A few years ago, the curator Russell Storer remarked to me: ‘People often ask me what’s going on now in art, and all I can honestly say is—everything!’ Unhelpful as it may be for anyone attempting a survey of the field, even the most glancing acquaintance with contemporary Australian art would confirm the truth of Storer’s observation.
To enter any of the contemporary art galleries in any of Australia’s major cities is to be confronted by a dizzying array of works. In one, you might find a recognisable yet abstracted horse’s skull, slightly larger than life-size, riveted together from pale aluminium and named Colt, its folded blank teeth at once comforting and menacing, the shadows of its sockets sucking in the idle glance. A few flights of stairs will have you entering to a sequence of large photographs of a young indigenous Australian dressed in an absurd tartan costume with an outrageous false beard, acting out the myth of Isaac and Abraham in a lush European forest. In one photo he stands, arms crossed, by a log against which an axe has been propped; in another, he cowers beneath a luminous parody of a humpy. At the back of a large public gallery, a gargantuan gleaming assemblage of spotlights and speakers like adult Meccano—entirely dominating the large white exhibition space—sporadically erupts with a blinding and deafening violence. In yet another art space, quiet ambient sounds recorded in Iceland and in New York issue from a series of small speakers nestled in the joints of an angular construction of wooden struts, the whole crowned by imageless rectangular cool colour projections above. Another short walk and a lift ride up a few floors will get you into a small darkened room with a looped split-screen projection that splices scenes from the original 1980s Miami Vice TV show on the left, together with scenes from the movie remake on the right.1
This sort of range doesn’t happen only between galleries, but also within the same gallery space. There’s a promiscuous commingling of painting, photography, video and installation, among other productions, depicting all manner of events, and concocted from a mind-blowing range of materials. The range of influences, directions, relationships and ambitions is extraordinary. In fact, you don’t even have to enter a gallery to see art, since art’s long since taken itself out of such spaces, into real and virtual universes such as inner-urban backstreets and outer-suburban housing estates and real-time immersive digital environments such as SecondLife. Even more disturbingly, art’s long taken itself beyond being linked to the senses of sight and sound.
It is not just that we live in a world in which lots of different people are doing lots of different things and showing them in lots of different places to lots of different audiences with lots of different kinds of evaluative procedures (although that’s of course true). This drive to divergent multiplicity is essential to the practice of contemporary art, and not just an external happenstance. Also, Australian contemporary art is, for a number of reasons, an epicentre of this kind of thing—and all the more exemplary for hardly being recognised at all.
It is impossible to be impartial when speaking about art. This isn’t just a question of quantity or of quality (though it is that too), but implicates the production and forms of address of art itself. In one of my favourite sequences of art criticism, Johann von Goethe speaks of his shifting appreciation of Michelangelo vis-à-vis Raphael. His diary entry of 2 December 1786 reads, after a return to the Sistine Chapel:
After being dilated and spoiled by Michelangelo’s great forms, my eye took no pleasure in the ingenious frivolities of Raphael’s arabesques, and his Biblical stories, beautiful as they are, do not stand up against Michelangelo’s. What a joy it would give me if I could see the works of both more frequently and compare them at leisure without prejudice, for one’s initial reactions are bound to be one-sided …
Goethe, still meditating on the problem, goes back to it in July the following year:
First it was Raphael I preferred, then it was Michelangelo. One can only conclude that man is such a limited creature that, though his soul may be open to greatness, he never acquires the capacity to recognise and appreciate equally, different kinds of greatness.2
One master crowds out the others. For Goethe to say this is one thing: today the situation is all the more fraught, precisely because so much of contemporary art puts into question the possibility of judgement itself—as it simultaneously puts into question the notions of ‘genius’, ‘greatness’, ‘authority’, ‘technical accomplishment’ and so on. Even if we stick to the very restricted Euro-US art-historical twentieth century of Marcel Duchamp, Kasimir Malevich, Jasper Johns,Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni, Joseph Beuys, Andy Warhol and all the crazy groupuscules from the Futurists, the Dadaists and the Surrealists to the Situationists and beyond, it’s hard to deny that art has become, as the Australian poet John Forbes once remarked to me, ‘totally ontological’.
