Alex Wisser


Category: Writing

Review: Damian Dillon “Jailbreak” at Artereal

by Alex Wisser

Damian Dillon’s work involves defac­ing doc­u­men­tary pho­tographs of banal sub­jects, insert­ing crude human ges­ture into the aus­tere dis­tance of the pho­to­graphic pic­ture plane.  The results have always been unnerv­ing com­po­si­tions of pow­er­ful effect that I could appre­hend intu­itively, but have never quite under­stood.  I knew that I liked them but I could never locate why.  While this expe­ri­ence was not some­thing I minded, it was a wel­come sur­prise to find in his new show at Arte­real gallery, Jail­break , a level of res­o­lu­tion and cogency that allowed me to bet­ter grap­ple with the forces he puts into play with his process.  What was not sur­pris­ing was that these forces took on the nature of contradiction.

This is per­haps best illus­trated through ref­er­ence to the odd­ity of his names.  Though the show is called Jail­break, all of the works in it are named Real Estate .  The log­i­cal dis­cord of this nam­ing strat­egy is strangely off putting, the two terms belong to com­pletely dif­fer­ent realms of dis­course and their con­junc­tion is awk­ward, unsta­ble, even trans­gres­sive.  Yet, when the ques­tion of their rela­tion is allowed to set­tle, the terms res­onate, draw­ing fas­ci­nat­ing, asym­met­ri­cal con­nec­tions between them.  The con­ti­nu­ity, for instance, between Australia’s con­vict past and it’s cur­rent obses­sion with real estate, or the oblique par­al­lels that run between hous­ing estates and pris­ons – begin to make a kind of sense that is only gen­er­ated through such transgression.

This same strat­egy is at work in Dillon’s pho­tographs of hous­ing estates in Great Britain and Aus­tralia.  Rough frag­ments of these two worlds are brought into abrupt con­junc­tion and marred by shapes crudely drawn in Pho­to­shop or made directly onto the pho­to­graph using an indeli­ble marker.  Dillon’s inter­ven­tions into the pho­to­graphic pic­ture plane have the qual­ity of van­dal­ism, con­tain­ing within them the destruc­tive expres­sion of the desire to break, dis­turb, and dis­rupt the inescapably grim con­ti­nu­ity of the real­i­ties they refer to.  This destruc­tion though is essen­tially cre­ative, seek­ing to decom­pose the rei­fied form of bleak, con­crete and fatal cer­tainty, releas­ing the forces of pos­si­bil­ity con­strained within them.  The cre­ative ges­ture is left crudely incom­plete, trac­ing the child­ish out­line of a human house from of the inhu­man forms that make up its prison.

The effect of all these dis­rup­tions though is one of unex­pected con­ti­nu­ity.   Ros­alind Krauss once observed that the mute­ness of the pho­to­graphic index derived from the implaca­ble con­ti­nu­ity of its pic­ture plane: that it could not be artic­u­lated into dis­crete units of mean­ing, as lan­guage can, gave the pho­to­graph its unspeak­ing aspect.  I was sur­prised to find that despite Dillon’s many dis­rup­tions and break­ages, the con­ti­nu­ity of the pic­ture plane remained, or per­haps closed over its newly dis­uni­fied con­tents, envelop­ing them in its ret­i­cent tes­ti­mony.  This was due, I sus­pect, on the pre­dom­i­nant use of Pho­to­shop to make his marks, which leaves the sur­face of the pho­to­graph intact.  The occa­sional inter­ven­tions onto the lit­eral sur­face, act in con­trast as strik­ing, almost vio­lent accents break­ing the illu­sion of break­age he has cre­ated for us within the pic­ture plane – at once shar­ing the same impulse and ori­gin as the Pho­to­shop marks and yet tak­ing place in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent dimen­sion and thus remark­ing upon and encap­su­lat­ing the entire van­dal­is­tic process in his art.

These works are ulti­mately an expres­sion of hope; a hope sus­tained by the desire to shat­ter or trans­gress the impla­ca­bil­ity of the world as it is, so that some­thing, any­thing might be cre­ated from its ruins.  This expres­sion, though, is itself entrapped in the world it attempts to tear down.  This hope is as fatal­is­tic as the world it bright­ens.  It does not offer us utopic vis­tas or pris­tine Arca­dias or any of the other dreams into which we might escape real­ity. It offers us only pub­lic hous­ing estates, these habi­tats of poverty, fear, and extreme despair and yet, within that world, as a native to it, hope and a wil­fully cre­ative urge dwell as the impulse of run­ning water in a frozen place.

Review: 17th Biennale of Sydney

by Alex Wisser

David Elliot, in the pre­am­ble to the 17th Bien­nale of Syd­ney, declares his intentions:

Stereo­typ­i­cal rank­ings of power and periph­ery, devel­oped and unde­vel­oped, rich and poor, first peo­ple and colonis­ers, ‘fine’ art and ‘folk’ art are here turned on their heads in an exhi­bi­tion in which the only dis­crim­i­na­tion is whether the art is any ‘good’.

