6 December 2001

Collectables: Export vs. Heritage

Auction stations: The export market for indigenous artworks is being stymied by bureaucracy, argue the auction houses. But not surprisingly, Michael Hutak reports, the bureaucrats disagree.

What is more important? Australia’s multi-million dollar international market for Aboriginal art, or the value of that art to the cultural heritage of the nation as a whole? That’s the crucial question driving tensions between international auction house Sotheby’s and the federal government’s Movable Cultural Heritage Committee.

Five months after its annual sale of Aboriginal art in July, Sotheby’s is still waiting for the MCHC to decide whether seven works knocked down at the auction will be granted export licences to leave the country with their new owners. The auction house faced a similar situation in 2000 and the subsequent denying of export permits for three works resulted in the sales being cancelled and, according to Sotheby’s, the vendors being unable to achieve the proper market value for their paintings.

Sotheby’s 2001 sale again broke all auction records for Aboriginal art, with sales totalling $5m. But for the company’s Aboriginal art specialist, Tim Klingender, the worrying statistic is the percentage of works bought by overseas collectors, which fell by more than a third from 69% to 39%.

“It’s been nothing short of a disaster for us,” says Klingender. “International confidence in the Aboriginal art market is being affected. We have been advised by the largest private collector of Aboriginal art in the United States that he will not bid on any lot that does not have an export permit prior to the auction being held.”

Klingender says he told the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, which administers the relevant act, before the sale that some 75 works fell within the act’s guidelines for assessment. But the department would accept only 15 applications, eventually denying export licences to seven works.

After the auction, the department required 16 more works go to the MCHC for assessment, seven of which are still in limbo. A spokesperson told The Bulletin that to process 75 works within Sotheby’s timeframe would have “overburdened the committee; delayed other applications for objects that were definitely intended for overseas export; and risked a more superficial assessment of the cultural significance of the works”.

Klingender claims Sotheby’s has no problem with important works being banned from leaving the country as part of cultural heritage. But he maintains “the irregular meetings of the MCHC contributes to a process that is unacceptably long and frustrating to all involved”. He says: “We want the whole process to be streamlined. The expert examiners of works who advise the committee should be remunerated for their time and expertise and time limits and deadlines placed on their assessments.”

Brenda Croft is the indigenous art expert on the heritage committee. An Aboriginal artist and curator who has just been appointed curator of indigenous art at the National Gallery of Australia, she is unmoved by the auction house’s criticisms.

“People [on the committee] aren’t just there sitting on things,” she says. “We aren’t out to hamper the market but I don’t have a great deal of empathy because I’m not here to further the interests of the auction houses or commercial galleries. Our primary interest here is to protect cultural heritage, not to facilitate sales of work.”

With key US and European collectors refusing to consider works without an export permit in place, one leading Melbourne dealer in Aboriginal art said the act had effectively halved international prices and it was having a knock-on effect in the domestic market, creating an artificial, two-tiered market.

“I don’t take that argument on board,” says Croft. “There are many, many works that have secured permits. And besides, with a lot of the works that do go overseas, the onsale doesn’t go back to the artists, anyway, because these are secondary sales.”

This differs from the situation in the European Union, for example, where artists have a legal right of resale – or droit de suite – in which they are granted a percentage, usually 2% to 5%, of any resale of an original work.

“We’re not here to stop people selling,” says Croft. “But in my own mind I’ve had problems with seeing indigenous works sometimes seemingly traded like stock and bonds, particularly when I know there’s no right of resale to the artists.”


First published in The Bulletin

1 December 2001

Letter to Australia

Hi, allow me to introduce myself. I'm a fully paid-up member of the chattering classes, the new elites, one of the cafe-latte set, a chardonnay-sipping champagne socialist (if there is such a thing). I'm no action man, all I do is talk.

I'm a politically correct, university educated, inner-city wanker who has no real affinity with 'the vast mainstream' of Australia, or even 'basic Australian values' like mateship, 'a fair go' or unfettered free market capitalism. If I did I wouldn't feel totally disenfranchised by the recent re-election of the Howard government.

Since this momentous event I've been trying come to terms with my own irrelevancy. According to this country's professional right-wing media blowhards and a thousand letter-to-the-editor writers, cultural gatekeepers like me should just give up now. Or at the very least just piss off for three years while little Johnny gets on with important jobs like directing people trafficking in the South Pacific or privatizing any profitable government entity still left in public hands.

