Sydney Morning Herald Column

Museum of Contemporary Art: Making it New

Published October 10, 2009
Raquel Ormella, I’m worried this will become a slogan, 1999–2002, Double-sided banner, sewn wool and felt, 220 x 200 cm

“Have you noticed that maps are like newspapers, shirts and obsessions? Once you’ve unfolded them there’s no way you can get them folded up again.” Fred Vargas
‘Maps and obsessions’ could serve as a subtitle for the range of work currently on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art. On the top floor one finds Louisa Bufardeci’s imaginative reconstructions of the map of the world as a floor plan; and as an organic pattern resembling a bush upon which countries hang like coloured leaves. One floor below, Making it New, brings together eighteen Australian artists in a show that explores some neglected by-ways in contemporary art. Many of the works in this survey have an obsessive dimension, as if the artists had no choice but to pursue an idea to a happy or hapless conclusion.
It is almost platitudinous to say all art is a mixture of calculation and instinct, or perhaps an ongoing battle between these two poles. Nietzsche famously divided creative impulses into the Apollonian and the Dionysian, the first privileging the head, the second the heart. In Bufardeci’s case, the head is firmly in charge, as many of her works begin with a spreadsheet. She draws on statistical data relating to various populations, their needs and preferences, to create installations that are really disguised graphs and charts.
While some of this data relates to ethnicity, income or productivity, Bufardeci may also utilise statistics on internet usage, smoking, fertility in women or HIV infection. This information is translated into a series of flags, replacing the ideal symbols of nationhood with ones drawn from everyday experience. In her most ambitious installation, Team Joy (2005/09), she creates a corridor in which the countries of the world are represented in the form of coloured stripes. Propped against each stripe is a pole that indicates the level of international aid the country receives. Not much for Australia, but a lot for Bolivia, and so on. The different lengths of pole create an obstacle course for viewers.
This is interesting and clever, although one would have to be a statistician to find it really inspiring. Bufardeci was born in Melbourne in 1969, but has spent much of her career overseas, living in Japan and the United States. Her co-exhibitor in this ‘international pairing’, is Zon Ito (b.1971), who works in a range of media but is chiefly known for his embroidered pieces, and video animations made in collaboration with his wife, Ryoko Aoki. I recently saw Ito’s work in a show called Stitch by Stitch at the Teien Art Museum in Tokyo, where he was described as an artist who has achieved “a rare eminence” in the use of needle and thread.
This may suggest a brilliant dexterity, but not in the world of contemporary art, where de-skilling is more highly valued than technical expertise. The extreme case is photography, where figures such as Wolfgang Tillmans have become famous for deliberately inept, boring pictures. Ito’s embroidered drawings are not in that category, but they are slight and ambiguous to the point of frustration. The artist teases us with a scattering of loosely defined forms that rarely add up to a composition. It is as though he is trying to work against the mechanical nature of embroidery, making it as tentative as a pencil sketch.

In both the embroidered and animated works there is a mixture of precise, identifiable imagery and more abstract doodling. A picture such as Slanted Woods (2006), for example, reads like a pattern made from the truncated outlines of trees embedded in an improbable field of yellow. Like so many of Ito’s pieces, there is none of the coherence that distinguishes a successful work of decorative art, and nothing that hints at a more profound intention. It is an achievement of sorts to attain such a state of aesthetic limbo, but after a while the imagination feels hungry for something a little more concrete.
That urge may be satisfied by Making it New, the latest in a series of focus exhibitions on contemporary Australian art. It follows on from Cross-Currents of 2007, put together by the late John Stringer, a show that successfully blended old and new, known and unknown.
Making it New is the first project undertaken by new MCA curator, Glenn Barkley, and it demonstrates a certain freshness of vision.
Some curators strive so hard to appear objective in their choices that their shows are no more than a roll-call of fashionable names. They take no chances and show no vestige of personal taste. Barkley is different: he has an obvious preference for works that are rough-and-ready, handmade and edgy. He likes the art of amateurs and Outsiders. Shock, horror! He even seems to like painting.
I’m not so convinced, however, by the “curatorial premise” behind this exhibition, which is based on Ezra Pound’s famous slogan: “Make it New.” This was such a well-worn rallying cry among Modernists that it is hard to take it seriously at a time when the demand for newness has given way to a frivolous craving for novelties. “Make it Real” would seem to be a more imperative demand for today’s artists.
Where does one draw the line between what is real and what is conspicuously contrived? Each of us would probably find a different place for that imaginary threshold. I’ve never been impressed by Linda Marrinon’s 1982 painting that consists of a green field with a smeared mess of paint, and the word: “sorry!” but Barkley says it is “one of the iconic works in the MCA collection.” Presumably it sends out the kind of message that makes viewers feel better about their visit to the museum
There are other items in this show that are just as cloying, such as Lou Hubbard’s grunge videos, which manage to feel both banal and sinister. Or Raquel Ormella’s banners that say: “I’m worried I’m not political enough”, or “I’m wondering whether this says anything.” There is practically an epidemic of slogans, including works by Matt Hunt of Perth and Jon Campbell of Melbourne, who has made a trademark of the simple affirmative: “Yeah”.

A set of VB cartons by Alison Alder makes one think, inevitably, of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, shown at the Stables gallery, New York, in 1964. This famous exhibition was assigned an earth-shattering importance by the bombastic American critic Arthur C. Danto, who saw it as the moment when distinctions between high and low culture were dissolved. The most one can say about Alder’s ironic addition to this tale is that she brings an Australian flavour to the mix.
One of the best features of these MCA surveys is that they have included artists of all age brackets, rejecting the common idea that contemporary art is restricted to the so-called ‘cutting edge’. Making it New includes a selection of work by Ken Whisson (b.1927) that ranges over the past 35 years. The pictures from the seventies seem more original, and far more radical, than almost anything being made today. Two later works are startling in their uncharacteristic realism, as Whisson samples and copies photos from the newspapers
It was also pleasing to see work by artists such as Bob Jenyns, Neil Taylor, Ruth Waller, Toni Warburton and Micky Allan, who must have been surprised to be invited into an MCA show. Jenyns’s wooden sculptures look amazingly fresh, as does Tom Moore’s madcap glass installation, filled with creatures that seem like mutant offspring of the ornaments in grandma’s china cabinet.
Indigenous art is represented by the innovative works of Ken Thaiday Snr., Marrnyula Mununggurr, and the conceptual pieces of Archie Moore, which display an off-beat humour that is characteristic of the Brisbane mob. In collaboration with the people of Thuringowa, outside of Townsville, Alwin Reamillo has made a helicopter out of crab shells, bamboo and an old Hill’s Hoist.
The odd man out is probably Khaled Sabsabi, Lebanese-Australian, whose work is immersed in the tragic politics of the Middle East. Sabsabi’s installation of banners of political parties taking part in the Lebanese elections, and a video of a Hassan Nasrallah victory speech, are “Australian” art only by dint of the artist’s passport. The assumption is that in the era of globalisation we can no longer ignore events in other parts of the world as if they had nothing to do with our lives. On the other hand, we might also be thankful that we live in a country where politics is not conducted with guns. Despite all the posturing of the contemporary art scene there is something reassuring about those artistic obsessions that are not political obsessions.
Making it New, Museum of Contemporary Art, 10 Sep 2009 – 11 November, 2009
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, October 10, 2009