In the second part of our year round up, Andrew Frost, Ian Shadwell and Wendy Meares look back on their top cultural moments of the year…
1. The Future
The Gallery of Modern Art’s brand new show 21st Century: Art In The First Decade would have to be my favourite of the year. That is partly to do with the fact that as a contributing writer to their 21C Blog I was given the opportunity to write on a subject that I haven’t much published on before – the aesthetics of science fiction – but also because the show itself attempts to tackle the very idea of contemporaneity. That is a provocative idea because, as the show attempts to define some aspects of the now, the show also proposes a sense of the future, and that is a rare thing. For all contemporary art’s claims of prognostication most art is actually the reverse – deeply nostalgic for themes and expressions of ideas that are centuries old. Drawn from the collection of QAG-GOMA the exhibition has a few moments of “I think I’ve seen that one a few times” but its showstoppers are outstanding. For me the highlight of 21st Century is Céleste Boursier-Mougenot‘s here to ear (v. 13) 2010, a work commissioned for the exhibition; a room sized installation that features long amplified piano wires from which dangle tangles of wire clothes hangers. In the room fly a couple of dozen zebra finches. As the birds move around the room from perch to perch the weight of their bodies causes the piano wire to stretch, a sound that resonates through the room as a sequence of tones. Above that is the sound of the birds tweeting. The work is subtle yet dramatic and simply beautiful.
Speaking of the future one of the highlights of 2010 was an academic conference. Yes, a conference…. This was Changing The Climate: Utopia, Dystopia and Catastrophe at Monash University at the end of August. The undoubted highlights of the three day event were two talks, one by science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson, the other by author and critic John Clute. Clute’s paper in particular was outstanding, being a discussion of how the ’60s generation of speculative writers let down the future [that is, the present] since the future they imagined has largely come to pass, and geeze, aint it a drab, kill joy, over-policed and health-and-safety mad place. Flying cars? How about red buses instead? You can hear the talks on downloadable or streaming MP3s from the link above.
3. I Put A Record On
Ok, this is crazily late to the party but this year I discovered the music of Gudrun Gut, a German electronic musician from Berlin. Gut was a member of an early line up of Einstürzende Neubauten and later, Malria! who had a slight profile in Australia in the mid-1980s, and since the mid-2000s she’s been the co-host of Ocean Club with Thomas Fehlmann, a weekly streamed music program. Lest the Nuebauten connection conjure up thoughts of clanging metal and harsh dissonances, her 2007 album I Put A Record On is a beautifully constructed and delightful collage of singing, melodious snippets and machine harmonies. Excellent accompaniment for hours at the computer, iPod listening or night driving. Also highly recommended from the year of catching up is Fehlmann’s own 2007 album Honigpumpe. Going back even further I happened upon Flying Saucer Attack’s 1993 Rural Psychedelia, a minor classic of the early 90s ‘shoegazing’ scene but more connected to Krautrock than pop [although a cover of Suede’s The Drowners makes an odd appearance] with long slowly evolving homages to Popul Vuh and Can. One release from 2010 that made it on to my iTunes playlist was Minilogue‘s recent Remixed Part 2, another in the seemingly endless series of remixes from their 2008 album Animals. Remixed Part 2‘s seven tracks are another night driving gem and on high rotation in the office while writing.
I first discovered the work of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn when a friend lent me DVDs of the three films in the Pusher trilogy. I watched the first one being highly skeptical of how overblown and pretentious contemporary European cinema has become but discovered a compelling sequence of films by a director who mixes Euro art house bleakness with some inspired idiosyncratic personal touches no doubt inspired by American cinema. I watched the whole trilogy in one sitting, six hours of the darkest, most disturbing and funniest crime films of the last decade. I missed this 2008 film Bronson during its brief run in Sydney, but again thanks to the miracle that is home cinema, I saw it recently on DVD. It doesn’t seem that many people know this film, a biography of a British pugilist Michael Peterson who renamed himself ‘Charles Bronson’ and who holds the dubious record of being the longest serving prisoner at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, but it’s an absolute cracker. This was Refn’s first English-language film and stars Tom Hardy , an up-and-coming British actor who you may recall from such films as Inception and Rock N Rolla. Again, this is a Refn crime film but with his trademark sense of humour. Hardy is pumped up beyond recognition to play the wickedly funny -and just wicked – Bronson. Stylistically the film bears some passing similarity to Chopper and, while Chopper is a great and eminently quotable film, Bronson has a major stylistic advantage. Refn worked with director of photography Larry Smith who had worked previously with Stanley Kubrick. Bronson bears the influence of Kubrick, especially Full Metal Jacket and A Clockwork Orange, but is its own film. Although two years old, this was the film of the year just edging out Inception and Avatar. A final thought – does Tom Hardy in this film bear a disturbing similarity to performance artist Tony Schwensen? Maybe not.
This was a year in which I struggled to find anything to like in the contemporary art scene, due in part to a rapidly atrophying aesthetic that, just like so many old men before, has turned me against the new and forced me instead to seek solace in Wedgewood china, finely wrought Dutch still lives and Quattrocento religious paintings. Yet, there were still a few moments in which I experienced pleasure whilst looking at a work of art made in the last decade.
Tatzu Nishi was responsible for one of them. His sculptural installation outside the AGNSW really tickled my pink. It was a simple enough idea, though wildly effective. He had rooms built around the 19th Century statues of War and Peace. Their new context, was surprising, dramatic and humorous all at the same time. It was a part of the 40 year celebration of the Kaldor projects and a fitting example of how intelligent conceptual event based art can create something truly memorable.
