Monday, 31 March 2014

Postcard from Perth 18

WA Reviews and Reflections on Theatre and the Arts

Bali: Return Economy/Richard Bell: Embassy/PICA: Practising Resistance

Post-Colonialism, Art and Politics

I went to Bali in the mid-80s with my partner at the time and another couple. We stayed in Ubud, in a house that was shadow-owned by an Australian who had an import-export handicraft business (foreigners can’t directly own property in Indonesia). Facilities were simple, with buckets for showers, but it was a magnificent old meandering complex of buildings, courtyards and pools. We were served breakfast by staff, including a young high-caste headman with the title of gus (‘prince’); there was also an ancient foot-masseur who had fingers like iron rods and gave me a massage that traumatized me for years.

In fact the whole ‘staff’ routine made us a little uncomfortable (two fringe actors and two lefty journalists all in our mid-twenties) and we agonised over whether and how much to tip. We paid only a nominal amount to the owner in rental, and local restaurant and hawker food was ridiculously cheap by Western standards. I also felt awkward about the process of ‘bargaining’ in shops, which was apparently de rigeur (at least according to other Westerners).

Ubud was the centre of cultural tourism on the island, and there were barong and kecak dance performances every night; we also went to one in an outlying village which was much more spectacular and wild. I’m told Ubud is even more commercial now, and I’m not sure I’d want to go back. On my last night in Bali, I went to Kuta and witnessed tourism on an industrial scale. I had a coke and ice at one of the beach bars, flew home to Melbourne and later woke up in the middle of the night with the most violent diarrhoea I’ve ever experienced.

So I had mixed feelings about heading down to Freo Arts Centre last week to see Bali: Return Economy, curated by Ric Spencer and Chris Hill as part of the Perth Festival visual art program. The exhibition juxtaposed traditional and contemporary work by Balinese and WA artists as well as collaborations and purchases (though the latter are mostly one-way). To be honest, I wasn’t too sure about the whole complex notion of cultural trade and exchange in the context of a globalization that to my eyes still has all the hallmarks of neo-colonialism, whatever cool labels it wears.

From Bali, there were magnificent works by traditional painters from Kamasan using natural and commercial water-based pigments on cloth prepared with rice paste and sealed with cowrie shell, depicting sacred scenes from the Ramayana and collected by WA painter and scholar John Johnson. These made for fascinating comparison with works in the same style, but in ink and acrylic on canvas, depicting contemporary life and events ranging from surfing to the attack on the Twin Towers or the Bali bombings. If the former paintings displayed for me a much greater command of formal artistry, the latter derived a paradoxical power from the collision of style and subject and reminded me in their teeming detail and ferocious energy of hellish scenes by Brueghel or Bosch.

I found the works from WA on the whole less interesting. An enchanting traditional landscape of rice fields and forests drawn en plein air in pastel on industrial sandpaper by Kerry Pendergrast curiously had little to distinguish it from a companion drawing of the Stirling Ranges by the same artist. John Teschendorff’s haunting charcoal, chalk and pencil drawings from his series Tales of Life and Death illustrated scenes derived from an Egyptian Book of the Dead papyrus with figures from traditional Balinese wood-carvings; but the drawings were completely overshadowed by an actual carving from Teschendorff’s collection of a Seated Figure by an unknown artist from Ubud. In stark contrast Fremantle-based artist and designer Lucinda Crimson’s installations featured tourist-slogan bumper-stickers, tricycle trinket-shops and stalls selling bottles of contaminated water; while Toni Wilkinson’s Balinese Boy from the Bintang Shopping Centre and Aussie Girls in Bali consisted of photos respectively showing Balinese souvenir dolls in the form of blond-haired, blue-eyed boys in sarongs, and a group of bikini-clad tourists in a spa. However, the glib irony of these works was completely upstaged by the savage satirical humour and vital artistry of Jango Pramartha’s political cartoons attacking globalisation, with images like that of a smoking Balinese prostitute perched on top of a wine-glass with the caption ‘Australia Today, Bali Tomorrow’ (with a ‘Today’ sticker covering the last word) – images which reminded me of the pre-Nazi Berlin caricature-art of George Grosz or Otto Dix.

In general the more traditional WA artists and collectors on show had lived and worked on Bali, while the contemporary artists and collectors were either tourists or had family or business connections there. I couldn’t help feeling that work from the former group had more authenticity than the latter, however effective or original the results. For me the most illuminating works in this regard were three videos (screened on a loop) of documentary films by poet and academic John Darling. The one I saw when I happened to be there was Lempad of Bali, a portrait of the 116-year old master artist, painter, sculptor and architect, a kind of twentieth-century Balinese Michelangelo whose work, life and impact were lovingly recorded in footage that documented a culture and society in transition and in many respects now vanished forever.

