Mix Tape 80s

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christopher Allen

IF the motto of the 1980s was that greed is good, the casino pro­pos­als for the old wharf area in Syd­ney once known as the Hun­gry Mile sug­gest it is equally ap­pli­ca­ble to the present day. The his­tory of the place, con­cealed be­hind the fig leaf of an Abo­rig­i­nal name — re­brand­ing is what we call it now — adds a fur­ther layer of irony to a con­fu­sion in which some peo­ple who should know bet­ter have com­pro­mised their rep­u­ta­tions.

The de­bate at the mo­ment seems to turn on the ar­chi­tec­tural qual­i­ties of the var­i­ous pro­pos­als and whether it is or is not ap­pro­pri­ate to place a bil­lion­aire’s build­ing in the mid­dle of what could be open space, at the same time com­pro­mis­ing the over­all de­sign of the CBD, which was pre­vi­ously based on

NGV Ian Pot­ter, Melbourne, to Septem­ber 1 hav­ing the tallest build­ings in the cen­tre and shorter ones at the pe­riph­ery.

But even th­ese con­cerns, le­git­i­mate as they are, can dis­tract us from the real ob­jec­tion. We have been told that we need an out­stand­ing ar­chi­tec­tural state­ment for this site, some­thing out of the or­di­nary, a mon­u­ment and a land­mark like the Syd­ney Opera House. But the plain fact is that a casino, a place of greed and fu­tile il­lu­sion, can never be a great build­ing. Great build­ings are not sim­ply a mat­ter of good de­sign. They be­gin as the ex­pres­sion of higher val­ues to which we are in­vited to aspire. Cathe­drals and tem­ples are the mod­els; the fact that opera houses and art gal­leries have as­sumed this role dur­ing the past cen­tury and more is ques­tion­able in its own way, but at least th­ese ed­i­fices are ded­i­cated to the preser­va­tion, dis­play and per­for­mance of things we con­sider to be beau­ti­ful and sig­nif­i­cant.

The val­ues of a so­ci­ety are ex­pressed not only in their dec­la­ra­tions of prin­ci­ple, but more sub­tly and in­vis­i­bly in what they don’t say, in what they as­sume or take for granted. This is one of the hard­est things to define in the his­tor­i­cal study of any pe­riod — the mass of val­ues and ideas and habits that go with­out say­ing or no longer need to be said. And some­thing very strange has hap­pened to us: we no longer seem to re­alise that propos­ing a casino as mon­u­ment is an oxy­moron.

Per­haps we have be­come in­ured to the vul­gar­ity of the enor­mous casino com­plexes in Syd­ney and Melbourne. But there is also a deeper change in the un­der­ly­ing men­tal­ity of the Western world com­pared with the at­ti­tudes of the 60s and 70s; and af­ter all the ide­al­ism, flower power and as­sorted po­lit­i­cal ide­olo­gies of those decades, that change first man­i­fested it­self overtly as an ag­gres­sive re­asser­tion of ma­te­ri­al­ist val­ues in the 80s.

This is the pe­riod cov­ered by an ex­hi­bi­tion at the National Gallery of Vic­to­ria, whose ti­tle, Mix Tape 80s, evokes the kind of an­thol­ogy record­ing of favourite songs that John Cu- sack’s en­gag­ing but rather hope­less char­ac­ter is con­stantly mak­ing for girl­friends in the film High Fidelity (2000) — even the ref­er­ence to tape re­calls a tech­nol­ogy that young peo­ple are un­likely to have en­coun­tered. But in this case, the anal­ogy serves as an im­plicit ex­cuse for a lazily con­ceived ex­hi­bi­tion.

The show could have been in­ter­est­ing and use­ful if it had in­volved a long over­due crit­i­cal re-eval­u­a­tion of an im­por­tant pe­riod in Aus­tralian art.

In­stead the cu­ra­tors have in­dulged in a nos­tal­gia trip through the art fash­ions of yes­ter­year. You may feel nos­tal­gic if you were there at the time, and oth­er­wise you may won­der why some of the more fee­ble items are dis­played at all. I was there, but to me the ex­hi­bi­tion felt like one of those dispir­it­ing re­u­nions where all the most bor­ing peo­ple have turned up and none of the in­ter­est­ing ones, and from which you re­turn with­out hav­ing had a sin­gle in­ter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tion.

Some of the artists in­cluded have re­mained of sig­nif­i­cance, such as Mike Parr, Imants Tillers, Bill Hen­son or Peter Booth. Oth­ers — whom it would un­for­tu­nately be li­bel­lous to name — were never any good and have not im­proved with the pas­sage of time. In the mid­dle are a num­ber who were of mi­nor in­ter­est then and re­main much the same to­day, ex­cept that they have slowly faded to make an even more ten­u­ous claim on our at­ten­tion, and pre­sum­ably will con­tinue to de­cline slowly into even­tual obliv­ion.

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