Let There Be Light

Q: What do a selection of 19th century oil paintings, a 50-year old piece of 16mm film, and a 21st century carpet have in common?

A: They are all exhibits in ACMI’s winter show, “Light”, based on works from the Tate’s Collection.

Image: James Turrell, “Raemar, Blue” (1969) on display at ACMI (Photo by Rory Manchee)

Despite ACMI’s brief to showcase the moving image, only three of the art works in the exhibition consist of film. A few more incorporate movement in the form of kinetic sculptures. But otherwise, this is mostly a collection of paintings and photography (and yes, a carpet).

Does it work? Yes, because just as light can be regarded as an essential building material, the use, portrayal and capture of light is essential to render colour, shadow, depth, perspective and narrative in all forms of art.

Arranged thematically, by theory or technique of how light is represented and rendered in art, the exhibition is both diverse and cohesive. It avoids the risk of overload because the selection is quite compact (given the wide remit of the topic). It also avoids choosing works based on technical prowess alone. Therefore, the exhibition succeeds through the combined principles of quality over quantity, and content over form.

It was timely to see mention of The Enlightenment as a key source of artistic exploration, as well as being a driver in the fields of of scientific discovery and liberalism. The exchange of ideas between and across different disciplines has always been essential to progress in the sciences, the arts and the humanities.

My favourite exhibits among the works I hadn’t seen before were by Olafur Eliason, Lis Rhodes and Peter Sedgley. And it’s always a pleasure to immerse yourself in one of James Turrell‘s installations. The only slight disappointment was that visitors are kept at quite a distance from Yayoi Kusama‘s The Passing Winter, an intriguing cube-shaped sculpture that is like one of her infinity rooms in miniature. The last time I saw it in London, it was possible to peer right in to get the full effect.

All in all, highly recommended.

Next week: Hands on the wheel

Cultural Overload: Oblique Strategies vs Major Tom

This week, Content in Context took a break from start-ups, fintech and the information superhighway to immerse itself in some cultural overload, with hardly a digital device in sight. However, I didn’t need to wander very far to realise that digital technology is both enhancing and restricting our ability to engage with art, music, culture and live performance – while analogue still wins out in terms of creating tangible experiences.

What technology would Thomas Jerome Newton have used to interpret “David Bowie Is”? (Image found here.)

To start with, I went to the “David Bowie Is” exhibition currently showing at Melbourne’s ACMI. As a retrospective on Bowie’s music career, including his dalliances with mime, theatre, fashion, videos, cut-ups, painting and film, it’s pretty comprehensive. What makes it particularly engaging is the lack of digital trickery among the exhibits: no touch screens, no VR or AR spectacular, not even a smart phone app to accompany your visit. It’s all very museum-like sedateness, well-presented artefacts, and extensively annotated displays – not surprising given the V&A provenance.

The absence of complex digital displays or an interactive/interpretive visitor experience is somewhat surprising, given that Bowie has always been an early adopter of new technologies (after all, this is the man who launched his own ISP, BowieNet, and was one of the first musicians to securitise his songwriting royalties via the so-called Bowie Bonds). Not forgetting that  Bowie was using multiple characters, personas and alter-egos long before we got around to internet avatars.

Bowie’s remarkable run of studio albums in the 1970s (unparalleled in popular music) stretched the limits of contemporary recording standards, because each LP has a distinct sonic palette, based on the careful selection of locations, musicians and studio technology. There’s even a section dedicated to some lyric-writing software that Bowie used to automate his cut-up process (which emulated the Dadaists and writers like Burroughs and Gysin). And videos for some of his early 80s songs (“Ashes to Ashes”, “Fashion”, “Let’s Dance” and “China Girl”) were MTV staples when the medium was still in its infancy. (But as the exhibition reminds us, Bowie was using the short film format as early as the late 60s.)