Apparently, anyone who voted against John Howard - and by polling day there were 49 per cent of us - was simply out of step with grassroots opinion. We have no affinity with the battlers, the workers, the people, the suburbs or the bush. We have no idea how tough things are 'out there'; especially for those 'ordinary decent' Australians trying to 'cope with change'. We wouldn't have the first idea how difficult it is for them to hold onto their racist views while all around them they are being swamped by 'different faces'. It's the likes of social engineers like us who are always trying to foist dangerous untested new ideas onto 'ordinary decent' Australians, like 'tolerance' or 'Islam'.

After all, I am one of those Balmain basket-weaving intellectuals who thinks multiculturalism is grouse. I don't give a rat's arse that the country is being swamped by Asians, Afghani terrorists, queue jumpers or even British backpackers overstaying their visas. You see, I'm blind to these and the other real problems facing this nation - like the outrageous unfair dismissal laws, or lesbians that want IVF, or Cheryl Kernot. Actually, Cheryl's not such a problem anymore.

Another substratum of this great nation with whom I'm completely out of touch are the so-called the 'new apsirationals', the wannabe yuppies living in gated housing estates in Sydney's western suburbs who supposedly delivered the rest of us - and John Howard - three more years of pain. The ones that aspire to be in more debt than their neighbours just so they can drive a new Beemer. The ones happy to pay through the nose for private health insurance and 'independent' schools because it makes them feel like they might be middle class one day. The ones who, though they live in the West, wouldn't be caught dead wearing stonewash or smackie-dacks. On that point, neither would I, but overall I'm still very much out of touch with these 'new aspirationals' as well.

The fact that I actually believe that it's a key role of government to provide adequate health and education for all marks me as nothing more than a tree-hugging pinko union thug. You can smell my support for the welfare state a mile away. I stink as much as user-pays. I'm one of those hopeless dreamers who is all for ecologically sustainable development, ethical investing and socially responsible work practices. My support for feminism, affirmative action and direct democracy shows just how impractical I've become. As for Aboriginal reconciliation, well, I'm sorry John Howard's got three more years but I have absolutely no right to do so being one who foolishly clings to the "black armband view of Australian history", as Johnny so capably dismissed it. It may come as a shock, but this ill-informed post-colonial, post-nationalist libertarian also supports a new flag, and I think it would be good to get rid of the Queen (metaphorically speaking). She only takes holidays here anyway.

On that topic, terrorism, I'm afraid, is out for the time being. Along with free speech. I agree with the blowhards here that in these "new and dangerous times" you can't have everyone going around saying what they really think! Unless its Pauline Hanson, of course. As you can guess, I'm also one of that lunatic fringe that thinks Howard got over the line by playing the race card! Imagine that? A politician of his standing and calibre stooping so low as to use the misery of refugees to tap into white Australia's lingering xenophobia. It's enough to make you throw your kids overboard.

What Howard's media attack squad will allow is that in three years, people like me can have another go at ridding this scourge from the body politic. Until then, I'm told, I should just "get over it" and "get on with life". So you can see how out of step I am. What am I gonna do for three years? I need to sit down and have long hard look at myself.


29 August 2001

Easel Angles: Julian Schnabel on Before Night Falls

Julian Schnabel knows a lot about the collision of art and personality. He tells Michael Hutak why he put down his brushes to make a movie of a doomed Cuban writer. 

"I don't think this film will ever be gone from me," says Julian Schnabel, artist, film-maker and renaissance man, of his latest epic motion picture, Before Night Falls.

Splitting his time these days between his huge New York City loft/studio and the ritzy Spanish seaside resort of San Sebastian, Schnabel spoke to The Bulletin from his summer retreat in Montauk, Long Island. Premiered at last year's Venice International Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Prize, Before Night Falls won praise at the recent Sydney Film Festival and is due for Australian release. Schnabel financed, co-wrote, produced, cast, directed, edited and is now promoting this film himself.

"It was like a year ago," he says, "we were at Venice and while I can't believe I've been talking about the film for that long, it will never leave me, it was such a magical experience to be able to give this guy a voice."

