June 2012 was the 250th issue of Art Monthly Australia and I was one of a number of writers commissioned to celebrate the occasion by writing about “critical art writing”. My article, which became the lead, was not exactly reverential in tone, in fact I took a fair amount of delight in rubbing in the fact that capital A art is finally dissolving away into a broader culture of everyday life, something I had fought for all my life but which has some very threatening implications for the conventional art world. The version below is slightly different to the published version because it has some links and a number of minor amendments that never made it into print.
Shoot for the head!
250 issues eh? Well, I’m delighted to congratulate Art Monthly and all who sailed in it and acknowledge its achievements and longevity, an achievement in itself. But the congratulations are tempered by the fact that like so many art world achievements, it all occurred within the art world’s sheltered workshop in the name of a meme – capital A art – that has been slowly dissolving away for almost forty years or more, yet Art Monthly, and admittedly most other art magazines as well, seems hardly to have noticed.
When Art has dissolved away completely will there be any reason for art critical writing to exist? Well, we’ll get to that later but let’s step out of the art world echo chamber and examine what has been happening from the outside.
<First, a declaration of interest.>
In case you don’t know, I have a dog in this fight. It seemed fairly obvious to me back in the early 1970s that the historic moment called Art was over. Duchamp had demolished the art work as a special category of artefact by demonstrating that anything could be declared an art work and conceptual art had finished it off by removing the need for it to even have a physical existence. It seemed obvious to me that if anything could be art then nothing was art really and what remained were the various institutions and ideological beliefs that had built up around the art meme which the various players manipulated to suit their own purposes.
What also remained was the bedrock human activity of constant cultural evolution and adaptation to changing circumstance, unconnected to any particular media, discipline, training or social class, and that was what interested me. I began to see the cultural innovators as artists despite their lack of either art context or intent, and I began to see the art world’s “artists” as artisan manufacturers working to an existing formula.
As a result the two activities that began to interest me the most were the Builders Labourers Federation and the Green Ban movement on one hand and the innovative agriculturalist P A Yeomans on the other. They represented what I was seeking, an innovative art made out of everyday life, created by social interaction and with real world consequences. This also led to my involvement in the trade union movement, historically one of the main generators of traditional Australian cultural values.
I had no doubt there were many others around the world with similar perceptions but by the eighties the art world institutions had begun their fight back against the radicalism of conceptualism, a return to order that locked out those of us who had espoused a wider definition of art. It wasn’t until the advent of the internet in the 1990s that we even began to find each other again.
<End of DoI>
Now let’s talk about the official art world. Art Monthly was born in the middle of a period that really began around forty years ago. The social upheavals and cultural questioning that characterised the 1970s disguised something else that was happening, the transformation of the institutional art world – the Australian version of this has been documented and analysed by Dr Anne Sanders in recent papers. Driven by population growth and increased public funding, these institutions – art schools, museums, funding bodies and quangos like the biennales – were consolidating and growing. As always the art world simply mirrors the spirit of its time and the art world that had developed by the 1980s was the art world that the rising neo-liberal consensus had to have, a corporatised art world with the market at its core. And although this neo-liberal takeover centred on the US and Europe, Australia eagerly and unthinkingly tagged along, true to its unquenchable colonial spirit.
As the number of private and public galleries grew so did the volume of art production in all forms, and the number of professional (or at least aspiring professional) artists. Modernism had tacitly maintained that art’s collectibility was an outcome of its intellectual significance but this uneasy balancing act collapsed as art became a medium for pure financial speculation. Museums succumbed to a similar syndrome, their role shifting from recording and presenting history to something more entrepreneurial. Curators started to manufacture momentary art movements and by strategic use of funding and publicity they positioned the museum as a booster of market value. Curators and collectors were no longer the sweepers trailing along behind the circus elephants, they were to lead the parade.
Biennales also proliferated, joining the Olympics as a sort of marauding cultural predator that arrived every few years to take a bite out of the local culture. The biennales’ Disneyland version of culture as entertainment fostered an arms race of increasingly outlandish and sensational large scale art. Like Hollywood films, the product was preferably glitzy, a bit topical, a bit shocking, but always fundamentally inconsequential.
Cities requiring a more heavy duty fix began to build venue museums by starchitects like Gehry, Hadid, Liebeskind, etc. and as time wore on the biennale entertainment model mated with the venue museum model to generate high profile private museums like MONA. Don’t be surprised when the venue museums, biennales and private museums are eventually sold off to the multi-national media and entertainment conglomerates like Disney or Fox, it will be the natural fulfilment of their art as entertainment approach.
And the art of the period? By the early 1980s it had become clear that conceptualism, rather than being a threat to the existing order could be moulded into the ideal institutional form of art. The first wave of appropriation was more a marketing movement than an art movement and rebadging painting as “conceptual painting” provided a means of inflating the value of derivative art, increasingly necessary as the growing market required more product than was readily available. The second wave of appropriation, where it became the building block of most institutional conceptual art, was the art world’s equivalent to moving production to China. Just as the Fordist production line facilitated mass production by unskilled labour, so institutional conceptual art facilitated the mass production of art by artists whose primary skill was the ability to re-present other human activities in a form novel enough to keep the fashion cycle turning over.
And art critical writing? Nothing critical about it. During the whole forty year period art writing rarely deviated from its basic purpose, product review and the promotion of art as the most posh form of life decoration.
In the 1970s most art writing took the form of newspaper reviews but despite determined attempts to give some intellectual depth to this genre (particularly by Donald Brook) the quality of newspaper reviewing remained low and the quantity declined as editors increasingly took the view that it was really just advertorial and why give advertorial to an industry that wouldn’t pay its way with advertising.
On the other hand cheaper offset printing encouraged a growth in magazines through the 80s so art writing proliferated there, partly because there was more product needing to be publicised, partly because the educational institutions were churning out graduates who had to do something for a few years until they finally found work in a less marginal industry. The takeover of art education by the universities also encouraged the Moment of Theory which many of these magazines participated in until it collapsed under the weight of its own verbal sludge. But other power shifts were occurring. As art became less a cultural debate and more a form of manufacture for profit, magazines appeared that focused purely on fashionable collecting and lists of “must have” artists, the logical outcome of an overweening market. In fact the most conspicuous characteristic of art writing during the period was its mostly unexamined continuation of its traditional role of promoter and publiciser in an unquestioning alliance with the market.
What have all these people and institutions had in common? They have all operated as gate keepers controlling the flow of artefacts and information in a manufacturing and distribution system that was essentially a parasitic growth on the broader activity of human cultural evolution. As neo-liberalism captured this system it re-purposed the arts into a corporate complex not just for adding prestige and legitimacy to wealth, something that has always happened, but also for large scale financial speculation on the one hand and mindless mass entertainment on the other. The weak spot in all such ideological social constructions is the need for gatekeepers and sometimes even the most constantly alert gatekeepers cannot hold back fundamental change of the sort that occurred about the time Art Monthly appeared on the scene.
