Tag Archives: NGV

Wurm Haus & clinamen

Jess Johnson, Wurm Haus and Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, clinamen demonstrate two different ways of using imagination and making art. Imagination could be the invention of another world or to imagine another use of existing items in this world to create new beauty. Art as the creation or art as a creative uses.

Both are currently on the third floor the NGV International.

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Jess Johnson, Ixian Gate, 2015 video still (courtesy of Darren Knight Gallery)

Wurm Haus is an exhibition a series of drawings and a virtual reality experience, based on the drawings, The Ixian Gate. Johnson’s imagination created both the drawings and 3D VR Oculus Rift VR experience of the planet Ix from Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel, Dune.

The VR experience is a five minute magic carpet ride through impressive huge spaces. Five people at a time go through the same experience, each with headphone and headset; the gallery attendant explaining the procedure and wiping down each set of headsets and headphones between each group. The psychedelic intensity of detailed patterns mixed with classical architecture, great multicoloured worms, bat masks, flesh toned figures doing acrobatics.

Clinamen by the French artist and composer, Céleste Boursier-Mougenot is a very different kind of art. White ceramic bowls floating in the round blue pool of water with a current running down the middle driving the bowls around in two loops. Bell-like chimes from the ceramic bowls ring out when two bowls bump. There is a variety of tones created when different sized bowls bumped. Chance encounters in a random universe can be beautiful if we take the time to appreciate it.

It was designed for, and originally installed, in the Federation Court of the NGV. However when I saw it there it made little impact on me. Its new location, in its own room, removed from the crowds on the ground floor entrance, it is more conducive to listening and reflecting.

Clinamen is more accidental than the rigorously planned Wurm Haus. The audience’s involvement, both in the duration and  their movement in the space, with it is also less planned and controlled. One artist has created and planned immense amount of detail whereas the other has made a simple idea into reality in all its unplanned complexity.

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Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, clinamen, 2013 (courtesy of the NGV)


Andy Warhol – Ai Weiwei @ NGV

“Why do people think artists are special? It is just another job.” Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again, p.160)

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The pairing of Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei at the NGV produces an exhibition with more vitality than cultic history. The art of Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei is like social media; it is about selfies, photo of what we ate for lunch, music, videos and ideas but why is it art?

Firstly, seriously consider where you see most art and that the answer is online.

Secondly, contemporary society needs to have a big talk about popularity, in art, in politics, in religion, in consumerism… in everything but especially populism in politics, currently the most dangerous force in the world.

We need to remember the difference between being popular and a populist. Popularity is measured by how many people like you whereas populism is design to attract the uninformed and unthinking public. It is the element of design and manipulation, that aesthetic preoccupations in the populism that makes it so attractive.

Part of Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei’s popularity is because they are not populists. They are popular because they are working for and with people, not just the majority of people but any and all people. Warhol considers the democratisation of fame, what if everyone was equally famous, fabulous and fantastic for at least 15 minutes. What if everyone could be an artist.
When Lego refusing to supply Ai Weiwei with brick for an installation on the grounds that his art is political. Ai Weiwei gots around this with an online call for donations for Lego bricks to be deposited through the partially open sun roof of a car. (Actually he used another type of brick but never let the truth get in the way of good art.) Using the internet and the public to get around officialdom is a similar strategy to Ai Weiwei’s response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Online volunteers circumventing the official blocks and censorship is modelled with the many repeating plastic blocks.

“Perhaps it will be the task of an artist as detached from aesthetic preoccupations, and as intent on the energetic as Marcel Duchamp, to reconcile art and the people.” The French art critic, Guillaume Apollinaire wrote this in the final line in a short essay about Duchamp’s early paintings. In the essay Apollinaire wrote: “Duchamp has abandoned the cult of appearance” and that he “goes to the limit, and is not afraid of being criticised as esoteric or unintelligible.” (Marcel Duchamp, ed. Anne d’Harnoncourt, Kynaston McShine, Prestal, 1989, p.180)

It is hard to believe that Apollinaire could write this in Paris in 1912 before Duchamp even made his first readymade but the advent of still photography anticipated both moving images and social media. Duchamp’s two successors Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei make clear Apollinaire’s prognostication about “abandoned the cult of appearance” and “reconcile art and the people.” Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei are popular and like Duchamp are “not afraid of being criticised as esoteric or unintelligible.” The increase in the reproduction of images increases their display value (the number of times and places where it can be displayed) brought on in the age of digital reproduction destroys the cult of the original (the idea of a uniquely beautiful object created by special person). From the Velvet Underground rehearsing in the Factory to Ai Weiwei dancing Gangnam style aesthetic preoccupations are no long the primary considerations of the art, but its relationship with the people.