1 July 2001

Interview: Ben Mendelsohn

For a professional actor on a mid-career surge, Ben Mendelsohn is uncharacteristically modest... “I’ve been doing this (acting) since pretty much the beginning of my teenage years, and I’ve been financially independent since I was fifteen but it’s not really a career, is it? It’s a series of jobs, is what it is! I mean, you will never get to be ‘Head of South East Asian acting’. You might have a great life but it’s not a career.”

It’s mid-morning and we’re talking in a café overlooking Bondi Beach. “Bondi’s got a bit hectic – I’m shifting basically. I remember seeing this great TV special when I was 12, it was about Penthouse Pets and one of ‘em lived in Bondi – and I remember all these shots on the beach and I thought what a promised land – Bondi! I love living here but it’s getting very hectic.”

25 June 2001

Preview: ART/MUSIC: Rock Pop and Techno

We are used to hearing rock stars refer to themselves, often portentiously, as ‘artists’. And indeed what hopeful musician doesn’t aspire to the heady status of recording artist. Yet no matter how aesthetic the pose, we still call their wares music, not art.

Now a new exhibition begs to differ, seeking to blur the boundaries and reveal the artful underbelly of popular music in the 1990s and beyond.
ART/MUSIC: Rock Pop and Techno, opening this week (Mar 21) at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, examines the convergence of the visual arts and popular music through the work of international and local artists who make music the subject of their art, and, conversely, make music for an art-literate audience.
“The territory we’re covering here is diverse to say the least,” says the exhibition’s curator, Sue Cramer, who traveled to the studios and clubs of Berlin, London and New York to source works for the exhibition. “We’re presenting artists who use recordings or performance or installation to deal with the idea of music, or with music as a theme in their wider practice, or even just what it means to be a fan of popular music.”
Only don’t go expecting to sight rare Super 8 footage of the Velvet Underground hanging round Andy’s Factory, or an installation of Lennon-era bags by Yoko Ono. Nor will you find the sunday paintings of Britney Spears.
“It’s not an historical show but a survey of contemporary art practices,” says Cramer, sticking to her museum’s brief. Instead, “these are visual artists who are working today in diverse ways with forms of music that are popular today.”
Headlining the show is legendary New York DJ and artist Christian Marclay who since the late 1970s has attracted a cult following for his use of the turntable in both his art and music. With a business card that reads ‘record player’, Marclay is better described as a “sound sculptor” or “dadaist DJ” and his appearance is a coup for Cramer and key to the exhibition.
“Christian really is a central figure in this whole underground art/music movement,” says Cramer. Influenced by the Fluxus movement, (the 1960s art movement which typically and chaotically deployed numerous art forms simultaneously) and Punk, Marclay “never studied music,” notes Cramer, “and he found a freedom in the punk idea that you didn’t have to be academically trained to produce art. In fact, in an experimental mode, it can actually be a hindrance to be trained.”
Marclay uses the objects of popular music – records, CDs, turntables – to create what he calls “a visualization of sound”.
“It’s great that he’s coming here and will be able to perform as well as mount his exhibition which is a floor work of CDs.”
Marclay will join Lee Ranaldo, guitarist for the seminal 1990s punk band Sonic Youth, in a special one-off live concert at the Sydney Opera House the night before the main exhibition opens. The concert will be complemented by free live performances by local Sydney DJs, to be held each Sunday at the MCA for the duration of the exhibition.
Cramer cites Sonic Youth’s experimental trailblazing in “noise” as a touchstone for many of the artists included in the show. Indeed another member of the band, guitarist Thurston Moore, returns to reprise his 2000 collaboration with local artist Marco Fusinato held last year at Sydney’s Sarah Cottier Gallery. The band also features in the inclusion of Sonic Matters, Sonic Kollaborations - a self-contained exhibition of printed material, videos and recordings originally brought together for Printed Matter Bookstore in New York.
Cramer hopes the sheer scope of the show - from American Charles Long’s sci-fi inspired collaborations with UK pop-group Stereolab, to New Zealand artist Julian Dashper’s abstract paintings on drum skins, to Australian Kathy Temin’s installation which simulates a teenage girl’s bedroom tribute to Kylie Minogue - will “generate a sense of excitement for what possibilities there are for music and art.”
With more than 27 international and local artists exhibiting, spent art lovers can recover from over-stimulation in ART/MUSIC’s very own “chill-out room”. There they can listen to a range of recordings made or produced by visual artists while viewing a display of artist-designed CD and album covers.
Sydney DJ duo Sub Bass Snarl has organized the free Sunday performances where, in among the dub, electronic and jazz sounds, they will find time to lead discussions on the “cultural politics” of DJing in Sydney.
While ART/MUSIC dovetails perfectly with a institution seeking to remain relevant to a younger demographic, Cramer says ART/MUSIC “has its own integrity as a show – it’s a real topic with people and history and ideas.” The range of works on offer “will stimulate all ages and tastes and will stretch from experimental to accessible”.
However, Cramer may have unwittingly tapped into a nascent curatorial trend: NONE MORE BLACKER, the current exhibition (closing Mar 24) at 200 Gertrude Street Gallery in Melbourne featuring, among others, prominent young-turks Adam Cullen and Ricky Swallow, is subtitled: “New Australian Art Influenced by Heavy Metal and Glam Rock”.

