In 1942 Peggy Guggenheim opened her Art of this Century gallery in New York, designed by the Austrian architect, Frederick Kiesler. The gallery’s Abstract Room featured paintings suspended in mid-air. A Surrealist Room had concave walls, from which pictures were cantilevered on wooden joints made from sawn-off baseball bats. In a Kinetic Room the viewer turned a wheel to view reproductions of work by Marcel Duchamp. One critic compared the effect to Coney Island, another saw “a penny-arcade peep show”. Even Philip Rylands, the present Director of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, says the gallery evoked “the ambience of the funfair”.
Sixty-eight years later, in steamy Brisbane, the funfair is still the image that springs to mind in describing 21st Century: Art in the First Decade, at the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA). Featuring 200 works by 140 artists, from more than 40 countries, this is a Clayton’s Biennale, with all but a handful of pieces drawn from the permanent collection of the Queensland Art Gallery.
The fun fair idea is sustained by works such as Carsten Höller’s Left/right slide, which allows viewers to shoot down a twisting plastic tube from the first floor to the ground. It’s also there in eye-catching pieces such as Wang Qingsong’s China Red, a collection of handmade signs on pink paper that occupies the left-hand side of GoMA’s vast central hall. It’s in Olafur Eliasson’s The cubic structural evolution project, which allows viewers to play for hours with white Lego blocks; and in Bharti Ker’s The skin speaks a language of its own, which features a life-sized elephant made of fiberglass decorated with tiny repetitive patterns.
Perhaps the most surprising piece is Céleste Bourgier-Mougenot’s From here to ear (v.13), a room-sized installation that uses live finches to create music by perching on a series of special bars, chirping, and fluttering from nest to nest. This gives a peculiarly literal twist to Messiaen’s use of bird song in musical composition. In Bourgier-Mougenot’s work the birds are the composers.
These and a range of other large-scale works are the pieces that visitors to this show will remember most vividly. Terry Smith, late of Sydney University, now a professor of contemporary art in Pittsburg, would probably characterise them as “retro-sensationalist”. Judging by his essay in the catalogue, Smith – like most of the other contributors – takes a dim view of the funfair. On the whole, the essayists prefer works that are political in inspiration and short on visual interest.
The strength of 21st Century is that it includes enough spectacular pieces to keep the average viewer engaged and entertained. The abiding weakness is a willingness to allow a large part of the show, and virtually the entire catalogue, to become mired in the theoretical and political complexities of contemporary art, as defined by the tortuous logic of secondary intellectuals.
By ‘secondary’ I mean that tribe of academics, curators and critics who take their lead from much greater thinkers. This means that ideas and terminology coined by figures such as Giorgio Agamben, Slavoj Zizek, and even Jean Baudrillard, are recycled holus-bolus in uninspired, jargon-laden texts that apply concepts to artists like decorations hung on a Christmas Tree. Add a smattering of Deleuze and Guattari (“the fold”, “lines of flight”) a soupcon of Nicolas Bourriaud (“relational aesthetics”), and you have an utterly indigestible anthology. Of nine essayists, one might only appreciate Ian MacLean, who sticks to the topic heroically in his essay on Aboriginal art; and to a certain extent, Claire Bishop and Kobena Mercer, who do manage to offer a few insights. Juliana Engberg is a fluent writer but has nothing to say.
As for the rest, they are living testaments to the pseudo-seriousness that ensures so many large contemporary art exhibitions are packed with unlovable junk. There are numerous passages that cry out for quotation, but I’ll settle for one from Manuel J. Borja-Villel, who talks about texts being “somewhat consecrated, absolute and exclusive.” The only saving grace is that this essay may have been translated from Spanish directly into Jargon.
As for Terry Smith, his exciting new job does not appear to have improved his prose style. Is he being ironic when he laments critical generalities such as “these times”, right after giving us the big cliché: “these uncertain times”? Is he kidding when he writes that ‘the contemporary’ is “radically under-theorised”? Is he aware that complaining about “a culture declining into decadence” sounds like a piece of unreconstructed Marxist cant? Will he never stop writing essays made up of rhetorical questions?
The major theoretical insight of Smith’s essay is that ‘the contemporary’ is defined by its contemporaneity. Any poor fool might imagine ‘the contemporary’ simply refers to the art being made today, but apparently the term requires a Kabbalistic exegesis.
The futility of so much of the prose attached to this exhibition will go unnoticed because few readers will feel obliged to wade their way through the catalogue and its contradictions. It is a little premature for writers to “relinquish the idea of a romantic genius” when so many contemporary works are vitally dependent on the concept. To give only one example: if you or I turn the lights off in a room it is a utilitarian gesture. For Martin Creed it is a conceptual art work. If you or I cook a curry it is a meal, but for Rirkrit Tiravanija it is an exercise in relational aesthetics.
The difference is that figures such as Creed and Tiravanija are treated as romantic geniuses that only have to nominate a gesture as “art”, and curators and critics start genuflecting.
I’ve dwelt on the catalogue for so long because the QAG has presented this volume as an important scholarly contribution to the field of contemporary art, but instead of a circuit diagram they have given us an omelette. A good essay has a feeling of necessity, a bad one reads like a painful attempt to reach a word limit. A successful work of art is open to a variety of interpretations; a poor one is mono-dimensional, even if it relates to some socially significant issue.
Regardless of whether an artist uses words or images, the aim is to get a viewer to think, then think again. If the initial experience of a work is so humdrum that the viewer walks straight past, it hardly matters if there is a profound concept to be extracted. Dullness only appeals to those snobs who pride themselves on being ‘in the know’, or those motivated by a kind of professional masochism. I go through the motions, but have never learned to enjoy the feeling of being ideologically bludgeoned. As someone like Zizek knows, profundity is not incompatible with entertainment – he even sprinkles his lectures with dirty jokes.
The only practical way of appreciating 20th Century is to ignore the catalogue, walk past many dull and worthy works, and enjoy those pieces that provide a fabulous spectacle or a display of rare wit. Fortunately the show is big enough and diverse enough to provide numerous highlights. For instance, there is Paola Pivi’s One Love, a photo that brings together a collection of pure white animals in a grassy field. The image is startling, but inevitably we find ourselves reflecting on the way that ‘whiteness’ is specially privileged in our culture.
Mitra Tabrizian’s City, London, an image well-chosen for the catalogue cover, shows a group of men in suits. They are all bankers employed by J.P. Morgan – a broad mix of ethnic identities united in a vision of corporate uniformity. The image suggests the triviality of issues such as race, when business imposes an even more crushing set of conventions.
A similar idea is at work in Tony Albert’s Sorry, in which the word is encrusted with kitsch bric-a-brac that treats Aboriginal people like garden gnomes. It puts Kevin Rudd’s historic apology in context, as a symbolic gesture that did little to change popular perceptions or bring any practical benefits to Aboriginal communities.
Such works are genuinely thought-provoking – bright moments in the intellectual fog that surrounds this show. There is so much to like about the way the Brisbane galleries are developing that one may overlook the attempts at high seriousness, and savour the energy and adventure of the place. There is evidence to suggest that the QAG could be a leader in contemporary art, not simply a follower of international trends. The gallery has shown its willingness to take chances and make brave, expensive purchases. All it needs now is the courage to stand against the prevailing currents and temper its enthusiasm with a more exacting discrimination.
Published for The Sydney Morning Herald, January 8, 2011
21st Century: Art in the First Decade
Gallery of Modern Art, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane Until 26 April.