Newsletter 451

Published August 8, 2022
The party went on in Darwin...

I’m writing this on the way back from Darwin, where I’ve been fully employed with the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards and the satellite shows that accompany the main event. I know I keep saying this, but it’s great to be travelling again. The annual visit to Darwin provides a unique opportunity to gauge the state of Indigenous art at a time when museums and commercial galleries have gone completely gaga for such work.

I’ll save my reflections on the art for next week’s column. In the meantime, a lament for the empty speechifying that was such a feature of this year’s festivities – a trend that seems to be growing all over Australia. At the opening of both the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair and the NATSIAA, the speeches and presentations went on for so long many people will remember each evening chiefly as an ordeal. Spokespeople and politicians have a bad habit of becoming enamoured of their own eloquence when they stand in front of a microphone. If they really were eloquent we’d have no reason to complain! Instead, the idea seems to be: Say enough enthusiastic, positive things, swear your undying love for all things Indigenous, and your audience will be in raptures. The result is a long stream of banalities in which everything is “amazing”, “extraordinary”, or – to choose that oh-so-appropriate Aboriginal buzz word, “deadly”.

Many of the people who came along to these events were old and frail, and can’t have enjoyed standing, or sitting on the ground, for long periods. There were numbers of people from remote communities who speak only rudimentary English, who must have been wondering what on earth was going on. We know the First Australians are patient people but…

Those who came to the art fair with an eye to getting in and buying early found their valuable time eaten up by pious speeches that had little relevance to what is, essentially, a commercial event. Those who only wanted a first look at the NATSIAA found, although they may have arrived at 5 or 5.30 pm, they were not able to see the show until almost 9 pm. Anybody with plans for dinner was obliged to rearrange them, or perhaps adopt Spanish dining habits.

It seems that speakers believe an event’s importance is confirmed by the length of a speech. It could just as easily be argued that it’s ruined by verbose performances that sound increasingly insincere, repetitive and cliched as the minutes tick by. Neither was the NATSIAA opening enhanced by a very mixed set of musical interludes that could have been kept to a minimum or held as a separate event.

Why does every speaker need to “acknowledge” elders, hosts, and everyone else? How much acknowledgement does anyone require? Why do they have to give a “shout out” to so many people? This is a silly phrase that needs to be retired. I could go on and on, picking out irritating elements, but it would become as boring as it was to listen to them in the first place. Polonius’s quip: “brevity is the soul of wit” should be emblazoned over the door of every public venue. This week has given me a new appreciation for David Walsh’s ‘no speeches’ policy at MONA.

The current art column looks at Ultra Unreal at the Museum of Contemporary Art – a show that promises rather more than it delivers. With the honourable exception of Lawrence Lek, and maybe Club Ate, I found most of this work – despite the excitement promised by the pres release – to be pretty tedious. Emulating Montaigne’s self-reflective habits, I asked myself: “Is it the show, or is it me? Am I just a cranky old bugger whose artistic tastes and preferences are rooted in the past? Am I blind to the thrills the MCA gets from this work?”

My considered answer was: “No. It’s not me.” If you’re at all sceptical I urge you to go along and sample the exhibition for yourself. There’s no entry charge!

This week’s film column is a double-bill featuring Eric Gravel’s Full Time, in which Laure Calamy plays a harrassed single mother trying to get to Paris and back in the midst of a transport workers’ strike; and Matthew J. Saville’s Juniper, in which Charlotte Rampling, a most reluctant granny, visits her family in New Zealand and turns everything upside down. In Darwin, one could have watched either of these films in their entirety in the time it took to open an event. I can understand anyone who says: “I’d sooner go to the movies”.