Exhibitions, News & Commentary, Visual Arts

OzCo opens entry to Venice Biennale to everybody – but what strings are attached?

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In the recent Palme d’Or winning film The Square, Ruben Östlund satirises the very notion of contemporary art by exploring its contradictions outside the boundaries of the insular art world. The film’s title derives from an artwork that is a simple square within which, “we all share equal rights and obligations”. Upon entering “…you have to push the button “I trust people or I don’t trust people,”” No matter which you press you end up in the same space. This space is one that “…everyone in society shares, the place where we must all look out for each other. It’s a symbol of the basic social contract…”

A dark comedy unfolds as contradictions emerge and expectations aren’t fulfilled both inside and outside the square. The Australia Council for the Arts have exhibited their own ‘square’ of equality last week when unveiling a new application process for selecting the visual artist/s for the Australian Venice Biennale. They have declared it is open to everybody. A dark comedy will surely follow.

This decision may be the result of criticism of the past two decades of Australian artists presented at the Venice Biennale, many of which can be traced to a singular conceptual heritage, and three of the last four biennale artists were represented by one gallery, Sydney’s Roslyn Oxley9. It gave the impression a small club had formed that excluded many whilst favouring a few inside the ‘magic square’. The question of how could a culturally diverse country become so myopic raised plenty of discussion, including this article by me, but not everybody agreed.

Last week, Callum Morton was appointed chair of what the Australia Council labelled an “independent” panel, set with the task of selecting the 2019 Venice Biennale artist or artists.

David Haines posted a response to one essay: “Critiquing what’s gone on in Venice in the past is one thing but this is a smug and banal reduction of a number of people’s practices.” A quick search of who David Haines was and I came across the fact he had recently been selected by one of the artists mentioned in the essay, Callum Morton, for the Redland Art Prize. Further debate ensued until Callum Morton himself joined in with an angry emoji. Quite clearly, I had crossed Callum Morton. Facebook is a type of public square where we all share equal rights and obligations, but it is also where some people feel safe to rage, and, therefore, I respectfully disengaged.

The Redland’s Art Prize is an interesting concept; Accordingly [sic] to Sydney gallerist Sarah Cottier, “The Redlands prize is unique because it is curated by artists. Good artists. Artists who pay attention and know what’s what. The curatorial premise, with its family tree-like structure is extremely generous….” Given the close interconnection of the artists, the family tree could also be a closed circuit of mutually reinforcing viewpoints where others are excluded. Morton describes it thus: “I have always liked the idea of artists curating their peers… because it’s an interesting notion for a prize to insist on the importance of each generation supporting the next, rather than the avant-garde, Oedipal and linear notion that each new generation replaces the past one.”

But are they really peers? Different generations would suggest not. Morton’s work itself is becoming dated given it is extremely derivative in that chic post-modernist ‘quotation’ sense where he becomes the Australian version of a number of international artists. His most famous piece, Hotel (2007) on Eastlink in Melbourne, for example, follows Prada Marfa by Elmgreen and Dragset, which was launched in 2005. Morton has also recently undertaken a stage set in Dublin that weirdly looks like the installation in The Square. Well, in my view, anyway. His work Belvedere (1995) clearly parodies Duchamp (Fresh Widow 1920) and the American Robert Gober’s (Prison Window, 1992), and his recent architectural installation at Monash University reminds me very much of an Anish Kapoor. But the very essence of Australian art mimicking the international may be OK – the cultural cringe having been made acceptable by Post–Modernism.

Should an artist be in this position at all? Surely an eminent gallery director or even private museum owner would be more suitable to chair the panel?

Last week Morton was appointed chair of what the Australia Council labelled an “independent” panel, set with the task of selecting the 2019 Venice Biennale artist or artists. The press release announcing Morton’s appointment does not say how the others on the panel will be selected, however, as with any panel, the Chair is a very influential position, and may well have a say on who is to join it. So, the question one must ask, is Callum Morton independent?

