Everything Wrong Is Right Again

Uncategorized Apr 11, 2005 No Comments

Last week’s posts kicked off a huge number of Comments. The fire storm over Brendan Lee’s editing of the current issue of Photofile lead to bannings of ill-mannered oiks and the removal of certain abusive comments, but the wholly unexpected reaction to our posts on wall texts at the MCA has us amazed. One reader took us to task:

“A museum […] has a very real responsibility to provide intellectual interpretation to its audience. As you noted, this audience is very diverse, not always made up of people from the art world, and not likely to be as well informed about art as your good selves. Wall text is interpretation written by the curator, in consultation with the artist. It increases intellectual access, informs the viewer at the time of viewing (rather than making them run around looking for a catalogue, or hoping that they have actually encountered the artist before…), it overcomes the problems of “privilege”, which, you, as someone who has more than likely gone to art school might be rather complacent about, and, lastly, wall text stimulates folk to think about the ideas and context involved in the making of the piece, which may not be explicit in the work.”

We had to agree with all of those comments. True, we did go to art schools, we probably have some idea of what the artist has done in the past and we are complacent and privileged beyond belief. We came to the view that wall texts can be very useful, such as the copious information contained in the Callum Morton show the MCA staged last year – without the wall texts we would have had no idea that Mies Van Der Roe killed a man just to watch him die. On the other hand, our objection is that they’re usually too descriptive in obvious ways – we can see what we’re looking at and surely the work of art has to communicate its ideas and effects all on its own?

Segue to Saturday and the discovery that the Spectrum section of the Sydney Morning Herald has had yet another design revamp. It’s back to the small scale version based on The Guardian’s G2 section again and you had to admire the cojones on the editor Anthony Dennis when he claimed that it’s actually new:

“If you’re reading this edition of Spectrum in a café, on the sofa or at the breakfast table, you’ll see that your favourite weekend life, books and arts lift out comes to you in a new, compact format. But, importantly, it’s a case of new size, same content.”

You can say that again – same old, same old. Flipping through the section to John McDonald’s art review, we noticed that the big fella is one step behind us again. Reviewing the Mona Hatoum show McDonald saw the whole exhibition as an exercise in vacuous minimalism. Rather shockingly, we then discovered he’d also had a few things to say about the wall texts. Freaked? It’s like he’s following us around:

“True to form, the presiding geniuses at the MCA seem to have felt a vague premonition that some folks might find Hatoum’s exhibition a trifle dull. Therefore, they have provided a corrective wall label: “Disturbing, poignant and at times, witty, her work is often disorienting and yet has a certain stark beauty.’ This is just in case we didn’t recognise any of those qualities.

“The same label cheerfully connects Hatoum’s “sense of alienation as someone living as a stranger in a foreign land” with the fact that now “as an artist with a significant international reputation, she is often travelling the world to install exhibitions”. “This sense of instability,” we are solemnly told, “permeates much of her work.”

“The text goes on to list the prestigious museums of the world that have given her a show. Apparently because Hatoum has been acclaimed by those museums, local viewers must not deviate from the received wisdom. One is not permitted to see her work as anything but disturbing, poignant and, at times, witty. One must not doubt the sense of alienation she feels as she flies around the world to install another “major survey”.

“In Australia, this kind of importuning the viewer smacks of the cultural cringe -the idea that we must be grateful for whatever masterpieces reach our shores, already road-tested and certified by overseas experts. It is, however, more accurately viewed as a piece of mindless snobbery, attesting to the MCA’s ingrained belief that one may gauge the true quality of an artist’s work, be they concerned with Palestinian politics or interior design, from their curriculum vitae.”

As much as it pains us to admit it, we had to agree with certain aspects of what McDonald was saying. Our hearts bleed for artists with international careers and their jet set lifestyle and imagine it must be very alienating to travel Business Class. When the rich and famous complain about being rich and famous, we think, ‘give us some of that misery.’ There’s the argument that the MCA has a duty to educate the public, but you have to admit that that kind of text was just begging to be kicked.

It’s also heartening to see McDonald back on form. He recently complained that his reviewing and publishing schedule means that every once in a while, usually toward the end of the month, he has to go out into the world of commercial galleries and deal with people who aren’t paid to be nice to him. It must be a shocking and disturbing experience to see what’s actually happening in the Sydney art world, but back on the safe and familiar ground of bashing the MCA, McDonald gets out the invective that’s made him the Museum’s best mate– “the presiding geniuses”, “mindless snobbery” “ingrained belief” and so on. Just like the good old days.

Speaking of abuse, you may have noticed that we have not mentioned Sebastian Smee since he wrote to us and had a go for our apparently deliberate misreading of his reviews. Fair enough, everyone says he’s a lovely guy and we didn’t want to appear like we were ganging up, but we did notice that Smee reviewed Hatoum for The Australian’s Review section:

“A walk through the Mona Hatoum show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney will be, for most people, a jolting and uncomfortable experience. My bet is that it will also be thrilling.”

It’s good to see that nothing has changed at The Australian either. Phew!

The Art Life

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