To celebrate our 75th birthday, we’re presenting exceptional works from Meanjin’s past that have defined and challenged Australian literary culture.  >

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  1. The painting was offered at auction by Sotheby’s, Melbourne; lot 25 for the sale of 20 April 2010. The auction catalogue contains a substantial essay by David Hansen on the painting.
  2. Asialink, Every 23 days: Twenty Years Touring Asia, Asialink, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, 2010, p. 17.
  3. Clyde Packer, No Return Ticket, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1984, pp. 13, 20.
  4. Ian Britain, Once an Australian, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1997, pp. 242–3.
  5. Ian Burn in conversation with Ann Stephen, Charles Merewether and Nigel Lendon, Institute of Contemporary Art, Eureka: Artists from Australia, exhibition catalogue, London, 1982, p. 55.
  6. Ian Burn in conversation, p. 54.
  7. See Ann Stephen, Philip Goad and Andrew McNamara (eds), Modern Times: The Untold Story of Modernism in Australia, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2008; and Ann Stephen, Philip Goad and Andrew McNamara (eds), Modernism & Australia: Documents on Art, Design and Architecture 1917–1967, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2006.
  8. For a review of Aboriginal art’s challenge to perceptions of contemporary art in Australia, see Ian Mclean (ed.), How Aborigines invented the idea of Contemporary Art: Writings on Aboriginal Contemporary Art, Institute of Modern Art, Power Publications, 2011.
  9. Ian Burn in conversation, pp. 51–2.
  10. Ian Burn in conversation, p. 55.
  11. Ian Burn in conversation, p. 55.
  12. Achille Bonito Oliva, Transavantgarde international, Giancarlo Politi Editore, Milan, 1982.
  13. Major survey exhibitions of contemporary Australian art were presented, typically with Australia Council support, in London (1982), Paris (1983), Tokyo (1983), New York (1984), Los Angeles (1984), Edinburgh (1984), Delhi (1986) and Frankfurt (1988).
  14. Alison Carroll, ‘Ignorance is not bliss: art and its place in Australia–Asia relations’, The Asialink Essays, no. 10, December 2010, p. 2.
  15. Australian Government, ‘Australia’s multicultural policy principles’, The People of Australia: Australia’s Multicultural Policy, Canberra, February 2011, p. 5.
  16. Barry Schwabsky, ‘Tao and physics’, Artforum, Summer 1997, p. 121.
  17. Juan Davila, ‘Artist’s statement’, in ARC/Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, D’un autre continent: l’Australie le rêve et le réel, exhibition catalogue, Paris, 1983, p. 102.

Living the Dream: The Contemporary Australian Artist Abroad

Chris McAuliffe

Chris McAuliffe examines the challenges for Australian artists

In September 1898, A.J. Daplyn exhibited a peculiar yet poignant painting at the annual exhibition of the Art Society of New South Wales.1 The Australian Artist’s Dream of Europe (1898) depicts a painter dozing in a chair before a canvas in his studio, brushes gripped in his drooping hand. Hovering above him are sundry Madonnas and cherubs, chastely executed (as the critics of the day were wont to say) and yet not without a hint of ecstatic sensuality. It’s a dream that might culminate in a nocturnal emission (again, as the critics of the day were wont to say).

Borrowed motifs from artistic giants such as Murillo and Raphael, Daplyn’s spectral muses invoke the European masters who inspired the humble Australian painter. But these ghostly citations also register the masters’ distance—cultural, historical and geographical—from him. The painting is a melancholic diagram of the nineteenth-century Australian artist’s world, tempering the shimmering allure of those northern lights with the shadowy, somnolent isolation of the south.

Almost a century later, an Australian artist could take her dreams for reality: eager internationalism replaced provincial lassitude. Jenny Watson’s Self Portrait, King’s Road, London, 1966 (1986), resolved rather than affirmed distance and self-doubt. Transporting her teenage self to the heart of Swinging London, Watson used the painting to fulfil a youthful fantasy and to establish her adult presence in an international art centre. The image rewrote the artist’s personal history and declared a professional future in the international art scene. Watson’s subsequent career demonstrates that provincial imprisonment is no longer an ineluctable obstacle for contemporary Australian artists. With an impressive record of fifty-seven solo exhibitions, in eleven countries, she epitomises a confident cosmopolitanism, a global presence steered from a studio in suburban Brisbane.

