I spent the beginning of this week in a shitty mood.
There was a story circulating around Rome that there would be an earthquake on the 11th of May. So naturally, it pissed me off. Not because I was worried about the shoddy buildings all falling to ruins, and collapsing on top of me (I don't need an earthquake to make me feel that in Rome), but because I was embroiled in my own righteousness about how irresponsible it was for the media to be reporting these ideas, knowing that one can't predict a natural catastrophe.
There was a lot of media hype about the city being deserted etc etc, but I will tell you, it was pretty much business as usual...maybe an iota less of the usual traffic.
So, when May 11 passed with no earthquake in Rome, I got talking to some friends and I asked who it was that announced that there was going to be an earthquake in the first place. I wanted to vent and take my frustration out on whichever scientist or ministry office had made such a foolish statement. And then, it was revealed to me that in fact, it was a century old prediction, made by an old fogue (Raffaele Bendandi) who apparently had rightly predicted past catastrophes that eventually befell the country. So, I laughed it off, feeling like a fool, because I wasn't across all of the situation, and then I also felt quietly chuffed because I realised that not having a TV in this country is better than having one, as I wouldn't fall into the trap of believing what was said to me etc etc.
The following day, the consensus was that the prediction had in fact rung true. There had been an earthquake in Spain on May 11. It seemed that some of the people who had taken the prediction into their hearts had found some consolation that the fogue's prediction had indeed come true...a couple of hundred kilometres away, and, well, not exactly in Italy at all, but whoops, there you go.
"The Indians are the Italians of Asia...They are both people of the Madonna - they demand a goddess, even if the religion does not provide one."
Gregory David Robers, Shantaram
Up until recently, Australian rock and pop was dominated by the concept that a musical act was generally a group of mates rocking out with their cocks out. Even today, the idea of a solo artist is more the exception than the norm in a country where the collective of mateship remains stronger than the individual.
The 80's music industry was a world where the number of female acts (musos or singers alike) was positively miniscule in comparison to the number of men in the industry.
Kate Ceberano was arguably the first of the local goddesses that the Australian public were demanding. She was still a teenager when she broke the mold by straying from the group I'm Talking that had established her as a female vocalist to be reckoned with.
In those early years of her career, she quickly established herself through a combination of likeability and genuine talent. But there was something that separated her from the others.
Australia had already claimed Olivia Newton John as their own, and later, Kylie Minogue who arrived in 1987 would eventually earn the title of Pop Princess, but ONJ and Minogue were never really part of the Australian music industry. They were Australians who were loved more for the success that they achieved outside of Australia. And in the case of Minogue, it was a hard earned love. Australians en masse loved her as a soapie star, but resisted her musically until she had been indoctrinated by Michael Hutchence and blessed by association with Nick Cave in the 1990's.
Ceberano, like a handful of other local artists (Renee Gayer, Chrissie Amphlett among them) was genuienly a muso in a muso's world, and this laid the foundation for her acceptance by the Australian public. But whereas the trajectory of Geyer and Amphlett's career were linear, there was something about Ceberano that seemed to fight the idea to conform.
Part of Ceberano's charm was that she was always thoroughly, a suburban, down to earth girl. Her charm continues to see her through bad career decisions and creative missteps, but it has to be said that there is an underlying appreciation in her willingness to constantly stray at a musical level, to actively sabotage herself at a business level, sometimes in aid, and sometimes in opposition to her own artistry.
This was evident right from the beginning. I'm Talking were an arty pop-funk group that grew out of Melbourne's burgeoning dance scene in the mid 1980's, and as their lead singer, it was assumed that when she stepped out solo, that she would build on from that foundation. But in 1988, with the accompaniment of Wendy Matthews, Ceberano released You've Always Got The Blues, a curveball release which quickly established her as an Adult Contemporary fave. It seemed she was distancing herself from her roots, but in fact, she was broadening herself, as just a year later, she released her benchmark Brave album, brimming with pop, dance and funk covers which screamed "Pop!" and dominated the mainstream for a year.
Brave could have been, and should have been the start of a long run of pop-dance hits, but it seemed Ceberano had no intention of following that route.
In yet another of her trademark curveballs, she seemed to defiantly go back into the direction of jazz, deeming a release with her own septet, Like Now, complete with cubist inspired cover art, the only logical way forward. And here in it became established that Ceberano's every move could only be unpredictable (she followed it with the criminally ignored Think About It; another pop album experimenting with textures and sounds which more than occasionally were house oriented).
