Anish Kapoor the MCA

anish-kapoor

Anish Kapoor puts the medium in-your-face.

Large fun-hall mirrors. What are they doing in a ‘high-art’ context? At first I couldn’t grasp it, and I certainly couldn’t smell it. I had to think. Portraits. Distortion. Object vs subject. The necessary reciprocity of relativity and objectivity in perception. Sort of.

The watcher watching the watcher being watched…”That’s me!”….or” Is it art?”…. or”Who am ‘I’ anyway?”.

Enter pigment. Sumptuous lashings of the stuff. Again no smell. As someone who once saved up my tips to afford a 37ml tube of series 1 violet, I cringe at the opulence. Cadmiums, cobalts, titaniums. A poetry of pigments. A truck-load of buttery red-ochre earth-like mudbath squishy ancient sun-dial with mechanical arm ‘reinventing’ the composition gradually, evoking erosion. Earth time, earth space. The colour of it all.

More pigment, released from it’s bindings, dragging our eyes around. Red, yellow, white, no blue. Yves Klein has appropriated blue forever. Perfect primary colours singing in perfect pitch, dis-harmonised by strange little off-key shapes and piles.

Someone had to recreate those voids, artists (beginning with Mark Rothko) have been painting them forever. Now we can see the real thing. A void. Man on the brink of it. Contemplating it. Pitting ourselves against it. In the end he really is showing us ourselves, empty within and without, wandering round the MCA. Wondering what it’s all about.

 

Francis Bacon AGNSW

Francis-Bacon
If you thought FB was a tortured artist you were right. Everything you ever heard or dreamed of the suffering of the creative soul is here in spades and more, served up on canvas like a plate of live insects. The only thing is, he paints so well that he gets in first and makes a mockery of the stereotypes before the stereotypes can make a mockery of him.

The 1950s canvases are just the right size to walk into. If so inclined, you can enter the cage with the master and taste a little unmitigated bestial agony, body for body, head for head, mouth for throat. The figures will lodge themselves into your chest region for days and sit there undigested, a desperately writhing and simmering mass that never detonates or achieves crescendo. Eventually you will beg for mercy, which will not be granted until you admit that you are living a bourgeois fantasy-life devoid of meaning, and that the only thing in your pathetic excuse for a mind is dinner tonight and whether this skirt looks ok with the boots I pulled out this morning. At which point you will be released from it’s grip back into your tiny existence. Apologise quietly under your breath and back away slowly.

Suddenly there is a technical leap into the 1970s (god only knows what happened in the 60s. One shudders to think). He keeps us with him, creating little indexes so we can track the technical progress alongside him. Clearly more teacher than psychologist (despite the Freudian banquet that is the content of his work) he shows the way, exposing the process for those who are interested. This kind of generosity is rare, and so humanely beautiful.

By room three I’ve reached my sweet spot. I trust the artist and know I’m in good hands. He can do anything he wants with me now. The boxes in the early works have morphed into field. And he gives good field. Field and field of field. Surprisingly gentle, playful field. Orange and lavender field. Fuck Brett Whitely. I mean, really, how dared he. The increasing, unmitigated horror of the figures continues, the machine behind them stamping out pain with objective cruelty, however those fields never fail us. They hold the experience and ground us back to sanity. Which is, after all, where we belong and wish to dwell.

Can Art Save Your Life?

We live in an age where depression is epidemic. According to the Black Dog Institute, depression is the third largest individual heath problem in Australia, after heart disease and stroke.  1 in 5 people will experience the black hole of internal nothingness at some time, maybe an extended period, in their life’s journey.

We have failed to find a secular replacement for the problems for which religion was once a solution. We no longer understand how to survive within our allotment of finite resources.

The reality is, we have not been given a whole lot of information about what this Birth to Death Project is about. We’ve had to make it up as we go. We train our children to pretend they get it, lest they lose hope altogether and do something drastic. We have been pretending for so long, we have fallen into the trap of believing that it is the answers that matter, not the questions. We have lost the most basic understanding of all – the understanding that it is actually impossible to know anything for sure. As a society, we really believe the answers are available, if we just try a bit harder, stress a bit more.

