News & Commentary, Visual Arts

The 2015 Venice Biennale and the myopia of Australia’s arts leaders

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The Australian-born and Ireland-based artist John Kelly in Venice takes a long look at the narrow view of the Australia Council and a coterie of powerful commercial galleries when an artist is chosen to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale.

“Without the critical faculty, there is no artistic creation at all worthy of the name.” — Oscar Wilde

Here in Venice, the installation Wrong Way Time by artist Fiona Hall has opened in the new Australian pavilion designed by Denton, Corker and Marshall at the 56th Biennale of Art. The new pavilion appears as a simple monolith looming darkly over the canal Giardini with the black South Australian granite, camouflaging the obligatory white cube inside. It is stunning.

This exciting new building owes its existence to the indefatigable Simon Mordant AM who has recently vied with David Walsh as the most ‘creative’ man in Australian art. Both men have the ability to raise multi-million-dollar budgets to build architectural art houses where the public might contemplate the visual.

Whereas Walsh has built an eclectic private museum, the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart and is pleasing himself, Mordant has collaborated with Australia’s art institutions, notably the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney where, as with the new Venice pavilion, he gave and raised millions to build it.  Since 2012 Mordant has been the official Venice Biennale commissioner, appointed by the Australia Council. Their different approaches may be why Mordant was given a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) whilst Walsh was given a tax audit.

Simon Mordant opens the Australian exhibit at the Venice Biennale yesterday. (Image by

Commissioner Mordant has chosen Fiona Hall AO as Australia’s 2015 representative artist. Her work has been described as  “characterised by its use of ordinary items and materials, which are transformed into complex and allusive objects”. Hall herself has said her work addresses “global conflict, global finances and the environment”.

It’s a fascinating choice given Simon Mordant is a successful globetrotting investment banker providing advice to major corporations and governments. Many of his clients might be responsible for Hall’s concerns, but Mordant has said: “I accept that I’m not a curator, not from the art world… So I put together a panel of curators.” According to Mordant, Hall was a unanimous choice.

Fiona Hall’s selection as Australia’s representative in Venice follows Simryn Gill in 2013 (by Mordant) and Hany Armanious in 2011 by then commissioner Doug Hall who when opening the exhibition declared “…when we look at Australia’s representation in the pavilion it is impossible to think of the chronicle, and not think about recent Australian art because, we’ve never got it wrong”.

Maybe not in Doug’s world. However, given all three artists share a distinct and similar working practice and a strong professional connection it is interesting to ask whether they also are an accurate reflection of this Wrong Way Time that Hall feels we are in. So before we enter the new pavilion we might look at and try to understand the economics and environment that have allowed Hall’s work to emerge and inhabit this beautiful new exhibition space.

Matthew Doyle performing at the opening of the Australian exhibit at Venice yesterday. In background L-R: Australia Council chair Rupert Myer, architect John Denton and Cate Blanchett. (Getty Images)

Artists are often accused of repeating themselves and the fact is we do, it’s natural. Painters often have different subjects, however the underlying composition or aesthetic concerns may remain the same, just as a sculptor will often reiterate forms. The same might be said of commercial galleries whose stable of artists may at first appear diverse, but in reality share many aesthetic and conceptual relationships simply because it is selected by a singular identity, the gallery owner. In terms of professional connections Hall, Gill and Armanious have, or have in the past, exhibited with Roslyn Oxley9, a commercial gallery run by Roslyn Oxley AO and Tony Oxley AO in Sydney. The artists have not only shared an art-dealer, but also some working methods.

If I quote from the literature on the three artists we are immediately struck by a repetitive pattern; “Hall deliberately transforms ordinary everyday objects to address a range of contemporary issues…” “Armanious creates duplicates of eclectic, everyday objects…”  Gill’s approach “…to making art involve adapting everyday and found objects…into mordant, yet playful pieces: a Native American (“Red Indian”) head dress, for instance, fashioned from dried chillies…a suit made from coconut shells…”[“Hall’s work is enormously popular, partly because of its clever use of everyday objects, from the sardine cans and camouflage materials to knitted unspooled videotape, old Coca-Cola cans or shredded United States currency.”

If one knits together three quotes about the three different artists an almost unified identity emerges; “…Armanious converts a leaf blower..” “…with cut-up texts shaped to mimic botanical forms like leaves….”  Leaf litter investigates the interrelationships between the natural world and the commercial world”.

In 2013 Catherine de Zegher, the curator of Gill’s exhibition responded to her work by revealing what she believed were their environmental and economic concerns that are also being expressed by Hall. They have other similarities; Gill states: “It’s neither possible nor desirable for me to go out and learn every way of doing things from the beginning so the result is that I have found many relationships and ways to work with many different makers, thinkers, fellow artists in arriving at the things I arrive at.”“…Hall is also highly collaborative with people such as her installation team, which includes a cabinet maker, a foundry worker, a retired engineer, a circuitry designer and even a clockmaker…”

No matter how well intentioned the artist might be, the fashioning of everyday objects into art installations shares a conceptual and aesthetic origin with the department store visual merchandiser whose job is also to cleverly raise the everyday object from its ordinariness into one that is fetishised and desired, to make familiar things new.

In trying to understand this obsession with the everyday object transformed, it is fascinating to learn that Roslyn Oxley is the daughter of John Robert Walton, founder of the Australian department store Waltons. Oxley also had a 20 -year career as an interior designer and is considered one of the most influential gallery owners in Australia, supporting the cause of contemporary art. Oddly, Oxley was once quoted in 1993 as saying  “Quite frankly, I’d prefer to sell socks” when talking about the difficulty of selling art after the ’80s art boom.

Roslyn and Anthony Oxley; “…were awarded medals of the Order of Australia for their service to the visual arts …for their…support of …the Venice and Sydney Biennales” In 2009, preceding Hall, Gill and Armanious we find two more Oxley artists in Venice representing Australia, Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro. Their “…practice often involves the recontexualising of everyday objects.” Oxley has stated: “All our artists are very different.”

This uniformity of selection should raise questions with the guardian of the pavilion, the Australia Council. Strangely it doesn’t, even though the council is charged with supporting and promoting our cultural diversity that has been estimated to include 30,000 practicing Australian visual artists and 500 galleries.

