LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE
In a show of little substance, at least the artworks are big and brash, writes Christopher Allen
BY far the most memorable work in Optimism at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art is the floor of a modest Queensland country house, owned by grain farmers Rodney and Colleen Mundt. Not a floor plan but the actual floor, lifted off its footings, the walls sawn off, and mounted vertically in the enormous central exhibition space. The result is a little like looking at the remains of ancient houses in archeological digs, where the mud-brick walls have long disintegrated, leaving only the stone foundations as a trace of what was once someone’s home.
There is a similar poignancy here, although the past alluded to is so recent. We can see the entrance porch, the suite of rooms arranged on a simple square plan, the kitchen, built around a fuel stove, and the bathroom ( the toilet, of course, was in an outhouse). The floors are covered with linoleum, in different colours and patterns for each room. It is all at least a half-century old, so that these unappealing surfaces have become muted and patinated with age. In several rooms we can read where wardrobes and dressing-tables once stood, their shadows, as it were, surrounded by areas worn by constant walking to and fro or faded by light.
Is this art? That’s an interesting question. Sean Cordeiro and Claire Healy’s piece is certainly an outstanding idea for an architectural museum, but we can let that pass because it is genuinely thoughtful. Is it an expression of the optimism the exhibition is meant to celebrate? Not in any usual sense of the term, but then it is unclear what the theme of the show is really supposed to be in the first place.
At the opening of the exhibition, which took place between a crash in the stock market and a disastrous storm a few days later, everyone seemed at pains to insist that their optimism was not to be confused with superficiality and silliness. Unfortunately, it was too late. The book of the show opens with a photograph of a young woman who calls herself Arlene TextaQueen, working on a drawing and quoted as declaring, ‘‘ Yes, I wear a superhero costume. I thought I needed to be someone . . . why not a superhero?’’ Why not indeed? Arlene astutely has realised that she ‘‘ needed to be someone’’ — to have an image and a brand — if she was to attract the attention of the people who organise shows such as Optimism. One hopes that this need to be someone doesn’t extend to her private life; that would be rather sad.
Shows such as this have an intellectual rationale the way a fashion collection does. The opening essay begins by declaring, ‘‘ Optimism is so much more than a Latin word for hope.’’ Actually, optimism is not a Latin word but an English one; and it is not even derived from the Latin for hope, which is spes . Optimism comes from a Latin word meaning excellent or best and ultimately from a verb meaning to choose. Our modern word optimism arose in the early 18th century to describe the doctrine of Gottfried Leibniz, the German philosopher who asserted that the world as made by God was ‘‘ the best of all possible worlds’’. This theory was lampooned by Voltaire in his unforgettable story Candide , in which everything keeps going horribly wrong.
There is one thing worth reading in the catalogue. John Birmingham, who also spoke eloquently at the show’s opening, is the author of a short but outstanding essay. He speaks of the pessimism and sense of fate that were so much a part of the Greek view of life, yet infers an underlying optimism from the extraordinary determination and hope with which they resisted the Persian invasions. One might add that the whole tendency of humanism, that confidence in man that the Greeks invented and left as such a powerful legacy, is inherently optimistic; the dark vein of pessimism and the sense of the tragedy of life that they also articulated is the reality principle of humanism, without which the optimistic inclination would be self-delusion.
If the exhibition makes one thing clear, it is that what is called contemporary art must have a certain look. Of course this can be true of other periods and styles too: some people expect art to come in an ornate gold frame, while others want it to be cool and minimal; for some it has to be abstract, for others figurative. All too often it is this general look that matters more than the quality or content. People tend to see works of art from the outside, as objects that announce and project their own sense of identity, rather than to enter into them imaginatively; they treat them, in other words, as signs of status and cultural allegiance.
Of course contemporary art is no different. Individuals and corporations consciously collect such work to advertise their own association with innovation and economic performance.
So what is the look of today? Judging by the Brisbane show, it has to be big and bright and rather brutal. It must make an effect immediately, like a brand or logo, not demand close engagement or silent attention. And each style has to be conspicuously different, so that heavy-handed paint and lurid colours are juxtaposed with scribbles in felt-tip pens or digital prints.
The effect produced by all these strident voices calling for our attention at the same time is an inevitable cacophony. Such an exhibition design implies that the audience is expected to be insensitive or unresponsive. We may forget that art hardly ever has been shown in this unsympathetic way, even in the very recent past. Usually works that are hung together are similar enough for the spectator to adjust to a certain sensibility and enter into the imaginative world of the artist. Here we are simply buffeted from one style to another.
Interestingly, a smaller space ( rather pretentiously called the Salon Project) has been provided for works on a more modest scale. The label on the outside again reveals careless research in claiming that the French Academy of Painting was founded in the 18th century ( it was actually 1648). It also includes a remarkable non sequitur about the relationship between painting and photography, apparently to justify the practice of basing paintings on photographs. The truth is that the vocation of painting is to create a visual object from something that is not an object at all. The painter must take the enormous risk of engaging with a non-objective, elusive experience. Photographs are a deceptive shortcut. The most interesting pieces in this room, nonetheless, are Anna Platten’s oddly surreal figures and Michael McWilliams’s disconcerting little interiors.
Elsewhere, there are moments of genuine sensitivity and reflection, such as Darren Sylvester’s installation re-creating a demolished Japanese garden, moments of humour with Michael Leunig’s cartoons, or moments of respect for cultural tradition in the re-created traditional headdresses of George Nona. Aleks Danko is often witty, and Dale Frank’s enormous abstrac-