Basically, this means that art today is at once more material and more theoretical than ever before. More material, because not only are any and all materials now available to enter the world of art—from mud and hair to the most up-to-date products of our technophile civilisation—but also because what ‘materials’ are, what ‘materiality’ is, becomes an important question in its own right. This is also one of the reasons why art is now more theoretical than ever before. Confronted by a piece of contemporary art, you are prompted to ask questions about every level of decision that the work incarnates: its materials, placement, creator, forms, allusions and so on. The onus is on the viewer to interpret these as decisions on the artist’s part; more precisely, one can seldom be sure that any element of a contemporary artwork hasn’t been freighted with significance, however obscure.
This means that art is also obsessed with the now—and no longer with ‘the new’. What’s new presumes there’s an old, a clear temporal progression, but contemporary art—as opposed to ‘modern art’—is situational, not historical. Modern art thought of itself as ‘modern’ precisely in regard to what preceded it; contemporary art, by contrast, doesn’t seem to care when or where anything came from, just so long as it can be put to use here and now. Contemporary art is in an intense discussion with its own very specific situation, and not with linear history. As the art-historian Thierry de Duve notes, ‘the word “art” is not a concept, but a collection of examples—different for everyone’.3 This has the further consequence that ‘all feelings are authorized by modern art’.4 Art is no longer a clarified institution nor principle, nor any particular set of forms or techniques or attitudes or practices—at precisely the same moment the art world itself has become a hyper-organised, global corporate system.
Lest anybody think this is just a deleterious failure of people to realise that there’s still an essence to art, to good art, and all this confusion is the miserable claptrap of degenerate know-nothings, the argument is actually as rigorous as it gets. In mathematics, it is certainly possible to confirm that a particular object has a property—but there is no way to count as a whole all the objects with this property. One can still identify works of art—but there is no overarching consistency to ‘art’ itself. De Duve again: ‘Everything which is today considered to be a masterpiece of modernity … was exposed to judgments of the “this isn’t art, this isn’t painting, this isn’t music, this isn’t literature” sort. Such judgments have to my mind all the structure of a negation, if only because pronouncing something to be non-art is already a way of substantiating the fact that the object in question is a candidate for art.’5 Art now often takes this paradoxical gap between singular and universal as a crucial theme: if you can definitely adjudge that this is art, then it’s definitely not.
Take the output and career of one of Australia’s most successful and controversial painters, Juan Davila. The Chilean-born Davila migrated to Melbourne in 1974, and immediately set about producing an astonishing sequence of post-surrealist works, invariably scandalous in their content and effects. Typically deploying a garish, disjunctive palette, in which baby-shit yellows are smeared by dank vermilions, and spattered blues are streaked with dark chocolate browns, Davila draws on an encyclopaedic range of imagery and techniques—high art, low porn, Australian media icons, Chilean folk heroes, popular cartoons and psychoanalytic operations—to present freakish, enigmatic and compelling scenes. In Crocodile Dundee (1988), a degenerate life-saver grimaces while sodomising the eponymous Crocodile Dundee, who is simultaneously being fellated by an aggressive black-eyed lizard against a backdrop of indeterminate smears, scores and scratches, a clumsily rendered group of faces, Parliament House Canberra and other objects. The 1991 Portrait of Bungaree depicts a hallucinatory winged version of Bungaree with a nursling ancient in his arms, and stabbing his own gigantic bandaged erection with one supernumerary claw. Bungaree teeters on a swollen sciapod foot, his other leg a stump poised over a demented little wallaby, while diverse insignia proliferate on and around his patchwork body like the snaky coils of the Medusa. In At War (2002), a pallid, sad-faced nude half-draped in a cloth stamped with the emblem of the Red Cross sits, legs crossed, beneath the legend in large red capitals ‘Arselicker’s war is over’, the date ‘May 2003’ in much smaller dark capitals, and, in black cursive script below, ‘Australia defeated in Middle East’.
