When the result was announced, the entire room was in a state of shock. With so many gongs already handed out and so much history already played out in the glare of the klieg lights, the announcement of the winner’s name was a moment of sick inevitability. Although it was probably the worst kept secret in history, the surprise on his face was genuine and his name is now being honoured in the annals of Australia’s cultural history. John Olsen? Who he? We are of course talking about Rove McManus’s third gold Logie win in a row and our collective hearts go out to him. He’s a bloke who really deserves another award and it’s somehow uniquely Australian to take someone already dying under an avalanche of publicity and give them another gong. And if they really, literally were in an avalanche, we can make them a celebrity as well! Stuart Diver, this is your life!
There was something disturbingly circus-like about the announcement of the Archibald. The old analogy was a horse race but 2005 will go down as the year that the competition took on the air of a coliseum, a sacrificial pit where reputations are made and lost and new comers [no matter how talented] will always be bulldozed by sentiment. Artists, AGNSW staff, friends, acquaintances, hangers on, dealers and a phalanx of media awaited the announcement. As the flood lights burned out the surrounding art, the temperature slowly rose. Luckily the thoughtfully handed out press kits doubled as hand fans and as brows moistened and under arms ripened, some respite was had. As we waited our doubts as to whether Anne Fullwood was still a Trustee were put to rest as we saw the former news reader and current motivational speaker air kissing girl friends around the room. We also spotted Network TEN showbiz reporter Angela Bishop prancing around, her girlish demeanor proving that just because you’re on the wrong side of 40 and ‘big boned’ doesn’t mean you can’t dress like a teenager at a school disco. And speaking of Satan, Tim Storrier walked around the crowd dressed impeccably with nary a droplet of sweat to be seen. What was the deal there? The only person we missed this year was Peter Harvey who has haunted recent past announcements as a reminder that there’s world outside the AGNSW but also that there’s a pecking order among journalists.
The announcement came and John Olsen stepped forward. Wearing a two piece cream suit, a white shirt and red felt Parisian style beret, he waved his walking stick in the air to the applause and cheers of the crowded room. An Olsen win was pretty predictable – every one was doing it, from artists and readers of The Art Life to loose lipped gallerists telling other entrants is was already a fait accompli. Sure, we went out on a limb and said if hell froze over Jason Benjamin had a chance, but the weather was unseasonably hot and so the Devil was paid his due and, after a few honourable past attempts, Olsen got his cheque for $35,000, a key to the city and the collective thanks of the entire Australian art world:
I’ve pulled the rabbit out of the hat – [gesturing at his self portrait Janus Faced] – and it’s very nice to see myself again! [Laughter] I see that I should tell you what Janus means to me. Janus is an ancient Roman god. He guarded the entrance and doorways of Roman self. The army had to have a fortuitous time before they went on campaign and had to have fortuitous times given by Janus when they returned. There’s another way of looking at Janus and in the early sculptures he is portrayed as a fused head looking backwards and forwards.
You’ve got to be a certain age to be able to look at the past – which is one of the things I’m able to do – and the future. The sinking sun of the top of my head [suddenly teary eyed] and – [clears throat] the Australian landscape [sniff] – which I have devoted so much of my time to – and the setting sun – and I think it fits Janus beautifully.
It’s a great privilege to win this prize, particularly as a student I was one who lead a group to a palace revolution here [laughing under his breath] and – ah – well those were different times and the prize now is much more open. It’s very, very good to see top Australian artists in this exhibition. I do think it’s highly unfortunate that there is such a limited space to show because I know that there are excellent portraits in the Salon Des Refuses.
But anyway, in your life, you’ve got to have a bloody bit of luck! [Laughter from crowd] Here I am. It’s very difficult for me – to talk – um – [becomes suddenly glassy eyed] I frankly don’t know where I am! [Uncertain laughter]… [Edmund Capon: You’re at the Art Gallery of NSW…] Good-oh then! I’m being edited, as usual, by the director. I was going to tell you about War and Peace but… [laughter, long applause, Olsen exits stage right].”
As Olsen stepped off the stage and was set upon by a flying wedge of journalists – no doubt wanting more information on this “Roman mythology thing” – the crowd retired to an area marked out with velvet ropes to be served sandwiches with the crusts cut off and a choice of beer, wine and mineral water. The consenus of the invitation only crowd was that the whole occasion was a bunch of bullshit. Although Olsen’s speech was almost enough to make you forget all the times that he’s been incredibly rude to you or that his work is now just a faint echo of something that was once good, it was nice to see an old man get a prize.