FOLLOW THE MONEY
Mix Tape 80s
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.