Public galleries have always cultivated good relations with private collectors, but lately those ties have taken on a new importance. This is partly a result of governments wanting to palm off the responsibility for arts funding onto private sources. The logic is perfectly cynical: when spending cuts are required the arts are seen as a luxury rather than an essential service. Let those wealthy individuals who can afford such luxuries help pay for them, securing that warm inner glow in return.
The problem with this policy is that galleries are always in danger of compromising their curatorial independence when they work closely with a private source. This is, however, an area in which the Art Gallery of NSW seems to have thrown caution to the winds. Visitors to this year’s Archibald Prize will also be able to see an exhibition of Seven artists from the John Kaldor Family Collection, and Go East: The Gene & Brian Sherman Collection of Contemporary Art.
While I wouldn’t question the good will behind these events, to have two private collection shows running simultaneously tends to underline the barrenness of the gallery’s exhibition program. To make matters worse, most of the other AGNSW ‘exhibitions’ are nothing more than small thematic selections from the permanent collection tricked up with a title. It leaves one wondering, for the umpteenth time, why the Gallery needs to double its size with a new building when it can’t fill its existing spaces.
The Kaldor show runs for a year, and can therefore wait another day, but Go East is due to wind up at the end of this month. I presume the Shermans put up most of the funds, publishing three hard cover catalogues – one for the general show, and one each for large-scale installations by Jitish Kallat and Yang Zhichao respectively, that are being gifted to the AGNSW. The Kallat piece, Public Notice 2 (2007) may be seen in the gallery’s main foyer, while Yang’s Chinese Bible (2009) is being shown at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF) in Paddington (until 1 August).
To put a touch of critical distance between the collectors and the presentation the works have been selected by Suhanya Raffel, the AGNSW’s Director of Collections and Exhibitions, who has chosen to ignore some of the more familiar Sherman artists, such as Guan Wei, and focus on large-scale pieces from across Asia.
The catalogue confirms Gene Sherman as a tireless historian of her own art activities. These were originally conducted under the banner of a commercial dealership, but now belong to a not-for-profit foundation. Even when the Shermans were running a commercial gallery they were intent on putting together a museum-quality collection.
With the rise of Asia as a force in world art the Shermans began to focus their interests in this area. Not only did they acquire major pieces such as Zhang Huan’s Family Tree (2000), they brought Asian artists to Australia and commissioned massive, new installations.
In this sense, Go East is a kind of ‘greatest hits’, incorporating works that act as mementoes of those exhibitions. There is a photo of a burning boat that serves as a souvenir of Din Q. Lé’s impressive multi-media production, Erasure, shown at the SCAF in 2011; and some small cardboard houses by Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan that recall their busy installation, Habitation (2012). There is also a still from Yang Fudong’s epic five-part film, Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest (2004), screened in its entirety at SCAF in 2011.
Other works have been acquired from local or overseas exhibitions, with the collectors’ taste often being directed by a strong sense of social conscience towards pieces that engage with issues of politics or morality. This ethical dimension is carried through into Brian Sherman’s support for good causes, notably Voiceless, the animal rights organisation.
One of the most striking items in Go East is Nortse’s Zen Meditation (2012), which brings together six dark-red monks’ robes arranged in a sitting posture and partially singed. The work is an unmistakable reminder of the Tibetan monks who have undergone self-immolation in protest over the Chinese occupation of their homeland. The catalogue tells us there have been more 130 of these incidents since 2009, although very few have made it into the western media.
Not all pieces are so confronting. Lin Tianmiao’s Badges (2009), displayed in the AGNSW entrance, deals with the changing role of women in China, captured in a series of neologisms and slang words embroidered in Chinese characters on floating discs. The work may initially seem confusing to non-Chinese speakers, but one soon gets the message. Lin is not giving us a stirring ideological slogan such as ‘Women Hold Up Half the Sky’, but a new lexicon for Chinese women who never existed in earlier eras, or at the very least, were never given names.
Navin Rawanchaikul’s There is No Voice (1994-2012) puts faded photos of the residents of Chiang Mai into bottles crowded into a three-layered display case. It is an evocation of the silent majority whose lives, which never make the headlines, are shaped and determined by political and social frameworks they can do little to influence.
There is an element of quiet celebration in Rawanchaikul’s work. One might say the same about Shigeyuki Kihara’s sepia-toned photographs of herself in a classic reclining posture, with and without grass skirt, showing the characteristics of both sexes. It’s the belief of this transgendered Samoan artist that traditional Polynesian culture took a more open view of sexual identity before the imposition of colonial moral codes and prejudices.
Most of the works in Go East are visually striking and conceptually precise, but are unlikely to hold the viewer’s attention for a long time. There will be some viewers who stand in the entrance of the AGNSW’s upstairs gallery and take in much of the show at a glance.
Each piece is a mild puzzle. You say: “OK, I get it,” and move on. This is not simply the case with the Sherman works, it is a common feature of contemporary art exhibitions around the world. There are progressively fewer pieces that ask one to take time and examine the way they are put together, and an ever-greater number of that privilege idea over execution.
There are two likely reasons. Firstly, the fact that many works are made not by the artist’s own hand but by assistants, or fabricated in factories according to specifications. Secondly, that the sprawling nature of exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale means that viewers are unwilling to linger very long with any particular work. They remember a handful of spectacular pieces but forget the subtle ones.
The gigantic Jitish Kallat installation in the AGNSW foyer exemplifies the triumph of spectacle. Kallat renders an entire speech delivered by Mahatma Gandhi on 12 March 1930, in letters made from artificial bones arranged on long shelves, the colour of turmeric. The speech marked the beginning of the non-violent protest movement that led to Indian independence. By reproducing Gandhi’s address in this elaborate form, Kallat is underlining its relevance to the present day, when India is still prone to outbreaks of communal violence.
Gandhi’s words are also relevant to the wider state of the world, in which resistance movements turn increasingly to terrorism rather than non-violence. Finally, we are alerted to the need for continued resistance in a world in which governments of all persuasions seem intent on infringing civil liberties and fostering disastrous standards of social and economic inequality.
These are sentiments most people would endorse, but they feel a trifle overstated when expressed in a work that takes up such an outlandish amount of space. Indeed, Public Notice 2 is so dominant it seems to demand a permanent installation in some public place. Although it has been gifted to the AGNSW, it’s not the kind of piece that will be taken out of storage on a regular basis.
There is a vague possibility that Sydney Modern, if it is ever built, would become a semi-permanent showcase for such overscaled installations rather than a venue for temporary exhibitions. Let’s hope I’m being needlessly fatalistic.
Go East: The Gene & Brian Sherman Contemporary Art Collection
Art Gallery of NSW, until 26 July
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 11th July, 2015