I left the exhibition with re-mixed feelings – both enriched and saddened by the experience. These feelings were encapsulated by Annette Seeman’s Tiger Tales, based on family stories and photos of her father aged ten on his first tiger hunt in Bali, and culminating in a collection of wooden semi-abstract ‘guardian’ figures carved by Seeman herself in collaboration with Balinese artists and completed with her father back in Fremantle. The image of the slain tiger and the ambiguous ‘guardian’ figures together seemed to symbolize both the process of colonization and loss and the possibility of a genuine cross-cultural and trans-generational memory and collaboration which would not simply be another form of cultural appropriation.


Upstairs from the William Kentridge installation at PICA (which I wrote about in a recent postcard) is another exhibition that deals with issues of post-colonialism: Richard Bell’s Embassy, curated by Leigh Robb. In fact one might argue that both Bell and Kentridge are ‘post-colonial’ artists, albeit of a very different stripe. In comparison with The Refusal of Time or Bali: Return Economy, Embassy (as its title suggests) makes much more concise, direct and head-on statements about issues of appropriation that lie closer to home.

On closer inspection Bell’s work is more subtle than at first appears, and there are deeper similarities between him and Kentridge, which their juxtaposition at PICA serves to heighten. Both artists appear in person as characters in their own video work, and both use collage as a fundamental technique in terms of media and styles: but where Kentridge’s version of collage refers more to the earlier modernist avant-garde tradition of Russian futurism, Dada, cubism and surrealism, in Bell’s case the more immediate reference is to postmodernist collage and Pop Art from Rauschenberg and Lichtenstein to Andy Warhol or Cindy Sherman. Indeed, as I’ve suggested previously, Kentridge’s work as a whole is characterized by a typically modernist interest in the experience of continuity and duration, whereas Bell is more interested in rupture, reversal, revolution and making a clean break with the past.

It’s also no accident that Kentridge’s screen persona is silent, whereas Bell’s never stops talking. This too is consistent with what I would call a broadly modernist ‘aesthetics of silence’ (including silence with regard to artistic intentions), as opposed to the postmodern propensity for art and commentary to coincide. Underlying this aesthetic distinction is a more personal or at least positional one. If both are post-colonial artists, Kentridge’s heritage and position is as a member of a sovereign social class (white European South Africans) commenting on a world which that class has had a dominant hand in constructing (at least until the end of apartheid) – and which white middle-class male Europeans continue to have a dominant hand in constructing on a global scale. Bell on the other hand as an Aboriginal man is a member of a subject class whose position has been largely constructed by others for the last two hundred years. In other words: Bell turns the tables by speaking for himself, playfully but with serious purpose deconstructing and reconstructing a racially divided world.

Despite its apparent simplicity of utterance Embassy is in fact a complex multi-layered installation, in terms of artistic form and social-historical content. It centres on a recreation of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy which was set up outside the old Parliament House in Canberra in 1974. Inside the tent are camping chairs facing a video triptych, Imagining Victory, which features Bell himself and others. These include the hilarious and scathing Dinner Party – which is set on the night of an election victory by an Aboriginal President (played by Gary Foley) and makes Don’s Party look like an episode of Play School – and Scratch an Aussie, in which Bell psychoanalyses a series of beautiful blonde Anglo-Australian models in gold bikinis on a leather couch, and is then analysed himself by his old friend and fellow-activist Foley. The tent is surrounded by placards from the original embassy repainted by Bell, and the walls of the gallery around it are lined with massive canvases painted in acrylic that juxtapose slogans like ‘Western Art Does Not Exist’, ‘Not Just Greed and Fear’ and ‘In The End There Will Be Painting’ against richly decorative patterned backgrounds that deliberately ‘appropriate’ devices from Pollock, Imants Tillers and Central Desert artists like Emily Kame Kngwarreye (whom Tillers himself has previously appropriated in some of his own paintings). Most spectacular and moving of all is a huge long polymer mural on board painted in collaboration with San Francisco Black Panther activist and artist Emory Douglas and entitled Peace Heals, War Kills (Big Ass Mutha Fuckin Mural). In the corridor around the corner is a Roy Lichtenstein Pop-Art acrylic pastiche featuring a cartoon orgasmic blonde woman with the accompanying thought-bubble ‘Thank Christ I’m Not Aboriginal’.

Bell is a wickedly clever and hugely talented conceptual-political artist with a great compositional eye. He’s also (and equally) an activist with a particular focus on the issue of appropriation – a term similarly applicable in this context to land and culture. In this regard perhaps the keystone of the whole exhibition (and as with Bali: Return Economy for me perhaps its most compelling exhibit) is an absorbing video on continuous loop at the end of the corridor entitled Ningla-a-Na: Hungry for Our Land. This is a beautifully shot and edited black-and-white documentary by Alessandro Cavadini recording the establishment of the original Tent Embassy, and including riveting footage of demonstrations, police violence and debates – including a particularly revealing one between Aboriginal women and non-Aboriginal feminists about their respective priorities for political action. This debate speaks with particular urgency across the decades in the context of the Northern Territory Intervention, and broaches the thorny question of how to reconcile apparently conflicting rights like those of ownership, artistic license, free speech, freedom from intimidation, and the rights of women, children and other disadvantaged groups – especially in the light of currently proposed reforms to the Racial Vilification Act.