The constant to and fro, and shifting of genres and audiences probably created a patchwork fanbase that could never really unify musically, but it also served as the basis for a sort of longeivity, where there was no longer any sense of how contemporary or relevant she was. She simply was, and if she recorded something of interest to your specific tastes, then you could be pretty much guaranteed that the quality, intent and soul where all there for the taking.
Those jumps in and out of different musical worlds occassionally yielded huge commercial and critical gains, particularly in the early 90's when she hosted her own acclaimed television series Kate Ceberano and Friends which was commemorated with a sensational soundtrack, wowed audiences with her turn in the arena style Jesus Christ Superstar revival, all the whilst continuing to record and perform live with her own band (alternating between her own septet and the Ministry of Fun).
But during the 1990s, mainstream interest in her began to falter, allowing her to experiment with her songwriting, secure in that she still had a record deal, but without the pressure of needing to produce a hit to remain in work.
Another commercial resurgence came for her in the form of Pash and its massive success alongside the accompanying compilation album True Romantic seemed to reinforce the genuine affection Australian audiences hold for her, as would again be demonstrated when she won her season on Dancing With The Stars.
But I'm fighting the fight for Kate not because of her occassional commercial endurance, but instead for the fact that she is something of a one of a kind. In Italy, people are always asking me about Australian artists, particularly female singers. Aside from the Minogues, and the new generation of acts such as Sia, it's Ceberano who always comes to mind, not because she is consistently brilliant (she's not), or not because she's got a mystique (she's as suburban as they come, but in the best possible way)...it's because in many ways, she has carved out something of a European style career for herself. She's unafraid to really dabble, to push herself. She has created a singular niche for herself, but the goodwill of her public is genuinely wider than the arc she herself has sketched for herself.
Where she lets herself down, is in the latest arc her career has taken...somewhere along the line, she or the people behind her seem to have lost their faith in her own creativity, and have instead pushed her down a line of covering other songs, standards, that allow us to enjoy her voice, but frustratingly, don't give us any sense of where she is at on a personal or artistic level. And although hers has always been a career where dalliances in other people's music have often reaped rewards, its telling that her last spectacular release was the self penned The Girl Can Help It (2003) which, perhaps by not reaching a significant mainstream audience, crushed the last strands of that sassy, self assuredness that set that original train on its unpredictable course all those years ago. Search it out. It's a spectacular album that personifies her talents much more so than Brave or even True Romantic ever did.
To give you a few more clues on how thoroughly good she can be, I'm grouping some of her best songs into the two divides that she has since established for herself. Covers and Originals. Check them out and fight the fight for Kate.
Bedroom Eyes, Love Dimension (1989) from Brave. Intelligent pop, the soundtrack of 1989.
Everything Will Be Alright (1991) from Think About It. Hard to find, but a fabbo uplifting house number.
All That I Want Is You and Love and Affection (1994) from Blue Box.
Time to Think and I Won't Let You Down (1999) from True Romantic. Latter covered by Zucchero (RANDOM!)
Sunburn from The Girl Can Help It (2003). One of her best. The sound of a late Australian summer afternoon.
Beautiful Life from The Girl Can Help It (2003) from True Romantic.
Young Boys Are My Weakness
Feeling Alright, I Can't Make You Love Me and The Cake And The Candle from Kate Ceberano & Friends
I Don't Know How To Love Him (a very special performance ;) )
Love My Way from Nine Lime Avenue
I'm writing a novel at the moment. It's taking forever to finish. The basics are that it's a story set against popular culture from the 80's through to the present. One of the problems I have, aside from the millions of things and people that are distracting me here in Rome, is that I often get lost in revisiting and researching the past trends and crazes that we communally have been swept up in during the last thirty years.
Being born and raised in Oz, the prism through which I understood and accessed music was to a large extent dominated by what reached the far shores of Australia. And then, there was a second border control in that the media; particularly radio, ensured that only the most devout music lover could truly stay abreast of what was happening outside of Australia.
Australia's musical past was dominated almost entirely by men. By rock music, by what we affectionately call Pub Rock. Right through to the nineties, the airwaves were controlled by rock acts, and acts from the old FM guard. Even at the height of acts like Culture Club and Wham! (whose visits to Australia sparked pandemonium), and later the sacred trinity of Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna, it was near impossible to find them on radio dials. Instead you had the choice of iconic Aussie acts like Cold Chisel, Midnight Oil, maybe even a bit of AC/DC or hoary old rockers from the 70s to listen to or see live.
