Tag Archives: MCA

Sydney Biennale

Today the Art Student and I popped into town with a visiting Melburnian friend to stroll around the MCA for a couple of stimulating hours. It was our second excursion to the Biennale. We went out to Cockatoo Island a couple of weeks ago, but I didn’t make the time to blog about that, and to judge by the program we missed some of the most interesting things out there. We did see Cai Guo-Qiang’s Exploding Cars, walk on the shanty town rooftops of Kadia Attia’s Kasbah, and chortle uneasily at Shen Shaomin’s Summit. Today we were greeted at the door by two of Shen Shaomin’s bonsai works, which at first glance deliver much less punch than the realistic corpses of Communist leaders in Summit, but after we’d seen half a dozen of his tortured trees, even without being able to read the ideograms describing how they had been manipulated, we treated them with due respect.

The  walls of the first large room at the MCA are covered with big colour photographs, a hundred pairs of which one is a domestic space and the other a person standing back to camera. I imagine there are people who are capable of standing in this room and spotting the unifying motif. I looked up the program and told my companions and one or two other people – no one complained about the spoiler. (If you want to know more, you can click here.) The artists, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, created the memorable Old People’s Home, which we saw in Tokyo last year.

There’s far too much in this exhibition for one visit, or one blog entry. I was struck by the amount of Indigenous art – from Australia, of course, but also from New Guinea, the Arctic, the Americas and Europe. One large room on the top floor is devoted to 110 larrakitj (memorial poles) by 41 Yolngu artists from East Arnhem Land, and it’s a knockout. There’s brilliant trompe l’oeil, wonderful sculptural play, images reminiscent of the Mexican Día de los Muertos, shimmer to make your eyes water. A place to just stand and stare. I took my one phone photo there. It might give you some idea.

I tend to skip video installations in art galleries, and I saw at least two pieces today that confirmed my expectations of amateurish sound recording / acting / design, and did less than nothing for me. But Bill Viola’s Incarnation is totally magical. Two naked people walk towards the camera in slowmo, and it turns out that the graininess of the image is caused by a veil of water falling between us and them. They walk through the veil and are suddenly clear and in full colour. After a long moment, they turn around, go back through the water, and walk away until they vanish into the granularity of the screen. Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s video triptych is a delight of a different order. On each of three screens a life sized print of a famous nineteenth century European painting is set up in the open air in front of a group of Thai peasants, who sit with their backs to the camera and chat among themselves, mostly about the painting. We get subtitles. The naked woman sitting with clothed men in Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe provoked quite a bit of anthropological speculation: ‘I suppose it’s cooler to go like that in hot weather’ ‘Is it a funeral custom?’ etc. Millet’s Gleaners and Van Gogh’s Midday Sleep were less mysterious, but there was much discussion of the exact nature of the crops and activities in each picture, the weather and the state of the fields. Not for these peasants our cringing sense of inadequacy when confronted with what we’ve been told is Great Art.

There was a lot else. Angela Ellsworth’s Seer Bonnets, beautiful to the eye, are made of pearl headed pins, thousands of them, all viciously pointing inwards to where the wearer’s head will be.  Louise Bourgeois has made fascinating sculptures from old clothes. Salla Tykkå’s video Victoria spends 10 minutes watching a waterlily bloom and grow, possibly in a greenhouse in Kew Gardens in London.

We had lunch in Glebe, and drove our friend to the airport less sure that Sydney is Philistine-ville. Then I realised I’d lost my wallet and will now draw up a list of all the cards I need to replace.

Eliasson’s Lights at the MCA

We visited the MCA again yesterday, this time to see the Olafur Eliasson exhibition. The most interesting things there – apart from the room where we were invited to build things in white Lego and to admire the extraordinary creations of those who had come before us – were his pieces made with light. I was probably a bit spoiled for them by having seen James Turrell’s work in Naoshima (blogged about here and here), where the thoughtfully reverential treatment allows the work to become almost numinous. In the MCA, for example, the 360º Room for All Colours, in which a circular wall becomes something like a domestic-sized Aurora Borealis (Eliasson is from Iceland) might have had that effect, but the chatter from the Lego room, the attendant’s helpful explanation of technical matters, and the intrusive detail of the floor and the room beyond the ‘room’ (unlike the polished blankness of the floor in the photo on the MCA site) allowed in too much mundanity, and the room felt to me like a clever novelty. ‘Take your time’ was the title of the exhibition, but there was little in the presentation to enforce that injunction.

Except in the piece entitled ‘Beauty’. In a black-lined room a fine spray of water fell from the ceiling, in light from a single directed bulb. In a very slight breeze, perhaps caused by our movements, the water fell in gentle arcs, catching and refracting the light like a shimmering, almost mother-of-pearl curtain. As I was standing in the dark at the back of the room, three women walked in. Something about their manner emboldened me, and I said, ‘Walk into it.’ And they did. It looked great – the curtain completely vanished for a moment, then reformed. Then I discovered for myself that when you walked into the mist, a circular rainbow formed around you.

There were other lovely things in the exhibition, but I wanted to make sure I told you about that.

Arty sunny afternoon

Confounding the predictions, yesterday gave us deep blue skies all day. Two loads of washing dried on the line, the goldfish glowed in the murk of our little pond, and P and I took the light rail to Pyrmont and walked to the MCA.