What changed? In the middle of this forty year period there was a major leap in human cultural evolution – the internet was born. Suddenly there was a distribution system that not only gave artists access to world wide audiences at almost zero cost but also did it directly without the need to get past the gatekeepers and rent seekers. The change has been rapid. In 1987 when Art Monthly began publishing, only a fraction of 1% of all telecommunicated information was carried over the Internet. Twenty years later in 2007 it carried more than 97%.
And the internet was the perfect medium for an entirely different model of art that had been developing since the 1970s, an art without collectable art works or exhibitions. It mostly grew out of 1970s activism and compromised versions continued to appear in the conventional art world – Haacke and Beuys for instance. It included street art, zines and poster workshops but also artists as cultural activists working collaboratively in groups like the Media Action Group, Union Media Services and BugaUp in Australia and similar groups throughout the world.
The most important aspect of this approach is that although it may generate artefacts like posters and publications they are not for the art market, they are produced to create cultural change. In this context any and every thing is cultural media, whether it is an event, a policy document, an interview, an image, a publication or a demonstration and the process is inevitably collaborative. These cultural activists were experienced community builders and therefore already perfectly adapted to the internet environment. In fact the internet and social media, based on open source and open standards software, collaboratively produced and available for free, could be seen as the ultimate outcome of their approach to culture.
As far as the art world goes it seems likely that we have undergone one of those Kuhnian paradigm shifts much touted in the late 1960s where everything changes in fundamental ways yet the effects do not become apparent until nearly everyone alive at the time dies – or at least loses their grip on power – because they simply cannot process the insult to their world view inherent in the new paradigm.
Although there are endless attempts to simply adapt the existing neo-liberal art world to the internet through websites and online sales or museum exhibitions of the usual suspects advertised with a rhetoric of new media and social involvement, the reality is that the neo-liberal art world is now a blundering zombie, undead but doomed to failure. The gatekeepers cannot pretend to own culture any more when ungraspably fluid cultural activity is flooding around their gates.
I suppose here I should define what I mean by failure. I’m a great fan of failure and I’m not arguing that all these institutions are suddenly going out of existence, or that painting, for instance, is finally dead (again). On the contrary, I am simply arguing that the internet will usher in a different age, for better and for worse, where the activities of the conventional art world will continue but they just won’t matter any more. Think of it as like jousting. Once at the cultural heart of medieval society, jousting still exists – in Lithgow where I live we even have an annual jousting festival. But ultimately jousting doesn’t matter and likewise the forms generated by the neo-liberal art meme are already beginning not to matter because they are incapable of playing a meaningful role in the necessary cultural adaptation we must make to survive in a world of looming environmental collapse. In fact they can easily be recognised as an outgrowth of the ideology that is pushing us to that collapse. That is failure.
On the other hand the cultural world growing up around the internet is a culture focused on the innovative adaptation of daily life. Everything is now up for use and discussion in case it turns out to be effective – even the official art world may be useful once its toxicity declines. It is irrelevant to present these activities as Art because they are Not Art, that’s the point, but they are cultural innovation and the limits now are the limits of the new technology. As Marshall McLuhan said, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”
Where does art critical writing fit in to this? Basically, just as slime mould amoeba adapt to stress by grouping together into an apparently different organism and moving elsewhere, so a lot of art writing has moved to the net without actually becoming something new. The early rise of online writing mostly reproduced the newspaper model of exhibition reviews so exactly that the suspicion was always that they were little more than disguised job applications. This approach failed to recognise that they were now writing about the wrong thing.
In fact we should no longer talk about art critical writing but rather about cultural critical writing. Dan Hill, whose blog City of Sound was an early starter, rarely writes about conventional art but a recent review for the magazine Domus about the facebook timeline is worth pointing to as an example of the direction that the most accessible critical cultural writing will take. He discusses timeline as interface design but more importantly he discusses the cultural implications of a widely available online tool that will change the nature of human memory in potentially devastating ways by making forgetting almost impossible. The article points directly to what is worth writing about, to the type of artefact like timeline whose designers are now the real artists generating cultural innovation in contrast to the ersatz culture of the art world.
And timeline raises another crucial issue, that the internet is a reputation management system where cultural writing is likely to take an entirely different form, closer to conversation and gossip than the supposed objectivity of academic language. Those who do not learn to generate and direct the conversation about themselves will be doomed to obscurity. The significance of an artist is increasingly judged not by reviews but by google ranking and the number of links, facebook friends, likes, twitter followers and who knows what else future technologies will throw up.
Shockingly for old players, cultural writing now also means unashamedly writing about yourself. There will be no benefit to false modesty or hiding behind sympathetic critics who you expect will say it for you, far better to regularly blog, tweet and comment far and wide about your latest activity. And that leads to one final aspect, sociability as a practical imperative and writing as the means of generating a supportive community of sharing and linking “friends” that you may never have met. As Marcus Westbury said on April 28 2010 “I just cracked 2000 facebook friends. Who the hell are you people?” Three people liked it, thirty people commented and I know that because I looked it up on his facebook timeline.
This is a lecture I gave in 2010 at the University of New South Wales College of Fine Arts. Joanna Mendelssohn, the lecturer who asked me to give the talk , is one the very few academics in Sydney who has both been aware of my work from almost the beginning and is politically as well as culturally aware so she has understood and sympathised with what I have tried to achieve.
The theme could not have been more appropriate because if one idea has been fundamental to my practice it has been the idea that being an artist is not defined by manufacturing stuff for the art market. The role of the artist is defined by generating cultural change and while some of the means you might use to do that may produce artefacts that could be traded in the market place that is basically a sideline, exactly the same as any other sort of merchandising. You should never mistake the merchandising for the real activity even if most people who talk about art have made that mistake.
I had the Victoria Street Resident Action Group and the squatting there in 1973 on my list of future posts. It was a critical experience for me and I have already talked about it before but I thought the whole event needed a bit more detailed discussion. Before I could get the time to do it the problem solved itself in the form of this interview by Iain McIntyre which I did last October 2011 for Community Radio 3CR in Melbourne. It’s long but it has pretty much the whole history of my involvement in the group. It can be streamed from www.australianmuseumofsquatting.org or it can be downloaded as a podcast.
The Arcadia Tables are an ongoing series of tables that I have been building over the last few years, furniture that is also memento mori based on the Latin phrase “et in Arcadia ego”, the knowledge that even in the happiness of Arcadia there is still always mortality.
The first two were exhibited in my 2008 exhibition, “Grave Goods” at Mori Gallery in Sydney. Spotlit from above they were intended to appear more like two great sarcophagi than just tables.
