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John Kelly’s proposal for ‘Team Australia’ at Venice Biennale 2019

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Late last month, I wrote a Daily Review (DR) article that questioned the Australia Council’s appointment of Callum Morton as Chair of the ‘independent’ selection panel to choose an artist or artists for the 2019 Venice Biennale of Art (VB19).

My reason for doing so was that the Australia Council proclaimed they wanted the process to be open and transparent in response to the recent past, where a small côterie of collectors and galleries dominated the selection process over nearly two decades. The Australia Council stated that the new process “responds to long-term sector feedback” and would promote transparency. However, they then went and appointed a Chair of selectors who is commercially intertwined with the two galleries who have dominated Australia’s presentations, Roslyn Oxley9 and Anna Schwartz Gallery.

Morton’s work follows in the footsteps of Duchamp and is heavily influenced by artists such as Robert Gober in recreating the everyday object which itself has dominated our presentations at Venice. His appointment seemed to contradict the stated intentions of the Australia Council’s new selection process – as if they were saying it is now open to all, but the old powerbrokers will decide who we select!

My article pointing out Morton’s connections and his negative views on others who may well wish to submit for VB19  (his Facebook posts were derogatory of a critic, an artist and curators in general) left me as an artist in a difficult position.

My first thoughts were to boycott the process and get on with other projects, for I had argued in the essay that this is preferable than wasting time on a proposal when one knows an influential judge will not be inclined to support you – especially after my last article in DR. In it I used the then upcoming Melbourne Prize as an example where Morton was one of the judges. As if on cue, the winner of the Melbourne Prize for Sculpture was announced, Daniel Von Sturmer. Daniel is  a Callum Morton stablemate at Anna Schwartz Gallery and also a teaching colleague at Monash University where Morton is head of the Fine Art.

Boycotting seems the sensible thing to do. However, it also feels unsatisfactory, given that if you do not engage the process then really you have no right to complain about it. So, after some deliberation you will find my expression of interest (EOI) below. This was submitted this week. I invite you to come on this journey, maybe even see the submission as the artwork in itself, and see if we can get through the first round of a two-stage selection process knowing that the odds are heavily against us. You should know one thing though, by birth, immigration and circumstance I happen to be an Australian, UK and Irish citizen, no joke.

There was an Australian, an Englishman, and an Irishman

The Venice Biennale is a coming together of countries to celebrate the visual arts in a supportive, but competitive environment. Over the past few decades Australia’s selection has been conscious to present work that has been created in the conceptual style of others from elsewhere. Unfortunately, from an international perspective, it can have a feel similar to when looking at Brazilian Cubism. That is, a simulacrum is made that we convince ourselves is as good as anything in the world, and this may well be true. However, we have never won a Golden Lion for best pavilion, so there is a suggestion that others see it differently.

This proposal will attempt to change that perspective by embracing the contradictions and difficulties that exist at the very heart of being Australian. It will identify and break up the component parts of an individual to reveal a fundamental if elusive truth of our identity; one that uses humorous narratives, histories, and projects that broaden the notion of what it is to be Australian. It will embrace our post-colonial diversity which exists at the heart of our culture; one which acknowledges that all of us, including Indigenous Australians, have multiple cultural identities yet are continually reminded that we have to conform to a singular constructed identity, that of being Australian. As we well know, many of us struggle to come to terms with our Australian self, for it is often at odds with who we are and where we are from. For artists, it requires a deeper conformity that causes a rupture when our creativity is placed between the other and the self. A loss occurs, and it becomes natural to mimic others whom we perceive, often mistakenly, as being whole or unified in identity.

At the heart of his project will be a fully operational bar serving Moo Brew beer in its distinctive Australian branding. Special Venice Biennale merchandise will also be rolled out.

Evidence of this condition is our historical ‘cultural cringe’, which some railed against, whilst others conformed to, before Po Mo made ‘quotation’ acceptable and we eased into readymade one-liners that in a Post-Ironic world now offers little hope for the future other than more quotation, more irony and more consumption. When we are all in on the joke it becomes banal. The paradoxes and contradictions in our condition led us to think it was OK to ‘Brand the Arts’ in Australia, to reduce it to a specific ideology and an instrument of government, that would always present ‘Team Australia’ in Biennales such as Venice. A small team formed and rarely have we gone outside that côterie to find other voices to represent Australia. This has often meant our exhibitions have come across as a weak PR exercise on behalf of a ‘sector’. Doug Hall once said his job as Commissioner was in: “…making Australia look very, very good.” The Irish writer Brendan Behan would have so eloquently put him right when he said, “An author’s first duty is to let down his country.”

