Social Resistance and Activism via Street Art
Street Light - An Exhibition of Lightbox Art by Peter Strong
In recent years, the contemporary artworld has seen a rise in the popularity and saleability of artworks typically associated with street and graffiti art. These works are often created by artists who use non-traditional art materials and techniques. Their choice of imagery is commonly appropriated stencils, silhouettes or illustrations of icons and symbols from popular culture. The works are multi-layered, witty, ironic and visually intriguing for the audience.
Some artists, including Sydney based Peter Strong, are now finding their way into commercial galleries. His exhibition titled Street Light consists of nine light-box based works, communicating his personal ideas on social struggle and cultural empowerment. Strong declares, in an email interview, that his work “challenges the status quo… [and] explores the idea of art resistance”, a term used to describe street and graffiti artists whose work acts as a statement of social activism or rebellion against the dominant culture.
For many street and graffiti artists, their practice is influenced not by set rules and conventions surrounding the process and techniques used to create their works, but by their way of life. Will Robson-Scott, author and graffiti art researcher claims that “Being a writer [street artist] informs the way you see the world, it’s more than writing on walls. Spaces and landscapes take on a new meaning, almost every aspect of your life is influenced.” For Strong, this statement articulates how his actions influence the creation of his artworks within his personal and social world.
Strong says on his website (www.vectorpunk.com) that he is heavily involved in local action groups, artist collectives and community building programs within the Inner West of Sydney, mainly Newtown, St Peters and Marrickville. He has been involved in underground art, music and social justice movements working with others on projects such as Vibe Tribe, Ohms Not Bombs, Reclaim the Streets, Graffiti Hall of Fame, Earthdream and Mekanarky. Currently he is part of the Tortuga warehouse which was established in St Peters, Sydney, early 2008.
Strong’s involvement within these groups, collectives and organisations have clearly shaped his choice of imagery as elements of social justice, music, conflict, environmental concern and social struggle are common within his work. He believes, “that street art shows a certain honesty and non commercial intention by adorning the public realm with thought provoking, funny and visually complex images”. Key works from the Street Light exhibition such as Climate Crossroads, The Urban Blues Part Two and Radio Resistance convey these ideas.
Climate Crossroads is a large, bold piece, heavy in symbolism and composed from multi-layer stencils. As the title suggests, Strong’s theme within the piece is climate change and its environmental consequences. This is communicated through the use of appropriation, a technique Strong acquired from his career as a DJ and music producer. In our interview he described his artworks as a “cut and paste” or “visual sample.”
In the foreground of Climate Crossroads five figures struggle to erect a tall wind turbine, a symbol for the development of environmentally friendly energy production. The composition of the figures and the wind turbine is a clear reference to the 1945 photograph of US Marines raising the American Flag on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima. With the implied action of the figures, in erecting the wind turbine, it stands as a defence or guard against the imposing tsunami raging out through the centre of the image. The design of this tsunami stencil is also an appropriation: Strong has borrowed from Hokusai’s The Great Wave, 1831. Through this use of symbolism and composition the viewer is able to perceive a narrative and action taking place within the work.
The title is an acknowledgement of the current debate and discourse in mainstream culture. The world is beginning to see the consequences of climate change through extreme global weather patterns and the increasing frequency of natural disasters. Climate Crossroads encourages the audience to act and implement changes in our society to better our world. We are inspired into a sense of activism and social awareness.
The Urban Blues Part Two is another example of Strong’s work being based in time, place and cultural influences. His cityscape is reflective of long back streets, alive with activity, break dancing, BMX riding, skate boarding and groups listening to music. These blurred and multi-layered actions all take place below the silhouette of a Sydney skyline, similar to Strong’s own environment of St Peters, in the Inner West of Sydney.
In Urban Blues Part Two, Strong’s technique of applying spray painted stencils directly onto the Perspex covering for the light box is especially successful. The blue monotone colour scheme allows the layered stencils to create an illusion of depth and detail which is then extenuated by the light shinning from below the surface of the image. Overlapping shapes and lines create interest and encourage the viewer to spend time observing its silhouettes. These overlapping shapes and lines also work as a reference to graffiti pieces painted on public walls, buildings, streets and train carriages. In the public domain, graffiti and street art are often painted or pasted over again and again, washed away or reworked by other artists. Over time, remnants of each piece builds a layered and blurred composition similar to Urban Blues. Strong describes this practice as building a “collaborative spirit, the layering of many artists’ works makes a pleasing visual jam”.