While I ques­tion the pro­pri­ety of turn­ing such a polit­i­cally ambi­tious agenda to so sus­pect an end as “an exhi­bi­tion in which the only dis­crim­i­na­tion is whether the art is any ‘good’”, I am con­vinced of the sin­cer­ity with which this ambi­tion is pur­sued.  Elliott has man­aged to cre­ate a show that exam­ines its own con­text, stag­ing the redis­tri­b­u­tion of per­spec­tive as an inher­ent poten­tial of a glob­al­iz­ing art world.  It describes moder­nity not only as a uni­ver­sal phe­nom­ena, but also as the local­ized and par­tic­u­lar expe­ri­ence of the col­li­sion of non west­ern soci­eties with the destruc­tive forces of colo­nial­ism, indus­tri­al­ism, and now glob­al­ism.  More impor­tantly, it shows those cul­tures respond, assum­ing their own moder­nity.  The result is a pro­lif­er­a­tion of per­spec­tives that offer an enriched dia­logue and an expanded capac­ity to under­stand our con­nected world.   This strat­egy is sus­tained by a recur­ring address to sub­jects and expe­ri­ence of moder­nity that shift across geo­graph­i­cal, ide­o­log­i­cal, cul­tural and the­o­ret­i­cal maps, chal­leng­ing the notion of a cen­tral­ized uni­ver­sal purview often with bril­liant obser­va­tion on the insta­bil­ity and unsus­tain­abil­ity of any uni­fied sub­ject posi­tion (even their own) as a con­di­tion of advanc­ing modernity.

Kut­lug Ataman’s mock doc­u­men­tary, Jour­ney to the Moon for instance, tells the story of a remote Ana­to­lian vil­lage stag­ing a moon mis­sion ten years before the Amer­i­cans tried, basi­cally win­ning the space race.  The power of the work derives from the level of plau­si­bil­ity Ata­man achieves, ren­der­ing evi­dent the per­sua­sive forces at play in mod­ern doc­u­men­tary mak­ing and draw­ing a par­al­lel between the “sto­ry­telling” of the peas­ants and com­men­tary of var­i­ous experts, sug­gest­ing that they are not all that dif­fer­ent in kind.  In telling a story that inverts “rank­ings of power and periph­ery, devel­oped and unde­vel­oped” Ata­man under­mines and ren­ders rel­a­tive, the sci­en­tific and aca­d­e­mic author­ity those rela­tion­ships are founded on.  He does so with the mock­ing humour of the peas­ant for the mas­ter, appeal­ing to the latter’s prej­u­dice in order to insin­u­ate a few truths about who’s supe­rior to whom in the blind spots thus cul­ti­vated (all the while mock­ing himself).

Cao Fei uses video game cgi to cre­ate a tawdry fan­ta­sia of 3d land­scapes peo­pled by awk­ward effi­gies of Marx, Mao, Lehman (of Lehman Broth­ers fame), and Lao Tsu engag­ing in ide­o­log­i­cal exchanges that sound like B-movie trans­la­tions from the Chi­nese.   This world, called People’s Limbo, has about it the tacky, abstract and clut­tered opu­lence of the cheap utopias of 2 dol­lar shop Cap­i­tal­ism.  The over­pow­er­ing qual­ity of this world is the sense of reck­less hurry with which it has been built and the super­fi­cial­ity of it’s at times strik­ing beauty col­lapses against the aware­ness that absolutely no care has gone into its mak­ing.  The philo­soph­i­cal argu­ments jump and stut­ter like the poorly ren­dered move­ment of its avatars, strangely insub­stan­tial state­ments in a con­ver­sa­tion that seems con­trived by cut­ting up and stitch­ing together so many mono­logues. The effect is truly one of limbo: of weight­less, time­less, and space­less expe­ri­ence, with­out sub­stance or fric­tion or sense of direc­tion and the clash­ing of these major ide­olo­gies con­vince us only of their futil­ity, draw­ing the sus­pi­cion that the uni­fied sub­ject posi­tions they rep­re­sent are no longer possible

Video art was def­i­nitely the strong suit of this Bien­nale, span­ning a vast chasm of expe­ri­ence between the unreal vir­tu­al­i­ties of con­sumer cul­ture and the stark actu­al­i­ties of extreme poverty. The AEF+S col­lec­tive offers a panoramic vision of the glit­ter­ing seduc­tions of fash­ion mag­a­zine glam­our by approx­i­mat­ing in video the ani­ma­tion of fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy poses, allow­ing the frozen ges­ture to com­plete itself between beau­ti­ful, exotic crea­tures who’s gaze never meet, and who’s bod­ies never touch.  These fig­ures are caught in an end­less rep­e­ti­tion of seduc­tive ges­tures that never con­su­mate, pro­duc­ing a generic desire with­out spe­cific sub­ject or object or end, sug­gest­ing that this is the pro­duc­tive force at work in con­tem­po­rary adver­tis­ing.  On the other end of the spec­trum, Yan Fudong draws a stark par­al­lel between the lives of  vil­lagers in the remote vil­lage of Que and a pack of wild dogs liv­ing nearby who are forced to eat each other in order to sur­vive.  The grim, unre­lent­ing sever­ity of exis­tence is brought into sharp relief when the video focuses on two young dogs, on the verge of adult­hood, play­ing care­lessly with each other while chew­ing on dog skulls… obliv­i­ous to the future this act implies for them.

