MoMA comes to Melbourne

For its current “Winter Masterpieces”, Melbourne’s NGV International gallery is displaying around 200 works from MoMA’s permanent collection. And a finely selected, and well-curated exhibition it is. But this focus on the received canon of mainly 20th century European art has the inevitable effect of sidelining other eras/schools – and perhaps overlooks the importance of Australia’s own art movements.

Roy Lichtenstein (American 1923–97): “Drowning girl” (1963 – oil and synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 171.6 x 169.5 cm); The Museum of Modern Art, New York – Philip Johnson Fund (by exchange) and gift of Mr. and Mrs. Bagley Wright, 1971
© Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/Licensed by Copyright Agency, 2018

The NGV International display presents the work in a broad chronological sequence, but specifically collated by reference to key movements, themes and styles. It also takes in print-making, photography, industrial design, graphics and illustration, not just painting and sculpture.

Even though I have visited MoMA many times, and seen the bulk of these works in their usual setting (as well as when they have been on loan to other galleries), there were still some surprises – like Meret Oppenheim’s “Red Head, Blue Body”, which I don’t recall seeing before. And Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” always feels like it is much smaller than the ubiquitous reproductions and posters imply.

Of course, one of the benefits of presenting a survey of modern art like this is that it affords us the opportunity to re-assess and re-calibrate the works within a contemporary context. Both to find new meaning, and to compensate for the over-familiarity that many of these images convey. While at times, we have to separate the artists’ lives and times from the legacy of their work – the changing conventions and social mores of our contemporary society cannot always be used to judge the behaviours, values or common prejudices that were acceptable 100, 50 or even 25 years ago.

Meanwhile, over at NGV Australia, there is a reconstruction of the exhibition that marked the opening of the gallery’s new building in 1968. In “The Field Revisited”, we have a fascinating opportunity to experience a slice of Australian art that feels over-looked and under-appreciated – ironic, given that at the time, this exhibition revealed the cutting-edge nature of young artists working in Australia, and divided opinion among established artists and the art establishment. “Where are the gum trees, where are the shearers, where are the landscapes, where are the figurative images?” might have been the refrain in response to this startling collection of bold colours, geometric designs, psychedelic undertones, modern materials, and unorthodox framing.

The fact that far more people are flocking to see the MoMA collection (and it is worth seeing), than are visiting the re-casting of The Field sadly confirms that Australia’s cultural cringe is alive and well….

Next week: Modern travel is not quite rubbish, but….

 

MoMA vs SFMOMA

As regular readers of this blog may have come to realise, any opportunity I have during my overseas travels, for business or pleasure, I always like to visit the local public art galleries. Apart from providing a cultural fix, these institutions can reveal a lot about current fashions, curatorial trends and even technology adoption in the elite world of marquee museums. Earlier this month, I was fortunate enough to visit MoMA in New York, and SFMOMA in San Francisco.

Mario Bellini – Olivetti TCV 250 Video Display Terminal (1966) – MoMA New York (Gift of the manufacturer) – Photo by Rory Manchee

Both museums are housed in contemporary buildings which, in keeping with a noticeable trend among modern galleries and museums, emphasise their vertical structure. Compared to say, the 18th/19th century museums of London, Paris and Berlin (with their long, languid and hall-like galleries), these 21st century constructs force us to look upwards – both physically, and perhaps metaphorically, as they aspire to represent “high” art in a modern context?

Although I have been to MoMA many times before, there is always something new to discover among the touring exhibitions and permanent collections. On this latest visit, there were four standout displays: Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age (see illustration above); Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait; Max Ernst: Beyond Painting; and Stephen Shore.

Apart from the latter, there is clearly a statement being made within the format of “Title/Name – colon – concept/context/subtext”. Stephen Shore is obviously an exception to this curatorial technique. Here is a photographer, whose name I was not familiar with, but whose work seemed both familiar (everyday images and popular icons) and exotic (otherworldly, outsider, alien); yet also pedestrian (repetitive, mundane) and alienating (elements of the macabre and voyeuristic).

The Thinking Machines display threw up some interesting juxtapositions: most of the devices and the works they produced were artisanal in approach – one-off pieces, requiring detailed and skilled programming, and not the mass-produced, easily replicated works we associate with most digital processes these days. Plus, even when the outputs were generated by a computational approach, the vagaries of the hardware and software meant the works were more likely to produce chance results, given the large role that analog processes still played in these systems-defined creations.

Louise Bourgeois’ work can still challenge our sensibilities, especially when conveyed through her lesser-known works on paper, even though many of the images are familiar to us from her sculptures and installation pieces (the latter represented here in the form of one of her giant spiders).

The exhibition of works on paper by Max Ernst also reveal another aspect of the artist’s oeuvre, although unlike Bourgeois, I feel there is greater affinity with his more formal paintings because, despite the different media in which he worked, there is a consistency to his image making and his visual language.

