Guest Book

Catalogue essay

Guest Book

West Space, Melbourne

August 19 – September 17, 2016

View exhibition here

View publication here

Sydney Ball, The Field exhibition poster, The National Gallery of Victoria, 1968

Normana Wight, Untitled, 1968, acrylic on canvas, 360 x 152cm Image source: The Field, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Victoria, 1968, pp. 83

The Herald Newspaper, Melbourne, Monday, December 17, 1973

Grace Cossington Smith, Curve of the Bridge, poster print, Art Gallery of NSW, 76.5 x 55.5cm

Martin Creed, The Lights Off, 2005, installation view, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art

Martin Creed, Work No. 312 A lamp going on and off, 2003, lamp, electrical timer switch, lamp going on and off every one second, Jim and Mary Barr Collection

Juan Davila, Juanito Laguna, 1995, oil on canvas, 123 x 107.5cm

Juan Davila, The Lamentation: A Votive Painting, 199,1 oil on board, five panels, each 174 x 137cm. Image courtesy of Kalli Rolfe Contemporary

Promotional bag for Hany Armanious at the Australian Pavillion, 54th Venice Biennale, 2011

When I first began thinking about making an exhibition of this nature, I was primarily interested in the display of artworks that had received negative review in mainstream press. Why this came to be, I suppose, is a difficult thing to pin down. Initially, my research gravitated around the polarising binaries of art and non-art audiences, a kind of interest in the lack of transmission between the two poles—how could it be that a work of art could be a truly radical moment of political agency in one realm, and considered to be ‘lazy’, ‘unimaginative’, ‘a waste of tax payers money’ in another?

An interest in the navigation of the relationship between these two poles was a dinner party line I adopted for some time. [1] Feeling constantly uncomfortable with the categorical binary the line seemed to not only uphold but also instill—the assumption of course being that you were either knowing or unknowing—while also feeling a growing resentment toward calls from funding bodies, politicians, even friends, to be more inclusive, to lose the pretension apparently inherent to the practice of contemporary art, I thought a more in-depth assessment of my interest in the very public framing of these works was necessary.
It seems relevant to note that I am interested in the newspaper review as a space of potentiality. If we are to see it as a kind of transitory location between an active art audience (I hesitate to say educated here) and a wider less operational audience, then perhaps my infatuation with their negativity, and the works included in this exhibition that have been positioned in relation to it, could be deemed somehow productive. It seems to be that my interest in these reviews lies somewhere surrounding an assessment of the repercussions of this form of writing in the cycle of distribution that it exists within. In this sense, and to borrow from Martha Rosler, ‘the purpose of this article is to circle rather than to define the question of audience’. [2] Through doing so, I will attempt to establish a relationship between the exhibition of contemporary art and the nature of its perceived social legitimacy in the eyes of the nation-state. In particular, and in reference to the works within this show, the nation-state through which this argument will be threaded is Australia.

The main question underlying this exhibition goes as follows: Is it that—in the sense of the first wave of institutional critique which drew from Enlightenment ideals of a critical public sphere, of art in a public sphere—we are needing a return to a publicness of critique? In an attempt to contextualise this question, I want to borrow from Andrea Fraser, who said,


It is not a question of being against the institution… It’s a question of what kind of institution we are, what kind of values we institutionalise, what forms of practice we reward, and what kind of rewards we aspire to. Because this institution of art is internalised, embodied and performed by individuals, these are the questions that institutional critique demands we ask, above all, ourselves. [3]


What Fraser proposes here is first and foremost an acknowledgement of our relationship to the institution. And this acknowledgement must come to its defence, rather than making a habit of critique that denies its relevance.  This practice of denunciation has repercussions characterised by Hito Stereyl as a current state of instability. As she noted in her essay ‘The Institution of Critique’, ‘If during the first wave of institutional critique, criticism produced integration into the institution, the second one only achieved integration into representation. But in the third phase the only integration which seems to be easily achieved is one into precarity.’ [4]