Last Saturday PICA opened this debate up further with a Symposium entitled Practising Resistance presented in partnership with Curtin University’s School of Design and Art, in which I was invited at the last minute to participate. The afternoon began in the PICA Performance Space with a lecture trilogy on ‘Resistance in the Asia Pacific’ featuring presentations by Simon Soon on the relationship between street protest, art and popular culture across South East Asia; Taloi Havini on her photographical project focussing on members of the ‘Blood Generation’ who have grown up during the era of violent conflict between indigenous land owners and mining companies in Bougainville; and Sumugan Sivanesan on the complex media story of Tamil asylum seeker ‘Alex’ Kuhendrarjah (and Sumugan’s own role in that narrative). I found these presentations increasingly problematic in the way that (with the best of intentions) they objectified and aestheticised their subjects (i.e. real suffering or resisting people) and turned them into images, artworks or even experiments. In the case of ‘Alex’ in particular I felt deeply uncomfortable about the risk of asylum-seekers becoming political totems – or worse, personal fetishes. I wonder if it does them more harm than good, and who it's really for.

This session was followed by a panel discussion on ‘Memory and Resistance’ in Australia with Richard Bell, local Noongar artist Peter Farmer (whose presence was supported by his wife Miranda Farmer as their father had recently passed away) and Perth-based artist and academic Thea Costantino. Richard gave a short and typically spirited address about Australian racism; Peter, a moving eulogy to his father and commentary on his own ‘blue wren’ paintings; and Thea, a more theoretical paper about the legacy of colonialism, the delegitimization of Aboriginal art and the need to counter the racism of ‘mainstream Australia’ with Habermas’s notion of ‘the public sphere’ as a space for rational debate. The discussion was then opened to the floor, and produced more angry examples of racism and an awkward question from a self-described descendant of white colonialists about how to deal with his own guilt. I found the tone of this discussion increasingly unproductive. An older woman sitting next to me spoke out and said that in her experience Australia was the least racist country in the world, provoking scornful laughter from the panel. I quietly reflected on the idealism of Habermas in assuming that ideal speech situations ever exist anywhere, and the presumption that ‘we’ artists or intellectuals are somehow more enlightened that ‘mainstream Australia’ – the latter being as much a political construction as race itself (or indeed ‘Aboriginal art’, as Richard himself has acknowledged in his famous slogan: ‘Aboriginal Art: It’s a White Thing’). I came away wondering if we wouldn’t be better off ditching terms like ‘race', 'black or 'white' completely, and viewing racism as a practice rather than a personal or national characteristic. Otherwise we risk perpetuating the very identity politics that racism itself is founded on.

The day ended with an informal session unpacking the themes raised during the afternoon (and any others that came up). 'Activating the Embassy' took place upstairs in front of the Tent Embassy over refreshments; I was billed as ‘MC and provocateur’ with Richard ‘leading the charge’. We sat outside the tent with about forty or fifty people sitting or standing around in a tight circle. Discussion ranged from questions of racism, activism, art and education to specific issues like the Racial Vilification Act, free speech versus hate speech, and the recent action by the Biennale artists against the offshore detention of asylum seekers. The discussion was sometimes heated and emotive, but open-minded – and perhaps more importantly open-hearted. It concluded with a moving plea from a young woman for empathy as perhaps a more productive emotion that shame in terms of social change. I thought it was a good note to end on, and went home wondering if Tony Jones felt as exhausted as this after Q&A – but sensing that Richard’s installation had indeed been ‘activated’.


Embassy is at PICA until 27 April.

Bali: Return Economy closed on 27 March.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Postcard from Perth 17

Reviews and Reflections on Theatre and the Arts in WA

Classic Pleasures

WASO, Mozart/Strauss/Wagner; Black Swan, A Streetcar Named Desire

We loosely apply the term ‘classic’ to works and repertoire that endure. Despite rhetorical claims of ‘instant’ status, no work is a classic at the time of its appearance, and sometimes not for centuries afterwards. The reasons for this are manifold. A work or even an artist may not at first be widely known; tastes and fortunes change and fluctuate; and understanding takes time. Hildegaard’s compositions were virtually unknown outside her abbey for centuries; Bach’s reputation declined throughout the ‘classical’ era until revived by Mendelssohn; the achievements of Schönberg and the Second Viennese School are still in truth appreciated by a minority and have arguably yet to be accepted into the pantheon of ‘classics’ despite their acknowledged greatness. As the preceding list indicates, classic works need have nothing in common in terms of style. Indeed I’d argue that what makes a work capable of becoming a classic is precisely that it transcends or fuses existing forms. In other words, it breaks the mould and creates a new one.