The only real concession to digital technology is the audio guide, which uses a personal playback device. These devices are linked to either NFC tags or wireless beacons to trigger specific music, commentary or soundtracks when the visitor is in a relevant location. Mostly it works well, and provides a collage of sounds to accompany the more significant exhibits. However, the cut-over between some “trigger zones” is a bit abrupt, even clunky, and there is nothing interactive for the visitor to explore or experience.

At the end, each visitor was given a postcard with a promotional code to download a free Bowie album. All very nice, and a great idea, but poorly executed:

  • The choice of albums is limited to his more recent studio albums, and a fairly average live album (by Bowie’s standards) – so none of those classic 70s recordings
  • The promotion is linked to Google Play and the process of setting up and downloading my account was not very intuitive, and compared to iTunes was very clunky (at least on my iMac)
  • It was not possible to curate my own personal Bowie album, which could have been fun – now, I understand the reluctance to deconstruct complete albums into individual songs, but perhaps some specially selected and Bowie-approved thematic compilations (e.g., based on his many stage and studio personas) could have provided a neat compromise?

While I liked the fact that the exhibition mainly used analogue technology, I think there was a missed opportunity to create an additional layer of interactivity, either via the audio guide, or via a separate smart phone app or website (I’m thinking of MONA’s “O Device”, the NGV’s “Melbourne Now” app, or some of the marvelous exhibition apps developed by London’s Tate Modern, the Réunion des Musées Nationaux in France, and both the MCA and Gallery of NSW in Sydney). Something for the V&A and ACMI to think about?

Then, it was a short walk across Federation Square to the Arts Centre, for a 3-day extravaganza of live events (music, dance, theatre, mixed media) collectively known as “Supersense”. OK, so I appreciate that this curated festival was all about experiencing live performance up close and in the moment – without being (dis)intermediated by any layer of technology between performer and audience (apart from some 3D glasses I wore for one mixed media show). But a festival app would have been very useful to help navigate the warren of corridors and backstage areas where the festival was held, to let visitors know when events were due to start, and to notify them when there no more seats in the smaller performance spaces.  Also, the festival website’s complicated schedule of events was impossible to read on a smart phone, so an app would have been great!

Anyway, the festival format, range of styles and mixed quality inevitably meant it was a veritable curate’s egg – the broad theme made it difficult to establish a cohesive context, and yet there were some connections and overlaps (both direct links between performers, and indirect conceptual links among the cross-cultural references and influences). Again, an app would have helped to make those connections. But the organisers (and performers) are to be congratulated for pulling off this inaugural event, and I look forward to next year’s programme.

Finally, for the culturally aware (or just plain old trainspotters) there were a number of connections to be made between “Bowie Is” and “Supersense”:

  • The performance of Brian Eno‘s ground-breaking ambient composition “Discreet Music” by The Necks and friends reminded us of Eno’s crucial role in recording Bowie’s trio of Berlin albums, “Low”, “Heroes” and “Lodger”
  • More specifically, the incorporation of Eno’s “Oblique Strategies” into the “Discreet Music” concert was very pertinent; not only did Eno use this system of random instructions when working on “Lodger”, he gave Bowie his own deck of “Oblique Strategies” cards, which are on display at ACMI
  • The festival finale by John Cale (also a sometime collaborator with Eno) included versions of “I’m Waiting for My Man” and “Venus in Furs” which he first recorded with The Velvet Underground in the 60s – and Bowie was one of the earliest artists to cover songs by The Velvet Underground in the early 70s.
  • Bowie’s early career incorporated mime, poetry and performance art, reflecting his influences and interests. In turn, thanks to the influence of cultural polymaths like him, a festival as diverse as Supersense seems perfectly natural to contemporary audiences.

Next week: Tourism – time to get digital



Edifice and Artifice – Urban Planning and Verisimilitude

Art can provide a compelling antidote to all the moral, philosophical, economic, scientific, religious and political hyperbole that bombards and confronts us every day. By referencing the technical processes of artistic practice, the study of art history and the language of critical art theory, we can learn to interpret and navigate these conflicting forces, and even challenge them. In our increasing over-reliance on all things digital, we need an artistic sensibility to help us re-connect with tangible reality. There are also some suggestions that enlightened companies have started hiring art graduates to bring an alternative perspective to their organizations – to tap into hitherto under-utilised skills and to employ this external expertise for internal problem solving, decision-making and strategic analysis.