It would seem that the Australian Council and a very small number of contemporary and private commercial galleries have turned a continent’s visual arts culture into a country the size of Soudan Lane in Paddington where Oxley’s gallery is situated.

Mordant, in his recent National Press Club speech, revealed the Biennale’s commercial edge when he said; “…the number of great private collections I’ve seen internationally where I heard the owners say they bought the work of our Australian Venice artist directly as a consequence of discovering them through the Venice exhibition. Nine Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery artists have represented their country at the Venice Biennale according to the gallery’s website.

Contemporary art is no longer as adversarial as it might have been at the height of modernism, a battle between artists and critics, with museums, galleries and collectors watching from the sidelines. It has evolved into something altogether different and now has a management structure, one that basically opines; you’re either with us or against us.

This structure has allowed a diverse liberal society like Australia to become culturally myopic when presenting itself internationally. Art criticism is so discouraged that those who challenge this view are not debated in any intellectual way, instead they are efficiently ostracised, often silently, in some subtle and not so subtle ways by the powerful bureaucracy that officiates over contemporary art.

If you want to see this illustrated take a look at The Art Life’s Power Trip and the 50 most influential people in the art world and you will find artists barely rate a mention, art critics even less so. The conformity of thinking is revealed in the unanimous decision to select Hall —  surely from the 30,000 artists in Australia there were other contenders?

These powerful managers have reduced Australian art to the everyday object and it seems we are going to present it until the rest of the world gets it. Unfortunately they got it well before we did. Koons anyone?

Fiona Hall’s concerns are important, but the local is also global. To her credit Hall has been outspoken about the abhorrent resettling of remote Aboriginal communities against their will. Hall lived with an Aboriginal community for a fortnight, collaborating with The Tjanpi Desert Weavers’ Project and these works are presented in a corner of Wrong Way Time.

Whilst the artist may have genuine concerns, one only has to consider that during the past 18 years no Aboriginal artists have shown in the pavilion and this is during one of the greatest flowerings of cultural creativity in Australian history. In fact Aboriginal artists have only been represented twice in the official Australian pavilion in 1990 and 1997 and only in group shows.

Instead we have had art reflecting the aesthetic interests of an influential commercial gallery where The Tjanpi Desert Weavers’ Project would be unlikely to find support, given very few remote Aboriginal artists or communities are represented by Oxley’s gallery.

Hall’s collaborative pieces are some of the best pieces in the exhibition however the installation falls flat given that the Aboriginal work is only in the new pavilion under the auspices of a white Australian artist. One is reminded of Richard Bell’s theorem that Aboriginal art – is a white thing!

Hall’s other concerns, global conflicts and the environment, are illustrations of the subject from afar, given her experience of them would seem to come from her engagement with the media rather than any external reality. Hall states, “Any time you look at any media, whether it’s television or newspaper or the radio, you cannot escape this, it’s there.”[

The media as muse reminds one that many Australians engage the world through print, radio and TV where simplistic discussion often passes for informed debate. Compared to Ireland’s 2013 Venice representative Richard Mosse ‘s camouflage Congo works, Hall’s take on the subject — the shredded camouflage material transformed — transports my mind to the world of Jean Paul Gaultier, rather than Syria or Afghanistan. The beautiful display cases only reinforce the aesthetics of the department store where valuable things are kept at a distance from the consumer. On the other hand the badly painted clocks are just that, badly painted clocks!

There is hope however and it is in the building, Mordant has declared that the new Australian Pavilion is –  “…a new chapter for Australian design and visual arts internationally.”[ “We are, after all, there to support the art form”.This new beginning might start by listening to this year’s Venice Biennale curator, Okwui Enwezor, who states; “The rampant expansion of museums is not for the public; it’s for the glorification of capital,” he continues, in a nod to the private interests — sponsors, galleries, auction houses — who all have a stake in institutional life. “Do we really need more exhibition space? More programming?”…“We should be asking instead what it means to be a public institution.”

Our public institution, the Australia Council, must reward the incredible generosity of the Mordant family and their tireless efforts to bring others on-board to support this magnificent new Venice pavilion by ensuring that the building’s white and pristine interior supports Australia’s diverse creative culture in this bright new future.

The evidence is that of late is it hasn’t, quite the opposite. However that age has now already past and maybe that is what makes Fiona Hall’s work so right for this time. Surely it marks an end to the Oxley9 era, this Wrong Way Time — a great and glorious age when criticism was abandoned in Australia and “we never got it wrong”.

“An age that has no criticism is either an age in which art is immobile, hieratic, and confined to the reproduction of formal types, or an age that possesses no art at all.” — Oscar Wilde

[box]Main image: Press preview at the Australia Pavilion for the 56 Venice Biennale 2015. Photo by Awakening/Getty Images)[/box]

[box]An Australia Council spokesperson responds to John Kelly’s complaint about the scarcity of Indigenous artists represented at Venice:

“The number of Indigenous artists invited to exhibit at the 2015 Venice Biennale is unprecedented, and reflects strong international recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and their work. Indigenous artists represent 50% of the 60+ Australian artists exhibiting in the Biennale’s most prestigious exhibitions this year.

This representation includes:

* The work of Daniel Boyd and the late Emily Kame Kngwarreye in the central exhibition ‘All the World’s Futures’ from the Biennale’s highly respected Curator, Okwui Enwezor;

*More than 30 Indigenous artists in the exhibition ‘COUNTRY’, an official collateral exhibition in partnership with the Gervasuti Foundation, curated by Chiara Massini; and

*Tthe work of Reko Rennie in the group exhibition ‘Personal structures – Time, Space, Existence’ presented by the Global Art Affairs Foundation across two venues.

The following Indigenous artists have exhibited in the Australian Pavilion:

1997 — Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Yvonne Koolmatrie and Judy Watson

1990 —  Trevor Nickolls and Rover Thomas

2009 —  Vernon Ah Kee was one of three artists in ‘Once Removed’, the official group exhibition representing Australia at the 53rd Venice Biennale, supported by the Australia Council alongside Shaun Gladwell’s solo exhibition in the Australian Pavilion.

