forgets that some visual artists can work mostly with their eye and breath.

Not all painters are artists. Discussing Betsy, a chimpanzee from the Baltimore Zoo that did some painting the philosopher George Dickie notes: “Betsy (the chimp) would not (I assume) be able to conceive of herself in such a way as to be a member of the art world and, hence, would not be able to confer the relevant status.”

To be an artist, an artist must have the idea that they are creating art, a word that is used to describe the creative output of artists. They have to learn to use this word in a society, to talk about it with thumping music playing in the room. To exhibit their art and have other people describe it as art. What exactly art is, or if this word has any meaning, is the subject of endless discussion, a discourse that in itself, defines art. (As Andy said, “Art, isn’t that a man’s name?”) Part of the problem with identifying what the word “art” means is that there have been multiple meanings in the last hundred years alone but that is another subject.


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