A fabulous beast?

Art Life , Exhibitions , Op-ed Mar 20, 2010 4 Comments

From Julie Kearney

In Brisbane’s new GOMA – which currently hosts the Sixth Asia-Pacific Triennial – a room has been set aside for a bubble-encrusted stuffed elk whose fur can be seen expanding and multiplying behind the distorting glass baubles. It’s one of the star attractions of the show and features as its advertising logo. Alone in the whiteness of its special room the dead animal carries the authority of Art by virtue of being so displayed. Art it undoubtedly is, but it’s also a sad slaughtered creature, killed not for eating but display, first stuffed by a taxidermist and now transformed into a bizarre aesthetic experience for bemused crowds of sightseers.

The quality of work in the current exhibition of Asia-Pacific art is far from the wonders of APT1 and APT2 but no one seems to have noticed. The tabloid reviews to date have been universally approving and the viewers, drifting through the galleries in their recently vastly increased numbers, enjoying their new-found role as public art connoisseurs, appear to be satisfied too.

On the other hand, it should be remembered that we the public, are the beneficiaries of Queensland’s woeful art education policies which deprived most of us in our formative years of our right to an education in the visual arts. And to this state of ignorance may perhaps be added the pernicious influence of house and garden magazines – the only journals concerned with aesthetics that most of us read – which for some years now have been informing us that the most desirable artwork we can hang on our living room walls is a piece of framed wallpaper. It’s a view that gives a new dimension to the hitherto derogatory term, wallpaper art. Today we live among wallpaper art. It flourishes not only above our sofas but in the public galleries to which we take our children.

The depoliticisation of art is nothing new. We have been schooled in acceptance of content-free work, art for art’s sake, ‘high art’ in other words, except for one astonishing digression: the first couple of Asia-Pacific Triennials. These earlier exhibitions, in 1993 and 1996, spectacularly broke that mould. They showed us, through the works of artists drawn from countries politicized by undemocratic structures, that art could be different, that it could be powerful and moving and deeply political while still remaining aesthetically diverse and exciting, often more so. In a range of media and genres, works by artists from our neighbouring Asia-Pacific countries gave the lie to the received view that ‘political’ art can’t be ‘high’ or even art at all because it is merely dull, dishonest work serving the needs of totalitarian states. Such propagandist political art exists, of course. We have seen it in exhibitions of Chinese art since the 70’s and we know about it from the degenerative forms of state art under Stalin which followed hard on the heels of the first fine flush of genuinely political, innovative works by the Constructivists. Non state-controlled, these earlier Russian artists left a legacy we still draw on today, in our modern concept of the artist’s book for instance, which was developed by them as a strategy for communicating with the people in the years following the Russian Revolution.

It’s interesting that the kind of state sponsored political art which followed the Constructivists is present also in the current APT, in a series of finely executed colour woodcuts and sensitive portraits from North Korea. Much has been made of the daring inclusion of these works simply because they are ‘political’ though in fact only a small proportion of them are propagandist. What is surprising about them, and political by implication in a different way, is that the non propagandist North Korean works bear a marked resemblance in style and technique to Australian work in the thirties. Printmaking flourished here in the 30s and most of the twenty-first century North Korean woodcuts on show could be mistaken for works by Jessie Traill or Violet Teague. The Korean woodcuts featuring bridges and other industrial structures are uncannily like the images of Sydney Harbour Bridge that were so popular with artists during the years of its construction. Like North Korea now, Australia in the 30’s was a culturally conservative society, the majority of its artists yet to break away from the restraining influence imposed by Robert Menzies’ feared Australian Academy of Art, in order to take advantage of the possibilities offered by Post-Impressionism and Cubism. It seems that North Korean artists today are in a similar situation. Many viewers, enjoying the accessibility of their works, would say that this is not a bad thing and this is a valid opinion though not the point here. Artists should always be free to make choices as to which direction they go in, whether we like that direction or not, for without freedom art becomes stultified and dies. Art is another word for creativity and by definition needs to be free to change if it wishes.