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There are some great selfie opportunities at the exhibition.


Lurid Beauty and Australian Surrealism

Although the island of Australia is included in the 1929 Surrealist map of the world, this is probably due to Australia’s aboriginal population rather than its artists. It is shown as smaller than New Guinea and about the same size as Borneo.

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What surrealism created by Australian artists was mostly an off-shoot of English surrealism. England being that black dot on the map between Ireland and Germany. Importing surrealism directly from the European mainland, in the case of the Marek brothers, was not well received. Surrealism in Australia was, like international art speak, poorly translated from French texts.

Lurid Beauty, Australian Surrealism and its Echoes at the NGV Australia is an awkward exhibition as most of the art in the exhibition is not surrealism. Lurid Beauty fails in distinguishing between being the current style trend and being old-school or hardcore, like James Gleeson or Eric Thake. These are important distinctions to make when you are considering something between an arts association and trend. Roy de Maistre painted in at least three other modern styles and his involvement in surrealism is like Picasso’s pieces working in the current trend and the exhibition’s mix of modern art with contemporary art is not resolved well.

Every generation needs a look back at surrealism in Australia and each time that they do the same small set of paintings are exhibited. Almost all the older work was last exhibited together in the 1993 Australian National Gallery exhibition Surrealism Revolution by Night section of Australian art. Lurid Beauty does include some great new James Gleeson paintings but only the series of Clifford Bayliss drawings have not been regular features of previous exhibitions of Australian surrealism.

Peter Daverington, The Hanging Gardens of Nineveh, 2014 (courtesy of Arc One)

Peter Daverington, The Hanging Gardens of Nineveh, 2014 (courtesy of Arc One)

There are plenty of great works of art to see in the exhibition but my question is did we need to see them all together? Did surrealism transform or have that much of an impact on Australian art? The relationship between the artists that would identify as surrealists and the contemporary artists influenced by surrealism is tenuous. For example, Peter Daverington’s The Hanging Gardens of Nineveh 2014 looks surreal but has so many other references to all of art history in this painting from Renaissance landscapes to modernism in the drips along the lower edge. For the surrealists there was only Freudian psychology but now there is a multiplicity of psychological theories.

There is no cross over between the old school surrealists and the contemporary artists because there were so few hardcore surrealists in Australia. Erik Thake’s Accidental Animal 1967-68 series of photographs of found paint splatters is as close as it gets.

The curators of Lurid Beauty only hint at the conservative Australian art world; the NGV, Australia and surrealism were all very different places then. Blink and you would have missed the important progressive role of the Contemporary Art Society (CAS).

It was CAS that advanced modern art in Australia in response to then Prime Minister, Robert Gordon Menzies reactionary attack on modernism at the opening of the Victorian Artists’ Society show in April 1937. The evidence for the CAS transforming Melbourne’s art world is there, the first to exhibit photography as art in Melbourne and if you look carefully at the frame of Gleeson’s We inhabit the corrosive littoral of habit 1940 you will see that it is “presented anonymously through the Contemporary Art Society.” (For more on the history of CAS in Australian art see my post on their 70th anniversary).


Walking and Thinking about Sculpture

Taking advantage of the winter sunshine on Friday I walked around Melbourne thinking about sculpture. I have to plan my sculpture tour for Melbourne’s Writers Week walking around Melbourne looking at sculptures. I am amazed that I am in Melbourne’s Writers Week with my first book, Sculptures of Melbourne.

Kranky, Miss You Frida

Kranky, Miss You Frida

I am doing a few things to promote my book – I’m writing this blog post and pointing out my up coming events, like Melbourne’s Sculpture Walking Tour on Sunday 23rd August and my talk at Brunswick Public Library on Thursday 10th September. For more details see my events page.

I’m glad that I’ve scouted out the walk as there was test drilling along Swanston Walk for the new underground rail line going on. There was temporary fencing around Akio Makigawa’s Time and Tide. The fencing and drilling rig might be gone by the time of the walk but I probably won’t take the tour that far up Swanston Walk.

Walking up Hosier Lane I noticed that there are more street art sculptures. Lots of new mixed media assemblages by Kranky, including a spectacular painted skull and a lot of rats. From Blek to Banksy rats are a traditional theme for street art.