Radio Resistance highlights Strong’s belief in social activism. The long rectangular image contains two dominant stencils– one of a large radio with its antennae stretched and the other is a parade of soldiers in full uniform being watched over by their superior. Connecting both stencils is an overlay of rhythmic dots indicative of a radio speaker pulsating with loud music. In this work Strong juxtaposes two opposite forces. The ordered, obedient and disciplined solider, a powerful symbol for control within society; while the second is the anonymous and informative voice spreading a message via mass media, symbolising resistance and youth. This message is also the acknowledgement of ‘lore’, a state Strong witnessed at underground dance parties during the 80s and 90s. He describes ‘lore’ as being “self policed” and a sense of “harmony coming from the wisdom of many minds at the same understanding”. This is the opposite of a watchful policed state, as represented by the parade of soldiers. It is self regulating and works as a consciousness or message across society creating connection and harmony. This desire of a conscious connection and social activism spread via lines of technology is an idea often associated with cultural advocates, disenfranchised social groups and marginalised individuals within society.
Through these three works, the audience is able to experience more than the traditional belief of simple aesthetics and blocked in colour that are offered by graffiti and street artists. Strong’s use of appropriation and symbolism builds up a narrative and message to inspire audiences with a sense of activism and rebellion. The Street Light series grants the audience a window into a different world and culture where art is a way of life and a form of social resistance and empowerment.
Peter strong’s exhibition, Street Light, will be showing at the Urban Uprising Gallery, 314 Crown Street, Darlinghurst, August 20 – 31, 2009
Warning: The following article may contain the names and images of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people now deceased
Art that bridges cultures
Tim Johnson’s works are striking cross-cultural dialogues—fragmented pieces of imagery, that Shivangi Ambani enjoyed deciphering
Indian mythological characters, Radha and Krishna are locked in their eternal dance, the Garba Raas. However in Tim Johnson’s version, they are surrounded by a Tibetan pagoda and an airplane flying alongside a beautiful peacock.
Painting Ideas, a retrospective exhibition of Johnson’s works, charts his explorations across cultures and media over the four decades of his practice thus far. The exhibition has been developed by the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), in association with the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG). It showed at the AGNSW in early 2009, and then travelled to QAG, before it moves on to the Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne in early 2010.
The exhibition chronologically traces the artist’s career from the 1970s, beginning with his early works as a conceptual artist. Johnson told Julie Ewington, Curatorial Manager of Australian Art at the QAG, that at the time he believed painting was exhausted. Instead, he chose to explore his ideas using a wide variety of media including light works and visual kinetics, performance and photography.
“Art was a process of deconstruction. Sometimes the audience became part of the art,” Johnson said during an artist talk at the AGNSW, referring to the series of photos titled Light Performances. “I was getting rid of the distance between the artist and the viewers.”
From 1979-83, Johnson depicted Australian, English, and American Punk musicians and fans using his own photographs or images from the press. This forms the next part of the exhibition. “My paintings recording the Punk musicians—I thought that they would disappear,” said Johnson. “But they are still here in this exhibition. My ideas became interesting to people retrospectively.”
During this time he travelled to India, Nepal and Japan. “I went to India in 1976 and again in 1980. I visited the Ajanta Caves and travelled around for several months,” said Johnson in an email interview. “During the first [visit] I painted while I was travelling and also recorded imagery to use on my return to Australia. I painted things like temples, mosques and images from the culture including deities.” His most recent works incorporate Indian deities such as Krishna and Radha, Ganesha, Hanuman and Gaura/Nitai.
Travelling east to find an alternative to the materialism of western society, Johnson discovered a new way of life and the profound influence of these travels resonate in his work to date. “In the ‘80s I discovered the values and the ways of living in Buddhism—not putting yourself first.”