They are constructed from re-used plywood television stands and were made using a type of torsion box construction that produced a strong unit out of the long thin off cuts from the earlier stools that I had been making.
The construction technique is clear in this studio photo.
And while the title is a reference on the one hand to Nicholas Poussin’s The Arcadian Shepherds, one of the great masterpieces of western art and one that I had admired all my life, it also refers to the personal situation I had found myself in.
By the late 1990s I had pretty much worked through most of the things I had set out to do in the 1970s, although often not very successfully. Part of that had been to explore a whole different range of ways being an artist, at least in the sense of the artist as a cultural activist, but the one thing I had not done much of was being an artist in the most conventional sense, manufacturing physical objects for trade in art galleries.
It wasn’t that I had any desire to return to the conventional art world although I knew it would be seen like that, it was more that I wanted to broaden a bit further the range of things I had done and I wanted to do it by treating conventional art simply as a format peculiar to a particular audience rather like the trade union journal. I specifically wanted to avoid the usual art world game, I was not interested in advancing current fashions etc, I was purely interested in effectively presenting meaning. I began in 1999 by doing a series of paintings while in the US. I did a few more in the early 2000s but my heart wasn’t really in it, I found it far too limiting. But making furniture into installations was a bit more exciting even if it did seem an unlikely way of dealing with my other priority, I had reached that point in my life where I wanted to make a bit of a tribute to some of the things I had most admired – I think it’s one of those things that just comes over you with age. And I was starting to feel old, tired, and just wanted to potter around my shed.
But that was the other part. These really are very personal works, that whole “Grave Goods” exhibition is. Most of my life had been stressful and depressing and by the late 90s I was stuck in a toxic semi-relationship and slowly sliding towards early death. Then one day Terry Smith sent Wendy Carlson, his research assistant, to interview me for a (never published) book he was doing on the history of Australian conceptual art. She commented to me at the time that every one of us she interviewed was showing our age by being obsessed with death in one way or another.
Over that time we were slowly drawn closer and closer together until like a lost dog she took me by the ear and dragged me into a new life. I had barely the energy or hope left in me to do it and yet together we have both made new lives together. And as it happened the first really personal time Wendy and I ever spent together was in the Met and the Frick in New York talking about paintings like this and then a week later in Paris where we spent a week visiting tombs and cemeteries. By 2008, when we had been together for a few years, I was shocked to realise that probably for the first time in my life I was genuinely happy, even though there were health problems hence it really was a case of “et in Arcadia ego”.
I think the Wikipedia interpretation of Poussin’s painting addresses a lot of what I was feeling at the time I made the tables:
… in the latter version, one of the two shepherds recognizes the shadow of his companion on the tomb and circumscribes the silhouette with his finger. According to an ancient tradition (see Pliny the Elder, nat. Hist. XXXV 5, 15), this is the moment in which the art of painting is first discovered. Thus, the shepherd’s shadow is the first image in art history. But the shadow on the tomb is also a symbol of death (in the first version symbolized by a skull on the top of the tomb). The meaning of this highly intricate composition seems to be that, from prehistory onward, the discovery of art has been the creative response of humankind to the shocking discovery of mortality. Thus, death’s claim to rule even Arcadia is challenged by art (symbolized by the beautifully dressed maiden), who must insist that she was discovered in Arcadia too, and that she is the legitimate ruler everywhere, whilst death only usurps its power. In the face of death, art’s duty—indeed, her raison d’être–is to recall absent loved ones, console anxieties, evoke and reconcile conflicting emotions, surmount isolation, and facilitate the expression of the unutterable.
Likewise I traced our shadows together in death and I also wanted to connect to the art history that had formed my life even if my life had turned out to be deeply flawed. I didn’t see art in exactly that way and I couldn’t claim to have produced anything as great as the Poussin but it certainly was meaningful for me.
My dearest dust, could not thy hasty day
Afford thy drowzy patience leave to stay
One hower longer: so that we might either
Sate up, or gone to bedd together?
But since thy finisht labor hath possest
Thy weary limbs with early rest,
Enjoy it sweetly: and thy widdowe bride
Shall soone repose her by thy slumbring side.
Whose business, now, is only to prepare
My nightly dress, and call to prayre:
Mine eyes wax heavy and ye day growes old.
The dew falls thick, my beloved growes cold.
Draw, draw ye closed curtaynes: and make room:
My dear, my dearest dust; I come, I come.
Sex and death, illusion and reality, the only worthwhile themes in the end when all is seen to be vanities.
In the mid 1970s I was thinking hard about the relationship between art and other forms of work while reading the great American journalist and oral historian Studs Terkel – his 1974 book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do remains a classic and an inspiration. Terkel, like PA Yeomans, was one of the people I saw as an example of the cultural activist as artist and his focus on the lives of ordinary people reinforced the way I was thinking of daily life as the critical arena for cultural innovation. In the process it occurred to me that what I might do was start some sort of news service about work and culture and politics, rather like his radio programs. These days you would just start blogging but then I couldn’t see how I would ever be able to do it so it just sat around in the background as an idea that would never happen.
But it was only a few years later that we set up Union Media Services Pty Ltd (UMS). I’ll talk about that in another post but for the first few years in practice it was mostly a full time working partnership between myself and a trade union journalist, Dale Keeling. Dale and I quickly realised the advantages of sharing material between the many publications we were soon producing and we even discussed organising it as a news service we would offer to other unions. In particular we shared cartoons between publications. We even fantasised that the combined readership of numerous trade union publications could form a sort of distributed alternative media that could at least start to balance the iniquitous propaganda of the mass media.
A bit further down the track, Dale was gone but within UMS we still shared material where we could. By 1983, I think, we were producing all of the Australia Council’s publications but we were particularly involved in their trade union based Art and Working Life (A&WL) program. In the course of discussions about how the program could be extended and further publicised I came up with a version of my original news service idea. I proposed that we could provide union journals, which almost all followed similar formats and were always desperate for interesting content, with entire pages, written, laid out, with photographs printed on hiqh quality paper that could simply be pasted in to the artwork for their existing layout without any additional work.
The Australia Council’s program administrator Deb Mills agreed and away we went. I designed a logo. Michael Davies did the art work. The content came from a variety of sources – ozco, the artists, etc – and Ian Burn mostly wrote it up. We produced one page a month, each covering a different A&WL project. It continued long after I left Union Media and covered a huge range of projects.
Meanwhile our influence had brought about a slow but major improvement in the way unions dealt with their internal communications. In the late 1980s the ACTU appointed a journalist, Andrew Casey as communication officer. He took the A&WL news service model, adapted it and began an ACTU news service, sending out a whole range of trade union and political stories in a format similar to the one we had developed. Suddenly, for the first time ever, a consistent story began to appear across most of the trade union movement for an audience that rivalled the mass media in size. The value of this was apparent in the 1993 federal election where the co-ordinated response of union communications played a major role in winning a supposedly unwinnable election – “one for the true believers” as Paul Keating famously described it.