Across the country in San Francisco, this was the first time I had been to SFMOMA, so in the available time, I tried to see EVERYTHING, on all 6 levels. But I still manged to miss one entire floor, housing the late 19th century/early 20th century permanent collection.

The main exhibitions were Robert Rauschenberg: Erasing The Rules; SoundtracksWalker Evans; Approaching American Abstraction; and Louis Bourgeois Spiders.

So, less of the colon-delineated concepts compared to MoMA, and more literal titles – and you have to think that photographers, like Shore and Evans, don’t merit these sub-textual descriptions, because with photographers, what you see is what you get?  On the other hand, with Bourgeois’ Spiders, it contains what it says on the tin – giant spider sculptures.

I’d seen the Rauschenberg exhibition earlier this year at the Tate Modern in London, as it’s actually a touring show curated by MoMA itself. Seeing these (now familiar) works in another setting revealed aspects that I hadn’t appreciated before – such as the similarities between Rauschenberg’s collages and combines, and the mixed media works of Max Ernst and other Surrealists, for example.

The Evans exhibition was an exhaustive (and at times exhausting) career retrospective. In addition to many of his iconic images of crop farmers during the Great Depression, there were more urbane/mundane images of shop window displays, merchandising and branding – not too dissimilar to some of Shore’s serial photo essays.

Wandering through (or approaching…) the American Abstraction display was like immersing oneself in a who’s who of modern US art: Brice Marden, Sol Le Wit, Robert Motherwell, Clyfford Still, Cy Twombly, Adolph Gottlieb, Morris Louis, Sam Francis, Ellsworth Kelly, Lee Krasner, Agnes Martin, Sean Scully, Frank Stella, Joan Mitchell…. It struck me that despite the differences among these artists, and their individual mark making and contrasting visual languages, the collection was very much of a whole – the familiarity of many of these works, in close proximity, felt very comforting, even though the original intent was potentially to shock, challenge or disrupt. That’s not to say the works no longer have any impact, it’s just that our tastes and experiences have led us to adapt to and accommodate these once abrasive images.

Finally Soundtracks was probably the weakest of all the exhibitions I saw, pulling together a mish-mash of mostly sculptural and installation works embodying some form of audio element. My interest in this vein of work probably started when I saw the exhibition, “Ecouter Par Les Yeux” many years ago in Paris.

Despite a few banal pieces (too literal or pedestrian in their execution) this current incarnation had some individually engaging and landmark pieces: namely, Celeste Boursier-Mougenot’s “Clinamen”, a version of which has been on display at Melbourne’s NGV in recent times; and Brian Eno’s “Compact Forest Proposal”, which I only know of through its audio component – so here was a chance to walk through the fully realised, and dream-like installation.

As 2017 draws to a close, Content in Context will be taking a (much-needed) break for the holidays. Having made 8 overseas trips in the past 12 months, the author is looking forward to spending some down-time closer to home. Many thanks to all the people who have made 2017 such a truly memorable year for me – for all sorts of personal and professional reasons. You know who you are. Normal service will resume in January, and have a safe, peaceful and uplifting festive season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Supersense – Festival of the Ecstatic

Taking a break from startups, FinTech and digital disruption, I spent the past weekend at this year’s Supersense at the Melbourne Arts Centre. This underground festival (both literally and culturally) is back after 2015’s launch event, with an even more ambitious yet also more coherent line-up. It was still an endurance test, and while there were several absorbing performances, in the end it felt like there was nothing that was totally outstanding.

Part of the problem is we are so overloaded with aural stimulation that it takes something truly special to capture our imagination. First, we have access to an endless supply of music (thanks to Apple, Spotify, Bandcamp, Soundcloud, BitTorrent, Vimeo, Resonate, Napster, Vevo, Gnutella, YouTube…). Second, what was once deemed subversive or cutting edge, has now been appropriated by the mainstream and co-opted into the mass media. Third, and as a result of which, when it comes to the avant-garde, there is a sense of “been there, seen that”.

Alternatively, perhaps after more than 40 years of watching live music my palette has become jaded. But I’m also aware that theses days, some of the really interesting and engaging “live” audio experiences are to be found in art gallery installations, site-specific works and interactive pieces. For much of the festival, there was the traditional boundary between performer and audience – even though the idea was to wander between the different performance areas, we were still very much spectators.

A large part of the programme was given over to genre-pushing performances.  But even here I realize that, whether it’s free jazz, improvisation or experimental sounds, there is an orthodoxy at work. Many of these performers are playing a pre-defined musical role, whether it’s torch singer, axe hero, R&B diva, stonking saxophonist, glitch supremo, string scraper, drone aficionado or ur-vocalist.

Some performers played the venue as much as their instruments (stretching the acoustic limits of the building). Some even ended up “playing” the audience (in the sense of stretching their patience and tolerance). And in the many collaborative pieces, the musicians were mainly playing for or against each other, somewhat oblivious to the audience. In such circumstances, the creative tension did provide for some interesting results; but as so often with virtuoso performances, the players that relied only on speed, noise, volume or however many (or few) notes they produced were probably the least interesting.