Kranky, Rats

Kranky, Rats

After my walk around the city I noticed that there was a very small retrospective exhibition of Lenton Parr’s sculptures in the foyer of the NGV Australia. Lenton Parr (1924-2003) was born in Coburg and initially studied engineering. Another engineer – I keep writing about  engineers – see my recent post on Skunk Control; several of Melbourne sculptors started studying engineering (Lenton Parr, Clement Meadmore and Anthony Pryor). Parr was a member of the Centre Five, Melbourne’s modern sculpture group but what surprised me about Parr’s modern steel sculptures was the number of titles with classical references: Perseus, Andromeda, Orion… It seemed that even in the early 1980s the classical names still retained an artist aura. Now, classical references, even in the titles of sculptures, are very rare.

Lenton Parr, Orion

Lenton Parr, Orion


Hate Preachers and Censorship

Censorship by vandalism is unfortunately common in art galleries, public libraries and other public space. These vandals impose a ‘higher law’ on the world with violence, with hammers, knives and explosives. Recently Islamic fanatics have destroyed art and attacked artists that they call blasphemous but don’t forget that other religions have also acted in a similar violent manner.

Nicknamed ‘Pell Pot’ by ordained members of the Catholic Church in reference to the fanatical, ruthless ideologue, war criminal and former Cambodian leader, Pol Pot, Cardinal George Pell assisted in covering up the child abuse in the Catholic Church in Victoria, infamously remarking that: “abortion is a worse moral scandal than priests sexually abusing young people.” This is not to forget another stain against Pell’s character with his encouragement of the vandalism of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ.

Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, 1987

Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, 1987

In October 1997 there were several exhibitions by Andres Serrano planned for Melbourne, the National Gallery of Victoria was to show a Serrano retrospective and Serrano’s History of Sex was at the Kirkcaldy Davies Gallery. However before they opened the then, Archbishop Pell sought an injunction restraining the Gallery from exhibiting Serrano’s Piss Christ on the grounds of blasphemy. The Age falsely reported that the Victorian police vice squad had referred Serrano’s book to the Office of Film and Literature Classification after raiding the exhibition. Journalists also stalked Kirkcaldy Davies Gallery waiting for a police raid that never happened.

New York artist, Andres Serrano was raised a Catholic. Serrano created Piss Christ in 1987, it was a photograph of a plastic crucifixion submerged in a jar of the artist’s urine. The large format photograph was printed in an edition of four, one retained by the artist and three others that are privately owned.

The hearing on the injection on Piss Christ was held before Justice David Harper with Cliff Pannam QC representing Archbishop Pell and well known human rights lawyer, Julian Burnside QC representing the NGV. Pannam argued that for court granting an injunction against exhibiting Piss Christ on the grounds of blasphemous libel in common law and that was also in breach of the indecency provisions of the Summary Offences Act 1988.

Justice Harper did not accept Pannam’s arguments finding that: “not only has Victoria never recognised an established church, but now s 116 of the Australian Constitution forbids the Commonwealth making any law for establishing religion.” Read more on the law of blasphemy in Australia on Find Law Australia.

When legal measures failed there were several Christian extremists willing to act where Australia law would not to protect the honour of their faith by destroying an image that the Archbishop Pell had declared was blasphemous. First John Allen Haywood took Piss Christ down from the wall and kicked it but did little damage. The following day two young men, aged 18 and 16 attacked it with a hammer. After that then Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, Dr Timothy Potts closed the Serrano exhibition concerned about the safety of his staff and visitors.

The Christian extremists who shut down the Serrano exhibition received very light sentences. Even though he was unrepentant, John Haywood received a suspended one-month sentence telling the media after his trial that he’d like to punch Serrano. It is not known what sentence the teenagers received. The reaction from the public, the law and media to the actions of these Christian extremists was very differently to the reaction to Muslim extremists when they take violent action against what they consider blasphemy. This is because there are no votes for Australian politicians in creating panic over Christian extremists and hate preachers like Cardinal Pell.

Piss Christ was also attacked when on exhibition in Sweden and in France, on Palm Sunday in 2011 when four Christian extremists damaged it beyond repair.


The National Gallery & Nationalism

There is a vast unexamined area of the reason for national art galleries along with a lack of coherence in explaining why they exist. This lack of coherence and examination rests on another idea that lacks both coherence and examination, the nation state.

National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art , Gwacheon, Korea

National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art , Gwacheon, Korea

The idea of nations and geography makes the artist is built into the very structure of most major art galleries, after all they are often called ‘National’ or ‘State’ galleries. The artificial divisions these gallery make between nationalities and even races perpetrates the idea that the nationality or race is important. (The NGV has a separate gallery of artists who identify as aboriginal.) This nationalism is reflected in the hanging of the art although it does not help our understanding of art history nor the appreciation of the art anymore than hanging the art on the basis of the artist’s gender. The underlying assumption is that there is an underlying core aesthetic to a particular nationality or race is absurdly racist and is not supported by any evidence.

