We’re confused. Isn’t the Anne Landa Award meant to be special? Back in September when the Art Gallery of NSW announced the prize we were lead to believe that the exhibition would feature new work by the Young Turks of the Australian new media scene. In fact, the latest AGNSW press release explains how exciting it all is and has this quote from Anne Landa’s daughter, Sophie:
“The exciting thing about the Anne Landa Award is that it will bring new faces, new work and new possibility into the Art Gallery of New South Wales. I can’t think of a more true and fitting tribute to my mother. She was such a vibrant and passionate supporter of the arts and just loved encouraging new ideas. I know that she would think this award was pretty fabulous,” said Sophie Landa.
It was that sense of general fabulousness that got us all so excited when the award was announced. Finally the AGNSW was getting off their arses and doing something about the burgeoning video art/new media scene by setting up an acquisitive award. We were pretty perplexed when we learned that Juliana Engberg was involved, and even more perplexed that Shaun Gladwell was the only artist from Sydney selected for the show, but we have loads of good will and decided to put our reservations aside and look forward to a lovely night out at the opening.
Well, the opening of the exhibition was lovely and despite the fact that the bar was dry in under an hour, we walked around the exhibition and thought it looked pretty good. Back at The Art Life office, we opened up our copy of the catalogue to read Wayne Tunnicliffe’s introductory essay. This is where the confusion began.
Tunnicliffe’s essay kicks off by describing the involvement of the AGNSW with video/film art starting with their first purchase of a film work in 1972 and first video in 1977 (artists not named). This opening is followed by a sort of tetchy lecture that runs for four lengthy paragraphs explaining that the AGNSW has exhibited video art since the early 70s so would all those people (Stuart Koop, Max Delany) going around saying that museums and galleries (especially the AGNSW) aren’t doing enough to incorporate video art into their exhibitions and collections, please put a cork in it.
Tunnicliffe is right to point out the instances when the AGNSW engaged with New Media (read video art) over the last 30 years, but as most artists would ask – what have you done for me lately? While it’s true there has been an upsurge in interest in New Media art and some galleries and artist run spaces have reflected this in their exhibition programs over the last decade, the AGNSW is an entirely different league. We expect the gallery to do precisely what it is doing with the Anne Landa Award and no amount of scolding will change the fact that the institution’s engagement with New Media has been piecemeal at best. Where are the regular screenings? Where are the new acquisitions? Where are the survey shows of recent work?
While there are numerous examples of video and other new media art being included in Biennales, project exhibitions and other one off shows, events like the Anne Landa Award with all its attendant publicity and focusing of attention does for new media what competitions like the Moet & Chandon did for contemporary painting.
Claiming that the free film program run by the gallery’s public programs office is in some way evidence of the gallery’s on going engagement with New Media is absurd. Currently screening is a program of Japanese feature films by the likes of Kurosawa, Ozu and Miyazaki and while they may have some tangential relationship to the gallery’s exhibition of Japanese screen prints, it has sod all to do with video art or new media. You think the gallery could have at least got in touch with Brendan Lee, Daniel Palmer or Emil Goh or someone to put together a video art program screening to be seen in conjunction with the award. It couldn’t have been that hard, surely?
We calmed down a bit and read on and perused Tunnicliffe’s descriptions of the artists work in the show. It is a rather depressing fact that essays in gallery catalogues make claims which can only be backed up by popular opinion. Step by step through the following paragraphs, Tunnicliffe lays out what is popularly believed about each artist. Guy Benfield’s work is concerned with process; Shaun Gladwell’s work is about an unauthorised intervention into public space; Peter Hennessy’s piece is about deconstructing utopian modernism; David Rosetzky is about a romantic and stylised ennui; Van Sowerwine’s piece is about scary childhood trauma and Craig Walsh reveals the hidden.