My friend Guo Jian texted me from Beijing a few months back just saying “New York Times today”. A quick Google showed up this New York Times article about his latest work, a rather brave thing to do in the current difficult climate facing artists in China. Guo and I have been friends since the mid 90s when he first started showing with Ray Hughes and not too long after we first moved to Wallerawang he came up here and lived with us for a year before returning to live in Beijing. While he was here we did a work together which was shown at Slot Gallery in Redfern in August 2005.
The work was in five parts. The first part was a book of flower paintings by Australian artists that my mother used as a source book for her paintings. She is an amateur painter who almost invariably paints flowers and often copies other artist’s paintings. You could say she was a Sunday appropriationist.
The second was a painting she had done in the late 1990s based on an illustration in that book although I only discovered its source after I had painted a version of her painting which at the time I thought was entirely original. The painting was Palm Beach Still Life by Justin O’Brien which in an ironic addition to the Chinese whisper I misremembered as by Adrian Feint. She had only used the canna lilies from the painting and she had added a small ornament that she owned.
My painting was based on her painting although it was much bigger and I edited a few bits out. I painted it in 2000 just after I had returned from several months in Florida where for the first time in my life I had an exhibition of paintings. She had looked at the photos of the exhibition and repeated something she had said to me before, “Why don’t you paint flowers? People always like flowers.”
Later in 2005 when Guo Jian was staying with us he saw the painting and when I explained its story he said his art teacher also had told him that he should paint flowers because people like flowers. So he then did a painting based on my painting but without seeing my mother’s painting or the Justin O’Brien it was based on.
What we had by this time was a fairly clear example the game of Chinese whispers where the last version is almost impossible to recognise from the first version.
I added one further element, a statement that was in itself a further version in a way because it added a political interpretation to the whole issue of truth, lies and misunderstandings
“WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.”*
This exhibition, or perhaps, this work, had its origin in something my mother said ten years ago – “You should paint flowers, people always like flowers.”
My mother paints flowers although often she is a sort of appropriation artist, painting not flowers but other artist’s paintings of flowers.
I never paint flowers but I decided I would follow her example. I copied one of her paintings, a simple painting of three calla lilies in a vase. My painting was much larger, slightly sinister in its sharpness and harsh colour. It was only later when looking through one of her books that I realised that she had herself consciously or unconsciously copied parts of a 1930s painting by Adrian Feint, a mixed bouquet of flowers in a vase. Among the flowers were three calla lilies which resembled those in her painting.
Sometime later my friend Guo Jian told me that his art teacher had said exactly the same thing to him, a piece of advice which Guo had ignored. He then painted a painting based on mine without having seen my mother’s painting or the original Adrian Feint painting. His painting is the monochrome grey of dreams, hallucinatory and foreboding.
We live in a culture of Chinese whispers, a phantasmagoric world of lying murderous leaders, self deluded followers and manipulative propaganda from all sides. Try as we might, it is impossible to discern the original truth simply by studying the latest insanity, only knowledge of history gives you a thread through the maze.
Looking at our paintings I felt that unintentionally we had created a type of visual Chinese whisper, a cross-generational collaborative work of interpretation and misinterpretation symbolizing that dilemma.
But of course the problem with Chinese whispers is that by the end almost any interpretation is possible, we see whatever we wish to see, we believe whatever we wish to believe.
But there is another whole aspect to this flower painting lark. I’ve never really had artistic heroes with one exception, I’ve had a lifelong admiration for Vladimir Tatlin who navigated the cultural and political nightmare of Russia first as a constructivist who then turned to a sort of industrial design, produced the splendidly satirical Letatlin flying bicycle (with such a straight face that he was never sent to the gulags although he should have been) and finally spent the last ten years of his life painting the gloomiest flower paintings ever. It seems pretty clear that this was the only option left for him if he was to survive Stalin. Tatlin’s career is rarely discussed in the West beyond his famous Monument to the Third International (as his wikipedia entry demonstrates) but I would rank him with Picasso and Duchamp as the greatest artists of the early 20th century.
I was discussing this with Iakovos Amperidis when we were trying to work out what we could do to support the campaign to free Ai Wei Wei. We never did anything in the end but we worked through several possibilities until what we came up with the idea of building a site where we would invite artists whose work is conspicuously politicised to contribute a flower painting. We wanted to highlight the fact that politicians, be they Stalin or Kevin Rudd (see his idiotic comments on Bill Henson) would like restrict us all to painting dull flower paintings. We would treat the invitations, which would be limited, as a type of award for conspicuous political bravery.
The site was to be called letathousandflowersbloom.com after Chairman Mao’s infamous 1957 speech inviting critical discussion of the Chinese Communist Party’s policies – everyone foolish enough to take up the invitation was killed or imprisoned. We haven’t done it yet but the domain name is registered and it is on the list of future projects.
For someone like me who has complained for decades now about the way Australian art history of that period was being written this book is a real breath of fresh air. So I’ll get the declaration of interest out of the way – Stephen and I have been friends for 30 years or more at least and I even get a few passing mentions and a thanks in the book but since I never used much technology in my work it’s not at all about me. But it is about my friends who were involved in the use of new technology – Donald Brook, Marr Grounds, Bert Flugelman and the rest of the Optronic Kinetics crew, David Smith, Peter Kennedy, Tim Burns, David Ahern, Phillipa Cullen, Mick Glasheen, Albie Thoms, Dave Perry and many many more. The book sets out to be a seriously well researched resource and above all Stephen writes about what actually happened in Australia rather than “what happened that looks like the US and European narrative?” or “something in a book will make that look like a better investment” or “you just wouldn’t believe how lovable and brilliant he was, he did everything” or “he was really really important because he was a minor player somewhere other than Australia” or – no, let’s stop there and yes, it is almost invariably “he”.
In particular there has been a tendency for the late 60s and early 70s to have been written about by writers that were overseas at the time and they focused on artists that were also overseas at the time and they write about things that didn’t happen in Australia as if that was Australian art history. For a variety of reasons, but mostly the vested interest and personal biases of those writers and then the generations of students they manufactured in their own image, it has been almost impossible to challenge that false history. Stephen makes a pretty good attempt at contradicting earlier writers simply by presenting a documentation of what happened in one particular interest area and one particular time frame. He has a bit of fun with the fashionable theory obsessed writers of the 1980s:
It is interesting to me that although Burn claimed that capitalism was the prime source of the censorship of new art forms that were launched onto an unsuspecting art public at various times, he himself in his most polemical article The 1960s: Crisis and Aftermath had done exactly the same thing by completely ignoring the proliferation of experimental and technological forms that were (though lacking a marketable form) emerging among a small coterie of the avant garde. This was censorship through ignoring the new. He wasn’t the only one. The experimental use of new technologies in art was also ignored entirely by large sectors of the art critical fraternity, especially those who regarded themselves as the gatekeepers of what was new and politically acceptable.