The 2015 artist representing Australia in the Australian Pavilion is Fiona Hall, and her exhibition includes work from Kuka Iritija (Animals from Another Time) (2014), a collaboration between Hall and eleven artists from the Tjanpi Desert Weavers, a collective of Aboriginal women artists known for their works of fiber art created from weaving tjanpi, or grass.” [/box]

[box] John Kelly responds:

My essay focused on our national pavilion. One of many points I made was that in the last 18 years no Aboriginal artist had exhibited in the pavilion and I would like to add that in its history no Aboriginal artist has ever had a solo exhibition in the pavilion. I felt that Fiona Hall’s collaboration fell flat, not because of her personal intentions but because the Tjanpi Desert Weavers were only in the pavilion under the auspices of a white Australian artist who had directed them as to what they might make.

At the opening of the exhibition this week in Venice, Richard Bell the Aboriginal artist, was making a protest. I approached him and asked his opinion on the collaboration and he concurred it was problematic. An international writer I was with described it as ‘colonial’.

If we look closely at the statistic put forward by the Australia Council they state that “Indigenous artists represent 50% of the 60+ Australian artists exhibiting in the Biennale’s most prestigious exhibitions this year.”  However their press release on March 6 acknowledges that “…more than 30 Australian Indigenous artists will present works in the exhibition COUNTRY, an official collateral exhibition in partnership with the Gervasuti Foundation, curated by Chiara Massini.”

 It is important to note that Venice Biennale itself is divided into two distinct operations, one being the national pavilions where the countries select the artist and the other is an exhibition usually curated by one person. This year it is Okwui Enwezor. He in turn may also select other curators to select artists.

COUNTRY was not an Australia Council initiative. Reading in the Guardian it seems an Italian artist, Giorgia Severi instigated it.

“She has received some sponsorship from the Gervasuti Foundation, an alternative art platform based at the Venice family cabinet-maker and joinery workshop that will show her work in 2015. The foundation funds experimental projects that aim to preserve cultural memory.

Otherwise, Severi is paying her own way, raising extra funds through crowdsourcing, which she likens to a boomerang: rewarding backers for their involvement and collecting money and feedback for her Indigenous collaborators.

“They need support around the world because horrible things happened and are happening now.” Severi is indignant that more is not done for these communities who are losing their land, culture and language. “People in Europe don’t know enough about what’s going on here.”

Given the above I do not think the Australia Council can claim credit for the high number of aboriginal artists in the Venice Biennale.

I feel strongly that with this magnificent new pavilion we should make sure that our selection process in the future is equally world class and should not be repetitive in nature given the diversity in Australian visual arts. If I can use a hypothetical example, if in four consecutive Biennales five artists from one Aboriginal community, with similar studio practices and concerns were exhibited, I would be making the same point.[/box]

61 responses to “The 2015 Venice Biennale and the myopia of Australia’s arts leaders

  1. Excellent piece, well done. I suspect I am one of the critics ostracised by “official” Australian art as hardly anyone talks to me now. Firstly we need some form of transparency from Australia Council. At present OzCo seem to be just doing what their political masters (from both sides) want which is this philantrophy push. Thing is wouldn’t all this gifting be tax minimisation? Mordant is a merchant banker I’m sure he has a whole range of accountants working for him. We really need to know if these people (Malcolm Turnbull included) actually just gave cash gratis or via their foundations and family trusts. If it is the latter then its basically public money being used, “in lieu of taxes“ is the term British use for cultural gifts. It may well be that we are all meant to bow to the money and tastes of people who basically are giving no money.
    John Kelly is spot on with his critques of the last three Australian Venice artists. These artists basically pump out the same work. Slightly crafty soft and vague global “concern” that is willfully oblivious to the economic mechanisms that get them where they go. People think contemporary art is eternal, that there will always be contemporary art as there is always new art. This is not true. Contemporary Art is an epoch in art that is at its zenith now but will wane as all epochs do. This is why contemporary art all looks the same, it is frighteningly homogenous. Why? Because the “new” has to look like everything else otherwise people wouldn’t recognise it. Hence the interchangable art Australia plonks in Venice.
    Also the BIG problem is that Australia thinks that art is only cultural product, hence Mordant’s story about international collectors. Mordant thinks money , money is his life, he loves art but only art from his mindset. What the Australia Council and the small gang involved in the pointy end of Australian art, the Venice end, fail to see is that international art craves new ideas about art, NOT just more new product that looks like all the other product. This is why NZ’s Simon Denny and Germany’s Hito Steyerl are getting all the international pre Venice press/ art journal coverage. Their work pushes boundaries and is a challenge, more so Steyerl. Australia does not like Conceptual art. Doug Hall hated my own 90s conceptual work and none got into QAG.
    As to Doug’s vapid statement that “We never get it wrong”. Umm…Doug what about Lyndal Jones at Venice? No one mentions that choice. I was constantly asked in Berlin at the time why we didn’t show Tracey Moffatt. As to myself I just got a redacted report on my own application to Venice. ? Ricky Swallow was a good artist but the wood carving doesn’t impress so many in Europe as they have long traditions of wood carving.
    Apologies for using my own experinces but that is what I know. I wanted to turn Phillip Cox’s much maligned “tin shed” pavillion into the surf shop it looked like and basically get Billabong to represent Australia. In later years such works were highly popular, Notably Elmgreen and Dragset’s “The Collectors” piece a few years later, the hit of that Biennale. In my redacted info from OzCo my idea was “a gimmick”….ummm has Kaldor looked at contemporary art these days? Most of his Australian Projects are gimmicks. Wrapping Little Bay was a gimmick if one steps outside the sacro idylic world of “art”. Good art now isn’t just content to make product with vague social concerns as some gloss on the Samo product. Vague concerns that never actually achieve nything as they are just window dressing for the wealthy jet set to buy. BUT really all this writing is moot as the OzCo public servants have the flow of money and rich people and Governments to please.

    The question is: Does it have to be this way? Is art a „gift“ from the rich to us peasants. A gift that may actually be our own money given back in disuise.