Two recent cultural experiences have provided me an opportunity to reflect on how more than ever we need art to help make sense of the world, especially when interpreting data and making strategic planning decisions based on informed assumptions, market research and business analysis – because the standardized digital representation of everything means we often fail to venture beyond the surface of things.

The first event was a screening of “Urbanized”, an intriguing documentary by Gary Hustwit, showing at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. The film is the final part of Hustwit’s design trilogy (following “Helvetica” and “Objectified”) and looks at several examples of good (and bad) urban planning around the world.  It provides cause for both optimism and pessimism on the future of the city – but it is mostly a positive survey.

One critical section of the documentary is an exploration of Brasilia, a flawed example of a “planned” city, with marvellous civic edifices and expansive freeways – except that for the people who live there, especially poorer and car-less citizens, it just doesn’t work as a built environment where they are supposed to live, work and play. Scratch beneath the surface, and we see a dysfunctional city. The moral of this particular story is that planners need to engage with the community, and work from the perspective of the end user, not simply from a visionary blueprint. Meanwhile, Stuttgart provides a salutary lesson in how poor public communication around policy, decision-making and execution can lead to a government being voted out of office, yet the majority of voters remain in favour of the politicians’ original planning decision.

There are so many things to like about this simple but effective film: the absence of a voice-over, allowing the stories to largely speak for themselves (within the usual confines of editorial decisions); the choice selection of urban locations and planning case studies; a range of informed and mostly objective participants and commentators; plus simple cinematography and a great soundtrack. Now I want my own city to adopt the public bus system from Bogota and the bike lanes from Copenhagen (and maybe the High-Line Park from New York).

The second cultural event comprised two solo (but related) exhibitions at the National Gallery of Victoria, featuring the photography of Thomas Demand and Jeff Wall respectively. Both artists produce large scale works, both employ sculptured components (light boxes used as fames, images printed on Perspex to imply depth) and both of them use constructed or staged settings to create their images.

Thomas Demand’s work looks deceptively simple and straightforward – mostly large still-life pictures of urban, industrial and technology-based interiors. However, if we dig below the surface verisimilitude, we can see that the images are really photographs of models made from paper and cardboard – sculptures that meticulously and painstakingly recreate these scenes rather like stage-sets, which simultaneously seem totally familiar yet frankly disturbing. This latter response can be explained by the absence of people and an eerie lack of any human presence in the images, plus the knowledge that all this visual data is merely a form of hyper-reality; but at the same time it is actually false, or at best an impression or recreated memory.

In comparison to his counterpart, Jeff Wall’s photography has the appearance of being more naturalistic (especially as most of Wall’s images feature people in everyday settings), even though in some cases it is just as surreal and hyper-real. The latter is achieved by the use of scale and backlighting, while the former is implied by the contradiction and juxtaposition between subject (content), and setting (context). This body of work also incorporates more narrative elements, and manages to make external references to literature, film and art history.

Both artists are quietly academic in their practice, and to some viewers this might present a barrier to understanding if they are not familiar with the accompanying art theory or critical analysis. But this need not be an obstacle to our engagement with the work, allowing us to appreciate it for what it is, and to reach our personal interpretations and conclusions.

Art enables us to relate individual stories and collective experiences, and recognizes that there are many truths, not just a single truth. Without art, we would lose a vital tool to interpret and narrate much of the world around us that cannot be explained by other media. And in the digital age of “virtual” and “hyper” realities, increasingly art is the only tangible means we have to give context and substance to our imagination without it being compressed and dis-intermediated by reductionist and homogenised technologies.

Finally, art in the 21st century is probably the only continuous link we have to our past – because as language and technology have evolved over time, art remains a constant aesthetic touchstone.