ART/MUSIC: rock, pop, techno
Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 21 March - 24 June, 2001.

Presented by the MCA in association with the Sydney Opera House
The Studio, Sydney Opera House, 9:00pm, Tuesday 20th March 2001

First published in The Bulletin

16 June 2001

Moulin Rouge Splits Genders

A new poll has found that Baz Lurhmann’s MOULIN ROUGE has sparked a rift between the sexes, with women and men split equally for or against the controversial ‘Hollywood on the Harbour’ production. The snap survey of close friends and associates, taken at the weekend, reveals that of those who had actually seen the movie, sisters universally saw Lurhmann as a girl’s best friend, while for the masculine gender, it’s a case of ‘no Can-Can do’, Baz-boy.

Women, without exception, said that they “loved” the film. Some reported “feelings of joy” upon exiting the cinema, others hailed it “a creative triumph.” One Bondi-based IT consultant, who can’t be identified, declared it “the chick flick for a digital generation”. Fellow Bondi resident, Suze, claimed the film’s emphasis on “decoration, singing and dancing, tragic fantasy, and cultivating community” all reflect largely, if not exclusively, “chick aspirations.”

“It’s about the triumph of fashion over formula, of largesse over logic,” said Suze, a media advisor for a public agency. “Watching it was like leafing through the pages of a beautiful magazine.” Jodi, a skincare consultant from Bondi Junction, agreed. “It’s primarily concerned with looking good – and you know I can appreciate that.” Her friend Rachel, a photographic agent from Darlinghurst, declared Rouge “a romp” with canny Scotsman Ewan Macgregor oozing the “it” factor.

“Ewan is so dreamy,” sighed Rachel, prompting a loud scoff from her husband, Andrew. “It’s greatest sin is that it’s just plain boring!” said the self-described “tech-wreck survivor”. Like all the men polled, Andrew rejected the film outright, branding it “rococoesque and shallow”. Geoff, a commercial photographer from Petersham, said he simply failed to suspend disbelief: “The few moments of exhilarating spectacle are dwarfed by a maudlin landscape of overwrought sentimentality."

Josie, who actually works in the film industry, told The Bulletin she copped the full brunt of the emerging gender split first hand. “I walked out calling it visionary and the boy I saw it with ridiculed me for the next two days. “But seriously, putting aside the hype, I think if this film had emerged out of nowhere we'd all be calling it visionary,” Josie added. “And for anyone who grew up in the 1980’s the soundtrack is just fantastic.”

“That’s the problem” countered Alister, a print manager from Summer Hill. "It’s just postmodern pap. It’s got nothing to do with the real, historical Moulin Rouge. There’s no real connection with Paris, or the French, or the Belle Epoque!

“And there’s no CAN-CAN! Lurhmann should hang his head in shame,” Alister exagerated.

The only odd woman out in the poll was Catherine, a TV writer from Surry Hills, who vowed to “never ever” see the film. She blamed the climate of conflicting word of mouth for her indifference.

“I’m getting on with life,” she said. “Barring acts of god, I shan’t be going.”


