Alex Wisser


Month: January, 2010


by Alex Wisser

Orig­i­nally pub­lished  2010-01-23 on

Since my last post was spent rail­ing against the ineluctable, silent effi­ciency of that jug­ger­naut of insti­tu­tional change, Anita Tay­lor and her plans to turn a dinosaur into a jet air­plane with no other tools than a cal­cu­la­tor and a carv­ing knife — I thought it only appro­pri­ate to ded­i­cate this post to the other side of the argu­ment.  The argu­ment for change that is.  I know how to but­ter my bread on both sides, and burn my bridges from both ends.

I knew the nature of the National Art School long before I went there.  My part­ner suf­fered 3 long years in the Land That Time For­got and I suf­fered beside her.  The con­ser­vatism of the school is long famous, and while I won’t bore you with all the absur­dist minu­tia which was our daily din­ner con­ver­sa­tion, I will treat you to a few. Per­haps my favorite was the sug­ges­tion that Richard Bell was a racist when he made the claim that Abo­rig­i­nal Art was a white thing.  Or then there was the time that Christo­pher Allen raised his glass at a fac­ulty party to toast the fact that the National Art School had avoided post mod­ernism all together.  Frankly I found NAS to be post-modern in the extreme, if only for its blithe capac­ity to encom­pass con­tra­dic­tion and log­i­cal incon­sis­tency with­out feel­ing at all obliged to resolve them.  It was at the NAS library that I read from David Antin that “From the mod­ernism you want, you get the post­mod­ernism you deserve”.  I couldn’t think of a bet­ter motto for the school, and sug­gest now to its new man­age­ment that it be ren­dered in bronze and hung above the entrance to the school, per­haps trans­lated into Latin just to impress people.

If that weren’t enough of a warn­ing, I had friends, estab­lished artists, who cer­tainly knew bet­ter than I, dis­cour­age me in force­ful terms from my pro­posed course of study, sug­gest­ing cofa or sca and rec­om­mend­ing I write to such and such head of depart­ment who they were friends with.  Still, I was deter­mined… as all young fools (ok mid­dle aged fools) are, to have my own way in life, and go in the direc­tion that I had decided was best for me.  And to tell you the truth, after all is said and done, I believe I made the right decision.

This deci­sion was based on the fact that I had a my under­grad­u­ate degree from Syd­ney Uni­ver­sity with a triple major, choco­late sprin­kles and a cherry on top. I had been play­ing with the pos­si­bil­ity of an aca­d­e­mic future, but had grown dis­il­lu­sioned with the poten­tials of con­tem­po­rary the­ory and the dis­course pro­duc­tion indus­try.  So I had the­ory; what I had no expe­ri­ence of and no idea about, was the prac­tice of being an artist.   While COFA and SCA cer­tainly had bet­ter cre­den­tials than NAS and the cur­ricu­lum seemed to be focused on far more con­tem­po­rary cur­rents of art mak­ing, I was attracted to NAS because it would give me the kind of stu­dio based edu­ca­tion I needed, includ­ing sub­stan­tial con­tact hours with work­ing artists.  The under­grad­u­ate course my part­ner went through required a 40 hour week, either in stu­dio or in lec­tures and I was attracted to the prospect of being required to treat art mak­ing like a proper occu­pa­tion.  If you com­pare this to cofa and sca where con­tact hours are as low as 12 hours a week in large classes and the oblig­a­tion placed on stu­dents are from what I’ve heard, ambiva­lent at best — NAS had some­thing going for it that couldn’t be got­ten any­where else.  While both cofa and sca have their strengths, as I was inves­ti­gat­ing my options, I came across a good per­cent­age of their stu­dents com­plain­ing that while they were learn­ing a lot of the­ory they weren’t learn­ing the practice.

