I'm a dual national, so, in more prosperous times, I'm often lucky enough to spend some time in my hometown (Melbourne) as well as Rometown (Rome).
Obviously, COVID19 has thrown all that out the window.
I've spent almost a year now working mostly from home - feeling a bit Hitchcocky constantly looking out my rear window - as I work away on my day job and my writing.
With Australia's closed border policy, and restricted movement in Italy due to the ongoing high number of COVID19 cases here, there are times when I feel neither here nor there, a sentiment that I think we've all been feeling this last year.
That said, with the lifting of some restrictions here in Rome, I managed to escape out to the Palazzo delle Esposizioni to check out the 2020 Quadriennale.
I did have a date back in October to see the Quadriennale with two of my most dedicated gallery loving friends, but we were sent into lockdown the day before we were due to see the show.
It's billed as Fuori (=out in Italian) and, as pan-contemporary exhibitions often do, it left me delighted and perplexed (and sometimes just plain unimpressed).
But that said, I was so hungry to get out of my living room and experience some culture first hand, that even when I found the artwork underwhelming, I was just happy to be seeing things through someone else's perspective for a change.
As a huge exhibition designed to push the boundaries over two enormous levels, there were obviously still some gems in the line up.
Among the highlights for me were Irma Blank's gorgeous indigo blue panels. They sent me back to Japan and the old ukiyo-e prints that I studied at uni.
Also enjoyed the playful nature of the work by the Tomboys Don't Cry collective and the adjoining room in which Diego Gualandris did things with painting and textiles that I've never seen someone do before and Raffaela Naldi Rossano had my fatigued little brain working overtime until it eventually decrypted her powerful textual messages.
Getting out and about to take in some culture or feed off of other people's ideas is not an easy prospect at this point in time. And maybe you're neither here (Rome) nor there (Melbourne). But wherever you are, you can take a free virtual tour of the Fuori show if you're interested.
It's a lovely 360 of the huge exhibit that allows you to take in the cavernous spaces and representations of all the artwork in the show.
Want to get out? Do it here.
It’s that time of year when I put my curator hat back on and try and give you the benefit of my experience (and very subjective opinion) to make sure you get the most out of your visit to the Venice Biennale.
The Venice Art Biennale is one of few fixed events in my calendar that I make sure I never miss.
Every time I go to Venice it takes my breath away. I don’t know whether that’s because of the extortionate prices they charge for practically anything, because the city’s just so fucking beautiful or because these days I only go there for the Biennale and I find myself lost in my thoughts when I’m there.
Factor in the bonus of some artporn and a few spritzes and the Art Biennale usually makes for a perfect weekend away for an art nerd like myself.
For me the anticipation often starts a few months’ earlier than the actual visit. If I haven’t already begun sleuthing of my own accord I usually start getting excited about it all when I receive a couple of texts to translate for promotional purposes or for the gallery wall panels.
This year’s May You Live In Interesting Times- the fifth consecutive Biennale I’ve attended- had all the same build up of Biennales past but the actual reality of the visit marked something of a change for me.
Usually after each visit I really struggle to whittle down the national pavilions to a concise best of the best. I have to go through my notes and reflect a lot in order to get my head around what I saw and what spoke the most to the curator and the artist in me. (You may or may not know that I was a curator and gallerist once upon a time).
I inevitably end up feeling like I’m short changing a few artists because so many had something exceptional to offer.
Worse still, I normally spend so much time being enthralled at a national level that the central, combined exhibitions feel like an obligation that I have to get through, carefully managing what little time I have left to search out the gems and filter out the distractions and all the noise.
This year was almost a complete reversal for me. I found myself struggling to enjoy many of the national presentations and instead more enthralled by what was on show in the collective exhibits which under Ralph Rugoff’s curation felt unified, cohesive and engaging where in the past they were often a rambling, time consuming mess.
I won’t go into Giardini and Arsenale just yet- they’ll get separate posts as per the tradition of this blog.
But I will say this: if you’re planning on heading to the Biennale this year you’ll do well to manage your level of expectation, especially if you’ve visited Biennales in the past.
This year there’s very little that’s playful or fun and humour is in very short supply. This year is a serious Biennale and worse still, very few artists who had a national showcase to play with managed to really hit the mark.
So you’ll have to be patient and pace yourself until the highlights present themselves (and sometimes re-present themselves) and make the long, expensive vaporetto ride seem worthwhile. And of course get a leg up with my tips and suggestions.
There are few things that I love more in Italy than the Venice Biennale.
I feel an immense sense of privilege that I have been able to visit it four times since I've been here.
