The slowness of print media is never better exemplified than by the time an issue will spend on the shelves. Although the date on the cover may propose a three month window for the quarterlies, the choice of cover image says it all. For the latest issue [June-August] of Art Asia Pacific, Ricky Swallow is the cover artist. Time has passed, Venice is nearly forgotten but there’s his work still sitting pretty. We mentioned some time ago that we’d been contacted by the publicity people working for the new editor and publishers of Art Asia Pacific. They wanted us to say that the team behind the new issue are not the same people responsible for the issue we discussed after the masthead was sold offshore. The sweetener was that if we agreed to do that, they’d send us the “latest” issue. So when the envelope arrived all the way from New York, we ripped open the package to discover… the Ricky Swallow issue. We could have just walked up the hill to the Fire Station newsagency and bought one but a single copy came all the way from America for our perusal. Talk about wasted resources…
The magazine covers art of the Asia and the Pacific. Since it’s published in New York, we feel its connection to the region is a lot like England’s relationship to Europe; it’s nearby but not really directly involved. The magazine contains paparazzi pictures of openings in New York and features pictures of our very own ‘artscribe’ Benjamin Genocchio and partner and gallery director Melissa Chiu smiling sweetly for the camera. One might think that the whole deal smacks of the kind of opportunistic [although well intentioned] cultural imperialism Americans are well known for, but we don’t; you have to find a niche to survive in publishing and Art Asia Pacific has found its own. Using writers on the ground in the region reporting back to head office in America is a little like a Graeme Greene novel and our very own ‘man in Havana’ is none other than George Alexander who, it says on the imprint, has the Australian ‘editorial desk’. Is that same desk he uses to write for Art & Australia – or the one he uses at the Art Gallery of NSW? It must be a very crowded work space indeed.
Alexander writes on the work of Ricky Swallow so it’s not a view from ‘over there’ but an informed and informative discussion of the artist’s work from here. In the course of this discussion, Alexander positions Swallow’s work within the conceptual practice of his peers and makes a few observations of how a tendency towards schematic modeling came into being:
Though the focus has shifted from Swallow’s earlier pop culture references (Planet of the Apes, Star Wars, disc jockey culture) the [current] work plays out the artist’s key themes: permanence versus transience; vivid illusion in tension with inert materiality.
In this Swallow represents a generation of young artists in Australia who reveal deeper fault lines in the world and offer premonitions of the future. There is a burgeoning obsession with the hyper real, and simulacrum overtakes representation. For example, Australian-born Ron Mueck uses silicone, polyester, latex foam and resin to create astonishingly convincing, r«anatomy-class models encased in vitrines. […]
This desire to “transcode” the real, to translate it from one material or scale to another in a painstaking attempt to seize it once and for all can be found in other young Australians like Callum Morton (b.1965) and James Angus (b.1970). Catalyzed by the global media, the familiar precincts of the real have dissolved. Ricky Swallow’s “evaporated” objects imply some numbing of the real. For Jean Baudrillard the apocalypse has already happened, and for Francis Fukuyama history has ended and new forms of antimatter have arisen as a replacement.
You can rely on Alexander to talk it straight – this is an orthodox explanation of a context for the artists’ work and the kinds of conceptual frames that have been put around it.
It’s always interesting to see a discussion of someone we know so well being spoken of by someone we don’t know, even better if that person comes from elsewhere – perhaps their interpretation can shed some new light on an artist’s work, perhaps bring a new angle to it. The May 2005 issue of Modern Painters – which under its new management is swiftly becoming our favourite OS art magazine – ran a story on Swallow by Martin Herbert, a UK art writer:
The memorializing of transience is an idea that, for obvious reasons, cannot be divested of relevance. What can be lost, though, is the power to express that relevance and thereby the qualities of consolation and awakening that a focus on mortality entails. By going backwards in history to a period of artisanship (a period concertedly alien to the current art world tendency towards external manufacture, which makes skill simply another buyable commodity and by enfolding time within his facture), Swallow has once again brought this idea to the forefront.
As Herbert points out, the ideas behind Swallow’s practice are fairly simple, but they are also immensely rich in their implications. From the impractical uselessness of quotidian objects such as his all plastic tape recorders, bikes and telescopes to the most recent works of carved wooden skeletons, the implication of time, transience and mortality are the rich conceptual underpinnings of Swallow’s practice. It doesn’t take a lot to understand where he’s coming from, but like the best art, there’s plenty to chew on.