You can immediately see why Davila’s work was one of the bugbears of Fred Nile’s Festival of Light, as it is still of conservative art critics and variegated state representatives. In 1994, Davila’s painting The Great Liberator Simón Bolívar caused an intercontinental scandal when shown at the Hayward Gallery in London. As the Independent newspaper reported it, ‘Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador have all protested to the Chilean government over the painting … Two of the countries’ ambassadors asked Chile yesterday why it was financing what the Colombian ambassador called “gutter art”.’6 As Davila asserts, ‘Pornography transferred to painting permits two things: the showing of what has never been represented, and the debasing of the idea of high art by bringing popular materials to it.’7 It’s not just the injection of pornography and popular imagery into high art that’s at stake, though; Davila’s animus is particularly directed against the narcissistic ideals of nationalist iconography, whose foundations in real murder and mutilation he ceaselessly seeks to reveal through his own virtual transgressions.
So Davila’s assault on the image of the body is explicitly connected with issues of disavowed colonial invasion, on the one hand, and the unleashing of repressed psychosexual desires on the other. What makes Davila contemporary is not so much the shock value of the works themselves as his voracious mutability, his relentless sampling of radically heterogenous images and texts and techniques, and his unforgiving affirmation of the powers of expression. Davila’s practice is still primarily painting—but directed by an extraordinary attentiveness to its deformation, the significance of assemblage and installation, to its possibilities for articulating otherwise unspeakable desires and acts.
Something similar is at work in another painter whose life, work and ambitions, at first glance, couldn’t be further from Davila. Whereas Davila manifestly engages with transcultural, translingual and transsexual themes, Philip Hunter is local, focused and non-figurative. Yet both artists are untethering the foundations of Australian myth-making. For years, Hunter has been obsessively painting the Victorian landscape, returning again and again to the Central Districts, Day Plains and Ghost Paddocks of the Wimmera. From the late 1990s he has developed a signature style that presents the Wimmera as a hallucinatory environment in which sinuous, luminous lines pulse and interweave across a surface punctured with bursts of darkness and irregular clouds of earth. In Lines in the Dirt (2006), a thin red horizon line divides the canvas almost in two: the pale sky above ripples slowly with streaks and swathes of scratched-out clouds modulating to a near-imperceptible blur of blue; the earth itself ripples, shimmers, swirls, composed of a complex composition of dots, jagged lines, rifts, holes and opacities in colours that range from blood-red to ochre to jet. As the architect Peter Corrigan puts it in his introduction to a recent Hunter catalogue: ‘It is the unexpected sense of isolation, the deep iridescent effects of light and the sense of presences lurking in the shadows that incline us toward a metaphysical quality in this art.’8 In Hunter’s paintings, personal memories are mashed together with a virtuosic technique influenced as much by indigenous motifs as by Rubens and Turner.
The metaphysical quality of Hunter’s paintings at least partially derives from his abiding commitment to the landscape genre itself, long after the industrial mechanisation of the Australian farmland, the concomitant depopulation of rural areas, the struggle for indigenous land rights, and environmental degradation have stripped landscape of its traditional justifications. If there is an anachronistic art form today, it is landscape painting. From the point of view of much contemporary art, landscape painting is the very exemplar of what has to be superseded: old, boring and politically compromised. Paradoxically, this means such painting—now freed from the burden of having any serious pretensions to being either central or contemporary—continues to experiment and extend itself. Techniques of representation and presentation worked out in landscape painting often reappear, overlooked and unacknowledged, in self-consciously up-to-the-minute multimedia installations. It’s not just, as Australian artist Janet Burchill said to me in a different context, that ‘so much painting today is about the death of painting’ (which is true). It’s that, as Hunter stated in a 2001 Radio National interview with Julie Copeland: ‘It’s not for me so much a question of its (painting’s) relevancy, or its position in some hierarchy of mediums that are appropriate for contemporary arts practice. What I think is much more important is that painting can actually give you another angle, a view on the world that is different to a filmic experience, a photographic experience, an installation or sound experience.’9 On the one hand, this is a kind of re uptake of a great modernist principle: each of the arts explores what it and only it can do. On the other, it’s a postmodernist statement about the shattering and democratisation of media: art isn’t given hierarchically, but through singular experiences.