Our proposal is titled There was an Australian, an Englishman, and an Irishman… You may suspect this is a joke; however, the Australia Council have announced they are looking for “…an artistic team with the concept, credentials and experience to represent Australia…” at the 2019 Venice Biennale. I would like to propose the following three artists: John Kelly from Australia (painter and printmaker), John Kelly from the UK (sculptor – installation artist) and John Kelly from the Republic of Ireland (landscape painter). The exhibition will be curated by John Kelly (Senior Curator at Reen Farm Sculpture Garden) with contributions from the arts writer John Kelly who was recently nominated for a Walkley Award for Arts Journalism. All of these John Kellys have let down their country and on more than one occasion. I am sure I speak for all when I say they will continue to do so.

Meet the team!

The Australian John Kelly (Painter, Printmaker…) has become famous for what is colloquially known as the Moo Brew project. This was a culture jam that usurped the power relationship between the Australia Council for the Arts, the Government arts funding body, and an individual artist. He did this by taking the Arts Council literally when they expressed a desire to brand the arts in Australia. He applied for a grant, was successful, received permission to use the logo and then branded it to the point it’s as much associated with his work as with the Arts Council. It is now displayed on commercial products as well as his art across Australia. Within this project he brought forth the great, but fictitious, Ern Malley into the 21st century by creating to communicate with the Arts Council. They duly responded. This artist has an Aussie larrikin streak and at the heart of his project will be a fully operational bar serving Moo Brew beer in its distinctive Australian branding, and some special VB merchandise will also be rolled out.

Kellyx - Big Foot 2 copy

The English John Kelly (Sculptor, installations…) was born in Bristol in 1965, Slade educated, and came to prominence in the ’90s with large sculptures of animals in unusual juxtapositions. His art became internationally recognised and often associated with large sums of money and is now closely associated with Sotheby’s (the first living artist to be represented by Sotheby’s). He also used the concept of branding in association with art, has been caught up in the law and become controversial to the point he is always in the press.

One of his most austere pieces is a monumental glass model of the Tate Modern on his coastal property (pictured above) and he has work in the Guangdong museum in China. For VB19 he will exhibit a set of Sculptures that builds upon his international reputation that has seen him exhibit in major exhibitions on the Champs Elysee (1999), at Glastonbury, (2005 & 2007), the Guangzhou Biennale (2008) and the Goteborg Biennale (2011), The Hague (2007), MAMAC (2007), Uillinn (2016)…etc.

The Irish John Kelly is a Landscape painter who has travelled the world including painting voyages to Antarctica and Australia, but it is his paintings from his property in west Cork that have gained him international attention. For Kelly lives on a property where an entire village was wiped out by an Gorta Mór (the Great Hunger). These events were recorded by N.M. Cummins who, upon coming across the dying, wrote an open letter to the Duke of Wellington which was published on the eve of Christmas 1846 in the London Times. Kelly’s paintings, recently exhibited in New York, elicited this response from American critic Daniel Gauss, who wrote:

Kelly’s response to all of this seems to be non-linear but relevant and meaningful. He turns to landscape painting and the true horror to be derived from his paintings is that no trace of the horror can be readily found. The High and Low Islands which bore witness to the suffering on shore look tranquil and inviting. This peace, beauty and sublimity demands, however, a strong response. The Marquis de Sade once said, “Every death, even the cruelest death, drowns in nature’s indifference.” In response to this indifference (which parallels the indifference of the English upper classes who nearly committed genocide against the Irish), we are required to speak out and remember the atrocities that both nature and our system of social classes tend to swallow up or wipe away.”

The connection between an Gorta Mór and Australia is obvious when you consider the influx of Irish refugees into Australia in the late 19th century that made up one third of our population.

Between them this team has 150 years of experience, exhibiting, curating and writing about art.

The curator John Kelly has extensive experience as Head Curator at Reen Farm Sculpture Garden for the past 15 years. Here, Kelly has created a dynamic sculpture garden that is open to the public through the West Cork Garden Trail and the Skibbereen Arts Festival. It has attracted international press coverage and visitors. As Curator, he will work closely with the Walkley-nominated arts writer John Kelly who has written for The Guardian, Art Monthly (UK & AU), Circa (IE) and also Daily Review (AU). The two Kellys have also collaborated on two recent publications in Daily Review (2017) and Circa-ish (2016) that focus on John Kelly’s work.


Between them this team has 150 years of experience, exhibiting, curating and writing about art. It is also an incredibly viable one, having already established a set of close working relationships, a diverse set of complementary practices, and they all have broad experience in participating in international Biennales, Triennales and festivals. Its strength is not only their professional achievements but the experience those achievements have engendered both nationally and internationally.

Given the short time frame of this initial EOI, and the two-stage process, it was not appropriate to call upon the many established relationships the artists, curator and writer have with museums, galleries, collectors and benefactors. However, the artists’ reputations and history will attest to their ability to bring these together and will be confirmed in round II of this EOI process.

