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sex and death

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 20-May-2010

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 15

Wordcount: 869

More sex and death, please: the art form of arrogance


My partner likes his coffee small, black and sweet (I wish I could say, “like me” but sadly not, on any of these counts). A longish short-black is the thing, rather than shortish long; the demitasse full rather than the tasse half-full.

As habits go, I’ve seen weirder. At home, we let the coffee machine run a moment longer and all is well. Out in coffee world, though, this three-cc predilection makes us People with Special Needs.

The best baristas cope. An eyebrow raised, perhaps, a lip curled, but eventually they find their way to flout the first rule of coffee fascism, that an espresso may be shortened (ristretto-wise) but never, ever lengthened.

It’s the second and third-rate baristas that cut up rough. Either they say yes but mean no, delivering whatever pro-forma, quality-assured coffee ticks their boxes, and daring you to complain. Or – as occurred recently at a society caffeine joint in Darlo – they refuse outright, daring you to leave.

Usually, these are the same cafes where the air-con is too cold, the decor too cool, the music too amped and the tables too small; cafes run for the pleasure and convenience of the staff, not the Paying Guests. Yet not only do these PGs not complain. They go right back for more.

In what soil has this noxious arrogance found root? In the presumption of art, is what; the elevation of coffee-making from humble service to art form, complete with ritual, dogma and tantruming genii. So it’s no surprise that the art world often feels the same.

The Japanese-American photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto said as much in last week’s keynote Biennale gig. In a talk designed mainly to reinforce his Leonardo role (collector, photographer, architect, “part-medium, part-scientist” and pal to the rich and famous) the first name to be dropped – first of many – was Bono’s.

Bono was always a bonehead but the black-clad art-crowd stifled their titters as Sugimoto cashed in on his cachet. “Bono said he liked my signature style seascapes and asked me, would I photograph his ocean. I said no, because I am an artist, not a commercial photographer.”

You get the point. If it’s not arrogant, it’s not art. And to some extent this is true. Art works to a higher god than mere populism. (So at least we like to think, though the Biennale’s constant trumpeting of its size – Australia’s biggest, x-hundred artists – must make you question its values. Personally I’d rather see a single Guernica than a thousand bits of old tat.)

To justify its pedestal, in other words, the art product really needs to be sublime. Now, I’ve never liked Sugimoto’s seascapes, which strike me as dull and flat (yes, yes, I know that’s intentional) so we’ll leave them right there. But I tell you this. His excursion into architecture is the best pro-architect propaganda I’ve seen in a long time.

“Someone asked me to make a building,” he said, “and why not?” Like, this is so easy. The building was the Izu Photo Museum, which opened – with a Sugimoto show, naturally – last October. It’s a shocker. Crude, gauche and charmless, the museum clearly shows just how hard it is to make a decent garden, let alone a decent room.

This, I thought, boded ill for the rest of the Biennale. As the director, David Elliot, quipped before his Salome-toys-with-the-head-of-John karaoke at the weekend, “this show needs more sex and death”. He’s right. The Sydney Biennale has lately become so devotedly, indulgently, sophomorishly vacuous as to imply that the cutting edge really has moved to the sciences.

And this year’s Cockatoo Island offering broadly supports that thesis. Art demands intensity. Spreading it across so vast and muscular a backdrop, therefore, so redolent with practical good and evil, makes the art seem scrawny indeed, especially when it’s not great to start with. Marxist tractor art meets Art Lite.

Fortunately, the rest of the Biennale has several emphatic exceptions, like Janet Laurence’s elegiac Medicinal Garden for Ailing Plants. Hovering sweetly amid the Botanic Gardens pomp, this snowblind fascinator is an exquisite and loving mix of 19th century etching, apothecary’s greenhouse and sci-fi colonialism.

The biggest surprise, though, is the MCA. Not only can most of its Biennale artists actually draw (or paint, or make). At least three-quarters of them are once more at the coalface, hacking boldly into the inexplicabilities of the human condition. For which, thank God.

There’s some marvellous stuff – Enrique Chagoya’s Enlightened Savage’s Guide to Economic Theory; Jake and Dinos Chapman’s rude pink figures; John Bock’s courtly Berlin video-Dada; Penny Siopsis’s gorily erotic Three Trees; Nandipha Mntambo’s rampant cowhide goddesses and Claudio Dicochea’s pop-y De Queen y Sitting Bull. To name a few.

For me, though, best-in-show goes to Louise Bourgeois, 99 this Christmas. There’s her red gouache Couple, where the many-breasted woman wears them around her neck like daisy-petals, and the understated, unhistrionic, unphotographable Echo I, stuffing the pathos of a species into a single, tumid sac.

Far as I’m concerned, Bourgeois is the real thing. She can take her pedestal as high as she likes, not that she does like, for her demitasse brims – nay, quivers – with crema.


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