International activity of this scale and diversity makes the principal challenge Keeping the Wheels On, as Watson put it in the title of a 1994 suite of drawings. Contemporary artists are, in effect, business travellers engaged in the determined pursuit of professional goals that include securing representation with international art dealers, participating in art fairs, presenting solo exhibitions and acting as national representatives in art biennales and museum shows. For many Australian artists, the defining experience of travel is not transformative pilgrimage but the need to maintain focus in the face of the psychological impact of dislocation.

The risks lie in disorientation and distraction rather than provincial timidity. Over the years I’ve seen this in an Australian student at one of the hottest art schools in London whose only moment of doubt came when she first needed to get her hair cut in a foreign city; and in a performance artist in New York who suddenly returned to painting, simply because his studio was close by the massive Pearl Paint art supplies store. Most common is a tendency to misconstrue the impact of the overseas experience. Anticipating a significant, even Damascene, encounter abroad, many artists forget a truth that they would readily acknowledge at home: however striking the external stimuli, style changes gradually, in and through practice. The result is a certain disappointment, a feeling that one is timidly clinging to one’s existing style rather making oneself over in a new world.

Yet the very fact that ‘being there’ is now the problem suggests that ‘getting there’ no longer is. Ease of travel and a fluid global cultural sector now require artists to accommodate constantly to new circumstances. Working abroad, artists must reconcile two conflicting urges. On the one hand, they must embrace uncertainty and instability: travel can engender risk, which in turn may fuel experiment. On the other, they crave the familiar: all studio practice, however radical in character, rests on certain routines and rhythms, and finds coherence and stability in a sense of systematic activity.

Historically, the impediments to Australian artists working internationally were said to be the so-called ‘tyranny of distance’ (coined by Geoffrey Blainey in 1966) and ‘cultural cringe’ (coined by A.A. Phillips in 1950). Both are now regarded by artists as things of the past. In logistical terms, new wide-bodied jets and a strong Australian dollar made international travel rapid and accessible in the 1970s; circumstances are similar again today. An extensive system of state and federal grants, along with a network of residency studios, have replaced the rare travelling scholarships once craved by artists of the colonial and modern eras. Cultural agencies such as Asialink boast of touring almost eighty contemporary art exhibitions to 200 venues in eighteen Asian countries over the past twenty years. That’s 309 exhibition openings, equivalent to one every twenty-three days: the problem would appear to be not cultural isolation but physical stamina.2

A combination of cultural nationalism, social cosmopolitanism and information technology has, over the last four decades, put paid to the old trope of provincial isolation, along with exile and expatriatism as its cure. Speaking in 1984, renowned expatriate Robert Hughes remarked on a significant difference between the circumstances of his generation and that of artists like Watson: ‘I left Australia because there are things you just can’t learn in Australia … Today, a young Australian … would be likely to do so without any particular feeling that they had to leave.’3 Writer Ian Britain closed his study of prominent 1960s cultural exiles with the suggestion that ‘expatriatism is not now an issue of concern’, noting that in 1980 Frank Moorhouse had declared ‘the end of the expatriate tradition’.4

But announcing the end of an era offers no guarantees about the present; new impediments can emerge as former obstacles fade. At a 1982 round table of artists and curators convened by artist Ian Burn, the cultural cringe was declared ‘ancient history for most artists’.5 Exorcising the demons of colonialism and provincialism, the conversation decried the earlier history of Australian art ‘as merely a series of responses to what happens elsewhere’.6 With hindsight, that word ‘merely’ is a striking register of the stark binarism of the provincial–metropolitan dyad. Revisionist art history now values the subtleties of Australian responses to the international, identifying dynamic rather than passive voices in regional modernisms.7 More significantly, contemporary Aboriginal art, emerging at precisely the moment when the impetus to international engagement grew, appeared to short-circuit the debate: it was both anchored in locality and unconcerned with responding to international modernism.8

