My artist bursary funded a research trip to Australia and my participation in the Fascism and the International symposium at the West Space gallery in Melbourne.

Thank you to a-n – The Artist Information Company – for their support that enabled this trip and the production of a new lecture performance for the event.


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The Biennale of Sydney is located on the traditional lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. We acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land and pay respect to Elders, both past and present.

I managed to catch Sydney Biennial in its last week. Venue after venue, it seemed as if after the 2014 edition with its Israel sponsorship controversy and the future-focused 2016 one that put it back on the agenda of interesting art events, the 2018 edition struggled with its own identity. Some reviewers called the exhibition quietly contemplative and subtle, but then there was the Ai Weiwei’s refugee boat in the middle of Cockatoo Island (the venue itself steeped in history of shipbuilding and migration). It seemed like an attempt to put current politics into the event, albeit a rather unsuccessful one given the banality of the work on the one hand and the lack of works engaging with Australia’s home made refugee crisis (although there are many interesting pieces about migration in general, especially within the Asian context). The title of the biennale chosen by the artistic director (the first Asian curator of the Biennale) Mami Kataoka was “Superposition – equilibrium and engagement” and was apparently inspired by quantum mechanical theories, but all this offered little clue as to how to navigate the show. After trying to unpack some curatorial threads in vain, I succumbed instead to the experience of enjoying (or not) single artworks and their relationships and juxtapositions. Perhaps this was the crux of the curatorial concept.

It was certainly a great experience to visit all the Biennale venues that included Sydney’s main galleries and museums such as Art Gallery of NSW, Carriageworks, Cockatoo Island, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia or Sydney Opera House. But I felt the works on display were mostly lacking in urgency and political agency, even of the more quiet, contemplative, or documentary kind. One exception was Cercle d’Art Des Travailleurs de Planation Congolaise – Renzo Marten’s new work done in collaboration with Congolese plantation workers to be sold in the art market with the profits shared in a cooperative model.

The state of belief in political agency of art was perhaps best symbolised by Marco Fusinato piece titled “Constellations” and shown at Carriageworks. A baseball club was chained to the wall for visitors to hit the wall with. This sanctified pseudo-violence on the body of a white cube, but only allowed within the parameters of the chain, reminded me of ritualisation and sanitisation of many protests; a liberal, middle-class outlet for frustration, but with the status quo unbruised. It was a depressing metaphor of expecting political art in galleries to do anything and it further strengthened my conviction that art remains mostly irrelevant to the wider world as long as it is only confined to  the symbolic plane of its institutions.

When Sydney Biennale was launched in 1973 it was the third biennale in the world, but with the proliferation of similar events worldwide it has lost its importance. Perhaps a look at the pertinent and politically urgent local issues closer to home will resuscitate it. Brook Andrew, the artistic director of the 2020 Biennale of Sydney said on his appointment that he was interested in “shining a light on the active, stable and rich pre-existing collaborations and connectivity of Indigenous and Edge cultures”.

Or perhaps biennale as a format has served its time and needs to be replaced with a more relevant one. I, for one, can’t wait for that to happen.

 


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MONA, the private art museum in Hobart, Tasmania has acquired an almost legendary status and I had heard about it from many different sources. One of them was a Mancunian engineer based in Melbourne whom I randomly met in a bar in Vienna and who was telling me how he sat next to Hermann Nitsch at Dark Mofo – the gothic art festival there. “You know, the little white-haired white-bearded guy who makes people throw a crucified cow carcass and offal at each other”. Another, was an elderly Tasmanian female hiker we met at a bar in Wineglass Bay who waxed lyrical about it: “you should spend at least two days there. We were there for a full day but it wasn’t nearly enough. It’s a magical place”. It’s curious to hear such opinions from people who don’t have the habit of going out of their way to see contemporary art. MONA, which stands for Museum of Old and New Art, was founded by Tasmanian billionaire David Walsh, who made his fortune as a professional gambler. He apparently built it out of guilt, (he believes gambling is intrinsically immoral) to create something of benefit for the community. The fact that there is no entry fee for locals is definitely to be applauded. MONA has quite a controversial reputation, supposedly due to Walsh’s collection’s focus on sex and death and has been called a “subversive adult Disneyland” by its owner and creator. Located in a beautiful spot (modelled on the Greek island of Naxos), it can be reached from Hobart by car or a half an hour trip on a museum-operated camouflaged catamaran, the latter with the added attraction of being able to spot dolphins frolicking in the harbour and sitting on sheep sculptures on the deck.