As far as I can tell, no-one really knows what we are doing here. Faith seems to be the process of living as though our best guess is right. Wise people and false prophets abound. Platitudes appear on facebook like a plague of toads.

Our culture has a long history of engagement with the sacred (I use the term sacred in a practical sense: the elements of life that hold the greatest value and importance). Art and scholarship are the byproduct of this. It is what we did when there was time leftover from the consummate work of survival. We put our heads up and said “what else?”. We didn’t always do it well, or artfully, but we always did it. Some evolutionists argue that this is the quality that differentiates us most from chimps, our nearest biological relative. We ask “why?”

There was once a time, within living memory, when a person could not claim to be educated without being able to locate themselves in time and space,  physically, psychologically and philosophically. Developing an holistic internal landscape gave us the data we needed to reference, cross-check and move forward intelligently and sustainably. Certainly only the elite were educated. But all leaders and decision makers were drawn from this minority pool.

Culture and art are not a quick fix. They are a 25 000 year old tradition that quickened 5 000 years ago, and then again about 200 years ago.

I’m not saying that art holds all the answers. But understanding the process of the last 5 000 years of engaging with the right questions may be the best we can do. And that may be enough.

The Good and the Generous

I just ordered a great pair of earrings. I got them at the Richard Dawkins website (A Clear Thinking Oasis) for $22.95. They are beaded, amber, in the shape of double-helix-es, and they are also available in other groovy colours. Being a spring natural, amber looks great on me. And they go with most of my wardrobe.

Richard says we don’t need religion to be good and generous. I agree with him. What we do need is a good heart. But has this always been true? For someone who understands so much about evolution, where does he think humans learned to be good and generous?

I don’t think there is any reading of history that presents evidence that human beings are innately good and generous. In fact, there is a wealth of evidence to the contrary. It seems we have attained the virtues of goodness and generosity that we now take for granted very, very slowly.

We seem to have forgotten that the idea of loving one’s neighbour and turning the other cheek were once radical concepts that went viral two thousand years ago. The fact that they are now thoroughly embedded in a secular society is due to great hardship and suffering on the parts of many of our ancestors who were willing to go to the lion pit to defend these concepts, and change the trajectory of history.

And of course, whenever human nature is involved, things become very complex. The corruption of the good and the generous into institutions that oppressed and tortured it’s fellow human beings was to be expected really, considering that oppression and torture were de rigueur (and still are in many places where human nature reigns unchecked). The crusades and the inquisitions were not a Christian idea. They did not appear as an isolated event against a backdrop of people going about their business, cooperatively building a better world. They were a continuation of a long tradition of humans trying to get it over one another.

Richard Dawkins claims to be evidence based, and there is much evidence to show that goodness and generosity are religious ideas. Although we no longer need religion as a vehicle, without it, who knows where we would be? For me the more interesting questions that go to the heart of things are about what we really are under the veneer of civilisation we take for granted?

Ghost in the Routine

I have painted for more than 20 years. I’ve done oils, acrylics, canvas, paper, board, large murals, collages, assemblages, installations, sketches. Now I’m 40 (plus GST) and still have several works on the go at any time. I don’t particularly enjoy it. In fact, mostly it’s torture (they don’t call it pain-ting for nothing).

Since the early days I haven’t  really sold much work, apart from participating in the occasional group show. And yet the drive to continue to make marks on surfaces has never abated, not for longer than a few months.

Continuing to practice something in the face of the lack of tangible reward seems to contradict human nature, at least as it is usually described. There is no economic rationale, no improvement in my ability to attract sexual partners – even the process itself is not particularly satisfying. It’s messy. And expensive. The results? Well, most of my paintings are stacked around the house, looking towards the walls.