By contrast, A Constructed World (ACW) is unapologetically postmodern in its promiscuous use of media and its unforgiving assault on the artist–audience division—though its members too are in pursuit of singular experiences. ACW comprises two itinerant Australian artists, Geoff Lowe (who began his career as a painter) and Jacqueline Riva. Lowe and Riva work together, but not simply as individuals, nor simply as a couple, nor simply as collaborators. They are peripatetic, constantly on the move from Melbourne to New York to Turin to Paris to Bordeaux to Singapore, and their work often takes transformations of movement as its object. ACW typically intervenes in the spaces of existing structures (sometimes official art-sites, sometimes not), erecting transient extra- or subconstructions that de- and re-regionalise those spaces, and which affect the sorts of movements that can be made within them—whether those movements are ‘physical’ or ‘abstract’. As one young Australian artist remarked to me, ACW ‘has to be conceived not so much as a type but as a vast geodesic network constantly striving to globalise itself’. ACW’s transient installations use a wide range of domestic or familiar materials (crinkly blue plastic tarpaulins, for instance), and often resemble shonky versions of a range of structures (gazebos or toolsheds, for instance). These constructions often have no clear purpose or too many possible purposes, but encourage a kind of stupefaction: you often don’t quite know what to do with them, how to look at or move through or talk about them.
A recent ACW work is titled Help Yourself, a double-video piece dedicated to masturbation. On one screen, a sequence of images shifts past, including: advertising for Elle Macpherson underwear, the elegant model’s elongated hand twitching immobilised above her lingerie-slick cunt; classical high-art images, the holy mother’s careful fingers encircling the infant Jesus’ little prick like a shell nestling its kernel; a scene from a Warhol flick, in which an anonymous hand tenderly cuffs and jerks off a cock clad in a white sheet like Casper the Friendly Ghost; a cut from a porno-flick of a chick on a nice plump bed, knees up and spread, fingering herself diligently for the gaze of some diegetic character off-camera; and so on. The voice-over is extracted from an interview between Lowe and a well-known English psychoanalyst. The psychoanalyst speaks of how difficult it is for parents to acknowledge their children’s masturbatory habits; of the centrality that discussions of masturbation played in the Wednesday evenings Sigmund Freud hosted in the early, heady days of psychoanalysis, attended primarily by overeducated and overdressed bourgeois gentlemen smoking cigars; of the problem of accounting for what the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan called ‘the idiot’s enjoyment’. This discussion is interrupted by another voice-over by Riva. Another video in the same space restaged a day in the life of Samuel Pepys, the great seventeenth-century English diarist, who records his own encounters with pornography and masturbation in a way that is at once prurient and moralistic. Pepys has to burn the book that excites him too much, becoming an exemplary case of the paradoxes of exhibitionistic self-censorship.
An attempt to extend collaborative forms of creative practice and reception is at the heart of ACW’s work, whether between Lowe and Riva themselves, or with other artists, writers, even random gallery-goers: art practice as a kind of estranging conviviality. Over the past decade or so, ACW has enthusiastically set up and participated in all sorts of vehicles, including the 1990s Artfan (with reviews by, in Lowe’s words, ‘people-who-said-they-didn’t-know-about-art’) and the blog Speech. Part of ACW’s point is to enable—without determining—new forms of interaction with art, as well as new kinds of dialogues about what art might be and do.
Such dialogues can even happen inadvertently, as in the recent Australian media frenzy over the allegedly paedophiliac aspects of Bill Henson’s photographs—a frenzy that implicated Kevin Rudd, actor Cate Blanchett, the NSW police and an enormous number of other interested parties, some high art, some committed activists, some from the general public. Given the uproar, Henson’s photographs hardly need any further introduction. They are impeccably shot, technically outstanding, and deeply semiotically nourished; Henson likes to place naked teen bodies in inky environments, suffusing his images with a hyper-aestheticised post-Romantic melancholia. Of course, he does a lot else too—beautiful shots of the Paris Opera and high-contrast, monumental landscapes—but the loneliness and loss of adolescence have become a kind of signature subject. This, indeed, turned out to be the problem: complaints about the email invitation to the opening of Henson’s May 2008 show sparked a police investigation. Rudd himself declared the photographs ‘absolutely revolting’ (although the Office of Film and Literature Classification later gave them a PG rating), while Malcolm Turnbull, leader of the Opposition, admitted to owning two Hensons—both, apparently, entirely nubile-free.