First published in "The Bulletin"

30 May 2001

Chopper for children

Mark “Chopper” Read has written a children’s book. Yes, the Mark “Chopper” Read, notorious self-confessed murderer and former stand-over man, now best selling author and media cause célèbre.
The 3000 word fable, to be illustrated by Sydney artist and 2000 Archibald Prize winner, Adam Cullen, is a far cry from Read’s previous titles such as “How to Shoot Friends and Influence People”, “No Tears for a Tough Guy”, or “Hits and Memories”.
“It’s called ‘Hookie the Cripple’ and I invented this story when I was 18 or 19,” Read told The Bulletin from his Tasmanian rural home, where, after spending 23 of his 46 years in jail, he now lives with wife Mary-Ann and two year old son, Charlie.
“It’s about a hunchback in 16th century Italy,” recounts Read, “who every day for 21 years is tormented by the local butcher to the point where he stabs him 21 times. When he goes to court, no one will defend him then just as all is lost the greatest lawyer in all of Italy steps forward…”
Read and Cullen are “in negotiations with several publishers” but, can a book by Mark Read about child abuse, fatal stabbings, and a criminal trial be a book for children?
“It’s less violent than an Aesop’s fable but I’m not talking about toddlers here,” Read retorts. “It’s for teenagers. It’s like an adult children’s story…adults would enjoy telling it to kids. I told the story to Andrew Dominik and he was gonna put it in the Chopper movie. But unfortunately Eric Bana couldn’t pull it off.”
“It’s true,” confirms Dominik, who wrote and directed multi-award winning feature. “We shot it twice with Eric, but it didn’t quite work, so we cut it. We are going to release that footage as an extra on the DVD.
“I always found the story of Hookie the Cripple completely fascinating in what it says about Mark. I think it’s very much a disguised version of Mark’s own story.”
Read’s own childhood was dominated by a religious zealot mother who, when Read renounced her faith, had him committed where he underwent electric shock therapy. After showing a “kindler, gentler” Chopper to the world in last months’ ABCTV documentary, Australian Story, is ‘Hookie’ Mark Read’s plea for understanding?
“No, I think that’s a very feeble excuse to blame childhood on how your life’s turned out. There are people who had childhoods as bad as mine that end up High Court judges. The story is what it is, and people can draw their own conclusions.”
In recent months Read has struck up a close friendship with Cullen, and the two talk several times a week by phone and correspond via hand written letters. Apart from ‘Hookie’, they are working on several other collaborations, and Cullen is planning a portrait of the man he calls “Chop Chop”.
“I’m interested in Australia’s criminal history and I’d read almost all of his books,” says Cullen, “so I contacted him with a view to doing an artwork and we hit it off straight away.
“Chopper almost personifies the kind of work that I’m doing which is really about the underbelly of the Australian experience.”
Says Read: “They reckon we’re the perfect combination. I’m the bad boy of the literary world – I don’t think anyone would confuse me with Bryce Courtney – and they call Adam the bad boy of the art world, the mentor of the mentally ill. In his case I think they probably just mean ‘artistic renegade’ ¬because Adam’s a pretty nice person really, a decent chap.”
Since writing his first book “Chopper: From the Inside” in 1991, Read has become a one man media event, publishing nine books, releasing music and spoken word cd’s, becoming the subject of an internationally acclaimed feature film, and making legendary appearances on live television, as Lisbeth Gore, Kerry Ann Kennerly and Alan Jones can all testify. In recent months Read has also been the subject of controversy over his appearance in several advertisements – one for a pair of sunglasses and another advocating road safety. But Read claims he’s profiting from his talent not his notoriety.
“No one has that much notoriety that they can go out and sell 500000 books. It’s not as if people are rushing out saying ‘oh, he’s notorious, we’ll immediately run out and buy his book, we won’t read it because we don’t like him, but we can put it on the mantle piece.’
“It’s quite obvious that people like what I’m writing.”
Critics are quick to point out that the victims of Read’s crimes or their families will never have the luxury of building a media profile out of their pain and anguish. Read, about to publish his tenth “true crime” book, fully expects more controversy over ‘Hookie’.
“There will always be the inevitable reaction whenever my name is mentioned,” he says. “My critics are blinded by their personal disgust that a person like me should dare to write a book in the first place. I’ve got to live with what my critics say about me, but I know when I’m dead other people will come along and have something else to say.
“I will probably never live down my past and I will just have to wear it. I’ve run out of answers trying, I simply have nothing to say.
“There is nothing I can say.”

