Newsletter 501

Published July 24, 2023
When the world turned pink

This week seems to be Barbie Week, with the whole world transformed into Barbie Land. As you’ll find, if and when you see the movie, every day in Barbie Land is a perfect day, so it’s gotta be a big improvement on our usual lot.

In Barbie Land, if I’m to believe Margot Robbie and her pals, no-one actually does anything but hang out at the beach during the day, and party in the evening. It sounds like the Young Liberals Northern Beaches branch.

Just as I was pondering a world turned livid pink, I received notification of the Volume music festival at the Art Gallery of NSW. So that’s what they’re doing! Instead of a place for art exhibitions, the AGNSW is now a music venue. Solange, in the Tank, is only the beginning – there’s a whole succession of gigs in the pipeline, the majority from the ‘cool but obscure’ end of the spectrum.

I’m afraid the music scene makes me feel like a dinosaur. It’s hard enough to stay in touch with the production line of new artists without trying to keep up with pop music as well. The trouble, common enough among folks of my generation, is that everything I hear sounds like an inferior version of something I was listening to about 30 years ago. Ecclesiastes was on the money when it said there was no new thing under the sun. Beyond that, I can’t comment on musical acts that are total mysteries.

Am I hopelessly out of touch, or has the AGNSW decided that its target audience is a group of ultra-cool music fans that know all about this stuff? I daresay a lot more knowledge and expertise has gone into choosing musical acts than the selection of works on the walls of Sydney Modern. Those beautiful milk-coffee coloured, rammed earth walls are just terrible for hanging pictures, especially lurid, candy-coloured paintings by artists such as Howard Arkley or Stanley Whitney. The walls are more chic than anything the gallery is putting on them. Some rethinking is in order.

While I don’t believe it’s a bad idea for a museum to think more creatively about music and performance, this should, however, be as a complement to exhibitions, not a replacement. In recent years there has been a vogue for producing a musical CD to accompany a show – the ‘Age of the Impressionists’, for example, with excerpts from Debussy and Ravel, Franck and Offenbach. Likewise, performances have been co-ordinated to match the works on display, whether it be chamber music for the art of the Baroque period, or hip hop for artists such as Keith Haring. It all provides extra context and enriches the experience of the art.

It’s a great historical parlour game to match artists with composers and authors, and chart the correspondences. The AGNSW, however, and I believe the Powerhouse as well, are producing freestanding musical events that are largely unrelated to exhibitions. This is not only because there are no exhibitions, it’s because they have adopted a different concept of the museum – as a venue for functions and performances rather the display of artworks. The ony problem is that we already have lots of dedicated venues for music and performance. Do we need our art galleries to compete in the same field?

One suspects the “events and functions” mentality is fixated on making money and boosting attendances without the complexities and costs of major exhibitions. In the case of Sydney Modern, a second large building generates new expenses that have to be met. If audience numbers don’t keep pace with outgoings, the gallery either has to go to the government, cap in hand, or find ways of raising the necessary revenue. The result is a process in which fund-raising becomes the primary business of the gallery, while exhibitions are viewed as costly, difficult tasks one is obliged to undertake, once in a while, just for form’s sake.

This week’s art column travels to Brisbane for shows by Michael Zavros and ex de Medici at the Gallery of Modern Art. I doubt the AGNSW would ever devote so much space to a couple of mid-career artists, let alone produce two outstanding catalogues. Even if the art doesn’t appeal, one can’t help but be impressed by the commitment shown by the gallery. We are prepared to see these artists as important because the museum has taken them so seriously.

As foreshadowed, this film being reviewed is Barbie. How could it be anything else? I didn’t know what to expect, but was favourably impressed by this bizarre confection. It’s ingenious in the way it combines so many apparently contradictory ideas in one package. It’s also surprising to find filmmakers taking a piece of pop culture and making it into something that isn’t an insult to the intelligence. Mind you, saying what Barbie isn’t, is a lot easier than saying what it is.