While much of the stronger work had darker themes, there were moments of gen­eros­ity that stood out against the darker con­text.  In ‘Vision Quest’, Mar­cus Coates served as a shaman and ‘seer’ for the com­mu­nity of a trou­bled Lon­don sub­urb, offer­ing both his sub­jects and audi­ence the glim­mer of hope and insight through the tech­nol­ogy of ani­mism and the gift of vision, remark­ing on the value and power of art.  Chris­t­ian Thomp­son grap­ples with the legacy of his mixed her­itage by teach­ing one of his Bid­jaraances­tral songs to a Dutch baroque singer.  Taken from its tra­di­tional con­text as a sacred song express­ing a man’s rela­tion­ship to his land and grafted onto another cul­ture, the song takes on new life and mean­ing.   It struck me  as a ges­ture of great gen­eros­ity tem­pered with an aware­ness of loss: that this object cre­ated through the mar­riage of two cul­tures belongs to nei­ther, and that it’s beauty derives in part from the tragic his­tory of dis­pos­ses­sion of which it is an artifact.

I found this dual­ity repeated in a num­ber of works, espe­cially those deal­ing with the rela­tion­ship between man and nature.  Shen Shaomin’s Bonzai’s are par­a­dig­matic, at first appear­ing to be uni­di­rec­tional state­ments about the vio­lent impo­si­tion of indus­tri­al­ized human will onto the nat­ural world, they even­tu­ally “flip” like Chi­nese boxes into cel­e­bra­tions of the force and resilience of nature — the plants’ inten­si­fied mus­cu­la­ture twist­ing and striv­ing against the tor­tu­ous imple­ments of their con­straint, relent­lessly throw­ing new life beyond the per­mit of their bondage.  Janet Laurence’s “WAITING — A Med­i­c­i­nal Gar­den for Ail­ing Plants” makes aes­thetic com­ment on the indis­tin­guish­able bound­ary between nature and sci­ence through her stun­ning green­house instal­la­tion, com­bin­ing sci­en­tific objects, instru­ments, forms and ‘processes’ with botan­i­cal mate­ri­als in clas­si­cally for­mal­ized arrange­ments that speak to the shared fragility of man and nature, and the del­i­cate affini­ties of form that com­mu­ni­cate between them.

This dynamic can be read as a thin sub­text that runs beneath the sur­face of this show, and the best works within it speak at once to the destruc­tive col­li­sion between tra­di­tional cul­tures and moder­nity and at the same time to the new cul­tural poten­tials that emerge.  This can be done super­fi­cially, as a tokenis­tic appro­pri­a­tion of tra­di­tional means and forms to express mod­ern con­cerns.  Hisashi Tenmyouya’s tra­di­tional paint­ing of a Japan­ese god of war with machine guns instead of swords made me shrug my shoul­ders and won­der how this image would feed into received West­ern prej­u­dices of Ori­en­tal moder­nity.  Sit­ting right next to it though, is Makoto Aida’s “The Calig­ra­phy School”, which addresses the very nature of such exchanges, play­fully pre­sent­ing a bill­board with what looks like tra­di­tional Japan­ese cal­lig­ra­phy.  It is not.  It is an abstract fac­sim­ile of Japan­ese cal­lig­ra­phy — some­thing you wouldn’t know if you didn’t read the lan­guage (or the wall text).  While pre­sent­ing us with our expec­ta­tions of Japan­ese cul­ture, Aida inserts beneath it the sim­ple truth of such under­stand­ing — that it is based nec­es­sar­ily on igno­rance and that the dis­tances which it attempts to bridge are very real and just as perilous.

Abstrac­tion often plays a key role in such works.  Liu Jianhua’s Con­tainer Series presents abstract ceramic ves­sels filled with deep red glaze.  The objects are bereft of his­tor­i­cal or cul­tural mark­ers, nev­er­the­less, a viewer is com­pelled to con­sider them as Chi­nese ceram­ics, with all the post­colo­nial bag­gage that implies.  In addi­tion, it is dif­fi­cult to view the objects with­out read­ing the deep red glaze as some­how rep­re­sent­ing blood, and tak­ing on polit­i­cal dimen­sions.  Jianhua’s work seems to be test­ing the bound­aries of abstrac­tion by empha­siz­ing and impli­cat­ing the local­ized, his­tor­i­cal, and polit­i­cal con­text in which they are viewed.  If the con­tent is abstract, the con­text is not and the ten­dency toward the uni­ver­sal is always located.

Across the show, Elliot was con­sis­tent in his choice of artists, and man­aged to main­tain a high level of qual­ity while sourc­ing work from a broad range of cul­tural, polit­i­cal, and geo­graph­i­cal back­grounds.  The works of big name artists were restrained by the mod­esty of their scale­and the strat­egy of their place­ment, as the cura­tor seems to have actively refused the temp­ta­tion to play them as cen­tre pieces and draw cards, instead invit­ing them to con­tribute to the con­ver­sa­tions estab­lished by other, lesser known artists.