Clever artists strive hard to create a signature idea about their work just as surely as they strive to make it visually arresting. Curators placing these works in big exhibitions make sure that that idea is disseminated as widely as possible. It’s a self justifying cycle that arrests real debate or conjecture on what else an artist’s work might be. You see it all the time in the Australian art world – Tracey Moffatt’s work is about identity, Callum Morton’s work is about modernity, Rosalie Gascoigne’s work is about the landscape, Patricia Piccinini’s work is about contemporary anxieties and so on.
Perhaps it would be unwise for Tunnicliffe to go off on tangents and start theorizing new ideas for these artists and their work, but the Anne Landa Award is a perfect example of how these digestible ideas get reiterated in the form of ‘information’ about an artists practice. Reading the essays in the catalogue is a depressing experience – it’s all the same stuff you’ve heard about these artists, except this time for the record.
Artists whose work lacks subtlety and depth become quickly crushed by the talk about their work. They can’t escape popular opinion. Artists with subtlety and depth can change and morph their practice, exploring the nuances of what they do as the years and decades go by. Artists who are flavour of the month (or the year) have the details of their work enunciated like it all adds up to something but is really little more than a bunch of ideas and concepts that are circulating in the art world already. For artists who are young and just starting out, this kind of art talk kills careers. Being part of the zeitgeist can be fun, but surviving it is almost impossible.
All of this probably makes it sound as though we don’t like the artists work in the Anne Landa Award show, or that Tunnicliffe and the other judges didn’t do a good job. We’re not arguing that at all, we did enjoy the show and the opening had a palpable sense of being some sort of “moment”. Although the selection is kind of odd the artists are deserving and so long as there’s a chance for other artists to have a go in the future, we don’t have a problem. We’re just tired of having stock phrases and ideas trotted out every time an artist work is shown.
About the only artist in the show whose work resists easy interpretation – and which doesn’t come with a mountain of received wisdom – is Guy Benfield. Framed by the artists referencing of art history, Benfield forces all his influences through the sieve of his own imagination. In his installation piece Exploring pain (electric wheelchair boogaloo) you can discern themes and ideas of other artists – Paul McCarthy, Jason Rhoades, fellow Grunge artists of the early 90s – but it’s all undeniably his. The artist asks the visitor to the space to become part of the work by deciphering all the various splodges and paint pools around the room. At first glance, the whole thing seems like an anarchic mess, but as you watch the two video monitors you slowly piece together what’s happened. It’s a bit like a CSI for the art world. And unlike the rest of the works it’s also literally the lightest piece in the show, eschewing the quasi fascist rule of the BIG SCREEN and the DARK ROOM with the OMINOUS MUSIC for a space that’s like the ball room at Ikea. You want to jump for joy when you see it.
At the other end of the conceptual spectrum (and the exhibition space) is Craig Walsh’s Contested Space. As you walk into the entrance of the AGNSW you look up and see screens of moving cockroaches in squirming and hideous close-up detail. You see, the space is contested by cockroaches. (Did Tunnicliffe really cite Franz Kafka in his essay?) Oh dear. As a visual experience, with its upside down scale, nice shades of brown against the stone work of the gallery, it looked very nice, but as a conceptual gambit it seemed absurdly easy, something more akin to an ambitious work in an artist run space than something you’d choose for the big time.
Sharing the entrance way with Walsh is a full scale replica of the Voyager 1 spacecraft built with loving detail by Peter Hennessy called My Voyager. (We’re assuming he got the money to build this ambitious work from the legal settlement he would have received from John McDonald’s East West Arts Magazine after the outrageously slanderous and libelous ‘article’ on Hennessy in their first issue.) Upstairs in the main exhibition is Golden Record (Fitzroy Remix), a video projection piece accompanied by a smaller model of Voyager.