Nevertheless, shifting the model of Australian art from one based on distance, deprivation and emulation to one focused on ‘the process of accepting and rejecting’9 cultural influences was an empowering gesture. But it did not automatically open a path to a global career, international accolades or an art world free of centre–periphery hierarchies. It was one thing to say ‘The point is to work through the international idiom’,10 but another entirely for artists to identify what this international idiom was. At the very point at which practical and epistemological barriers to Australian artists’ participation in the international scene were falling, the character of the international scene itself became unclear. The international terrain was open and ill defined. After a decade of pluralism in the 1970s, modernism’s grand narratives were petering out. In the face of the political agitation of that same decade, European and American centres began to doubt their own cultural authority. In the early 1980s, postmodernism was spoken of only vaguely as a ‘new spirit in painting’, a ‘return to private symbol’ or as a playful stylistic eclecticism. A newer, theorised language of ‘alterity’ and ‘critical regionalism’, central to the redefinition of provincial and colonial experience, was not yet widely used.

The result was that the greater participation by Australian artists in the international scene was neither propelled by a collectively understood strategy nor founded in a robustly theorised conception of the emerging postmodern landscape. Perversely, the old figures of provincial handicap—distance and cringe—had sustained a general conception of Australia’s geo-cultural status (albeit as a disempowered backwater). The nuances of Blainey’s and Phillips’s propositions were ignored but a workable, if negative, understanding of the place of Australian art in a global cultural-political landscape was established and a range of responses from expatriatism through to sophisticated local-international hybrids such as the Biennale of Sydney, was developed.

But participation—‘taking our place on the international scene’11—could only seamlessly supplant provincialism if both of those key terms (‘our place’ and ‘the international scene’) were determinate elements. In the mercurial context of an emerging postmodernism, they were not. The international scene was now a mobile, post-metropolitan space. And of course it cut both ways. The periphery, too, was in a state of flux, meaning that finding ‘our place’ demanded a radical rethinking of what ‘we’ were.

As a result, the past three decades have seen Australian artists’ presence in the international scene framed pragmatically, in ways that propelled participation without dwelling too long on the contradictions arising in the revaluation of the periphery and the fragmentation of the centre. The emphasis appeared to be on the occupation of newly opened postmodern territories. In the mid 1980s, Australian artists’ once-dated predilection for expressive figuration gave them the inside running on postmodernism’s painterly revival. The tyranny of distance became an imperative to travel, which in turn could be cast as postmodern nomadism. A reliance on the received image attuned Australian artists to the deaths of the author, of aura and of the original; provincial isolation became a kind of postmodernism avant la lettre. The tendency was to discover, as traits inherent in Australian culture, qualities newly valued in contemporary art: geographical location made Australia already Asian, multiculturalism made Australia internationalist, the persistence of the colonial Gothic made us fin-de-siècle and so on.

It’s easy to complain of a lack of tactical nous now, when postmodernism itself is being spoken of as a historical style. And easy to misconstrue Australian artists’ participation in the revival of symbol or the end of originality as mere opportunism. After all, if an Italian critic saw Australian figurative painting as part of the nomadic transavantguarde international, why not get on board?12 In the twilight of provincialism, occupying the vacuum left behind modernism seemed almost a national duty. (Even if there was a whiff of provincialism in the very sentiment.)

After a decade of primarily state-sponsored international presence, during which Australian art competed with the other new kids on the block, a certain unease tempered the embrace of emerging global opportunities.13 In 1990 I attended the inauguration of a new art gallery, specialising in contemporary Australian art, in downtown New York. Opening with a group exhibition, the event flushed out just about every Australian artist resident in Manhattan. Swept up in the ambition of the gesture, I suspect more than one attendee was calling to mind the lyrics of a recent Leonard Cohen song, ‘First we take Manhattan then we take Berlin’.