Overall, few performers offered much variety within their allotted time slots. For all the colour, range and styles on display, many of the individual sets were extremely monochromatic, with little in the way of transition or shade. The volume, tones and textures were always full on. Pieces lacked development, and did not reveal or explore the aural equivalent of negative space. I understand and appreciate the importance of minimalism, repetition and compressed tonality in contemporary composition, but I was also hoping for a more layered approach to these live performances, and even some juxtaposition or contrast.

The subtitle of Supersense is “Festival of the Ecstatic”, with the implication that the audience will be swept away on a (sound) wave of transcendence. When it came to being enraptured, as with so many things these days, less is more. So the key sessions for me included: Oliver Coates who mesmerized with his solo cello performance; Jannah Quill and Fujui Wang whose laptop glitches sounded like a version of Philip Jeck’s “Vinyl Requiem” using only the works of Karlheinz Stockhausen; Zeena Parkins‘ sublime piano drone harmonics; JG Thirwell‘s minimalist sound poem; and Stephen O’Malley’s plaster-shredding guitar feedback oscillation. Whether or not it was the intended effect, during a number of performances I actually found myself drifting into a soporific state of semi-consciousness – but maybe it was just fatigue setting in?

Of course, I am extremely grateful that this type of event exists – it’s essential to have these showcases, for all their limitations and challenges. But it’s a bit like being a tourist: there are lots of destinations we may like to visit, but we wouldn’t want to live there – and there are some places where it’s enough just to know they are there.

Next week: FinTech and the Regulators

Banksy – an artist for our times?

Is Banksy the most contemporary of artists? The main medium he works in (spray paint) and the primary format he uses (street art) are synonymous with urban graffiti art. His re-appropriation and re-contextualisation of images and icons tend to both support and subvert traditional notions of art production, the commercial gallery system and copyright law. These same concepts are likewise being challenged via the use of digital technology, social media platforms and creative commons licensing.

Banksy: Laugh Now (2005) [Photo by Rory Manchee]

Banksy: Laugh Now (2005) [Photo by Rory Manchee]

The current retrospective of Banksy’s art in Melbourne is an intriguing exhibition – part homage, part entertainment, part circus sideshow, part social event. It’s nevertheless a calculated commercial venture, given the local veneration of street artists and their work in the city’s laneways (including some of Banksy’s which have been destroyed in recent times…). Plus, on the way out, there is the gallery shop with mass-produced copies of Banksy’s art, souvenirs and street wear.*

Everything Banksy does is designed to provoke a reaction – even if it’s just a snigger at some of the rather obvious visual gags. Even his (or her?) anonymity is used to reinforce the enigma of the artist as outsider (and sometime outlaw), while potentially allowing multiple artists to operate behind the assumed identity of “Banksy”.

Banksy’s use of a corporate-style logo creates the impression of a brand, and as one of my colleagues noted, it also acts as a meme which spurs both imitators and detractors. Using a distinctive and standardised logo as a signature also suggests there may be a production line process behind the scenes, some factory or warehouse where either minions or wannabe Banksys manufacture art to a predetermined design or theme.

For all his rebellious intentions, Banksy echoes the work of established artists – Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Marcel Duchamp, Damien Hirst, Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer etc. He parodies, repurposes or references iconic images such as Warhol’s “Marilyn” screen print portraits, Joe Rosenthal’s photo of the US flag being raised on Imo Jiwa in WWII, and the infamous addition of a green mohican hairstyle to Winston Churchill’s statue. And he obviously has an affection for the sayings of Oscar Wilde, going by the aphorisms and witticisms that decorate the walls:

“Art should comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable”

There is every reason to suspect that even this exhibition will somehow be considered just another Banksy art prank, rather than a critical assessment of his work. I suspect that there were hidden cameras and other means to capture the audience engagement and reaction. The website is careful to state that the exhibition is “100% Unauthorised – Guaranteed”, thereby allowing Banksy to disassociate himself with the event.

The exhibition’s public face is Steve Lazarides’s (Banksy’s former dealer and curator), who possibly still owns much of the work (or likely knows the people who do). There are other statements that Banksy does not directly benefit from sales of his work in the secondary market, and in any event, copyright in many of the works is in the public domain – meaning Banksy has either formally assigned his copyright to the public, or does not wish to claim or exercise any copyright over it. In theory, anyone can make copies of the original pieces (there being no copyright protection) but no-body can claim copyright in the resulting image or work. So, for some of Banksy’s prints, t-shirts and other multiples, it begs the question, what is an “original” Banksy – the ones in the gallery, or the ones in the gift shop?

*Not surprising, given the title of a notorious Banksy documentary, “Exit Through The Gift Shop”

Next week: Final Startup Vic Pitch Night of 2016