John Burrow writes “For Hegel, in the last part of his Philosophy of Right (1852) (324, 325), it was crucial that the State, in war, could call on the citizen to sacrifice his life. War was no longer, as in the eighteenth century, an affair merely for mercenaries. The State’s right to individual’s life was not just an instrument for his protection (the contract theory), or for the production of welfare (Enlightened Despotism), but a higher spiritual entity than the individual. The requirement of his life was not tyranny but self-sacrifice, submission to one’s own higher will and participation in the life of a higher entity.” (John Burrow, A History of Histories, Penguin Books, 2007, p.459)

The nation state is a religion, a belief in a higher entity. God might be dead and buried but the nation state is very much alive. Several assumptions are made about the sacred nation state but given that nation states are a human invention only a few hundred years old it is not necessary that any nation state exists.

The claim that the state has a right not to be divided and that protecting that state, in the words of Radovan Karadzic before the UN tribunal in the Hague, “holy and just.” (The Independent 20/3/10)  The assumption that a nation state has a right to exist implies that it is a higher entity. This higher entity, the god of the nation, has a unique history, a unique culture, if not a unique language and national identity, is legislated, paid for and demanded by the nation state. Where there is no evidence of this unique culture it must be invented, developed and manufactured. It is assumed that there is such a thing as Australian art but nobody assumes that there will be Australian philosophy (philosophy in Australia is predominately Anglo-American philosophy with a little bit of continental European philosophy).

 

National galleries are must have items for countries as if they were playing some giant game of Sid Meier’s Civilization but what are the benefits of having a national gallery, like the NGV: “the richest treasury of visual arts in the southern hemisphere”? (The National Gallery of Victoria is a wonderful example because it is now a “national gallery” without a nation since the independent colony of Victoria federated with other Australian states.)

Is the nation state to coil up like old Smaug around its treasure, exuding power and basking in the envy of others? To have a national collection that to use in soft diplomacy to representing the state? As an educational tool to train future artist and designers to better the nation’s productivity? As infotainment, a tourist attraction to bring customers to the city’s restaurants and hotels and improve the tax revenue? Or is it to be sold off when the city goes bankrupt as was suggested for the Detroit Art Gallery?

 


Sculptures in the Moat

In March 2014, a homeless man Gary Makin went snorkelling in the NGV’s moat collecting the coins. He was arrested – he should gone equipped with a buskers licence and told the police that he was a living sculpture. He would have been the most artistic thing that has been in the NGV’s moat for years.

That was until a few days ago when street sculptor, Will Coles placed some of his concrete giant soya sauce fish into it.

The moat of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) is now mostly empty, except for the prosaic coins and fountains. Once there were sculptures standing in its waters. Geoffrey Bartlett’s Messenger 1983 stood in the moat before being moved to the sculpture garden in the back of the NGV. Four years later Deborah Halpern’s Angel (1987-89) stood in the NGV’s before being moved to Birrarung Marr in 2006.

Deborah Halpern, Angel, 1987-89

Deborah Halpern, Angel, 1987-89

As a psychogeographer I am fascinated by the moats around Australian cultural institutions. There is something curiously medieval about moats. There are moats at Melbourne Zoo around some of the enclosures; there is also a moat around La Trobe University’s Bundoora campus. A moat, even an ornamental one, creates a clear separation between one area and another.

At the time of their design, La Trobe Uni opened 1967 and the NGV in 1968, their architects were clearly expressed with these moats the cultural divisions in Australia between the cultured and the barbarian hordes. The moat around the bastion of culture that is the NGV on St. Kilda Road symbolically removes it from the rest of the world, creating a fortress or a sacred island to protect the art inside.

Now there are no sculptures in the NGV’s moat; Will Coles sculptures have been removed. Now there only a few fountains including the curved steel fountain at the city end of the moat, Nautilus dedicated to the architect of the NGV, Roy Grounds.

Then there is the famous water wall entrance of the NGV that still delights small children. Originally the NGV had more courtyards and fountains, regularly spitting out jets of water amidst rocks. I find fountains in art galleries quaint, but there are a surprising number of water features in art galleries including MOMA.

Recently a friend asked me if I would move on to writing about fountains now that I had completed writing my book on public sculpture (Melbourne’s Sculptures – from the colonial to the ephemeral, due to be published by Melbourne Books later this year). I feel a kind of dread and can already smell the chlorine.


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