His works soon became a representation of his own spiritual journey and Buddhist messages. Imagery of the Pure Land from Buddhist traditions—the realm of perfect beauty, where one is freed from samsara (reincarnation – the circle of life and death) and full enlightenment can be attained—is a continuing feature in his works.
Johnson also made his first trip to Papunya, Central Australia in 1980, and since then his growing friendship with Aboriginal artists, such as Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula and Michael Nelson Jagamara has led him to discover new meanings in his art and another form of art practice.
“During my visits to Central Australia I found the artists producing master pieces in really humble surroundings. Their works were unique—the language in painting, the mythology and geographic mapping,” said Johnson during the artist talk at the AGNSW.
His initial works were representations of Aboriginal life and their art making practice. For instance, in Visit to Papunya II, several of the Aboriginal artists Johnson encountered during his visit, are depicted standing alongside their works, all arranged almost equidistant from each other, on a single plane – a child-like, distanced study of the subject of his work.
Soon, the artists began inviting him to paint with them, which eventually led to about 30 collaborative works. Eagle Dreaming and Wildflower Dreaming are both works he created in collaboration with Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, employing his visual language.
It is from these collaborations, that Johnson’s interest in dot painting arose. The dotted background of many of his works remains a controversial gesture of respect that many see as being exploitative. “I used their style, but not in their abstract form. (My work) is representational,” said Johnson during the artist talk. “I saw Central Australia as a Pure Land,” he said.
In Johnson’s Pure Land, all the varied cultures – Australian Aboriginal dot painting, Buddhist and Hindu deities, Japanese Manga characters, Christian angels as well as Tibetan monks and pagodas – co-exist. His Pure Land paintings are stream-of-consciousness works – a landscape of his mind – where ideas race through and come together in ways previously unimagined, and the audience is asked to keep pace.
The paintings are a reflection of his belief in the seamless interaction that can exist between diverse cultures. While he is aware of the many differences, and the varied paths to spirituality offered by each culture, he is more interested in exploring the similarities and links.
“I see links between Hinduism and Buddhism – there is the historical connection as well as the fact that Buddha taught in India. Many of the deities are similar, sometimes in appearance, but more so in meaning,” said Johnson in an email interview. “There are similarities between the practice of these beliefs as well. Aboriginal culture is so old that it predates many of the better known religions. But the idea of creation ancestors, the idea of spirit in matter and many other fundamental beliefs are common to most other older cultures.”
In Tjnava, devotees dance around the idols of Krishna and Radha, surrounded by images of Nelson Mandela and the Beatles, the Statue of Liberty, and the Sydney Opera House, while Chinese-stylised clouds float alongside flying saucers. “Deities often come from the extra terrestrial,” said Johnson at the artist talk. He has been fascinated with how extraterrestrial creatures and spaceships appear in mythologies from various cultures.
Johnson’s works are as influenced by his travels as by his personal relationships. His involvement with Aboriginal art was sparked by his former wife, the leading social scientist and art historian, Vivien Johnson, who was beginning her groundbreaking research on Western Desert artists. The couple were avid collectors of Aboriginal art, and today theirs’ is one of Australia’s most significant collections of Central Desert painting, according to the exhibition catalogue.
Similarly, his friendship with Aboriginal artists, led to successful collaborated works. Later, he went on to work with his partner, My Le Thi.
Artistic collaborations have been an important part of Johnson’s practice and he has also worked with trained Tibetan thangka painter Karma Phuntsok, as well as Daniel Bogunvic, Brendan Smith and most recently with Nava Chapman, an Australian Hindu devotee. “For the last 2 years I have been collaborating with Nava. He has painted the Hindu imagery in many of my recent works,” says Johnson.
The works are as much the collaborating artist’s narrative as Johnson’s. For instance, in Ganeshji, Lord Ganesha is accompanied by the cartoon character Dumbo the Elephant, an Indian wrestler, a street-side food hawker, and even a scene from the film Slumdog Millionaire, all superimposed upon the background of meticulously painted dots.
“There is a narrative related to Nava’s personal experiences in London where he was receiving teachings from his Guru,” says Johnson. “Like a poem, every part doesn’t have to be logical or located in the same time/space continuum. A painting can create a fragmented reality that is interpreted by the viewer. Everyone sees things differently anyway. I create a collage of imagery in the work – fragmented like life itself.”