Each year I do my best to write up my thoughts in the hopes that my impressions can help other visitors make choices about what to focus on- or give people who have no plans on visiting a down to earth curator's view on things. There are 29 national pavilions in addition to the group show at the Venice Pavilion here at Giardini and this post is dedicated to my favourites. A separate post about Arsenale- the other main complex of pavilions will follow.
About a third of the national pavilions at Giardini were offering up what I thought were brilliant or thought provoking work. The ten that I've selected here are more or less in line with the selections of my Biennale crew- this is the fourth Biennale we've visited together and although we usually bicker like sad old toffs on the train ride home this year we pretty much had consensus with our choices.
There were a lot of disappointing exhibits on offer at Giardini- especially from Great Britain (too art school), Spain and Holland (too much video and not engaging at that) which are usually my favourites- leaving me with the idea that this year it's Arsenale that is really worth the extra time and effort.
But a visit to Giardini will still blow you away if you spend more of your time at the following national pavilions (in no particular order):
3. South Korea
10. Czech Republic
More detailed comments about these pavilions and the artists after the jump.
We're living in desperate times.
These are desperate times my dear.
There's no way out of here.
There's no way out my dear.
- Back to the Wall, Divinyls.
WHEN it comes to contemporary artists and their heavily oiled machines, very few currently have the kind of press pull that China's Ai Weiwei does.
I have watched him with some fascination over recent years. His studio has produced some thought provoking work, and the current exhibition at Melbourne's NGV which pairs him with Andy Warhol certainly offers some food for thought.
Anyone that knows of Ai Weiwei will know that he is a dissident extraordinaire. Often, this has worked in his favour. The relentless hounding he received from Chinese authorities earned him all kinds of empathy from across the world, art lovers and beyond.
Earlier this week, the new hardline Danish government's announced that it would seize the assets of asylum seekers in order to cover the housing and food costs. This against a backdrop of violence directed at immigrants in Scandinavia. Ai Weiwei's respponse? A quick, swift decision of his own to close his current exhibition at Copenhagen's Faurschou Foundation.
In this case, the gallery publicly backed the artist's decision. And let's face it: such a powerful, symbolic gesture on the artist's behalf could only curry more favour with the public, leaving the gallery with no choice to support such a move. (Not suggesting that the Faurschou Foundation don't support Ai Weiwei's move, but as a former gallerist I also know that there are times when it is churlish to go against an artist's decisions - regardless of what agreement or contract might be in place).
It was a great, symbolic move on Weiwei's part.
Subsequent to this, Ai Weiwei has announced that he has opened a new studio - in Lesbos, one of the Greek islands located in one of the preferred migratory route into Europe. But the existence of the studio in Lesbos, staffed by volunteers, students and artists has been marked by Ai Weiwei's presence in the area. And in addition to other advocacy, Weiwei has tried to pull of a photographic stunt which hasn't exactly gone down as well as his Danish actions.
You see, Weiwei has chosen to re-enact one of last year's most polarising photographs: that of the drowned Syrian toddler who washed up on Turkish shores. In case you can't work it out from seeing the picture, he has decided to reenact the role himself.
Now, you can admire such a call to arms and celebrate the artist for bringing light to the issue. But the thing is, we are well and truly aware of the human crisis that is taking place in and around the Mediterranean. Ai Weiwei, in re-enacting this photo, in my mind, is rather cynically trying to ingratiate himself into the wider argument and has done so in a completely insensitive, sensationalist way.
In a lot of cases I would probably applaud someone in his position for being brave enough to use sensationalism under the circumstances where we need to be shocked into action.
But last year's image, for good and bad reasons, became one of the most powerful images in the recent history of photography and journalism. It is so well recognised and well known, that a reenactment is completely unnecessary, and dare I say, a poor move on the artist's part, despite those who took to twitter to laud it as being powerful.
If anything, the end result of the reenactment is the cheapening of the tragic events that took place last year (and that continue to take place). That photo European polarised governments into action but not until there was intense debate about how appropriate it was to publish the image in the media, and what that ultimately meant for the grieving family and families like it.
If you are one of the world's most recogniseable artists with a pool of talent at your disposal, and this is the most creative and engaging way you think you can bring attention to the plight of Syria and beyond, then I think you need someone by your side to tell you to stop, take a step back and rethink things.
Far better in my mind were the series of Instagram pictures that Ai Weiwei shared which were very much human and not at all a mistaken form of self aggrandizement. They are just as powerful and allow people to draw their own conclusions about the plight of people who are escaping the war torn parts of the Middle East.