So what is it about? Instinct? An expression of innate biological factors, like sucking, walking, and mating? Somewhere, buried deep below consciousness, there are these needs that manifest themselves as a series of connected thoughts that lead to this seemingly random action. It’s a bit creepy really. A bit like being possessed or inhabited by a ghost.

And yet. I am descended from 15-20 000 generations of people who made stuff. In fact, the products of their ‘urges’ are the only way I know of their existence. They were ‘resourceful’. They made marks on the walls of caves, tombs and palaces. They wove and stitched and glazed and forged and sculpted and chiaroscuroed, cross-hatched and crocheted. Some of them (like me) just did it. But some of them did it really, really, really well. Every parent knows how hard it is to pass information forward to one generation. Some of my ancestors made things that are meaningful thousands of generations later.

Even alone in my living room I cannot get away from my culture, the sweep of history I am a tiny part of. Many have said  the urge to create is what makes us human.  Others are now saying it’s the very thing that makes us almost extinct.

I know that the relics I can see and hold and contemplate from the past are a rare glimpse, not just into the past but also into what it is to be human. They are the only tangible answers I have ever found to the eternal and infernal question: What, for god’s sake, is it all about?

Portrait of Spain

The Veil of St Veronica, El Greco, 1586-95

I didn’t think I’d ever get to see a Velazquez or an El Greco without leaving Australia. Neither did the lady in the line next to me.

Apparently European galleries are willing and even keen to lend us their masterpieces due to the enormous audiences we attract to our galleries in Australia (3.6 million, more than a quarter of the population visited an art gallery last year [ABS]).

Could there be two more different cultures than Spain and Australia? Maybe, but I can’t see it. Mariano Rojoy, Prime Minister of Spain, tries to make a case in the catalogue for us both being ‘frontier lands’ – whatever that means.

Yet all of us with European heritage share a common ancestral terror, deep in our DNA. Hundreds of tribes battling for peace and a patch of country to call our own, roiling around Europe for a couple of centuries after the collapse and withdrawal of Rome in 410AD. For the sake of our lives and families, we clustered behind the strongest and most dominant males who offered some protection and leadership. These became our first Kings. Their majesty guaranteed our security.

In Spain it was the tribe called Visigoth that primarily settled the Iberian peninsula, and their tradition of kingship underwent many permutations before culminating in the Hapsburg line by the time we meet them in this exhibition, Portrait of Spain, Masterpieces from the Prado, which spans the late Renaissance and Baroque periods, until the 19C.

These paintings are characterised by the gloom of power coveted, and tradition enslaved to the service of man. In the hands of a master like Velazquez this is lifted into the realm of the universal. We can see ourselves in his Phillips and Isabellas – a phenomenon not lost on the show’s designers, as we are offered the opportunity to digitally superimpose our own faces into the works and email ourselves the results.

The main artistic influences in this era of Spanish art are the Venetian tradition as personified by Titian. This means robust colour palettes across the entire spectrum, and paint applied directly to canvas with no under-painting, which translates into an emotionality well-liked by the Catholic Baroque tradition. At this time the church is attempting to turn back the work of the Reformation and re-capture hearts and souls in a period also known as the counter-reformation. The Council of Trent laid down specific guidelines to be followed in religious art, beginning in 1545.

El Greco (the Greek) did not conform to these precepts and was rejected by Phillip IV as a religious painter. Consequently his work has a range far beyond that of the other painters in the show. For me, ironically, a connection to god and the holy is most evident in his dark, intense and yet reverent paintings. Even when he gets it wrong he gets it very, very right. The face of Christ looks fearful in Salgado, doubtful in Cano, slightly resentful in Titian, dead in Escalante, yet transcendent in El Greco’s shroud.

A gorgeous exhibition, well worth the trip. Even the catalogue is a lively read, for those who like such things.

Charter

A few years ago I began compiling a list of thing I want my children to know before they leave my care. I have added and taken away, and will continue to do so, but here it is for now.