First published in The Bulletin

1 May 2001

Regional Leap

A renewed engagement with Asia was the pitch when the heavy hitters of art and capital congregated at the Art Gallery of New South Wales today (Wednesday). They were there to hear former PM, Paul Keating, officially launch the Institute of Asian Culture and Visual Arts, or VisAsia,.
With its headquarters in Sydney, and corporate backers like IBM and Malaysian construction giant IPOH Garden, the peak body is promising a ‘great leap forward’ in cultural co-operation throughout the region.
In a quest to develop new audiences for art and new sources of corporate funding, VisAsia will pool the resources of the AGNSW’s own Asian Art Department with those of other major public galleries in Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, China, South Korea, and Vietnam.
The unique model is the initiative of AGNSW director, Edmund Capon, and prominent trustee and 1996 Australian of the Year, Dr John Yu, who will serve as VisAsia’s first chairman.
Capon said VisAsia will provide the new Asian Art Gallery (opening early 2003, part of a $13 million re-development) with a steady stream of quality exhibitions from partners like the Hong Kong Museum of Art, and the Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore.
Capon said he had personally invited Keating to appear because of the latter's ability to "send a message”.
“Our political body language toward the region in recent times has not been what you would call warm,” he said.


First published in The Bulletin

20 April 2001

Freudian slip

In between dealing with a hostile press, public brawls with former and current staff, controversial appearances before Senate estimates committees, and complaints about the air-conditioning, National Gallery of Australia director, Brian Kennedy, has found time to pursue a painting – one with an asking price of $8 million, no less. News broke last Wednesday in The Australian that Kennedy would acquire British artist Lucien Freud’s 1999 painting After Cezanne for a sum that would make it most expensive painting ever purchased by an Australian public gallery.
However on Friday Kennedy told The Bulletin that he was “taken by surprise when the story appeared,” and that the Gallery’s negotiations with the artist, who still owns the work, were continuing. As we go to press, Kennedy still has a $1m shortfall to make up from private benefactors in order to clinch the deal.
Suspicions that Kennedy himself leaked the story seem unlikely, given that it is highly unusual to seek publicity for a work you hope to purchase. There are fears now that Freud may now even raise his asking price, now that he is aware that the work is so keenly sought down under. And for the sale to fall through now would surely be a highly embarrassing nail in Kennedy’s professional coffin.
Informed reaction to the acquisition has, in general, been positive But not everyone is happy. One former director of a major Australian state gallery told The Bulletin that the NGA’s “whole collection policy needs to be reviewed and sharpened. Why in 2001 are we buying up the work of British artists? Why aren’t we looking to the Pacific or Asia or here in Australia for that matter?” And one leading benefactor to the NGA declared if he “had the choice of spending $8m on a British artist or a similar sum on Australian work I know what I’d be choosing.”
However William Wright, curatorial director of Sydney’s leading commercial gallery, Sherman Galleries, dismissed such criticism as shallow. “In New York they wouldn’t blink at such a purchase. It’s a worthwhile purchase.
“It’s a large composition, an excellent transcription of a remarkable earlier work (Paul Cezanne’s L’Apres-midi a Naples) that the NGA already owns. Freud is the best living artist of his kind by a long chalk and we have too few of them here.”
Should it make the voyage, After Cezanne will bring the tally to four Freuds in Australian collections, three of them in public galleries.
The Art Gallery of Western Australia purchased Freud’s Naked Man with Rat (1977) in 1983 for just $78,000. Today it is valued at $6.5 million, marking the $8m for After Cezanne as a fair market price.
The AGWA’s deputy director, Gary Dufour, says his Freud’s worth to his Gallery since it’s purchase has been more than simply fiscal.
“For smaller public galleries like ours, if you don’t have works in your collection that others want to borrow, it affects your ability to borrow works in turn,” said Dufour. “Our Freud has spent half it’s time with us out on loan to galleries all over the world – in Paris, Washington, London, Berlin, Frankfurt - if we hadn’t been loaning out the Freud for the past decade most of these major international galleries would not even know we existed.”
Asked which Freud was the superior work, Dufour said he wouldn’t comment only to say “I’m pleased that we have the one that we have.”
In the mid 1980’s the Art Gallery of New South Wales had the chance to buy an important Freud but decided the asking price of $360,000 too high. Three months later the work was eventually sold for $1.2 million.