For some writers, the artist’s mechanical skills in carving and modeling are seen as evidence of a lack of thought in the work, which in turn is emblematic of an unthinking artist with little time for reflection on what his work might mean and an inordinate concentration on what it looks like. The Monthly, the unfortunately named Australian version of The New Yorker started by Morry Schwartz and now on its fourth issue, had for awhile a regular art critic in Justin Clemens, a lecturer in psychoanalysis at Deakin University. We were thrilled to see such an old fashioned method of criticism being applied to contemporary art but were [perhaps inevitably] disappointed to discover that Clemens’s interpretation was that Swallow’s work was evidence of repressed teenage sexuality. Since all our education in Freud and psychoanalysis comes from Bugs Bunny cartoons, we thought it may have had something to do with the artist’s father not taking him to the zoo, but how wrong we were:
The philosopher Simone Weil once spoke of the beatitude that envelops a child struggling with a maths problem. One suspects the happiest and most intense moments of Swallow’s life are when he’s carving a lobster out of a hardwood block. It’s suggestive in this context that Weil’s example is of a boy – presumably she was thinking of her brother Andre, one of the 20th century’s great mathematicians – because there is something very boyish about Ricky’s obsessions too: skulls, Game Boys, BMXs. You don’t need to be a psychoanalyst to discern a swerve away from the messy details of human sexuality and towards the safer boy-zones of solitude, sci-fi and death. I can’t think of a single work by Swallow that directly confronts sexuality in any interesting way; his apocalyptic chimps, whacked-out robots and Hollywood serial killers are typical symbols by which adolescent boys deal with the banal traumas of growing up. In the end, what exposes itself through all the pop references and high finish is a melancholy sense of dereliction, a Swallow utterly alone. Or as Nat, from the Australian art-duo Nat and Ali, wonders: “Why is a guy so young wound so tight?
As to why exactly Swallow’s work should necessarily be about sexuality [“in any interesting way”] was not addressed, but more troubling was the underlying assumption on Clemens’s part that Swallow is not conscious of what he is doing. Certainly there is room for a psychoanalytic reading of Swallow’s work [and, in turn, of the artist himself] but Clemens seems to be ignoring the fact that it was the artist who chose the subject of the work. Indeed, the subject may be rich in just such a reading because the artist intended them to be there. Clemens was reaching just a little too far and we have not seen him in The Monthly’s pages again.
The only monthly national art magazine is Art Monthly Australia, and as such it stands alone. A monthly art magazine has the ability to be far more timely and provide commentary almost as art world events take place, but judging by the lag between events and their appearance in AMA, their lead in is about three months. This may explain why an article by Adam Ceczy on the work of Ricky Swallow has only now appeared in the latest [August 2005] issue and concerns itself with the “debate” on Swallow’s Killing Time and its inclusion in the show at the Venice Biennale. Called Neo-Medievalism, Geczy’s article is a broadside against Swallow, his fans and his work. Like Clemens, Geczy’s take on Swallow is to ignore the conceptual framing of the work, the artist’s clear intentions of what it is supposed to be ‘about’ and home in solely on the craft. Here the author finds little to like. Describing the installation of Killing Time – the full scale carved model of a table and dead sea creatures placed upon it – in the Art Gallery of NSW, Geczy details the amazement that visitors experience when seeing the work for the first time.
This is an experience that we’ve had ourselves. The work suggests an impressive level of craftsmanship and the time it took to create it is obvious. Coupled with these reactions is an appreciation of the artist’s level of skill in both conceptualising such an object, but also his dedication in creating it. The title is no riddle – Killing Time is a pun that refers both the ‘deadness’ of the seafood, but also the time it takes to look at it. Little did we know it at the time, but having such a response is reactionary in the extreme:
But does this object invite aesthetic contemplation, or is it something else? I would argue that for the virtues of the handmade to command this kind of attention represents a sentimentalism that masks a deep-seated middle-class conservatism based in philistinism and the commodity. It is no secret that philistinism has always heaped rewards on palpable examples of embodied labour at the expense of disembodied ideas, that is, until the latter, in time, subsumes the former on the commodity scale. The crafted object has always afforded short-term security because its value is as palpable as it is superficial, because the pleasure that the object elicits is eclipsed by the awe it provokes. This is a response that is debased, as it seeks physical and immediate consolation in art whose real worth lies beyond the object in concepts, beliefs and affects. To make too much of how an object is made at the expense of its intellectual and emotional affects is an aesthetics of small returns, a petit-bourgeois art that trades risks and changes for the promise that constants do exist in the world, as long as you are willing to eschew its elusive abstractions.
Geczy confuses the nature of the hand made with ‘use value’ when in fact the work is stripped of all such value when it’s situated within the gallery. One can appreciate its handmade qualities while making the distinction that the work is a lot more than a performative example of skills. On another level, Geczy’s accusation of rank sentimentality by an appreciative audience smacks of nothing less than a wholesale arrogance bordering on crypto-fascism. Contemporary art has made such a poor effort in making itself relevant to a wider audience that, even if that were the only level on which the work was being appreciated, then who could blame them?
