Published in the SMH Art Column, 20 September 1997
Last Saturday, after a second look at the Art Gallery of NSW’s exhibition, Body, I spent much of the evening immersed in the catalogue. Having reached my limits, I sat down in front of the box to watch Roy and HG, only to find that their viewers’ poll about Queensland Premier, Rob Borbidge, could be applied equally well to the curator of Body. With apologies to Club Buggery, it would go something like this:
Q. Is Tony Bond, Curator of Western Art at the AGNSW…
3. I dunno, he seems alright to me
4. a dangerously stupid goose
Visitors to the exhibition, and – even more so – readers of the catalogue, might like to consider these options. I believe Body has been on the drawing board for up to eight years, so the curator has had plenty of time to plan the show and arrange loans. Since the human figure is probably the most fundamental motif in the entire history of art there is no shortage of material. On the contrary, the problem with a project of this nature is to select suitable works from a virtually limitless field. One can easily imagine a show of rock paintings or Greek vases on the theme of the body. Everywhere one turns in this show, it is possible to say: “Why this work, but not that one? Why Matisse but not Picasso? Why Mike Parr but not Sir Ivor Hele? or Zippy the Pin-Head? or Elle MacPherson? or Woofter the Wonder Dog?”
Pardon me, I’m getting carried away. But the most basic issue is no joke: in a show such as Body it is necessary to define one’s themes and field of investigation with the utmost precision. When I suggested a couple of weeks ago, on Mike Carlton’s radio program, that Body would be a show with a few good works and some very fuzzy concepts this was interpreted as unfairly prejudging the exhibition. Tony Bond even offered to take me through the show and explain his ideas step by step. If I didn’t take up this offer it was not through prejudice, but because I felt those ideas should be clearly expressed in the exhibition and fleshed out in the catalogue.
Where I did harbour the worst suspicions, it was because of previous experiences of Bond’s curatorship and his prose style. In the past couple of years the shows, Through a Glass Darkly and Visible Invisible, have provided rather grisly precedents. Besides this, with a few exceptions such as a work by Anselm Kiefer, Bond’s record of acquisitions has been narrow, predictable and undistinguished. This is only my opinion, not some definitive statement, but I don’t feel like a voice in the wilderness. Even the Kiefer was not exactly a dynamic, original choice.
Despite all these misgivings, confessed as freely as possible, I still hoped that Body would be the exception to the rule. Like some sportsman, digging deep for the most important event of the season, this was Tony Bond’s opportunity to display previously unsuspected resources of intelligence, taste and sensitivity. Indeed, there were tantalising moments when this seemed possible, and my first impressions of the show were remarkably positive. It would be churlish to complain about a first room that contains three paintings by Balthus, four by Bonnard, two by Courbet, and a host of other strong works. If photographs by Bill Henson and Helmut Newton were also included, these images were interesting enough in themselves to override any concerns that the historical perspective had gone astray. It can be an inspired feat of curatorship to juxtapose works from different eras, revealing surprising affinities.
In this instance the connections were not especially enlightening, but they were plausible. As one walked on, there were many other works that commanded one’s attention, from an uncharacteristic male nude by Renoir, Young Boy with Cat (1868-69), to a marvellous juxtaposition of reclining nudes by David Bomberg and Lucian Freud; and two show-stopping grotesqueries by Otto Dix. The quality of works in this early part of the display should ensure that Body draws a large audience. Since most viewers do not bother trying to figure out the conceptual underpinnings of a show, one imagines that many people will simply focus on these memorable images, and have a reasonably good time. With some of the other artists’ works there is a suspicion that these were not first choices, but simply the best examples that were available as loans. Beckmann, Rouault, Kirchner, Kokoschka, and others are represented by minor pictures whose sole criterion of relevance is that they contain a body or two. The nude by Goncharova from the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, is a poor work that does the artist and the curator no credit.
The second half of Body has less to recommend it, and is often actively repulsive. From the reactions I’ve heard so far, many may be upset or even nauseated by the sight of so much blood and guts, self-mutilation and deformity. One of the most publicised pieces of gimmick art, Marc Quinn’s Self (1997) – a cast of the artist’s head made from nine pints of his own frozen blood – had been removed from the show last Saturday, while its refrigerated stand was being repaired. I do hope it didn’t melt.