So, in the space of about a week, and against two very different European backgrounds, Ai Wei Wei has quickly gone from the sublime to the ridiculous. And other than promote the fact that he has a new southern European studio in operation, he's achieved little more than a dent to the goodwill he has earned when he himself has been the target of injustice, rather than of pantomine drama.
When I was at uni, I wrote a thesis on Japanese woodblock prints. You know, the kind that artists like Hokusai and Utamaro perfected and that gaijin like me just loved to bits while the Japanese just scratched their heads and wondered what all the Western fuss was about.
Ukiyo-e which is the umbrella term for the woodblock genre is also a play on the Buddhist word which means the floating world. To simplify things for those not in the know, the floating world was kind of like an allegory for everything that is ephemeral and that often brings pleasure. It was from that Buddhist idea that the old pleasure quarters were often referred to as ukiyo - the floating world - because in places like Tokyo and Kyoto, where rigid social etiquette was already in place, the pleasure quarters were seen as a world of their own. These were places where courtesans, geisha and even kabuki actors were top of the pops. Places where everything had a price and where desires had no limits.
Ukiyo-e (the prints) depicted all kinds of things. They were of artistic and graphic quality, but in a way they had a role in old Japan not unlike that of magazines and the print media today. They were seen as flotsam and although they are now collected and cherished, back then they were often like posters that you'd slap up on your walls to hide scuff masks.
The first illustrated travel guides were ukiyo-e which spelled out the routes on the old Tokkaido highway with seasonal scenes designed in accompaniment. There are some amazing images of old Japan from those kinds of series, but the prints, which will large volume prints, also covered scenes of comedy, theatre and life in the pleasure quarters.
I think one of the things that attracted me to writing a thesis about the woodblock prints was that they often had humourous undertones to them. They often played on words (through their images) and they often left a pretty beautiful insight into Japanese thinking (especially during the Edo period).
One of the other amazing things about ukiyo-e is that there seemed an endless scope of subject matter on offer. Much like magazines today. One of the most popular sub categories of the prints was shunga. The term represents the erotic side of our nature, and so shunga prints were all the rage for the way in which they explored desire and sexuality, often without boundaries. What you often get with shunga are scenes where genitalia are grossly exaggerated and where the figures are often indistinguishable across the prints. My interpretation of that was so that they could be used to kind of project your own identity onto the prints as you looked at them. I remember reading the definitive publication on shunga written by Timothy Screech and thinking, wow, this guy is brave and the Japanese, even from the 16th century were already peerless and ahead of us all.
Well you know how I feel about Japan and how it really is the invincible, superior nation on earth. Except, I'm not so sure right now. You see, I stumbled across an article in which a modern day shunga volume has been published. And what it spells out- i.e that we have regressed to the point where we no longer have the maturity or humour to deal with something that is so innate to our being. Why? Because despite our advancements as people in some areas, we now live in a world where the idea of shunga needs to be censored by clown like emojis, basically stripping them of their value and importance, and robbing us of the opportunity to acknowledge and explore all of the facets of our personality without resorting to childlike, prudish self censoring.
More at the Guardian on the truly offensive item like the one below.
I ONCE wrote a thesis on Japanese woodblock prints. It was called The Shift to Intimacy.
It was a thesis that looked at how those kooky woodblock prints were the first form of mainstream and wide scale publication, but that were also the first form of public/private art that the public really took to.
I remember doing a solid year of research on the topic, reading everything I could find, and scouring museum collections near and far to help me illustrate my point. Back then, I worked under the supervision of two really ace Japanese art experts who tutored me and helped me get a grasp of what Japanese art is all about. In doing so, I recall being struck by how the Boston Fine Arts museum was basically a treasure trove of Japanese art: the best collection of Japanese works outside of Japan (as a result of the mass sale of Japanese art to Westerners during the second world war).
For a period of time I was obsessed with ukiyo-e - the floating world - and the old, traditional pleasure quarters of historical Japanese life. Once you get into that headspace, it's very difficult to get out of it.
I lived in Kyoto for a couple of years. Loved the place. Just obsessed with it, even now. I dug Tokyo as a place to visit, but Kyoto for me at least, was always the more interesting and layered place (and a hop skip and jump to Osaka, Kobe and Nara). Kids, the Kansai is where it's at.
Kyoto is seen as the traditional home of culture in Japan. It was the country's capital for a really long time, and largely escaped the WWII bombings that otherwise flattened the cities in Japan. As a result it's a living, breathing city that is teeming with thousands of years of its history: from wooden palaces to ugly, brass decorated glass buildings from the seventies. It's a living map of culture.