First published in The Bulletin

17 April 2001

Saleroom’s Lot

An auction market in contemporary Australian art appears assured after the French-owned international auction house, Christie’s, conducted its second successful sale in the emerging category in Melbourne last week.
Bidding was brisk and competitive with a respectable 70% clearance rate on the 131 lots, which ranged in estimate from $1000 to $180,000.
Top selling lot at $99,875 was the late Rosalie Gascoigne’s ‘Lantern’1990. Other winners on the night were collectors of Brisbane conceptual artist, Robert Macpherson, whose ‘Scale from the Tool’ 1977 set a new saleroom record for the artist of $70,500, confirming his rank among Australia’s senior living artists.
Other artists to post strong sales include Ken Whisson ($49,350), Imants Tillers ($44,650) Robert Hunter ($32,900) and Dale Hickey ($32,900)
With few dealers or museum curators active, Christie’s Head of Contemporary Art, Annette Larkin, said buyers at the sale were predominantly younger, private collectors. “We also had a several successful bids from ex-pats in South East Asia - young lawyers and bankers earning US dollars in Hong Kong and Singapore who were eager take advantage of the exchange rate.”
The sale aggregate of $918,000 was, according to Larkin, “excellent, considering several big ticket items didn’t sell”. She said the total compared favorably with the $1.2 million achieved at Christie’s inaugural contemporary sale, held in Sydney last August.
The poor performing items were works by Howard Arkley, whose prices had skyrocketed since his untimely death in 1999. The formerly buoyant market for the artist’s airbrushed, day-glo images of suburbia took a stumble when four of five lots failed to meet reserve.
Arkley’s ‘Eastern Suburbs Pink Home’ - the sale’s ‘hero’ lot - was passed in at $130,000 against a low reserve of $150,000, however prominent Melbourne gallerist, Anna Schwartz, believes the correction was long overdue. “Howard would be turning in his grave if he knew his works were being passed in at that figure, but we can see the market for his work is in the process of correcting itself.”
Some dealers have been critical of Christie’s foray into their territory but Schwartz was supportive, saying the sale was “the best advertisement commercial galleries could get. Not enough of the art-buying public are knowledgeable about contemporary art – auctions like this educate them.“


First published in The Bulletin

16 January 2001

Cunnamulla: Australia all over?

[Feature interview, The Bulletin, 16/01/2001]

Documentary filmmaker Dennis O'Rourke's talks about his controversial new film.

"CUNNAMULLA - it's a c**t of a place!" scream the provocative street posters for Dennis O'Rourke's new film. And on the basis of his intimate portraits of several inhabitants of that remote outback Queensland town, it's hard to argue with him. In O'Rourke's Cunnamulla, social and cultural disintegration spans the racial divide, cut through poverty, brutality, incarceration and ignorance.

"Grog, drugs, fighting, lookin' for women, breakin' n'enterin' - that's about all y'can do in Cunnamulla," says Paul, a young Aborigine facing 6 months jail on assault charges.

"There's no work," says Herb, the local scrap metal dealer. "We're all livin' on the blackfellas money on pension day." Then there's 13 year old Cara and 15 year old Kellie-Anne, who tell in uncomfortable detail of their promiscuous lives: "The boys here don't like usin' protection but I tell 'em any boy that makes me pregnant, I'll dump the kid on 'em." Neredah, the local taxi driver's wife, advocates public floggings as a deterrent for teenage pregnancy, or any other misdemeanor, for that matter. "And if they do it again flog 'em harder!"  And you can't tell her husband, Arthur, "that they're not in-breeding in a town like this."

O'Rourke clearly courts controversy, and with Cunnamulla, you know he's going to get it. "We all have a dark side," he tells the Bulletin on the eve of the film's Sydney release. "I actively look for it, I want to go there, to reveal all those contradictions and hidden paradoxes which are all the things that make for great stories."

Contradictions like Jack: an Aborigine who openly refers to "those black c**ts", a pensioner who relies on sickness benefits yet denounces government for doling out handouts to those who "won't work". The very epitome of One Nation, Jack reckons "those c**ts John Howard and Peter Beattie should both be put up against a wall and shot." Ruminating on such matters, sitting topless in his kitchen in front of the electric fan, Jack cuts a compelling figure, warts and all.

