Sunday 25 January 2009

On Yinka Shonibare @ The MCA

Walking through the Yinka Shonibare retrospective at Sydney's MCA you have the overwhelming sense of something clever being done, you know this because you're told it repeatedly.  This comes less from the content of the works than the context, "the legacy of European colonialism, class structures and social justice" as its themes are described is serious stuff.  Who wants to be on the wrong side of the fence on any of those?  There's an awful lot of biography that you're asked to ingest with Shonibare, Anglo-African childhood, boarding schools, paralysis, somehow all of these formative influences give meaning and depth to what's presented within the show.  All this feels oddly manipulative as though we're being given the parameters of how to interpret this art before we get a chance to encounter it.

The first piece you come across in the MCA is 'The Swing (after Fragonard)' a lifesize tableau of the central figure in Jean-Honoré Fragonard's 1767 rococo masterwork "Les hasards heureux de l'escarpolette' .  We see a woman in full flight on a swing, her ancien regime tuille dress rendered in a bright African fabric.  Around her is an arc of greenery that hints at the mise en scene of the of then original.  The most important deviation is that the mannequin is headless, something variously accounted for as a premonition of the guillotine or a device to render race and identity inscrutably ambiguous.  And that's it.  It's big and it's bright and it's about art and it looks meaningful.

The subsequent rooms deliver much the same, the biggest space taken up by 'Gallantry and Criminal Coversation' a piece made up of a full size carriage suspended overhead and groups of lifesize mannequins (again dressed in eighteenth century European costume tailored from African 'Dutch wax' fabric).  The headless mannequins are variously sucking and fucking one another in groups of two or three.  The effect is a little sexy and a lot comical.  What it surely isn't is thought provoking, it looks like exactly what you'd expect an trying to be smart and shocking to produce.

The large scale video work 'Un Ballo in Maschera' has a far greater capacity to charm, each sigh and breath of fabric, the imperfect choreography and the ritualised motions are all entrancing.  The air is heavy with the trappings of meaningful silence but I was left wondering if this was just a case of taking the Africanised aristrocratic costumes to another historical locale, no further meaning or understanding has been added, it's just his 'thing'.

For all it's appearance of profundity and smart alec emptiness the show is beautiful, the Goya pastiche of 'The Sleep Of Reason Produces Monsters (Europe, Australia, Asia, Africa)' is technically accomplished in a CGI way but for once, however heavy handed it might be, I make a connection between Goya's sly hymn to the Enlightenment and the nightmares it brought to the native people of various colonies.

Clever and sensual as they are the show lacks even a hint of empathy and that's the problem.  Shonibare's work must look good on a critic's laptop, but it's devoid of the human, the art historical reference screams 'important' but the ever present quotation marks suck out much of the feeling.  The net effect of all those decapitated mannequins is to deprive us of any point of connection, we see a point made over and over again and the initially sumptuous installations quickly become banal, like someone has locked a wannabe Duchamp in Madame Tussaud's. 

Post-modern conceptual art fetishises paradox, here Shonibare is disappointingly predictable, it presents conflicting signs, removed from context by scale or placement and expects us to applaud its insight and audacity.  Of course the revolutionary value of irony is questionable in a culture like ours, it's a devalued currency and the more often we see it used as a proxy for insight the less effective it is.  The problem with the work in this show is that once the basic paradox is established: the meaning of works from the western canon changes when they come into contact with African subjects, that's pretty much it, the insight remains visual and theoretical,  juxtaposition sets up an intellectual conundrum but never touches on anything human.

In the end I'm not sure it matters.  Just the size of these works tell you that they're made for galleries, they're anything other than personal.  The exhibition as a whole ticks off just about everything that makes the art establishment feel good about itself: subversive sex, post-colonial angst, art history with a knowing wink and big flashy installations.  I don't doubt that Shonibare has an interesting point of view on the shifting cultural plates between Africa and Europe but these trite appropriations look more like a very knowing artist feeding critics a series of art-theory soundbites in the confidence that they'll always bite.

Wednesday 21 January 2009

On Maria Speyer

For almost a month I've been looking at one of Maria Speyer's sketchy, intense, almost lifesize drawings on my lounge wall, and my fascination has increased, become all consuming.  Works of art become more than images when the scale and te
xture of the physical object is present, Speyer takes an intimate form, the drawing, and expands it.  The bodies are just less than human size and all the more human for it.