  2. Feisty stuff Kelly – I seem to recollect that your art concerned just two everyday objects – cows and the Ozco kangaroo! How are they understood in Ireland?
    But the lack of variety in Australian selections for its old and new pavilions in Venice may well be blamable upon the naked commercialism of the current gallery scene and the absence of anything very new in our non-Indigenous art.
    Which does indeed raise the question as to why only two Biennale selections (NOT none) since 1989 have involved Indigenous artists – Rover Thomas, Emily Kngwarreye, Trevor Nickolls, Yvonne Koolmatrie and Judy Watson have all been our representatives, though none was trusted on their own? Shortage of competent curators and critical assessment (as evidenced by Nicolas Rothwell last weekend in The Australian) perhaps?
    Perhaps the indefatiguable Oxleys can make the leap in 2017 – they do after all show more Indigenous artists than many another white-wall gallery; Tracey Moffatt, Nyapanyapa Yunupingu and Daniel Boyd spring instantly to mind as Venice-worthy.

    1. Thank you Jeremy for that point about Indigenous Australian representation at Venice. The article has been amended.

    2. Dear Jeremy

      Appreciate my original sentence may have read clumsily. However the point I was trying to make was that an aboriginal artist had not been shown in the pavilion for 18 years. I was aware of the two group exhibitions you refer to. Vernon Ah Khee was also part of a satellite exhibition in 2009.

      As for papier-mâché camouflage cows from World War II and the Australian Council logo being everyday items I am not so sure.


    3. The selection of Ngwarray, Koolmatrie and Watson to exhibit together was curatorially driven Jeremy – as you know – and (hopefully competently) curated by two Aboriginal women. Why should the solo artist model be the only one? And Rothwell’s article failed to provide evidence for yet another tolling of his ‘end is near’ bell…
      I applaud the selection of Fiona Hall to represent Australia.

      1. Competent for some, not so for others, but don’t really care what self-promotional, self-styled ‘wild(e)’ post-colonial boys offer up as pearls of expert wisdom. Pity that the grammar is not as consistent as the rhetoric – capitals please John! Enthusiastic about the selection of Hall, should have happened long ago, but some interesting points about the selection focus – on previous visits curators of Enwezor’s status are often guided through the same same circuit – whether by collectors or directors. Here’s to individual contemporary Indigenous artists having a solo platform but also begs the question, but as Hetti stated why it is it an issue for artists to also be shown in a curatorially contextualised group – is that not the nature of biennial/triennial events? Important point raised elsewhere by contemporary artist/academic Julie Gough (and others) about the glaring absence of names of individual artists associated with Tjanpi Desert Weavers Project. Unfortunate suggestion of homogeneity and depersonalisation, or worse, peripheral invisibility.

      2. Dear Hetti

        I do not understand your applause.

        As well as the problematic presentation of the aboriginal artists there is also this.

        With the first African curator in its history, the Nigerian born Okwui Enwezor, overseeing the Venice Biennale, it is quite extraordinary that a white, Australian artist from Adelaide has presented African inspired masks, one literally with a bone though its nose? The artist makes them from military camouflage material to associate them with warriors! This would seem to be inspired by thinking from centuries gone by and the curator Linda Michael seems to agree;

        “It is this power that Fiona recognises in African sculpture, which she has long observed and which has become an increasing influence, a power that gives form to the unconscious, as Picasso maintained was his aim in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, when he described it as the first canvas of exorcism.”

        The above quote taken from the official catalogue.

        Can you really applaud this?

        1. Dear John
          I don’t applaud using lower case ‘a’ for Aboriginal which was a comment I previously posted but didn’t make it into this thread. Thanks Brenda for mentioning it subsequently.
          I do applaud Fiona’s work from my direct experience of the artist and her work. I can’t speak for African people about whether or not her reference to the African mask is offensive, as you imply. I also can’t speak for the Tjanpi artists. Has anyone asked them what they think or are the critics of Fiona’s work doing the very same thing they are presuming she has done?
          I think that the point you are making about Fiona being white etc is one that would be relevant to any artist of non-African origins. I don’t understand what the issue is with the other points, about using camouflage and the bone through the nose?
          I can only speak from my experience of the artist and her work (which unfortunately doesn’t include seeing the Venice exh and I don’t have the catalogue), which Naati Porourangi’s comment confirms. By the way, your response to Naati Porourangi about Fiona apparently never being to a war zone etc seems bizarre in response I have to say! Can you not comment on war unless you’ve actually experienced one?
          Cheers, Hetti

          1. Dear Hetti and Brenda

            Apologises for the grammatical errors.

            Absolutely you can comment on war even if you have never been in a war zone, however be prepared to be compared to those artists who have been, especially when you have used such cliche imagery.


  3. The parallel between Oxley gallery artists and department store merchandising is very astute. The various activities that now present themselves as art nearly all come together here – art as decoration, as merchandise, as entertainment and as gambling.

    I don’t think Australia has ever understood Venice (or maybe has never understood art). Australia always treats it as a traditional world-expo-style trade fair where superior conventionality is paraded as a virtue. The fact that the best art at any time is invariably the least conventional is apparently not grasped by decision makers who feel most comfortable with the constipated virtuosity that may be admirable in a concert pianist but makes for completely forgettable visual art. Their determination to conform with dated international trends can be clearly seen and so in that way at least the colonial attitudes that underlie Australian culture are being honestly represented.

    It is sad that so little has changed. Australia’s first Venice Biennale representatives in 1958 were Arthur Streeton and Arthur Boyd. Boyd may have been in his early thirties but his work was conservative and backward looking. Streeton was long dead by then and his best work had been done over fifty years earlier.

    That is not in fact so different to the current situation where most recent representatives have simply presented variations on a pseudo-conceptualist approach that originated over fifty years ago in the late 1960s and is still nurtured by a group of galleries, collectors and bureaucrats who became established when that style was becoming commercially acceptable in the 1980s. While art has moved on they haven’t, they’ve learnt no new tricks and although they are looking old and tired they aren’t about to let go yet.