For me, it seems that the paradox we are now faced with as a discipline describes on the one hand that there are signifiers in the museum that tell people to leave. The language used, the design, the location, the cost of admission; an extensive list pertaining to not only intellectual and class divides but also logistical ones could be easily compiled. Therefore, it could be argued that the relationship to the audience or to the artwork is partly defined by the grammar adopted by the institution in question. In this sense, it cannot be denied that contemporary art produces insularity. [5] Yet on the other hand, and as a lecturer of mine recently stated, it is legitimate that institutions are safeguarding art. She continued, ‘Perhaps people don’t understand, but also not everyone is working at it, and artists are. You need to defend that.Instead, the solution is a consideration of why you even want to have this public in the first place.’ 

For me, this desire for a public is also two fold, and somehow brings me back to this preoccupation with the negative reviews. The thing about these reviews is that they occupy a certain public position. That is, and for a start, they are really the only form of art criticism existing in a very public realm. By this I mean to say that they are easy to come across, due primarily to their proximity to an amalgam of other varied information within the newspaper form. In this way the newspaper review has an inherent digestibility. The second is that this zone of review—the one that, depending on the newspaper, sits alongside agenda-based journalism—has a very particular level of legitimacy within the arts.

This is a dichotomous legitimacy that sees art workers disregard newspaper reviews as tabloidesque attempts to discuss ideas which are much more in-depth and radical, yet who also simultaneously see them as the most directly translatable form of success to those outside the field. [6] Perhaps depending on the endorsement of the review these positions fluctuate. This generates a bind that results in dismissal and this goes both ways. While the art community will often dismiss these reviews on claims surrounding a lack of awareness, it could be possible to argue that they have rather tangible repercussions regarding public faith in the arts. Indeed, this questioning of a different kind of legitimacy could be equated to continued funding cuts and subsequent job cuts, institutional closures and the rise of more conservative cultural consumption—outcomes all arguably propagated by the state. [7] Therefore, this blatant rejection of this form of participation could be problematised as dangerous through the lens of the following quote:

Now the problem is—and this is indeed a very widespread attitude—that when a cultural institution comes under pressure from the market, it tries to retreat into a position which claims that it is the duty of the nation-state to fund it and to keep it alive. The problem with that position is that it is an ultimately protectionist one, that it ultimately reinforces the construction of national public spheres, and that under this perspective the cultural institution can only be defended by trying to retreat into the ruins of a demolished national welfare state and its cultural shells and to defend them against all intruders. [8]

If we are to take this warning up and therefore treat these reviews seriously for a moment, could it be possible that the reviews be re-contextualised here as a more loyal form of institutional critique? Can this be so when mainstream press operates within the construction of national public spheres? And how are we to be more public while still avoiding this type of construction? To take this further, through the very definition of being treated as apparently ‘outsider’, do the reviews negate the self-determining, self-promoting affect of institutionalised critique and instead offer a felt criticism that needs to be addressed? In his book Anywhere or Not at All, Peter Osborne notes,

Institutional critique can only be an art of direct practicality by restricting itself to a terrain on which critique is the only form of practicality, the only social use-value: autonomous art. However, it thereby implicitly affirms the critical value of the art institution, the political conditions and the social impotence of which it simultaneously exposes. Ironically, this helps the institution to survive its own critique. The very existence of this critique within the institution—the institution’s acceptance of institutional critique—negates the practical function of that critique, although not its intellectual value. Institutional critique thus strengthens and develops the art institution. [9]

This simultaneous tension of a desire for autonomy and an inherent existence within national public spheres is perhaps what is at stake here. As someone who has long been a loyal supporter of institutional critique as a methodology, this characterisation by Osborne is no surprise. Indeed, it is an insecure grapple with self-referentiality and a kind of utopian desire for practices to perhaps metaphorically emancipate themselves from such a specified sphere and be reapplied onto a more active political landscape. After all, this is what it means for me: a way of working (rather than a type of work) and living that can exist in line with my political ideals and possibilities. It is here again where we can return to the revised optimism of Fraser and to the question of what kind of institution we want to be. In the form of this exhibition, I propose this reframing of mainstream critique as a potential space of integration, or confrontation, rather than as one of dismissal. To take these reviews seriously would be a difficult task. But to run the risk of being even more circular, it seems to me that this tension between the private and public domain within art discourse may actually be a resolution in finding financial legitimacy as art workers. A dissolution of this binary is also an effort to confront head on the regulatory behaviours of the state in a wider context. [10]