But the interesting thing that happened in the mid eighties, was centred around the generational change that was being ushered in. Back then, Central Station, a Melbourne record store in Flinders St opened its doors, and it was one of the few places where you could find imported 7" and 12" records. It's arrival marked the first real alternative movement; the electronic one. Hard to imagine today, but back then, not only was dance music limited to a couple of locations in the CBDs of Australia's bigger cities; particularly in Melbourne, and Sydney. In Melbourne, King St was once the nexus of dance music and the club scene, alongside a handful of locales in Prahran.
With the imports and newly emerging DJ culture growing, the first of what would go on to become a slew of Electronic pop-funk groups arrived on the scene. The kids loved them- bands like Wa Wa Nee, Pseudo Echo and Eurogliders quickly amassed strong followings, even when traditional live audiences often greeted them with the odd beer bottle and 'Poofta' insults.
Most of these bands never got their dues on radio, but they were part of that new breed of artists that knew that by harnessing visual imagery; distinct looks, music videos and progressive cover art they probably stood a good chance of an appearance on Countdown which would basically offer them a bypass straight to the top of the charts.
These groups, often introduced phenomenal songwriting talents, or talented vocalists who would go on to carve out significant and versatile careers. Melbourne based I'm Talking, introduced Kate Ceberano, a precocious teenager, a buxom and then exotic beauty who had the voice to match. They had a handful of hits over a three or four year period before they imploded, but somehow, despite, or perhaps as a result of a number of counter intuitive genre swings (jazz, pop, house and funk) she managed to carve out some kind of longeivity for herself. And in doing so, became one of the few acts from that early electronic revolution to mostly remain afloat long after.
Mounir Fatmi, The Lost Springs, 2011. www.mounirfatmi.com
Moroccon born, Paris based Mounir Fatmi's work is hard to describe.
It's moving. It's eloquent. Within the old horse stables I watched a video he made. It was mesmerising. A building being torn down with bulldozer of sorts on one side, whilst the unadorned window of the adjacent structure framed a silhouette formed by a tree. You need to go to his website. Now! If only to be greeted by the lines on the welcome page.
Luca Pignatelli, studio shot, image from dentrosalerno.it
Luca Pignatelli's work, on exhibit at Florence's Poggiali e Forconi, plays with Greco-Roman heritage, in an artful and contemporary way.
Reproducing 2D images from sculpture, he builds the images by multilayering, applying tints, color washes and additional material to add three dimensional effect.
The end result is bewildering, inviting viewers to follow the patchwork assemblages as he brings reinvented classical forms back to life.
Maurizio Galimberti Nancy Brilli
Maurizio Galimberti is a high profile photographer based in Milan. His work, documented extensively throughout the 1990s on the basis of his partnership with Polaroid Italia is instanstly recognisable.
Galimberti's work, also on exhibit at the stand of Ca di Fra gave me a feeling of dejavu, but a very pleasant one.
Do you remember during the 1990s when large scale color copiers became available, and quickly captured the hearts of photographers who were drawn to their distinct ability to capture images in a flat plane. Well, Galimberti's approach is different in that his images break the picture plane into fragments, sometimes repeating, sometimes emphasizing textural and visual details, but nonetheless, there is something of his approach which reminds me of that flattening approach, used to great effect in the cover art of Tori Amos' From The Choirgirl Hotel album.
Kaarina Kaikkonen Towards Light, 2003 Men's jackets
Kaarina Kaikkonen is a Finnish artist, based in Helsinki, whose works and installations use both found and mass produced objects to explore the effect of line and repetition in the environment and how this speaks of the demarkation of her identity and that of the environment and objects with which she works. At the Road to Contemporary Art, in Florence's Poggiali e Forconi booth, I was lucky enough to view a collage of sorts, made of men's shirts which she had arranged onto a large scale canvas to replicate a sunset. Amazing.
The Scale, Bogota Joel Peter Witkin 2008
Joel Peter Witkin's series of photographs, with textual overlays and visual manipulations were evocative, and seemed to harken back to Mexican art traditions of the early twentieth century.
A series of his works were including amongst the selection of works being exhibited by Ca Di Fra, Milano.
Witkin is represented by a number of galleries around the world, and extensive background information and accompanying explanations for his works can be found online, notably at edelmen gallery. Click on the link to be taken to the artist's page.