The related term ‘classical’ is somewhat different. In music and theatre it refers to specific periods in the history of forms: Greek or French ‘classical’ drama, or the ‘classical’ style of the First Viennese School (Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven in particular being the ‘classic’ exemplars). However we also tend to make ‘classical music’ synonymous with the tradition of ‘art’ music’ – also known as ‘serious’ music (both terms are problematic) – that stretches back to Bach or even Hildegaard and forward to Schönberg and beyond.

In this regard it’s worth noting the association of both ‘classic’ and ‘classical’ with ‘class’. All three terms cluster around the notion of a body of works considered worthy of study and knowledge by a group of people considered worthy of studying and knowing about them. As such, they are all necessarily contested terms.


A couple of weeks ago I went to the inaugural concert in WASO’s 2014 Season under the orchestra’s new Principal Conductor Asher Fish.

There was a palpable sense of excitement amongst both the audience and the orchestra. Fish is an international star: his previous posts include Chief Conductor of the Vienna Volksoper and Musical Director of the New Israeli Opera, and he’s currently still Principal Guest Conductor of the Seattle Opera. As his professional and cultural background suggests, he has a passion for opera, the Romantic repertoire and the core European tradition. Like Simone Young (who’s conducting Bruckner with WASO later this year), Fish studied under Daniel Barenboim, and like Barenboim he’s been active in breaking the taboo on conducting Wagner in Israel. He conducted the first Australian complete Ring cycle in Adelaide in 2004. Like his colleague Joseph Colaneri (who was appointed Director of WA Opera in 2012), Fish is also a regular at the Met, where he recently conducted a memorable new production of Parsifal (which I was lucky enough to see at my local cinema Luna on SX last year as part of the Met’s HD Digital Season). So there’s currently a sense of renaissance at WA’s two leading ‘classical’ music institutions.

Fish has stated his admiration for WASO as an orchestra that combines ‘British professionalism, American work-ethic and German precision’ but also indicated his determination to weld this into a distinctive sound. In a brief talk after the concert, he spoke of the paradoxical attractions of working in Perth because of its geographical remoteness and relative security in terms of funding and even employment in comparison with Europe or America – all which enabled him to focus on the music rather than administrative politics. Let’s hope he’s right. In general I’d risk saying that in the past WASO’s strengths have tended to lie in its wind, brass and percussion sections, while despite fine individual players the string section as a whole has not always achieved a unified sound, while the programming has likewise sometimes lacked a clear identity or focus. Nevertheless it’s a damn fine orchestra, and potentially a great one.

This year, on the strength of the programming and Fish’s reputation alone, I’ve subscribed to WASO for the first time. Highlights for me include Fish conducting Mahler’s 9th and a Beethoven Festival featuring a complete cycle of the symphonies over two weeks; and Simone Young conducting the Bruckner 4 and the Elgar Cello Concerto with German cellist Alban Gerhardt.

The program for the first concert on Friday 8th March clearly stated Fish’s musical affinities and agenda for the orchestra: core works from the classical and romantic Austro-German repertoire; and the development and progressive expansion of sonic forces. Responding to Fish’s direction, the orchestra gave us a Magic Flute Overture that was crisp and precise but also full of dark turbulence, underlining the work’s simultaneous affirmation of Enlightenment philosophy and its anticipation of Romanticism. This was also true of the Mozart 20th Piano Concerto, one of the composer’s most personal, ambiguous, tragic and sinister works. Like the Requiem it’s in the inherently chromatic key of D minor, which Nigel Tufnell from Spinal Tap called ‘the saddest of all keys’ (‘people instantly weep when they hear it’). Here Fish assumed the double role of conductor-pianist. This was no domineering virtuoso performance, but rather a thoughtful conversation between him and the musicians which depended on mutual listening as much as direction (though guest concertmaster Paul Wright visibly had his back).

After interval came the highlight of the concert for me: Richard Strauss’s great tone-poem Death and Transfiguration. I know this work from recordings but I’ve never heard it played live before – a rare treat. Here Fish was in his element, and the expanded orchestra rose to the challenge with a performance of shattering power, demonstrating to the full the renowned acoustics of the Perth Concert Hall (which Richard Tognetti among others has ranked as the finest in the country). Paul Wright again distinguished himself here with some heart-melting solo passages. Finally came a Suite from Wagner’s Meistersinger, comprising the Act III Prelude, ‘Dance of the Apprentices’ and the Act I Prelude. I’ve never heard them played in this order before, but it made musical sense, especially after the dying fall of the Strauss. It was a fitting closing statement from Fish in terms of style and subject-matter, and another fine performance, even if I personally struggled with the music’s emotional bombast.