In fact, in reading the articles by Ian Burn, Patrick McCaughey or Terry Smith in Paul Taylor’s Anything Goes, a compilation of articles drawn largely from his journal Art and Text, it appears that despite the name of the collection in which all of these authors and others appear, practices other than painting or sculpture and perhaps their conceptual antagonists were not even worthy of the attribution “art”. It is clear that anything did not go at all and that there was a fundamental rift between the fine-art world and those whose interests in art were the potential of newly available electronic technologies.
He is writing here of the time when Ian Burn and I were working together and he is correct about Burn’s concern with conventional art world validation, an issue that was at the heart of our later falling out. I can still remember Burn’s po-faced indignation at Art and a Texta, Ted Hopkins’ cruelly satirical parody of Art and Text, and his annoyance at my gleeful readings from it – but that’s all another story. The real story is Stephen’s well researched and generous overview of an extraordinary range of activities and artists that now look much more like the real forebears of our present state than the unreadable faux theory of the 1980s.
The Darwin and the Art of Evolution Conference was held at the Art Gallery of NSW in September 2010. It was convened by Fay Brauer of the University of NSW and Tony Bond of AGNSW. Speakers at the two day conference covered a range of material both popular and scientific that developed around Charles Darwin’s theories in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and one session had a panel of four contemporary artists interested in Darwinian theories. I never found out why it was held in 2010 when the real Darwin action was in his bicentenary year 2009 and although I was a bit of a late entrant as a speaker I am also still puzzled about why Tony asked me if I was absolutely certain that I wanted to do it. Anyway, I was part of the contemporary artists session with Lisa Roet and her beautiful primate drawings and sculptures, Stelarc and his always astonishing technological enhancements of the human body and Brook Andrew who had been working with the 19th century aboriginal portrait photos that had featured earlier in the conference. We each gave a 20 minute talk about our own work and its Darwinian influences. What amazed me was that I was the only speaker in the entire two day conference who mentioned the word meme.
Let me start by noting that almost everything we have seen at this conference, regardless of it’s exact subject, has discussed iconography in some way.
Pretty much all of it has assumed that we are all approximately in agreement when we talk about art and artists and artworks, whatever the media and whatever their position on the high to low culture scale.
However, I’m afraid I come at this subject from an entirely different direction, seeing the range of activities that make up the art world from a view point that is known as universal Darwinism, the use of Darwinian concepts of evolution and adaptation to explain a wider range of phenomena than just organic evolution.
I think we all now exist in a culture that is awash with Darwinian concepts, most of them unacknowledged. In my early years, for instance, as a young artist I think I held a view which is pretty much the status quo in the art world to this day, a view that art was a clearly definable and distinct human activity and that within it’s boundaries it progressed, evolved into myriad styles in a way that could easily compare to a Darwin chart of the evolution of species.
This is a 1936 chart by Alfred Barr then Director of New York Museum of Modern art. Similar to an evolutionary chart for organisms but lots of cross species miscegenation you could say, and that to some extent exposes both the fallacy and the potential of that viewpoint. Indeed art styles are rather like Patricia Piccinini organisms, mixing up genes from the most unlikely forebears and producing creatures far less plausible than the platypus.
And in my early years like most young artists I combined a naively opinionated world view with an insatiable appetite for what was fashionable in art
shaped canvas from 1967
later shaped canvases from 1968
and a belief that I could be successful by catching the wave of the latest fashionble style as it came through. Again, I think this par for the course.
installation from 1969
There was however a bit of a reality test because I also believed that the reason styles changed was not just a question of fashion but rather that the world constantly changed and art inevitably changed to reflect that.
drawing for Walk Along This Line 1970
But let me go back slightly. I had spent most of my early childhood in a small town called Wallerawang, just below the western escarpment of the Blue Mountains between Lithgow and Bathurst. My first few years of school were there and my family had lived there for generations. It is also, I would add, on Wiradjuri land, or at least the on the border between Wiradjuri and Gundangara and Dharug country although I’m sure Brook Andrews will tell you about that.
It also happened to be the place where Charles Darwin spent more time than anywhere else in inland Australia at Wallerawang Station, the homestead of James Walker, a prominent pastoralist.
It was here that he shot (shock horror) and studied a platypus and it was here on the 19th January 1836 that he wrote in his diary about his observations of ant-lions:
…I had been lying on a sunny bank & was reflecting on the strange character of the animals of this country compared to the rest of the World. An unbeliever in everything beyond his own reason might exclaim, “Surely two distinct Creators must have been at work; their object is the same & certainly the end in each case is complete”.
This comment is probably the first indication of the line of thought that soon blossomed into the theory of evolution. What was happening here was that in the Galapagos Darwin began to realise that a single species could diverge to make use of a range of available ecological niches. In Wallerawang he began to realise that the opposite could also occur, that differing species could converge in order to exploit similar ecological niches, in other words for all its apparent eccentricity the platypus occupied a similar environmental niche as say the water vole in Britain.
I’m not entirely sure how I ever stumbled across Darwin’s connection to my hometown because it was completely unacknowledged in the area but as a result in 1969 while working at the Mitchell Library, my first job after leaving school, I found and read everything I could about Darwin’s voyage in the Beagle and the theory of evolution.
As a result of this and a range of other influences from Marshall McLuhan’s writing on media to anarchist writers like Kropotkin (Faye Brauer’s talk this morning made clear the connection between Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid and the progressive version of social darwinist thought) and the sadly under rated anarcho- syndicalist writer Rudolf Rocker I had developed a hodge podge theory of culture and cultural activism as the bedrock of human cultural evolution. In this picture art, its institutions and markets were simply a parasitic offshoot of a broader human creative impulse that itself was only part of human social ecology. I had clumsily tried to develop this viewpoint in an essay for Victorian National Gallery’s 1973 Object and Idea exhibition titled New Artist and the pursuit of a definition of what it is to be an artist has been central to my work ever since.
media report on 1970 doormat work
My late 60s hard edge paintings and conceptualist works had reflected this. By 1971 the work I was doing was about generating interactions between viewers in the gallery space when it occurred to me then that if my work could be considered art there were others making social and cultural interventions in the built environment on a much grander scale than I could imagine and they too should be considered as artist. I’m talking of course about the NSW Builders Labourers Federation and the Green Ban movement which was just starting to really fire up at this stage. And while the green ban movement represented an extraordinary opportunity for participatory politics involvement was, in any case, forced on me because the area where I lived on the edge of Victoria Street in Potts Point was being taken over by developers.
