An atheist friend of mine says art galleries are modern-day temples. We go to them to escape the rush of city life — road rage, endless emails, machines that talk to us in supermarkets: 'There's an unexpected item in the bagging area.'
We enter these cool quiet buildings with their white tiles and high ceilings and our troubles fade; we have something to contemplate. This year I've had the good fortune to visit all the major art galleries in Australia, some of which are designed to look like ancient Greek temples from the outside.
Like a church or temple, they're free and open to the public. The paintings don't talk at you, not yet, anyway. There's space to think, to breathe, to feel.
In the National Gallery of Victoria, you can walk through a history of Australian Art. In the basement of the Art Gallery of NSW Aboriginal art looks back at you from every wall. In the Art Gallery of South Australia you find the disturbing and very modern exhibit of two real headless horses intertwined, not far from a Pissarro.
In the exhibition that just opened on 3 December at Queensland's Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), fun and frivolity awaits.
GOMA is celebrating ten years and among the exhibits there are two cylindrical metal slides that look strikingly similar to the ones a few hundred metres down at the playground in South Bank. I first saw slides by the same artist at the TATE Modern in London 15 years ago. I slid down in a sack from one floor to the next and it was fun. But was it art?
Other exhibits currently at GOMA include the 'Pip and Pop Rainbow Bridge', where you look through windows into miniature fairy-like lands — all flossy pink and purple. My five year old loved them. There's also a giant fuzzy multi-coloured thing covering the walls and stretching out into the corridor so that you walk through an arch of rainbow fuzz. I'm struggling to find words, which is good because that's what art does: it represents what we cannot put down in writing.
Or does some art represent what's not worth saying at all?
"I'm feeling critical of all of this frivolity because it's so incongruous to my mood, which has been soured by the US election and our own re-election of Pauline Hanson."
Upstairs a seal balances a piano on its nose. It's all pleasing to the eye. The aesthetics are there. Nothing so disturbing as the headless horses in Adelaide.
Perhaps I'm feeling critical of all of this frivolity because it's so incongruous to my mood, which has been soured by last month's US election and our own re-election of Pauline Hanson. And I can't help but wonder why modern art is — in many instances — becoming meaningless, pretty, something my five year old understands as well as I do, even better, perhaps. Art for five year olds.
'What is modern art?' My fiver year old asks and I'm stumped. 'It's art that's made recently, like yesterday or ten years ago, in your lifetime or in mine,' I say. But I want to say something more. I want some semblance of meaning — not a message, or a doctrine or a theory, but something to think about.
It's tricky ground, no doubt, demanding meaning from art — demanding anything from modern art, which is expected to do something that hasn't been done before. But if there's no darkness, no sadness, no fear or loss or loneliness, it's hard to feel anything and if art is supposed to do anything, surely it's supposed to elicit emotion. It could be argued that these exhibits elicit happiness, but that feels more like consumerism. At times I felt I could've been in a giant Smiggle shop in a shopping centre, and not a world-class art gallery.
I will always remember the first time I saw Giacommeti's statues in in Europe. They were grotesquely thin, elongated people. Giacometti explained how he tried to make people with more flesh, but after World War II and the six million, it was impossible. And so those statues reflect the time he lived in.
GOMA choose fairy floss and rainbow fuzz to reflect our current society.
Looking back at all the Australian art I've seen this year, I'm heartened by an exhibit from the Art Gallery of Western Australia that I visited in April, where high school students exhibited work that mostly reflected concerns about society and the environment. One work gave a face — literally — to local homeless people. The artist sketched their faces with dignity and interviewed them about how they came to be living on the streets. If you tapped the sketch of the person on the iPad, you heard a recording of their story in their words. If this is the type of art teenagers are making in WA, it gives me hope for the future of Australia and beyond.
Sarah Klenbort is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, who usually teaches Literature at Western Sydney University.
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14 December 2016
Having been to GOMA only a few days ago, I disagree.
Yes, the "frivolous" elements as described are there, but the overwhelming mood and atmosphere is, in my opinion, quite different. The galleries (predominantly) are dimly lit - even dark - as is much of the subject matter.
I found it generally very serious, devoid of hope to the point of cynicism and quite depressing.
The frivolity was lost on me.
14 December 2016
Sarah this is an interesting debate. It occurs frequently as we view the latest films , read the current bestseller books and listen to new music. Are we just being titillated here? And then we ask is the work a true reflection of the society we know and does it provide any positive solutions as to action to work for a better state?
The film The Fang Family raised in a mediocre way the role art can play in society, as well as the theme of parental responsibilities in raising children.
Recently at the MTC the play by Neil Simon , The Odd Couple, was a laugh a minute, thanks to script and actors. A good laugh always settles down the cerebral angst that can get to us sometimes. However even in this supposedly carefree play there were serious elements that could be taken out at a later date and reflected on. Maybe intensive training in the arts is just what we all need. Schools instead of focusing just on literacy and numeracy in a vacuum could find depthing the arts experience of our kids could do wonders for our society. (I'm sure the kids who graffiti down the block could benefit greatly from the opportunity in school to expand their repertoire and arts knowledge.) A much loved teacher once had as her mantra "if you learn to create you are not as likely to destroy". Viva les artes.
14 December 2016
Are you involved in schools in any way? Upper secondary especially? It is not my experience that literacy and numeracy are taught "in a vacuum".
14 December 2016
The best book review of 2016, surely, is this one by Julie Burchill of 'artist' Marina Abramovic's memoir: http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2016/11/marina-abramovi-turned-attention-seeking-modern-art-form
15 December 2016
Noel is was good to hear from your experience that in some upper secondary schools literacy and numeracy are not taught in a vacuum but rather in a multi disciplinary way.
To integrate subjects across the curriculum seems a valid and effective way to teach and certainly an interesting , meaningful way to learn.
Little kids learn their tables by singing them, angles in geometry are discussed ,taught and practiced when drawing houses, a sense of rhythm is felt in writing poetry and prose, children pray through dance and song, racial harmony is helped through role play and acting, the state of the world discovered through film making.Above all values and attitudes are discussed in the pursuit of different art forms.
It is great to assume from your contribution that Learning in literacy and numeracy is being taught through and in conjunction with strongly based arts programs.
I guess it's up to teachers and the school in the way they view the world to commit to the valued place of the arts in educating thoughtful creative citizens.