News & Commentary, Visual Arts

The Venice Biennale and the Australian Pavilion’s history of repetition

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Artist John Kelly is in Venice – painting – in a visit that coincides with next month’s Venice Biennale. Kelly is a regular visitor to the Biennale and a commentator on the Australia Council sponsored Australian Pavilion in which (usually) one artist is chosen to represent the country’s art.

In 2015 he wrote in Daily Review of the coterie of powerful commercial galleries behind Australia’s choices in the article The 2015 Venice Biennale and the Myopia of Australia’s Arts Leaders.

This year’s artist is Tracey Moffatt  whose My Horizon project will comprise all new work including large-scale photography and film. Ahead of the opening of the Biennale (running from May 13 until November 26), Kelly looks back at some of the recent Australian representations and finds repetition in the choice of artwork represented.


Irony is the song of a bird that has come to love its cage…” – David Shields (The fourth law of thermodynamics)

“When we look at Australia’s representation in the pavilion it’s impossible to think of the chronicle, and not think about recent Australian art, because we’ve never got it wrong.” So sang Commissioner Doug Hall while opening the Hany Armanious exhibition at the 2011 Venice Biennale.

The writer David Foster Wallace defined “blind certainty” as “a closed-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he is locked up.”

Ten years earlier in 2001 ABC reporter Jill Singer filed from the Venice Biennale, introducing the work of Robert Gober over an image of a floor piece consisting of a ‘wood’ fragment lying across a ‘polystyrene’ block. Gober was representing the USA and is famous for his ‘sinks’ – exacting replicas of bathroom sanitation units – that so heavily quote Duchamp’s urinal of 1917.

Singer intoned, “…as with his previous work Gober produced meticulous reconstructions of everyday objects, bronze sculptures of Styrofoam blocks, newspaper cut-outs and a gin bottle.” Singer cut to artist Imants Tillers, who responded to Gober’s work with “…well I thought it was absolutely terrible and I think it’s kind of complacent in a way, and it depends totally on being in the American pavilion and, you know, having all the aura of that. You know if he was to show as an unknown artist in the Australian pavilion nobody would take any notice.”

At the 2011 Biennale, Hany Armanious represented Australia. “Armanious creates duplicates of eclectic, everyday objects and presents them in a gallery, thereby turning them into fine art.” On  the floor of the pavilion was a simulacrum of a painted wooden-plinth with simulated duct tape patching up a hole. Elsewhere there were Styrofoam-looking reproductions cast in resin – as a homage to Gober it was, well, gob-smacking.

I am questioning is the curatorial and conceptual repetitiveness of the art exhibited by Australia since 2001

Gober’s work relies on exacting reproduction and unusual juxtaposition. For example, his Untitled Leg, 1989 – 1990, is a super-realistic sculpture of the lower part of a man’s leg complete with shoe, sock, trousers cuff and human hair, the dismembered limb curiously sticking out from the gallery wall. Adrian Searle described another Gober work in 2001 as “Half-male, half-female human torsos wallow like flesh drowning in itself.” In 2003 Australia’s representative was Patricia Piccinini with We are Family. Her mutant figures including replicated boys, complete with clothes and human hair.

“Game Boys Advanced (2002) is a hyperreal sculpture of two boys leaning against the gallery wall…At first they look normal…On closer inspection we can see that the boys are not normal. Their faces are aged, their hair is greying at the temples…Hairs and veins appear on their little arms, and their fingers have thick, yellowing nails.” 

Robert Gober makes hand-crafted sculptures that replicate everyday objects with an eerie precision and, usually, a detail or two that is just a little bit off.”

Alongside Piccinini’s mutant teenagers were crash helmets that had mutated to strangely shaped heads, comprising “…a strange mixture of mask, motorcycle helmet and prosthetic device – all wrapped up into a desirable consumer item displayed on a shelf.”

Skip along two more years and we come across Ricky Swallow representing Australia at Venice, with his exactingly meticulous wooden replicas of the everyday object. Swallow’s oeuvre also reflects Gober with his pair of realistically carved hands emerging from the gallery wall, a carved bicycle helmet with slithering snakes, a dismembered arm hanging vertically on the wall, a kitchen table covered with reproductions of fish, a bean bag enveloping a skull. It’s a type of photorealism reproduced in three dimensions.