All in all, it was a thrilling concert. At the end, there was a genuine sense of triumph from the audience, orchestra and conductor. Of course, it’s the honeymoon period, but I felt that Fish has the measure of the orchestra, the audience and the task ahead. I felt proud to be there, and excited about what’s to come.


A Streetcar Named Desire is another classic work, and Kate Cherry’s new production for Black Swan at the Heath Ledger Theatre likewise sets an ambitious new benchmark for the company. A large (and largely local) cast is led by Sigrid Thornton, whose big and small-screen popularity is I suspect as significant a factor with audiences as the reputation of the play itself (which likewise derives some of its lustre from the famous Hollywood film with Vivienne Leigh and Marlon Brando).

Let me say straight out that this is by far the most impressive Black Swan production I’ve seen. I should also declare at the outset that I’m currently a Resident Artist with the company. Although I had nothing to do with the show, I’ve seen it twice now: once on opening preview and again at the end of the opening week. If anything, it become even more absorbing on second viewing, despite a running time of over three hours.

In fact I’ve never seen Streetcar before onstage, but only (like millions of others) on screen. It’s a memorable (if flawed) film, but an incredibly powerful and ultimately devastating play, which deserves to be called a classic for all the reasons I’ve mentioned.

In my view, Tennessee Williams (like his compatriot O’Neill, but in a narrower and more twisted vein) is the American successor to the revolution in European theatre begun by Ibsen and continued (with the same proviso) by Strindberg. This revolution belongs to a broader movement that’s sometimes called ‘Naturalism’ in the context of theatre, and beyond it in literature and philosophy; Zola was and remains probably its most famous practitioner and spokesman. This significance of this movement is often reduced to limited and superficial considerations of style (especially with regard to acting style) rather than the content and worldview that underlies it – which can be characterized as an extension of ‘realism’ in terms of its focus on the physical, scientific and especially social determinants of actions and events. Naturalism though places an added emphasis on contemporary ideas of heredity, psychology and even pathology, which leads to an underlying metaphysical fatalism and even pessimism. As such, Naturalism shades into Symbolism and Expressionism, as exemplified by the trajectories of Ibsen and Strindberg, and likewise O’Neill or Williams himself.  

This applies not only to the content, form and dialogue of Streetcar but also to the staging and acting style. In regard to the latter, the issue is complicated by the interpretation given to Stanislvaski’s theory of acting by his American followers in the so-called ‘Method’ school: in particular its founder Lee Strasberg and most famous practitioner Elia Kazan, who went on to direct both the first stage production and the film of Streetcar (both starring Brando), and who subsequently become one of the most influential directors not only of Williams but in American theatre and cinema history.

In brief: Stanslavski taught acting as an autonomous art-form with a scientific focus on penetrating and abandoning surface-effects in order to seek, understand and apply the underlying laws of character and performance. The Method in contrast had (and still has) a more subjective focus on the actor rather than the character, in particular focussing on Stanislavski’s early technique of ‘emotional memory’ (which he later abandoned). Significantly, the Method’s version of emotional memory is more about the actor delving into their own past in order to connect with the material, whereas for Stanslavski it was a more universally human process of empathy with the ‘given circumstances’ of the character and the play. As such, the Method obviously lends itself to the medium of cinema – especially in its Hollywood version which focuses on the personality of the ‘star’ – and more generally to the American ideology of the (typically masculine) individual in (usually) his primal struggle against the collective. This theme is of course dear to Kazan, both in his films (On the Waterfront being the outstanding example) and in his life (most notoriously in his cooperation with the anti-communist House Committee on Un-American Activities).

In the case of Streetcar, Kazan’s macho individualism emphasised a superficially stylistic version of naturalism and critically shifted the emphasis from Blanche to Stanley. This is especially the case in the film version, where the focus on Brando totally (and literally) overshadows and upstages Vivienne Leigh in terms of focus and sympathy. Ironically, this distorts the form and content of the play, in which the ‘naturalism’ (in a more profound sense) of Stanley highlights the more dreamlike, symbolic and even expressionist figure of Blanche – whose emblematic proclamation, ‘I don’t want realism!’, might serve as a motto for the playwright. Indeed I’d go so far as to argue that – in terms of the underlying libidinal economy of his uniquely autobiographical oeuvre – Blanche can be seen (and could be played) as a drag version of Williams himself. Beyond this, one might point to the use of highly stylized language (especially by Blanche); the ‘dream-play’-like structure and content of the scenes (which seem to fade in and out, in a floating and increasingly continuous succession); and the stage directions regarding character, setting, music, sound and lighting (most notably the hallucinatory voices and shadows that are described in the final scenes) – all of which locates us more and more inside Blanche’s consciousness.