Speyer's line is loose and fluid, the figures sinuous, the charcoal almost trembling with intensity.  The most important technique she uses, the heart of this collection , is the building up and accumulation of graphite at the points of the greatest emotional focus, the darkness on fine textured paper becomes a metaphor for thought and communication.  Where a hand hangs in the air trying to capture a thought or two lovers press together our eyes are drawn to the blackness, the seriousness of thought.  The pictures are eloquent in their silence, the vast proportion of the surface untouched.  They are rich with the power of restraint eschewing all unnecessary effect, in doing so their very point becomes stronger.

I'm reminded of Frank Auerbach's kinetic intensity brought together with Giacometti's fluidity.  Speyer's figures achieve a kind of tensile grace through focussing on pressure points rather than every plane and surface.  The overall effect is that a lightness of touch gives an incredible corporeality to the figures, their physicality heightening their emotional resonance.

I love Speyer's art because, whilst it is ostensibly non-narrative, it hints at hidden cause and effect, the absence of the other makes us move in toward the work, it forces us to consider and empathise.  It feels as if Speyer is searching for something essential, her figures are stripped back, hairless, perhaps even skinless, she is using drawing to find what makes us human and that's a very fine aspiration.

After a month we've found the effect of the work on our wall almost meditative, spending time before it has become part of our days, I do hope Maria Speyer continues to create extraordinary work like the 'Negotiations' series, we all deserve to share in her search.

Sunday 18 January 2009

On St Vincent

An hour spent in the company of St Vincent, might be a salutary lesson in the artistic power of niceness.  On an early Sydney evening a slight and elfin figure in a cocktail dress addresses calls for an encore with "Holy cow, you're very sweet".

Annie Clark, the one woman that is the band St Vincent, is neither whimsical nor kooky.  You sense that her music is serious in intent, but her politeness and humour suggests that she doesn't take herself as seriously as she does her art.  And that, dear reader, that lack of posturing, the obsession with what she can do with words and noise tells me why such a short time produces a more moments of transcendence than a those angsty boys posing through their angsty gigs, with their angsty clichés of cool.

Her music's not always easy to describe, for the most part it's her and a drum synth, although for one romantic ballad she takes to a grand piano.  The songs are in a literate folkish chamber pop register but that does so little to actually describe the noise that comes from the stage that it's meaningless.  In a moment she's crackling a line of bluesy torchsong through a 40's microphone, striking a new beat into life from her sequencer and slashing a metallic clatter of guitar across the ballad she sings in a firm but sibilant voice.  The diffuse evening light of the Spiegeltent is the perfect festival venue for her, as her songs take in everything from doo-wop interludes, through hints of chanson and cabaret to a metronomic beat that would have felt at home on the 4AD label in the eighties.

I like St Vincent very much, she's so much better in the china pale flesh than on her debut album, 'Marry Me'.  Both sets contain the same songs but here, in the round, they benefit from no production, their constituent parts jut out clean and clear and she never runs the risk of sounding like anyone else.  And that's what makes St Vincent great, it's easy to see parallels in other art pop women, but each song has a life of its own and enough facets to make comparisons invidious.  'Paris Is Burning' reels in a circus polka, 'Marry Me' is a tender piano lovesong whilst 'Human Racing' swings between scattish poetry and big rasps of guitar.  To hear something so determinedly of itself, so enamoured of the way sounds and words share secrets in unexpected rhythms is the last thing one expects today.  Cast St Vincent against the legion of leaden eighties electro pasticheurs and you realise just what a gift she is.

When she does deliver that gift in her encore she say "This is another lovesong, but don't worry.  It's also sardonic".  I don't think we were ever worried.

Friday 9 January 2009

On The Henson Case

The high farce of last year's stand-off between millionaire aesthetes and provincial philistines, as internationally acclaimed photographer Bill Henson had an exhibition raided by police at the start of a media storm about child pornography and art, ought to have made a delicious and thought provoking read. However, David Marr's book, 'The Henson Case' proves to be simply another round in this intractable bout of snobbery and incomprehension rather than the analysis of the issues raised that we need.