Fast forward to 2013 and 2015 and we find Simryn Gill and Fiona Hall respectively representing Australia in Venice. 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…” “Hall’s work is enormously popular, partly because of its clever use of everyday objects, from the sardine cans…”

Look back a hundred years and we find DADA challenging the orthodoxy: “Dada artists, for example…modeled a headpiece fashioned of sardine cans.” 1917 is also when Duchamp’s urinal was created, and so we are back to Gober’s bathroom sinks in 2001. But let’s go via the German pavilion, also in 2001, where we find Gregor Schneider meticulously reconstructing the interior of his family home that is situated in the German town of Rheydt. “I dream about taking the whole house away with me and building it somewhere else…” Six years later Australia’s representative Callum Morton’s Valhalla reconstructed his Melbourne family home as part of Australia’s presentation in Venice.

Why are we promoting such a narrow view of Australian Art?

Shaun Gladwell was Australia’s representative in 2009. Along with his stunt videos he exhibited an exact replica of a car and motorbike.

If you think I am criticising the artists for their conceptual heritage, I am not. Rather than criticising the art, what I am questioning is the curatorial and conceptual repetitiveness of the art exhibited by Australia since 2001. For by definition contemporary art should be erratic, inconsistent, diverse and elusive, just as it is in the global art landscape. However, Australia has consistently shown work that might be termed Post-Modernist but which is traceable not just to the primary experience (DADA 1917) or even the secondary (American Art of the ’50s and ’60s) but to tertiary sources of the ’80s and ’90s (Gober). The question is why are we promoting such a narrow view of Australian art?

Ten years ago, David Foster Wallace argued persuasively that the problem with Post-Modernism is that it offers no hope, that it simply identifies our situation to the point that the prisoner can’t see the bars – our Venice pavilion might be regarded as the offshore detention centre.

Irony and cynicism were just what the U.S. hypocrisy of the fifties and sixties called for. That’s what made the early postmodernists great artists. The great thing about irony is that it splits things apart, gets up above them so we can see the flaws and hypocrisies and duplicates . . . The problem is that once the rules of art are debunked, and once the unpleasant realities the irony diagnoses are revealed and diagnosed, “then” what do we do?. . . Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving. There’s some great essay somewhere that has a line about irony being the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.”

This imprisonment leads to a form of curatorial and artistic narcissism which begets a form of elite consumerism to satisfy the needs of that narcissistic personality – much the way western advertising and consumerism uses exclusivity and exclusion to encourage consumerist behaviour, with any perceived criticism being met by the closing of the mind while looking for internal support. It’s just as how Facebook excludes ‘friends’ that have not been ‘liked’ – an ‘echo chamber’ or ‘bubble’ environment is created. This allows the Australian art establishment, as reflected in the presentations at Venice, to maintain their ‘blind certainty’, because it grows out of a ‘blind privilege’ and blots out all other possibilities.

But what of those critics who have tried to question the perceived orthodoxy and establishment art, for surely the Australia Council for the Arts, whose pavilion it is, supports diversity? My experience suggests not. In 2002 I challenged the ‘Branding the Arts’ strategy advocated by the Australia Council. This strategy grew out of the Saatchi and Saatchi report ‘Australians and the Arts’ (2001) which advocated Australian art should be down to earth and accessible. More recently I have questioned the repetitiveness of the presentations when writing on the past decade of Australia at the Venice Biennale. I have constructively pointed out the works origins within a clearly identified establishment of commercial galleries and museums who promoted this Official Oz Art (let’s call it ‘OOzA’). As expected, you get blow-back, like in 2002 when an Australia Council employee’s email response to me read:

Fuckhead: don’t send me this trash – it’s not clever

All petty stuff, but none is more damning of an institution set up to support artists in Australia than what a well- known journalist told me of a conversation he had at the 2009 Venice Biennale with a senior Australia Council representative at the time. “Please do not to have anything to do with John Kelly,” she advised him.

