Tag Archives: art

The other half

Yoko Ono and the modern art audience

Today contemporary art is common fare for everybody from hipsters to grandparents looking for a place for a “nice cup of coffee”. It is so far into the mainstream that whilst it will on occasion stir up controversy, it is generally greeted with applause or at worst a shoulder shrug. It is part of the furniture, but it wasn’t always the case. Indeed up until the 1990’s contemporary art was still seen by many as the prerequisite for pitchforks and burning pyres.

It’s 1969 Television, the audience in the David Frost show has just had an exclusive preview of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s new record Two Virgins (1969). You can hear the blue rinse drying in the studio. Yoko then hands Frost a gift, Box of smiles (1967). Frost tentatively opens the box, only to see his face reflected in a mirror.  Frost laughs and so do some of the audience. A little victory.

It’s way back in 2013 and the Yoko Ono retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney collects dozens of such victories for Ono. This is an Australian psyche changed in part by both Yoko and that other  guy John Lennon. Their notion of democratising the arts may have seemed quaint to both 1960’s art literati and tv hosts but it was a movement that actually worked. I’m here at the MCA, recovering from a broken heart and an attempt to get a free catalogue. It’s an essay of 40 years in a changing art world, its title War is over (if you want it) (1969) is an apt centrepiece. The most familiar of Yoko’s collaborations with her husband John Lennon, “War is Over” is seen in a variety of permutations. On the exhibition catalogue the text is placed against the back drop of clouds and sky.  Crimson toned bill posters illustrate the phrase on some Sydney streets. These new representations amplify the double entendre of the original’s black text on a white back ground. Cast against the motifs of heaven and faded blood, there is a sense of ambiguity. They reflect  both death and peace. Or is it just me emboldened to look a little deeper?  “It didn’t stop the war”, I can hear my old art lecturer sneer. He typified a segment of the arts establishment, who (to paraphrase John Lennon), prefer the intellectual manifestos that nobody actually reads. If Ono and Lennon did not achieve peace in their time, they arguably changed the way contemporary art is approached by audiences in mine.

Art and thinking is a great idea, but with not everyone coming from the same back ground in philosophy, history or metaphysics it can often be to a limited audience. Yoko and Lennon may very well have invented contemporary art education on the David Frost show, empowering people holistically not just to be morally aware, but culturally familiar. Today contemporary art is part of the everyday milieu. Ono’s role in this change has gone largely unrecognised. For despite the lampooning of her work over the years, Ono’s persistence has seen the public develop a way of reading her works that other artists would be envious of. You don’t need to be Lennon to see the link between Spike Milligan’s conceptual comedy of a brick wall driven at speed and Yoko’s Balance piece (1998), a large electromagnet pulling your world to the left. Both show an optimism in the face of adversity often lacking in establishment approved artists. This is not an isolated case. Both Ono and Lennon’s personal lives are better analysed than the history of Australia, yet the piece My mummy is beautiful (2004) is an interactive work that positively reinforces the role of the mother in society for everyone.

Whilst the value of Yoko’s early work fits neatly into the Robert Hughes category of “The Shock of the new”, their true value now rests in their familiarity. Apple (1966)Painting to hammer a nail (1961/1966),the Flux films Fly (1970) and Bottoms (1966-67) have been seen in hundreds of Beatles books and films in vignette form. But here witnessed in full, our knowledge acts as an icebreaker in a larger conversation. With Cut piece(1964) The original notion of who is being unveiled through the cut of scissors still exists, but like War is over (if you want it)(1969) the passage of time feeds the message back on itself. This is heightened with two filmed performances, one of the original in 1964 and a repeat in 2003. It is a dialogue between artist and public. Ono is watching us, watching her, watching us, watching her way back when. Something unimaginable 40 years ago. In 1993 when the Simpsons paid tribute with an Onoesque character ordering the beverage of a “plumb dipped in perfume served in a man’s hat”, Moe the bartender accepted the request as de rigueur.

Flash forward not from the 60’s or 90’s, but 2013 into 2017.From then to now I had to buy the catalogue from the MCA, I still have it.As for my heart other things have filled the void. As for Ono she is ironically decried today for not being “cutting edge enough”. Perhaps, but there’s a lot of miserable people in the arts.The contemporary art world owes her a debt for piquing public curiosity. Contemporary art is cool, Ono was one of the figures that made it that way. Get over it art purists. Today a lot more of us will unknowingly be tempted into the mystique, raising visitation figures and filthy lucre at the door.  P.S Don’t forget your box of smiles.

Elements of this article were printed in Artlink magazine in 2014

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Stop making sense (redux)

Remembering Flugelmans Dobell Memorial

I am not an art critic. I am not an art academic. I have not, cannot and will never wear a black beret in public. I am just a passer-by.

From my childhood in the early 1980’s to my young adulthood in the early 1990’s, I passed by Bert Flugelman’s Dobell memorial sculpture in Martin place, Sydney. Arguably created by public works architect supremo James Barnett’s GPO building, Martin place was once the hub of the Sydney CBD. The banks were there, the politicians were there and for a time so was  Flugelman’s sculpture.

Formerly a thorough fare for cars, buses and ANZAC day marches the area was redeveloped into a three sectioned mall during the 1970’s. Like fondue parties, malls were very popular back then. So too was public sculpture, the more abstract the better. For Bert Flugelman, it must have seemed like a match made in heaven. Winning the contract to devise a sculpture for the Dobell Memorial in Martin place in 1979, Flugelman’s work immediately drew controversy. For many Sydneysiders the work involved a fair amount of head scratching. It is a structure, made of metal cubes rising several metres tall.  You cannot squint your eyes and hope to recognise anything, unless that anything is an elongated reflection of you and your bicycle in the polished metal. But like the Harbour Bridge, and Opera House before it, what the public don’t understand immediately they simply rename. The “Silver Shish Kebab” was born.

