One of the strangest developments in the Sydney art scene is the sudden upsurge of galleries showing and selling high priced international art. This is surprising, given the fact that these are dismal times for retail and the art business is essentially retail with delusions of grandeur. There are only two explanations: either there are a lot of crazy dealers happy to lose money, or else there is a growing market for international art.
If the latter, it suggests that an historical shift in attitudes is quietly taking place. Although players such as the New Albion Gallery and Matthias Arndt are striking out in new directions, the gradual infiltration of Sydney galleries by overseas work has been underway for a long time. Annandale Galleries has been one of the leaders of this trend, holding successful shows by artists such as William Kentridge, Leon Kossoff and John Virtue. Roslyn Oxley has hosted exhibitions by Yayoi Kusama and Wim Delvoye; Rex Irwin was showing artists such as Lucian Freud before they became art market superstars. Ray Hughes was the first to acquire a taste for contemporary Chinese and even African art.
Last year, Andrew Jensen opened a gallery that took the commitment to overseas work a step further, with a stable that includes challenging abstract artists and Minimalists from Europe and the United States. Now we have the New Albion Gallery, a venture by Deutscher Hackett auctioneers, dedicated to showing well-known international artists who have never been exposed to the Australian market.
The most recent enterprise is the most startling of all: a pop-up gallery by Berlin dealer, Matthias Arndt – the third German gallerist to take a stake in Sydney, after Conny Dietzschold and Dominik Mersch. The venue is Contemporary Art Space Sydney, a space owned by collector, Clinton Ng, at the end of tiny Jenkins Street in the Rocks.
Behind a raw plywood door one finds three floors of works by 33 artists, including Joseph Beuys, Gilbert and George, Sophie Calle, Georg Baselitz, Thomas Hirschhorn and Bill Viola; along with pieces by established and emerging talent from China, Thailand and Indonesia. I was astonished by the range of this selection, and I’m not easily astonished.
Arndt started small in Berlin, in 1993, and has built up his business by taking calculated risks. Migration reflects his belief that interesting work is being made all over the world, not simply in Europe and America. He also believes that Australians have a tremendous curiosity about international contemporary art, and might even be willing to buy the stuff.
Is this true? It seems that Sydney has gone from being a provincial outstation of the international art world, to a highly desirable place to set up shop. It may have something to do with the strength of the Australian dollar, but it also reflects a less insular approach on behalf of local collectors who for many years – with a few notable exceptions – have been focused almost exclusively on Australian art.
One should not discount the influence of the Hong Kong Art Fair, where Australian collectors are in increasingly plentiful supply. The annual pilgrimage to Hong Kong has demonstrated that Australians are willing to acquire art from all over the world, while international collectors will buy works by young Australian artists. This is one of the more positive effects of globalisation.
If Sydney collectors embrace the works of Masami Teraoka (b.1936), it will go a long way towards proving there really is an adventurous local audience for contemporary art, for this is one of the most confronting and ambitious exhibitions to be seen this year. The selection ranges across forty years of the artist’s career, from early line drawings that resemble Japanese erotic prints as imagined by the Picasso of the Vollard suite, to sweeping visions of hell painted as mock-altarpieces.
Teraoka was born in Hiroshima prefecture within sight of the atomic bomb, which was detonated when he was nine years old. By 1961 he had moved to the United States to further his art studies. He became a successful artist in the 1970s, making modern versions of Ukiyo-e prints imbued with wry social commentary. At the end of that decade he moved to Hawaii where he still lives.
The New Albion show contains a number of pieces in the Ukiyo-e style, such as 31 Flavors invading Japan/Today’s Special (1980-82), which features a woman in a kimono devouring an American ice-cream cone; and AIDS Series/Geisha in Bath (2008), in which a Japanese bathing beauty tears open a packet of condoms with her teeth. The former spoofs the imperial advance of an American fast food culture into Japan, while the latter inserts an AIDS reference into a traditional piece of erotica.
This kind of social commentary comes naturally to Teraoka, but he is anything but an ideologue. His images are sharp and humorous, intended to administer a jolt to his audience’s sensibilities, even as one laughs at a gag or admires his graphic skills.
In the early 1990s Teraoka’s work underwent a dramatic change, taking on affinity with the early Netherlandish paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Breugel. For all their grotesque, bizarre imagery, those old masters were moralists who offered tightly scripted visions of damnation for those who strayed from the path of the Lord. This is certainly the way Bosch appeared to the Catholic monarchs of Spain, who were among his most passionate collectors.
Teraoka is no less of a moralist, but his themes are utterly contemporary: globalization; pollution; sexual and religious discrimination; the abuse of children in care of the Church. He takes on these issues with a gusto reminiscent of Rabelais or the Marquis de Sade. Virtual Inquisition/Tower of Babel (2000-03) is an oil painting of 210 X 636 cm. On the left-hand side one finds the shadowy figure of President Clinton grappling with a nude Monica Lewinsky. The rest of the canvas is filled with sinister red robed clerics, symbols of the Spanish Inquisition reborn in Washington D.C. The painting is a mass of squirming detail, executed in the manner of an early Siennese or Florentine master.
Although Teraoka’s sinners are subject to dreadful punishments, the lines between pleasure and pain are blurred. The clerics take a diabolical glee in dispensing their version of justice, while some of their victims might be refugees from a bondage parlour.
US Inquisition/Pope of Thong (2003) presents an even more extreme scenario. Naked women with shaven heads are tortured by priests in front of a Tower of Babel that resembles a gigantic wedding cake. A pregnant and stockinged Madonna is being subjected to a rude examination. There are also several variations on one of Teraoka’s favourite images: Hokusai’s famous erotic print of a woman being molested by an octopus.
Such paintings are phantasmagoric concoctions that throw up glimpses of September 11 and its aftermath; the anti-abortion crusades, and who-knows-what-else. This is satire without boundaries, fuelled by the artist’s obvious delight in piling on one motif after another.
In other works, made in the form of folding altarpieces, geishas, western glamour models, clerics, pregnant women, dominatrixes, and a character resembling Dante Alighieri, are engaged in activities that could be described as a bacchanalian orgy, a workout in the gym, or a session in the torture chamber – perhaps a combination of all three.
It is serendipitous that Teraoka’s exhibition coincides with the release of Sacha Baron Cohen’s new film, The Dictator. By virtue of birth and ethnicity, both Teraoka and Cohen are marginal figures within the mainstream of US culture. They both practice a form of satire that is fearless to the point of self-annihilation – pushing the limits of acceptability in a manner that will alienate and offend many people. Sexuality is always mildly controversial, but it takes extraordinary nerve to make a comedy routine from the events of 9/11, as Cohen does in his role as the dictator, Aladeen.
In pictorial terms Teraoka is not far behind. His elegant Ukiyo-e style works of the early 1980s gave little indication of the ferocious onslaught that would soon follow. He seems to feel that the outrageous events of everyday life in America require an equally outrageous response. It’s not so much that Teraoka wants us to see his works as shocking, but to stop seeing the objects of his satire as normal.
Masami Teraoka: New Albion Gallery, May 23 to June 23, 2012
Migration: First International Pop Up Show, Arndt at CASSydney, March 27 to July 10,2012
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, June 02, 2012