Posted: 10 Aug 2004 | By: Peter Anderson
There's a moment in David Rosetzky's stylish video installation, Maniac de Luxe, when one of the subjects laments the failure of his parents to truly grasp his creative work and to acknowledge its value. It is a problem that artists often complain about, but here the neglect it is exacerbated by the extremely positive response to one small project, the efforts of a single day. And what was this one little thing that generated such a positive response? A television advertisement.
In the context of the exhibition 2004 Australian Culture Now this brief revelation carries with it a particular poignancy. Not only does it highlight the slippery nature of the current border between contemporary art practice and the world of commercial entertainment and leisure, but it also reveals the continuing ambivalence of many in the art world to the apparent collapse of clear distinctions between these areas.
2004 was an ambitious project that could be understood as an attempt to map the current fluid borders of Australian art and new media. Presented jointly by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) and the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) at Melbourne's Federation Square, it brought together a diverse selection of work across a very wide range of media from paintings and pots to websites and 30 second TV spots. Of course, while the exhibition included some excellent examples of the sort of work artists are currently engaged in, this was not a definitive survey, nor could we expect it to be.
This point is made clearly by Charles Green in his introductory catalogue essay, where he makes a point of stating the obvious, reminding us that 'the present is a period in history that is still unfolding'. And with some eleven curators involved in selecting or commissioning different clusters of works, this exhibition doesn't seem to have been designed to resolve the tangle of often confusing and conflicting threads that run through contemporary practice. Although Green suggests that 'the broad, exploratory outlines' of current practice are forming, what we don't have is a clearly reasoned argument that tells us why particular artists, or works, were selected, and what particular new directions they represent. Perhaps this instability and uncertainty was the exhibition's theme. Rather than a map, what we had was sets of vague possible links, a group of contradictory catalogue essays, a swirling glossary of key terms.
Under these circumstances there's quite a lot of scope to muse on just where the boundaries between art and other types of contemporary cultural production might fall. But also room to think about the different ways we seem to value particular activities (and cultural producers). Take, for example, the ARTV component of the project. Here, as the catalogue puts it, 'sixteen of Australia's finest contemporary artists rethink the language of the moving image and the rhythms of television programming by creating a series of 30-second works specifically for the television screen'. It's an interesting opportunity to see what artists can do with an unfettered 30-seconds of SBS airtime. But what might have been equally interesting (and perhaps more culturally challenging) would have been the commissioning of a similar set of unconstrained pieces by a group of commercial TV directors.
Significantly, even when artists seem to be totally immersed in the world of pop culture and commercial entertainment, there remains a need to maintain something of the existing divide, to comment on, rather than simply be the other thing. A good example of this is the GOSSIPPOP project of Sue and Phil Dodd. We need to register that these are pop songs that use celebrity gossip as their underlying subject matter, but for them to survive as art they also need to fail as pop, remain clunky and awkward - lyrics that don't scan, rudimentary music, dodgy dated video effects. The alternative for an exhibition like 2004 would be unthinkable: to exhibit not just the work of artists playing at the edges of commercial culture, but examples of that culture itself, from top 40 pop videos to actual episodes of prime time TV shows. In such a situation it would become increasingly important to show just where the uncertain line between art and other things lies.
Image: Catherine Truman, Wax Portrait, 2003, carved paraffin wax, digital image, 16.5cm x 12.5cm x 1.0cm. Courtesy/copyright the artist.