Johnson explains the process of their collaboration thus: “I send him a canvas and he paints various images – usually after discussing it with me on the phone. After he sends the canvas back to me, I add more imagery.”
“Some of the imagery is traced, some of it is done using stamps and stencils and some of it is improvised. Then, the imagery is masked with a masking fluid and the background added. Then, the masking fluid is cleaned off and dots added,” Johnson adds.
“These paintings use imagery from a variety of sources – the internet, books, my own photos and so on. Nava draws on his knowledge of Hinduism and sources imagery on the internet,” he said.
At the artist’s talk, Johnson revealed that some of the imagery in his works is painted by projecting an image onto to the canvas and then tracing it. He said that a colleague once told him, “Sydney Nolan does it, so it must be ok!” “Since the 80’s artists have been quoting, integrating and re-looking at art history,” he said.
The stylised clouds often seen in his works, are copied from Chinese embroidery using carbon paper, he revealed during the artist talk. “Think of art as not something special or skilful, but accessible—something that everyone can do and enjoy.”
Tim Johnson – Painting Ideas will show at the Queensland Art Gallery until October 11, 2009, and then at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne from November 11, 2009 to February 14, 2010.
Images courtesy of the Queensland Art Gallery.
On Censorship, Moral Panic and Art
Today we find ourselves on a slippery slope heading downhill towards the censoring of our creativity. The classification of artworks and the censorship of their production present the public merely a dumbed-down experience of culture: a palatable blandness. “Art is one of the most powerful forces on the battlefield of ideas: we should never allow its privilege to be eroded” (Burnside, 2008, p.11). Art allows us a glimpse of truth and both recently and historically confronts the sensibilities of its audiences. Art offers a response to the questions thrown up by a society still defining itself. This occurs in a way that often sparks controversy. This controversy creates fierce disputes and through the public’s reaction and the media furore, a desire is voiced to tighten the leash around the throat of artistic expression.
Freedom of speech is a basic democratic right but the censorship debate looks at what happens when this free expression infringes on community sensibility. Foundations are eroded and thought is stifled. Can art enable us to witness a greater truth? As a consumer of art ideas and images, am I not entitled to make my own judgments on what is appropriate? Or do we need protection, the covering up of the rude bits in life to save us from ourselves?
Censorship in our community can fall into two main categories. As outlined by Australian journalist and lawyer, David Marr, there is the censorship of desire and that in the pursuit of power (Derricourt, 2006, p.1). The censorship of desire revolves around ideas of morality, religion, sexuality and the physical body. So much of what we view is classified for us. Our history, as a country, shows many examples of operating as a censored society, emerging in the 1980’s as a relatively libertarian culture. Art in Australia has, for a couple of decades managed to avoid this system of classification which limits our access to the unsavory parts of humanity in its drive for sex, wealth and power.
The different media used throughout art practice brings alternate focuses to the realities of life. The framework of art and the questions it can raise illuminates perceived truths. Photography offers the chance for a heightened, instant depiction of reality. Through this medium Bill Henson came into the general public consciousness quite abruptly last year, when the police seized his works at the RoslynOxley9 Gallery and the exhibition was closed. This was a strong statement of censorship. The media panic occurred in the wake of an exhibition invitation showing a photographic portrait of a nude adolescent girl. Questions were raised regarding artistic exploration versus sexual exploitation. The images were seen by many not associated with the arts, but as pornography. Their reading of the nude figure threw out much of the history of Western art and plunged the Australian community into panic. In their eyes nudity, under the guise of certain modernizations like the Internet, is never without a sexual context. The difference between the pleasure received through viewing the chiaroscuro elements of a Bill Henson image, the soft focus and gentle peering of his lens, become hard to distinguish from the sleaziness of a deviant sexual leer.
