Artists' Week... Walk that Walk

Review of Artists week for the Adelaide Festival of Arts 1998

Don't you just love the wonder of your notes when you look at them after events such as Artists' Week and they contain such concentrated enigmas as cs plays loose - model of analysis or riddles of origin teased out in these scenes(primal) or bio to lingu model?

Some recurring motifs throughout the week were criticisms of the magazine October, the looming shadow of Freud, the whole idea of archives, the catchphrase "to have a trauma you must have two traumas", now who said that? Some bright spots were Helen Grace who said post-conceptual art adds flesh to the idea, Douglas Kahn's coining of the term domicide, the vision of Julie Ewington in the basement of the Queensland Art Gallery, the food at the Parachilna Café and Stuart McKenzie asking what is sacrilege?

Artists' Week 1998 curated by Juliana Engberg and Ewen McDonald saw four experts from Artland, North America strut their stuff in Adelaide. They were, in order of appearance: Joseph Kosuth, Jenny Holzer, Douglas Crimp and Hal Foster. The most expectations were probably held for Hal Foster who gave a very efficient lecture on the work of Robert Gober. It was really rather good, art historical musing on the work of one artist, haunting descriptions of troubling work. Foster thus perhaps revealed himself to be as much a rhetorician as a thinker, an intellectual who luxuriates in ideas and words but not in quick thinking or repartee. This became apparent when Diane Losche asked him whether he was using Freud but thinking of Lacan - (bio to lingu model) - but he did not want to discuss it.

Douglas Crimp who was in Australia for a month studying the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras actually prefaced his talk by saying he was "aware of the parochialism of American debate in other places". He also mentioned Meaghan Morris' essay Banality in Cultural Studies. Crimp's approach was personal and revolved around the counterculture of the sixties, Andy Warhol, Queer Aesthetics and the present. He spoke about the importance of resistance to the normalisation of the queer, and of avoiding connections between aesthetics and identity formation.

Jenny Holzer and Joseph Kosuth also looked back as they reviewed their careers with the aid of slides and represented the practice of conceptual art as ongoing and alive in the nineties. I wondered if this focus on conceptual art could have been usefully extended by including as speakers established Australian artists who began their practice in that genre and more recently emerged Australian artists whose work owes a debt to it. A whole week on conceptual art may have been repetitive(!) yet through being exhaustive it may have turned a page in the manual. More of an Australian context was certainly needed for the process Margaret Plant described Hal Foster as performing - rewriting the history of modernism as the past of art being made today.

Both Holzer and Kosuth use text in their work, she writes her words, he finds his words often in the canon of Freud, Wittgenstein and Benjamin though more recently he has made an effort to include words written by women. Holzer and Kosuth's use of words drew them together as well as the fact that both have European heritages as seen in their surnames and have both worked substantially in Europe in the 90s. Holzer came across as a pleasant and open person with an American bluntness or innocence and a militant statement to make about the rights of women.

Kosuth spent a lot of time bitching, the petty thoughts of an established artist. After spending twenty minutes speaking of how important the artist's intentions are compared to what critics or, shudder, historians may decide the artist's work is doing Kosuth did not really state his intentions other than to be "the hole in the donut", to exist in between the quotations from writers and theorists that he reproduces and juxtaposes as his work. When asked what he thinks is political about his work he stated that it was not painting or sculpture, a battle that I thought was somewhat in the past. The works in the slides looked both poetic and beautiful, not his intention I gather. "Practising artists, " he said, "fight for the meaning of their work." The crisis of meaning that Kosuth refers to seems to have something to do with what is happening in Australia as well as in the US which is the institutionalisation of art inside the universities/academies and the equation of research in the hard sciences and even the humanities with art's hereditary need for freedom and unpredictability. In Kosuth's words: "It is artists' political responsibility to reconceptualize art for the living. If our view of art is limited so is our view of society. Visual space has essentially no owner. All art negates rules. Art makes the world."

The South African curators Zayd Minty and Tumelo Mosaka, who were in Adelaide as part of organising an exchange exhibition with the Flinders University Art Museum, spoke about much more draconian conditions for artists in their country. Their talks and those of indigenous speakers George Littlechild, Djon Mundine, Julie Dowling, Faith Louis-Adams and Fiona Foley made it clear that politics is inseparable from their art.

The two issues that drew the most comment during the week were the bones bought in New York by Jenny Holzer and a sort of job demarcation issue regarding the role of the art gallery, curators, artists and art historians.
dem bones

Jenny Holzer's LUSTMORD deals with the imaginative recreation of the different thoughts in the heads of a victim, a perpetrator and a spectator of a lustdeath, rapedeath, a violent sexual murder. The work has certain memorial aspects. It also has a showbusiness voyeur aspect about which I feel uncertain. The flashing LED lights accompanying the tables of bones have a nauseating physiological effect which underlines the words which speak of cruelty and violence. We are told that reading the words makes us feel as if these are our thoughts, that we inhabit in turn the victim, the perpetrator and the spectator. I didn't. I felt sick but not chilled to the bone the way I did in Denis Del Favero and Scenario Urbano's installation also relating to Bosnia at the 1994 Adelaide Festival.

Fiona Foley was the first to ask whose bones they were and where they belonged. Whose bones are they? Should bones be on sale at all? Is Holzer passing these off as mistreated bones when they may not be? Are bones indeed sacred in themselves? Later Holzer revealed that viewers were meant to pick up and read the text-laden tags around the bones. Issues about the immorality of commerce and the international circulation of America-generated art as 'culture' are inadvertently raised by the work.

the issue of demarcation - meeting of the primadonnas
The whole area of demarcation disputes (Kosuth also wished to point out that while he had ghost-written a very important essay as well as been the artist behind the scenes at a very important exhibition, he has never been a curator!!!) came to the fore in the penultimate and last sessions when Elizabeth Gertzakis made known the reason for the flimsiness of her contribution to the Biennial of Oz Art at the AGSA. Her intention to gloss some of the work of Roy de Maistre with words and an art historical context was stymied by the Director of the Art Gallery Ron Radford as well as by the curator of de Maistre's watercolours in NSW. The debate which followed became heated, partly over the need for a collection to protect the work under its care, partly because of the way that protection is manifested.
Gertzakis claimed that if she had been a curator it would have been possible for her to do what she wanted to do. Tony Bond claimed that the Art Gallery of New South Wales would take each such case on its merits. My own feeling is that if she really wanted to do it she could have done it with photographic reproductions, like most of her previous work.

the good oil
I wondered several times why speakers were not talking about the present but then I realised that in looking at the past the present was being reframed. Charles Green asked : "What is political art?" and spoke about the powerful lessons of conceptual art. Terry Smith revised the path of conceptual art in Australia and mentioned the late Ian Burn but, as far as I could hear, coping as I was at the time with the traffic noises on the plaza and watching Smith on the video, did not draw attention to Burn's description of the failure of conceptual art, its easy co-option and deferral of responsibility. Kosuth said that if conceptual art is more than a style then the artists' intention is what it is. Burn's conclusion, in an essay entitled The 1960s: crisis and aftermath, was:"The real value of Conceptual Art lay in its transitional (and thus genuinely historical) character, not in the style itself."

Ahem, I mean Amen. I mean let's think about that.

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