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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Red Widow, Grand De­signs, Artscape: The A-Z of Con­tem­po­rary Art,

aired, there have been con­verted wa­ter tow­ers, barns, chapels and imag­i­na­tively odd dwellings built from sand­bags and straw.

McCloud pro­vides a sure-footed, in­formed guide to the process whereby self-builders at­tempt to con­struct th­ese dream homes, their even­tual tri­umph over hair-rais­ing ob­sta­cles tan­ta­mount to re­li­gious con­ver­sion. (David Lowe’s dis­tinc­tive ti­tle mu­sic is so as­pi­ra­tional it has be­come pop­u­lar for wed­ding cou­ples to walk down the aisle to its soar­ing strings and that harp.)

McCloud pros­e­ly­tises the no­tion that the per­sonal in­vest­ment in­volved in cre­at­ing a home should be greater than the thought of fi­nan­cial po­ten­tial. Af­ter all, he likes to say, you could be hit by a bus to­mor­row.

Homes, he ar­gues, should be about en­rich­ing the daily ex­pe­ri­ence and he seems con­stantly amazed at the way peo­ple pile on the tech­nol­ogy, the mas­sive glass win­dows and some­times ceil­ings, ‘‘ as if they have been cap­tured by some cult’’. As he said re­cently, ‘‘ Maybe I’m in a mi­nor­ity when I say I don’t want much tech­nol­ogy; that I want sim­ple, I want small, I want gloom.’’

Usu­ally highly emo­tional at show’s end, he be­lieves good de­sign can change the way peo­ple think and feel. But his con­stant mantra about th­ese usu­ally im­pos­si­ble con­struc­tions is: ‘‘ I won­der, will they be able to pull it off?’’

McCloud has moved prop­erty TV light years on from Lau­rence Llewe­lyn-Bowen’s lon­grun­ning prop­erty se­ries Chang­ing Rooms. A re­mark­ably en­ter­tain­ing mix­ture of psy­chol­ogy, re­li­gion, de­sign and pretty faces, the show al­tered the face of tele­vi­sion. Air­ing be­fore McCloud ar­rived, it was the first of many pop­u­lar in­stant-fix, low-bud­get makeover shows, even­tu­ally eclipsed by Grand De­signs. It was the fop­pish Llewe­lyn-Bowen, with his mane of per­fectly flam­boy­ant hair, who turned Bri­tain’s TV watch­ers into a na­tion of self-ob­sessed would-be prop­erty de­vel­op­ers. And Chang­ing Rooms also led to many Aus­tralian women be­com­ing ob­sessed with or­gan­is­ing their so-called ‘‘ dis­play’’ cush­ions.

McCloud, while just as ac­ces­si­ble, is more agreeably high­brow, cush­ions and frilly cur­tains rarely mak­ing an ap­pear­ance in his nar­ra­tives. He cam­paigns for ar­chi­tec­ture and de­sign that re­sponds to the peo­ple who use it. He be­lieves the best de­sign re­lates to con­text — land­scape, place and neigh­bour­ing build­ings — and the fun of Grand De­signs is in his con­stant sense of dis­ap­point­ment when the basics are wrong.

Not that he’s in­ter­ested in schaden­freude; his abid­ing idea is to cel­e­brate ar­chi­tec­ture and to look for projects that per­haps will shift the canon a bit. Few TV pre­sen­ters are as adroit as McCloud at pre­sent­ing ideas in a con­densed fash­ion.

In the first episode of the new se­ries he leads us to a build­ing in Ire­land that’s more of a ro­man­tic ob­ses­sion than a co­her­ent dwelling. Ac­tor and singer Sean Si­mons fell in love with derelict Cloon­tykilla Cas­tle in County Roscom­mon when he played there as a boy.

He even­tu­ally bought it with the idea of turn­ing it into a spec­tac­u­lar, the­atri­cal mock­16th-cen­tury home with grand ba­ro­nial hall, lux­ury bed­rooms, sweep­ing stair­cases, wa­ter­spout­ing gar­goyles, jacuzzis in the bat­tle­ments and a huge record­ing stu­dio in the base­ment.

Kevin is drolly amused by the ac­tor’s plans, ‘‘ a heady com­bi­na­tion of his­tory and fan­tasy’’, but al­ready is wor­ried about the pos­si­bil­ity of ‘‘ naff Dis­ney­fi­ca­tion, fak­ery’’.

