The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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


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

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