The most striking aspect of the Black Swan production is the looming set by Christina Smith and chiaroscuro lighting by Matt Scott, together seamlessly weaving an appropriately Symbolist world. As Blanche says in the opening scene, ‘Only Mr Edgar Allen Poe could do it justice!’ My only reservation concerned the prominence and heightened visibility of the upstairs apartment, which drew focus and diminished its potential as a mysterious site of unseen sexual enjoyment and violence. Ben Collins’s music and sound design likewise cast a continuous and delirious spell of classical New Orleans jazz (especially his steamy, brooding Duke Ellington-like ‘jungle’ arrangements). I was less convinced by his periodic onstage appearances playing the sax, which similarly seemed to undermine the potency of the offstage world.

In general, the staging and performances made a fair fist but didn’t quite succeed in capturing for me the swooning, overheated, dissipated, decadent and dangerous Southern Gothic atmosphere and rhythms of the play; and it’s this ambience that crucially mediates between the play’s Naturalistic origins and Symbolist/Expressionist leanings.

As for individual performances: Luke Hewitt stood out for me with a truthful, touching, funny and ultimately tragic portrayal of Mitch. His scenes with Blanche were the heart and soul of the production. Opposite him, Sigrid Thornton is a compelling presence throughout, navigating us through the play’s (and her character’s) twists and turns with riveting charisma and skill. My only reservation here was that her Blanche seemed a little too direct and sure of herself, in contrast with the fluttering ‘moth’ described by Williams in the stage directions. Conversely, Nathaniel Dean’s Stanley seemed a little indirect and unsure of himself at times, in contrast with the playwright’s description of his ‘animal’ physicality and emotional energy. This imbalance left Jo Morris’s capable Stella with an unclear role in the central triangle of the play: more like a stronger older sister to Blanche than a victim in her own right.

This leads me to the crux of my disagreement with the overall tone and emphasis of this production. For me, Streetcar is a much darker play, in which ‘desire’ is a corrupted, warped and morbid thing that ultimately damages and destroys men and women alike. As such, it’s distinct from love; we catch a glimpse of the latter in Mitch’s feelings for his mother and (at least potentially) Blanche – who seems fleetingly to recognise this in her enigmatic line at the end of the scene when they kiss: ‘Sometime’s – there’s God – so quickly!’ Otherwise, in a very real sense, Streetcar is a play about sexual violence and indeed predation. The offstage fighting upstairs; Stanley and Stella’s co-dependency, in which abuse and beating is habitually followed by sexual gratification; Stanley’s use of humiliation and ultimately rape in order to subjugate Blanche; and even Blanche’s own predilection for having sex with minors – all are links in a perverse chain or dance, like the polka that Blanche can’t get out of her mind. This mechanism is what ultimately drives Williams’s ‘naturalistic’ fatalism. Underlying it is of course the social oppression of one group by another in terms of gender, class, culture, skin-colour or sexuality, and the way this oppression gets transmitted and translated from one generation or group to the next. Hence the unspeakable secret of homosexuality and the underlying climate of homophobia in Streetcar and his other plays.

Nevertheless, whether at the hands of Elia Kazan or with Kate Cherry at the helm, it’s a gripping three hours of theatre, and Black Swan has done it proud.


A Streetcar Named Desire has an extended season now closing on 11th April.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Postcard from Perth 16

WA Reviews and Reflections on Theatre and the Arts

Perth Festival Visual Arts: William Kentridge, The Refusal of Time

There’s been a lot of commentary recently (including from me) about the politics surrounding the Sydney Biennale, so I thought it might be salutary to write about some actual contemporary art instead. Over the past few weeks I’ve been sampling the Perth Festival Visual Arts program, and I have to say I’ve found it overall the most stimulating strand in the Festival. As always with these Postcards, I won’t write about (and haven’t seen) everything: just what’s attracted me, stayed with me and given me food for thought.


PICA is currently hosting two Festival shows: South African artist William Kentridge’s The Refusal of Time and Aboriginal artist and activist Richard Bell’s Tent Embassy. I’ll review Tent Embassy in a forthcoming Postcard, in conjunction with Bali: Return Economy at Fremantle Arts Centre.

The Refusal of Time is a collaborative multimedia collage installation combining video, sculpture, graphic art, music, sound and visual design, silent film, animation, dance and performance. It’s watershed work by one of the most inventive and unclassifiable contemporary artists in the world, and this is its first presentation in Australia.

Kentridge’s interest in collaboration is unusual for a visual artist. Perhaps it derives from his parallel training and work in theatre; undoubtedly it also reflects his political experience as a European South African whose parents were actively involved in the struggle against apartheid. His long-term collaborators on The Refusal of Time include composer/sound artist Philip Miller, film-maker Catherine Meyburgh, set designer Sabine Theunissen, dancer-choreographer Dada Masilo and dramaturg/physicist/historian of science Peter Galison. It’s also an institutional collaboration between the Perth Festival, the Art Gallery of WA (who showed great initiative in buying the work) and PICA, where it’s been installed in the magnificent central atrium gallery space. Some of the floor-staff at PICA have told me it's their favourite show in the time they've been there.

