Letters to The Adelaide Advertiser:
“I am absolutely apalled and disgusted how this sculpture can be classed as ‘art’.”
“I, for one, will not be going to see this outrageous monstrosity.”
“The picture of a horse hanging, with no head, displayed as art was disgusting. I will never again visit the Art Gallery if they believe this sort of thing is art.”
“Mr. Mitzevich should be sacked on the spot for presenting such a perverse and evil piece of so-called art.”
It seems amazing to read such comments in this day and age, when the shock value of art has worn so thin. Even the debate about what is and isn’t “art”, has been done to death. But not, apparently, in Adelaide.
Adelaide has a reputation as a conservative and hide-bound place. It likes the idea of a gallery but tends to take it for granted. Such attitudes are reflected in the treatment given to the Art Gallery of South Australia, which has the second biggest collection of any art museum in the country, but one of the smallest government stipends. People like to talk about the gallery but rarely go there.
Less than three years into his directorship, Nick Mitzevich has planted a few bombs intended to shake the city out of its comfortable torpor. A complete re-hang of the Elder Wing, home of the Australian art collections, has been followed by a radical overhaul of the Melrose Wing, where international art is shown.
Inspired by the thematic hangs undertaken at museums such as Tate Modern, and by David Walsh’s brave and startling Museum of Old and New Art, in Hobart, Mitzevich and curator, Jane Messenger, have turned the old order on its head. Under a series of loose titles such as Memento Mori, Present Realities, Seduced, The New Classical, and (believe it or not) The Human Condition, they have combined Old Masters and antiquities with the most confronting examples of international contemporary art. This activist approach extends to the walls themselves, painted in dark but neutral shades, or covered in densely patterned wall paper.
The work that is causing all the controversy is Berlinde De Bruyckere’s We Are All Flesh, a sculpture of two full sized horse carcasses hanging from the ceiling. It has been positioned for maximum effect so it can be seen through a doorway as one enters the revamped wing. It is a powerful work that should give every viewer the jolt that Mitzevich is seeking.
What is striking about the letters to The Advertiser is that all the angry comments are in response to a photo of the sculpture. The writers threaten not to go to the gallery, but judging by the statistics this is an idle threat. Very few of them ever pass through its portals.
Mitzevich knows this kind of controversy can only boost attendences. During his time in charge at the AGSA he has slashed advertising budgets and increased attendences significantly. By contrast, the National Gallery of Australia, under the directorship of a distinguished predecessor at the AGSA, Ron Radford, has spent millions on wraparounds, full-page spreads, and advertorials. None of this expensive propaganda is as effective as simple word-of-mouth. Audiences need to have their imaginations actively engaged rather than be fed bits of trivial information like battery hens.
The pages devoted to De Bruyckere’s sculpture in The Advertiser have cost the AGSA nothing, and have brought in a horde of visitors eager to see the work for themselves. Once seen, the new hang of the Melrose Wing is sufficiently diverting to encourage repeat visitation.
If Mitzevich was indulging in mere sensationalism this achievement would be less notable, but there is a case to be made for every work in the new hang. Standing in those rooms recently, I watched the way viewers responded: first with open-mouthed amazement, then with wrinkled brow, and finally with a smile and a wave to a friend – “Come and look at this!”