In pur­su­ing his polit­i­cal ends, though, Elliot has paid a price in terms of his address to the gen­eral pub­lic.  The Tur­bine Hall at Cock­a­too Island was a sham­bles.  The major spec­ta­cle work by Cai Guo-Qiang, had all the visual impact of a used car lot in the late after­noon. Then there was a jump­ing cas­tle that we weren’t allowed to jump on, the roofs of a shanty town we were not free to walk on, an incom­pre­hen­si­bly botched piano lynch­ing, a series of ugly abstract expres­sion­ist paint­ings hung under the cura­to­r­ial strat­egy of “make it fit”, and a wooden tele­scope that made no sense in the actu­al­ized con­text of the show (despite the fact that the title might per­mit it).  This sham­bles not only failed to please its intended audi­ence, it dimin­ished the value of the exhi­bi­tion as a whole.  It seemed crass to place within a show addressed to such impor­tant issues, this mélange of badly pre­sented con­ces­sions to “pop­u­lar taste” — espe­cially since it failed to sat­isfy that taste.

This fail­ing returns us to the cura­to­r­ial state­ment quoted at the top of this essay, com­pelling the ques­tion that if Elliott has suc­ceeded to some degree in the polit­i­cal ambi­tion of this show, was it for no bet­ter end than to cre­ate an exhi­bi­tion “in which the only dis­crim­i­na­tion is whether the art is any ‘good’.”  Such an inten­tion implies that beneath all of the dif­fer­ences of per­spec­tive, there exists a homo­ge­neous, uni­ver­sal cul­ture in which we can eas­ily agree on what is “any ‘good’”.  Such a con­clu­sion is excluded by the premise – the diver­sity of per­spec­tives which Elliot pro­motes by decon­struct­ing estab­lished rela­tion­ships between them, implies that the field is not homo­ge­neous and that dis­agree­ment is nec­es­sary to it (and not nec­es­sar­ily as a bad thing).

Merlin Carpenter “The Opening”

by Alex Wisser

Mer­lin Carpenter’s “The Open­ing” is in fact an art open­ing.  Usu­ally staged at an up-market gallery, the event takes place dur­ing the “pri­vate view” that is held prior to the pub­lic open­ing, and reserved for col­lec­tors likely to pur­chase works.  The gallery walls are hung with blank can­vases, the fine qual­ity of which is attested to in the media release mate­r­ial and com­mented on in the reviews.  The guests are left to wait until they become impa­tient and uncom­fort­able.  At this point Car­pen­ter enters car­ry­ing a bucket of black paint that he then uses to splash abu­sive, lurid, and even puerile state­ments of protest across the pris­tine can­vases and gallery walls. He then leaves and the can­vases are sold for upwards of $40,000 each.

At first glance, this work will appear as either a clever though defeatist protest against the money dri­ven cyn­i­cism of the art world or as an equally clever exploita­tion of its con­di­tions.  The assump­tion of either one of these posi­tions almost imme­di­ately relin­quishes its sin­gu­lar or unary con­di­tion to a creep­ing aware­ness of the endur­ing pres­ence of the other.  In other words, it presents as a para­dox – an expres­sion of eth­i­cal out­rage that is at the same time an act of cyn­i­cal opportunism.

The two sides of this para­dox are not merely lay­ered one on top of the other, but folded into each other.  The insult thrown on the can­vas “Die, col­lec­tor scum” is ren­dered more pow­er­ful, more den­i­grat­ing by the fact that the col­lec­tor, com­pelled as he is by mar­ket (and cer­tainly cul­tural) forces, will pay $40,000 of his own money to receive the insult.  The trans­ac­tion ren­ders the col­lec­tor servile and abject in the extreme – to pay so high a price to have some­one spit in his face.  But the para­dox con­tin­ues, because if viewed from the other side, from the posi­tion of the col­lec­tor the trans­ac­tion looks very dif­fer­ent.  If we imag­ine the paint­ing hang­ing on a collector’s wall, over­look­ing a din­ner party of his art col­lec­tor friends, its sig­nif­i­cance is very much trans­formed.  It would hang there as a tro­phy, a tri­umph, an emblem of the sophis­ti­ca­tion and cap­i­tal prowess of the col­lec­tor who has been able to pur­chase the out­rage of his enemy, and in a sense stuff and mount it on his wall.  It would be quite humor­ous actu­ally, in a din­ner party kind of way, to see this insult so humil­i­ated on the wall of its intended target.