In the Henson case, the artworks, the facts of the matter, were removed from the gallery walls and its website catalogue. The public were left with mere headlines and images distorted by black bars to judge this contention. How were they to make up their minds? According to Tamara Winikoff of NAVA: “Public engagement with art is an important right which needs to be protected” (Winikoff, 2008, p.3), yet the debate over the freedom of artists, the protection of innocence and the bubble wrapped timidity of society was never presented on even ground. Moral outrage distorts, the discussion was politicized and the opportunity for dialogue was crippled.
Marketing and advertising introduce the community to small fragments of artistic practice. There is no contextualisation. Media grabs and spin machines can distort and misrepresent the intended climate and context of a work. The public face of art, especially art seen by open means such as the Internet, can deny a work the privacy of gallery walls and the freedom of expression that this entails. As the art critic Andrew Frost states, “Art represents a wide set of values and attitudes to the world and, while some might argue that there are limits to artistic freedom, the measure of a society is how it responds to a minority opinion.” (Frost, 2008 p.1). The health of our culture can be gauged by the ferocity of these debates. Can censoring the artists protect us from what really scares us? Do we need it to?
Through censoring our desires the power of religion becomes a force of authority. Religion and its control over much of our outlets as humans can often lead to the suppression of ideas and images. The case of the Catholic Church and Cardinal George Pell’s attempts at suppression highlight the delicate balance between the belief of faith and the questioning involved in artistic practice. Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ was displayed in the National Gallery of Victoria in 1997, until this controversial work was removed and ultimately silenced by an inability to keep the environment surrounding it safe. The ultimate censorship of the work ensured safety from the ideological harm Pell suggested we would face by associating the glory of Christianity with the base humanity of a certain golden hued liquid. Piss Christ was a blasphemous statement, one the general community needed protecting from. Even the confines of a National gallery, where its very walls sanction images as art, could not separate it from public outrage. Religion and the clout of the Church restrict. The moral rules which govern our society, enforced by our spiritual leaders, protect us from arts constant desire to enquire as to the meanings behind our existence.
The sins of the flesh, our sexuality and the base response of the body is a reality. The supposed ugliness of these instinctual responses guides much repression and constructs many of the rules which govern our society. The safety of sanitizing these parts of our world will deny us of so much of our Australian art canon. Gone will be the fantasies of Norman Lindsay, the thick, sensual lines of Brett Whiteley, Albert Tucker’s images of Modern Evil, and explicit nature of Juan Davilla’s paintings. “A society that censors is a society that lies to itself about its nature.” (Wark, 1997 p.1). We would inhabit a more modest place, but one which surrenders to a conservative outlook, one without the questioning which fuels momentum.
The other idea raised by Marr, the Censorship of Pursuit of Power explores notions of political silencing, of controlling a population and its history. Australia’s relatively new anti-sedition laws fit this description all too well. The real threat of legal action sees artists taming their creative practices to conform to mainstream tastes. The threat of terrorism and the need for community approach has stripped many civil liberties, not just those in the art world.
The conservatism of the Howard Government era in arts recently came to an end. Kevin Rudd and his government have been seen as a welcome break. However, the realities of a Christian conservative Prime Minister set about protecting us from our own excesses have only recently become a little clearer. Politicians fighting for re-election respond quickly to the moral hysteria of the media and the thoughts of a researched public. Our political leader’s opinions can change to follow and absorb the heat of public argument. The aftermath of the Bill Henson issue has seen the introduction by the Australia Council of certain guidelines and protocols for working with and the protection of children. The ideas are dangerous to artistic spontaneity. They require new levels of bureaucratic documentation. A strong link has been forged between the symbolism of voluntary guidelines and the realities of the withdrawal of public funding. No decision, it seems, on freedom of expression is made without a political agenda. Funding at arm’s length as a principle is a luxury for times not filled with public fear and uncertainty.
This debate continues to rage, as we see the Federal Government’s plans for ISP internet filtering and their desire to clean up the internet, sanitise what the Australian people can view and create a safe online environment for our children. Our consumption of art and culture has, through the Internet become a private, domestic activity. The public act of viewing art on gallery walls can be replaced with the seclusion of a laptop screen. The filtering of the Internet: what could become a mandatory measure, protects us from the big bad thing that is the World Wide Web. It ultimately is protecting us from a mass of thoughts and the communication of possible obscenities, all of our own creation. The focus of censorship has shifted with these new technological developments.
