Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Looking for tasty art in the noodle soup of life
The local Chinese, much frequented by taxi drivers, serves a mean combination noodle soup. This, apart from something clearly identifiable as squid, contains three or possibly four varieties of what you might call representational seafood. One type, roughly cylindrical with a distinctive crimson dermis, represents crab – though no crab ever had such piano legs.
A second type, white and loosely spherical, is normally known as the scallop ball, I believe, though it out-diameters any scallop I have known. And a third, ochre-skinned type is sliced into thin trapezoids that resemble tofu but taste kind of fishy. All convey an idea of seafood, beneath which lurks the stubborn suspicion that what you’re eating was by-catch, at best, pureed, scientised and poured into variety moulds.
The Sydney Biennale is a comparable kettle of fish: not art, but some substance that looks and smells like it might once have had something to do with art, if only you could put your finger on what. You can’t, though, ever, because the connection is lost in time, before art was routinely mushed through the combined nets of academia, populism and political correctness and squirted out into the marketplace with just the faintest remnant flavour to remind you that art is supposed to taste like something.
In fact, art is supposed to taste so much like something that it blows you away. Hence this year’s Biennale title, Revolution, to remind you that art, like my scallop ball, was once muscular.
But the Biennale also has a subtitle, Forms That Turn. This may sound like Alexander Downer’s luckless “Things that batter” campaign, and it’s only marginally more sophisticated. But, these days, you gotta have a subtitle.
And there’s the pun. You know, revolutions go round and round.
This adds a dash of postmodern contradiction, a hint of world-weary plus ca change, a soupcon of what goes round comes round, a taste of turn, turn, turn – making it quite, well, Left Bank, n’est-ce pas?
Forms That Turn also, conveniently, stretches the title into a blousy catch-all, so that anything from a ferris wheel to a pregnant belly can be seen to fit. Even Tracey Moffatt’s latest, a splicing (with Gary Hillberg) of old film-clips that is heavily derivative of Christian Marclay’s similar (but better) Video Quartet at London’s White Cube five years ago, can be seen as “revolution”. Ironically, of course (rip-off equals recycling, get it?).
This kind of self-justifying narrative is core post-modern activity. Every piece has its story and most Biennale-goers spend more time reading it than examining the work. How else would you get the picture? Not from the picture anyway.
But if you do study the work – at the Museum of Contemporary Art, say – three things will strike you. One, that by far the tastiest work in the building isn’t even in the show. It’s the breathtaking exhibition of long-closeted bark paintings, including a series of X-ray roos to die for, from the MCA’s Arnott’s Collection.
Two, that even within the supposedly contemporary Biennale, the best works are old, dating from modern art’s revolutionary moments; the early 20th century (like Tina Modotti’s Woman With Flag, 1928) and mid-20th century (like Leon Ferrari’s Western Christian Civilization, 1965).
And three is that the new stuff is in general anodyne, obvious, earnest and undergraduate; avant-garde in style but not substance.
I like conceptual art. In fact, for me it’s a kind of home. But the concepts must be interesting. They must surprise, and this is hard. Duchamp was interesting because no one had seen a urinal as art before; Warhol was because he did the same with the Brillo box, then sold it for a million bucks, and showed us how stupid it was.
As Ray Hughes notes, “The avant-garde is like shooting a bullet through newspaper. That moment is the avant-garde. The big dilemma now is how to sell the moment to every museum in the world?”
Now, all we have is Attila Csorgo’s 1995 Slanting Water, a photo of two glasses after centrifuging (revolution, you with me?). Rosemary Laing’s zillion-and-oneth girl drifting in Laura Ashley space. And Ai Weiwei’s shattered neolithic bowl, or buddha’s feet, or wall-hung soles.
Lovely in themselves, but not really hitting the conceptual spot. Conceptual art, needing novelty, implies an avant-garde, which implies progress. But with the rules already broken, where can art go? It’s a century since Futurism wound the spring; Dada smashed it and surrealism moon- walked our imaginations through the subconscious. Cubism showed us all was contingent; existentialism that all was meaningless; Warhol made it stick, to itself and to us. And that, my dears, was that.
Now, while the academy blows smoke up our polite rectal apertures and the curatorium sucks fest, art has become, simply, dull.
If there is an answer, which I doubt (since the running has likely passed to nanophysics or neurogeography) it’s the same for art as for noodle soup. Cut the baloney. Smash the academy. Find the real crab, including its claws, jaws and spiky bits.