NAS was the exact oppo­site.  While you got a truly gen­er­ous num­ber of con­tact hours and stu­dio time, the aca­d­e­mic expe­ri­ence was pal­try to say the least.  I had to explain to fourth year stu­dents in the break of our Art His­tory and The­ory lec­ture what semi­otics was.  I know that up to 2008 at least Christo­pher Allen was still tor­ment­ing his stu­dents with 19th cen­tury style rote learn­ing in the form of slide tests for which you were required to mem­o­rize the sta­tis­tics of famous paint­ings.  The library was minute and had sig­nif­i­cant gaps in its col­lec­tion.  I couldn’t find a copy of Lyotard’s “The Post­mod­ern Con­di­tion” (appear­antly because the con­di­tion didn’t apply) and while there were some excel­lent lec­tur­ers, lets face it, as an aca­d­e­mic insti­tu­tion, NAS was a joke.  Any art school that would pro­duce an hon­ors level grad­u­ate who could in all good con­science claim that their work was uni­fied as a body because they were all made by the same per­son, has some seri­ous prob­lems (and pos­si­bly needs to give that stu­dent a refund).

But for me, who had enough the­ory (and I mean enough already) — what the National Art School gave me could not have come from another envi­ron­ment.  I entered hon­ors year with absolutely no prac­tice as an artist what­so­ever, and within a nine month period, to everyone’s sur­prise, I pro­duced a pretty pass­able stu­dent show.  I look back and won­der what the hell they were think­ing, let­ting me in in the first place.  I should have fallen flat on my face, and yet, through the near con­stant, and very con­sis­tent guid­ance of some excel­lent teach­ers, I com­pleted my course and left the National Art School with the one thing a stu­dent can and should expect to have when they leave art school: a begin­ning.  I under­stand that my case can­not be taken to argue the rule: it was an excep­tion, and it is the fail­ing of an art school if it trains its stu­dents in their craft with­out giv­ing them a real­is­tic under­stand­ing of the intel­lec­tual con­text in which they are meant to prac­tice it.  That said, the pre­dom­i­nance of the­ory at the expense of prac­tice cre­ates its own malaise in which the mak­ing of things becomes equiv­a­lent to illus­trat­ing ideas, and as an activ­ity comes closer to writ­ing than to the think­ing that can only be done through mak­ing.  We all under­stand this.  What the National Art School did, even if it was from a reac­tionary posi­tion, was to offer a model of prac­ti­cal edu­ca­tion that is slowly becom­ing extinct (for eco­nomic as much as ide­o­log­i­cal rea­sons).  It will be to our loss, if in reform­ing its flaws we fail to improve and build upon its unique qual­ity and instead tear it down and rebuild it in the image of what we already have enough of.

Management by Gallows at The National Art School

by Alex Wisser

Originally published 2010-01-15 on

So, the gal­lows are work­ing again at the old Dar­linghurst Goal and the Syd­ney art com­mu­nity is abuzz with the col­lec­tive silence that sur­rounds the rad­i­cal over­haul of one its major insti­tu­tions.  It’s true that Jacques Delaru­elle wrote a let­ter, at once elo­quent and tooth­less, The Aus­tralian pub­lished a non-committal story basi­cally report­ing that Jacque had writ­ten a let­ter, and Vasili Kali­man tweeted a barbed good rid­dance.  Aside from that, there is an abid­ing silence and an almost com­plete lack of pub­lic dia­logue around the forces play­ing them­selves out at the National Art School.  The Board of Direc­tors has called an emer­gency meet­ing to dis­cuss the fall­out from this cur­rent cri­sis, but if this is the media storm they are fac­ing, I can’t see what they’re wor­ried about.

Let me declare from the begin­ning that I grad­u­ated last year from The National Art School, that I believe that NAS is in great need of seri­ous struc­tural change to make it rel­e­vant as a con­tem­po­rary arts insti­tu­tion and that as a stu­dent, scur­ry­ing about try­ing to com­plete my degree under the gath­er­ing shadow of the events unfold­ing before us today, I came into con­tact with much gos­sip and spec­u­la­tion which I am com­pletely pre­pared to share.   Some­one has to say some­thing out loud.