2. The solace of good movies
Beyond the sterile walls of the white cube, surrounded as they are by young art students wanting to challenge those terrifying spaces in deadly waves of lemming like kamikaze attacks designed to question the
role of the gallery in authenticating the art object, I found solace in film. The Social Network blew my tiny mind. It was classic cinema based on nothing more than characters, hate, revenge, neurosis, class and shit loads of money. It was superbly crafted, ingeniously written and directed with the kind of nuanced insight into the human condition we haven’t seen since Shakespeare was telling Hamlet to put down the knife.
3. Missed opportunities
Then finally, in a frenzy of fan boy froth, I have to point to my failure to see the Neo Rauch retrospective in Munich as being my biggest disappointment of the year. Hot tears of regret burned my face as I stared through the closed doors of the gallery. But I still managed to get my copy of the book, which is laden with Neo Rauch goodness. I know he’s just a canvas painter. I know Brad Pitt owns his paintings. But I just love those sad lonely people wandering around their nightmare worlds trying to figure out just what the fuck is going on. Seeing Rauch’s development of his ideas throughout his career would definitely have been the highlight of my year, but until I learn to understand eccentric European opening hours and start buying flexible ticketing options I’m left with nothing but the book and what could have been.
Picking out this year’s best show was for me a difficult task. I have enjoyed just so many fascinating and interesting exhibitions, here and overseas, but when I consider the best of the best it’s hard to go past The First Emperor: China’s Entombed Warriors at The Art Gallery of NSW. I remember well the first time Eric and I saw the warriors at the Art Gallery of NSW It must have been 20 years ago when Mr. Edmund Capon, who is a lovely man whose done such a great job over these last decades, first brought out the entombed men. Then on a whim for our anniversary a little while later Eric and I went over to the Qin Shihuang Museum of Terracotta Warriors and Horses in China and saw them at their home base. I always enjoy going to the Art Gallery because aside from the art and the air conditioning there’s always a lot to buy at the exhibition shops which is a bit of a god send at Xmas time. There’s also a wonderful cafe downstairs that’s great to meet up with friends and discuss the exhibitions. I saw Rhonda Katz there – she’d been to see the Dobell Drawing Prize show – which was very inspiring too – and I had to wonder out loud whether the Warriors in this particular version of this show were the same ones that I’d seen decades ago or perhaps they were all brand new, which would sort of defeat the purpose. Rhonda confessed ignorance of the whole issue, which was sweet of her, but I was left wondering… At any rate, the exhibition shop for the Entombed Fellows has some grand gift ideas and is a far better proposition that the White Rabbit shop. Can I also say that I thought John McDonald‘s review of the show in the paper was insightful? I know that’s not really allowed here but you have to give the man his dues – he’s a crabby little thing, funny as all hell at dinner parties, but you know, crabby…
2. Mornings on 702
I have to admit that I’m an avid listener to the ABC. Where would we be without it? It’d be all shock jocks and phone ins, that’s where, and frankly, I’m not that interested. I was a loyal fan of Virginia Trioli which I guess means that I kept listening although I found her a little tart. That and the fact that she was everywhere – doing Sunday Arts and being on Artscape interviewing interesting people and even hosting Lateline when Tony Jones was off sick. Eric’s favourite show is Insiders and she was even on that too for goodness sake. I often wondered if they’d ever find a replacement for Sally Loane on 702 who I found intelligent and personable without being a know-it-all. Then Virginia Trioli retired to do something else important and then in comes Deborah Cameron. At first I wondered if a newspaper journalist could make the grade on radio because it’s all about talking, not writing, where you have all the time in the world to work out what you want to say. Deborah made a valiant attempt at first and I was thinking, poor dear, she’s really in over her head, but then slowly, over the months – is it years now? – she really made that slightly hesitant malapropism style all her own. I didn’t just warm to it, I am her most loyal listener. It’d be nice if they did more art on her show but pictures don’t translate that well to sound, and they seemed to have dispensed with the talents of Henry Mulholland , who I think they should get back. Perhaps something for next year?
3. The Donald Friend Diaries
When my son Roger gave me Donald Friend’s Diaries for my birthday earlier this year I had immediately hoped that it was some sort of signal however sublimated. But it disappointingly turned out that my daughter-in-law had gone out and bought it as Roger was too busy doing some sort of “car-carna” event which is a car driving thing he and his friends do on the weekends. At any rate, I sat down not expecting a whole lot out of the book itself as diaries tend to run out at the end and leave the reader just hanging there wondering what happens next. In Friend’s case he kept the diary right up until virtually the day he died which one has to recognise as a rare kind of diligence. There’s also some fascinating insights into art celebrities and goings on in and around the Sydney art scene back in the 1940s. About one show he wrote: “Crowds and crowds of men and women costumed as intellectuals, and in addition an ever greater number than usual of willowy attitudinising youths gushing and gesturing.” Sounds wonderful.
4. The King’s Speech
Is it alright if I include a film I hasn’t been released just yet? I’d like to include this very exciting film The King’s Speech with Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth. Eric and I rarely get time to go to the cinema so I have to spend most of my international flight time catching up on the latest movies. We flew back from Singapore recently and I was delighted to discover that this was on the list. I watched it three times in a row. Rush is one of our greatest actors and Firth is as always magnificent. I won’t say too much about it except to say that it’s about King George VI who has to give a very important speech but sadly he’s afflicted by a speech disorder. The film is all about how Rush helps him get over his problem, as he plays a speech therapist, who I didn’t even know existed back then, and apparently it’s all based on a true story. Maybe I’ve said too much about it but I urge you to see it, it’s one of the best films of the year.