The building is spectacular: spanning three floors it’s like a classical-modernist art cathedral carved into a rock. There were also other buildings above the ground, a restaurant, buildings housing James Turrell’s installations as well as designer guest pavilions and a vineyard.

Inside the galleries it’s dark, but all the works are very well lit. In fact the lighting was probably the best art lighting I’ve ever seen – you just don’t notice it, the attention to detail is such that it appears transparent, even though it’s highly designed. Instead of a sterile white cube space, you find yourself in something between an upmarket nightclub, a nuclear bunker, an ancient temple, a creepy basement straight from a Scandi thriller, a masonic ritual room and a twisted version of Plato’s cave.

MONA’s approach to interpretation is very modern – there were no labels on the walls and each visitor receives an ipad-like device that automatically detects which artwork they are closest to. It provides both audio and textual interpretation in two modes – plain English and ‘art wank’ (i.e. artspeak) symbolised by a penis icon, which I found unnecessarily juvenile. But then Walsh’s intention with the museum allegedly was to “piss off the academics”, so what else can one expect?

A variety of display strategies were employed in the exhibitions – from classic ones to viewing an experimental video through a water tank with a submerged ancient Roman sculpture and colourful fish swimming around it. The works in the collection were an eclectic mix – one-liner shock-effect sculptures (copulating skeletons and plaster casts of 51 vaginas), ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, modernist masterpieces, and conceptual video art all mixed together, in a way that was somehow refreshing on a surface level. One can certainly describe aspects of MONA and the collection as tacky and populist, but there are also a few quite brilliant works – especially in the temporary exhibition section – and the experience is certainly fun, in theme park terms, which certainly draws in more general public. Perhaps it’s just the Tate of the Antipodes.


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The City of Melbourne respectfully acknowledges the Traditional Owners of the land, the Boon Wurrung and Woiwurrung (Wurundjeri) peoples of the Kulin Nation and pays respect to their Elders, past and present.

My exploration of the Melbourne arts scene focused on the colonial history of Australia and its legacy. I was interested in how institutions and artists tackle the extremely painful subject of biological and cultural genocide, land and resource grabbing and the still unresolved marginalisation of the First Nations people. The two complementary exhibitions, curated by a team of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal curators: “Colony: Australia 1770–1861” and “Colony: Frontier Wars” at the National Gallery of Victoria’s Ian Potter Centre offered a brilliant, extensive, and exhaustive look into the history of colonisation of Australia and various responses by contemporary artists.

Exhibits in the historical part consisted mostly of artworks and other artefacts, produced both by the colonised and the colonisers, including the first European image of a kangaroo, the first oil painting produced in the colonies, Captain Cook’s personal maps and notes, and the earliest surviving photographs produced in Australia.

It was deeply ironic that some of the period’s most celebrated artists were in fact convicted forgers, such as Thomas Watling or Joseph Lycett. The very skill that led to their forced journey to Australia, which at the time pretty much equalled being sent to the moon in terms of physical and mental distance, was then their way out of incarceration and towards acclaim and sometimes even wealth, which probably wouldn’t have been possible back home. Items depicting the personal suffering of involuntary convicts further complicated the image of a coloniser along class and power lines.

Some of the most heartbreaking points of the historical exhibition were the cultural artefacts of Tasmanian Aboriginal people, who were systematically murdered and driven to near complete extinction in the XIX century. Also very poignant were the gaps in the display and knowledge, such as the missing information about the origin, the authors and the previous owners of the shields and spears in the first room of the exhibition (as I found out from the exhibition guide, specially arranged spears were often placed at the entrance to colonial courts). The ‘unknown’ plaques set the tone for the rest of the display, as it made one think about what else was missing and whose voices and side of the history was ultimately represented.

Whilst the historical part of the exhibition focused on how colonisation was perceived at the time, but from the colonisers’ perspective, Colony: Frontier Wars was an attempt at balance and showing its impact on the indigenous inhabitants in the works of contemporary artists. Gathering works by indigenous and non-indigenous artists along with anonymous photographic portraits (this time deliberately labelled as ‘once known’ instead of ‘unknown’) and historical cultural objects it was as emotive as the historical part was factual. As I fought back tears myself, I spotted several visitors discreetly drying their eyes whilst looking at conceptually and aesthetically complex works depicting genocide, snatching of children, poverty and other acts of violence, also those committed against the land itself.