According to Gary Dufour, Associate Professor at UWA and former chief curator and deputy director at AGWA – who gave a floor-talk at PICA on ‘Collaboration and Collage’ and has known Kentridge for many years – the collaborative process is one of radical openness. Basically Kentridge says yes to any creative offer from his collaborators; their contribution becomes part of the work, and continues to transform along with the work as whole. Conversely, his ‘directions’ to them are likewise radically open. For example, the maker of the abstract wooden mechanical sculpture that’s central to The Refusal of Time was simply invited to ‘make me a breathing elephant’. This is true collaboration as I understand it: a sharing of power, the outcome of which is unknown.

For those who don’t know it, the central space at PICA is normally open-access and flooded with light. Archways lead from the entrance foyer and off to other exhibition spaces; there are white walls and a wooden floor; and it’s surrounded by a first-floor mezzanine balcony with doors leading to other galleries, studios and offices. In this case, the entrance is masked with black drapes, and the adjoining galleries have been sealed off. The floor has been covered with some kind of rubbery, slightly gritty surface, and the walls lined with towering flats of untreated or patchily painted board, decorated with the odd or written drawn scrawl and stuck-on translucent coloured squares that looks like pieces of celluloid lighting gel. Colours are muted – as is the normally resonant acoustic. The space is dimly lit to isolate the video projections on the walls and the central ‘breathing machine’.

Music and soundscape are continuous, as are the five videos, which are projected simultaneously (but not in synchrony) on three of the walls. Soundtrack and moving images unfold in a sequence of what feels like about five sections that might be called ‘movements’ or ‘acts’; each has a distinct language in terms of image/sound repertoire, technique, genre and content. Five giant metronomes tick in and out of sync; brass blare and drums pound; a male voice gives a half-audible lecture; the distant sound of opera is heard; or we hear what might be the imaginary murmur of background microwave radiation in outer space. Meanwhile, the giant metronomes are visible all around us on the walls; giant encyclopaedia pages appear and turn; Kentridge himself appears and confronts his own doppelgänger or carries Dada Masilo around on his back; Masilo reappears as one of pair of anarchists invading a clock-tower and preparing a bomb, in an avant-garde silent film using paper-cut-out costumes and props; in another, more ‘realistic’ but still pantomime silent film she conceals a lover from another man in what looks like a post-revolutionary dictatorship; and in a climactic sequence black silhouettes parade around the walls across all five screens, dancing, playing instruments, brandishing farm implements or lugging carts. Other sequences are more abstract, use drawing and graphics, and play with reverse-time photography. The duration of the whole work is about half an hour.

The Refusal of Time is an almost overwhelmingly complex work: a feast for the senses, an emotional rollercoaster and an intellectual tour de force. I’ve been back three times, and rather than gaining an objective overview I feel like I’ve been progressively immersed in the work, which has become more and more a part of my subjective experience rather than an object of knowledge or understanding. Kentridge’s key techniques derive from drawing and theatre, and his core interests are in history, politics and science as well as art; but it’s the philosophical aspect of the work as a ‘machine for thinking’ that excites me the most.

I say ‘machine for thinking’ rather than ‘thinking machine’ because despite the use of multimedia there’s something still profoundly humanist (or perhaps ‘trans-humanist’) about the work. The choice of slightly archaic technologies, materials, objects and images used in its construction, and the low-tech aesthetic of their treatment, emphasise that they’re artefacts rather than constituting a second nature with its own apparently independent life (as tends to be the case with more hi-tech work). The process of production is on show rather than being concealed – including visible projectors and loudspeakers (in the form of megaphones), the use of black-and-white film, distorted or degraded sound, and worked-over and interrupted projection surfaces. In short: there’s no illusion – no phantasmagoria, as Adorno would say.

The exception to this is, of course, the hidden ‘master-slave’ technology (apparently that's the technical term for it) that drives the breathing-machine via computer software. The second time I visited, this had broken down, and the sculpture was temporarily inert. As a result the whole work had lost its artificial lungs, so to speak. It had become merely an audio-visual installation: still totally absorbing, but without the disturbing energy introduced by a real, moving, artificial three-dimensional entity at its heart. It made me realise there’s something about the interplay between the virtual images and the actual sculpture (not to mention ourselves as living beings, randomly sitting on chairs, standing or walking around wherever we choose) that makes The Refusal of Time, and each encounter with it, a singular event.

The Refusal of Time is explicitly about time (as Kentridge himself acknowledged in the title of his lecture ‘On Time’ at the Heath Ledger Theatre last month) – specifically in the context of the prehistory of the theory of relativity, and the colonial-era subdivision of the world into artificial time-zones. It also reminds me of the ways that philosophers and writers like Bergson, Proust and Deleuze have invited us to re-think time (and indeed consciousness, creativity and freedom) in terms of continuity, quality and multiplicity rather than the segmented, quantified and unified time measured by conventional chronology. In fact, the title of the work itself implies not only a political ‘refusal’ of time as chronology or conventional history (think of Marcuse’s ‘great refusal’ of capitalism, or the story of the Paris Communards shooting and smashing all the clocks) but also (and conversely) acknowledges and redresses a psychological ‘refusal’ of time by capitalism itself, in the deeper sense of time as duration, memory or what Sartre called ‘lived experience’. As such The Refusal of Time could even be called a latter-day Salon des Refusés (or ‘rubbish-room’) that redeems the 'refuse' of history.

