Sunday, August 27, 2006

Art Worth a Million Starbucks

"Art School" fashion spread by Virginia van Heythuysen
Photo by Juli Balla (from Sunday Life, August 27, 2006)

Nostalgic for art school life, I've been wondering now for some time what the art kids of today are up to. What's hip for art hipsters today? This very question was answered today by The Sun-Herald, a newspaper that often answers life's big questions. When I'm not sure what to eat, for instance, I look at the celebrity photo pages because without a doubt an image of what's trendy in finger food is positioned between party snaps of Antonia Kidman and Peter Morrissey. All the big names in Australian culture no less! When I need to invest intellectual shares in current affairs, I turn to Miranda Devine for an enlightened stance on all things right wing.

Today's art hipsters rarely appear in the Sunday press, unless of course Urban Style columnist Fernando Frisoni has snapped them during a day of cruising East Sydney for young hotties garbed in recycled clothing, designer accessories and lusty trout pouts. My anxieties that art school chic is not media worthy on Sundays were quickly extinguished by the Lifestyle section of the Sunday Life magazine supplement of The Sun-Herald. Filling four pages are fashion snaps of a young white girl/boy couple getting around town suitably disengaged and absorbed more in consumer cravings than each other. Titled "Art School," the subheading claims, "Pop-art punk delivers maximum impact: 15 minutes of fame guaranteed."

In the first image, reproduced here at The Artswipe, the boy chats on his mobile phone, his hair carefully simulating that skanky unwashed look popular with skaters and crackwhores. The fine print lists the designer items worn and the grand total for a budding male artist's Art School image is $1322. Let's hope he's the next Matthew Barney so he can pay off those mounting student loans. As for the girl, Art School cachet costs $2054 and a Starbucks latté. Maybe she'll be Björk to his Barney, so the whole episode in elegant-slumming with a HECS debt will be worth it in the long run.

And what do you think these kids make at art school? Well their thing is critiquing consumer culture, because that never dates. They heard Johnny Boy's song, "You Were the Generation that Bought More Shoes and You Get What You Deserve," and were so inspired they made a painting appropriating the song's title before going shopping because it's, like, a political act, man. What struck me about this art duo is how invested they are in a seething electroclash of binary oppositions. Pop Art meets Punk (well, according to the subheading at least). And Campbell Soup always works when it's followed with a Starbucks chaser.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Jumping the Casting Couch

There's so much to cry about this week. With death everywhere I look, I'm at a loss knowing what to do with all these conflicting feelings. Grief is a funny emotion; it grabs you by the back of the throat, rams your brain in reverse, lunges at your heart, rupturing your tear ducts. At least, that is the measure of the emotional crisis I experienced yesterday when I heard that Tom Cruise was being sacked from Paramount Studios.

Yesterday afternoon I walked through Greek St, Glebe, past that big Church of Scientology, just hoping some young devout believer would stop me in my tracks, share the mysteries of the faith and more importantly lead me to where Tom might be hiding out. But no, it didn't happen. Apparently Tom Cruise hasn't been back to Australia since John Polson started making films in the US. (Potential-Screw-Loose-Cruise-Factoid No 1: Back in 2000, Tom sweated hard up-selling Polson's debut Siam Sunset to all the studio bosses in the US, when everyone else in the world acted more appropriately through indifference, or for those who actually saw it, sobs of abject vomit).

But, let's get back to the point. Grief is a funny emotion when it's mediated entirely through popular culture. Media and cultural studies academics everywhere got really self-congratulatory years back when Princess Diana's death afforded a lexicon of "globalised grief." Earlier this week when paying tribute to JonBenét, I was forced to negotiate the bittersweet signification of baby's breath: a wreath-like bouquet for the hair, baby's breath's symbolic innocence, virginity and bridal anticipation is no more suggested than in pictures of a beauty queen trapped in an image that doesn't breathe. But my grief for stars like Tom Cruise, and to a lesser extent Mel Gibson, is centred around postmodern fatigue and embedded in a lost image economy harking back to the Hollywood Studio System. I look at the mess poor Tom has made of things, and I wonder what Rock Hudson is thinking, looking down on Tom with a wink from that amyl-soaked Castro Street disco in the sky.