Another great work on the subject of history wars I saw was Terror Nullius by art collective Soda_Jerk at ACMI – Australian Centre for the Moving Image. The nearly 1-hour mashup video uses samples of Australian films to re-interpret its history in a radically political and unabashedly feminist and queer way. The result is hypnotic, funny and talks about issues such as LGBT rights, land ownership and Australia’s current draconian immigration system – it definitely undoes the Australian national mythology although many Aussie jokes and references were lost on me, a total stranger. Typically, the artwork’s funder, the Ian Potter Cultural Trust, withdrew its name as a supporter the day before the premiere.

I also checked out exhibitions of Aboriginal artists at Koorie Heritage Trust and ACMI’s permanent exhibition about the history of Australian cinema, which featured the film Ten Canoes – an interesting experiment in collaborative filmmaking.

In terms of local artists – the practice of Megan Evans seemed particularly interesting as it grapples with the impact of colonial history on the descendant of the settlers/colonial family. We connected over shared interests and belief in the political power of art. When we spoke she was showing her work as part of “Squatters and Savages”, a duo show at Benalla Art Gallery, with Ngarigo artist Peter Waples-Crowe, whose work reflects on the representation of Aboriginal people in popular culture. On her website Megan has published an expanded, personal version of acknowledgment of the traditional owners of the land:

To quote a fragment:

“I acknowledge

That in my adult years

I have arrogantly thought

I knew better,

blind to my white privilege

spoke over my black brothers and sisters.

 

I acknowledge

that my success

is built on the struggle

of dispossessed others.”

These words should be spoken by many towards many, not only in Australia.


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SPEECHES PUNCTUATED WITH RESOUNDING SLAPS’: LAW, EXPANSION, HIERARCHY, RESISTANCE’ This was the second iteration of the Fascism and The International symposium that I participated in – the first one took place at Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City in June 2017 (full programme: https://www.academia.edu/33423310/Workshop_Fascism_and_the_International_The_Global_Order_Yesterday_and_Tomorrow_Museo_de_Arte_Moderno_Mexico_City_–_final_programme). Both were organised by Dr Rose Sydney Parfitt from Kent Law School, and both gathered an eclectic community of critical legal scholars, historians, artists, art historians, anthropologists, curators and critical theorists from all over the world. The symposium took as its starting point the rise of fascist tendencies worldwide in the last few years and its aim was to not just interpret fascism but also envisage tools to effect political change. The mixing of disciplines, and specifically law and art, was not a coincidence. As Rose noted in her opening speech: “there seems to be something about fascist and anti-fascist art, old and new, that gets to the heart of the enigma of fascism”. She explained that this is linked to the importance attached by fascism to the mythical, the intuitive, to identification, and to the power of the emotional, which allows it to take root and travel, as well as to materiality. “If any movement understood the power of the material – the power of art, architecture, rallies, uniforms, public holidays, monuments, train timetables, yellow stars – it was fascism”. These are things that legal scholarship finds difficult to tackle methodologically, unlike artists and art historians. The symposium took place in an art gallery, which attracted a mixed crowd – artists as well as academics. West Space is a not-for-profit critically engaged arts organisation founded in 1993 as an artist-run initiative by Brett Jones and Sarah Stubbs.  On show during the symposium was a group exhibition on expanded painting, and most works were quite abstract, which created a rather absurd juxtaposition with the discussed subjects. Amongst these were motherhood and the figure of the child in fascist discourse, the links between fascism and colonialism and cyberfascism. What I thought was one of the most valuable aspects of the symposium was the presence of non-European perspectives and experiences. There were papers discussing Indonesian anti-communism, the decolonisation process in the Portuguese colonies, the impact of Italian Fascism in Brazil and fascism in revolutionary Iran, amongst others, which exposed a certain universality of the fascist ideology, rarely present in the European context where most discussions oscillate around Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. The second day was especially pertinent to the current discourse on social media as the main tool for the spread of fascist ideology. Presentations about cybernazis, alt-right meme culture, fashwave (an openly fascist offshoot of the electronic dance music genre vaporwave), fascist Facebook and techno-totalitarianism were particularly enlightening. Speakers at the event included: the Mexican curator Helena Chávez Mac Gregor (UNAM, Mexico), legal scholar Dr. Ruth Cain (Kent Law School, UK) and art history Professors Patricia Leighten  and Mark Antliff (Duke University, USA). We had long, fruitful conversations during the workshop and I look forward to our future meetings and collaborations.


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