Andrew Petrusevics and Chris Gaston Artspace, Adelaide Festival Centre 28 August to 24 October 1998
The editor of Artlink remarked to me that for quite a number of years now it has been unfashionable to produce art works which have the intent to critique the current political situation in Australia. This observation appears to have an element of truth to it. In this context, I take it that a working definition of 'politics' is 'the competition for power' and the power is over the acquisition and disposition of resources, especially financial, and the power to legislate or change legislation.
As a test of this proposition, I skimmed through issues of Artlink from Volume 1,1 in March 1981 looking for any references to works of a political nature and discovered the following:
" A 1981 article by Sandra Greentree titled "Political Art: Subversion or Hypocrisy?" (Artlink 1,3: 4-5) which put the awkward question whether (following Marcuse) "all art, political or otherwise, serves only to perpetuate the current capitalist system - and is consequently, as an instrument of social change, condemned to impotence?"
" In Artlink 2,5: 1982, Peter Dormer in his article "The British Art of Politics" seems to answer the above question in the affirmative, though he does claim that "In Britain ... the strongest political art is on the television or in the theatre - discursive media suits politics better'.
" A review by Rosemary Brooks of "Socially engaged art in Adelaide" (Artlink 3,5: 9-10) contains a quote from American artist Hans Haacke: "Of course I don't believe that artists really wield any significant power. At best one can focus attention."
" An anonymous article on "Art and Politics", in a special issue in 1985 on Art in New Zealand (Artlink 5, 3-4: 22), claimed that the 1981 Springbok tour and nuclear testing politicised artists in New Zealand. The statement is made that "the declaration by the Labor Government of New Zealand as a nuclear free zone . . . is seen as by no means unrelated to the efforts of the artists". Surprisingly there was little reference to overtly political works by Maori artists.
" Also surprisingly, the 1990 Artlink special issue on Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Art (10, 1-2) contains no articles dealing with art works of an overtly political nature (though political power is implicated). The main issues noted concern the displacement of Aboriginal people from their land and the social and economic disadvantaging they have experienced as a consequence. On the other hand, the 1993/94 special issue on Contemporary Arts of South East Asia (13, 3-4) is full of images of a confrontingly social and political nature. The 1996 number on Indigenous Arts of the Pacific (16,4) is more concerned with issues of cultural identity, despite the anti-nuclear/anti-colonialist shirt design on the cover.
" The 1997 number, Looking at the Republic (17,3) brings us to a mix of political, social and identity issues. The first article (pp.8-9) is dominated by a photograph of Foley and Knowles installation The Lie of the Land, set up in front of the Melbourne Town Hall. This work, sponsored by Melbourne City Council, raises the Marcusian issue noted above. It suggests that the establishment can afford to support politically radical works because, in the end, they are no real threat. The next article (pp.10-13) brings us to the overtly political work of Andrew Petrusevics, one of the two artists exhibiting at the Adelaide Festival Centre's Artspace (the other being Chris Gaston). Petrusevics' works are used as support for an essay by Greg McCarthy on Keating's Republic push but are not referred to in that essay.
Which brings us to the exhibition at Artspace, the subject of this review. Here we have two artists attacking the economic policies of the Federal Government and by implication those of the South Australian State Government, their works displayed in a State government arts institution. This is an analogous situation to that of the Foley and Knowles work in Melbourne noted above and could be subjected to a similar Marcusian critique. I suppose one test is whether these works will sell and who will buy them.
Petrusevics' experience in Japan shows in the style of the cartoon characters that are the central representation in most of these works. They critique Keating's Australian-Republic-in-Asia push, the issue of ABC 'bias' (without actually mentioning the ABC), the recent waterfront dispute, multi-culturalism, and a quirky play on the notion of Princess Diana as Heroine and 'Opiate [of the masses]' - get it? The depiction of Howard as 'Architect of our MAD (mutually assured destruction)' recalled a passage from John Ralston Saul (Voltaire's Bastards, 1992, p.353):
Destruction is the other power of God, equal to creation in many ways. Above all, it is easier and faster. Between creating life and taking it away, the Hero invariably settles for the latter. It is, if nothing else, more immediately satisfying.
I enjoyed Gaston's works for their recycled materials and painterly qualities. All the business-men /politicians in these pieces wear white shirts with red ties, which John Spoehr in his Opening Speech read as an ironic reference to the supposed 'Pinko' policies of the Labor Party. But since Howard and some evidently economic rationalist individuals are also depicted so attired, it seemed to me a hint of the aggressive, can-do-it, fast-lane, dare I say, socially irresponsible style of certain key politicians and their advisers.
For me the most powerful work in the whole show is the triple piece Guide Dog for the Visually Illiterate (featuring Pauline Hanson), Not the Full Load (Howard) and Monumental. I could not determine who the character was meant to be in the latter piece since I hardly ever watch television or read newspapers and my recognition of public figures is poor. But since the distinction between Liberal and Labor politicians is minimal, it doesn't really matter. It leaves one with a sense of despair that our parliamentary leaders are so lacking in good sense, let alone greatness.
Both Petrusevics' and Gaston's works are akin to political cartoons and one must admit that there is no lack of political critique in that genre evident in most of our daily newspapers. Perhaps it is time for an Artlink special issue on cartoons (with Michael Leunig as guest Editor?)