Slightly less accommodating were those “in the know”. Lloyd Rees critiqued its choice of location as cluttering up the mall space,  Sydney Lord Mayor Frank Sartor wasn’t exactly thrilled about it either. But Martin place was the very spot where this work needed to be.  It slowed life down. Like a crest of an iceberg its  multiple levels of polished metal cubes reflected not only the city but inferred a life underneath. Pertinent when considering beneath your feet was Sydney’s underground railway.  A mirror of life that didn’t only suggest the obvious but rather how Sydney life was put together in a mixture of commuters, beggars and thieves. Not a a bad tribute to Lloyd Rees when you think about it. This self-reflexivity represents the good part of the 1970’s, the spiritual quest part so often blurred by legends of hedonism, Barry Manilow and fondue parties. From the 1980’s onward the world got a lot faster, Martin place changed too. The banks merged and the politicians moved away. Clothing stores and coffee shops moved in.

There wasn’t time in the city for people to reflect on anything anymore, we had to move forward with the Olympics. By 2000 the Bert Flugelman sculpture was moved on. For a while it lay proudly in a council maintenance yard covered by a tarpaulin. It now sits on a traffic island in the shadows of a nearby street. No longer reflecting upon life, it observes it from metres away.

Upon hearing about Bert Flugelman’s death a few years ago, I revisited his work. Icon of the 70’s?  Perhaps not. “Silver shish kebab” it’s not that either. The Lloyd Rees memorial is something more resonant. It is the ultimate art folly. The fractured fading mirror that we can’t bear to look at anymore, but can’t get rid of.  Take a look again, it is worth the price.

*Since posting this article I have also become aware that Bert also did the NSW Coat of Arms sculptures, in the old NSW State Office Block,Sydney. Built in the 1960’s demolished in the 1990’s. I wonder where they are today, probably lost….. Typical when it comes to Bert’s art.

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The medium is still worth three hundred words

You don’t get many rights as you get older. But with age comes great responsibility. It is the responsibility to tell some art aficionado’s that they are full of ….you know what I mean. It seems at times as though humanity is losing the emotional battle of artist versus medium, and trading it for the lesser more unconscious one of which artist has the biggest marketing tag line. Contemporary art is seemingly becoming less about a reaction to the contemporary world and more about artists saying “hey, look at me, I’ve discovered 3d printing”. Artists are not entirely at fault here, in a world now run by marketing departments it is tempting for  to jump to new media at the expense of the old. 3d printing sounds so much sexier in print than oil painting ,water colour or even sculpture. In an effort to encourage and educate the public to the joy of art through many avenues, promoting new mediums seems like  a good way to capture public attention.

I am a firm believer in art for the people. I am not arguing for a return to the renaissance or the banning of photography post 1992. Art needs to be accessible to inspire us all to be more creative. This can include the use of contemporary mediums. However, it seems that arts’ marketing is run more by marketers than art lovers. The focus on the trend level of a medium as opposed to its artistic merit. Doesn’t the artistic battle for the “new” in traditional mediums provide a valid promotional point for the public?  Yes, it does. But tradition is harder to sell to audiences. In an era in which nobody seems to have time for anything except for themselves, old mediums are time intense. They take time to create, consume and market. Meanwhile, the arts is increasingly becoming a numbers game.  But there is a method to my marketing madness. Art changes the world not only through its content but via the way it is constructed. Good art can be found in digital formats, but so can much of our everyday lives. It is the medium that challenges our mindset to focus beyond the distortion. Old mediums take us out of our comfortable interpretation zone .They are no longer the status quo, they relate better to mercury and velum than binary and hi definition. In doing so audiences are forced to actively converse with a work, rather than passively nod in acceptance.

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Opinion Piece 2 : Crossing the streams

When Chris Dercon of Tate Modern moved his office away from the curators and closer to the art educators he was prefiguring  or at least recognising a change in the way the arts does business. No longer is the arts the sole domain of the curator. There is much more to art engagement than purely providing the art.  But as I suggested in my last opinion piece,  to dismiss the roll of key academics such as curators is a mistake. After the collection, it is these  staff that provide the soul of an arts institution. Art educators are  also now equally important in democratising and expanding arts audiences. But not every institution can afford to have both roles operating at the same time. The question can be asked, “have curatorial and art education roles run their course?”.  What new capabilities would these roles gain if they could somehow be hybridised?  Using the knowledge of one discipline to directly inform the other as opposed to being mutual advisors.

It could be argued already that for some  smaller arts organisations  the role of curator  also acts as an art educator  and vice versa.  The suggestion I make goes beyond an economic ‘adhoc’ position. The relationship between the two roles in the 21st century is symbiotic. Good curators will acknowledge that the value of their work is improved with good art education programs. Art education is  by itself meaningless unless provided with something of intellectual or emotional value  to educate from. Instead, I suggest the development of  education programs that merge the two disciplines. The future of the art world is that of fluidity. The era of the curator as “God” does not necessarily apply to all arts institutions responding to their community needs,  nor does it assist larger organisations in remaining relevant. Art education should also be kept at arms length from elitism. The future is in an art role that values both the integrity of the art work and the  expression of this to the wider community  in a meaningful way. When  I said the art world was changing, I never said it was going to be easy.

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