So lets draw a map.  The National Art School, orig­i­nally belong­ing to the TAFE sys­tem, won itself some mod­icum of inde­pen­dence and even the abil­ity to offer degree courses.  This shifted the sta­tus of the school away from the TAFE model though it was still beholden to the sys­tem, a fact that the school chaffed against, both from an oper­a­tional point of view as well as one of pres­tige.  In 2008, there were a num­ber of approaches to var­i­ous uni­ver­si­ties in the hopes of amal­ga­mat­ing.  As far as I’m aware, the school rejected all pro­pos­als from the uni­ver­si­ties because the lat­ter weren’t as inter­ested in main­tain­ing the National Art School’s inde­pen­dence as the National Art School was.  Cou­ple that with a fund­ing cri­sis, and the mag­i­cal appear­ance of 5 years of fund­ing from the NSW min­istry of arts and edu­ca­tion, inde­pen­dence from TAFE, and appoint­ment of Anita Tay­lor, an ‘out­sider’ as direc­tor must have looked like all the National Art School’s Christ­mases came at once.

But after Christ­mas comes New Year, and after New Year there is always a hang­over.  And all the National Art School’s hang­overs came at once.  On the 31st, the old school was dis­solved.  On the 1st the new pri­vate entity was formed.  And two weeks later heads started to role.  The heads of the heads of depart­ment to be exact.  5 out of 6, and the only sur­vivor kept her job because no one else applied.    In the end, the actual num­ber of casu­al­ties is 8 out of 9 senior staff (though John Bloom­field, ex-head of paint­ing, now holds a six month con­tract as an under­grad­u­ate coordinator).

How is it, I can hear you ask­ing, that an insti­tu­tion, renowned for an entrenched fac­ulty with a rep­u­ta­tion for hold­ing out against the forces of change or reform, could be so defence­less against its new direc­tor, Anita Tay­lor, who walks right in and just starts chop­ping heads?

As I under­stand it, the strat­egy behind the inde­pen­dence of the school was sold to the fac­ulty as the only way for­ward.  It involved dis­solv­ing the old cor­po­ra­tion and reg­is­ter­ing a new one, inde­pen­dent of the TAFE sys­tem.  The fac­ulty were told by Miss Tay­lor that their pas­sage from one insti­tu­tion to the other would be a for­mal­ity, and finally see­ing the light at the end of their job secu­rity night­mare, they voted for the plan with­out much protest.  In one stroke, Miss Tay­lor sev­ers the lines of oblig­a­tion between her­self and the fac­ulty, and pulls the rug out from under any poten­tial oppo­si­tion to the reforms she wishes to ini­ti­ate.  It seems to me a stun­ning coupe, clean and sharp and mil­i­tary in its precision.

While Miss Tay­lor brings the change I have hoped for, her meth­ods make me shiver.  And when I say she brings the change I hope for, I mean only that I hoped for change and she’s cer­tainly deliv­ered that.  I have no idea what kind of change she brings.  Despite the swift­ness of her actions and the sin­gle­ness of her inten­tion, she has betrayed noth­ing of what she hopes to achieve with her reform.  It is this absolute dis­re­gard for the con­sid­er­a­tion of the art com­mu­nity, the sense that she would not con­de­scend to con­sult, or even attempt to con­vince us of the value of her pro­gram that is the most fright­en­ing and infu­ri­at­ing aspect of her man­ner.  Even if she meets all our wildest dreams, would we want to swal­low the sense of dis­en­fran­chise­ment she would serve it with?

NOTE: The meet­ing of the board of direc­tors was brought for­ward to last night and all new appoint­ments have been con­firmed.  The next round will be decid­ing on the fates of 50 frac­tional lec­tur­ers and ses­sional staff.

Olafur Eliason took my time

by Alex Wisser

Orig­i­nally pub­lished on 2010-01-10 at

I went to see Ola­fur Elias­son the other day.  I’m sorry, but this is begin­ning to look like another fuck­ing art blog.  I was con­sid­er­ing writ­ing about how I ended up in the hos­pi­tal on Christ­mas day with sus­pected gall stones and a good 10 CCs of mor­phine for my trou­bles — how think­ing about the pain as I waited in the wait­ing room  before being seen made me spec­u­late about tor­ture, and how much worse my pain would be if it were expe­ri­enced in a con­text that offered me no hope of relief and no sense of con­cern from the peo­ple around me.  Later, as I con­tin­ued my spec­u­la­tions under the influ­ence of the mor­phine, which didn’t relieve me of my pain but put me at a dis­tance from it and made me a bit nau­seous, the drugs min­gled with the hor­ror of (the thought of) being tor­tured and I became fairly con­vinced that human exis­tence was a mixed bag of suf­fer­ing and futil­ity and really the Ora­cle at Del­phi had it right, if we can’t achieve that ideal of never being born, then the next best thing would be to die quickly. The next morn­ing I woke up no worse for wear and wan­dered back into the world.