Rochus Lussi, Füsse, 2005. Exhibited as part of the Road To Contemporary Art, by DAC De Simoni Arte Contemporanea, Genova
In recent years, Rome's museums have begrudgingly made way for some new major players, or at least, refurbished versions of older spaces.
MAXXI and Macro (which has two campuses near the city centre, one in the already gentrified area near Porta Pia, and one in the increasingly gentrified Testaccio) are slowly defining contemporary art for Romans in particular. Bear in mind, that this is a country where 'contemporary' may encompass something from the sixteenth century. This far south of Italy, contemporary art is still yet to truly take hold. Sure, there are a number of prolific commercial spaces who occassionally showcase significant artists in well curated shows, but by and large, this is a city where its four million inhabitants, have not yet really embraced contemporary art and ideas in a wholsale way. In a way, its as if their hearts and arms are so full of love of the past, that a viable replacement has not yet appeared on the scene.
That is of course, a really simplified way of looking at the situation, and it certainly doesn't speak at an individual level. Romans working on creative projects outside of Rome, particularly architectural ones, are often cutting edge, but there is a time lag here in Rome, when it comes to anything progressive.
I've been to dozens of exhibitions in the last twelve months or so, and, unfortunately, overall, the sense of contemporary art, the quality of the work, and the styles which seem to define it, are not yet on par with other European cities (including Milan).
At this year's The Road To Contemporary Art, the fourth annual event of its kind to be staged at Macro Testaccio (a former stable), the difference within and beyond Italy's borders seemed like a gulf. Milan fares a little better than Rome. Rome, is still a city under the radar internationally, trading on its past more than its present.
At The Road To Contemporary Art, the Roman version of an international Art Fair, is kind of like an institutionalised round of what's going on beyond the northern reaches of Italy at a commercial level.
Lack of Arts funding, a lack of a healthy discourse between Italy and other nations, as well as consistently shrinking university departments and accademies are taking their toll on contemporary Italian art.
At the Macro and MAXXI spaces, the exhibits of contemporary art is almost always mid twentieth century work, drawn from the collections. And this is a reflection of the Italian state of mind. After being all but brought to its knees during and after the second world war, Italy rebuilt itself, and for a period of around three decades, from the 1950s through to the late 1970s, culture went through a renaissance here. Groundbreaking architecture, cinema and art, in conjunction with growing industrialization, re-defined cool, and built visual ideas from intelligence and from stimulation of an increasingly international society. But by the 1980s, the resurgence of Italy grew to a halt; socially, economically and politically. Today, Italy remains in the shadow of this down turn of its fortunes, and this in turn is reflected in the vast majority of shows that these major players stage. Retrospectives of artists who dominated the early period of ideas, including the current big attraction at MAXXI, Michelangelo Pistoletto, give visitors a sense of recognition, identity and safety in these new spaces. But, they also serve to distance visitors from 21st century art. The effect is like going to a concert of a well known singer who is still making albums. If the artist elects to take the safe road and play the hits, then it diminishes the audience's connection with their current work. And so, as MAXXI and Macro devote so much space to essentially older artists, they flame the fires of nostalgia for a better period in the country's visual and intellectual past at the expense of addressing, understanding and supporting the new generations of creative people who already lack the opportunity to connect with what would otherwise be a challenging audience.
The Road to Contemporary Art then, is still a road that is blockaded, as was evident through the very mixed assortment of artists that galleries and institutions chose to highlight and used to tantalize. The development and progression of artist contingents from Tel Aviv, Iran, and the Balkans seemed more than just geographically light years away in comparison to the works of many Italian artists, whose works seemed perhaps a little behind the milleiu of what should otherwise be reasonably cutting edge. But of course, it's unfair to paint all the involved artists in such a harsh light, and following will be a number of posts highlighting artists and spaces who seemed to be saying something new, something contemporary in a 21st century kind of sense, rather than a 16th century one.
It has been a week of ceremonial events.
In three of the world's archetypal capitals, symbolic events played out, each against a backdrop of much fanfare, enthusiasm and fanaticism. And each event has led to a similar net result.
The weekend was ushered in in London, with the first high profile British Royal Wedding in recent memory. The brouhaha that surrounded the Royal Weddings of the 1980s, most markedly those doomed unions made between Prince Charles and Diana Spencer and later, Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, made a return on Friday, as much of the UK and the former British Empire stopped to take in the grandeur, pomp and ceremony of the matrimony. In fact, someone took the trouble to publish the figures which may or may not be of interest to you.