What Car­pen­ter has done, is to per­form the entire art world cir­cuit from pro­duc­tion to dis­tri­b­u­tion in a sin­gle move­ment, col­laps­ing the struc­tural antin­omy between artist and col­lec­tor that sup­ports it, thus pre­sent­ing the con­tra­dic­tion at the heart of its func­tion­ing.  It is an almost clas­si­cal act of decon­struc­tion – the two poles of oppo­si­tion, each depen­dant on its dif­fer­ence from the other for its own iden­tity, are col­lapsed, made to stand at the same place, thus ren­der­ing the entire trans­ac­tion inca­pable of sus­tain­ing mean­ing.  By clos­ing the gap between artist and col­lec­tor, Car­pen­ter fore­closes the space within which the pos­si­bil­ity for trans­gres­sion is con­ceived, and value cre­ated before being trans­formed through its pur­chase into pres­tige, lux­ury, com­mod­ity fetish, etc.  That the trans­ac­tion still occurs, despite its impos­si­bil­ity, is per­haps the most pow­er­ful affect of the entire per­for­mance – the impres­sion of the art world as a liv­ing corpse.

But this work’s reflec­tion on the art world goes beyond an iso­lated con­sid­er­a­tion of the poten­tial for protest to a more uni­ver­sal reflec­tion of con­tem­po­rary art in its cap­i­tal­ist con­text.   In fact, slo­gans are not the only things Car­pen­ter slops onto the can­vases. Many of them receive only crude ges­tural strokes and splat­ters, rough par­o­dies of abstract expres­sion­ism.  Car­pen­ter even calls the can­vases “Black Paint­ings”, con­flat­ing the deep pes­simism of their func­tion­ing with an all too obvi­ous ref­er­ence to the move­ment of for­mal purifi­ca­tion that led many mod­ernist painters to reduce the sur­face of the can­vas to a black field.

At stake here, as always, is the com­pe­ti­tion of val­ues.  On the one hand, the val­ues expressed or man­i­fested in the work of art and on the other hand there is exchange value, the dom­i­nant value of Cap­i­tal­ism.   The com­pe­ti­tion is of course uneven.  Exchange value, like it or not, reg­u­lates and deter­mines the cir­cu­la­tion of cul­ture.  It is also a very dif­fer­ent kind of value because it is empty, and has no mean­ing or value in itself, but serves only as a medium of con­ver­sion and exchange between other val­ues.  Con­vert­ing the value of a work of art to its exchange value ren­ders it rel­a­tive and ulti­mately alien­able.  By putting a price on a tran­scen­dent value, you destroy the absolute nature of that value, and place the power of money above it.   That cit­i­zen of dying Rome, Gaius Petro­n­ius Arbiter put it best:

“men whose one idea is to pile up the dol­lars can­not bear that oth­ers should have a nobler creed than they live by them­selves. So they spite all lovers of lit­er­a­ture in every pos­si­ble way, to put them into their proper place– below the money-bags.”

The peren­nial strug­gle of the artist to resist and defy the com­mod­ity sta­tus of his/her work is bound directly to the defense of its value as art, and iron­i­cally the price that a work will demand depends on the gen­uine­ness of those val­ues it is meant to man­i­fest.  A Rothko, for instance, could not demand the price it does, if it could not sus­tain the high seri­ous­ness of the dis­course that cir­cu­lates around it.  If it could not sus­tain the man­i­fes­ta­tion of those val­ues it is said to con­tain; if it were imme­di­ately reducible to the sta­tus of com­mod­ity, of kitsch, who would want to buy it?  What makes it valu­able in terms of exchange is exactly that which resists exchange – the more tran­scen­dent, the more authen­tic, gen­uine, unique the work of art; the more desir­able it becomes and thus the higher the price tag.  If the trans­ac­tion can be sus­tained, the rela­tion­ship is inverted: it is then the exchange value that con­fers and main­tains the pres­tige and impor­tance of the work.  It becomes seri­ous, and valu­able, and wor­thy of our close atten­tion because it costs so much to own.

In fact it can be argued that Green­ber­gian for­mal­ism is no more than a mythic strat­egy (in the sense of the myth as a syn­thetic means of rec­on­cil­ing irrec­on­cil­able con­flicts within a soci­ety) for rec­on­cil­ing the tran­scen­dent value invested on the sur­face of the can­vas with the sta­tus of the object it makes up as a com­mod­ity.  The her­metic frame of for­mal­ism iso­lates the autotelic tran­scen­dent pic­ture plane from the world in which the paint­ing hangs as an object amongst oth­ers, and from which dan­gles that sig­ni­fier of its poten­tial cor­rup­tion, a price tag.  This strat­egy main­tains the ‘higher’ val­ues of the art object while per­mit­ting it to be bought and sold in the process of its’ cir­cu­la­tion.  In fact, many of the black can­vases of for­mal­ism were the nth degree of this impulse to purify the pic­ture plane of any ref­er­ence to, or con­ti­nu­ity with the world in which the paint­ing stands.

