As one visual art showcase closes and another opens, asks: what’s in it for our contemporary artists?
Almost 30 years ago, when Robert Hughes signed off on The Shock of the New, his landmark television series about the evolution of contemporary art, the celebrated art critic didn’t say how he thought art would evolve but he did say he was sure it would continue to exist.
After eight television hours, Hughes concluded: “The basic project of art is to make the world whole comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and its occasional nastiness — not through argument but through feeling. And then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way to pass through feeling into meaning”.
Hughes’s theory was developed in an era of media saturation, when broadcasting was the primary means of mass communication and stimulating discussion. Hughes prophesied that, despite the mass-media age, visual art — pictures, sculptures and its emerging forms — would still have a role in society.
Fast-forward 27 years to our interconnected world and the march of visual art has continued with unabating verve and gusto. Of the socalled top 20 biennales and triennials listed by Artnet, only six existed when Hughes produced The Shock of the New. The stalwarts are the Venice Biennale and Documenta, in Kassel, Germany; even the Sydney Biennale was longestablished by 1980.
Now every city with serious pretensions of cultural sophistication has a big visual art jamboree somewhere on its calendar. These events are mostly free of charge and always promise to be bigger, brighter and bolder than before. They attract audiences in their thousands, but as artists strive to stand out from their peers and cap- ture the imagination of the masses attracted by the spectacle, what exactly is in it for them?
Biennales pay chosen artists a pitiful few thousand dollars each, and those unable to materially survive on the heady kudos of inclusion supplement their fees with public grants or philanthropy. Often their total payment covers only the cost of their materials and they forgo the notion of actually being paid for their labour.
They may hope to sell the artworks after the event but heaven help them selling the most interesting works — who wants to buy a graveyard tour or a cage of mynah birds?
Melbourne artist Tom Nicholson says it’s occasionally struck him, when he’s discussing an artwork for a biennale-type show, that he is usually the only person sitting around the room who isn’t on a salary. In the public art show equation, he is the primary producer and yet sometimes he doesn’t even get paid.
In Sydney just this month one major jamboree, Art Month Sydney, is being packed away as another, The National, is about to open. Art Month is an unashamedly commercial exercise that was launched in 2009 by commercial galleries to brace against the expected downturn of the global financial crisis. The annual event now incorporates 89 art dealers and the hundreds of artists they represent, participating in more than 200 events designed to imbue the market with sizzle and to boost sales.
Art gallery owner Michael Reid co-founded Art Month because, he says, “it was really obvious we were going into a much tougher time”.
As the galleries finalise their accounts, take down the posters and return the hired furniture, some of their artists have moved straight on to work with the three institutions hosting The National: the Art Gallery of NSW, the Museum
THE BASIC PROJECT OF ART IS TO MAKE THE WORLD WHOLE COMPREHENSIBLE, TO RESTORE IT TO US IN ALL ITS GLORY AND ITS OCCASIONAL NASTINESS
of Contemporary Art and performance and gallery space Carriageworks.
Organisers of The National, which opens on Thursday, have committed to three of the events, with the last one scheduled for 2021. The aim is to showcase what Australian artists are doing now. Curators for each institution have commissioned 48 artists to show new works, and unlike the usual biennale model, the institutions funding The National pay a fee plus an agreed amount for materials. The artists say the fees are fair and generous by international standards, though the MCA and AGNSW refused to reveal exactly what they are.
Heath Franco used a scholarship to travel across the US last year where he recorded the reactions of Americans to outlandish costumes and characters he took into public malls. Franco’s hyper-exaggerated, non-narrative video Life is Sexy will screen at Carriageworks and promises to assault viewers’ sensibilities.
At AGNSW, Tom Nicholson will exhibit a mosaic that references the Shellal Mosaic at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, which he proposes should be returned to Palestine.
A century ago Australian soldiers fighting Ottoman troops in Palestine uncovered a floor mosaic in a trench. The mosaic, part of a 6thcentury Christian church, was removed by the soldiers and became an early part of the War Memorial collection.
Nicholson has been grappling with the morality of the mosaic still being in Australia, and his artwork in The National proposes a repatriation of it to its original hilltop near Gaza, replaced at the War Memorial with his work, which references both it and an art deco version created by Napier Waller that sits nearby.
Sydney artist Claudia Nicholson, who is no relation to Tom, will produce a brightly coloured sawdust sculpture that evokes the life of Selena Quintanilla, the Latina singer who was gunned down in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1995. The ephemeral work will be ceremoniously walked over to the accompaniment of live music. A video recording of this act will be created and then displayed on a loop at Carriage-
Agatha Gothe-Snape at the Art Gallery of NSW; Christian Thompson, above right; the critic Robert Hughes, below