One of the things you can do in Kyoto is visit the Nishi-ji Textile Centre. Kyoto, being home to the traditions and culture of the country, is also seen as the home of the kimono. At Nishi-ji you can try on amazing kimono, like the one I snapped my dear friend in in the above photo. But it's the real deal there: you have to put on like seven or eight layers of the fabric and it weighs a tonne.
Dressing up in kimono or as a samurai, or even going the full scale and dressing as a geisha are among the kitschy things you can do in Kyoto and other parts of Japan.
People have a fascination with that kind of stuff, and you can argue that playing dress ups in that context and that environment, regardless of your race or heritage, is a way of supporting the local economy and educating visitors by strengthening their ties to a foreign culture. Walk a mile in another man's shoes and all that.
But there's been a big commotion in Boston in recent days at the Fine Art Museum. Among the objects in their collection is Monet's La Japonaise, which was a portrait of his wife Camille wearing a blonde wig and a kimono, surrounded by those other ubiquitous trademark items: paper fans.
Let's just call it a period piece. It was a time when the European obsession with all things East was the norm and one of many contributions that made Japan, despite its distance, an enigmatic place on the map which seemed to scream culture and sophistication.
Times have changed, and even on this blog I've noted how cultural appropriation is a huge controversy these days. While dressing up in traditional costumes or paying homage to cultural looks was still the norm even in the nineties, these days we are much more careful about things. Partly because we've revised the way East met West and because a lot of the way that we look at our differences is shaped by Western colonialism. That traditionally had a flow on effect with the exoticising or objectification of Asians (and of indigenous Australians, Africans, South Americans, Islanders etc. etc.).
So what does that have to do with anything you ask my dears? Well, the Fine Art Museum attempted to tap into the current private/public fascination with art. You know, the one that finds its portal via social networks. Where people add a hashtag and tag themselves as being at blah blah blah place. The Boston Fine Art Museum attempted to take advantage of this by promoting Monet's piece and offering visitors the chance to dress up in a kimono (from their collections) and snap a photo of themselves (damn selfies!) alongside the work to be shared online.
But not everyone is pleased, and in fact, the huge social outrage about this has led to the Fine Art Museum changing its approach. In the face of protests and people fuming online about yet more colonialism and objectification of cultures, the Museum has suspended the offer of dressing up but has instead ramped up the educational platform and its approach to getting visitors to engage with the kimonos in its collections.
Is it an incorrect, imperialist context? Are we blowing things out of proportion, or is putting a kimono on in this way equal to black face?
More at the NYT on this one, but I'd be curious to know your thoughts on the matter...let me know via the comments section.
Are you heading to Rome?
Moving around a city like Rome can be tough.
Traffic, an unreliable and slow public transport system and the city's proneness to flash flooding makes Rome quite a b*tch city at times. Yes, I love it, don't worry, but I loved it the most when I had my piece on the side: Cholo.
Cholo, despite his Latino name, was not a Mediterranean lover, but rather my Japanese made scooter with whom I zipped around the city. Before he was stolen from me (twice) and stripped like a chicken wing for the illegal parts market, we were a kind of Bonnie and Clyde, Han Solo and Chewbacca situation. Unhealthy, but good for each other, and zipping around the city and surrounds with him made me feel molto local. And it was so practical: Cholo made it possible to transform an already busy schedule into an even more hectic one.
In addition to everything else I was doing in Rome (teaching, pretending to be boss like at a language school, writing a novel, having a social life etc.) during my five years there I also did a stint as columnist for kunstpedia (now artwis). Kunstpedia is a fascinating, not for profit organisation whose aim is to stimulate appreciation of fine and applied arts (but not contemporary arts).
Due to the lack of time in the face of all my other commitments, unfortunately I had to let it go, but a few of my reviews are still up online, and although some of the exhibits I reviewed are no longer, the spaces I visited are still there, and routinely put on some quality offerings in Rome.
So, I'll spare you the full run down of what to see in Rome. It's all but been written before. But if you're looking for something different and memorable, consider these..
The Andersen museum is barely known even to locals. It's a hop, step and a jump from Piazza del Popolo and the Villa Borghese, but it's another world. A utopia in fact. If you're in Rome I absolutely insist you visit (and then come back and tell me about how crazy the place was). My review here.
One of Rome's unsung gems in my opinion is its museum of Asian art. It's near S. Maria Maggiore and Termini. It's an old palace that's been transformed into a museum with a collection that is quite heavy on Middle Eastern and Central Asian pieces. Lovely, quiet place that will give repeat visitors to Rome an alternate angle.