Car­pen­ter mocks this fic­tion by paint­ing his abstracts across both the can­vas and the wall on which it hangs.  He even comes to call one of his later shows “Intrin­sic Value”, com­ment­ing directly in his press releases on the rela­tion­ship of the art mar­ket to the cur­rent finan­cial crisis:

“A Matisse is still her­alded by the auc­tion houses as being of ‘intrin­sic value’. For the con­tem­po­rary art scene this implies find­ing a source of value untouched by the recent spec­u­la­tive mad­ness, whether it’s paint­ing or crit­i­cal authen­tic­ity. Mean­while, with a gnaw­ing sense of dread, cap­i­tal­ists are look­ing for a way to rebuild prof­its in the depression.“

While he quite cogently sug­gests that the ‘intrin­sic’ value of the Matisse is its abil­ity to sus­tain its exchange value in times of eco­nomic hard­ship, he is not iden­ti­cal to the posi­tion he takes in order to say so.  There is a sense of pos­ture and impos­ture that is inescapable within the con­text from which he is writ­ing.  i.e. he is speak­ing from within the media release intended to pro­mote and sell his own works and thus, no mat­ter how accu­rate or true his descrip­tion, it is imme­di­ately impli­cated in the process it describes.  His cri­tique is in itself an ‘intrin­sic’ value which jus­ti­fies the $40,000 invest­ment col­lec­tors will make in his paintings.

After all “The Open­ing” is a per­for­mance.  In fact, it is per­for­mance art in the high­est degree, because, far from per­form­ing a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the art world, he per­forms a direct pre­sen­ta­tion of it’s func­tion­ing.  The per­for­mance is the actual pro­duc­tion and sale of art works, com­plete with the exchange of large sums of money for the art objects.  Art and the world are indis­cernible.   In this dimen­sion of his work we see his (men­tor) Mar­tin Kip­pen­berger, who pio­neered the strat­egy of “self per­for­mance”, of the artist per­form­ing the var­i­ous posi­tions from which they make art, gen­er­at­ing an essen­tial inde­ter­mi­nacy between the ‘authen­tic’ self of the artist and the strat­egy employed in self pre­sen­ta­tion and pre­sen­ta­tion of the work.  As George Baker points out in his essay on Kip­pen­berger in Art Forum, that he would often assume two dia­met­ri­cally opposed posi­tions that would can­cel each other out.

“In just this way, Kip­pen­berger, espe­cially in his paint­ings, used the lan­guage of cita­tion and appro­pri­a­tion to sus­pend his own work inco­her­ently, locat­ing it between the most log­i­cally incom­pat­i­ble artis­tic posi­tions staked out by his imme­di­ate predecessors.”

This was also Carpenter’s ear­lier method, paint­ing pop­u­lar media images on abstract expres­sion­is­tic backgrounds.

Car­pen­ter man­ages to bring the two sides of this equa­tion as close together as any­one since Warhol, when he dis­carded the scru­ple of con­tain­ment sep­a­rat­ing the value of the art work as art and the exchange dri­ven value of the com­mod­ity.  I can only imag­ine that his Brillo Boxes in their day would have pro­duced the same sense of incredulity and ver­tigo that The Open­ing pro­duces today.  Only of course, Warhol’s Brillo Boxes weren’t con­ceived as an insult to, but a cel­e­bra­tion of com­mod­ity cul­ture, and they weren’t imme­di­ately snapped up for a tidy sum.  In this we can find rea­son to assert Warhol as Carpenter’s antecedent, though Warhol never took it so far as to ren­der the trans­ac­tion null.  He played the com­mod­ity game bril­liantly, and both the art and glam­our indus­tries prof­ited from it.  Carpenter’s work offers both sides noth­ing but a sense of their own des­o­la­tion – an effect due in no small part to the lack of insti­tu­tional resis­tance it faces, a con­di­tion, which we can credit in part to Warhol.  Min­i­mal­ism, on the other hand, far more earnestly attempted to dis­card the dis­tinc­tion between art and the world and paid for it by the pro­duc­tion of works that, despite their sever­ity and high seri­ous­ness, were defense­less against absorp­tion into their com­mod­ity sta­tus at the cost of their hard won austerity.

Karl Marx, speak­ing of the capac­ity of Cap­i­tal­ism to dis­solve value wrote “Every­thing solid melts into air, all that is holy is pro­faned, and man is at last com­pelled to face with sober senses, his real con­di­tions of life, and his rela­tions with his kind.”   He saw this destruc­tive power as serv­ing the cause of com­mu­nism by clear­ing away the foun­da­tions of false con­scious­ness that stood in its way.  I think we know now that Cap­i­tal­ism, and the forces it com­mands, serves only Cap­i­tal­ism, and far from clear­ing the grounds of knowl­edge and belief for the lay­ing of the firm foun­da­tion of a truly social­ist state, it must con­tinue to pro­duce value only to pro­fane it, estab­lish laws only to trans­gress them, achieve solid­ity only to dis­solve it.  From the sta­tic model of tra­di­tional soci­ety with its eter­nal val­ues, vouch­safed and trans­mit­ted by tra­di­tion, moder­nity gives way to a dynamic model of mean­ing that is caught in a con­tin­u­ous process of pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion, a con­tin­u­ous state of com­ing into being and pass­ing out of being, described by Deleuze and Guatarri as anal­o­gous to schiz­o­phre­nia, and for which they claimed that cap­i­tal­ism is the night­mare of every soci­ety that came before it.