The Hollywood Studio system flourished between the 1920s to the early 50s, when the large motion picture studios of the day made movies with their carefully manufactured stars under long-term contract. I think Debbie Reynolds might just be the last actor alive from this era – it's a hunch, so don't quote me on that. But if the Hollywood Studio System, which really was a Star System, petered out some five decades ago, why does Tom Cruise's public shaming by Paramount actually feel a bit old-school Hollywood? Without a major studio, we just know that poor Tom may not survive. Action heroes divorced from the creatures comforts of a major studio are like fish out of water. So that’s why I went looking for Tom – or at least a kind believer willing to explain Tom to me – at Scientology Churches in Sydney yesterday.

I sat down on a couch with one very kind man of the Sciency brethren. (With due respect to Privacy Law, let's call him called "Max"). It was actually a couch not unlike the one Tom famously rode like a Brokeback rodeo on Oprah. Being so into terms, I decided to share with Max the impact Tom has had on the popular culture of our time. I told him how Tom's televised chair dancing antics spawned a term - "jumping the couch," which defines as, "The defining moment when you know someone has finally lost his or her marbles. Inspired by Tom Cruise's behavior on Oprah when he jumped up and down maniacally on her couch, while professing his undying love for actress Katie Holmes. Reportedly much easier to accomplish than going off a 'deep end.'"

Max didn't care for my knowledge of pop culture minutiae, and certainly didn't seem to care for his celebrity elder. Max preferred I answer this whole swag of questions about mismatched numbers, words, ideas, sounds, and the like. That's far too fucking conceptual for even me. The only words of any true meaning that could come out my mouth at this stage were classic Cruise movie quotes. When I locked gaze with poor Max and said, "Respect the cock and tame the cunt," he called security.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

White Goods for JonBenét

We are living in dark times, ladies and gentlemen. Or at least I feel like I'm having some kind of Sylvia Plath week – dead ladies and white goods. Recently I said to my neighbour, "Listen, Janet, I started a blog because blog culture lacks a genuinely honest voice in the dark cyber fog." Janet said, "You're like Lenny Bruce or Sandra Bernhard, riding a magic zeitgeist carpet ride into a networked world that needs new over-ripe diatribe." I felt humbled by Janet's endorsement and a little guilty because she obviously thinks I know something about "blog culture."

But yes, I do feel like it's time to cut through the bullshit and pay a little long overdue respect to the little lady of perky pageantry – JonBenét Ramsey. If I could say something to JonBenét and be assured she could hear me, I'd say:

"Since you've been gone, little lady, I've been in this really dark place because I know you would have grown up and been really important. Yes, you would have been getting all kinds of Nobel prizes for, say, inventing a more aesthetically viable substitute for the kinds of plastic purchased from Ikea or designing Braille for blind animals. I just know you would have done something cool and worthwhile like that."

But baby Benét never had a chance. Tarted up like a featured extra from Bugsy-meets-The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, it's become clear there's a whole lot more going on since John Mark Karr has confessed to accidentally murdering her (yeah right, I'm really getting into accidents too – they're such convenient ways to describe strange phenomena). Anyway, I feel the whole Karr thing is a bit weird. It just doesn't ring true that this freak actually did what he claimed he did. I suspect he longs for some kind of demented notoriety because JonBenét has a starring role in his perverse fantasies. How could anyone who writes poetry for the littlies and claims they "identify with Michael Jackson" be guilty of crimes against a child? Surely Jackson was never found guilty of such a thing.