The Palazzo delle Esposizioni is Rome's biggest exhibiting space, and holds blockbuster exhibits each year. This summer, David LaChapelle's exhibit is the talk of the town. It's in the city centre and worth a visit (with a gorgeous little cafe and courtyard to give you some respite from Rome's smoggy traffic. Here's an old review I wrote for Soviet Socialist Realism.
And, although the Orientalist show is no longer on, il Chiostro del Bramante is a must visit in Rome. It's in the historical centre, and in addition to seeing whatever show they have on, you can also visit the bar and have a glass of wine in the cloister. It's gorgeous. Here's my old review for Italian Orientalism.
Have fun if you're heading to Rome, and let me know if you pop into any of these places.
To learn more about artwis or access their amazing, online resources go here.
Fear not! There's a meme for everything...even when there's no funding for the arts. Hello George Brandis.
My old stomping ground in Rome, Torpignattara is fast becoming an open street art museum. One of the most notable additions is this mural in dedication to Pasolini, whose connection to the area was documented by its inclusion in classics like Mamma Roma. These days the Torpigna quarter as its affectionately known, has one of the highest concentrations of migrants in all of Europe. More on that soon.
Mariah Carey's Vegas "residency" already subject to cancellations (bronchitis?), but never mind, there's a new match.com inspired video to tide her lambs over with. We live in a time when product placement is just the norm.
Speaking of...had a nice and disturbing chat with someone involved with the documentary Europe for Sale which looks at the current trend of selling of public heritage to private corporations. More on that soon, but the link will take you to the trailer for the documentary which looks at the absurdity of this type of quest for monetizing public spaces and public goods.
Brandis and co strike again.
In its infinite wisdom, the Australian government has decided to strip the long standing Australia Council of much of its funding...to the tune of $105 million over the next four years. This on top of its slashing and burning of arts funding to the tune of almost $50m last year.
The govt spin is it will widen opportunities for artists. The reality is it is already very difficult to secure funding. The decision to downsize the Oz council will kill programs that have yielded good results for emerging artists and force the govt to go through another trial and error process of setting up new wings, thereby also doubling the administrative costs of what is essentially the same pie.
I don't think anybody can say that the Australia Council system is perfect. But it's well established and has a great web and far reaching network that is often just as useful to artists as the funds it disperses. Artists and creatives are effectively small businesses. They're often like sole proprietors whose work has flow on effects. Stripping the funding in this way sounds like it's just attrition of lefties but the reality is it makes it difficult for people who work in these fields to find paying opportunities to work. If you strip Screen Australia of almost $40m funding in one year, that's a hell of a lot of professionals being forced to compete for diminishing roles.
But that seems to be the point behind such a decision.
Interesting that Brandis didn't see fit to announce these changes when he flew, at taxpayer's expense, to Venice for the Biennale the other week. Guess that would have been inconvenient.
See more detail about the cuts here.
I have always had a soft spot for print makers. I was never much cop in the print studio myself, but I've always considered print makers to be the real artisans of the visual arts. They're often daring and meticulous in equal measure, and in most cases, the best print makers have trained, trained and trained in order to make work that can appear so effortless.
Damon Kowarsky studied printmaking at VCA (Melbourne) and at the Glasgow School of Art and Advanced Figure Drawing with Godwin Bradbeer at RMIT in Melbourne.
Since graduating, Damon has gone on to receive numerous prizes and awards including a Toyota Community Spirit Artist Travel Award, APW Collie Print Trust Scholarship, Arts Victoria New Works Grant and Australia Council Asia-Australia Creative Partnerships Grant.
He has worked as a scientific, courtroom, and archaeological illustrator, and has travelled extensively in South Asia, Europe and the Middle East, where the architecture and colours of earth and sky inspire much of his work.
Damon exhibits regularly in Australia and abroad, and I had the good fortune of convincing him to participate in a show I curated at my old artspace Immersion Therapy in Northcote, Melbourne back in 2008.
Since then, I’ve watched with admiration as Damon continues to work, teach, travel, and, yes, exhibit his work.
He’s a one man printmaking powerhouse who was kind enough to make some time to answer some of my questions in the lead up to HYBRID II -Project by Damon Kowarsky & Atif Khan at the Islamic Museum of Australia (Melbourne), opening on May 8. …
Hi DK, tell me, what one thing has been taking up the majority of your time so far in 2015?
Travel. I was away for the first three months of the year concluding a six month journey through Pakistan, India, Oman, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Malaysia. During that time I also carried out a one month residency at the Bait al Zubair Museum in Muscat, where I produced a 3 metre drawing of the area around the Sultan's palace.