We know his work comes from a specific contemporary-art viewpoint, one that has recently been questioned in many quarters beginning with the erudite David Foster Wallace who argued that today’s Post-Modernism is simply the rehashing of older models of post-modernism. We also know that Morton is connected commercially, through his professional representation, to the Roslyn Oxley9 and Anna Schwartz Galleries, two galleries that have dominated Australian representation at Venice for the past 20 years. Therefore, it would be hard to argue in the affirmative. At the very least there is a perception Morton is compromised. However, you might say that no artist is independent given that by their nature all successful artists are connected, which raises the next question should an artist be in this position at all? Surely an eminent gallery director or even private museum owner would be more suitable to chair the panel?

Morton is a mature and responsible professional but his Facebook pages often show his displeasure and vitriol towards those he dislikes.

Given the Australia Council have also announced an open call for submissions from artists and curators, one wonders how, when selection is underway, will Morton be able to disassociate himself from his artistic friends, colleagues, commercial gallery interests and the conceptual bias knowing he is so intrinsically connected to them. One might also reflect how his own interests might be served given that many artists believe their importance is confirmed by the amount of influence on the next generation; Redlands being a good example. It raises an issue. Should the Australia Council be artificially conferring this eminence to selected artists? Their role is to support artists not create powerbrokers. It seems a strange and curious decision, if not insensitive to the concerns that have been expressed at the club-like atmosphere surrounding Venice, not only by me but also by the Venice Biennale itself as Matthew Westwood in The Australian pointed out: “The changes follow a directive from Venice regarding commissioning authorities, and Mr Myer said artists expected the Australia Council to be independent and transparent in its decisions”.

The question also needs to be asked, what has Morton done to be placed in this powerful position? Recently he was on the selection panel for the Melbourne Prize for Sculpture, one that I felt unable to enter, despite the fact I would be qualified to do so. I decided that I was not going to waste precious hours submitting for a project when I knew it was being judged by an artist who had openly expressed his anger towards me. It is hard to justify spending many hours on submissions, that even with ‘independent’ judges would be long odds to succeed, if you know the judging panel members might be biased against your work. The sensible thing to do is spend that time on other artistic projects. Ah, you have to be in it to win it, I hear you say, and this is true to a point, for you might argue that, given his credentials, Morton is a mature and responsible professional. After all, he has been on the Creative Industries Taskforce for the Victorian Government, is also a Professor at Monash University, and, therefore, should be able to perform duties objectively and impartially. However, you only have to see Morton’s Facebook pages for this confidence to be undermined, for he often shows his displeasure and vitriol towards those he dislikes. John McDonald, the critic and curator, is one example. Morton has posted a picture of a tombstone with John McDonald’s name on it with the statement “didn’t know he died”. On another post, he states:

“Just testing the waters here (and I know I have a particular axe to grind) but who agrees with me that John McDonald is the most conservative, bitter, twisted and editorially driven F*@wit art critic and failed curator ever to land with a damp thud onto the cultural landscape of this or any other country.”

Given the Australia Council have asked curators to submit artistic projects to the 2019 process, it would seem that John McDonald, a former National Gallery of Australia curator, need not apply. Is that independence?

Peer review is at the heart of the Australia Council system. One might be mistaken in believing it means something akin to a scientific review with a few double-blind repeatable experiments to show that indeed the work is valid by creating an objective testing process. In art, this does not exist and it is purely subjective, and many of the people in positions of power have biased opinions based on nothing more than their own self-interest and prejudices. To illustrate my point, imagine if the highly respected artist Angela Brennan was to submit for Venice. Could she do so, knowing the chair of the selection panel has ridiculed her art publicly in comparing it to a piece of inconsequential hotel art as Morton did in this post?

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And what about curators who have also been encouraged to apply? Here’s an exchange with Darian Zam and Callum Morton.

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Comparing “loads” of Australian curators to “snake oil salesmen” hardly gives one confidence that Morton, when listening to those same curators putting forward reasoned arguments for inclusion in the Venice Biennale, will be unbiased and independent.

