Sunday, November 3, 2013

'Australia' According to London

A review of Australia, the first major survey of Australian art in the UK for 50 years.   

(This article was originally published in the Melbourne Review and the Adelaide Review)

Having spent the past year in the UK, it was strange experiencing Australia in London. Maybe it was just the drizzle outside but Tom Roberts’ Breakaway seemed a little hotter, a little dustier. Fred Williams seemed a little more impressive and Sidney Nolan, a little less. Most of all I was struck by three questions that time and distance had made impossible to ignore: Why is Australian art still divided by race; why does Australian art seem obsessed with landscape; and why are we still exporting these questions to London?
Beyond the obvious arguments against the tradition of sending off our cultural report card for assessment at the Royal Academy when we could just as easily send it to Beijing and achieve something new, Australia the exhibition offers the opportunity to see ourselves in summary, as others would like to see us.
"I wanted the visitor to be placed right in the centre of Australia, to get that sense of texture and depth, to get that feeling of that long, endless straight road" says Kathleen Soriano, director of exhibitions at the Royal Academy of London. In this way the exhibition Australia employs 200 artworks to reinforce the cliché that Australia is essentially a landscape, full of mystery and adventure.
Most Australians go weeks, months, even years, without contemplating the Australian bush because we live in cities. When we do confront Australia’s centre with any honesty, we encounter a severity that outstrips the sentiments of most art. Those endless straight roads are more often a test of endurance than a theatre of romance.
But don’t let that distract you from the tired myth of spiritual redemption waiting just over the shimmering horizon. After all, the history of Australian art is built upon that myth, upon Britain’s appetite for believing it and upon our own willingness to dish it up.
Shaun Gladwell knows how it’s done. His film showing a Christ-like motorcyclist hurtling through the outback makes an appropriate introduction to the exhibition. Following this is a room filled with enormous paintings by indigenous artists, all created in the contemporary era but immune to contemporary critique. The reason for this is spelled out in the wall text that speaks of “spiritual resources” that are “often imperceptible to foreign eyes”. After that the exhibition unfolds in chronological order from settlement to the present day.
British press coverage of the exhibition has been full of confessions of ignorance towards the big names in Australian contemporary art but it’s hard to blame them. Without the media spectacle of the Turner Prize, Australian contemporary art has no trick to disguise its subjugation to mass culture and no mechanism for propelling Australian artists to the status of celebrity. Patricia Piccinini’s comes close but you only have to see a flying boob whale once to wonder whether we really need celebrity artists the way that Britain seems to.
Rather than attack the Royal Academy’s landscape fixation, Australian critics have lined up to take the bait from British hacks like Waldemar Januszczak of the Sunday Times who treated the exhibition with the kind of lazy ridicule reserved for topics of little consequence. John Olsen's painting earned the delicate phrase "a cascade of diarrhea" which seems fair, even if Januszczak is just trolling for a reaction. When inflated turkeys like Olsen get shot down by foreign critics it's doubly embarrassing because we're the ones who have let Olsen fly around for decades in a haze of uncritical praise.
The same goes for the exhibition’s contingent of indigenous art, which Januszczak dismissed with a similar degree of sensitivity. While Rachel Campbell-Johnston of The Times saw nothing problematic in describing this racially defined category of art as somehow possessing its own ‘magic’, Januszczak seemed less willing to surrender his critical faculties, focusing on the work’s canny commercialism.
What Januszczak easily recognises, whether we admit it or not, is that the category of aboriginal art has become an industry that permits non-aboriginal people to indulge in the belief that 40,000 years of connection to the land can somehow be repaired and purchased in a canvas that’s hung on a wall. If that’s ‘magic’ it’s a spell for atonement.
Perhaps this is the motivation behind Australian art’s apparent obsession with the land; a hunger for redemption that’s as satiable as our cultural affiliation to Britain is temporary? As Australian art orientates itself away from Europe and towards Asia we might expect British institutions like the Royal Academy to cling to the old narratives that tacitly support their own role as narrator but we need not listen.
For a little perspective, the Royal Academy is the same institution that in 2011 appointed Tracey Emin its professor of drawing. Would we respect an orchestra that appointed Miley Cyrus its conductor? If that isn’t a fair analogy, allow me to soothe the insult by adding that the catalogue to Australia features a touching foreword by the Prince of Wales, presumably an authority on Australian art.
Beyond the central conflict between a love for what Australia is and a remorse for what it took to create, anyone visiting this exhibition might have trouble discovering anything new. Survey exhibitions generally aren’t supposed to point the way forward and, considering its context, this one would be particularly ill equipped. Considering that Australia is more a work in progress than most nations, I was mostly left wondering whether art will follow change or will change be made to follow art.
Australia shows at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, until December 8.
Shaun GladwellApproach to Mundi Mundi, 2007. Production still from two-channel HD video.

1 comment:

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