The evidence suggests that branded OOzA exists and by identifying and tracing it you realise that it has squeezed out many other alternative Australian artists in an epoch of great Australian creativity. Sadly, it brings to mind Henry Lawson’s advice to young Australian writers which is as apt today for artists as it was 100 years ago, just as Duchamp was exhibiting his non-functional urinal.

My advice to any young Australian writer whose talents have been recognised would be to do steerage, stow away, swim, and seek London, Yankeeland, or Timbuctoo – rather than stay in Australia till his genius turns to gall, or beer. Or, failing this – and still in the interests of human nature and literature – to study elementary anatomy, especially as it applies to the cranium, and then shoot himself carefully with the aid of a looking glass. – Henry Lawson 1867 – 1922

[box]Main image: John Kelly painting in Venice this week[/box]

12 responses to “The Venice Biennale and the Australian Pavilion’s history of repetition

  1. Repetition? Simulation? Representation? These are age-old modes by which art operates and common to artists across the world and throughout time. Robert Gober didn’t invent them & linking a handful of Australian artists who all exhibited at Venice over the last decade through their engagement with them doesn’t amount to much.

    1. Art is a conversation. Artists copy and thieve, copy and thieve and copy and thieve themselves up blind alleys – or they combine their copying and thieving with something close to them that hasn’t been seen before in that way – and then, you have originality and the start of something. This is a good essay and timely.

  2. “Fuckhead: 
don’t send me this trash – it’s not clever” is surely a badge of honour!

    It likes stuff it can buy and sell and revalue to build tax losses. It doesn’t give a flying fuck what it looks like so long as the price tag can be exhibited and boasted about. There are, of course, the genuine art lovers, but they’re not really a part of that World, not really. Shit, you can’t let just anybody in!

  3. “The new artwork looks really new and alive only if resembles…every other ordinary, profane, thing or every other ordinary product of popular culture” – Boris Groys

    We could add to Groys’s list: The new artwork looks really new and alive only if resembles every other past work of art. What Kelly is describing above is the endgame of Contemporary Art. Contemporary Art is an epoch of art, it is an art style. Google Contemporary Art and you will see various objects and video images in uniformly white rooms. Blur your eyes and you will see it is all basically the same. Look at a Contemporary Art auction online and after a while you notice that all this art (of whatever value) has FAR MORE in common than any sense of difference between the artworks. Part of this problem is the fact everything now comes to us via a jpeg on the Internet.

    Also we have to also realise these expanded Internet and social media platforms now so available mean more people are making images and art and more art is “out there”. We also can see that so-called sub art (the more commercial art produced for the lower end of the market chain) has become almost indistinguishable from “high art Contemporary Art”. Let’s call this the revenge of Jeff Koons’s notion that in reality the rich have no more taste than everyone else. This is why Contemporary Art HAS to keep its illusion of “quality and excellence” as in reality this is the ONLY THING that separates the profane objects and media of high end Contemporary Art from being perceived as somehow “better” and more valuable and significant than the rest of the world. More worthy of a place in the Archive of the Museum. This is why so many artists (including myself) spend so much time trying to get into Museums.

    In fact Groys has many times argued that it is only within the context of the Museum that most Contemporary Art has any meaning at all. Leave most Contemporary Art out on the street and it is just stuff on the street. Leave a painting on the street and its a misplaced painting. This is why Painting always survives, only a painting exists in Art and as only pertaining to Art. The true subject of Contemporary Art is this argument of Context before Contemporary Art finally fulfills what the earlier, properly radical artists wanted which was the end of high art.

    In this age of the Internet and Social Media we must realise that everything has been done, and done 100s of times before. Some artists do IT better than most, many just do IT. Every artist and also most members of the real public know that it is only the power of the (usually Govt Funded) Gatekeeper that makes ANY DISTINCTION at all. I have 30+ years experience of this. My work has been both reviled and lauded…often by the very same curators at different times!! In the end one realises just how arbitrary and sinister the whole system is. Looking now from the Outside I can see it as a perverse game whereby those curators finally retire BUT more the same take their place! Deckchairs on the Titanic. I can safely say it is FAR BETTER to go Outside the Australian Contemporary Art World than be in it, step away and it all looks very small, incestuous and hegemonic indeed.

