7 July 2004

2004 - Australian Culture Now, Fed Square

"Now" is the operative word in this new survey of Australian contemporary art, the most ambitious mounted in five years, say co-hosts NGV Australia and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI). 2004 - Australian Culture Now represents the first major collaboration between the two principal tenants of Federation Square in Melbourne, the former one of Australia's oldest cultural institutions, the latter barely two years old and playing catch-up.

At its June 14 launch, NGV director Gerard Vaughan announced 2004 had been "deliberately timed for the Biennale [of Sydney]", which opened a week earlier, "to get international visitors to see both buildings fully operating". Hardly a noble aspiration but cultural tourists seeking a quality museum experience will still come away sated. Certainly, 2004 leaves a stronger aftertaste than the thematic conceits of the Sydney Biennale. On Reason and Emotion is left looking a little tired and emotional against the optimism of 2004's brash demand for "strayin' kulcha now!"

Bar a few exceptions, such as octogenarian Aboriginal artist Paddy Bedford, 2004 is stacked with twenty- and thirty-somethings presented as the latest uncomplicated incarnation of "the new". Ten curators from both NGV Australia and ACMI have chosen 130 artists to exhibit in their two gallery venues, on free-to-air television and across vast chunks of cyberspace and other virtual networks. Should 2004 be well received, the plan is to mount the national survey every three years, slotting into the calendar in years complementary to Sydney's Biennale and Brisbane's Asia Pacific Triennial (due again in 2005). At least the major sponsor, Ernst & Young, is happy. The management consultants, standing in as modern-day Medicis, are certain that 2004 offers "a snapshot of the most exciting things happening in Australian art today".

In an age of technological convergence, 2004's gambit is that there are no borders between media for artists anymore. Painters are taking photos, photographers are cross-pollinating sculpture with architecture, conceptual painters are into video art, interactive and networked-art is informed by the maxims and mores of computer game design. Concentric rings of new media, computer games, interactive works, video art and installation wrap around a core of those hardy perennials, sculpture and painting, while 2004's exhaustive and comprehensive website flies the flag online.

Works by 47 artists take up the entire third level at NGV Australia. The theme is "non-thematic", says chief curator of contemporary art, Jason Smith, stressing the unique point of difference. "There's no need for a theme in an expanded field," he adds, citing Nicholas Folland's I Think I was Asleep, as emblematic. Folland, an Adelaide artist, has wrapped a refrigerator coil around a suspended chandelier connected to a small motor. As the show proceeds, the coil generates ice which slowly envelopes and "strangles" the chandelier: a canny conflation of political metaphor, time-based media, kinetic sculpture, performance and installation art.

No theme doesn't mean there are no trends. Living in the same rapidly changing, consumer-oriented, tech-driven culture as the rest of us, many artists are now more keen to demonstrate competence - delivered with a splash of colour and a hint of meaning. Smith identifies a trend among younger artists to present finely finished works that testify to the artist's skill, talent and craft. It's time to pamper the punters again with user-friendly aesthetic values such as beauty and visual pleasure. "There's a real attention to the resolution of the object and a desire on the part of artists to demonstrate serious intent," says Smith. "There's a swing back to the belief in craft. You won't find anything here that's badly produced.

"Painting just won't die," he continues, almost wincing at the cliche. Yet paint is indeed applied with special force in works such as Peter Graham's pleasing palimpsests, David Wadelton's masterly faux-Hollywood tableaux of Surfers Paradise, Jan Nelson's Op-inspired abstraction and hand-painted life-size models, Scott Redford's custom-made surfboards and Guo Jian's perspicacious propaganda. Beyond painting, the art-is-easy school so prominent since the early 1990s, is largely missing-in-inaction, bar the ironic post-grunge moves of artists-as-provocateurs, Nat & Ali. Conceptual art is reduced to an afterthought, although Guy Benfield's wondrous The Essence of Ju Ju is a bold entry.

Photography is also scantly represented. Rosemary Laing's latest series of photo-monuments reveal office furniture in the red centre, while Patrick Pound's seductive images in Soft - A Real Model World, play tricks with photorealism.

Elsewhere, Sean Goodsell conflates architecture and sculpture in order to comment on Melbourne's recently bestowed status as the world's most liveable city - if you have somewhere to live. He calls Park Bench House an "urban intervention"; it doubles as a park bench by day and a "house" for the homeless by night. And 25-year-old Melbourne sculptor Nick Mangan proves punk is also not dead with In the Crux of the Matter, a life-size model of an abandoned motorcycle chassis on which grows futuristic shards of crystal. Mangan says it's about "the death of technology". If he says so.

While the buzz is building for the Ian Potter Centre's 2004 component, the selection of works next door at ACMI has drawn a mixed response, even from within the organisation. The heart of ACMI's contribution to 2004 is in its subterranean Screen Gallery, a long, black "hotwired" space, purpose-built out of two underground railway platforms to accommodate new media art. Only a few works, such as Philip Brophy's The Body Malleable or Alex Davies' Swarm, make full use of its interactive potential. Others, such as Lifesigns by Troy Innocent (is that a stage name?), promise interactivity but enigmatically deliver something else. "How do you shoot this thing?" complained the schoolchildren test-driving it during my visit. Tucked away on the mezzanine, a suite of personal computers offer broadband access to 2004's complement of online and networked art. Check your email while you're at it.

However, single-channel video artworks, such as those of David Rosetsky, Shaun Gladwell or The Kingpins, remain indifferent to any interactive or technological imperative embedded in the space. While some may view this favourably, the schoolchildren ran to the information kiosk for each work, maniacally pushing the touch screens on the expectation that they could start directing the action. Sadly for them, all these videos actually do is run on a loop, and more properly belong next door at Ian Potter with the rest of the visual art.

Critics argue that ACMI - on a par with only a handful of purpose-built screen arts facilities throughout the world, such as the Lux Centre in London or ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany - should have used 2004 to showcase the centre's world-class facilities and to highlight more works by Australian new media artists who are experimenting with interactivity on a high-technology platform. Having already cost Victorian taxpayers $100m, ACMI's administration has been dogged by public controversy and internal politics. After budget blowouts, key resignations, staff redundancies and an acquisition budget slashed and now frozen, ACMI has a lot riding on 2004 and much at stake in talking about "now" rather than "then". NGV Australia, by comparison, has suffered no such intrigue and is enjoying new status in its flash new premises.

It will be interesting to discover who cracks the whip on what's hip, happening and "now" in 2007.

2004 - Australian Culture Now, Federation Square, Melbourne. Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, until August 1. Australian Centre for the Moving Image, until September 12.

First published in The Bulletin

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