my article critiquing the Victoria Street barricades
I became one of the founders of the Victoria Street Resident Action Group, the resident group that was subjected to the most extreme levels of violence including bashings, kidnapping and ultimately murder. But one of our actions was to set up the first urban squat since the great depression, a revival of a form of action that proliferated through inner city areas, survives to this day and has generated a number of temporary hot beds of artistic activity. The image is an article I wrote in one of our publications at the time. And I learned an important lesson. If you really are effective at threatening the status quo they will kill you. Nature is red in tooth and claw even at the level of competing ideas.
from an article I wrote on the experience of Victoria Street
This consumed my life for around two years but after the trauma of the Victoria St experience I attempted again to develop my ideas within the art world. With the support of Daniel Thomas I began to curate an exhibition on the work of P A Yeomans, an agricultural engineer and machinery manufacturer who I described to people at the time as ‘the Australian Capability Brown” because of the way he had developed techniques for farming that worked with the natural Australian landscape rather than attempting to superimpose a european model upon it. At the time Yeomans was only known in farming circles where he was a controversial figure opposing the growing emphasis on chemical based farming but he is now seen as an almost mythical figure, the great forerunner of permaculture and industrial scale organic farming in Australia. My real point however was to make the case that cultural change, in the sense of a shift in the way we humans understand the world and act in it, is only occasionally generated in the art world yet it was the people who could produce this cultural change who should be regarded as artists. The exhibition should have been rubber stamped by the AGNSW trustees but to our shock they intervened and rejected it as “just a trade show”. As Joanna Mendehlssohn pointed out to me recently it was that same board of trustees who also rejected the donation of a Christo work because it was just a gum tree wrapped in plastic. I wondered if it ever occurred to them that their galley was full of just bits of fabric with paint on them.
From this point on I devoted my time to a range of cultural activist activities. I worked with Frank Watters on the Hunter Valley Coal project, a series of exhibitions in the Hunter valley of art and artefacts that responded to the growing threat of large scale coal mining in the valley that has now to a large extent destroyed much of the valley. I worked with Ian Burn, Terry Smith and Nigel Lendon who had just returned from New York – and a large group of others – to set up the Media Action Group producing slide shows targeted at education institutions analysing the mass media and advertising and the biased treatment of issues like uranium mining.
our 1978 publication discussing the Sydney Biennale
A large group of us lobbied for equal representation of both Australian and women artists in the Sydney Biennale, a movement that eventually led to us setting up the ArtWorkers Union, now amalgamated with Actors Equity and Australian Journalists Association to form the Media Alliance.
And with some Media Action Group members and a trade union journalist Dale Keeling I then set up Union Media Services where with Ian Burn and a number of other artists we developed the first Australian social marketing agency running campaigns and publications for trade unions, community groups and government departments.
One of our clients was the Australia Council who we worked closely with to develop the Art and Working Life programme supporting artists and cultural activities in the workplace and eventually one of their largest programmes.
Union Media Services wrote and produced numerous Australia Council publications
What all these activities had in common was they involved working collaboratively in groups, they targeted areas of cultural fracture as areas of opportunity and rather than aiming to produce artworks they aimed to create ongoing social organisations and activities. In other words we were creating organisms capable of surviving and evolving in a Darwinian social ecology. I would add that we were mostly successful and many of these activities still continue in some way, have grown or else evolved into something different since we began them.
Now I’m sure many of you at this point can see where this is headed.
In 1976, a few years before this, Richard Dawkins had writtenThe Selfish Gene where he coined the word “meme” as a concept for discussion of evolutionary principles in explaining the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. To quote thwink.org, an online organisation devoted to analysing the processes of developing sustainability solutions
In 1976, in the final chapter of The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins dropped a bombshell. In a few quick paragraphs he sketched out what memes are, why they existed, and why they were so crucial to the study of all species whose niche dominance requires a strong culture. The potential of social engineering has not been the same since, because now we can apply all the principles of evolution to learned, memetic behavior, rather than just innate, genetically based behavior. In other words, cultural engineering is now as realistic as any other branch of engineering.
I can only agree, to me also it was a bombshell. When I finally read the book at this time in the early 80s I realised that this was what I, and the various people I had been collaborating with, had been doing, that finally there was a language to describe it. We all saw ourselves as artists but rather than creating art works like paintings or sculptures, physical objects that could be easily exhibited and traded, we had been creating new memes or reviving and adapting existing ones.
At this point I would strongly recommend the work of Susan Blackmore, her 1999 book The Meme Machine takes Dawkin’s work and explores and expands the concept of memes. To quote Wikipedia – another meme which as we know is never wrong
“Blackmore’s treatment of memetics insists that memes are true evolutionary replicators, a second replicator that like genetics is subject to the Darwinian algorithm and undergoes evolutionary change.
But if, as I do, you begin to define artists as cultural or memetic innovators then this also casts the art world in a rather different light as well.
For starters many people, perhaps even most, who currently define themselves as artists fall outside the category artist because they manufacture objects that conform to an existing meme. As memetic replicators rather than memetic innovators they are artisans rather than artists.
I would add diplomatically that all my other panellists here most definitely do fall into the category of memetic innovators.
On the other hand other large groups of people who would never consider themselves artists would now fall into the category of artist. PA Yeomans who I mentioned earlier is a good example.
Furthermore on that basis the institutional art world becomes barely relevant – although it is a meme in its own right it can be seen as a parasitic meme, a “selfish” meme as Dawkins would describe it, that has attached itself to the larger human impulse of cultural innovation which it then diverts and exploits to suit its own ends in much the same way that organised religion is a parasitic meme on natural human morality.
Art works also lose their position as a special category of human production, they can be seen as little more than souvenirs or relics or merchandise that are retained to remind us of the real action, the changes in cultural memes that the artist has helped bring about. In other words in this schema the relationship between the art market and real artists is pretty much the same as the relationship between the bottle collector market and beer manufacturers.
I would suggest in passing at this point that even though memetics is still a discipline in its infancy and riven with factions and complications we may well see it ultimately subsume art history and most other forms of cultural studies.
if to be an artist means you must be a cultural activist of some sort, if being an artist is not defined by producing a particular sort of stuff, namely art works, that are then distributed through commercial galleries and shown in the art institutions that act as fluffers for the art market, but rather artist is a title that has to be earned through demonstrating memetic innovation, then what should an aspiring artist be doing now?
Well, as animals that are the replicators of memes we are to put it bluntly facing extinction, in fact we and our memes have brought about the likely mass extinction of much of the life on the planet.
Our ability to generate memes is the characteristic above others that has brought us to such domination of the planet, memes such as scientific method have brought us understanding, our technological memes have brought us wealth and health. But our other memes of such as consumerism, corporate personhood and extremist capitalism have brought us to the brink of complete catastrophe.