  4. I am still mulling over this great text by Mr Kelly. One way to move forward is for Australia Council to take the selection for Venice out of the money people’s hands and back to a more inclusive ideas based approach where artists and curators and writers can make proposals. This was the approach before Kaldor was given the commisioner job. I’ll give one example that I know of. Charles Green wants to resend Robert Menzies’ 1950s exhibition of Streeton and Roberts et al BACK to Venice now. The very same paintings. This would be so anachronistic that Venice audiences would get it. Understand an aspect of Australia and why we are seen/ not seen by highlighting the cultural politics at work then and now. The idea would also get us out of the current mailaise of Contemporary Art where everything looks the same. For an excellent read on how a nation’s art history can be re-thought see Jerry Saltz on the recent Whitney Museum reopening, we need better thinking and a more diverse range of views.

  5. Great piece John – the art world is no more free of vested interest decision making than the naughty worlds of politics and commerce.

  6. The only responses to this article seem to be ones saying how great it is. If people are interested in what is inside the Australian Pavilion, they might take a look at the catalogue which is available now. It arrived in time for the opening in Venice and yesterday it began appearing in Australian bookshops. It should be in most bookshops by the weekend.
    $39.95 … ISBN 9780980834734
    Linda Michael (editor)
    hardback, 136pp, 280 x 225mm

    1. John Dunn is of course director at Piper Press; might have been as well to mention that if you want to just put in a free ad for your book

        1. Thought it was obvious I was director of Piper Press. Margaret Bishop is the other director — see comments below. Elsewhere there has been some excellent discussion about inclusion of more women in this Venice Biennale, including Fiona and the Tjanpi Desert Weavers. Isn’t that a good thing? Did you hear Fiona on ABC RN today talking about her collaboration with the Tjanpi Desert Weavers and how it resulted from an invitation from Djon Mundine? If you had been in the same position as Fiona Hall, would you have suggested a similar collaboration?

  7. A great article to raise debate about Australia’s contribution to the Venice Biennale and the people and politics involved. But, I realised the article and recent comments were from men and you guessed it, mostly about the recent artists, curators and gallery directors who are women.
    “Curiouser and curiouser!” Cried Alice
    ― Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

      1. Oh please, so all women are good and all men are bad. I’m gay so do I get half a vote (joke). There are really tough women artists out there such Burchill and McCamley who refuse to make “craft”, who basically refuse everything. This argumant is about what art should be in the Pavillion if anything at all. The problem with rhetoric is that it can be skewed any which way. I am a gay man I love the culture of display just not fussy knitted Nimbin hippy display like Fiona’s, full of soft mushy “concern”. I agree with Alison below, this instant knee jerk recourse to eveything male being anti women is retrograde. John Kelly and Ian Millis are very rare people who have the guts to speak out against the extraordinary mini- Mafia who run Australian art. Is it there fault is women don’t speak out. Where is a woman writing such? If it weren’t for Kelly we wouldn’t have this debate which everyone agrees is long overdue. A little respect to Kelly please before he is demonised for being male.

        1. John Kelly calls for more diversity, well I say take a look in your own backyard. For instance, Liverpool Street Gallery, where Kelly exhibits in Sydney, has 22 artists. Only 6 of those artists are women and there are no indigenous artists. From what I can see, only two of their artists are from non-Anglo-Saxon backgrounds. So much for diversity! His stance on artists who work with everyday objects is very problematic, as if landscape paintings somehow escape their own objecthood and status as banal commodities. It’s the same lame high art vs. low art conceits more traditional artists use to belittle the work of their peers. Women are critical, as usual the men are just not listening. Juliette expressed it very eloquently below, not surprised she’s had no replies, that would require substantive comment. Real art criticism requires at least a modicum of objectivity and self-criticality, on this basis the article fails with its obvious personal biases. And while we’re on the subject of respect – there’s a fine line between being critical and outright nasty, maybe you err too much on the latter and that’s why you feel ostracised? Only Ian’s practice represents a real, credible alternative to these problems, through the collapse of art and life into activism that functions beyond institutional confines. From you and your stablemate John Kelly it just sounds like so much sour grapes. Interesting to note the ‘professional relationship’ between the two of you. Most fascinating!

    1. Thank you for your comment Margaret however I need to point out that Tony Oxley is also a gallery director of Oxley9 Gallery. Hany Armanious and Sean Cordeiro are artists and recent Australian representatives in the pavilion. All of the above are included in my essay and are to the best of my knowledge male. I do not think the issues I raise are gender related.

    2. and women who are too gutless to offer substantive criticism and see misogyny around every corner

  8. It is a most interesting article and many valid points but Fiona hall deserves her place. I agree totally that more diversity is needed moving into the future and transparency in the process. It is good to just see discussions about it but it’s important to not get too ‘anti aust art’. I’m not the convicted cigarettes out of an arse is exactly more interesting and relevant artwork than what Australia has to offer.

  9. “Curioser and curiouser” ideed! It seems we only turn around our old ways of behaving when we see a threat. A parallel story with a positive turn-around for the Australian cultural cringe is that of the Australian Galleries new space in Melbourne (the oldest commercial gallery in Oz). ‘An Anthropocene Cabinet of Curiosities’ (current until Sunday 24 May) is part of the Climarte Festival, led by lawyer Guy Abrahams (son of the late gallery director Christine Abrams). The aim of the Festival is to stir action of climate change, through exhibitions and events at the big end of art marketing. Artists beyond the Australian Galleries stable were invited to respond to climate change and human impacts. I suspect that I and David Buckland (Director of Cape Farewell, London) were invited because we are known to work with climate scientists, and to make work outside the established ‘art box’. Purves launched the space with an ‘AnthropSlam’, inviting us to speak about our work, and to suggest what he could to mitigate climate change. “Tell me what to do and I will do it” he said. My suggestion was for us, as Anthropocenes, to listen. Listen to scientists, to indigenous stories (specially our own), and to listen to our own gut feeling for ‘right action’ through new and ancient technologies. My contribution is not an everyday object presented to be seen in new ways, but strange forms floating from the ceiling. Microscopic and human forms are stitched from mesh, and illuminated from within by tiny LEDs. The lights suggest photosynthesis. Together the forms express relationship between animals (including us) and tiny plants of the ocean (phytoplankton) that produce every second molecule we breathe. David and I are fortunate to have worked with scientists at the Poles, and to continue with this work. Our approach to making art has changed from our experience and we encourage more artists to listen to scientists, and the natural world that is changing. What we do and make is turning around how scientists as well as artists can engage the public with actuality.

