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.
“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.”
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