“…What really matters is when we become complicit in our own enslavement” says Australian playwright Stephen Sewell (Derricourt, 2006, p.2). Artists may be going through a process of self-censorship in order to make sales, meet funding requirements and keep their art away from harshness of the media spotlight and its hysteria. It becomes quite a simple situation. Those artists who do not comply with the new protocols and all the intricacies that this involves will not get public funding. They will not eat or pay their rent. Or at least they won’t do this from the proceeds of their artistic practices. The invisible nature of this censorship makes it difficult to monitor, control or even prevent. The cultural environment of Australia will be poorer, becoming stagnant, with little creative drive to push the boundaries or few artists left in the country to pursue them. The real threat comes when artists temper their projects to make them more palatable for what could and in many ways has become, a smaller, more conservative and intolerant society.
Burnside, 2008: Julian Burnside, Art Censorship: The bigger picture, NAVA Quarterly, Potts Point: NAVA, September 2008
Frost, 2008: Andrew Frost, Art Matters, Unleashed, 30th May 2008. http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/stories/s2259532.htm, accessed 18/09/2009
Wark, 1997: McKenzie Wark, Violence link is a distorted view, The Australian, 8th January 1997
Winikoff, 2008: Tamara Winikoff, How Free is Freedom of Expression?, NAVA Quarterly, Potts Point: NAVA, September 2008
Derricourt, 2006: Francis Derricourt, Censorship and the Arts, SAMAG & Australia Council peakinf Forum, Surry Hills, Monday August 28 2006
C3West: The MCA’s Outreach program – a bit of a stretch?
If thinking outside the box is what it takes to keep cultural institutions afloat, then the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) is certainly giving it a shot. Under the guidance of their director, Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, they are implementing C3West, “a long term project, seeking innovative ways of working with art, commerce and the community” (www.mca.com.au). The aim is to “broker close collaborative relationships between artists and businesses in Western Sydney… [and] to align business strategies with arts practices, while involving communities in innovative ways.” (Macgregor, p.173) The project raises a number of important questions: How does the meaning of art change when it is used as a business tool? How far do museums have to go to expand their audiences? What is the function of an artist?
Although funding was announced by the Australia Council in December 2006 ($225,000 over three years), the public has only seen one work so far. A portrait series titled Heads Up by Craig Walsh. The work was born out of an artist residency at the Penrith Panthers Leagues Club, organised by the MCA and its partners – Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Penrith Regional Gallery, and Campbelltown Art Centre – and exhibited during the finals season from 4 September to 19 October 2008.
“Seventeen large format, full-colour photographic portraits, taken within minutes of the final whistle at a series of Panthers home games, capture intimate responses from both players and supporters to the outcome of the game” (www.mca.com.au)
As a precursor to the C3West project, Jock McQueenie was commissioned to undertake a feasibility study. “The study encompassed the partners’ strategic objectives and common aims, government priorities in the region, the needs of local artists and emerging debates around the social engagement of art” (Macgregor, p.174). For art literate audiences it is almost impossible to look at Walsh’s series of photographs and not consider the myriad of influences he had while creating the work. The MCA may be successful in creating new avenues for artists to get paid, but are they making art? This leads to the more philosophical question: What is art? Although such a question at this juncture is too broad to consider, it should be fair to state that the work produced by Walsh is art, but it would be naïve to view the exhibition in terms of a ‘standard’ gallery experience.
Macgregor admits that the “artists needed to accept that the work they would propose had to answer the objectives of the company” (Macgregor, p.176). However, she also claims that the C3West project differentiates itself from conventional art commission practices. There is no pre-determined way in which the artist has to respond to ‘the brief’. She suggests that the ultimate aim of the project is to allow artists the freedom to develop solutions that no one had thought of before. But what are the implications of an artist being a consultant? How do you discuss the work that comes out of that relationship? Does the work take on a different meaning when it is displayed as part of an art exhibition at the MCA versus a marketing strategy at Panthers Leagues Club?