What role, what posi­tion has Car­pen­ter assumed in this process?  Is he the van­guard artist, trans­gress­ing the lim­its estab­lished by the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion, gen­er­at­ing new mean­ings and pro­vid­ing new poten­tials, or is he the cyn­i­cal oppor­tunist, pro­fan­ing the essen­tial val­ues, the authen­tic out­rage his can­vases carry by the price tag they demand?  What­ever the answer, he’s not ask­ing enough.


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.

Picasso was crap

by Alex Wisser


orig­i­nally pub­lished on 2009-12-27 at

The other day I got together with some artist friends to dis­cuss the pos­si­bil­ity of putting on a show.  We met at a pub and drank beers and tossed ideas into the air where they van­ished won­der­fully in front of our eyes.  In the end we left the table with a few words and an image sig­ni­fy­ing the pro­duc­tive futil­ity of our process.  Engi­neers and econ­o­mists would have been uncon­solable at the out­come, but as artists, we were quite encour­aged to have worked so hard and ended up with noth­ing – it’s a more dif­fi­cult trick to pull off than peo­ple assume.  I think the first thing an artist does in prepar­ing a ground for work is to clear it of all con­clu­sions.  So, once the con­clu­sions were out of the way, and we were warmly ine­bri­ated, we wan­dered up to a restau­rant for some food and argument.

We ate at an Islamic Chi­nese restau­rant at the top of China Town, shar­ing some amaz­ing food that shall remain unnamed because I was too busy eat­ing it to learn what it was called.  Even­tu­ally the con­ver­sa­tion took a turn toward the eth­i­cal as it inevitably does and the argu­ing began in earnest.  I think I must have started it with a story I love to tell about Tracey Mof­fat, whom I once videoed for the MCA when she had a show on there.  It is a story I tell with rel­ish and a cer­tain amount of admi­ra­tion about how Tracey would walk around the gallery smok­ing and drop­ping her butts on the floor.   It was great to see Tracey, from her posi­tion as the great beloved, show such dis­dain for the petty tyran­ni­cal appur­te­nances of the insti­tu­tion.  For me, it was a deli­cious trans­gres­sion not only of the holy holy white gloved hushed toned sacro­sanc­tity of Thou Shalt Not Touch The Art Work, but more a sat­is­fy­ing dis­re­gard of the mod­ern prud­ery that decrees pub­lic space ster­il­ized of the dirt and death and haz­ard of our liv­ing in it.  It is the kind of prud­ery that is only pos­si­ble in the most afflu­ent of con­texts and if given its own life, will often con­tinue to that ster­ile extreme that excludes the con­t­a­m­i­na­tion of life itself.  It’s ideal is per­haps the nat­ural museum tableau (minus the dust and bad light­ing)… So it was grat­i­fy­ing to see the great star drop her ashes on the pol­ished hard­wood floors and gather in the silent side­long glances of the gallery staff, purs­ing their lips in con­ster­na­tion and pre­tend­ing either that it wasn’t hap­pen­ing or that “it’s cool”.  But when I told the story, embell­ish­ing it a bit by adding a gallery assis­tant scur­ry­ing around after the great artist, sweep­ing up the ashes as they fell (they did have some­one clean the ashes up, but com­fort­ably after the fact) – my friend’s reac­tion was sim­ple: “How spoiled”.

I hadn’t con­sid­ered this posi­tion, and sur­pris­ingly, found I liked it, if only because it com­mu­ni­cated with a cer­tain posi­tion I have been try­ing on like an impos­si­ble hat.  And its this, I DON’T LIKE PICASSO.  I don’t admire his work as much as every­one else seems to, but what I really don’t like is PICASSO.  There I said it.  One thing I would really like to be able to do is to dis­like the man despite the high posi­tion of his art, which is some­thing we are per­mit­ted to do in pri­vate, but which is not a ter­ri­bly valid pub­lic posi­tion.  “Oh yes, he was very bad to his women, but what a GREAT artist”.  And, when I admit it, I want my moral con­dem­na­tion of the man to dam­age the rep­u­ta­tion of his art.  He was a self­ish lit­tle tes­ti­cle and I’m will­ing to leave it at that.  I don’t see why I have to gape at his stu­pid suc­cess just sim­ply because so many peo­ple agree he was suc­cess­ful.  As far as I’m con­cerned he’s the foot­ball star of the art world, and frankly I don’t like foot­ball stars.

As I jumped on the band­wagon, another friend bravely stood up for the now maligned class of the art star, and rush­ing into the breach began fir­ing away at our slightly post mod­ern posi­tion by argu­ing that artists should demand what they’re worth and why should we con­cern our­selves with defend­ing large, afflu­ent insti­tu­tions like muse­ums and bien­nales to which we sug­gested that he was argu­ing so because one day he wouldn’t mind being the star.  These argu­ments we have all had, and con­tinue end­lessly to have.  We won’t give them up and of course they won’t resolve and we know this and some­how we know that this is the nature of the world we live in, an aspect of decline that is some­how more advanced in that neigh­bour­hood we call the art world.  The strength of con­tem­po­rary art is the advanced state of its deca­dence – the fact that within it all moral and eth­i­cal value is imme­di­ately unsure of itself, caught up in a con­stant cyclone of rel­a­tiv­ity which ren­ders it unsta­ble and inca­pable of sus­tain­ing the sin­gu­lar, deter­mined posi­tion from which it can be defended or advanced.  I think this is a pretty good descrip­tion of con­tem­po­rary exis­tence, except in most other are­nas the illu­sions that make pos­si­ble our moral or eth­i­cal or polit­i­cal stances, are still enough in place to allow us to inhabit them with some kind of secu­rity and some sense of poten­tial effi­cacy (though I think most peo­ple would admit they are less in place than they were in the 60’s).