I reckon whatever love attachment Karr had for JonBenét was based on some confused fiction and reality distinction. In an era where the image reigns supreme, JonBenét has become one of our most beloved endorsements for Americana rendered iconic by the image. Like the US flag or an Andy Warhol soup can, JonBenét's little tiara-encrusted-hair-spray-do framed a sweet little face that spoke to dreams unrealised, hopes dashed way too soon. If I was a semiotics professor, I'd say she was signification gone awry – a poster child for the American fascination with sexing up kids and cashing in on precocious child-star talent ala Jodie Foster or Dakota Fanning. I'm waiting for the day Mattel releases an interactive board game for the US market called "Will the Child Star Crash & Burn or Win an Oscar One Day?" The tagline would be: "Roll the dice and you decide Little Man Tate's fate." (If you're playing as Haley Joel Osment, then you'll probably just get an Oscar nomination before heading into Star Rehab). If this game gets the corporate nod, I'll be sure to order one from Amazon because the Tall Poppy lopping Australian in me loves to see these little stars-and-stripes stay lopped.

Except when it comes to JonBenét the game gets a bit dicey because she reveals how kids in pageant land are manufactured as fodder for child porn fantasy. The whole child beauty industry is only good for one thing in my view: it provides hours of entertainment for connoisseurs of American trash culture. But really, it seems American culture doesn't see it that way, upholding its child pageant industry like it's a complex totem signifying innovation, progress, education, family values, patriotism, and good old fashioned shiny whiteness.

Whatever JonBenét represented then as much as now, I just can't shake the whole anxiety that whether or not this Karr person is really guilty, he's symptomatic of a culture happy to consume kids painted in grown-ups drag as if to satiate a line blurred between childhood innocence and adult fantasy.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Death of the Artist

A Bronwyn Oliver sculpture (Photo: The Artswipe)

Though I never met her, the death of Bronwyn Oliver - who on July 11, 2006, took her own life - came as a shock, and filled me with a deep sadness. Images of the Australian sculptor's work started appearing everywhere, and while I have been very familiar with her practice over the years, I started to scrutinise the work on a much deeper level. And I started to feel really, really sad, and filled with a loss that baffled me considering I had not given her work much thought in the past.

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald - Spectrum (August 19, 2006) John McDonald rightfully claimed: "There is a terrible delicacy in writing about an artist who has recently taken her own life... Whatever one writes about the artist at this time will inevitably stand in the shadow of her death." I couldn't agree more. The intractable scrutiny I experienced in recent weeks while pondering Oliver's oeuvre, is that I find it difficult to shake off the impulse to find evidence, some clue pointing to the mysteries of why she took her own life. But all I find is that terrible, uncanny beauty that she so gracefully extracted from the soft folds of nature and transformed into hard-wired sculpture. It's a line of beauty that has overtaken me somewhat, forcing me to revisit all those artist-as-troubled-genius mythologies we're taught at art school to avoid.

I wandered into Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery on Saturday afternoon to check out Oliver's final solo exhibition and was delighted that the gallery was packed with so many people -- I actually can't remember the last time I visited a gallery with such healthy number of visitors at a time that did not coincide with the free booze of an opening night. I had been putting off visiting Oliver's show, even though it was my intention to pay my respects before the exhibition closed. But a part of me was a bit resistant to attending the exhibition because it would test whether my response to the work would be ideologically knee-jerking my critical faculties into blurring the line between an artist's life and their work. Could I put to the test whether Roland Barthes' "death of the author" argument actually worked when it came to the crunch? Much of the recent press about Oliver has focused on how intensely private, obsessive, hard-working and exact she was. Basically it seems Oliver was a big enigma in the artworld to those who knew the work but didn't know the person, because for starters she was rarely seen schmoozing at flashy Biennale openings and the like. (And I'm guessing most artists see more of each other at openings than they do their art. Unless of course checking out the stills of an artist's current exhibition on their dealer's website has become the equivalent of physically attending an exhibition).