The Australia Council have made an effort to make the process of selection appear accessible to all. The response on social media suggests artists are excited at the prospect of putting their work forward for consideration and the Australia Council should be commended for breathing life into the process. Anybody can apply however, they have appointed an artist as chairman of selectors who happens to be a white, middle class, male, professor/artist who from his public utterances and professional connections seems wholly unsuitable. In a social media post, he describes being an artist as “a job”, one that is “badly paid” whilst seemingly blind to the fact that being a successful artist has enabled him to become a privileged and highly paid professor of art and a cultural powerbroker – none are so blind to privilege than the privileged as the saying goes.

The above suggests the Australia Council for the Arts are quietly continuing the Oxley9/Schwartz connection through Morton or maybe, despite their efforts, they too are blinded by privilege. It makes it hard to be hopeful and engage with these processes when Morton’s appointment is so problematic for they are asking us to trust this process. I clearly don’t — and my view is they are wasting the precious time of hundreds of artists and curators who will put thousands of hours into proposals looking for a fair and honest assessment by an Arts Council who are expected to respect their social contract. However, whether you trust it or not, all but one or possibly a few, will then be left outside the box. It just might be the basis of a dark cinematic comedy for when called upon to change for the better, we take two steps forward and then go back to square one.


19 responses to “OzCo opens entry to Venice Biennale to everybody – but what strings are attached?

  1. The Australia Council is doing what all “good” public servants do which is make a decision, then appoint a committee to “decide” that decision.

    LOOK let’s be truthful, Venice doesn’t matter expect in it proves how small and nepotistic Australian Art is. NO ONE is interested in Australian Art because we just send the wrong people at the wrong time. Ms Moffatt should have been there in 2001.

    Really OzCo should be properly contemporary and invite submissions ONLY from 25 yr olds who make work exclusively for Instagram! Now that would be something. Australia should do something a bit radical, but no Callum and Co will choose an artist who’s already “chosen”. Brook Andrew by MCA, Sydney will be one HOT contender for sure.

    In the end though who gives a Fuck! Venice is NOT as important as little third rate Australia thinks. Venice is just a place where the Australian Art world goes to get a tax deductible holiday. The Venice Biennial is the Bali of the Australian Art world, they all just talk with each other anyway as very few if any are properly “connected” internationally.

  2. So true.
    “Their role is to support artists not create powerbrokers.” only in press releases.
    In practice, peer review means ‘ club for the right kind of chap’ – in other sectors it can simply translate as : cartel ( go to jail)

  3. Do you have any other writer on this than John Kelly. His perspective is rather predictable. Arts Hub did a good and less aggrieved piece this morning.

    1. Sarah – I would love to write about something else. Unfortunately it is OZCO who are being predictable. Write to them with your complaint! Tell them you are utterly bored by my repetitive articles and could they do something about it. I have.

  4. Classic case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If Australia Council appointed someone young and relatively unknown everyone would be saying what does he/she know about art and Australian artists? If it appoints a recognised artist with some academic and administrative experience it is perpetuating a privileged cartel. Remember too that Ozco is a public institution spending public money for which it is accountable, so this inevitably leads to ‘safe’ decisions, and in this area it’s also bound by certain conditions imposed by the Venice Biennale.

    1. JH
      The Australia Council decision has seriously peed off a number of major benefactors ,people who have over the years contributed millions towards the costs of Venice . These people are the ones who have , mostly , paid for the actual art- the Australia Council mostly pays for the admin.
      At the moment they are saying: no more contributions.

  5. What a puerile attempt at character assassination. The person who comes out looking worst is John Kelly who seems bitter and twisted.