The carefully contrived apoplexy of talkback, tabloids and Today is indeed vile, but we would be wrong to assume that when an issue is taken up by populist demagogues it is immediately invalidated.  The essential problem here is the simple denial in the art world that anyone could actually care about nude photographs of underage children sold in galleries.  At no point in the book does Marr acknowledge that the whole affair is fuelled by anything more than the philistinism and prejudice of the masses indeed dismissing their concerns as "a mishmash of anxieties".

There are issues to be answered.  One can legitimately debate, without being a prude (although this as a tough one since Marr states saying "I'm not a prude" is the surest sign you are),  whether photographing nude children, and presenting that as art, normalises their bodies as objects of desire and whether that is healthy in a society that does have concerns over their sexual exploitation.  The 'porn versus art' polarisation precludes this debate, neither side is willing to have it and it is entirely false for either to suggest they do.

Modern art, and its economies, feeds on the oxygen of transgression.  Ever since the Salon Des Refusés artists, critics and gallery owners alike have taken the breaking of norms, first of aesthetics and then social or moral, to be a mark of both progress and quality.  To be 'dangerous' or 'challenging' is wholly desirable.  This the art world claiming no offence could or should be taken is disingenuous in the extreme.  We ought to ask ourslves if Henson's work would be so valuable or lauded if it did only feature clothed children.

This is where Marr's, and the anti-censorship lobby's, arguments become disingenuous and implicitly deny opposing parties the possibility of any nuanced or subtle objections.  At this point the defence, such as I understand it, descends into farce.  Let us call it the 'Wank Fallacy'.  In short this runs something like:  

  • Does something banal, let's say a shoe, become pornographic if someone masturbates over it?  Clearly not.  Thus ANYTHING that anyone masturbates over is by definition not pornography.
I struggled with that one as well.  Other claims remain wilfully unexamined, the idea that what was good enough for the art of earlier centuries should be good enough for us conveniently ignores that these took place in societies where child labour and pre-pubescent marriage were common, and we probably don't want to resurrect those particular artifacts.  Similarly the argument of the kids willing participation certainly does demonstrate the complexity of the issues, but it also runs uncomfortably close to the 'but she wanted it' defence.

Comedy enters the narrative with Cate Blanchett, make that "Politically committed and beautiful Blanchett".  Seemingly unaware that  most of the nation were guffawing at the preposterous 2020 summit we learn that the group of creative people involved were an organised force.  Cate Blanchett tells us that "2020 had asserted that artists were citizens' said Blanchett' that they had a place at the centre of national life'".  This betrays the sense of entitlement that is so irksome, the arts have become marginalised because of their choice or inability to be relevant.  Marr's chief contempt is reserved for Kevin Rudd, and it's informative to see why, "This was the new scholar Prime minister, the Mandarin man, the leader who had lately consorted with Cate Blanchett at the 202o summit.  But with these remarks on 'Today' Rudd killed Camelot" in short Kevin Rudd has proven himself to be a class traitor.

Class is THE great unspoken theme of the book, the effrontery of  the uneducated, of those who had never registered Henson's existence in the past, the prudery of the religious, how dare any of them pass judgement on what the consensus of a group of rich sophisticates deems to be serious.  Bob Debus offers a rare glimpse of sanity here, pointing out that as a politician he does actually have to respond to the views of vast majority of his constituents.  This is heresy to Marr, elites should stick together and just as they demand the approbation of the masses they deny them the dignity of a voice.

Not even when we hear of QCs, heiresses, publishers and national broadcasters at the Henson opening do we get a hint that this is a very exclusive club, dealing in very expensive commodities.  The operational realities of the art world are only ever dealt with to demonstrate how the moving, storage and appreciation of art are Byzantine rites conferring a priestlike status on their participants.  Never are the commercial realities spoken of, price tags, commissions, super-funds or auction prices don't belong in this world.  With Hensons trading for upward of $20,000 dollars a piece it's hard to imagine a more bizarre omission but people are 'supporters', never customers or investors.  Given the importance of notoriety you would imagine that the whole affair would be money in the bank for his brave supporters. 

And me?  Well I like censorship as little as I like the snobbery and hypocrisy of elites, I find Henson's images beautiful and cliched, a kind of portentous kitsch that is anything but challenging or insightful.  Henson and cohorts are presented as Candides, blithely unaware that they may ever cause offence, which given their experience, exposure to the trajectory of art debate in the last forty years and their very worldly success is difficult to believe.  But this lies at the crux of the issue.  When novelty and transgression are your measure of artistic worth one ought to be willing to expect a heightened and aggressive response from those who hold the norms you seek to break.  To expect otherwise is essentially juvenile, and has its echo in derivative driven financial institutions who want all of the rewards of risk but for the rest of society to pay for its downside.