The bubble burst with the arrival of art critic Paul Taylor. Having founded the vanguard journal Art & Text ten years earlier, Taylor was now cutting a swathe in New York as a self-described cultural journalist, writing for Vogue, the New York Times and Vanity Fair. Who better to embody the cosmopolitanism of the postmodern Australian? But Taylor had decked himself out in the unofficial uniform of the ocker: Blundstone boots, shorts, wife-beater singlet. All that was missing was an Akubra with a dangling corona of corks. Strolling around the gallery, looking like an extra from a Barry McKenzie film, Taylor seemed to be deliberately reminding a cocky Australian crowd of their recent past, suggesting that there was more to overcoming peripheral status than simply turning up in the centre.

Taylor played the international game pragmatically. As a high-minded graduate student (read pig-headed snob), I puzzled him by turning down his offer of a small journalistic gig for Australian Vogue. These were the sorts of things one had to do, he insisted, if one were to understand what globalism meant. I’m no longer a high-minded graduate student, but I still think that the persistent emphasis on opportunity, arising from the pragmatic impulse, poses the greatest challenge to Australian artists in their participation in the international art scene. ‘Opportunity’ does not mean opportunism, but the redolent instrumentalism of Australian politics will always introduce that tone. Alison Carroll, former director of Asialink Arts and a forceful advocate of Australian artists’ engagement with Asia, can speak of the region as ‘our treasure chest of artistic opportunity’,14 referring not to a fiscal return but to the self-understanding arising from such exchange. But, recast as a principle of federal policy, such an ideal translates as ‘the economic, trade and investment benefits which arise from our successful multicultural nation’, amounting to ‘a competitive advantage in the global economy’.15

A second risk arises from Australian artists’ successful participation in international forums. These days an artist’s talk—a casual but subtly ceremonial slide show of key works and current interests presented in an art school or gallery forum—can come across as a mash-up of the travel and business sections of a daily newspaper: ‘This is a piece I did in Berlin’; ‘This project was at Venice’; ‘This is a collaboration with an artist in Brooklyn’; ‘This is something I’m making for Singapore’. While this casts the artist as a kind of big game hunter bagging trophy kills on an art-world safari, the tone of delivery is uniformly matter-of-fact. What once seemed chimerical—a dynamic and extensive participation in world art—has been normalised into what art-school curricula call ‘professional practice’.

Implicit in this confident integration of international travel, work process and cultural agency is the assumption of a shared language. This language is one that American critic Barry Schwabsky has described as the ‘international artistic lingua franca’ of ‘a multigenerational international vernacular of installation art that combines showmanship with elusiveness and synthesizes the collective familiarity of the readymade with the suggestively idiosyncratic “atmosphere” of bricolage’.16 Which is to say, a theatricalised spectacle that speaks of global experience and of no place in particular; an art in which being there gives way to being anywhere.

It could be said that I’m overstating the danger here. Australian artists don’t operate at the white-hot heart of the international art market: there are no astronomical prices and hotly contested bidding wars. International museums acquire Australian art only rarely, and many an international survey exhibition goes by with no Australian representation.

But, while it persists in its love of the exotic (Turkey and Colombia are this year’s hot ticket), the contemporary global art scene is shaped by the erasure of difference. As a result, Australian art has been able to sidestep the problem identified, almost inadvertently, in that conversation between Burn and his colleagues thirty years ago. The dissolution of centre and periphery rendered the place of both uncertain. The upshot was not the latter’s succession over the former but a need for the redefinition of both. This challenge is avoided by imagining the space of contemporary art as one of the non-territorial global circulation of cultural phenomena (in the language of the jaded, ‘Biennale art’). Perhaps the biggest challenge, especially given the relative ease with which Australian artists now move in a global scene, is to return to that historical moment, in the early 1980s, when an indeterminate space opened between centre and periphery, and to ask whether we have negotiated its implications or simply seized an opportunity. For instrumental culture—for national cultural policy—the two may amount to the same thing. As for critical discourse, we have still, I think, to take up a challenge made by Juan Davila, writing in the catalogue of a French exhibition of Australian art in 1983: ‘We should find a dialogue constituting ourselves as a difference, not as a peripheral “another”, but as a sustained contradiction.’17

©Chris McAuliffe



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