1. Life is shorter than you think.

2. Your life has a purpose and your soul (the greater part of you) knows what it is. Finding this out is the most important thing you will ever do.

3. There are many different ways of receiving information from your soul. You have to find the one that works for you.

4. You will meet very few people in your life that truly love and respect you. You will learn how to identify them using your common sense and intuition. Some of them will help you with point 2.

5. When you identify a person as one who loves and respects you, treat them with gratitude and respect always.

7. Do not have very high expectations of most people.

8. Currently people with white skin dominate the economy. They have achieved that through slavery and genocide. Do not think that being one of them makes you superior. You are equal to all people and should look them in the eye.

9. When you realize you have made a mistake, find a way to show you are sorry while keeping your dignity and knowing that mistakes do not make you unworthy.

10. Check yourself regularly for mistakes.

11. Other people will frequently make mistakes that hurt you. Use your common sense and intuition to protect yourself. Know that your soul is indestructable and let no human convince you you are less than perfect. Forgiveness is a blessing that comes in its own time.

12. Life on Earth is finite and filled with limitations. Accept these as part of life. The fun is working out how to create something wonderful despite them.

13. Using drugs and alcohol to avoid pain always makes it worse and always causes harm to those around you.

14. Read. Books are a record of the wisdom, truth and understanding that have been bestowed upon and created by humans so far. They will show you the way into your soul and how to love.

15. Never accept external definitions of truth, beauty and love. These are things you need to define for yourself. Devote plenty of time to exploring and contemplating this.

16. Do not believe the many stupid things you will hear in your life about sex. Your body is yours and you get to explore it and learn how to share it as you wish. Trust yourself. Have fun.

Scott Marr, New Pallette

If you are entranced and delighted by marks-made-well by the human hand, don’t miss Scott Marr at the Lost Bear Gallery in Leura, NSW, Australia, the World.

The sheer commitment Scott has to his work is astounding – and makes him worth keeping an eye on if you are interested in watched the emergence of creative output. The only place Scott is going is up.

I forgot my glasses tonight, which was a serious bummer, as you will understand when you see the works. Tiny obsessive detail inside large compositions, rendered using pyrography (he burns the image into paper and wooden surfaces). Not just any pyrography however. Scott uses the burning tool like a fine etching implement making a unique media reminiscent of a common one. Think Albrecht Durer and other Northern Renaissance masters of the cross-hatch extruded through the filters of a modern mind-warp.

The subjects in the works range from animals (sheep, dingoes, birds, Tim Storrier dogs), a tea-pot (my personal favourite), a Volkswagen. I wondered if there was a connection between the subjects and Scott raved for a moment about cells in bodies and people in cars, but then said they were randomly chosen. In an art world full of ‘signs’ and ‘signifiers’ I enjoyed the random and diverse selection of subject matter very much. It felt very authentic, unpretentious and somehow interesting, like a camera on top of the artist’s head giving us a glimpse into his patterns of attention.

Each work is like a little cyborg character, some friendly, some not. Like us. Combinations of antique and modern technology, mechanical and organic, nature and culture. Also like us. The media references prehistoric burning and pigment smudging, the detail pure renaissance, the content a little bit steam-punk. Sophisticated steam-punk. Although Scott reckons Dr. Suess.

The sheer diversity of the content and works in the room left me feeling a little chaotic, like I had not had the chance to focus properly and be nurtured and fed by the work. This took away a little from the intimacy and connection I look for in a gallery experience. However if the only problem I can see is too much scope in the range of works, well, I would call this a quality problem.

Biennale of Sydney

The 18th Biennale of Sydney (all our relations) is open till the 16th September, 2012. Last week’s visit was to Cockatoo Island, one of the five venues hosting the Biennale this year. The Cockatoo Island exhibition is labelled Stories, Senses and Spheres (not lower-case like the overall title).

To create a context for my review, I will begin with a few points about contemporary art, and how to read it.