No expense seemed to be spared, and the media coverage; unequally part fawning and part cynical, depending on the sources, was an electronic reheat and revamp of the insatiable press coverage that the Royals once commanded when those star recruits, Diana and Sarah added some spark to an otherwise flailing cast.
The superficial comparisons between Kate and Lady Di ('is Kate more beautiful?'), the unending scrutiny of the couple's last official days of singledom ('the hotel where Kate will stay') and the Olympic style ratings of the fashions reflected the vaccuous kind of escapism that we globally, never seem to tire of. Where Diana and Sarah once commanded the public's attention, imagination and contempt, their children have now been thrust into the spotlight; but its a muted light, that seeks out recognition in the way that digital devices recognise faces but say nothing of the subjects they label.
William and Henry, continue the largely fawning tradition that seasawed in their mother's glory days of the 1980s, that same efusive adoration that eluded her during those murky days when she seemed capable of singlehandedly bringing down the family, and then tellingly seemed to settle once again on the world's media in the aftermath of her tragic death, and the profound world reaction to her passing.
The demonization that mostly continues to dog Sarah, looks to be in the process of the baton change; the mantle ready to be handed to her daughters, who were on the receiving end of some of the most savage editorial coverage.
So, no sainthood for the girls, but no matter...the steps are already being undertaken here in Rome, where Pope John Paul II was beatified on the Sunday.
Again, this was a ceremonial event, one in which the Vatican flexes its still considerable prowess over what should be by definition an EU state. This event, being outside the constraints of normal politics was one where wanted politicos could come and go freely of their own accord, because of the involvement of the Vatican, which seems to remain outside of the laws of physics and relevance, and yet continues its strong hold on the political and social make up of the country.
The city was abuzz for weeks with talk that three million people would descend upon the capital. In the end, reports numbered the visitors to half that number, but the media coverage was just as feverish, and often, pointless. But that is what ceremony is all about. That, and 4.6 million euro that will be paid by the government in furnishing the event, in a country where essential services and education are being slashed to the point where they are almost non existent. The problem, which the current Pope seized upon immediately after the death of his Polish predecessor, is that PJPII was immensely popular. Even today at street stalls all around the centre of Rome, you can be assured of finding a calendar full of full color photos of PJP, whilst his successor...well, lets just say people don't seem to have warmed to him yet.
The jury is still out as to how history will see PJP. He had a likeable face, popular appeal, but, his design and endorsement of papal policies did much in the 1980s and 1990s to keep marginalised social groups (and whole continents) marginalised. In fact, that soft, smiling exterior hid what was a razor sharp intellect, and ability in diplomacy and politics which couldn't be underestimated.
The intricacies of current day international diplomacy, politics, and as always, intelligence also came to a front with the assassination of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. Although the events unfolded in Washington and Abbottabad, this was an event which was resoundingly connected with New York and New Yorkers. Whilst much of the rest of the western world is cautiously heaving a sigh of relief, Americans were outwardly rejoicing. Already the cover star of no less than five issues of Time Magazine, his sixth was a not so subtle affair. Cynics will say that the news was timed to give Obama a boost at the polls, and reports have suggested that the killing of bin Laden will make for an easier exit strategy in Afghanistan (even if it opens up a new and volatile chapter of relations with Pakistan). Outside of the US, and particularly here in Europe, the sanctioning of his death has been tempered by the popularly held idea that 'America got its man', 'America did it their way', and that, at the end of the day, this was another example of law enforcement in the traditional American style, harking back to the wild days of west. The Time magazine cover probably strengthens the argument that retribution once again is intrinsic to the law and ideals of that help define the American perspectives, whether its true or not. It's a commonly held belief outside the US, but as someone who comes from a land originally colonised/invaded by the British and populated by convicts, I don't feel I have the history to back me up on it.
When wrong things are done for the right reason, not everyone can remain happy and content. And if the world's most wanted terrorist, whose actions have changed the way of our modern lives, has been killed, and this brings solace to those who suffered at his hand, then so be it.
On a larger scale, what's more important to note, is that although the players are different, and occasionally the pockets of the world where events unfold change, the old guard and the same ideas and interpretations, have once again prevailed, reinforcing not only the paradigm that we live within, but also, reminding each and every one of us as to where we slot into the world heirarchy.
Dave Di Vito is a writer, teacher and former curator.He's also the author of the Vinyl Tiger series and Replace The Sky.
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