Newsletter 307

Published October 7, 2019
The forest in the footy stadium, Klagnefurt

From the ‘Wet Tropics’ of Far North Queensland my travels have brought me to Klagenfurt, Austria, where I just saw a forest planted in a football stadium. The ambitious installation, For Forest, was dreamt up by Swiss curator, Klaus Littmann, who took years to organise and fund the project. The idea sprang from a 1970/71 drawing by Austrian artist, Max Peintner, which showed people gathered in a sporting stadium to look at trees. Think of that old Joni Mitchell line: “They took all the trees and put ‘em in a tree museum, and they charged the people a dollar-and-a-half just to see ‘em”.

For Forest is an amazing logistical feat but like all of nature’s (real) spectacles, one tends to look, linger for a while, then tick it off the list. It’s an obvious environmental statement and the political reactions have been extreme. The fact that the Austrian elections arrived in the middle of the exhibition prompted two far right wing parties to go on the attack, claiming falsely that the project was funded with taxpayers’ euros. The curator was even physically attacked on the street.

However, the environmentalists may have had the last laugh. For while the Austrians re-elected babyfaced rightwinger, Sebastian Kurz, as expected, the vote for the Greens tripled, and the party may now be in line for a role in a governing coalition. It was a clear indication that voters are becoming increasingly concerned with issues such as climate change, and losing faith with the magical thinking of the right-wing populists.

This stands in stark contrast to the Australian elections in which the voters of Queensland responded warmly to the idea of another coal mine, and forgave the Coalition their dysfunctional attitude towards energy policy and the environment. Perhaps by the time of the next election the tide will have turned for Scummo and the gang unless they come up with something more constructive.

The week’s other amazing intersection between contemporary art and climate change comes from Paris, where Bernard Chenebault has been removed from his position as President of the Friends of the Palais de Tokyo – the city’s foremost cutting-edge exhibition space. Apparently M. Chenebault was so incensed by the antics of teenage activist, Greta Thunberg, that he ranted on FaceBook she was a madwoman, and expressed a hope that a mentally unstable person might shoot her.

Not even Donald Trump has gone that far! If nothing else it debunks the received idea that people who love contemporary art are all bleeding-heart lefties. I wish I could say I was surprised.

This week’s art column is also environmentally fixated. River on the Brink at the S.H.Ervin Gallery brings together 25 artists responding to the crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin. Everyone knows the rivers are in trouble, with massive fish kills and water-flow problems, but by focussing on one particular tributary, the Barka, this show exposes the problems in the starkest possible manner. The Barka, as Barry McKenzie, might put it, is a as dry as a medieval monk’s manuscript. It’s to the artists’ credit that they haven’t gone into full-on apocalyptic mode. Even in the face of disaster they go looking for something that stimulates the aesthetic sense.

There’s a lot more bleakness in this week’s movie – Todd Phillips’s Joker, which features a performance by Joaquin Phoenix that has put him in poll position for the next Oscars. The film takes a character from a superhero comic and gives him a bleakly realistic backstory. It’s a tale of one tortured individual that gradually expands to take in a city, and perhaps a civilisation.

Joker has stirred a lot of controversy but it’s a genuine tract for our times. When the curator of a tree installation is attacked in the street, and the President of a contemporary art foundation expresses murderous thoughts about 16-year-old girls, it’s hard to worry about Joker ‘inciting’ violent behaviour in its audience. The violence is already there, bubbling below the surface of both the man-in-the-street and the man in the ivory tower