By Skye Gibson
Any carefree wandering nobody who found themselves drawn into the old Gunnery building at Woolloomooloo, perhaps after hastily devouring a pie at the famous Harry’s across the road, might struggle to understand what they had stumbled into. The sign says ARTSPACE, which is not all that misleading ̶ it is a space, and there is art in it.
The thick-rimmed glasses and close cropped head of hair just visible over the large Mac doesn’t so much as grace visitors with a nod. It starts to feel a bit uncomfortable, the thick-rimmed glasses might coldly ask ‘What are you doing here?’ because it feels like a private space. Lingering crumbs of pie pastry are brushed from shirtfront. This place is so minimalist that it’s hard to know whether the girl behind the desk is actually an employee or performance art.
Is it just me, or did anybody else catch a faint whiff of elitism?
There are two basic theories about White Cube spaces (or White Cube-esque spaces); spaces which are minimalist in their approach to exhibiting works, some going to the extremes of not even disclosing the name of the artist next to the work (enter ARTSPACE). Sparse. No windows. No helpful information. It’s an uncomfortable guessing game for many but for those in the know, it’s an affirmation that they truly do know. James Johnson Sweeney, the director of The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York from 1935-1946, was a pioneer of this modern style in the USA and ever since, the White Cube has proved to have remarkable international longevity. Those in favour of it will often argue that within these uninterrupted spaces one can truly surrender themselves to the formal qualities of the work. Well, this would be true when there were formal qualities to be immersed in. Contemporary art, like that at ARTSPACE, warrants at least a little explaining. Others would argue that the bare walls of the White Cube and the genuine lacking of any guidance is a very clear statement: “If you don’t understand it, it’s because you weren’t educated properly. Go away”. Enter elitism.
Basic audience research into ARTSPACE indicates that the people most frequently visiting the space are female, aged between 25 and 35, tertiary educated, and living within a 5 km radius. Research would also reveal that ARTSPACE receives triennial government funding and private sponsorship to operate as a kind of research lab, dedicated to supporting contemporary artists through residency programs; building international partnerships; and being actively engaged in critical enquiry. All of these are positive and progressive qualities, but it is beyond me why this somehow means that on-site information and the presentation of these facts are not transparently expressed. Why should these things be left unexplained for the casual visitor? I was under the impression that a lot of contemporary art rejects elitist exclusivity. How can such an institution claim that they are ‘committed to the development of new ideas and practices in contemporary art and culture’ when the contemporary culture they attend to is so limited?