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.
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.
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
“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.”
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 http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/australia-culture-blog/2014/aug/27/italian-artist-giorgia-severi-indigenous-voices-venice-biennale 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.