  • Contemporary art strives to be in dialogue with other artworks, both historical and contemporary. This is to challenge the notion that culture can make statements independently from the historical and cultural context in which it finds itself embedded. A way to read a contemporary work is to look for influences, precursors and appropriations that reference and engage with other cultural material.
  • For much of western art history, one point perspective was the viewpoint of most artists. This viewpoint was rationalist and objective, meaning the artist (and consumer) of the artwork were removed from the subject, observing from a distance. Western perspective, an innovation of the European renaissance era, is the best example of this, with subjects disappearing towards a vanishing point. Contemporary art strives to contradict this.
  • Everything in the work has meaning and serves the ultimate purpose of communication. Medium is not a utilitarian device subjugated in service to the message. The medium should be read as part of the message in and of itself, in other words as a language. Look at the materials. What language does styrofoam speak, as opposed to concrete? fabric? sand?
  • The use of repetition and multiples is often a reference to industrialism and consumer culture and our unprecedented ability to mass produce culture at all levels.
  • Romantic notions of art (such as ‘the artist as genius’ or ‘the golden ages’) are to be questioned. These are seen as mystifying art to increase it’s value and to elevate certain practices and ideas. Contemporary art seeks to demystify art for a secular society that has no truck with the super-natural.
  • Modernism can be roughly defined as the period between the beginning of the industrial revolution (1750) to around the Vietnam war. The dominant feature of this era was progress, moving forward in a linear structure. Post-modernism asserts that progress is a hierarchical concept that preferences some achievements over others, and strives to contradict this.
  • When viewing contemporary art, look for the messages about power versus relationship, the public sphere versus the private, inner and outer lives, subject and object, sacred and profane, valued and devalued objects, the ordinary versus the extraordinary.
  • If you want to know more, read some of the 20th century French philosophers that are still influential (Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard).

Now we are armed, let us proceed to the Island of Cockatoos (we’ve all seen one or two) on the free and regular ferry / river-cat service provided by our maternal city council, on a sunny winter’s day, harbour glittering before us.

Cockatoo Island has served Sydney and surrounds as a penal facility, a quarry and a shipyards. It is itself a reference to Australia’s convict history, industrial achievements, and a metaphor for disconnection from the home-country, something all non-aboriginal Australians engage with periodically. The enormous sheds containing massive cranes and other heavy metal machinery are heritage listed, and therefore aging almost uninterrupted by restoration. The beauty of this aging process and the stories it tells are monumental and breathtaking. As a venue, artworks have to compete with it’s imposing and authentic beauty, not an easy feat.

A number of the works appeared to engage with the site using strategies such as size and volume, and contrasting materials (soft, delicate, perishable and impermanent). Large spaces filled with textiles creating a womb-like space inside an industrial complex constituted several pieces, such as Cal Lane’s Sand Lace, Reinier Rietveld and Craigie Horsfield’s Confusion, Peter Robinson’s Snow Ball Blind Time, Ed Pien with Tanya Tagaq’s Source, Philip Beesley’s Hylozoic Series, Khadija Baker’s Coffin-Nest, even Li Hongbo’s Ocean of Flowers (for which we lined up for 45 minutes) plus about five more in this vein. By the time I got to Cecilia Vicuna’s Quipu Austral, (Nina en el fuego) I was over it in a big way. I felt like one feels when the same point has been made twelve times.

Although these works all invited us, physically, into their space, encouraging participation, as opposed to an objective voyeuristic experience, I felt excluded. Maybe it was the lack of intimacy in the works. They seemed to position me squarely as what I am – one of half a million people lined up for edu-tainment. This experience, though authentic, is not particularly interesting or unique. For me, the only work that was successful at engaging credibly with the large spaces was Confusion. The sound artists created a backdrop of complex sound conjuring decades of people working and living in the turbine hall, ghostly, beautiful and poetic.