As an experiment designed to bring two stereotypically different audiences together, the exhibition was announced over loudspeakers during home games. Macgregor states in her essay, ‘A Tale of Two Cultures’ (Griffith Review, Edition 23, March, 2009, www.griffithreview.com) that two key aspects of the MCA’s mission are to “[build] new audiences for contemporary art; and [create] new working opportunities for contemporary artists.” (Macgregor, p.174) This would appear to be the cornerstone of the C3West program, an initiative that challenges the stereotypes of both the Panthers Leagues Club and the MCA. Although Macgregor claims that attendance numbers exceeded expectations for the exhibition, there is no information as to what these expectations were or whether or not the audience was new to the gallery and planned on returning.
Macgregor is continuing the trend of breaking barriers through outreach programs (further illustrated by the work of John Kirkman – Penrith Performing & Visual Arts and Kon Gouriotis – Casula Powerhouse) via the intersection of sport and art. As trends come and go, it will be interesting to see if this model stands the test of time. Stephen Weil, in his essay ‘The Museum and the Public’ (Making Museums Matter, Smithsonian Institute Press, 2002) suggests that there is a “revolution” under way which is seeing a broader public occupying the dominant position. He suggests that this is in part due to the need to appease the tax payer as a great deal of funding comes from the government. The C3West program is largely funded by the Australia Council although there is a stipulation that the business partners must ultimately match the grant. Weil argues that audiences are dissatisfied with the curators ‘version’ of events, or hierarchy of relevant information. In response, curators and public program officers are championing the notion that objects can be polysemic: they have multiple meanings to different people depending on their unique experiences. The aim of which is to dispel the notion that art is elite and for a specifically educated audience. This would appear to align with Macgregor’s desire to expand the MCA’s audience to previously unreachable groups. In this model however, Macgregor is attempting to create an environment where businesses would approach artists for solutions as opposed to the traditional avenues of consultants.
Weil further suggests that rather than communicating new information, the primary focus of the museum should be to engender a sense of self-affirmation. People want to walk away from an exhibition feeling good about themselves and their position in the world. It is not important that they read every label, or remember every fact about the objects on display. To some degree, this sense of self-affirmation can be seen through Walsh’s Heads Up series. “Keep your head up!” is a term often used in response to loss or disappointment and these portraits capture this attitude. Pride in oneself and the team is reflected in their faces through an attempt to disguise the disappointment of the loss” (Macgregor, p.177)
Macgregor goes as far as to suggest that the work produced by artists is of a greater value than work produced by a ‘layperson’. This belief underpins the ideals of the C3West project. She points to the work of Ross Harley in the feasibility stage of the project. As a practical demonstration of the way in which C3 West was going to work, the MCA approached the recycling and waste management company SITA Environmental Solutions. SITA wanted to create a video to promote their new facility. The MCA suggested that they use an artist (Harley) instead of going to a video company. Macgregor claims “SITA got its outcome but with a level of imaginative visualisation and community engagement – well regarded by the local council – that would otherwise not have been achieved” (Macgregor, p.174), perhaps a reflection of the age-old notion of artist as genius.
As the ‘video company’ was never given the opportunity to work on the project, it is problematic to assume that they would not have produced good work. Although my instinct might be to agree with Macgregor, it does appear to put ‘the artist’ on a pedestal. This stands in contrast to Macgregor’s stated mission to address the stereotype that contemporary art is elite. It may even call into question the value of the project; further, one must consider how the artists are chosen.
C3West is still in its infancy. Craig Walsh proposed three works and Panthers wants to produce them all. It will be interesting to see the rest of the work. There are also a number of other artists who are involved with the project whose work has yet to see the light of day. Macgregor claims “C3West has the potential to demonstrate a way of artists working with businesses that can provide unforseen and highly beneficial solutions to their needs, which go far beyond writing a sponsorship cheque” (Macgregor, p.178). Time will tell. At the very least it is an imaginative way of bringing new funds to the visual arts, an industry which historically struggles for wide acceptance.
E. Macgregor, ‘A Tale of Two Cultures’, in Griffith Review, Griffith University Press, Edition 23, March 2009
S. Weil, ‘The Museum and the Public’, Making Museums Matter, Washington DC: Smithsonian Institute Press, 2002