What’s been the highpoint of your year to date?
Teaching a one day printmaking workshop at the University of Visual and Performing Arts in Colombo was pretty good. The students were great but lacked firsthand experience working with copper plate etching. It was amazing to see them expand their horizons even in the small amount of time available. I'm hoping to go back to teach an intensive one week workshop in the future.
What are you looking forward to?
The opening of 'Hybrid II', a collaborative print project with Atif Khan, at the Islamic Museum of Australia on 8 May. It's the first time I've had a show in a public museum, and it's brilliant to be working on it with the Artistic Director, Nur Shkembi.
Can you think of five words that encapsulate your current head space or current work/project?
Screen, foliage, nature, pattern, life. And that's screen in the sense of a shelter or barrier rather than a 42 inch plasma.
It’s almost Biennale time in Venice. What’s your opinion of art fairs: a plague or a platform?
Mostly they exist in a slightly parallel universe to how I make work day to day, though a number of the artists I know from Pakistan are now entering the biennale world. Last year I visited Art Basel Hong Kong thanks to Thomas Erben from Thomas Erben Gallery New York. As well as the usual over-hyped überartists there was an astonishing range of art on display,
Drop some names. What kinds of things did you see there?
Everything from freshly painted David Hockneys to mid-century Freuds, Bacons and Picassos.
It’d be hard to see so much work at once outside the art fair system. I'm sure people have been predicting biennales being the death and/or corruption of the art world for a long time. Their effect on me has been small so far.
Whose work have you been interested in lately and why? (any medium)
David Hockney [always], and the painters of the South Asian miniature tradition. Particularly the Mughal and Pahari school. Hockney and the miniaturists share a love of drawing and a humorous appreciation of past visual styles. Their luminous colours are harder to do in etching though.
You’re the hardest working print maker in the world. Discuss.
Could be true, but it's truer to say that I work consistently. I'm also lucky enough to be able to work in the studio full time. You can get a LOT done when you work at it 40 – or 70 – hours a week.
I first met you six or seven years ago...can you cast your mind back to then and in particular to what themes or issues you were interested in exploring then?
When we met in 2008 I was looking at the city, particularly the cities of Pakistan and India that I’d drawn while studying and teaching at the Beaconhouse National University in Lahore. Some, like Aminabad, were ghost towns. Others, like Rawalpindi, were haunted by the then recent assassination of Benazir Bhutto. There were figures in my work, but they too were ghostly and often appeared only as outlines against the skyline.
Are those ideas still of interest to you today? How has time helped you approach them?
I am still interested in cities, but have, for some time, been trying to make them more human, more organic. This began in 2012 when birds first appeared in my work. At the time this was a logical step. I'd been drawing aeroplanes and started thinking about other things that fly. I'd been staying in New York and noticed that despite the city being a densely packed conurbation, the natural world was sneaking in everywhere, from street side plantings to 'pop-up' spaces like Highline Park.
More recently I’ve been drawing plants, and yesterday, for the first time ever, drew clouds. I was surprised to see this drawing echoed the cloud forms in South Asian miniature painting. The experiences in Pakistan keep informing my work.
You’ve often made a point of working with others whether through workshops or group exhibits, but you seem to have been collaborating a lot lately. How did your recent collaborations come about?
Both the recent collaborations [Kyoko Imazu and Atif Khan] came about when the artists approached me. In Kyoko's case she asked if she could 'vandalise' my work. I could only say yes. Five years later we are still going strong.
Atif saw my collaborations with Kyoko on the net and invited me to work with him in the studios of National College of Arts Lahore. I had been wanting to work with an artist from Pakistan and Atif's prints seemed to have to the right mix of humour, politics, and an acute visual sensibility.
What have you gained from working with them?
Working with other people is like a conversation. When it works well it's pure joy. Both Kyoko and Atif have influenced my practice as their different ways of working, as well as how we combine our styles, invariably feeds back into my solo work. In Atif's case it was the plant motifs and politics. With Kyoko it was her use of scale and the delicacy of her lines. I'm still struggling to make things cute though.
...Our conversation will continue soon.
In the meantime, if you are in Melbourne, HYBRID II opens on May 8 and runs through to August 8.
If you're in Sydney, Zodiac: Collaborative etchings by Damon Kowarsky and Kyoko Imazu is running through to June 26 at The Library, Sofitel Sydney Wentworth.
As part of my continuing work with Kunstpedia, a non profit organisation whose mission is to encourage greater public engagement with the arts, I will be visiting a number of exhibitions across Rome over the coming weeks.
