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