Art Essays

Growing up with Goannas

Published June 23, 2012
Mark Tedeschi, Corey Payne, NRL player for Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs

A few months ago I advised a friend not to labour over her blog, but to write smaller, more spontaneous pieces and publish more frequently. Unfortunately, it seems I’m completely incapable of following my own good advice. The perennial gap between theory and practice – or should that be good intentions and reality? – has begun to yawn like an abyss.
Since my last bit of blogging I’ve been to Spain, New Zealand, Hong Kong, China and various parts of Australia – all worthy of a blog or three. But because I’ve been writing art and film pieces, plus various essays and trying to put in time on a book, I’ve let the blogosphere languish.
As of today, I promise to try again.
This week I found myself at the State Library of NSW for the launch of Mark Tedeschi’s photographic exhibition, On Side with the NRL, and a new monograph published by Beagle Press, for which I’ve written a preface.
At this crowded event, Tedeschi said that if anyone had told him two years ago that he’d be taking photographs of rugby league players, and exhibiting them at the State Library, with the Premier making the opening speech, he’d have suggested they invoke the defense of insanity.
Tedeschi happens to be NSW Senior Crown Prosecutor, as well as an enthusiastic photographer. The show was organised by Nicky McWilliam of Eva Breuer Art Dealer, who is herself a full-time lawyer and part-time gallerist. Needless to say, the audience was packed with legal types and celebrity footballers.
In many pictures Tedeschi combined images of a footballer in his team colours with one taken from civilian life. This ‘doppelganger’ approach allowed us to see a different side of these highly paid, over-exposed sporting heroes. It was a congenial idea for the National Rugby League, a body that has grown weary of scandals over the past few years. One of the players – Bulldogs second-rower, Corey Payne – is studying for a Masters in Commerce!
Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that Tedeschi has achieved something remarkable in finding twenty rugby league players who can be portrayed in such a sympathetic, socially cohesive manner. Rugby Union has always been the game for private school boys and white collar professionals. Rugby League, by contrast, has played the useful role of keeping young, working-class testosterone-fuelled males out of gaol, giving them an outlet for their surplus aggression.
It’s a bit much to expect these players to be role models as well. Some of them obviously try harder than others, but there will probably always be stories about NRL players getting drunk, getting into brawls, beating up their girlfriends, etc. It’s almost part of the job description.
I was born and raised in Cessnock in the Hunter Valley, part of Australia’s rugby league heartland, where football was the only polite topic of conversation. In fact, if one couldn’t speak knowledgably about rugby league, you were considered a most uncouth fellow (or in local argot “a poofter”). In Cessnock the local team is the Goannas, known in my day, for a prodigious pack of forwards. Some players were let out of the local corrective centre for the weekend games and reimprisoned afterwards.
I was only a spectator, but Nick Mitzevich, Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, says he used to play on the wing, as a junior with the Kurri Kurri Bulldogs, the Goannas’ neighbours and rivals.
Times are a changin’, and even Cessnock now has a regional gallery. Rugby league itself has parted company with its working class roots, and is a multi-million dollar business that seems to be more concerned with broadcasting rights than with anything happening on the field. Both rugby league and the visual arts have become professionalised in ways that have good and bad connotations.
League’s professionalisation means that the game has become estranged from its traditional supporter bases. Games seem more designed as a forum for beer and betting ads, with musclebound gladiators belting each the on field, and having to behave like angels in their private lives. In the visual arts we admire those contemporary artists who have teams of people making works for them, while they never get their own hands dirty. This is also a case of ‘professionalism’ in action.
But something is lost, in both sport and art, when the activity becomes a business run along lines that might be suggested by management consultants. Mark Tedeschi is a highly professional lawyer, but a kind of super amateur as an artist – in the sense of being someone who truly loves what he does. If art and sport are viewed as only means to an end, then the most valuable parts of the experience are lost. No-one begrudges an artist or a sportsperson any of the financial success that comes their way, but if such activities are not done for love rather than money this is conveyed by ineffable means to an audience. It would be a good discipline to always think of these audiences as fans rather than clients.