The artworks in this exhibition have been gathered together for one initial reason, yet in their diversity, apparent disputation and relationship to each other, they stand as proof of the ability of art to refute easy categorisation. I believe that this is a practice of thinking to be defended and that the works themselves argue this also. Yet, of course, this practice is also simultaneously seen as a self-made threat to the discipline’s resources, especially those provided by the state. When treated in the way that I have attempted for the purpose of this exhibition and, as Osbourne noted, ‘the work is not a single entity, the installation of a given artist in a single place, but a function occurring between location and points of view, a series of expositions of information and place. Site becomes a network of sites referring to an elsewhere.’ [11]

It is through my preoccupation with these negative reviews, the works they more than often fraudulently represent and the audience which is receptive to them (and which is not) that I propose a notion of a hopefully less precarious form of institutional critique and an anticipative nod toward a future elsewhere. To take something seriously—like a seemingly irrelevant negative review—may actually be more productive than we realise. The intersection of words and their context, of people and their circumstance, of artworks and their publicness, could be more loyal without sacrificing the level of investment and dialectic that we art workers find necessary. To be many forms at once seems to be the way forward; forms that are grouped together by the people that momentarily occupy them, and the loyalty to contemporary art that keeps them making, viewing, reading and writing art.

When flying home to install this show, an overly energetic flight attendant asked me where I had been. I said that I had been at university and I was coming home for a visit. They had run out of ice so the conversation had time to continue. ‘What are you studying?’ she asked.  The usual hesitant feeling came, and I responded with ‘art’. It didn’t seem the right circumstances to say I was undertaking a residency-based Masters in Art Praxis. Still no ice, she asked me what art I make. I told her I made paintings, even though this is not something I definitively or even initially identify with, thinking it would end the conversation. She then asked me what medium I used: ‘Oils or acrylics?’ finishing the question with, ‘it’s nothing compared to you I am sure, but I paint and I use acrylics.’ Nothing about this conversation was unusual to me, though this time I began to feel guilty. Why was it that I wrote the conversation off from the minute the first question was asked? But also, and to problematise my twenty-four hour flight haze more than it perhaps needs to be, I did so knowing that the kind of conversation I would have been interested in having was not possible in an introductory three-minute exchange.

Perhaps what is at stake in asking a series of questions such as these is a realisation of our lack of generosity. The other side, and the one which I tend to uphold, is that a lack of transmission of what we are working on and what we are doing doesn’t also always mean a lack of generosity, but also too a lack of investment—and this goes both ways. In this vein, and to attempt to finally finish up, I want to quote a section of the catalogue text that belongs to an exhibition I worked on collectively with twelve other artists and curators over the last ten months. [12] Questions posed throughout this research period remain at the forefront of my mind, in conversation with this exhibition and manifestly still unanswered. They go as follows:

Songs for a Deaf Ox follows a nine-month research into non-transmittability of form. At the beginning stood some questions: Could it be that forms do not under all circumstances transfer well? Could it be that despite global transnationalisation, which is mimicked in the art world, diverse value systems might be in place? Could it be that heterogeneous contexts feed into the meaning of a sign and the forging of a form? Could it be that the often implicit cultures of gauging value, meaning and risk cannot be contained in the categories of either economy or art, either locality or globalisation? And if all this could be, what to do about it?