Back to my point. It's precisely because Oliver was such a mystery that her work has been charged with a magnetic force that invites almost morbid speculation: Why did she do it? What could have been so terrible for her to do what she did? Such questions can never be sufficiently answered, so I reckon we should stop asking. But even if we do, it won't stop us from reading her work in ways that cannot but be divorced from knowledge of the death of this particular author. And in a sense that really depresses me. Because I wanted to think I could be more critical than that. I'm not saying Oliver's work doesn't deserve the praise. If anything, her work deserves so much more than our passing tributes punctuated with odd bits of nausea-inducing gossip about the circumstances surrounding her death. It is undeniable that Oliver was a brilliant artist and let's hope she will be admired for generations to come. Such a thought is somewhat optimistic because it means future generations viewing her work may elicit a necessary detachment from the work to set aside for a moment the "shadow of her death" and focus on the aesthetic, conceptual and technical wonders contained therein.

After attending the Roslyn Oxley9 exhibition, it dawned on me that I took a photo of one of Oliver's sculptures years ago -- I think it was 1999 or 2000 -- while doing a Sculpture Walk across Sydney. And while I remember at the time being pretty amazed by Oliver's achievement, the feeling of wonder passed rather quickly because ultimately like most of us I suspect, it wasn't attached to some romantic narrative of the artist's troubled life and death.

Friday, August 18, 2006

God Grant Me the Semitic

John Waters, Straight, 1996
John Waters is represented by
Arthur Roger Gallery in New Orleans, Greg Kucera Gallery in Seattle, and probably others.

So let's turn to "recent world events." Mel Gibson has been ordered to say his "God grant me the serenitys" at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings five times a week for four and a half months and three AA meetings per week for another seven and a half months. He's also been ordered to enrol in an alcohol-abuse program for three months, fined a paltry sum of $US1,300 ($AU1,694) and had his licence restricted for 90 days.

I'm a bit pissed off by all of this actually. Mel Gibson shouldn't be punished for drinking - this actually makes him bearable. Rather, he should be punished for his crimes towards cinema. Just imagine how much of better place this world would be if we'd never had to witness Maverick, What Women Want and The Man Who Got Off His Face? Of course, if bad cinema doesn't make him punishable, then the whole anti-Semite thing should put him up there on the "naughty shelf" with all the war criminals. Writing in the
Sydney Morning Herald (August 11, 2006) playwright Louis Nowra claimed that the media's attacks on Gibson were "sanctimonious," "blown out of all proportion" and "shows a disturbing trend in this era of media witch-hunts." I disagree, Mr Nowra. It's a sink or swim situation out there in celebrityland and a good-old-fashioned witch-hunt rekindles our literal joy in hanging the witch if they don't drown first in their own vodka vomit.

Maybe I'm being just as hateful as Mel. Actually no one could be. The notorious film director John Waters (Pink Flamingos, Polyester, Hairspray) once exhibited a photo (yes, he takes photos of TV screens) about Mel's apparent hatred of gays. Is there anyone Mel don't like?

As Waters writes in his book of art photos, Director's Cut (Scalo, 1997): "Of course I can be hateful if I'm pushed... [On] Mel Gibson: Don't get me started on his homophobia. One shot of his name, matted crookedly and entitled Straight (1996) says it all as far as I'm concerned."

Friday, August 11, 2006

Group Mentality

The Kingpins
Sydney Infinity, 2005
Courtesy the artists and Kaliman Gallery

Solo shows have become group affairs! Artistic collaboration is no new thing, but why is it such a hot thing in the Australian art scene right now to accelerate your profile by forming an artist duo or group? It seems you get instant attention if you actually bear more resemblance to some kind of parallel universe Australian Idol act bearing a really ironic name and doing the circus clown routine absolutely everywhere including the gallery space. The Kingpins, soda_jerk, Ms & Mr, Gossip Pop, the Motel Sisters, Wild Boys, and probably others I've forgotten about, all comprise the phenomenal proliferation of artist groups in the contemporary Australian art scene. And while she is a solo act, Danielle Freakley's project Artist Running Space (where she pretends to be a human gallery by exhibiting other artists' work on her white-cube-for-a-head) may as well be a group act because there's always her performance adorned by someone else's images. Actually that's given me an idea: maybe artist Simon Barney should become his mobile Briefcase space, and to view the art he would open up like that McDonalds advert where children hatch out of their parents Babooshka Doll style in search of the perfect Meal Deal.