The Henson affair, or something very like it will happen again.  If the art world desires both a privileged place in the government and shaping of society whist it continues to proclaim 'art pour l'art' and feed on the economics of shock that much is inevitable.

Friday 2 January 2009

On Ocean Without A Shore

If you can you really ought to visit Melbourne's NGV and spend some time with Bill Viola's 'Ocean Without A Shore'.

Those familiar with Viola will recognise some of the the themes, the transience of life and the intensity of the human, and the format, a triptych of video screens in a darkened room.  However the 'Ocean' is deep and moves profundly.

It's important to know that the piece was first staged in The Church of The Oratorio of San Gallo in Venice, at Bienalle, and that the format, three screens, placed here, on plinths set against the walls of a self contained room, were originally set on the altars of that medieval building.  Each screen is as tall as a man and the three are set at right angles from one another, watching from the space in front we can see all three.

On each screen, in an ongoing loop of ninety minutes, we see one figure at a time in the far distance, grey against a grainy black that slowly approach us.  As they draw nearer we start to recognise features, traits and begin to attribute speculative attributes to them, we are drawn in by their slow passage to the foreground and curious about their story, their reticence.  Almost lifesize now, we notice that the grisaille figure is separated from us by a dividing veil, a thin constant curtain of water, as the figure reaches through, brushes against the water, they also break through a wall of light, the effect is prismatic, sparkling, electric.  Once through the curtain, in part or whole, the figures, people now, appear in full colour, high definition.  Each reacts differently, some are elated, others hesitant, some overcome on contact with the world of light an colour.  Each stays a while and then, leaving nothing but an unanswered question of a story they pass back through the curtain and recede into the distance.  As this happens on one screen we realise we are at a different point in a journey on another, or that we are in the presence of two people or alone in the space again, the synchronicities and interactions make us wonder if they are designed or coincidental, if the people who look out from the screens are aware of one another or even us.

The cumulative effect is moving and, at once manages to be both hypnotic and stimulating.  It is an intensely humane experience that manages to be both direct and subtle.

Viola cites a number of sources of inspiration for the work, the title coming from the Andalusian Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi.  He also explains that the people represent ghosts or spirits with the curtain of light and water the threshold between this world and another.  If this is one explanation the power of the work rests in the way it can support so many interpretations.  Perhaps it's fitting that a work so humane and layered should be inspired by one living in Andalucia's convivencia, when Christian, Jew and Muslim lived in more or less harmonic accord to create some of the most remarkable and humane art and literature the world has seen.

Personally I felt I was experiencing a meditation on the individual and his contact with the world around him, between the conscious and subconscious, between the personal and the other.  The effect of each figure breaking through the wall is for them appear to step through the plane of the picture and into our space, their presence is almost physical.  Once through the plane each person is framed from mid though upwards, only a little higher than us, as a result we might be looking through a portal into another room, the other world left behind.  Sometimes two people are 'on our side' and we might read a flicker of recognition, a need to communicate, or perhaps just our own need to place a narrative on these souls as we watch them in their moment in the sun.  And that might be the core of the power of the piece, Viola gives us the raw sodden vulnerability of normal looking people but not their story, we reach out to them and realise that to be human is to need to share out stories.

The occasional Viola piece suffers from an actorly earnestness on the part of the participants, that's happily absent here, the performances, such as there are, are all restrained the emotion crackles in between their presence and our own, it doesn't need to be telegraphed.  Instead there is an aching need for contact, a realisation that although now in our space we are still, essentially, alone unless we reach out.

This might be the best of Viola's work for many years, 'Five Angels For The Millennium" was literally sublime but one suspected it relied on scale for much of its affect, "The Passions" was marred by the odd piece of hammy gurning whilst "The Tristan Project" veered a little toward the pop video fireworks.  In "Ocean Without A Shore" Viola shows his mastery of space, form and content and creates something pregnant with meaning and emotion.  

Sitting in the room I was reminded of both the transcendent magnetism of some of Rothko and the bare naked humanism of Rembrandts portraits, through different means Viola reminds us that there is more, and that we find it as we cross the gap between ourselves and other people.