Geczy’s basic argument is that craft without an idea is simple formalism, a naïve tendency that can lead to all sorts of dark consequences. It’s a joke in a way because Geczy claims that a valuing of craft skills is pre-industrial and anti-intellectual, an assertion he in turn links to – uh oh – Nazism via Heidegger. What he avoids discussing are the very obvious and explicit ideas found within Swallow’s work that both Alexander and Herbert were able to mention. In discussing the purchase of Swallow’s work by the Art Gallery of NSW, Geczy says:
I am of a different generation from [John] Berger, and have made my peace with the compromises that art has to make, because they are real and unstoppable, and because Western art has never been free of compromises. But I do share his despair when I am confronted with the adulation that an object such as Killing Time has received, for I see the work as a lapse into a retrograde medievalism. This work of art is not an isolated case, but I single it out as a pre-eminent example of a tendency that philistinism and commodity-mongering like to nurture. The set of problems that I am drawing attention to are not entirely the artist’s responsibility but also the responsibility of those who think Killing Time worth the $180,000 price tag asked for it and those who buy into the mock-ritualism of its (initial) display with coloured walls and dramatic lighting. The adulation that this work receives comes from an ancient impulse, that of idolatry, which is when we worship the object instead of the message it is meant to bring us.
When you think about it, $180,000 is a very fair price to pay – it is a unique, one off object made by hand and which took a long time to make. If Darren Knight could negotiate that kind of price for the work, more power to him, and after his percentage, Ricky Swallow is getting a fair return for effort. As to exactly why Geczy objects to that kind of money being spent on a work of art is not addressed, and it makes you wonder if, when his video camera is busted, he’s the one who sets the price for getting it fixed. The links to idolatry are just absurd and overstated, and the uncomfortable fit between art object, art market and museum are left unexplored. Geczy heads off into different territory to claim that as a still life – and measured against the great works of carving from Renaissance Europe and The Dutch still life tradition – Swallow’s work is found wanting:
Still life painting emphasised a life of domestic materialism and of property, well suited to Holland which was experiencing untold prosperity during [the 17th century]; the genre mirrored back property to those who possessed it – the middle class whose status was defined materially, as opposed to immaterially like the clergy and aristocracy. Since the space in painting is inferred and not physically asserted as it is in sculpture, the arrangement of the objects and the angle at which they were painted on the picture plane were considerations of singular importance. A successful composition became a certain idealisation of the material world, and as such presented a harmonious relationship between the perishable and imperishable realms.
With a still life that is sculpted one can approach the arrangement from a potentially infinite number of angles, effectively creating an infinite number of ‘pictures’. But in this case more is not better. Like the photographer who shows his or her aptitude in the selective framing, it is axiomatic that the decisive representation of a single scene in pictorial representation is a key to its beauty. With Swallow’s work no such decisiveness exists, and the only precision is here as a craftsman. The arrangement in Killing Time appears arbitrary. Swallow’s work has an undeniable still life look’, but it doesn’t look much like a truly engaging composition, where the objects can only belong exactly where they are placed. What we are engaged with here is the carving. If this isn’t neo-medievalism then I’m transported back to primary school when the best artist in the classroom was the one who was the best at drawing
Geczy’s assertion that the middle class wealth of 17th century was reflected back to them in the objects that they owned – and depicted in still life paintings – may be true, but it was no different for either the church or the aristocracy and their abundant wealth, commissioned art works or vast array of properties. The definition of existence was entirely transient – we’re assuming that Geczy has heard of the immortal soul of man [the immaterial] – and that entry into the kingdom of heaven was not based on the number of still life paintings you owned. Definition of wealth in the mortal and physical world was explicit at all levels of society and was defined by ownership. While it may be true that the emergence of the middle class represented a new property owning class, it also represented the beginnings of the art world as we know it today. Taste is one thing and economics is another, and it is a huge leap to argue that one is necessarily dependent on the other without a bit more backup.
Geczy makes some other huge claims and we suspect that his argument has more to do with creating effect than with making a case. Just because a sculpture can be seen from an infinite number of angles doesn’t therefore mean that it has to be equally “successful” from every single one of those angles [whatever “successful” is supposed to mean]. We’re really struggling to understand how it is “axiomatic that the decisive representation of a single scene in pictorial representation is a key to its beauty”. Really? To whom is this beautiful and what makes that thing ‘beautiful’? The claim that Swallow’s composition “appears arbitrary” is a purely subjective response. To us it looked fine and the suggestion that “it doesn’t look much like a truly engaging composition, where the objects can only belong exactly where they are placed” is so loaded with suppositions as seem like a deliberate attempt to provoke.
Geczy’s piece for AAM does not acknowledge that Swallow’s work has an “idea” behind it. Indeed, the author goes out of his way to suggest that the artist is “not responsible” or is only “partly responsible” for the work, its reception and appreciation. It’s an offensively condescending attitude to take. It’s also the piece’s fatal flaw. Geczy’s promotion of an “idea” in art as cure-all fight back against creeping conservatism is narrow minded and overly literal, his apparent unwillingness to engage with the art on its own terms and his avoidance of a discussion of formalism as an equally valid area of inquiry as some prefabricated conceptual scaffolding reveals the article to be misguided, muddle headed and mean spirited.