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Newsletter 319

Published January 6, 2020
Daisy Ridley, upon reading the reviews of the new Star Wars movie

If you thought these newsletter have dried up recently, that’s right. I still managed to keep the columns rolling, but gave the website a week or so off over Christmas. It wasn’t much of a break, as one of the joys of not being on staff anywhere is that there’s no such thing as holidays. I’m not complaining though, as I’m probably happier working. My idea of a really bad time is sitting around for days on a beach, looking for something to do.

This week’s posting contains two art columns and two film columns. The exhibitions being reviewed are Robert Klippel: Assembled at the TarraWarra Museum of Art, and Water at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane. The former is a timely survey of the man many believe to be Australia’s greatest sculptor. I doubt there’s any precise way of deciding this title but Klippel comes through strongly in this show.

Water is an ambitious event that aims to make us think about our rapidly warming planet without laying on too much political dogma. GOMA lured Olafur Eliasson to Brisbane to create a massive installation and deliver an inspirational lecture. Like so many shows at GOMA there’s an infectious enthusiasm about Water. Although one could argue about the selection of works, this is rather less important than the idea and spirit behind the exhibition.

The first movie column looks at Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waititi’s daring comedy about the last days of the Third Reich seen through the eyes of a little boy who has made an imaginary friend of Adolf Hitler. What more need I say? The second column is a riff on two summer ‘blockbusters’, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and Cats. Neither could be called a landmark in the history of motion pictures, although Cats may yet set some kind record as an historic box office flop. You won’t be surprised that I’m not a fan of either film but I was still surprised by how inept, how badly thought-out they were.

Speaking of badly thought-out, I’ve got a choice of hobby horses to rant about as the year gets underway. The bushfires continue to rage while Scummo dares not say the words “climate change”. The NSW Government is persisting with its utterly bizarre and foolish scheme to ‘move’ the Powerhouse Museum. Finally, the Art Gallery of NSW has announced its exhibition program for 2020, and in doing so has demonstrated that things are not improving one little bit.

A John Brack show was a good initiative, as there has never been a proper Brack survey at the AGNSW. What we are getting, though, is another half-baked sampler drawn entirely from the gallery’s own holdings. The same goes for a show on the classical art of Greece and Rome: whatever the gallery has in storage is what we’ll get to see. The most curious entry is a show curated by director Michael Brand, called Some Mysterious Process – which would be a good title for a book about the way the gallery is run. In fact it’s a four-month display of the AGNSW’s international collection – ie. yet another filler drawn from the permanent holdings.

The Matisse exhibition at the end of the year is the gallery’s other favourite type of event: a package, with everything coming from a single lender, in this case the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The work will be good but there is a consummate lack of ambition in taking packages rather than constructing a show from the ground up.

The program also includes surveys of artists such as Arthur Streeton, Margel Hinder and Pat Larter, that hold the promise of some applied curatorship, but this is a pretty modest list for one year at a major public art museum. It would represent about one third of the shows that the National Gallery of Victoria are hosting at any one time, usually accompanied by massive catalogues.

Given that the Biennale and the Archibald Prize with its associated shows will take up a big hunk of the year at the AGNSW, the 2020 program is an extraordinarily lazy performance. I swear that if the gallery managed to come up with something original and dynamic I’d be applauding. Instead, while we wait for the mythical Sydney Modern to take shape, the gallery is just killing time – and short-changing friends and supporters. Like our politicians the AGNSW has become adept at substituting spin for action, repackaging mediocrity as if it were a cause for great excitement.

Who knows? Perhaps it will all be better than it sounds! If ever there’s a time for a little tattered optimism it’s the first week of January.

Happy New Year everyone!