Careful What You Wish For: A Year In The Art Life

Site News Dec 20, 2004 No Comments

When we kicked off in February with little more than purloined email list and the will to exist, we were getting about 400 hits a month. Along the way we picked up more readers, the email list swelled with people asking to be added (not demanding to be removed) and by the time we added our poll questions three months ago, our hits quadrupled to more than 5,000 a month. We were stunned when all sorts of people started emailing us and asking to be included – who would have ever thought that Art Gallery of NSW curator Tony Bond and itinerant editor/journalist John McDonald would ever share the same space, even if it’s just cyberspace? Everything went sour, of course, when we had the temerity to question McDonald over his attack on Ted Colless, being called “cowards” and “pseudo-serious and pretentious” for our troubles.

We had a moment of visionary clarity when we asked if Craig Ruddy’s Archibald win might actually be a drawing and wondered if some aggrieved artist might start a class action suit against the trustees. Occasionally we predict the future but we rarely get it right. Imagine our amazement when out of the shadows stepped Tony Johansen to launch just such an action, backed by Fiona Sinclair King, wife of Peter King, the former Liberal member for Wentworth, who was ousted in favour of “future PM” Malcom Turnbull.

We’ve lost track of that story after the second or third preliminary court hearing, but perhaps the money ran out after the election debacle? If so, it would be one of only two good things to have come out of that contest of the mediocre – the other being Ross Cameron’s loss of his safe Liberal seat of Parramatta to the Labor Party. Some have said it was his confession of an adulterous affair before the election that cost him his job as Parliamentary Secretary, but we all know it was because of his crusading anti-contemporary art stance that brought him asunder. Cameron even made us feel sorry for Ron Robertson-Swann, something we thought had been impossible. In the art world, the Sydney Art Seen Society’s campaign for a set fee for exhibiting artists in public galleries picked up a lot of steam via public sit ins in museums around the country and they secured signatures on a petition that found its way into Federal Parliament on the very same day Turnbull delivered his maiden speech. The petition is now sitting in a drawer somewhere. On the last day of Parliament, it was announced the Community Cultural Development board and the New Media arts advisory panel would be axed as separate entities within the Australia Council. There was a lot of consternation but as yet no one really knows what all this will mean.

We flirted with the media ourselves a little this year. The Spike column in The Sydney Morning Herald picked up on a reader’s comment regarding the peculiar evolution of Jason Benjamin’s portrait of John Olsen after the former had left Tim Olsen Gallery and the latter – it was said – didn’t actually know about the portrait until it was short listed. That was the gossip and when Spike got in touch with us to ask if that was the rumour, we confirmed it. We felt like prize shits when the column launched a completely unsubstantiated attack on Benjamin with a quote from the artist to the effect that the claim as reported by us had “ruined his day.” From that moment on we vowed we would never again engage in art world gossip and promise to stick to it. Our apologies to Benjamin.

Six months later we were back in Spike, but this time as the subject of the story. The article flatteringly called us “essential reading for Sydney artists and members of the Australian art world” before going on to rubbish us and attempt out the so-called authors of The Art Life. The article also picked quotes from various Art Life stories (all out of context) which made us look insane. (OK, we did say Tracey Moffatt “made art look like a commercial” and that the ACP’s Zeitgeist show was a “stinkin’ mess” but we said nice things as well. Talk about selective!) The next day, we rang up the Spike editor Andrew Hornery who immediately wanted to know who we were and then pushed us to send him art world gossip that he could use in his column. When we said “thanks for the article”, he stiffly replied “Oh, I’m not here to promote you…”

We also made some appearances in the flesh. In August we gave a speech about contemporary art writing at the NSW University College of Fine Arts and thank the organizers for helping to preserve our anonymity with hoods and a sound proof booth from which it was impossible to hear anything outside. We also got chewing gum on the sleeve of our favourite shirt. Melody and Vicki Wren of Gallery Wren invited us down to FBI Radio for their Sunday morning radio show. We had fun chatting about the art world although our brains were a rattled by the choice of punk rock for their play list first thing in the morning.

In our last media appearance for the year, we are included in a story in the forthcoming January-March 2005 issue of State of The Arts. Interviewed by Lee Tran Lam – who has been doing great but mostly unrecognized work since her days at HQ– we were asked about “humour in art” a subject about which we know very little. You might like to also note the story contains a photo of the three principals behind The Art Life, so hopefully we can finally put that one to rest.

Last week we discussed the Anne Landa Award and lamented the fact that there is little in the way of independent thinking on the part of either the artists or curators in the way it the works are framed, packaged and promoted. Well, we should really be careful what we wish for. Opening The Australian on Saturday, we discovered that our favourite art critic Sebastian Smee had reviewed both Destiny Deacon and the artists in the Landa:

“But best of all was the video by Shaun Gladwell, a young artist already well-known for his poetically slowed down skateboarding videos. […] There is something wonderfully fluent yet also jerky about [the capoeria dancer’s} movements. They put me in mind not only of skateboarding stunts but also of [Matthew] Barney’s queasily lyrical approach to the relationship between the body and its surrounding architecture. They also remind me of Edgar Degas’s pictures of ballet dancers.”

Talk about independent thought! Talk about ignoring received wisdom! You may recall that Smee previewed the work of Matthew Barney early in the year in the run up to the screenings of the Cremaster Cycle at the AGNSW. He started by quoting Janet Malcom and her comment that the spell of a work of art could be broken by a “little voice in one’s head saying “but this is ridiculous.” Smee added: “In front of the work of Matthew Barney, there’s no doubt this little voice can be unusually persistent…” One minute he’s saying Barney is shit, the next he’s valorizing his “queasy lyricism”. Far be it from us to accuse anyone of inconsistency, but we well remember Smee’s opening line to his review of the 2000 Biennale of Sydney: “I hate video art.” Although Smee signed off his review of Gladwell with a stinging backhander (“‘Everyone has talent at 25’, Degas said. ‘The difficulty is to have it at 50’. I for one wish Gladwell the best of luck.”) we suspect that there is a way New Media artists can get a good review from Smee: make sure you include an attractive woman in your video. Smee is a sucker for a woman’s body in a work of art. He hates performance art as well but he totally blew his… er… critical decorum when he reviewed Vanessa Beecroft’s performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art, so you can make his fetishism work for you.

We’ve discussed Peter Hill more than enough this year, so we’ll leave him aside except to say that for a bloke who lives in Melbourne, he’s doing a hell of a good job as the SMH’s art critic. He’s got his formula and he’s sticking to it. Peter Timms’s book What’s Wrong With Contemporary Art? was a welcome addition to art criticism in Australia even if you disagreed with every single thing he said – at least it was there. We can’t really remember anything in the book now except for the bit where Timms’ says that in some cases Post Modernism isn’t so bad and then cites the film Love Actually as the high point of metafictional movie making. What was even more perplexing is that we’re pretty sure he was serious.

Further afield, a major disappointment this year was Matthew Collings’s Matt’s Old Masters, a book published to accompany his yet-unseen-in-Australia TV series about his favourite painters Titian, Rubens, Velazquez and Hogarth. For a writer as witty and erudite as Collings it’s disappointing to discover not even his talents could make a description of a patch of blue paint interesting. Our favourite art book of the year was Paul Virilio’s Art & Fear, published in 03 but only now on bookshelves. Did we fully understand it? Nah, but it’s about as much fun as you can have with a French theorist these days.

The Art Life

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