When this sort of thing hits the mass media, even the excessive virtuosity of such images comes to be interpreted simultaneously in radically different frames: are these works in which the sadness and solitude of young people are given an extraordinary aesthetic freighting, or simply horrid images to be damned and obliterated, and their maker punished? The low tenor of the discussion could hardly endear the government–media apparatus to anybody. As David Marr noted: ‘Though the Henson row is probably the biggest art controversy in half a century, the nation’s art minister had nothing to say. No politicians were game to stand up to the child-protection lobby and say the obvious: this panic was way out of hand.’10 Unfortunately, Marr contributes to the problem to the extent that Henson’s project becomes nothing more than another opportunity for lamenting the vitiation of solid liberal-democratic values. The best account of the furore was given by Rex Butler, who points out that ‘it was those who complained about the photos who provided them with their best reading, not insofar as they objected to them and tried to silence them, but like any good analyst, they listened to them and let them speak’11 As Butler points out, Henson’s work is fundamentally of the same order as humanitarian victim publicity, with its quasi-biological alibi (adolescence as a period of transition between child and adult) and its sensationalist appeal.
There is no such covert complicity with the demands of culturally dominant elites in the work of Tracey Moffatt, which ranges across photography, art and music videos, and film. Moffatt is in command of a special kind of blank postmodern irony, in which the generic components of identity—personal, cultural, racial—are deconstructed with a rigorously camp seriousness. In her early photographic sequence Something More (1989), the artist herself, dolled up in a foxy red dress criss-crossed by black roses, escapes a pastiche outback shack inhabited by a rough hard-drinking bloke in a blue singlet and a slutty smoking blonde, pursued by a couple of kids in shorts and a cartoonish coolie complete with a long black queue. The sequence concludes with a shot of the artist splayed face down on the asphalt, her dress pulled up to her hips and her legs akimbo, while a road arrow informs us that we are still 300 miles from Brisbane. In Under the Sign of Scorpio (2005), Moffatt once again dresses herself up, this time as a series of famous women ranging from the suicidal poet American Anne Sexton and indigenous poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal to the South African novelist Doris Lessing and Hillary R. Clinton. These images are barely representational at all—you’d only know the putative subject because the name is scrawled on the image in white—and generate garish melodrama from the isolation of an arbitrary but fateful trait. All these women were born, like Moffatt herself, ‘under the sign of Scorpio’. This strategy of overtly kitschy identification is itself a kind of meta-identification, sampling the processes of such artists as Cindy Sherman, whose famous Complete Untitled Film Stills depict the chameleonic Sherman dressed up as a variety of B-grade actresses. All this hyper-reflexive postmodernity, however, is bound to place by specific local affiliations: in the early 1960s, at the age of three, Moffatt was given up for adoption by her Aboriginal mother to a white Brisbane family.
As Geoff Lowe recently remarked to Jacqueline Riva and me about Moffatt’s achievement, ‘She really turned the sock inside out.’ In response to our blank stares, Lowe immediately added, ‘I’m trying to make a topological point here.’ His point was this: in the 1990s Moffatt transformed the possibilities for Australian artists abroad, as much as her work transformed the possibilities for local artists, indigenous and non-indigenous. Moffat’s films have been shown at the Cannes festival; her works have been collected by MOMA in New York and the Tate in London; she remains one of Australia’s most successful contemporary artists internationally. Moffatt reputedly used to announce to New Yorkers that in Australia she was as ‘big as Madonna’.
As Babar the Elephant says to his kids when they freak out over parodies of Munch’s Scream and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon at the grand opening of the Celesteville Art Museum:
*‘Doesn’t it have to be old to be in a gallery?’ asked Alexander.
‘Doesn’t it have to be pretty?’ asked Flora.
‘It doesn’t “have to be” or mean anything,’ said Babar. ‘There are no rules to tell us what art is.’12*
When middlebrow children’s books are on the way to being pretty much right about contemporary art, something really serious has to have happened. In the place of ‘art’, what we get instead is ‘culture’. And we get it everywhere: museums, galleries, art schools, universities, the media and their assorted personnel blare endlessly about survey shows, representation, art today, culture today, cultural studies today, Australia today, good financial planning, how to strengthen industry links and maximise audiences.