Si­mons man­ages to bor­row mil­lion just as Ire­land plunges into re­ces­sion, but there’s no ar­chi­tect and seem­ingly no for­mal plans, and the bank’s sur­veyor is sit­ting on his shoul­der. ‘‘ This won’t take eight months,’’ McCloud re­marks to cam­era. ‘‘ More like eight years.’’

The episode is a com­pelling ex­am­ple of just how en­ter­tained we are by the psy­cho­log­i­cal drama of watch­ing peo­ple chase af­ter their deep­est fan­tasies, of watch­ing them as they at­tempt to define just what a home means to them.

As al­ways, McCloud is charm­ingly at ease with his di­rect ad­dress to the ever-present cam­era, quite of­ten in rhap­sodic form. He’s so good at talk­ing on TV, so used to it, that he’s like an ac­tor, skilled in the pre­sen­ta­tion of the self.

So many women I know are car­ry­ing on a love af­fair — a very one-sided one — with McCloud. They just adore the way he climbs lad­ders, wears yel­low gum­boots, lifts a spade in the wet, and is use­ful as well as funny and in­tel­li­gent. Grand De­signs was a cult show for women of a cer­tain age well be­fore it crossed over and be­came main­stream TV. Like so many pop­u­lar pre­sen­ters McCloud makes no de­mands other than to be watched as he de­liv­ers his plea­sur­able ex­pe­ri­ences. ‘‘ SKILL with­out imag­i­na­tion is crafts­man­ship and gives us many use­ful ob­jects such as wick­er­work pic­nic bas­kets,’’ Tom Stop­pard once said. ‘‘ Imag­i­na­tion with­out skill gives us mod­ern art.’’

He also said, per­haps chan­nelling the great Ge­orge Burns, that it is not hard to un­der­stand mod­ern art: ‘‘ If it hangs on a wall it’s a paint­ing, and if you can walk around it, it’s a sculp­ture.’’

Well, if you are as con­fused as Stop­pard, not only by the no­tion of con­tem­po­rary art but also the ab­surdly com­plex, jar­gon-laden way that in­sid­ers talk about it, then An­drew Frost’s new two-part se­ries, The A-Z of Con­tem­po­rary Art, is the show for you. In Bri­tain re­cently The Guardian, in at­tempt­ing to clear things up a bit, gave this ex­am­ple of so-called art-speak: ‘‘ Com­bin­ing rad­i­cal no­tions of per­for­ma­tiv­ity and the body as lim­i­nal space, my prac­tice in­ter­ro­gates the the­o­ret­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions of al­ter­mod­ernism.’’ You can see the prob­lem; lim­i­nal space in­deed.

As Frost, an art critic, writer, broad­caster and lec­turer, sug­gests at the start of this droll se­ries, most of us haven’t a clue about the dif­fer­ence be­tween new and old me­dia, can’t tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween a bi­en­nale and a tri­en­nale, and ‘‘ no­tions’’ leave us baf­fled. To say noth­ing of lim­i­nal space. (It’s ap­par­ently the place of tran­si­tion, when all pre­vi­ous ideas of your­self are re­leased and new ones are open for ex­plo­ration. So there you go.)

Frost’s show is a kind of amus­ing A-to-Z guide­book start­ing in the first episode with A to K: Artists and Bi­en­nales, the mean­ing of Con­tem­po­rary, the art of Draw­ing, a list of Ex­cep­tions and Fakes, all kinds of Gal­leries, art His­tory and Ideas, Junk and throw­away Kitsch. The sec­ond episode con­tin­ues in this vein, cov­er­ing among other no­tions (we are get­ting the hang) Mod­ernism, Post­moder­nity, Queer the­ory and, fi­nally, Zeit­geist.

In the first episode Frost, dressed in a black suit and crisp open-necked white shirt, and fash­ion­ably stub­bled around the chops, also de­codes ex­am­ples of the dreaded Art­speak; looks at one of con­tem­po­rary art’s favourite themes, the Body; and at what he terms the Ev­ery­day, where even brush­ing your teeth may be con­sid­ered art.

There’s even a fast blast through art his­tory, end­ing with post­mod­ernism, all irony, pas­tiche and ap­pro­pri­a­tion. It’s very witty, stylishly di­rected by Scott Otto An­der­son with some strik­ing im­ages from cinematographer Nino Tam­burri and full of dry, clear think­ing about some con­fus­ing ideas. Frost is thoughtful, ami­able and oc­ca­sion­ally mor­dant, though any sar­casm is de­liv­ered with an im­pres­sively dead­pan face and un­in­flected de­liv­ery.

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