  6. I’ll reserve my judgement until I see who the next artist nominated for the Ven-Bi spot is. I suppose with Morton at the helm the expectation will be that it’s a sculptor of some kind, but it will be a test of how broad his tastes actually are, how adventurous he is prepared to be.
    I agree with JH – OzCo have a dilemma in where they turn to for advice – but it’s not being helped by pretending that the Ven-Bi is any more than a routine demonstration of fashions for the art bureaucracy. It really doesn’t matter that much what goes on in the national pavilions.

    1. What is the dilemma? You have a curator of contemporary Australian art in every State Gallery in Australia and the National Gallery of Australia. You also have a series of Contemporary art spaces with independent curators. These curators deal with it every day of their working week. They are paid a wage by an institution and therefore should be independent of commercial and artistic bias. Is that not a pool of expertise to draw a panel from?

      1. The dilemma is not a lack of so-called experts, obviously! The dilemma is whether the artist selected is a perceived insider or outsider. If Morton and his panel select a bold, new up-and-comer then this will be seen as upsetting the establishment (by the establishment), if they select a tried-and-true winner of a multitude of prizes, grants and so on, then the selection is rightly seen as playing it safe (by the less than silent majority of the local art world). Which is more Australian? From the article in the Australian about key private sponsors withdrawing their support, it is obvious that Simon Mordant and Hamish Balnaves see their favoured selections as somehow more appropriate to the Ven-Bi brief, implicitly an open call only drags up mediocrity (on their terms). The choice of someone like Callum Morton is supposedly to address this judgement of what is suitably fashionable or appropriate to the Ven-Bi. Callum is a respected academic with some critical standing overseas as a sculptor-installationist. So Mordant and Balnaves can hardly dismiss him as lacking the necessary savvy. The question is, which way will he (and his panel) jump? I think even at this stage we can safely predict it will be a very small jump.

  7. I found this a really informative article. I completely agree with your point that there are a lot of curators at non-commercial galleries/museums/institutions that may be better equipped at judging compared with those who have strong ties to the commercial art scene, and those who have very aggressive public opinions on other people’s work.

  8. I suspect your right Scott, Brook Andrew! One of the most boring artists, I have had to spend time looking at. Oz Co could put in place a group of curators as Kelly suggests from contemporary art spaces, state galleries and even local govt (where the best, on the ground, locally connected
    curators work…)

  9. By definition alone it seems many artists will be excluded immediately. Morton has clearly stated in the past that contemporary art pratice is defined by it’s interdisciplinarity. In 2014 he co-authored a “Briefing and Consultation Paper” for the Department of Fine Art at Monash University. Here is an extract from that paper that refers to their Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) program:

    “Commencing in 2012, the Department developed an interdisciplinary course structure, one that demands that academic staff move across different mediums and workshops and approach student work from multiple perspectives.

    This interdisciplinary emphasis not only defines the Department distinctly in the marketplace, it also reflects the current nature of contemporary practice. Academic staff will no longer be required to undertake key workshop instruction, that work more correctly being performed by the existing technical staff and thereby allowing academic staff to move between studio groupings to guide the development of ideas and critical thinking.

    Overall, the former emphasis on specific media and such as painting, drawing, sculpture, photography etc., no longer has a place in the current and evolving delivery methods being deployed in the restructured BFA. ”


    From the above statement it would only seem logical to conclude that artists who work primarily in one of the above disciplines have little chance of succeeding with any Biennale application while Morton is the chair.

    1. “defines the Department distinctly in the marketplace” says it all.
      Obviously Morton will for “market” driven reasons be strongly inclined to award higher status to ‘artists’ whose practice is inline with what the “department’ teaches.

  10. Interesting article John and thank you for continuing to raise awareness as to the myopic state of the Australian art scene.

    Is Callum Morton able to perform his duties objectively and impartially you asked? Clearly he is as he sat on the panel that chose Daniel von Sturmer as the winner of the $60K 2017 Melbourne Scuplture Prize. Morton was able to put aside the fact that von Sturmer is his mate and has been asked to act as Head of Department at Monash in Mortons abscence. Morton put all this to the side and, with the rest of the panel, came to the decision on the work most worthy of the prize.

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