It's unsettling, and that's just how O'Rourke wants it. "I think this film is really deeply disturbing to us and it says something about us in total," he says. "I'm looking for real people, that's where I'm trying to go. For everything you want to say you don't have to go looking for the big glossy subject. You can find life and truth and revelation and ultimately make political statements in the most unprepossessing or banal situations.

"If this film resonates then it's because you say 'yes, that's it!' that's life, it's the struggle, it's the tragedy of it all."

None of these "characters", as O'Rourke calls them, are easily pigeonholed. That's because, working completely alone, O'Rourke spent the better part of a year living with them, befriending them, winning their trust in order to capture the complexity of their lives on film. "Not only did I get to know them very well, they got to know me very well."

By becoming so involved with his subjects O'Rourke hopes to break down the so-called "critical distance" between the observer and the observed. He wants to debunk the conventional notion of the documentary filmmaker as the dispassionate, impartial observer of an uncomplicated reality.

"I get involved and place myself in relationship to my subject, and the audience has to see it through me. And by making myself vulnerable, or even deficient, or even of questionable character, I place the audience there as well."

It's a strategy that doesn't always work, like the last time he made himself "vulnerable", in his 1991 film The Good Woman Of Bangkok, in which he "cast" himself as a sex tourist who falls in love with a Bangkok prostitute after purchasing her services in order to make the film we see about her life. In fact he worked for three months with local NGOs to find the right subject for the "lead role". So while the details were almost fictional - he did "fall in love" with the good woman - the portrait of Bangkok's pernicious sex trade and its effect on the sex workers was not. But in blurring the line between documentary and fiction O'Rourke ran headlong into a torrent of moral outrage, as the normally righteously open-minded audience of Sydney Film Festival doubted and openly denounced his motives.

Ten years on, what he doesn't want with Cunnamulla is "what happened with The Good Woman, and that is to be hijacked by people who are in a terrible rush to avoid confronting a much more messier truth and reality than they want to know about."

But O'Rourke himself avoids some realities in favour of others. Cunnamulla's local Aboriginal activists are cut from the film simply because their "level of performance wasn't good enough… I started to film them but we're doing cinema here and it just didn't work."

He takes up the point, stridently: "There's several other films in there including the one that many people said I should have made which shows the so-called 'other' side of Cunnamulla. Well, what you see here is MY vision of the world, and it's not a simple one. It's my job to reveal the truth as I see it. No matter how uncomfortable. To those who say, 'oh, you shouldn't do that' - they're the frightened ones. They don't want to know.

"That's the responsibility of the artist  - to say things that may be troubling. I'm not in the public relations game."

What does he say to critics like David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz on the SBS Movie Show, who dismiss the film as nothing but a freak show? "I'd say to them 'get f**ked!' - David and his bloody pontificating! I love Godard's quote about critics: 'They are like soldiers that fire on their own men'. I love that."

Yet he does want the film "to resonate, provoke, and disturb - if it doesn't I'll feel I haven't done my job. We who are not making fiction films have an obligation not to pander, not to preach to the converted, not to just give the simplistic messages that people want.

"I can't put my finger on it, but I know this film speaks deeply about what it means to be Australian at the end of the twentieth century."

He's right: you can't put your finger on it. In Cunnamulla, the ultimate message – whether complex or simple - remains unclear. Whether you're a rampaging redneck, bleeding heart liberal, or PC social engineer, Cunnamulla will both confirm and deny in the same instant every prejudice or stereotype you might hold about Australia's Deep North and the plight of outback Aboriginal people. Certainly the viewer IS free draw her own conclusions but by closing credits we can conclude little more than that Cunnamulla is indeed a c**t of a place.

At the end of the film O'Rourke allows Herb, the scrap metal dealer, to poke fun at the filmmaker's own ultimate distance from his subjects: "You've got a soft bloody life - standing there with a half smirk on your face. Free hotels, free travel, flash bloody machinery. So what's next?"

O'Rourke pauses and replies "I might just settle down in Cunnamulla." But Herb, O'Rourke himself and the audience all know he's just been passing through.

CUNNAMULLA opens nationally in January.