Thursday 1 January 2009

On Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona...

In 'Stardust Memories' a fan tells Woody Allen's character he loves his films "particularly the early funny ones".  I wonder if one day we'll be talking about the 'older weirder ones'.

After 'Matchpoint' I was expecting another cynical exercise in cloth eared dialogue, European tourism agency chic and Scarlett Johanssen pouting and I wasn't entirely disappointed.

The response to 'Matchpoint' was astounding, a film without chararcters, with unintentionally comical dialogue and a creakingly contrived plot was hailed a 'return to form'.  The, paying, cinemagoers I watched it with guffawed in places where I'm sure Woody hadn't meant us to...  some even stayed until the end and caught the trite and fashionably cynical ending.

This new film at least throws off that misanthropy but manages to be quite cringeingly bad in its own variety of ways.  The new dilemma for Woody Allen seems to be a desire to make light, entertaining movies that still retain some of the intellectual and cultural weight he could bring to the world of the seventies.  What this delivers us is middlebrow travelogues where the only laughs come from the predictable plotting.

As evidence I give you the third person narrative voiceover.  Nothing is more characterisitic of the literary form, and this of Allen's high minded view of his work, but then neither is anything more redolent of a film who's action or characters are failing to tell us what they ought.  The first few minutes of 'Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona' is genuinely strange.  We are introduced to Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johanssen) two American tourists in Barcelona for a month prior to the former's wedding.  What's extraordinary is a narrative voice over that tells us exactly what's happening on screen and what we ought to think of the characters in such a way that we sit expecting to either meet the narrator, have our expectations turned on their heads or perhaps watch an ironic counterpoint to the narrative develop.  Of course nothing of the sort happens.  The narrative's there to point out all the things a clunky script and one-dimensional characters can't.  

Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz (of whom you'll never hear a bad word in this blog) once acted together in the Spanish comedy 'Jamon, Jamon' and thankfully that's what they bring to 'Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona'.  As the seducer of the two Americans and his ex-wife the couple are pantomime Latin artists ("He's a painter.  remember?  He had that feiry relationship with that beautiful woman who was nuts?") and, more than once, you wonder if they're struggling to keep straight faces amidst the histrionics.

Whilst Vicky is placed at the moral centre of the film, ostensibly the plot is about her wrestling with a passion for Juan Antonio (Bardem) in the face of impending marriage, the film undermines itself through cliche.  The choices Vicky is asked to make seem slight and meaningless once we meet her crass and insensitive and crashingly corporate (which is innately bad in Allen's lexicon) husband to be.  Similarly Cristina's feckless faux-hemian slips into an affair and then a lesbian tryst and out again with such vagueness that we can't really be bothered to care.

Allen once made films that were funny as they negotiated a neurotic, liberated, complex culture he understood and was a part of.  What's clear here is that he really doesn't know who or where these characters are.  In lieu of insight he gives us cliches, he gives us portentous dialogue instead of subtext and the picturesque instead of the observational.  Now we have cliches and stereotypes that Hallmark movies might be ashamed of wrapped up in the trappings of middlebrow lifestyle porn, surely the old man's infatuation with Scarlett in the hills of Tuscany can't be too far off.

'Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona' is at heart a fantasy.  On one level a fantasy of love in glamorous upper-middle class bohemia, on another of Woody Allen still being able to make relevant and penetrating films.  It fails as both.

On purpose...

Why seems to be a good place to start.  

Another year of seeing art, reading books and watching movies and finding myself incredulous at the gap between critical response and my own has been fruitful, if frustration can bear fruit that is.  A year of finding responses by cultural critics utterly predictable.  A year with far too much cant, hypocrisy and stupidity to take lying down.  

Art, 'the arts' I suppose, is such a significant part of my life that it's not that strange that one should feel so passionately about a dearth of critical depth, rigour and sensitivity that one feels driven to blog.

Kritique is, then, an antidote to the banality of criticism and a celebration of the transcendence of art.  I can only summarise my own manifesto on art in the words that Joyce gives Stephen Dedalus, when speaking of literature, it is "the eternal affirmation of the spirit of man".  I've believed that for twenty five years now I'm trying to define what that might mean.

Kritique will be:

Honest, fallible, transparent and passionate.  It will try to be much more than that, and one day might even look like a blog...  but you might have to be patient.