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Hi, welcome to my blog. I'm a writer of poetry, prose and plays but my best known work is children's fiction. My most popular books are the Selby series and the Emily Eyefinger series. This blog is intended as an entertaining collection of thoughts and pictures from here in Australia and from my travels in other parts of the world. I hope you enjoy it. (For more information have a look at my website.)

Friday, September 28, 2012

Okay, but is it art?

Sydney's 18th Biennale has finished. This year it was at four venues: Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the NSW Art Gallery, and Pier 2/3 at Walsh Bay. Children's Book Week has kept me on the hop but I did manage to see almost all the Biennale artworks. 

With over 100 artists represented from forty countries there was a lot to enjoy but of course not everything was for everyone. Okay so not everything was for me. Do bricks and leaves on a floor, or cloth hanging in a vast room, or some decrepit furniture on a platform qualify as works of art? I'm not hard to please. I just want works of art to make me feel something---other than exasperation---or works that make me think. It's also important that works of art pass the I-could-do-that test.

I'm afraid that these rocks scattered around a room didn't pass the I-could-do-that test. At first I didn't think that it was one of the entries but then I noticed the sign on the floor that said "Please do not touch the artwork".

How about this midden of oyster shells and tea cups? If you knew that it was the work of young Aboriginal artist, Jonathan Jones, who wanted us to think about the oyster middens of pre-European contact days with today's detritus---sort of a meeting of the middens---would that make a difference? Interesting but is it art?

How about a collection of tents in a vast warehouse. Inside the tents are television sets showing images of people in Cairo talking. This is Susan Hefuna's "Celebrate Life: I love Egypt." There is a lengthy explanation of the artist's intentions and a statement about the tents having been made in Cairo.

How about Fujiko Nakaya's fog sculpture, "Cloud"? The kids seemed to love running in and out of it. Are real clouds themselves or only artificial ones?

One of the problems for me was the written explanations of the artwork. One artist used "irony to create empathy" another "employs everyday objects and materials, de-constructing them to reveal their underlying codes". Another artist "overturns the relations between the work and its space". The artistic directors said that "the artworks gathered here engage with new models of reciprocity". New models of reciprocity? 

I gave up reading the explanatory material.

Things began to pick up for me with Canadian Artist, Cal Lane's "Domesticated Turf", a sculpted shipping container made to look like some kind of European gingerbread house. Clever and a lot of work sawing out all those bits of steel to liberate the cottage within. I was impressed.

And I loved New Zealand artist, Peter Robinson's, huge Styrofoam chains draped over some of the old rusting ship-building machinery. I didn't read the description of this installation but the internet tells me that Robinson "pursues multiple formal trajectories in his use of polystyrene, as if with its associations of disposability the possibility exists for any number of sculptural experiments to be tested, cast aside, reworked, reconsidered". Better to just look at it and enjoy it, I say.

For me the most impressive work at Cockatoo Island were Maria Fernanda Cardoso's Museum of Copulatory Organs, reproductions of reproductive organs. These much magnified---thanks to electron microscopy---models of male and female insect genitalia were not only wonderfully realised but quite beautiful simply as sculpture. Does an accurate reproduction from nature qualify as art? I think so. Certainly photos or paintings from nature can be art. Here science and art overlap. 

Back on dry land I went to the Museum of Contemporary Art at Circular Quay in Sydney to see the both the new wing and the Biennale exhibits there. Yeesookyung's Translated Vase, the Moon and Park Young-Sook’s Moon Jars easily passed the I-could-do-that test. 

And, by the way, don't tell everyone but the MCA has a cafe with the best view in Sydney. (See heading photo above.)

Liu Zhuoquan, Two-Headed Snake was the stand-out for me at the MCA at least as a technical feat. Using an old Chinese technique of painting inside bottles the artist made the bottles appear to have snakes in them. There were a huge number of bottles and the detail was quite breathtaking. Art? Well I felt something.

Also at the MCA, Alwar Balasubramaniams Nothing From my Hands. For me these are unknown shapes pushing out from behind a wall. (Click on his name and it'll take you to a talk by this fascinating sculptor.) 

Most moving of all for me was Judith Wright's installation, A Journey. (For a better view of it click here.) This is a haunting work, displayed nearly in darkness. Whatever it's "about" (and here I did read the artist's explanation) I found it moving. It's not a great technical feat but, well, for me it works and that's all that should matter.

This Judith Wright, by the way, is not the late Australian poet but a former ballet dancer, now a a visual artist living in Queensland.

From the Museum of Contemporary Art I went to the Art Gallery of NSW. Those are paper bags from designer shops that you can see in Perspex cases on the wall. the top of each one has been intricately carved  in such a way that the carved bit, hanging down but still attached to the top, forms a tree.

These are the work of the Japanese-born New York artist, Yuken Teruya. These have both beauty and a definite wow-factor. They were hard to photograph. To see his work properly click here.

The Sydney Biennale is over but there's still so much on the internet, including videos of the artists, that it can still be enjoyed from a distance. But if you're in Sydney and want to see a small but wonderful collection of contemporary art from China, you might want to go to The White Rabbit Gallery. It's a private collection but, as with the MCA and the NSW Art Gallery, there's no entry charge. Here it's important to read the descriptions and to talk to the very helpful gallery attendants. This show is called Double Take for a reason.

The White Rabbit rotates its collections about every six months and the present show opened at the beginning of September so you have time to get there in you're in or around Sydney.

Here's a taste to get you in:

Above is Zhang Chun Hong powerful calligraphy-like drawing of a long braid on a scroll that stretches down the wall and across the floor.

Taiwanese artist Ah Leon’s Elementary School days. This deceptively simple wooden table and chair are not what they seem but I won't spoil it for you except to say that Ah Leon is a ceramicist. There, I just ruined it for you.

Above and below is/are Li Hongbo's Paper, two identical figures sculpted from honeycomb paper, one of them with it's head beginning to ravel and the other stretched all around the floor. Li Hongbo was one a a few artists represented at the White Rabbit who also had works in the Biennale.

My favourite of the trompe-l'oeil works was this one. I inspected it closely and was about to walk away when a museum attendant stopped me and explained that this wasn't two chunks of a log connected by chains. This is two chunks of wood with the connecting piece of wood carved to make the "chains". No matter how closely I looked, those chain links looked like metal, not wood. A definite wow factor but is it art? 

Absolutely. Well I think so anyway.