For those of us who remember the first Asia-Pacific exhibitions, there is another kind of political art, not state sponsored or controlled by the likes of Stalin, Menzies and Kim Jong-il, but work that comes from the hands of individuals living and working in inequitable societies or simply responding to the depredations by capitalism upon the environment. Who can forget the work of Japanese artist Shigeo Toya in the inaugural APT? Titled Woods 11 and now in the possession of the Queensland Art Gallery, it was and is a massive forest of chain-sawed trees, stunningly sculptural in its textural interplay of forms. It was also moving for many viewers as they walked among the branchless trees because it appeared to be a powerful comment on the destruction of the world’s forests.

Anyone who saw it will also remember the burning man installation in the Sculpture Garden at the second APT. The work of Indonesian artist Christanto Dadang, it was created in response to the burning and raping of many Indonesians of Chinese origin in May, 1998. At Dadang’s symbolic burnings at the Queensland Art Gallery, life-size effigies of men were slowly consumed by fire and crowds of Australian viewers, visibly moved, stood watching in total silence for up to an hour. Dadang’s hope for this work, that it would act as ‘a shock capable of illuminating our sense of humanity’ was fully realized. (APT2 catalogue p.200.)

Or who remembers the installation, also at APT2, titled All Stock Must Go! ? It was set up on the grass at the entrance to the gallery rather than inside, at the request of its designers – the Brisbane Campfire Group – and it featured a cattle truck stocked with Aboriginal artworks which were produced on site by the artists themselves and sold to anyone who wished to buy. All Stock Must Go! challenged among other things the perception of overseas buyers that Australian Aboriginal art is ‘takeaway’ art, and it drew attention, through the presence of Black artists painting cross-legged on the grass, to the reality for Aboriginal people of having to produce art for survival. The cattle truck, later dismantled and sold piece by piece, made reference to the cattle trucks used to move Aboriginal tribal people to reserves.
But most surprising of all was the Queensland Art Gallery’s connivance in a subversive act directed partially against itself. The refusal to place the installation within the walls of the gallery was a statement of outsiderness directed against the traditional practices of appropriation and decontextualistion by museums and art galleries both here and around the world. ‘We are invited to enter the museum but we choose to stay outside.’ (Margo Neale, APT2 catalogue, p.10)

Now it is possible, though perhaps not probable, that such a piece of political art directed against its host gallery would be condoned by the current gallery administration. It happened in 1996 with the help of indigenous curator Margo Neale but we have not seen its like since in any of the following four Triennials. What we have seen instead is a steady diminution in quality and diversity together with a move towards video viewing alcoves and away from the interactive installations that were enjoyed in the first two APTs. There were so many of these interactive artworks that the Queensland Art Gallery took on the atmosphere of a fun fair and resounded with chatter. People walked about with smiles on their faces and got into conversations with strangers about what they were seeing and doing. The National Committee formed to decide curatorial philosophy for the inaugural APT had clearly opted to make museum art friendly, to welcome people and make them want to come back again.

Heidegger suggests that an artwork has to be true to its name. That is, it must work. This seems a fair enough statement and if we agree with it, we should be able to ask of any given piece: is this working or is it unemployed? Does it give us joy or surprise through its formal arrangements? Does it have meaning for us, resonate with our experience of life or act to change it in some way? When we sit in a video alcove watching out-of-focus flickering images of grass which someone has taken with a hand-held camera while walking through the same grass, does it work for us in any of the above ways? If it doesn’t then it isn’t an artwork. It’s as simple as that. It may resonate for the next viewer, though in the case of the out-of-focus grass, it’s unlikely he or she will be in the majority.

