Regular readers must be starting to wonder in what part of the world they’ll find themselves from week to week. I’m starting to wonder myself. Recently I was in Seoul for the 10th Korean International Art Fair, today I’m on a plane coming back from Shanghai.
Without wanting to sound glib, the very fact that there are increasing opportunities to travel and write about art events in other cities and countries is a reflection of the changing nature of the business. Not long ago it was a noteworthy event when an exhibition of Australian art travelled overseas, or an Australian artist exhibited with a foreign gallery. Nowadays these are commonplace occurrences.
The fabled insularity of Australian art – a subject much discussed by writers such as Robert Hughes and Bernard Smith – seems to be disappearing fast. To recap, the argument was always about the degree to which Australian culture was “isolated” from the rest of the world. Because of our geographical distance from the wellsprings of European culture it was argued that Australian artists had less opportunities to study the great masterpieces, and were obliged – pioneer fashion – to forge their own paths. This was a way of accounting for both the originality, and the provincialism, of local art.
With increasing ease of travel and speed of communications, such ideas have grown threadbare. Neither can it be said that Europe provides an ongoing model for Australian culture. Not only is there a vastly enhanced appreciation of indigenous culture, our major cities have become Asianised to such an extent that a time-traveller from say, 1960, would be amazed by the ethnic diversity he encountered.
As the world keeps shrinking, Australia has grown especially close to Asia, that teeming continent once viewed as a threat. Our integration into the region is not to be measured simply in terms of mineral exports and opportunities for Australian businesses, but in an expanding network of cultural exchanges.
It was a mark of progress that Australia was the featured country at the latest KIAF, with 16 galleries, mostly from Sydney and Melbourne, exhibiting the work of some 60 local artists. The galleries’ participation was assisted by Austrade who insisted that only the work of Australian artists be included. This was a slight handicap for dealers such as Annandale Galleries, Barry Keldoulis, and Conny Dietzschold, who also represent many international artists. As Bill Gregory from Annandale argued, it would have been useful to include a work by Leon Kossoff or William Kentridge, if only to show potential Korean buyers that Australia is part of a global scene, not a purely self-contained market. Conny Dietzschold’s display, which included names such as Ehman, Kotai, Papadmas and Terstappen, showed the diversity that exists under the ‘Australian’ label.
Every art fair is a gamble, but most of the dealers who went to KIAF had only the vaguest ideas about the Korean market. It was an open question whether to show one or two artists, or a dozen? Large or small works? Blue chip or inexpensive items? The other great unknown was the viability of Aboriginal art, and while galleries such as Annandale, Alcaston and Mossenson had eye-catching exhibitions by Gunybi Ganambarr, Sally Gabori and Gladdy Kemarre respectively, they struggled to attract customers.
This hesitation among buyers was echoed across the board, with only a minority of galleries reporting strong sales. Niagara Galleries congratulated themselves on shifting a painting by Ken Whisson, who may be classed as an acquired taste even among Australian collectors. Nicky Ginsberg and Catherine Asquith both had successful fairs selling less expensive works. Dianne Tanzer reported a sell-out with Victoria Reichert’s small paintings.
The outstanding result came with Brisbane’s Jan Murphy Gallery doing a roaring trade in paintings by Ben Quilty, who is having the kind of year most artists only dream about. Even the most unlikely canvases, such as a large “very rude” portrait of artist, Luke Sciberras, engaged in an unspeakable act, went waltzing out the door. One mitigating factor was that many purchasers had come over from Australia hot on the Quilty trail, but there were also sales and interest from Koreans.
Quilty asked one Korean collector what he liked about the works, and was told: “They’re thick and they’re colourful” – terms we apply more readily to our politicians.
Most of the Australian dealers treated KIAF as a familiarisation exercise, and a number will be tempted to come back next year, with or without Austrade assistance. One of the most interesting aspects of this event was that it afforded a glimpse of a completely different kind of art market.
When Christies closed up shop in Australia, judging their profits to be insufficient, they redoubled their efforts in Korea, where there is incredibly strong support for local work among private and corporate collectors encouraged by a liberal approach to capital gains tax.
The leading Korean art dealers, such as Arario, Gana, Hyundai, Pyo, Wellside and Kukje, are corporate in nature, with galleries that resemble museums of contemporary art. Artists are shown on an exhibition-by- exhibition basis, not as part of a contracted stable.
Most of the Korean dealers exhibit works by a range of high-profile international and local artists, although some of the latter are so well supported that their art has no need to travel beyond Korean shores. This is the case with two leading artists I visited last week: Park Seo-bo, the undisputed ‘godfather’ of Korean art, whose rigorous, elegant abstract paintings are in every local museum; and Bae Bien-u, a celebrated photographer. Sitting in a bar with Mr Bae, it was amazing to find people coming up to him to ask for autographs.
The work of Park and Bae is good enough to be shown anywhere in the world, but the degree of reverence they enjoy at home has no equivalent among living Australian artists. Margaret Olley was probably our last popular artist-idol.
I’ve said before that Australia could learn a lot from the way Korea supports and markets its own culture – an activity that extends across the board, from the visual arts to cinema, K-Pop, TV soap operas, literature, software and other enterprises. By contrast, Australia’s official attitude is hesitant, stop-start, and often confused. Too frequently we fall back on Aussie kitsch and cheerful propaganda to make a good impression. This only tends to patronise Asian audiences and undermine our own qualities. One of the biggest problems is that those who are employed to promote Australian culture abroad seem to know almost nothing about it. Even when something is achieved, such as an exhibition or a successful artist residency, nothing is heard back in Australia.
It is easy to focus on narrow bureaucratic goals and lose all sight of the product, let alone the need to communicate with a broader public. It’s not funding levels but our overall strategic outlook that requires rethinking. Things may be gradually improving, but one still encounters that familiar dance of three steps forward, two steps back.