Of course nobody won the argu­ment, though I did observe that the posi­tion of post-modern rad­i­cal ethics was far more unsure of itself than it would have been even five years ago, indi­cat­ing another ero­sion, or per­haps a chang­ing of the guard or even just a change in my own per­spec­tive, who knows.  As the argu­ment dwin­dled to a kind of teeth pick­ing appre­ci­a­tion for the amaz­ing food we had just eaten (the restau­rant was Wee­gan, a per­se­cuted Islamic minor­ity in China; a fact I men­tion expressly because it is not ironic), I real­ized that I had some­how failed to men­tion that I like the work of Jack­son Pol­lock even though I dis­like the man and that my love of his work some­how makes my cen­sure of him far less stri­dent.  It’s a con­tra­dic­tion at the heart of my impos­si­ble hat that makes wear­ing it very uncom­fort­able… but still, com’on: Picasso was crap.

Shovelling Money at The Vanishing Point

by Alex Wisser

orig­i­nally pub­lished: Wed, 2009-12-23 on

Just for back­ground…  I am a recently become co-director @ At The Van­ish­ing Point Gallery in New­town.  To those who know this I seri­ously apol­o­gize  for allow­ing pro­mo­tion of the gallery to swamp per­sonal and inter­per­sonal use of social net­work­ing sites that shall here remain unnamed.  I really don’t want this blog to be about pro­mot­ing the gallery, nev­er­the­less I sus­pect it will fea­ture large as it is a major part of my life right now.

So last night we had an end of year fundraiser.  It began as a kind of throw­away, or after­thought of a director’s meet­ing we’d held in the back yard of the gallery in some dis­gust­ingly hot Aus­tralian weather.  We were dizzy and tired and thirsty and I don’t know, I think it was me or some­one who could have been me, sug­gested we put on an auc­tion to raise some money for the gallery.  The idea sort of caught when the name “Demo­li­tion Sale” was sug­gested, cause it was funny in some way that had to do with the fact that our brains were a lit­tle addled by the sun.  I mean it’s a lit­tle funny, but you can’t quite find the punch line, and I like that.  So that’s what started it really.  Now with deci­sions like this, what usu­ally hap­pens is that they are made and agreed upon and then for­got­ten for as long as they can pos­si­bly remain for­got­ten.  We only kick our­selves into action when there is a scent of impend­ing doom in the air — at which point there is a slow swirling of ener­gies and a grad­ual ramp­ing up of activ­ity untill we find our­selves work­ing furi­ously right up to the final hour to pre­pare.  It’s amaz­ing how pre­scient our instincts are, as though all preper­a­tions are mea­sured from the last pos­si­ble moment back­ward so that the very last nec­ces­sary thing gets done at exactly the very last pos­si­ble moment.  And at 730, when it was time for the auc­tion to begin, I finally worked out how to print on our strange beaten com­puter and the work lists were printed.

So any­way, I think the night went bril­liantly.  I got to play the beau­ti­ful assis­tant, tak­ing the works off the wall and walk­ing them around the room, ges­tur­ing seduc­tively and indi­cat­ing their qual­ity as con­sumer fetish objects.  I was so damn good at it my part­ner (Georgie Pol­lard) and I bought $800.00 worth of the stuff.  Juma Adi, Amanda Hills, Anthony Bar­tok, Nicole Toms, Gilbert Grace — you might not know their names, but I do, and I can tell you its a rather deli­cious feel­ing know­ing that I own their works — and then I can think about how cheaply I got them and I smile a lit­tle bit to myself.  Even though they’re my friends, and I know they suf­fer for their art and pay for it in so many ways, its just one of those uncon­quer­able cru­el­ties of human nature that I can still take plea­sure in mak­ing such great deals at their expense.  Sorry guys — if its any con­so­la­tion, I love your work.

Cause I was help­ing the auc­tion, Georgie did most of the bid­ding for us and I have to say I was quite proud of how fear­lessly she waded into the fray — frankly her judge­ment is pretty impec­ca­ble and the con­fi­dence with which she went after what she wanted was just a lit­tle scary.  We also sold a good num­ber of works, which helped take the sting out of our pur­chases. The night was gen­er­ally a suc­cess, with only a few works pass­ing in and then we got drunk and smashed a wreck­ing ball pinata against the gallery wall and got even more drunk and then I sang a love bal­lad with Peter Mcguin­ness and I tell you when we fin­ished there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.  And then we got drunker.  It would have gone on like this but our daugh­ter (who had eaten most of the lol­lies from the pinata) had to go home to sleep (not accord­ing to her) and so, sadly, the night even­tu­ally ended.