By its very nature, if this team is granted this opportunity for VB19 it will connect internationally through the multiple cultural identities of the participants. In presenting a group exhibition of this nature one could expect extensive press coverage in both Australia and overseas — even if John Kelly has to write the articles himself! This will indeed leverage the opportunity from a regional presentation to a truly international exhibition in which all these artists and writers can once again let Australia down in the most beautiful way possible – through Art!



12 responses to “John Kelly’s proposal for ‘Team Australia’ at Venice Biennale 2019

  1. Well as an Artist who has made work in the same vane of nepotism – I did laugh out loud, good luck to team Kelly. The odds are against you. But as always you do have to be in it to win it. Brilliant! I look forward to seeing who the winner will be, knowing the stables are in and the race is fixed.

  2. What a breath of fresh air!
    My vote is for John – would be the best since that amazing sculpture by Ricky Swallow which (with the exception of that chilling Shaun Gladwell road kill video) was the only time I really felt proud of our exhibition.
    There have been some shockers!
    Go you good thing!
    So sad you haven’t got a chance…………

  3. Interesting point on so called “unified Identity”:
    “For artists, it requires a deeper conformity that causes a rupture when our creativity is placed between the other and the self. A loss occurs, and it becomes natural to mimic others whom we perceive, often mistakenly, as being whole or unified in identity.”
    In a time when redress is needed and hopefully advancing, and as Artists strive to engage with the vehicles of international art world, how can one even attempt to show what represents contemporary National art?
    Should Biennales have a requirement to showcase both contemporary art works of promenance, alongside the work of Contemporary Native Artists, grappling to find/express identity and expression?

  4. A wonderful tri-furcated proposal that encompasses within itself the international reach of the Venice Bienalle. John’s virtuosity as an artist deserves the widest recognition and he would be a credit to old Ireland that wild colonial boy.

  5. John Kelly’s concept of a fully operational bar serving Moo Beer with the Australia Council logo is PERFECT for Australia’s representation at Venice. Firstly another “realty/ participatory” installation was the swimming pool Australian Architects presented in the Australian Pavilion for the 2016 Architecture Biennale. Witty and VERY AUSTRALIAN. The Pool actually was one of the 3 or 4 Pavilions regarded as the ‘hits” of that Biennale. NONE of Australia’s Arts Biennale exhibition has received anywhere near the attention The Pool has. NEVER!

    Secondly the use of the Australia Council logo on a beer can is a perfect analogy for the TRAGEDY of Australia Art. I was shocked when in conversation a few years ago Kate Fowle the Chief Curator of Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow completed my sentence “The problem of Australia is…” to which Kate completed “…that its Government Art”. So have free beer with the Australian Government’s logo on it is just a statement of FACT!

    I truly believe the reason why both major Australian political parties have NO INTEREST in the arts in Australia is that the Arts in Australia is totally run by Public Servants who do not have art and artists as their primary focus. For example Museums Australia has no Policy for Artists! NONE, they told me so. In a CLASSIC public move Museums told me to contact NAVA, the National Association for the Visual Arts! Talk about pass the buck! The primary focus of Art employees in Australia is to please their various Governments that employ them in delivering more people to their venues to those Governments can boast about tourist dollars. Its very telling that the most visited exhibition to Brisbane’s GOMA is NOT AN ART SHOW but an exhibition about Marvel Comics. Gerhard Richter will be a large loss. So we can see where this is all heading and its away from what we traditionally called Art. In fact I am all for this as I see Contemporary Art as meaningless…so do the Public it seems.

    The Governments of Australia are FAR MORE interested in their Art Institutions than their individual artists. For this first time at an election I didn’t preference Labor after the Greens as primary. Why? Anastasia Palaszczuk is both The Premier AND the Arts Minister but Palaszuk is always talking about GOMA and all the money goes to GOMA. Palasczuk only ever talks about arts tourism NEVER actual artists. Chris Saines the Director of QAGOMA is really only concerned about pleasing The Premier as Tony Ellwood before him was wanting always to please Anna Bligh. Saines was apparently very anxious as the Premier or Deputy didn’t open the Richter show. Why? Well on Marvel counts let’s face it because more people like it. In realty all Australia’s art galleries should be remodeled as Entertainment/ Convention Centers.

    Artists MUST understand that we are entering the age of ART WITHOUT ARTISTS

  6. Why does the exhibition have to showcase one artist only? Surely it would be more interesting to show a few contemporary artists who represent a major thread in contemporary Australian art.

    I have also often thought it would be good to showcase artists that have been committed to their art practice for 20 years – a mid life show chosen through a raffle process (a review process would be needed before names went into the barrel to ensure it was representational of our current art scene and not manipulated). If the show was terrible that would be interesting- if it was great that would also be interesting.

  7. Thank you John for your engaging tour of the Ozarts seen afar and lifting the carpet corners to see what’s not commonly on view in our Venice Pav… what a business beast this thang is

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