Kunstpedia has a number of correspondents across major European cities and in New York and spotlights the historical arts (basically pre-1960s).
I have been covering exhibitions in Rome in recent months and I have generally sought out exhibitions which are a little off from the Italian mainstream, including visiting exhibits from Russia and a recent exhibition focusing on Orientalism.
Upcoming exhibits will be a little more standard fare by Italian standards, but Rome's exhibition scene is constantly evolving, so hopefully there will be some interesting intercultural exhibitions on the horizon in 2012.
I'll be posting soon, but in the meantime you can visit kunstpedia by way of my column page here.
I'm being trialled out for a new gig here in Rome, acting as a sort of Rome correspondent for a European website.
It's a good opportunity for me to seek out and explore some of Rome's more under rated and lesser known art spaces.
Last week, I met with one of the curators of the Museo Nazionale d'Arte Orientale who is charged with the management and promotion of one of Rome's little gems.
It's a small collection, a boutique kind of space, but one of the very few in all of Italy to focus on international art. There are a handful of boutique spaces that grew out of private collections in Genova, Milan and the North East of Italy, but this space is the only one that I know of in Central or Southern Italy which is completely comprised of Asian Art (it too began as a private collection which was later bequeathed to the state).
It's a little bit of an underdog, competing with other Roman spaces; oriental art is not something you probably have in mind during a visit to Rome, but its well worth a visit, especially as a respite to the endless array of Roman art and archeological sites that are already on offer in the city.
Where to start?
I'm planning on heading to the Venice Biennale in the next few weeks, and I'm already a little overwhelmed by the amount of choice, the logistics and on getting myself up to date with the artists who have convened from almost 80 countries this year.
But, just looking at the event's website has set me off thinking about the way in which we encounter art these days.
Once upon a time, we relied on word of mouth, or the more passionate followers of culture, specific articles and publications that we could use to inform ourselves about the concepts of events and exhibitions. There was something more organic and less instantly gratifying about the process in that we had to apply ourselves to the process of engagement.
But nowadays, much like booking a hotel room or researching a holiday, we put more faith into web based summaries and the photographs that have been uploaded in service of any written material that has been produced. If we are not instantly gratified or intrigued, we simply dismiss what is offered to us, and as someone who has run an artspace, which relied so heavily on the system of online promotion, its daunting to think that I too am guilty of bearing that dismissive attitude.
So to counteract the tendency, I am going to commit to a gradual reveal. I am slowly going to investigate and inform myself about what is on offer, in recognition of the fatigue that often accompanies the heavy, concept based writing and about art. I am going to try and find those moments in the day when my desire to know, to learn is high, and hopefully, I will enjoy the challenge and stimulation of getting myself across a world of art and ideas in the lead up to the trip to the circus.
In an age where popular culture is becoming increasingly voracious, it never fails to amaze me how often image makers and stylistas invoke archetypes to propel their own images forward.
In the world of contemporary Western pop culture, perhaps the fail-safe archetype is that of the Venus. Venus was the Roman incarnation of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, a woman who legend had it could make any man fall in love with her. In these seemingly more open times, I would probably suggest, not to diminish her appeal, this would be unlikely with some segments of the male community, namely those whose consumption of popular culture and pop goddesses keeps groups like the Haus of Gaga in constant work. To be sure, it would be a love, but a platonic love; a love of the sheen of her image, of her confidence, and the exaltation of her beauty. To love someone is one thing, to fall in love with her, hmmm, not sure that I will buy that.
But in this day and age, our goddesses are our artists; our musicians, our movie stars, clothes horses, and unfortunately, our reality TV/celebs who trade on their exposure more than any in talent.
The appeal of the Greco-Roman gods is usually timeless. Occasionally, ideas from the past don't translate, and to be sure, some have fallen by the wayside, but we can generally rely on the strongest of the archetypal figures to maintain their influence some millennia after they first captured the collective imagination.
But back to Venus. A little over a decade ago, in the mid 1990s, it suddenly became fashionable to share the whimsy, and remind ourselves of the eternal potency of the Goddess of Love.
The Icelandic anti-pop star Bjork, played with the attributes of the Goddess, and projected the goddess qualities into the form of a male love interest. "Venus As A Boy" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J1Rd7zrvW7k, was an utterly fresh take on the age old embodiment of love, and revitalised the idea of what a modern day Venus would be like, in a peculiarly original fashion. The idea that Venus could be working around in the body of a man? Priceless.