  10. Bravo Margaret – whilst I do concur with the comments around the repetitiveness and predictability of the showing, the narrow and self-reflective options for critique and review of Ozco taste and decisions and the whole issue of the lack of representation of the wider community of Australian art and visual cultural makers, there are signs of sexism as well. The critique of the “department store display” as an antithesis to “real art” has a whole century and a half cultural reference of male/female stereotypes in high modernism. Consumerism, the shop display, fashion indicated the triviality of the female mind, its susceptibility to seduction and influence, its capacity for making subjective emotion based decisions as opposed to the rigorous analytic action based outlook of the male, and thus the true artist. indeed since the 1970s there has been many masculine tears landing in the beer about the manner in which women and other special interest groups are using political correctness to skew the supposedly neutral, merit based judgements of the artworld and disenfranchise deserving male talent. The implication is that women as artists, dealers, curators etc can not make in their own merit, they must manipulate the field with quotas and personal influence etc.
    These concepts make interesting cross reference to the article before us

    That said any published article that seeks to cast an interrogative eye upon the centralising impetus of high level arts advocacy in Australia should be applauded even if there is a bat cry of wounded male genius out there

  11. Strange. As it happens I’m strongly in favour of quotas. In my experience it is women artists and curators who are most opposed to them.

  12. Very astute observations Mr. Kelly. Well summarised but I suspect things are unlikely to be any different in 2017.

  13. This is not really a situation unique to Australia, although the details might be. We have a few very wealthy patrons, influential dealers, and major collectors (often overlapping there) controlling the game. Isn’t it like that in most countries these days? The art world is very hierarchical, opaque, and really controlled by a few powerful people.

    The use of everyday objects goes back to Duchamp of course (1917), and a huge number of artists use them in different ways now, so I’m not sure if that argument holds water. Installation certainly seems to be the main mode for Venice now too, which is hardly surprising. It is true at a lot of art seems to be similar these days, perhaps due to increased globalisation, and the accepted market?

    1. On reflection Denton Corker Marshall have made the most ingenious and subversive “art”. The garanite comes for CHINA! Very appropriate for contemporary Australia!

  14. Fallacies of discretion
    closed doors
    graven idylls
    by the
    fatted calves
    en masse
    Mammon stirs
    looking askance
    the peripheral
    don’t reflect
    value judgements
    on its
    raison d’etre
    in the
    that everything
    has its

  15. John Kelly, I don’t know you but can see you are rightfully challenging the machinations of your Australian art world. However, your assumption about Hall’s experience of the natural environment is way off the mark. ‘Hall’s other concerns, global conflicts and the environment, are illustrations of the subject from afar, given her experience of them would seem to come from her engagement with the media rather than any external reality.’ Actually as an indigenous woman of Aotearoa (I’m sure you know where that is), I have personal experience of Fiona and her frequent visits to our remote coastal community camp. Fiona would give many a run for their money with her knowledge of the natural world, and indeed spends her days immersed in walks on the beach. That driftwood on the wall? Much of it is from our land. Those are the remains, the bones, of our trees. Fiona understands the impacts of deforestation as an terrible consequence of colonisation by the British. The Maori text on the wall next to the driftwood? My people. Fiona has a longstanding relationship now with us. Can’t speak for any of what’s happening in your country, or the Venice art club but don’t mistake Fiona for someone who isn’t connected to any other external reality, as you put it. Don’t believe everything you read in the media.

    1. Hi Naati But are you happy to have your culture be just a text on a wall for wealthy international jet setters to look at for maybe a second. What I a against is the commodification of all local histories under the sign of commerce. Is this th priceyou pay to be heard in even the smallest way? To me Fiona Hall is all “concern” and no clear head for hwo and why she and her work is where she is now. Contemporary art chews up everything and turns it into one great INSTALLATION the world over. This is radical but most are only content to ignore what they crave to be a part of. There are serious issues here and its great the can finally come out.

    2. Dear Naati

      Thank you for your comments. In reply I would like to suggest you listen to Fiona speaking on this Youtube video (at 57min 45 seconds). In it she tells us that information that has helped form her strong views originate from media reports.

      Her first hand experience of war or conflict zones has never been reported to my knowledge. John

  16. Correction: Simryn Gill was represented by Breenspace when in Venice, not Oxley.
    She is now represented by Utopia Art Sydney

    An interesting article, always good to have different perspectives.


    1. Good point Chris. It’s also important to note that Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro were represented by Barry Keldoulis (not Oxley9) when their work was included in Australia’s official group (not “satellite”) exhibition in 2009, which also included Vernon Ah Kee. The group show, Once Removed, was funded by the Australia Council along with the Shaun Gladwell pavilion exhibition.

      1. Felicity, it is important to note that you were the curator of Once Removed and employed by the Australia Council for this exhibition.

        As the name suggests, Once Removed was a group exhibition under a separate billing in a space outside the Giardini (gardens) where the Australian pavilion is situated. Hence my use of the word ‘satellite’.

        I reiterate that Vernon Ah Kee was not exhibited in the Australian pavilion where Shaun Gladwell exhibited Maddestmaximvs: Planet & Stars Sequence.


    2. Thank you Christopher for the comment. I was aware of this and make it clear in the text (see below). John

      In terms of professional connections Hall, Gill and Armanious have, or have in the past, exhibited with Roslyn Oxley9, a commercial gallery run by Roslyn Oxley AO and Tony Oxley AO in Sydney.

    3. Thank you Christopher for the comment. I was aware of this and make it clear in the text (see below). John

      “In terms of professional connections Hall, Gill and Armanious have, or have in the past, exhibited with Roslyn Oxley9, a commercial gallery run by Roslyn Oxley AO and Tony Oxley AO in Sydney.”

  17. Met a lady yesterday who had a house full of paintings, they were all very nice n apparently she made some coin from it. Cos of assetts n pensions we are all gonna say they are awful n worth nought, cos she doesnt seem to want to part with them. Who the hell can afford to go to Venice???