As has been discussed previously, extinction is a fundamental part of the process of evolution. On the comparatively rare occasions that I exhibit in conventional art environments, imminent death and extinction is usually my theme and has been for the last twenty years.
The Brief History of the Human Race 1992
This is a set of large scale computer prints from 1992 called “The brief history of the human race”.
The Tree of Life 2006
The Arcadia Tables 2008
these are from the last ten years,
Portrait and a dream 2010
and this is from an exhibition this year.
But it’s not really my personal death that concerns me, it is the extinction of all that surrounds me. This fact above all is what we need to adapt to or rather what we need to adapt to avoid.
Vanity table 2010
This is also from an exhibition this year.
Although extinction is as much a part of theory of evolution as successful adaptation the irony here is that we may become extinct not because of an organic failure to adapt but rather because of the inability of our memes, like extreme capitalism, to adapt.
On the other hand all memes have one delightful aspect, that they are effectively Lamarkian, they can acquire new characteristics within a generation that will then be passed on. We can all develop mutations of a meme and if we are successful in imposing them then those mutations will for a time be transmitted, at least until natural selection culls the least advantageous of them. It is within our power to change our memes and change them quite rapidly if we have the will.
With this in mind my personal choice about 8 years ago was to move back to Wallerawang,
an area that is now almost post apocalyptic, a wasteland of power stations and coal mines, a rust belt area in the bush surrounded by beautiful and spectacular mountain escarpments. And an area that is economically dependent on coal mining and coal fired power stations, an area that is in the most direct way busily constructing the end of the world as we know it. I’ve always liked to be where the action is.
My local community will directly suffer from any adoption of the only real solution to climate change, the immediate closure of the coal mining industry. If that solution is to occur, and it must occur as soon as possible, then these communities must be looked after, helped to make the transition to new economies.
My agenda has been to use my skills – artistic and political – to tackle the issues of climate change at the pointy end. I have now been appointed to the Lithgow Councils Economic Development Advisory Committee and also their Environment Advisory Committee where I am assisting in the development of new economic models for the area, models that include more renewable energy but also a role for the creative industries particularly design and content production industries, niche manufacturing and heritage tourism. And I am working with the council to develop arts projects that can carefully shift community attitudes, to help them face the inevitable.
And I’ve paid my respects to Darwin.
My wife Wendy and I set up a local branch of the National Trust which then raised money to erect a belated monument to Darwin and the unfortunate platypus whose descendants still live nearby. It’s close to the site of the homestead, now underwater beneath the ironically name Lake Wallace in a park that we have got renamed in his honour. The platypus is by a local sculptor Tim Johnman and the metalwork by another local sculptor Phil Spark.
And I also have begun exhibiting more and speaking at events like this in order to try and poke at the art world meme. Even if I believe the art system is essentially parasitic it’s single saving grace is a belief in the value of innovation, in what might be called pure cultural research even if it exists more in the PR than reality.
I would recommend a visit to the exhibition In The Balance at the MCA right now. The exhibition’s feebleness illustrates what’s wrong about art world institutions but on the other hand Lucas Ihlein’s environmental audit work, the historical campaign photography of Olegas Truchanas, the work of Catherine Rogers, Diego Bonetti and a few other works illustrate whats right, what can be done and what needs to be done.
But my personal message about the art system meme is short and one that I am sure Darwin would have agreed with if he was here.
I’ve been thinking a lot about memorials recently partly because of other things I have been working on like Lithgow’s proposed Inch Street memorials and also the bicentenaries of the the first crossing of the Blue Mountains by English toffs (Blaxland, Lawson, Wentworth) and the building of Cox’s Road shortly after.
But I’ve also been thinking of shame memorials, memorials designed to permanently shame the arseholes who are obstructing attempts to reduce CO2 emissions, lest we forget them. I have no doubt that one day, like the genocidal war criminals Milosevic and Mladic they will be put on trial for crimes against humanity (yes, I mean you Tony Abbott and Allan Jones and Martin Ferguson) but there are so many minor local pub loud mouths who are their enablers and supporters. They also deserve to be remembered especially considering they will all soon be rabidly denying they ever were climate change denialists. Their names need to be publicly recorded now so they can’t wriggle out of the punishment then. I suppose you could say that I am still in the anger phase of my grief about the end of our world although mostly I’m in the depression or acceptance stages.
That is probably why I was so struck by this drawing I did in 1970 which I stumbled across yesterday while searching drawings for the doormats post.
This work might deserve an outing some time soon where the names of denialists are written on a footpath in chalk to be trodden under foot and blown away as the dust of history. They probably don’t deserve anything better.
I produced a lot of work between the late 1960s and early 1972 when I stopped showing in galleries. There are at least 1200 drawings still in existence from this period, mostly for works that have never been exhibited. The works that were exhibited are usually just one of a series of variations and there may even be multiple drawings for each of them, usually a very rough sketch, a more formal drawing and sometimes even more finished drawings that could be described as art works in their own right. Oddly enough they are almost the only finished works from that time because almost from the start I treated drawings as manufacturing plans in the expectation that the finished work, even when they were hard edged shaped canvases, could be destroyed and recreated multiple times.
This work from 1970 is a typical example. It was first shown in the Contemporary Art Society Annual Exhibition at Farmers Blaxland Gallery Sydney. The show opened on October 28, the day before my 20th birthday. Even though Walk Along This Line which was shown at almost the same time is now better known, this work received more publicity at the time.
It consisted of two sheets of foam rubber 3 inches (75mm) thick with my name and the date stencilled on each end. There were two pieces because it was not possible to get a single piece wide enough for the door.I stencilled the name and date was because at this time I still felt a need to do something that indicated in some way that this was a work of art. I have dropped the stencilling when the work has been remade for later exhibitions. Also at this time I used yellow foam, in later versions it has been pink or blue, simply because the colour is irrelevant.
The work received some mass media shock horror attention, as did John Armstrong’s and Neil Evan’s
and I was also interviewed several times for radio, a nasty experience as it turned out, leading to my first realisation of how smarmy and untrustworthy journalists can be and how straightforward statements can be twisted in order to ridicule you – nothing much has changed there except for the worse.
Only two months earlier James Gleeson had devoted an entire lengthy review to condemning me, starting off with:
The more comfortable line of approach would be to accept Milliss as juvenile joker – he is barely 20 – and let it all go with a laugh.
Yet when one begins to probe into his ideas … the uncomfortable conviction begins to emerge that Milliss is serious and is concerned with some fundamental issues about the nature of art
This time, faced with several more like minded artists he feared for the future of western civilisation:
He wants $13 for a piece of string
At the thirty-second annual exhibition of the New South Wales division of the Contemporary Art Society at the Blaxland Gallery there is an exhibition (Catalogue No.13) by Neil Evans called “Tramseat VI”.