It would be foolish to say such work is bad simply because it is confronting. Not many people still believe, with Matisse, that art should be like a comfortable armchair for the weary bourgeois. It often seems that the vast bulk of contemporary art sets out to shock, disturb and subvert the viewer’s peace-of-mind, even if it has to resort to the most infantile tactics to achieve these ends. So entrenched is this attitude that in one of the catalogue essays, Dr. Susan Best can blithely claim that “in scholarly discussions of art, the viewers’ affective response has not been central to the conception of art since Kant.” Had she said “since Duchamp”, she might have been on firmer ground. Since Kant died in 1804, it is hard to accept that scholars have shown no interest in viewers’ responses to art for almost 200 years. This seems to be one of those egregious pieces of intellectual arrogance that give academics such a bad reputation with the general public.
Surely an artist is still trying to obtain an “affective response” even when their work is devoted solely to shocking the viewer. This is could be compared with pornography, which deals primarily, impatiently, with sexual stimulation, not the poetic niceties of composition or narrative. While pornography is a tactic that has been employed by artists such as Jeff Koons in order to attract avant-garde notoreity, there are many others who have sought the same goal by treating the body as nothing but a bag of offal, a receptacle full of blood and excreta.
There are also those artists who have glamorised death and violence in a way that owes more to Quentin Tarantino than psychoanalysis. In brief, there is a lot of contemporary art that sets out to be disgusting and offensive, but usually only succeeds in being pathetic. Here I could cite the mutant dummies of Jake and Dinos Chapman, or the scatalogical performances of Paul McCarthy.
Perhaps the most sickening aspect of McCarthy’s puerile performance photos, Grand Pop (1977), was the small print on the wall label, which informed us that these works had been acquired by the AGNSW late year with funds from the Mervyn Horton Bequest. The same goes for Hans Bellmer’s Half-Doll (1971), a late, irredeemably-tacky sculpture. If Tony Bond had wanted a work by Bellmer he would have been better advised to purchase a drawing, such as the one in this show, where there is a mesmeric, obsessive quality in the line work. It must be appalling for Mervyn Horton’s friends to see his money being used for such purposes. One of those friends, Margaret Olley, has tried to avoid this fate, by maintaining personal control over works and funds she has donated to the gallery.
While the works of Courbet and Bonnard are neither disgusting nor pathetic, I’m forced to conclude that Mike Parr’s short films and performance photos are both. I have a lot of time for Parr’s drawings and etchings, but the photographs of his Unword performances are another matter. Here viewers may savour the spectacle of a beefy bloke dressed in a wig, bra and knickers, lying on a table, carving words onto his own flesh. With another artist this could be the product of a warped sense of humour, but humour is not part of Parr’s artistic vocabulary – at least not an intentional part. In the catalogue, David Bromfield informs us that the words Parr is carving are “mother, father, sister, Marx”. Marx?? This is obviously the last nail in communism’s coffin.
Body also includes a wide range of Parr’s other performance photos and short films, including such classics of the silver screen as Push a fish up your nose. In an interview with Tony Bond in the catalogue, Parr admits that he expects people to close their eyes or walk out of the cinema. The morning I was there, most people fulfilled that expectation, while making noises like: “Yeee-uck!! Urrghh!”
Maybe it was only because, like me, they were so sick of seeing the same works by Parr trotted out at every conceivable opportunity. Although Tony Bond has not yet managed to hold a Mike Parr retrospective, he has smuggled one into the Body show. However, it never seems to have occurred to him that by showing Parr’s work alongside that of Viennese Aktionismus artists such as Gunter Brus, Rudolf Schwarzkogler, Otto Muehl and Hermann Nitsch, the local product seems merely derivative. Not only was the Viennese work made first, it is also much uglier, more extreme and disturbing. Even Parr himself says he now finds some of his performance films “a bit wanky”. This may not necessarily be a criticism though, since Parr and Bond express a shared admiration for a masturbation film made by New Yorker, Vito Acconci. Presumably they are inspired by the way Acconci blurred the line between art and masturbation.
I said at the beginning that with a show of this nature it was important to define one’s themes clearly. Bond has come up with no fewer than nine separate themes: “Private spaces, voyeurism or intimacy”; “Landscape, waterfall and hole: sexual allegories”;”Feminising the landscape allegory”, “Anxious males”; “Tactility and the trace of the artist”; “Leaping, puncturing and levitating”; “Surreal fragments and recombinations”, “Imagining the inside out”, and “Seeking reconciliation with nature”. To get the most out of this exhibition, these themes should be conveniently ignored. It is in the catalogue that their shallowness finds its most profound expression.
