Friday, June 26, 2009

Andrew Frost, the fetish of newness, the love of cinema, and the pleasure of contemporary art

(Above: Ansel Kiefer and the building blocks for a Cinémathèque?)

You know I'm just so over old art. It's well, it's old. It's wrinkled, and the varnish has cracked, and it sometimes looks dull and faded.

Because it's old. The last time I looked at any old art, it was so old. Centuries sometimes. Why do they keep on keeping it on at the Louvre and the Met and the Musee D'Orsay and the Tate - well, you get my drift, I could go on and on naming galleries full of old stuff. It's amazing how all these places are just so cluttered, littered, with old art. 

I mean, you could understand it from the French, backward looking and always celebrating their culture, and even turning bloody railway stations into art galleries, and the British with their Turner fetish, even if he never managed to finish his paintings, but the rest of us ... we should be so over old art.

Come to think of it, I'm over antiques of any kind, and antiquated thinking. That's why I'm standing shoulder to shoulder with Andrew Frost, who in Old is OK, but in with the new, please, makes an impassioned plea to throw out old thinking and old art and old ideas. Because, well, they're old.

Now you might think that what with the brand spanking new (well since November 1991, which is old, but not truly rooly old) Museum of Contemporary Art sitting on the banks of Circular Quay, new art might actually already have a focus in Sydney.

Especially since they've announced bold redevelopment plans that will see the institution transformed into a "global hub for contemporary art and ideas by 2011", serving the audiences of the future. You might even think you could get plenty of new art by wandering around the galleries clustered in the vicinity of Paddington and surrounds, which actually try to sell new art to new customers (why even in Newtown and Glebe there are galleries sprouting up like alfalfa, and we've even purchased a little new art there ourselves. So new you can even smell the paint).

You might even think the notion of new and old is a funny way of looking at art, or even the value and the interest and the pleasure and the understandings to be gained from art. But truth to tell, you can never get enough new art.

Speaking from a self-interested position, I would love to see the gallery exhibit contemporary art more consistently and be less driven by prizes. While exhibitions like the Anne Landa award for new media and video are something to look forward to, more survey shows of contemporary art and exhibitions culled from permanent collections are alternatives to biennial hoopla.

Perhaps the development of the gallery's new space for contemporary art using the multimillion-dollar gift from the art philanthropist John Kaldor will help make this a reality. We can only hope.

I'm not sure I follow the logic - we don't like prizes but a new media award is something to look forward to - but there's something to be said for building the collections and getting them out of mothballs on a regular basis.

But to be fair, the crowds do love their blockbusters - just as they used to love Cinerama and six track stereo - and you can hardly expect the NSW Art Gallery to be competitive with European galleries in picking up or showing art, or the major American institutions that have made a career out of looting Europe while buying up their own artists' work. And some of the old English art the NSWAG snatched off the castle walls in the old days because they could afford it is perhaps best viewed by relatives and friends of the original owners.

Then again when you wander downstairs and see a pile of concrete rubble as assembled by Anselm Kiefer hanging on the wall, I'm reminded of the time I saw a major exhibition of his in the Getty in Barcelona and had an overwhelming desire to blow up the building - figuring that the pile of rubble left by the blast would be much more interesting and exotic than Kiefer's work. But the Basques had just ended their truce, and there was much talk of terrorism, so the idea of criticism as a kind of terrorism seemed a little raw, and I let the matter lapse.

But don't get me wrong. I just love new art, for its newness and stuff. Somehow, somewhere Frost seems to think the newness has been lost:

The gallery of the pre-Capon era is but a distant and dim memory for me but the impression is of a gallery far less interested in pleasing crowds and more dedicated to contemporary art.

Funny how memory plays tricks, since I remember it as a relatively dead and stuffy mausoleum, but maybe that's because I'm really old, like old art, wrinkled and smelly.

Even funnier is the notion that pleasing crowds is somehow tainted or perhaps even wrong, or even more alarming not something that contemporary art should worry about - provided they can put out their hands for a grant and blather on about integrity. (And you'll have to allow me the notion that shocking or irritating or getting up the nose is a pleasure, even if a peculiar one. You can never get enough piss Christ in this neck of the woods though I've seen enough dead cows close up in the flesh to ease the need to see one preserved in formalin).

Even so, when Andrew Frost's plea for newness is closely examined, apart from a little sideways jab at the Archibald competition, and a front on jab at Edmund Capon, and a pious hope for more newness, it turns out that his one solid idea for newness curiously enough revolves around  'the cinemah', and exploitation of the gallery's Domain Theatre.

Attempts to create a cinematheque in Sydney at the Museum of Contemporary Art came to nothing after a long and tortuous saga that was closely linked to that gallery's ongoing funding problems. Brisbane's newly opened Gallery of Modern Art features a state-of-the-art cinematheque that has an extensive and lovingly curated program of films that attracts art tourists from Sydney and Melbourne.

That's right, it turned into a turkey at the MCA, so let's hatch a turkey inside the NSWAG seems to be the message of the month. Which is another way of saying that Sydney will never have the imagination to have an actual Cinémathèque, or even a building like the one housing the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne (just love the way they stole the title 'Australian' in much the same way that their main gallery stole the title 'National').

Instead we'll get another coat tailed half baked offering inside a building dedicated to other kinds of art. Frost's vision sounds nice:

The Art Gallery of NSW's modest film and video screening program is testament to the hard work of dedicated staff with a deep love of and commitment to cinema. It would be great to see those efforts rewarded with more resources to turn a shoestring operation into something of which Sydney could be proud.

Now I'm all for cross fertilization and cross over art, and I've even been known to stop and look at a video installation, though mainly to be disappointed by the lack of imagination and understanding shown by artists dabbling in the medium (I guess you can only find a Bunuel or a Warhol every so often).

But there's actually a tremendous amount of films on offer in the modern world, whether by way of screening or by way of the new cinémathèque called the intertubes. And frankly the culture of some buffs doesn't integrate that well with the sensibility of either video artists or old fashioned lovers of the plastic arts. I'd be more excited if there was a proposal to plunk a dedicated cinema institution out at Fox, since all they've managed in recent times is the wretched new AFTRS building, which suggests that if the architecture is any guide, the films hatched inside will also lack imagination.

In fact, come to think of it, the cinema (and television) are way too important as the major art forms of the twentieth century to be tucked into a NSWAG ghetto, to the detriment of the gallery and the cinema. If NSW hasn't got the class, or the money, or the vision of Victoria, so be it.

What's interesting is the way the gallery is currently undergoing a bit of a spring clean and a re-organization, and in the process revealing that lots of interesting bits and pieces are tucked away in storage and stay there way too long. A bit of money spent on rotation, and hangings and special exhibitions and a dynamic engagement with the local community of artists and camp followers would provide a lot more motivation to turn up there regularly, rather than turn up once every six months or so.

But then I guess you'll have gathered that I don't mind looking at old art, even when it's varnish has wrinkled, and the colors have worn. And somehow I've managed to keep up my diet of a two or three hundred movies a year without feeling the need to go to the NSWAG as a way of boosting my cinema fibre content. 

But come to think of it, the cinema has always required and sought out an audience because of the budgets involved, and pleasing an audience remains of active interest to any film-maker intending to work with more than a Canon camcorder. 

Now that notion of audience might prove useful for both the contemporary art scene and the gallery ...

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