A couple of years later, the pop cultural juggernaut that is Madonna, with the help of then photographic darling Mario Testino, invoked Renaissance interpretations of the Venus, namely, Botticelli's still awe inspiring The Birth of Venus http://artloss.files.wordpress.com/2009/02/botticelli-birth-venus.jpg for the imagery of her 1998 opus Ray of Light. Botticelli's early Renaissance work is often appreciated, widely considered a masterpiece, but dismissed as merely a beautifully painted image of a myth, but Botticelli's intention was to marry the spiritual and the physical in his exploration of man's journey in life along with the juxtaposition of the spirit. Ray of Light, even now, more than a decade after its release, was seen as Madonna's own attempt to distinguish between the spiritual and material worlds, in what is seen as one of her true watershed records.
In the time since, Sarah Jessica Parker popularised the same Botticelli-esque look, Venus became a word synonymous with lady shavers, and both Bjork and Madonna have had wildly unpredictable peaks and troughs in their careers.
But now, Venus is back, ready for another re-incarnation. This time, we're harking back to her Grecian incarnate, Aphrodite, but the idea is still the same, and just as potent.
The same woman who was said to have been born of the Uranus' discarded groin, which when thrown into the ocean by Cronus, the original head cheese of the Greek Titans, caused a bubble and foaming in the sea from which she sprung out, riding astride a seashell of course, given that Minis and VW Golfs just weren't around back then.
Aussie songstress, Kylie Minogue, has invoked Aphrodite, naming her latest album after the Grecian goddess, and has released the first accompanying single, the evocatively titled All The Lovers, with a video filmed in one of the centres of our modern culture, Los Angeles http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zixQYDeRtzI.
It's a gently insistent dance track, which the lady herself describes as being "euphoric" and "surging", but that one blogger more appropriately interprets as an 'act of rebellion' against her younger contemporaries' "hypersexual slut anthems" which are currently dominating the charts. I won't name names, but you can see who is being referred to at http://poptrashaddicts.blogspot.com/ .
But, back to the video. The juxtaposition of the heavily airbrushed imagery of Kylie's new album cover, which looks decidedly Grecian, with this modern, lighter take on Aphrodite, hopefully suggests that the visual references with which we are likely to be bombarded over the coming months, will at least be subtle and offer something new. I mean, let's face it, if you are going to go back to basics, you do need to add a few pinches of spice. The conch is just not going to cut it.
The central premise to this slightly muddled video; a growing mountain of lovers all under the hedonistic influence of the diminutive incarnate, works well, and occasionally, it has just the right amount of steam to engage with. The doves, the-so-well-lit-its-a-crime close ups make Kylie look great, and there's enough sexual and youth appeal captured on film to propel the video forward through its three and a bit minutes (thankfully Minogue knows her voice works best in periods of brevity rather than longer works).
There's nothing particularly fresh going on, other than in the sense that it looks like a deodorant commercial. Sure, everyone is pretty hot, there's a bit of action going on for every orientation, and the human architecture is almost a little Spencer Tunick-in-underwear. But, there's a lack of focus in the video, made worse by inconsisten images.
Some of Kylie's strongest videos (particularly Slow and Chocolate), worked so well because of their less is more philosophies. This video had potential to transcend into something iconic, but the jarring combinations ultimately hurt the initially strong simplicity.
Where the interaction between her consorts, her dancers, and all the lovers is strong in a subtle way, the subtelty disappears when the white horse and white elephant come along to steal the show.
The appearance of the white horse (sorry love, Madge beat you to it on that one), perhaps symbolising masculine energy or the triumph of positivity over negativity just fizzles.
And what of that pesky White Elephant that is floating around nearby, hemmed in by the maze of LA skyscrapers? Are we to think there is something going on in the room that we shouldn't talk about? Awkward. Is it a reference to the Eastern tradition of the sacred? Or is it just the biggest inflatable object the production team could get their hands on? Either way, these elements, which probably sought to embellish the Aphrodite themes of the video, take away from them instead.
That said, we don't go to Kylie for anything too heavy, anything too symbolic, or even anything too meaningful. Like Aphrodite, who was all but quarantined into marriage, its best not to look too profoundly at any possible influence Minogue might have. After all, she has been Madonna-lite for more than two decades, and has at times eclipsed her inspiration, particularly in the music video stakes.
So whilst the inspiration is the same, its a safe bet to say that the two mainstays of pop music are welcome to their own interpretations of the Venus/Aphrodite legend. All The Lovers will do little to develop Kylie's gravitas, but at least it will perpetuate any one of a number of myths for that little bit longer.
Dave Di Vito
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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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