I'll admit, these bright young group things make great work for the most part and shake up the often staid state of the arts. But my cynical side often wonders if art today needs this kind of glossy hook in order to make an impact, or at the very least, get some crowd-pleasing attention. I'm all for the dismantling of the high/low binary which once claimed art as elite and pop culture as its inbred cousin. Art today is another form of pop culture, even if it is unremarkable for a mostly disinterested mass audience. Certainly, the engineering of the art star is testament to such celebrity-invested phenomena that sees art as 'the new entertainment.' What bothers me is that while this trend of the artist group has produced some interesting and/or entertaining artwork I fear that critical art culture has suffered a bit of a dumbing down. Just because a catalogue essay might herald the work in Baudrillardian or McLuhanesque terms doesn't mean the work's gonna be that hot next year. And while postmodern culture is specifically manufactured around its very impermanence, I don't really think the current crop of performative art groups popping up have thought too hard about when, where or how their deaths will be staged. Rather, their deaths may happen the hard way: through failed comebacks, where their work may one day forlornly line the bargain bins of the commercial galleries that once clamoured to represent them.

→ ↑ → perform at George Patton Gallery, Melbourne, 1980.
Photo by Judy Annear and sourced from Darren Tofts'
Fibreculture essay

For all the fun to be had by this new wave of art/pop or pop/art stars, we must never forget that → ↑ → (pronounced 'tsk tsk tsk') was probably the best art pop group to have emerged in Australia. → ↑ → paved the way for the kinds of experimental, performative and ‘hybrid’ multimedia works featured ad nauseum in galleries and museums today. Thankfully the Kingpins know to honour their 'artcestors.' In the recent issue of Photofile (77, Autumn 2006) the Kingpins interview Philip Brophy, the Melbourne artist who formed → ↑ → in the late 1970s and who has since carved out an impressive body of work as a solo artist making film, video, sound, design and scholarly commentary. The article is illustrated with a glossy production still where Brophy and the Kingpins pose pirate-style in a pop combo called 30 BMP. Inspired inter-generational post-pop art perhaps?

Whatever it is, we shouldn't forget that Brophy, in an earlier issue of Photofile (74 Winter 2005) claimed: "An artist using a pop song in video art is like anyone either enrolling in a DJ course or wearing an iPod in public: TRAGIC."

Funny that, because without pop songs some of the Kingpins' videos just wouldn't work. And as for Brophy's Evaporated Music – well it is entirely based on deconstructing the sonic elements of a few TRAGIC pop music videos! If we took the pop songs out of a lot of recent art all that would remain is some weird kind of out-take or blooper reel found in the Special Features section of a DVD that doesn't exist but is called Untitled (Very Cindy Sherman).

Friday, August 04, 2006

Lady Flattery

Tracey Moffatt
(photo by Steven Siewert from The Sydney Morning Herald)

Recently The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Tracey Moffatt, the glorious doyenne of art glamour, is making a new series of portraits of artworld figures and celebrities that will flatter all involved, "making them appear 20 years younger." If anyone can pull this off, it's Ms Moffatt because she understands better than anyone that a polished aesthetic is the secret to eternal youth. And for Moffatt, Photoshop covers over a multitude of skins – I mean sins – associated with aging. I wondered if maybe she wouldn't mind taking a portrait of Kathleen Turner, because the poor thing didn't take too kindly to age. In the eighties, when Turner ruled Hollywood, the age-youth-beauty nexus was basically branded by Turner's face. Now darling KT is all alone in a young, beautiful world ruled by whoreskanks like Lindsay Lohan. Actually, maybe Ms Moffatt could take a portrait of Lohan because 20 years younger and she'd appear all fetal, and that's my favourite look this season.