But then I decided I really didn’t want you to know that much about me, so I thought I’d write about Ola­fur Elias­son instead.

Of course we can see why this show is here. Other than the bril­liant rep­u­ta­tion of the artist and his art, it is an obvi­ous choice after the block­buster suc­cess of Yayoi Kusama’s “Mir­rored Years”, fol­low­ing which we can safely assume that large scale immer­sive envi­ron­men­tal instal­la­tion reliant on high con­cept opti­cal effects would be all the rage, and a damn safe bet for the insti­tu­tion pay­ing for it.  Well it was a safe bet, wasn’t it?  And I have no doubt the show was a com­plete suc­cess, mostly because what I’ve just described can apply as nicely to a trav­el­ing carni or a block­buster movie.  Don’t get me wrong, I like the car­ni­val; its where I go for my large scale immer­sive envi­ron­men­tal instal­la­tion reliant on high con­cept opti­cal affects, kicks — but it was just a lit­tle dis­ap­point­ing in the MCA.  I mean, where was the smell of horse shit?  Oh… its con­cep­tual…  Sorry, I didn’t mean that.  I like con­cep­tual, and frankly that was one of the reason’s for my dis­ap­point­ment.  I couldn’t find much thought in what I was expe­ri­enc­ing — beyond the tech­ni­cal bril­liance, and inno­v­a­tive imag­i­na­tion that informed the entire bag of tricks, I found myself wan­der­ing from room to room, open­ing my mouth in a big O and say­ing “oooo” and then walk­ing out with­out think­ing any­thing much.  In fact, the over­all impres­sion I came away from the show with was a sense that I had just vis­ited a trade fair for con­tem­po­rary artists.  Every­thing had the sense of being pro­to­typ­i­cal, and on dis­play not for its own sake, but as a poten­tial that some­one who actu­ally had some­thing to say might pick up and use one day.  In con­trast, for instance, Kusama’s mir­rored rooms had the same tech­ni­cal bril­liance, but the effects achieved were employed toward gen­er­at­ing mean­ing — ie, an image of the infi­nite that was at exactly the same time a cheap and obvi­ous trick with faery lights.  I loved Eliasson’s yel­low room, it was incred­i­ble to see peo­ple stand­ing within it turn mono­chrome.  But after I mar­veled at what my eye is hard wired to expe­ri­ence, I turned and walked on to the next dis­trac­tion.  Another of Eliasson’s works which could have worked for me, a spotlit water­fall room, which was ele­giac in its sim­plic­ity and at least had about it that com­ment we can draw from what would oth­er­wise have been a com­mon expe­ri­ence, had been ruined by my expe­ri­ence of nearly the same work in Pri­mav­era by the Aus­tralian artist Michaela Gleave which was so sin­cere in its min­i­mal­is­tic aus­ter­ity, in the hon­est poverty of its means that it made Eliasson’s work seem slick and bur­dened by its high pro­duc­tion val­ues, remind­ing me of some bad expe­ri­ences I’ve had in front of a Bill Viola or two.  As I walked away, my brain hum­ming from the sen­sory stim­uli over­load, I couldn’t really fault the artist.  They weren’t great works in my opin­ion, but cer­tainly they did what the brochure adver­tised, and some of them were fas­ci­nat­ing enough to war­rant blow­ing 15 bucks.  Hell, I’d do that for a block­buster movie when all I want is to sub­ject myself to … oh, don’t make me say it again… but when I come to the MCA I want to be made and chal­lenged to think, not just stim­u­lated and tit­il­lated.   What really ruined the show for me was the inescapable sense of trans­par­ent cal­cu­la­tion behind it, the lin­ger­ing sus­pi­cion that this was an attempt to cash in on a for­mula.  I was going to say that thank­fully for­mu­las don’t work quite as well in the art world as they do in Hol­ly­wood, but that would have been a stu­pid thing to say.