  18. In this day of duped media coverage I applaud Mr Kelly for his straightforwardness. Would this art worthy of an inauguration of the Australian pavilion at the Venice Biennale be worth anything at all to the contemporary art world if no critique of it, and in this case of the pavilion as a whole, had been made? As an offshore I ask the question: why would Australia not welcome such an article? It is a sign that your art is alive. If Australia wants “Europe to know what’s going on down there”, then let the critics loose. This is the only way to garner a real and authentic interest in any medium.

    As for “a bat cry of wounded male genius”, like the art Kelly claims is years past its prime perhaps we could begin moving beyond the battle cry and begin to lay claim to equality instead. Man-bashing seems a rather primitive way of engaging with the male population.

    Last night I asked an Aboriginal artist about his efforts to advocate Aboriginal rights. “I advocate human rights,” he said in a more contemporary comment. This is – is it not – the contemporary art fair after all?

  19. I admire and respect all the points of view i have read so far. My take is the sooner we stop worrying what other people think and just get on with doing what we like the better off we will all be.

  20. Well done John, excellent analysis of the Oxley aesthetic (VM, basically) and its choker hold on The Australia Council.

    But I can’t get too worked up about Australia’s unremarkable contributions to the Ven-Bi because about 90% of the stuff there strikes me as equally dreary and academic. How could it not be? The thing is this massive sprawling dinosaur, basically run for tourists. It’s like an art fair with nothing for sale. It’d be funny if it wasn’t so expensive just to visit. Check out the top line commercial galleries in Venice. Yeah, just awesome, especially during the out-of-season months.

    The Ven-Bi is firstly an exercise in diplomacy – check out the history of awarding prizes there – or at any ‘festival’ for that matter – and the intrigues that inevitably accompany them. They mean nothing beyond bureaucratic brownie points. They are a joke. If critics pay any attention it’s not to the national pavilions but the main curated shows, which have similar problems – one or more curator’s tastes supposedly gauging the moment or the past for art. It is all about the curators and the formidable logistics.

    Doug Hall’s “we never got it wrong” is hilarious, not because the choices were not always astute, but because there is no way of getting it ‘right’. We’re never going to look cutting edge or avant garde. Whatever they install in Venice is always going to make Australia look exactly what it is – a remote and essentially conservative young nation. If we had a young Picasso or Warhol, they almost certainly would have left for Europe or America as soon as they could. That’s where the centres are, that’s where the dialogue is. Australia’s no different from most other countries in that respect – Canada struggles, Hungary struggles, South America struggles – that’s the shape of our world. I don’t find Hall’s twee little knickknacks gravely misrepresent Australian art – I think they’re exactly what the Ven-Bi deserves.

  21. Perhaps, as was suggested in earlier comments, “contemporary art” will pass with the times, particularly as it merges with, and becomes indistinguishable from, design, advertising and popular media. The rearrangement of cast-off manufactured objects and materials in a gallery space can seem like a retaliation of this. So too with the use of natural objects, as Rosalie Gascoigne did in the 1970s, over forty years ago. But today, the collection of old things may also convey the sense of a last gasp (failing) attempt to save art from the regular recuperation of it back into the commercial world.

    Only time will tell whether this situation will collapse upon itself and art prizes, art fairs, biennales, commercial galleries, branding, investor auctions and art’s corporate usefulness will lose its impetus, allowing artists, ignoring any sense of social obligation, to again explore what it means to a be human in a real and resistant world – as many Aboriginal artists still do.

  22. Hopefully, this article generates considerable and timely debate.
    Fiona Hall is a fine and accomplished senior artist but if the next artist chosen for Venice is from Oxley’s stable, the Australia Council should be dismantled because of its willingness to be hostage to wealthy, and as time usually reveals, self-interested parties. I also support the tenor of Scott Redford’s response, but surprised that Scott seems to have forgotten that he has had almost a lifetime of institutional and monetary support from public sources, for making contemporary art in an international vein, and easily recognised as such by curators.
    Let’s support some real diversity in artistic voices, involving home-grown cultural expressions which are not derivations of some trend elsewhere.

    1. We are proud to have represented two major Australian indigenous artists in Palazzo Bembo and Palazzo Mora Venice in consecutive years, Yhonnie Scarce and Michael Cook have both been collected by every Public State Gallery in Australia and have participated in both the Asia Pacific Triennial and the Biennale of Sydney – neither of them have been mentioned in any of the above comments ….

  23. Thanks John for starting the conversation. I admire Fiona Hall’s work. That said there is a clear narrow focus where the selection process for Venice is concerned; this has nothing to do with Hall herself but as you suggest with the hallowed halls of power and their close alignment with money.

    But more to the point, the art world in Australia has changed considerably over the past two decades and in ways that the so-called major institutions seem incapable or unwilling to acknowledge. The ethos that ‘everything is art’ and ‘everyone is an artist’ has seen an influx of pseudo-artists into the practitioner field, and also an out-flowing of artists into other industries and arenas. Some of the more challenging projects I’ve seen, for example in the arts/science arenas at highly regarded events like The International Symposium of Electronic Art (ISEA) would never make it to Venice and frankly many of those artists have long been indifferent to this hyper-capitalist biennale. (Their works circulate internationally and are often ignored in Australia).

    Indeed if we follow the avant garde line to its conclusion then institutions like the VB are no longer capable of representing art in any meaningful way. This nonetheless is anathema to the market and to the institutional demands driven by government arts policy, for if there is no market at the end of the road then how can we justify spending to treasury. Aesthetic philosophy is not their lingua franca.

    There are of course alternative cultural models that look to arts place within society, as we see for instance in the Havana Biennale and in the work of many independent artists and curators who have largely walked away from the narrow minded attitudes that are rife in our cultural institutions. The VB, despite Enwezor’s critique remains a Euro-centric project while clearly Australia’s principal arena of cultural exchange and engagement is Asia.

    The Venice obsession is nothing but the old colonial hang up of cultural validation from afar. I would rather see the money go into projects that link artists to contexts that will sustain their careers in the long run, not to elitist institutions that privilege the aesthetic preferences of the well-heeled, while imparting a cultural critique with a use-by date of two years if that.

  24. Conspiracy theories are always fun! Seriously the only question I have is why did it take so many years to select Fiona Hall for Venice?