Jonathan Jones, untitled (oysters and tea cups), showed us a midden of oyster relics (read indigenous Sydney) heaped together with teacups (read colonial Britain). I enjoyed the simplicity and materiality of this statement. I had the urge to roll around in the work, inviting a visceral cringe as I remembered the feel of oyster shell on skin. If the cups had been shattered into shards the masochistic fantasy would have been complete.

My first love is, and always will be, the hand-drawn image. From hand to eye to heart to soul is the sequence that rocks my boat. Therefore the 18th Biennale of Sydney, Cockatoo Island experience was rescued for me by the works of Imran Qureshi They Shimmer Still, Nadia Myre’s The Scar Project (I could have lived without the backstory) and Everlyn Nicodemus’s Bystander on Probation No. 14. . But only just.

Give Reality a Chance

I had my two babies as a public patient in Katoomba, Australia. The birthing unit was run by midwives, with several doctors on-call to intervene if the need arose. The birthing room was cleverly lit to give the appearance of soft candlelight, with spotlights to allow the professionals to see what they were doing. There was a large bath filled with warm water. I was encouraged to bring my favourite ambient music. My children’s father was supported and given the option to participate at his discretion. After the birth I was given round-the-clock support by lactation consultants during my stay. Back home, these well-trained, compassionate, bossy, experienced women were available to come to my home whenever needed. All on the public bill.

After my babies were born, a theme arose in the social commentary surrounding the care of newborns. Many people told me of a time in history when we lived as a village, when mothers were supported by extended family, when raising children was as much a part of life as harvesting crops and celebrating the change of seasons. This utopian period stood in contrast to the present day, when the mechanistic medical model of the west had co-opted the wonders of natural childbirth and turned it into a production line of mothers churning out babies, factory-style.

I hear about this utopian village so often, in many different fields, such as home-birthing, complementary medicine, environmentalism, feminism. It seems a little daily comfort is  needed to foster the luxury of idealism. I have come to think of it as a kind of medieval Avalon, or Brigadoon. In other words, located entirely in cultural mythology. It seems to serve the purpose of allowing us to feel that we may, someday, stumble upon the magic formula that will allow the mists to part, at which time all will be well.

It is possible that the supportive village may have existed sometime or place, for a nanosecond in human history. The reality of childbirth and parenting in our cultural history, and nearly all others past and present, is so completely different it’s almost impossible for the modern human mind to comprehend. It is understandable that we could have created the utopian myth to protect ourselves from the psychological impact of reality.

In fact humans are pretty much unique among primates in our practice of infanticide within our own species (Broude, 1995). Abandonment, slavery, sexual abuse and battery are far more common parenting practices within our species than care and nurturing, a relatively modern development. A feature of life in Europe until the rise of foundling homes in the 17th century (the first established by St Vincent de Paul in France) was stepping over babies abandoned in the street, frothing at the mouth as they died of malnutrition. This would have been as frequent, and acceptable, as the sight of homeless male adults present today in the streets of most cities.

A history of child-abuse is not unique to developed countries. There is little evidence for humans treating children with the care and love we now take for granted, from anywhere around the world or through the ages. Note: Read Robin Grille’s book “Parenting for a Peaceful World” for some mind-blowing research into the history of parenting. I don’t agree with his conclusions, but his research is fantastic.

Somewhere in the last 200 years we have invented the idea that children are precious. To treat them with love and care is a fundamental principle going to the heart of our humanity. We have integrated these ideas to the point where we take them for granted and imagine they must be part of our ‘nature’. We have developed systems of child protection which, though fallable, would have seemed foreign in a history where most children were disposable.

We have changed the very basis of our human consciousness in a very short period of time. During the same period of evolution we have polluted and out-fished our water systems, over-exploited our soil reserves, over-populated, changed the climate of our planet.

If we insist on identifying ourselves with myths about who we really are as a species, we run the risk of needing to learn these lessons again, god forbid. As we hurtle towards an industrial environmental calamity, let’s take an honest inventory of who we really are and where we’ve been.