The video is of a computer aided visualization of the spacecraft in pieces as it travels forever onwards. Instead of some critique of utopian modernism (of which Voyagers 1 & 2 are allegedly emblematic) we felt Hennessey’s work to be one of the most painfully parochial and acutely solipsistic pieces of art we’ve ever witnessed. Part of the idea of the real Voyager was that after it had charted the outer solar system and headed out into interstellar space there was a slim, almost infinitesimal chance that the spacecraft might be found by aliens. In planning for that unlikely event, NASA scientists placed a record on the ships with greetings from humans, information on Earth and who had made the ship. My Voyager is like a votive offering to technology and has an innate sense of optimism but Golden Record (Fitzroy Remix) which replays the comments of Fitzroy residents in greeting to imaginary aliens flirts with utter stupidity.
Van Sowerwine has little cottage set up in the gallery. Inside is some sort of artwork called Play With Me which consists of a desk and a video screen. We’re not sure what goes on in there because at the opening you couldn’t get in and although we went back first thing in the morning the day after the exhibition opened it was already broken. We could see a tech person in there doing something with a computer. It’s amazing that at every single New Media show we’ve ever been to at least one work was broken.
David Rosetzky’s extremely ambitious installation Untouchable seemed to be working fine but we have a confession to make – we couldn’t look at it. With an effect that’s akin to walking into a very sleek bar surrounded by the beautiful and the bored, it’s designer ennui for the new millennium. Godard did this sort of thing first and better and he had a sense of humour. Rosetzky needs to lighten up.
Which brings us to Shaun Gladwell. We know we’ve been quite rude about his work over the last year and for that we must apologise. It’s not that bad. It’s not very good either, but as we have seen more of his video works, his headless men of authority photos and hatched our own ideas of what we thought the work was about, we’ve come to accept it. We see his work as a diaristic collage of stuff. It has no particular meaning, no particular intention, it just drifts along under its own obscure rules and on that basis it’s successful. You may well question the need for another spoiled white boy to be celebrated for this kind of activity – it’s not as though we need another – but the work exists as an intention to make art, so we need to at least take it as seriously as the artist means it to be.
Woolloomooloo (night) captures a woman dancing in the petrol station in Woolloomooloo opposite Harry’s Café De Wheels. Busting some capoeira moves in the auto court, a woman does some spins, gets down on the ground, takes a moment to watch some seagulls walking around, goes in and out of frame, and all of this is done in the artist’s signature slow-mo, in and out of focus style.
We get kind of het up when we read what people have to say about Gladwell. According to Tunnicliffe:
“Against the rational functionalism of contemporary urban space as defined by architects, developers and town planners, Gladwell presents a socialised space that does not seek productive outcomes. This use is far from haphazard and is predicated on the development of a considerable skill base, but skills which are generally not based in any sense of economic use-value . It is skill which primarily ranks in its own ‘sub-cultural’ milieu, though these skills have been effectively used by marketers to mainstream youth culture over the last decade. The expertise is the end result of difficult moves well executed, which can only be achieved through commitment and practice. They are skills for skills’ sake, and for earning respect and particular social allegiances which establish group as well as individual identity.”
They are also skills which Gladwell is selling to the art market, museums, collectors, galleries, magazines and visitors to the Anne Landa Award. Although riding skateboards, dancing in the streets or making balletic dives on to the grubby floor of a servo may have no intrinsic worth, their use value has been packaged not by the dirty capos of the western world but by the artist himself. Their exchange value (and don’t you dig the Marxist economic terminology) is there for all to see. Gladwell’s work is talked about as though we were not actually witnessing a work of art, but a documentary made by some unnamed third party. This is as knowing as it gets. Gladwell is not some art naïf who skated into the gallery, he’s a guy who is represented by Sherman Galleries.
As far as the much vaunted intervention into urban space is concerned, we’re only constrained by how we think of urban space, not as it is designated by the imaginations of others. As the Situationists put it “beneath the streets, the beach.” Is it really necessary to reiterate the tired cliché of the urban space as some brutalist and oppressive landscape purely defined by its economic imperative? Take a walk around Martin Place on a Sunday afternoon and you’ll see a hundred guys like Gladwell riding their boards. Not only are their moves a lot more impressive, they’re doing it for free.