In the catalogue foreword for the inaugural Asia-Pacific Triennial, Doug Hall tells us that the exhibition was designed to highlight ‘the dynamics of change, identities, and even twentieth century cultural dislocation.’ (My italics. APT1, p.6.) By the fourth APT, which also marked the launch of the opening of the new gallery GOMA, the aim had shrunk to revealing ‘the depth and diversity of individual expression.’ (APT4, p.12.) In the catalogue of the sixth APT now before us, Tony Ellwood makes no general claims for the show at all except to identify without comment the video of Reggae music, the Mekong River works and the North Korean exhibit, as being its key features.

The current exhibition is not entirely bereft of political art but there is less of it and it tends to be low-key so that often you don’t know it is meant to be political unless you take the trouble to read the accompanying placard. Political art that needs explaining, I would suggest, is not political, or at least not political enough to cross cultural boundaries and have meaning for an Australian audience.

All art does not have to be political of course. It simply has to work, but in many cases the exhibits in APT6 do not work, at least for me. There are a lot of video installations with very few people watching them, or watching them to the end, like the one of rickshaw drivers lying still and exhausted on their rickshaws. We get the point, the poor fellows are exhausted, but there’s not much motivation after a while to continue watching a moving film in which nothing moves. There’s a canopy of what looks like photocopy paper suspended by metal clips above the elevators which I didn’t know was an artwork until I learned from the catalogue that it was. There’s a wonderful old wooden house from the Sichuan Province that the artist has had dismantled by Chinese labourers and shipped to Australia for reassembly. It has real presence but is it an artwork or should it more appropriately be housed in an anthropological museum as an artefact? (Duchamp, eat your heart out.)

On a recent visit to GOMA I got into conversation with a member of the security staff while we waited for a lift. I told her I had enjoyed the interactive work called Liminal Air and she said that she had been invited by the artist, just after he finishing installing it, to try it out and that she loved it too. I wasn’t asking her any questions but she told me that the hanging photocopy paper above the escalators looked better at night when the light shone through it, making it ripple and look like a crocodile’s back. And she said that the theme of the current APT was domestic objects and repetition. I thought that sounded right and asked if it was the official theme. Oh no, she said, that’s just how it seems to me.

Everyone gets something different from art and this woman had found things I hadn’t. Perhaps I’m just a griper. Perhaps it’s the best APT ever. I doubt it though. Most of us lack the necessary tools to discriminate thanks to the failure of successive Queensland governments to address the issue of primary school art education, so most of us have to take what we can from visits to our public galleries. We will always take something away but we could take a lot more.
People know what they like. Who doesn’t? That’s one thing we can still be sure of despite being deprived of the proper tools to understand visual language. We know what we like, but because we feel we don’t know enough about ‘Art’ and therefore have perhaps failed to understand some vital point, we’re unlikely to speak up about our opinions. It’s too easy, from the standpoint of enforced ignorance, to make a fool of ourselves. We the public, products of the Queensland school system, know our place. In the case of the current APT, I would suggest, there is something to speak up about, but nobody is speaking. We have been sold a pup in return for our taxes when we could have had a fabulous beast. And by that I don’t mean a stuffed elk.

The Art Life


  1. Steve

    I don’t know much about art, but I know what I don’t like.

    It’s fine to be didatic in a work, just not a wall text. Tell me more…

    “Most of us lack the necessary tools to discriminate thanks to the failure of successive Queensland governments to address the issue of primary school art education” (Italics mine)
    I’m going outside to bust out the colouring pencils – my new portraits of Heidegger are really coming along.

  2. your name [required]

    great review thanks

  3. Benjamin Reeve

    Great read indeed… and i couldn’t agree more about the wonders of the first APTs.
    *thank you for reminding me of some of the many highlights. Those initial shows filled me with such a degree of fascination and I really struggle to walk away as fulfilled these days.

  4. sp wright

    You’ll no doubt enjoy Rex Butler’s review of APT6 in the latest ArtForum out of the USA.

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