One of the great things about the contemporary Australian art market, however, is that it’s not tied so directly to these exigencies as many other so-called cultural fields. Unlike the literary marketplace, whose economy is very differently distributed and regionalised, and whose products, being inherently multiple (‘books’, ‘magazines’, ‘texts’), have very different modes, places, temporalities and personnel, in the weirdly constituted global-feudal-democratic-capitalist artzone, you don’t have to sustain any particular type of narrative in order to make some kind of living. The point is just to do something that makes a difference—no matter how you do it—and the omnivorous desperation of the contemporary art world to get something that’s absolutely ‘now’ drives its minions ever onwards with the whip of possibility.
This structural desperation affects every level of the art-world, not just the artists themselves. Art-criticism in this country is at once more ecumenical and high-brow—and, goddamn it, much more diverse and exciting—than its literary counterpart. You only have to read a couple of lines by Ted Colless or Philip Brophy to get a jolt, not to mention the writings of artists such as Stuart Ringholt. This is of course partially because there’s just a lot more cash, glamour and power flowing about the art-market, but also because its desperation tends to corrode almost all inherited prejudices. At its limit, this means curators, critics, artists, gallerists, and even buyers start mouthing recondite philosophical concepts. You can pick up two-bit catalogue essays from any gallery these days, with authors expatiating endlessly about Zen Buddhism, Marcel Proust, G.W.F. Hegel, Plato, Glenn Gould and their relation to this work. Even if the references are misunderstood, the point is that the contemporary art world is in some ways genuinely adventurous and risk-taking—at least compared to the aggressive timidity of the local literary marketplace—and even more so since it’s not averse to genuinely intellectual protest.
The young Australian artist Bianca Hester relates a recent conversation she had with the visiting Italian curator Francesco Stocchi about what had most struck him about the local scene. Stocchi reported ‘that Melbourne (and Sydney) artists in particular seem to “do everything” ’. As Hester continues: ‘And he’s totally right. Artists here do way more than make “art” in any simplified kind of way. They write, work in collectives, teach, develop exhibition strategies, curate, open their own spaces, generate publications—thereby engaging most aspects of art production, presentation and distribution.’13 How is it that Australia has become such a vital place for contemporary art, and without anybody really recognising it?
One of the ironies of being a postcolonial and perhaps post-European settlement is that, although the cultural cringe is supposedly behind us, long-established communication channels to Otherness are still gaping wide. As a result, Australian artists perhaps have an easier time than artists from such old centres as New York, London or Tokyo in having a direct line to elsewhere. Contemporary Australian artists can be especially attentive to what’s going on in Slovenia and Thailand and Chile. And, given that Australia is a wealthy, heavily suburbanised and highly educated country, an enormous number of people are ready to try their hand at one or another role in the zone of art, all able to survive if not succeed. Moreover, since the key institutions that regulate the passage from the outside to the inside of the art-world are today so well organised and regulated—the varied magazines, ranging from blogs such as the art life through Un Magazine, Eyeline, Photofile, Artworld, Australian Art Collector and Art and Australia; the exclusive private galleries in Paddington in Sydney or Flinders Lane in Melbourne; major public galleries such as the NGV, NGA, AGNSW; dedicated contemporary art spaces such as the Brisbane Institute of Modern Art, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts or the Australian Centre of Contemporary Art; university galleries such as Monash University Museum of Art or the Ian Potter Museum; periodic festivals such as the Sydney Biennale—the competition is intense. (Of course, the people making the least money out of all of this tend to be the artists, though this quasi-marginality can still generate some symbolic capital.) Despite these efforts, however, local art remains ‘Post-Provincial, Still Peripheral’ (as Anthony Gardner titles his contribution to the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Australian Art).
Yet contemporary Australian art has real power, often performed with a violent, sometimes noxious hilarity. Take Richard Bell’s various boutades, including the now-notorious ‘Bell’s Theorem’, which proposes ‘Aboriginal Art—it’s a White Thing’; Brook Andrew’s large post-Warholian screen-print series, which blows up an old anthropological photograph of an Aboriginal couple fucking in the desert sand, the man on top turning to the camera and grinning like a loon; Ash Keating dumping ten tonnes of rubbish outside the Penrith Civic Centre; the wooden text pieces of Emily Floyd, with titles such as Permaculture Crossed with Feminist Science Fiction; Patricia Piccinini’s abject genetic mutations, with their small white children fondling smug, hairy, fleshy obscenities; or Lizzy Newman’s minimalist cut-out felt hangings and fluorescent tubes tacked onto plywood boards.