A first step would be to make explicit what is usually implicit, i.e. to render the cultures of gauging value, meaning and risk visible. A second step would be to research with earnestness the appearance of form that is non-transmit- table. A third step is to ask whether we even want everything to transmit. Perhaps we might not agree with the costs of transmittability? Perhaps we object to the way that form and content can only appear in the art world when they conform to certain rules of visibility; when they conform to a dispositif that crushes much that inspired us about the aesthetic experience in the first place? Perhaps non-transmittability might be used as a weapon against a contemporary exhibition machine? A fourth step is to begin, in a conscious way, to find ways of keeping the source of our inspiration alive. [13]

With this in mind I attempt to weigh up the cost of working on transmitting what we are doing more actively, while remaining loyal to the disciplinary discussions and histories that will always evade that introductory conversation. To return to the reviews, maybe this transitory space is somewhere we might attempt to occupy in order to ‘keep our inspiration alive’, both guilt free and unforgivably non-introductory. The fifth step then, is how to make this happen?

[1] Midway through my degree a particular lecturer told us about the phenomenon of the dinner party line: The sentence you have stored in your artillery that somehow manages to disseminate hours of thesis work into a digestible, yet non-reductive catch phrase that exceeds the bounds of your specialisation to emanate with a wider dinner party audience. To the aunty you see once a year at Christmas, for example. This social habit appears to have quite a material quality when anticipating the thrust of the following text.
[2] Rosler, Martha. ‘Lookers, Buyers, Dealers, and Makers: Thoughts on Audience’. Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004.
[3] Fraser, Andrea. ‘From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique’. Artforum. September, 2005.
[4] Steyerl, Hito.‘The Institution of Critique’. Institutional Critique: An Anthology of Artists Writings. Ed. Alexander Alberro, Blake Stimson. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009. pp. 486-492.
[5] Following the exhibition Things We Don’t Understand at the Generali Foundation, Vienna, it was noted that it was one of the most widely visited exhibitions in the history of the museum at the time. It was believed that the general public thought that the exhibition was going to explain the things they didn’t understand about contemporary art. The solidarity of claiming to not understand things together meant the museum became more welcoming than it had been in the past. For an exhibition that looked at how social engagement and aesthetic autonomy can be connected, this seems like a fitting outcome.
[6] In April this year a much loved visual arts column in The Age newspaper fell victim to cost-cutting measures at Fairfax and ceased to run. When the reviewer posted about this news, an artist wrote, ‘There is nothing quite like telling your mum you’re in the newspaper to validate your career. I’m sure lots of artists will miss out on that now.’
[7] We need not look any further than the recent reallocation of $104.7 million of Australia Council funds to the proposed National Program for Excellence in the Arts by Senator George Brandis. Especially so, when its conservative cultural position was made even more visible by his own party when they overhauled its establishment, claiming it to be a ‘slush fund’ for political interference in the arts.
[8] Steyerl, Hito. ‘The Institution of Critique’. Institutional Critique: An Anthology of Artists Writings. Ed. Alexander Alberro, Blake Stimson. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009. pp. 486-492.
[9] Osborne, Peter. Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art. London: Verso, 2013. pp. 159.
[10] I think here of Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner’s text ‘Sex in Public’, which discusses the mediation of sexual difference and expression by the division of public and private realms by the state. As they note, ‘The aim of this paper is to describe what we want to promote as the radical aspirations of queer culture building: not just a safe zone for queer sex but the changed possibilities of identity, intelligibility, publics, culture, and sex that appear when the heterosexual couple is no longer the reference or the privileged example of sexual culture’. Berlant, Lauren, Warner, Michael. ‘Sex in Public’. Critical Inquiry. Vol. 24, No. 2, Intimacy. Winter, 1998. pp. 547-566.
[11] Osborne, Peter. Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art. London: Verso, 2013. pp.157-159.
[12] The fellow artists and curators I worked with during this research period are Florencia Almirón, Dai Xiyun, David Bergé, Sebastian De Line, Hu Wei, Nil Ilkbasaran, Pilar Mata Dupont, Valentina Miorandi, Ruth Noack, Avan Omar, Maja Renn, Peter Sattler, and Helen Zeru Araya.
[13] Noack, Ruth. ‘Form that simply does not transfer, or does not transfer simply’. In Songs for a Deaf Ox, exhibition catalogue. Arnhem: The Dutch Art Institute, 2016. pp. 4-5.