Margaret Tan and Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep

Last week, I mentioned the number of ageing rock stars having to cancel concerts. In contrast, Margaret Leng Tan, aged 74, performed a 75-minute one-person show as part of the Asia TOPA festival in Melbourne. She made it look effortless, producing an almost choreographic style of piano playing, as she performed the world premiere of “Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep”.

Both autobiographical and a tribute to two of her greatest influences, John Cage and her mother, the show is a mix of live piano, prerecorded audio, digital art, multimedia and spoken word. It is comprised of anecdotes from her life, personal musings on loss, and practical aphorisms, such as “DRC” – the “daily reality check” – a must for all artists and anyone else needing to make sense of the modern world.

Clearly a very focused and determined musician, Margaret Tan has carved out a niche for herself in the modern classical world, with her championing of the toy piano. She has made it an instrument for serious composition and concert performance.

The physicality of her performance ensured that the digital technology neither dominated nor descended into gimmickry (no “tech for tech’s sake” here). Her presence on stage was captivating yet self-contained – despite largely being all about her, it was authentic and self-effacing in equal measure.

Margaret Tan revealed two key aspects of herself that go some way to explaining her success. First, at an early age she realised she had to concentrate on the piano – she couldn’t maintain her other music and dance studies – from which we get the sense of her single-minded purpose. Second, her lifelong obsession with numbers – almost a form of synesthesia; and given the strong relationship between numbers and music, it felt that she has learned to live with, even appreciate, this “affliction” in the pursuit of her art.

If there was one thing missing, it was Margaret Tan’s own music. While she is best-known for her interpretations of John Cage and other modern composers, I was curious about her own work, and whether she has ever explored composition herself.

Next week: My Four Years in Crypto

 

Hicks vs Papapetrou

Another compare and contrast this week, and like last week, based on a current NGV exhibition – this time, head-to-head retrospectives of two Australian photographers, Petrina Hicks and Polixeni Papapetrou.

Petrina Hickson – “Peaches and velvet” (2018) – image sourced from NGV

The challenge for contemporary photographers is the ubiquity of the medium. Anyone with a smart phone can be a “photographer”. At a basic level, the technology to capture photographic images is accessible to all, and no special skill is required. Add to this the impact that advertising, magazines, fashion, portraiture, reportage and social media have had on the way we view images, and there is a risk that audiences detect no difference between what they see on a billboard poster, in an on-line news article, on Facebook/Tumblr/Instagram/Twitter or in an art gallery or museum.

In these two particular shows, I think the NGV is trying to re-establish a platform for contemporary photography as an art form, and not merely as a technical means of capturing and creating images. (Selfies, holiday snaps and wedding photos are all very well, but they ain’t necessarily art.) It’s an admirable ambition, but I’m not sure these collections are the best examples on which to build such a thesis.

Polixeni Papapetrou – “Prize Thimble” (2004) – image sourced from NGV

Both photographers produce highly stylized, almost trademark images, which reveal a very methodical and deliberate approach to their work. Everything is highly choreographed, deliberately posed and meticulously arranged – nothing is left to chance, giving an overwhelming sense of artifice. These photographs are hyperreal yet also quite literal – what you see is what you get. This is not to say they lack formal narrative or even additional meaning, but despite their obvious visual appeal, it’s hard to see much beyond the images themselves.

In Hicks’ case, as well as recurring images, arrangements and visual motifs, the works on display reveal a very defined (even limited) colour palette, especially as many tones appear washed out, almost over-exposed. While Papapetrou’s work mostly feature her own daughter, in various staged settings, some of which allude to well-known fictional stories,  historical events, myths, legends and fairy tales. Despite both these exhibitions being retrospectives, based on these selections you would be hard-pressed to say there was much in the way of artistic development – there’s a sameness to both sets of images.

Despite each photographer having a distinctive style, there are also echoes of many other photographers – notably Julia Margaret Cameron, Madame Yevonde, Claude Cahun, Meret Oppenheim, Cyndi Sherman and Polly Borland among them.

Next week: The Current State of Popular Music

 

 

 

Haring vs Basquiat

Following last week’s “compare & contrast” entry, another similar exercise this week, between artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, the subject of the NGV’s summer blockbuster exhibition.

Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Other artists: “Untitled (Symphony No. 1)” c. 1980-83 [image sourced from NGV website]

Given their friendship, collaborations and mutual connections to the New York scene of the 1980s, it was only natural that the NGV went for this double-header retrospective. Since they both gained early recognition for their street art and graffiti-based work, and their images crossed over into the worlds of music, fashion and clubbing, they had a lot in common. They were as likely to be featured in style magazines such as The Face as they were to be found in the arts section (or society pages) of the New York Times.

Both died relatively young, and it’s as if they somehow knew they each had limited time, such is the intense pace at which they worked, as evidenced by their prolific output. If there is one element that really links them is their inner drive – they had to produce art, there was no choice for them, and they threw everything into it.

They each developed their own distinctive visual styles, much imitated and appropriated throughout popular culture, graphic design, video and advertising. Haring is known for his dog motif and cartoon-like figures, Basquiat for his iconic crown and text-based work. They also placed great emphasis on issues of identity, gender, sexuality and broader sociopolitical themes.

Where they perhaps differ is that Haring relied on more simplistic imagery (albeit loaded with meaning and context), using mainly primary colours, flat perspective (no shading or depth), and strong repetition. On the other hand, Basquiat’s paintings reveal confident mark-making, bold colour choices (not always successful), and an implied love of semiotics (even more so than Haring’s almost ubiquitous iconography).

Of course, we’ll never know how their respective work would have developed over the past 30 years – maybe what we now see is all there was ever going to be? As a consequence, there is perhaps a sense that they plowed a relatively narrow field, that they did not develop artistically once they became gallery artists. I’m not suggesting their work is shallow or one-dimensional (even though it can simply be viewed and appreciated “on the surface”), but it would have been interesting to see where their work took them.

Finally, we are still very close to the era in which they were active, and in that regard their true legacy will be in the influence they cast on late 20th century art and beyond.

Next week: Hicks vs Papapetrou

 

Craft vs Creativity

In a recent blog on Auckland, I mentioned seeing some Maori artifacts or Taonga during a gallery tour. The curator had mentioned that these objects raise questions of whether they are art, or craft. Does the distinction matter? Not necessarily, but I think it’s important to understand the difference between craft (largely skills-based) and art (largely aesthetically-driven). Often these concepts overlap, and are sometimes misconstrued, which in turn influences how we attach value, appreciation, importance and significance to particular objects.

Anton Gerner, A Cabinet With No Front Or Back 2019, Fiddleback Blackwood, Celery Top Pine. (Image sourced from Craft Victoria)

What often gets viewed as “pure” art is more a result of design, technique and skill – attributes which are more usually associated with craft (or “applied” art). Indeed, it is noticeable how viewers seem to appreciate “effort” over “creativity”. A great number of exhibitions I see in contemporary art galleries are more about illustration, decoration and process – and it’s as if the time taken to create the work or the complexity of the object is more important than the actual aesthetic outcome.

On the other hand, a lot of work that is assigned to the category of “craft” is capable of sitting alongside sculptures and 3-D work in an art gallery. Equally, a lot of work (especially in the fields of ceramics, textiles and jewellery) has neither the aesthetic form to be considered as art, nor the functional form to be regarded as craft.

For me, craft involves considered decisions about the choice of material, the design and production process, plus the intended function (even if the latter is only for decorative purposes). Whereas art is usually undertaken for the purpose of arriving at an intended creative outcome, with the choice of materials etc., often being secondary to the final aesthetic result.

Both art and craft can be seen in cultural, social and even political terms. They are also informed by context and narrative. But successful art should convey more creativity than applied craft or technique. And craft is often diminished if it fails to conveys some practical element of function – what’s the point of a beautiful jug if it cannot pour water?

Two recent exhibitions underline how the distinction between “art” and “craft” is often blurred: the Victorian Craft Awards, and MasterMakers at RMIT Gallery. In the Craft Victoria display, most of the pieces had no real practical purpose (other than decoration); yet, in terms of achieving an aesthetic goal, it felt like this was subservient to the materials and the process. While in the RMIT exhibition, there was an emphasis on the materials, plus an acknowledgement that even very technical processes can also result in objects that offer aesthetic pleasure – where form and function truly combine, and are inherently equal in the work. (The Anton Gerner furniture at Craft Victoria also manages to achieve that combination.)

We still don’t really know why the first cave paintings were made – were they an early form of graffiti? do they tell a story or capture events for posterity? were they the result of experimenting with pigments or dyeing techniques? or were they the result of some existential desire to give rise to a form of human expression? or simply to have something nice to look at? But we know we can appreciate them for their aesthetic level as well as their technique – in addition to their historical significance.

Next week: Notes from Phuket