It is a piece of string stretched below an awning in the Gallery – nothing more. Price: $13.
Ian Milliss exhibits an untitled work of two mats of sponge rubber at the entrance so visitors must walk over them. Price: $350.
Peter Kennedy shows four photographs of sheep at a reasonable $50, and John Armstrong has hung some pieces of marble from a branch of dead wood for $200.
They are works of so-called Conceptual Art.
As one who firmly believes art should be an open-ended process, and that it should be the inalienable right of artists to explore to the limits of their imaginative reach, I would be the last to reject such works on the very dubious grounds that they had nothing whatever to do with art.
They are concerned with art, but their ideas about art are such that their work bears no immediately recognisable relationship with anything hitherto passed for art in man’s long history as a creative animal.
It might be wiser to give such works a different designation.
If we call them “quasi-art” or “quasart” it might help overcome the kind of mental boggling that occurs wen we try to accommodate Evans’ piece of string and Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling under the same umbrella wrd – “Art”.
Wrappers, like Christo, earthworkers and conceptualists like Evans, Milliss, Kennedy and Armstrong, are quasartists because they have rejected all modes, elements and techniques of art as it has been understood to the present day.
Others, like the minimalists and colour-field painters, reject most things, but remain linked with tradition through their interest in, and concentration on, colour – one of the most abiding elements in art.
If quasart turns out to be a true portent, then we will have to fix on some date in the second half of the twentieth century as a watershed marking: the division between two quite different notions concerning the nature of art.
This of course, is what the conceptualists and other quasartists would like to achieve.
But is seems unlikey their theories will effectively replace a tradition enriched by experience and of such dynamic character.
It is more likely these revolutionary contributions will in time be studied as interesting though aberrant forms thrown up by a culture undergoing a sharp nervous crisis.
Whether one thinks of such works as inspired or misguided, they cetainly help to make the exhibition a stimulating eperience.
Works by Gunter Christmann, who won the Hunter Douglas Luxaflex Prize, Col Jordan, Joseph Szabo, Guy Warren, William Peascod, Michael Schlieper or Giselle Antman, which yesterday would have seemed daringly avant-garde, are suddenly seen as establishment pieces threatened by a new wave of radicals.
Donald Brook was in agreement that this exhibition was symptomatic of art reaching a sort of watershed but he was pleased to see it as an occasion to put the boot into formalism and by implication the CAS’s recently retired long term president, the artist, critic, advocate of formalism and unrepentant cold war warrior Elwyn Lynn:
Show that says: Attack
The Contemporary Art Society of NSW has not developed as one might have hoped into an Institute of Contemporary Art on the London model.
Instead it has remained a loose association mainly of artists struggling along from one committee take-over to the next inside a framework of earnest meetings and depressing exhibitions that used to be dedicated to the great Australian post-Dada anti-art tradition of the fair go.
But the last two annual exhibitions have been different. Last year the show had a firm style bias that transformed it (unfairly) into something pleasurable to see.
And this year, although variety is back, there is a lively sense of attack and involvement in new ideas.
There is, indeed, about as much post-painting as there is painting, and the society seems to be on the brink of abandoning its 32-year-old conviction that the only real art form is the handcrafted, wall-mounted coloured rectangle.
They just don’t write fun reviews like those any more. A year later Donald Brook reproduced the top photo in an article he wrote on young Australian artists for the UK art magazine Studio International.
But all of that begs the question of what on earth did I think I was doing. For much of 1970 I had been preoccupied with defining the essential characteristics of art, as Gleeson and Brook both recognised. On the one hand you could see this as a dadaist gesture, art being contemptuously treated as a doormat, but although it had that provocative gesture aspect that just wasn’t my thing. In fact it had come about as a natural extension of 1969 works that manipulated gallery spaces by outlining them with rope or tape or extending them with extra walls or corridors. As a result I then became interested in controlling the way people moved through the spaces and the way they interacted with each other. But there was another issue related to defining what physically constituted a work of art. I increasingly used parts of the gallery and gallery fittings or incorporated other pre-existing objects into the work so that it became increasingly difficult to define what was or was not part of the art work. There was certainly no simple object hand made by the artist that could be defined as the art work. Thirdly I was irritated by performance art which I considered little more than bad theatre or on the rare occasion that it was not boring then it was little more than mediocre theatre. It did nothing to question the essential viewer/artwork(or artist performer) relationship that concerned me so I decided to turn it on its head and make the viewer – if they could be called that – into the performer. If the viewer did not perform the artwork then it did not exist, the action and consequences were the art work, not the physical bits of sponge rubber. Essentially in the end rather than creating art works I was setting up conditions in which art works of a sort could occur, in this case the audience could stumble in an uneasy way across the suddenly unstable floor surface.
These seem to be the original rough drawings:
In the formal drawing that followed it is grey sponge
but in the drawing done for the specific installation it is blue.
At that time in early to mid 1970 I did drawings for an incredible number of works around doorways, blocking them, extending them, manipulating the rooms behind them. There are dozens of variations for even the simple scenario of putting something in front of a doorway that must then be walked over, everything from water or flour or sugar ,
trays of gravel,
Looking at them now I find it impossible to hide the fact that there seems to be some sort of personal psychological issue involved. It seems I was struggling to get through to somewhere else but I couldn’t quite do it and these works seem to symbolise that. By the end of 1970 I had passed through that doorway because I finally worked out the way forward. A whole different phase began where I had a decreasing need to produce exhibitable objects of any sort.
The work has been shown twice since 1970. It was in Off the Wall / In the Air: A Seventies Selection (curator Jennifer Phipps) at ACCA Melbourne in 1991 and in Monochromes curated by David Pestorius at the University Art Museum, Brisbane in 2000. At the ACCA exhibition it quickly became a real eyesore, caked with mud walked in from the gallery’s garden setting. At the Monochrome exhibition it was set outside the lift where it remained monochrome for the first ten minutes of the exhibition. Perhaps it was to preserve its monochrome nature or perhaps it was for the risk averse insurance regime of the 21st century that the lift was soon switched off and people were prevented from walking on it for the rest off the exhibition, or so I was told. You have to laugh. Future versions will no doubt be handled with white cotton gloves. In the case of the original, when I got it back I gave it a good wash and used it as a mattress for the next few years.
Incidentally the original photo was taken by the sculptor Noel Hutchinson and the sandal wearing gent is Weaver Hawkins, an extraordinary artist who was an original member of the Vorticist group, badly injured in WWI (hence the awkward looking arm) and later migrated to Australia. At the time I found his work a bit odd and disconcerting, too strange to even be described as unfashionable, now I admire it tremendously, particularly the landscapes and although I was acquainted with him I wish now that I had been better friends with him and talked to him more.