There was a charge for Danish–Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson on the third floor, and a friend had been pretty lukewarm about him, so we decided to save our money (unusual for this time of year, I know) and visit it some other day. But the first, second and fourth floors fabulous enough.

The first and second are exhibiting a recent gift from Ann Lewis, an art collector so famous that even I had heard of her. It was wonderful to see shimmering works by Utopian ladies Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Gloria Petyarre, among other Aboriginal artists, displayed in the company of US big names Rauschenberg and Klippel  – Gloria Petyarre’s canvas filled with shimmering silver leaves is the single image that most grabbed me. There’s a little room of lovely photographs by Jon Lewis. Any relation? Well, yes, if the handwritten ‘For Annie (Grannie)’ written in the bottom border of one image means what it appears to.

Half of the fourth floor is given over to Forbidden, ‘the first in-depth solo exhibition’ of Fiona Foley’s work . Now, I am often impressed, bemused, amused or depressed by contemporary art, but I don’t often have a strong head-and-heart response. I did have to this exhibition. For example, the word Dispersal in big, chunky shiny aluminium letters, of which the initial D bristles with .303 bullets is a lot more than a clever reminder of the hideous use of that word in our colonial history. It stands next to a spiral of flour about three metres across, that needs constant attention from an attendant to maintain its crisp shape; the flour turns out to be part of an installation ‘Land Deal’, in which other objects representing those John Batman used to ‘buy’ the land where Melbourne was built hang on the wall. Nearby hangs a row of blankets, each inscribed with a single word, that conjure the experiences of Aboriginal women under colonialism. Elsewhere Foley places herself in photographs with titles like ‘Native Blood’ and ‘Modern Nomad’, that refer strongly to nineteenth century anthropological images. Evidently, earlier exhibitions have had titles like ‘Lick my black art’. Ok, lick it and weep.

The rest of the floor showcases new acquisitions. There’s a cute hologram that was popular with the very young (and others, including me), which could have been titled ‘Ghost Train’, but instead is called ‘You’re not thinking fourth dimensionally’. Danie Mellor made the cut with a sculpture that includes a shiny, mosaic kangaroo and a lifelike sulphur-crested cockatoo. I loved a video piece by Grant Stevens, in which an account of a dream is projected onto a wall in a way that controls the speed at which the viewer reads (or fails to read, because the pace picks up enormously in the middle).

Then we walked back to Pyrmont along the Hungry Mile, trying to figure out Paul Keating’s proposal for Barangaroo, and home to find the washing dry on the line.

The sixty-eighters’ young appreciators

Beautiful day in Sydney, what better to do than take the bus into town for a free event at the Museum of Contemporary Art. ‘The Young Appreciators‘ was part of the fourth floor exhibition, avoiding myth & message: Australian artists and the Literary world (capitalisation not mine!), which seems to be mainly about artists and literary folk from the late 1960s and on – that is to say, not so much Sidney Nolan–Ern Malley as Tim Burns–John Forbes.

Today is the first time I’ve realised that there is a group of Australian poets known as the 68ers, or perhaps the 69ers: John Forbes, Robert Adamson and John Tranter (whom those in the know refer to by second name only), and quite a few others who are sometimes hard to see because of the long shadows cast by those three. The three speakers at today’s event are younger than the 68/9ers: the oldest admitted to 39, and I’d guess the other two were quite a bit younger. That is to say, none of them had been born in those days when I used to go  regularly to poetry readings to hear John Forbes, who I thought was a bit of a smart aleck and not as interesting as, say Martin Johnston (another 68/9er who doesn’t seem to cast such a long shadow).

Anyhow, it was fun. The first speaker spoke of Vicki Viidikas, beginning her talk by saying she hadn’t known much about her until after she’d accepted the invitation to talk. Since I’d heard the ABC radio programs that she based most of her talk on (with acknowledgement), I can’t say I was riveted. The second tackled John Forbes, mostly, as she said, in terms of marginalia and biography – mentions of herself she’d found in published Forbes letters, for example. It was in her talk that I became aware that those poets of my youth have since become the subject of academic attention. The third, the elegant poet Tim Wright, speaking softly and swiftly enough to be near to incomprehensible to me, talked about Pam Brown, visibly writhing with embarrassment at having the subject of his talk actually in the room.

I loved the moment during the brief question time when Kerry Leves, another of the apparently short-shadowed 68/9ers, admitted that when he’d seen a particular person’s work on a table in the exhibition, he’d said, ‘I don’t remember her!’ It’s a small world, the world of Australian poets and artists.

And I got a real hand in my understanding of Pam Brown’s poetry. I managed to hear Tim Wright say that her work was in many ways similar to Jennifer Maiden’s, but that whereas you tend to read one of Jennifer Maiden’s poems right through to the end, and when you do you feel you’ve learned something (a true statement), with Pam Brown’s work it’s not like that. You tend to stop and ponder a phrase, stare into space, let it sink in or just be distracted (he called her the master of the poetry of distraction, or something of the sort), then go back and read it again: it’s perfect for reading on public transport. I realised that my unexamined working assumption that reading is a linear process – you start at the beginning and go to the end and derive meaning on the way – has made quite a lot of poetry hard to enjoy. And I do read it while walking the dog — surely picking up a bag of dog poo or playing tug-of-war with a stick between lines should have put me in the perfect state of mind. I’ll try again, not so much harder, as with less resistance to the forces of distraction.