  25. I think John Kelly is spot on, but I also think that his argument goes well beyond Australia’s shores. Many (but not all) people here are talking about Australian art but I really think that John Kelly’s points are much wider reaching. Are you familiar with the ‘stuckist’ movement?….they take an interesting standpoint that is possibly too extreme for me but I certainly approve of their ‘bullshit’ detector attitude. At least they try to question the “anything is anything therefore nothing means nothing” approach that only ever served the buyers, the gallery owners and the Koons type characters who cottoned on to it and didn’t give a flying monkey’s about what it all meant or the consequences. For me the ‘art as business’ and therefore “it’s all ok” approach to art, to post-modernism, to hi-jacking anything even remotely thoughtful is the curse of the age, maybe the ages. This is a world where business minds and persuasions and selfism rule the roost. Art has become no different. The pretentious potential of the art form (post industrial revolution) allowed us to believe any suiter that suddenly valued us…in short, we jumped into bed with the first to tell us we were gorgeous…..just a shame it wasn’t a beggar philosopher……….

  26. The compromised integrity of Australia’s contribution to the Venice Biennale is given, but so is the irrelevance of the institution to most Australian artists. To lump Hall’s, Armanious’ and Gill’s work together because they all have some relationship to the ‘everyday’ is a pretty clumsy critique. Duchamp’s been dead since 1969 and surely the ‘everyday’ in art didn’t start with his readymades anyway; wasn’t it always already there?

  27. I see nothing clumsy in John’s arguments here. On the contrary, it strikes me as an elegant progression from noting common materials for all three artists (the ‘everyday’) to a shared exhibition history (at Oxley9) shared themes (environmental/economic, according to Catherine de Zegher) to shared means – in installation (paragraphs 11 and 12). This is hardly an impulsive swipe at just Ready-mades. Kelly is targeting a pervasive, institutionally entrenched and seemingly feminine aesthetic.

    But let’s unpack the artistic issues rather than the politics for a moment. Simryn Gill’s statement (quoted in paragraph 12) provides a considered and concise rationale: “It’s neither possible nor desirable for me to go out and learn every way of doing things from the beginning so the result is that I have found many relationships and ways to work with many different makers, thinkers, fellow artists in arriving at the things I arrive at.” But leaving aside her personal needs, what is it she is trying to make or ‘arrive’ at? Clearly, she is not trying to make toys or tools, foods or clothing, for instance – she is trying to make fine art. So firstly, the ways of doing things are hardly every way of doing everything, much less from the beginning. The requirements are only for those skills associated with fine art, and most assuredly possible, given the history of artists acquiring adequate skills. True, no artist has to learn everything from trial and error – that’s why we have schools, libraries, apprenticeships and so on. But these skills are again, most assuredly desirable, since they go to assessing the value and meaning of the work, which is measured against precedent or history. So it is both possible and desirable to learn the ways of making fine art, in any or all of its branches, if one is to make or appreciate such work.

    It’s worth labouring this point because Gill supposes her premiss justifies commissioning other makers or artists as a more convenient solution. But if she can’t be bothered learning the basics, for whatever reason, on what terms can she ask others to produce things on her behalf? What would she know about say, casting or printing or preservation, related materials and equipment, with which to discuss a product with her informal workshop of artisans? If she simply wanted a stock product or manufacture then that is quickly resolved to a question of price, but to go beyond that, in the interests of an object with novel, discernible and complex reference will require a fairly comprehensive knowledge of current or standard practices, as well as history in fine art. If she is presuming her team to hold such knowledge then on the one hand, it rather begs the question of why she too cannot acquire this expertise directly, on the other hand, it looks suspiciously like an artist buying works and claiming them as their own. Neither is acceptable. So the commissioning or delegating model actually runs into the same objections Gill holds for mere fine art training. At best, she delays the expertise, only to confront propriety issues.

    This is less a matter of Ready-mades than of deciding which kinds of everyday objects are suitable for re-orientating or re-contextualising. Even for Duchamp it was never a matter of merely the quotidian or popular, the objects he chose had to have certain formal qualities of colour, shape and scale, and these were only to be discerned by the artist with expert knowledge of current artistic and cultural concerns and influences. The same holds for installations and commissioned fabrications (or ‘Readily-mades’ perhaps). They ought never to be an excuse for de-skilling or dabbling (or ‘tinkering’ as the Guggenheim puts it, on Gill’s page on their site) for slight gestures toward worthy (or approved) social issues. This really signals the exhaustion of the project, its dissipation into academic correctness. This surely is no more a feminine trait than an Australian one, but pretty much sums up government bureaucracy everywhere.

  28. Great stuff Mr Kelly!

    As the 2017 Biennale draws to a close, it is delightful reading this pre event debate.

    It now seems the too small decision making clique were very thin skinned to the criticism and quickly appointed the recommended artist, for all the reasons given.

    The move in October 2017 by the Australia Council to dethrone Simon Mordant, either due to criticism outlined here by Kelly et al., or to follow the international trend towards more transparency (, or simply because the Venice Biennale itself asked them to do it (Matthew Westwood, Doors of Pavilion opened to all, The Weekend Australian newspaper, October 28-29 2017, The Nation 3).

    But the problem is not unique to this instance, Hollywood had the same problem, with one individual creating a beautiful solution (read

    May I suggest we take the matter into our own hands. In 2017 I decided to address another Biennale problem, of under representation of Western Australian artists, into my own hands.

    I simply took the digital contact details for 2000+ WA artists, kiln fired them onto individual porcelain flutes I had made myself. I then built them into a 2.5m high sculpture, and then gave them away to the Venice audience to use to drink Porcecco, and then take away (and to research and contact the WA artists).*

    May I suggest that we don’t waiting for the Australian Council to struggle to a rushed selection for an Australia 2019 Venice Biennale artist, that will please no-one, and is the smallest target for the next round of criticism.

    Rather, WA follows Scotland’s example and just just rent a space in Venice as our own “Pavilion”. We needn’t worry too much about the total cost: to keep a cap on this defiant act, England also chips in some money.

    * A personal thank you and plug to Rene Rietmeyer, Sarah Gold, the Global Art Affairs, European Cultural Centre, and the amazing staff of Palazzo Bembo for supporting my mad plan.

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