    Australian Art is a deeply conformist and conservative space. Australian Art is Government Art as only Govt can deliver regular and sustainable funding. all of us in Australian Art are basically Govt employees and therefore by definition we all pump out Propaganda for the Status Quo. One only has look at how Australian Art parades itself as being “good” via multicultural Pluralism whilst Australia happily puts people in Concentration Camps on Manus. But let’s not stop at that obvious hypocrisy. Let’s look at the sham “paradise” at the heart of QAGOMA’s APT series. We happily lap up art from countries who murder their own citizens (China, Philippines, Myanmar); are brazenly Undemocratic (Singapore) or have other appalling lack of values. APT is Propaganda and inhuman.

    Of course the argument is that APT is “Art” and somehow art is a “free” space…but the exclusion of 99.9% of artists from QAGOMA (artists and image makers deemed not worthy) proves the illusion of freedom is just that.

    In the end Contemporary Art, art history, academia itself just cannot deal with the vast bulk of individual subjectivites that constitute Culture. Every time QAGOMA or Tate or MoMA etc adds a “new” country to its roster of Art they actually show their failure to ever be Democratic. Only the Internet and Social Media provide some Symbolic form of Democracy. Popular Culture also can give at least a semblance of this.

    Australia at Venice Biennial was made far worse when the process of curators and artists submitting Projects to Australia Council was scrapped (Ricky Swallow was the last). Is it any wonder that Australia now shows basically the same art each time. The same people with the same mindset choose it each time. What is fascinating is that last year at the Architecture Biennial Australia just showed a fully functioning swimming pool and it got the press no Australian Art has ever got at Venice. I say we just leave the pool there permanently, a much cheaper option.

  4. Hang on, I’m confused, aren’t you (John Kelly) doing the same thing as you abhor by using William Dobells cows and calling it your art? Just by putting the cow in a tree or on its head doesn’t make it original. I’m confused, please enlighten me.

      1. As someone who doesn’t live in Australia, born in the ’60’s, and brought up on B&W WWII films, I have been exposed to a WW II narrative (as have other Europeans) that actively ignores the Australian commitment and ingenuity of the time. I have traveled to France specifically to “do” the Normandy Landings coastal tour in the company of an English war historian.
        I had never heard of William Dobell’s cows , or indeed had it occurred to me to consider the Australian homeland wartime defenses, although I always knew of the ANZACs due to their time-honoured sacrifices.

        When I first saw the “Dobell’s cows” in Ireland, it was the smaller sculptural edition of “Man Lifting Cow”; it made me smile. I just assumed, Ireland. ..bloody windy…cow in tree….ha, ha,ha. I was’t particularly familiar with John Kelly or his work. When I learned of the Dobell connection, I was fascinated by the story…it was from this I looked further into Kelly’s work and saw the substance and breadth of it, which I now love.
        I think Kelly’s use of the Dobell story is a worthwhile example of bringing often-marginalised history into popular view…Does anyone need another “Ned Kelly” work out there to break the story of his exploits? In fact, it’s hard to look at a galvanised bucket without being reminded of the Ned fella….

        As to the article above, I think there are many interesting points in relation to the copying/influence/inspiration of Duchamp, Dada etc. Other than copying Duchamp in some tired form, it would seem to me that the logical conclusion of those wanting to build on Duchamp’s work would be to urinate in said seminal artwork, juxtaposing the contextual…blah-blah-blah.

    1. Probably best if you at least check out an artist’s work before you criticise it. I came across his work about 25 years ago in a London gallery, loved it but had to find out more, so I did, which improved my appreciation of his work.

  5. Demoralizing to contemplate art in this country, as an artist you have Buckley’s of ever getting into such shows, the same few boring old names get it every time. Surely the other countries point and laugh at how we can’t manage anything fresh or exciting on the international art stage.

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