To invoke the French literary critic Maurice Blanchot’s remarks on Emily Brontë, art ‘is not civic duty; it is precarious, abyssal exposure to what lies at the edge of human experience’.14 If this brief survey can risk any generalisations about Australian art, it is that this art, perhaps more consistently and frantically than that of other places, assaults nationalistic iconography in an attempt to unhinge the myth from the place. To do so, it deploys every medium and technique available, typically generating effects of distortion, ugliness, abjection. The average Australian artist makes a lot more work in a lot of different ways than, say, a European counterpart. This assault on iconography is primarily fuelled by a voracious attention to otherness, to the foreign. For Australian artists, Australia is to be remade by its very unmaking. The savage and memorable events they create give us an Australia more truly and more strange.
- This is a telescopic diary entry from an afternoon visit to several Melbourne galleries. The works described are, in order: Alexander Knox, Colt, at Murray White Room; Christian Thompson, Lost Together, at Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi; Marco Fusinato, Aetheric Plexus at ‘New 09’, ACCA; Geoff Robinson, North, at Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces; and Damiano Bertoli, Continuous Moment: Bad Infinity, at The Narrows.
- Johann von Goethe, Italian Journey, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1970, pp. 147, 371.
- Thierry de Duve, ‘Five Remarks on Aesthetic Judgment,’ in Umbr(a), no. 1 (1999), p. 20. Elsewhere, de Duve points out that the injunction of contemporary art is something like ‘Do whatever!’ The paradox is this: absolutely anything (‘whatever’) can be denominated and received as ‘art’ but, precisely because anything whatever can be art, nothing is able to be ‘art’ absolutely; the act and judgement can also always be reversed, be held to have failed. See his Kant after Duchamp, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1996.
- de Duve, ‘Five Remarks’, p. 21.
- de Duve, ‘Five Remarks’, p. 21.
- Independent, 12 August 1994, p. 1. The ill-tempered if influential British critic Peter Fuller, speaking in the mid 1980s about some of the recent success stories of Australian art, including Davila himself and Mike Parr, one of Australia’s great performance artists, expressed the view that: ‘Like Davila’s, Parr’s work is simply too unpleasant to describe in any detail’: The Australian Scapegoat: Towards an Antipodean Aesthetic (University of Western Australia Press, 1986), p. 27.
- Quoted in Sebastian Smee, ‘Burning down the house’, Weekend Australian, 30 September – 1 October, 2006, p. 19.
- Peter Corrigan, ‘The Line of Light’, in Lines in the Dirt, Tim Olsen Gallery, Sydney, 2008, np.
- Philip Hunter, quoted in Ashley Crawford, Wimmera: The Work of Philip Hunter, Thames & Hudson, Melbourne, 2002, p. 25.
- David Marr, ‘Panic and Censor’, Monthly, December 2008–January 2009, p. 14. See also Marr’s book The Henson Case (Text, Melbourne, 2008), and his spot on SlowTV, http://www.themonthly.com.au/tm/node/1268.
- Rex Butler, ‘Bill Henson: The Letter Returns,’ Broadsheet, vol. 37, no. 4 (2008), p. 277. It might also be helpful to recall here, as does Jennifer Friedlander in a related context, that: ‘The modern notion of the child emerged around the same time as the invention of photography, and from the start, nude children have figured prominently as photographic subjects’: Feminine Look: Sexuation, Spectatorship, Subversion, State University of New York, Albany, 2008, p. 93.
- Laurent de Brunhoff, Babar’s Gallery (Closed Mondays), Abrams Books, New York and London, 2003, pp. 34–5.
- Bianca Hester, ‘Enabling Restraints,’ in Kate Daw and Vikki McInnes, Bureau, VCA Margaret Lawrence Gallery, Melbourne, 2008, p. 18.
- Leslie Hill, ‘ “Affirmation without precedent”: Maurice Blanchot and Criticism Today’, in Leslie Hill et al. (eds), After Blanchot: Literature, Criticism, Philosophy, University of Delaware Press, Cranbury, 2005, p. 69.