In an essay of some 70 pages, including many illustrations, Tony Bond manages to explain virtually nothing about the show. His essay is a laborious list of works, with some poor descriptions and a varnish of jargon lifted, without acknowledgement, from the cryptic but influential writings of French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan. So if you’re reading Bond’s essay, or most of the other pieces in the catalogue, and wondering about terms such as “trace”, “screen”, “lack”, “the gaze”, “the phallus”, “the veil”, and so on, you might care to look up Lacan’s Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis which used to be available as a Penguin paperback. I wouldn’t recommend it as light reading.
The other important text for this show is Courbet’s Realism, a 1990 study by American critic, Michael Fried. In the Body catalogue, Jill Beaulieu and Mary Roberts devote an entire essay to summarising bits of Fried’s arguments, making matters more rather than less obscure. Yet this piece is a model of lucidity alongside Charles Merewether’s essay, which seems to have been written in some entirely new language. Who on earth is supposed to be reading most of these essays? It simply reinforces the belief that academics spend much of their time writing for a small coterie of like-minded peers, using a jargon that is barely understood by readers or authors. Since the show is funded with public money surely the public deserve a more readable catalogue
This will be decried as anti-intellectualism but I’d suggest that any intellectual worth reading will be able to communicate their ideas with maximum effectiveness to an educated audience. Those who write in jargon show they have no ideas to speak of, only a set of conformist attitudes and poses.
Not all essays in the Body catalogue are that bad. Alan Krell’s piece, for instance, has some interesting insights into 19th French art. But the only really good essay, by my estimation, is Sarah Faunce’s Courbet: Feminist in Spite of Himself, which makes a convincing case for Courbet’s realist ethos conquering his conventional, chauvinistic views of the opposite sex. She notes that his painting, The Sleepers (1866), which shows two naked women asleep in each others’ arms, is absolutely unique in being “an image of consummated desire” among women. One has only to think of the ideal forms of Ingres, or the carnal monsters of the Symbolists, to realise the revolutionary nature of Courbet’s painting.
It is to be regretted firstly that The Sleepers is not included in this exhibition, and secondly that Sarah Faunce is a curator at the Brooklyn Museum. Her straightforward prose makes the local contributors to the catalogue look pretentious and clumsy. This is disappointing when one considers that Body contains images as fascinating as Bonnard’s Man and Woman (1900), an ambiguous double portrait of the artist and his wife, Marthe. It may be a scene of consummated desire, but the folding screen that separates naked man from woman, suggests a deep wedge being driven through their relationship: they are never more separate, never further apart, than after the moment of sexual union. Only Alan Krell has a few fleeting words for this painting, which cries out for an extended discussion.
Other works which deserve a more in-depth treatment include Otto Dix’s two paintings, The Odd Couple (1925) and Three Women (1926). Both revisit wellworn themes in Old Master painting – the young woman with the doddering old man; and the choice of Paris, or perhaps the three graces. Dix’s paintings are bitter parodies of Weimar society, using the extreme ugliness of his protagonists to reflect the moral ugliness of his surroundings. Nothing can be taken for granted because the characters are products of their times and circumstances. They are hideous, but neither heroes nor villains. It is surprising that David Bromfield can characterise the young woman in The Odd Couple as “a whore”, because this robs the painting of a powerful ambiguity.
As you’ve probably realised, despite its titillating title, Body is a deeply unsexy show. It is ultimately too ambitious in its scope, and meanders down too many blind alleys. The catalogue is dominated by Courbet, represented in the show by only two paintings and a cibrachrome photo, while the later display is ruined by Mike Parr’s self-indulgence. One often gets the impression that the curator believes “the body” is a new discovery in art, as is the “trace” of the artist’s hand.
It is possible to imagine any number of alternative versions of Body, including a show devoted solely to painting; or a show that seeks to investigate Kenneth Clark’s famous distinction between the naked and the nude. Incidentally, for a more satisfying treatment of the nude, viewers might consider a visit to the Ray Hughes Gallery, where a group exhibition approaches to the human figure with verve and humour.
Looking at Body, I imagined a show of Courbet and the legacy of realism, or even a more considered look at the violent body art that came out of Vienna in the 1960s, and the works these artists went on to make. A striking photography show could be put together, ranging from the erotic daguerrotypes of the 19th century, to the controversial works of Mapplethorpe and Araki. In avoiding all these avenues, there is a perverse puritanism that runs through Body, suggesting that blood, viscera and mutilation are perfectly serious subjects for art, while eroticism is taboo. Weirdly, it makes the viewer feel like a prude if he or she is not a necrophilliac.
Body, Art Gallery of NSW
12 September – 6 November 1997
Published in the SMH Art Column, 20 September 1997
Published in the SMH Art Column, 20 September 1997