Proust famously described the experience of memory as being ‘real without being actual, ideal without being abstract’ – which is actually not a bad description of the projected images and recorded sounds in The Refusal of Time. Deleuze called this reality ‘virtual’; and indeed The Refusal of Time is itself a ‘virtual’ work, which co-exists in multiple (though limited) editions around the world (and thus 'refuses' the aura of Benjamin’s ‘traditional’ art-object). In this respect it resembles a play, a symphony, or perhaps even a novel or poem, more than it does a traditional visual artwork.

The rhetorical or expressive elements of this virtual artwork, however, are the elements of collage: ‘cut out’, so to speak, from moments in the history of pre-revolutionary art like Dada, Surrealism, Futurism, Cubism – and indeed collage itself. In this regard Kentridge might indeed be described as a ‘postmodernist’ – although I suspect it’s not a term he’d actually endorse. Aside from this, what distinguishes Kentridge as a unique individual artist is his style and skill as a draughtsman – in particular his characteristic use of line (he’s less interested in colour) in his charcoal drawings, on paper or (in animated form) on film. This is most vividly realised in his use of animated films of drawings that evolve on the same sheet of paper, so that the trace of their history is maintained, albeit in a continually altered form. Here the use of line in drawing traces the line of time itself – recalling Bergson’s images of duration as a line infinitely extending itself, or a length of tape spooling from reel to reel (from the future to the past).

In general, the use of moving images and recorded sound in so much post-cinematic contemporary art has the effect of introducing time back into the work – and introducing us as spectators into the time of the work – in a way that obviously breaks with traditional artworks, in which time is arrested or frozen (as Keats memorably described it in the ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’). This in turn transforms the experience of time in a gallery space. In short: the work becomes a performance; the spectator becomes an audience; and the gallery becomes a theatre. In fact Kentridge has staged a number of operas: The Coronation of Poppea, The Magic Flute, Shostakovich’s The Nose, and a forthcoming Lulu. The design for The Refusal of Time is also a kind of theatre set; and his work regularly contains performances on film, typically by Kentridge himself, and his ‘muse’ Dada Masilo. More profoundly, Kentridge’s work is a theatre of the world (theatrum mundi) invoking theatre itself as a Shakespearian microcosm or metaphor for society and human existence (Lear’s ‘great stage of fools’).

If history for Joyce was a nightmare from which he was trying to awake, then for Kentridge it seems more like a delirium from which there can be no such awakening. Nonetheless, if regimes of knowledge and power alike are both doomed to failure and inescapable, there’s still space for creativity, love, joy and freedom. The sleep of reason indeed produces monsters, but also dreams and visions. The Refusal of Time is thrilling, terrifying, sexy, playful, hilarious, manic, tragic, poetic and unspeakably beautiful.


The Refusal of Time  is at PICA until 27 April.

More Perth Festival Visual Arts reviews follow in future Postcards.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Postcard from Perth 16

WA Reflections on Theatre, Culture and the Arts

Postcard from Albany/Beyond the Biennale/An Artists' Manifesto

I’m writing this from scenic Albany, about 400k’s south-east of Perth, or just around the corner on the rugged coast of the Southern Ocean, in the region known as The Great Southern. Tim Winton grew up here, and it’s the setting (code-named ‘Angelus’) for a good deal of his early fiction. More recently Kim Scott’s dazzling historical stream-of-consciousness novel That Dead Man Dance imaginatively reconstructs the early years of Aboriginal-European contact here: a unique and short-lived cohabitation and collaboration in the context of the whaling industry on the shores of King George Sound. For twenty thousand years before that, the Kalgan River was a meeting place for local tribes.

Today’s headline on the front page of the Albany Advertiser proudly announces: ‘Plan for City as FIFO Base’; and the story beneath it outlines a plan ‘created by a businessman and former resident’ to relocate one thousand fly-in-fly-out workers currently commuting between Perth and remote inland mine sites. Apparently it’s being enthusiastically embraced by local businesses, but depending on who you talk to it’s either a shot in the arm for the local community or a social and environmental disaster.

The photo above it is headed ‘Anzac Structure Looks Bigger than Ben Hur’ and shows a bird’s-eye view of the National Anzac Centre currently being constructed on Mt Adelaide nearby. Work on the site is apparently behind schedule, and the photo was allegedly taken by a Go-Pro attached to a drone. According to the report on page 3, ‘a flood of politicians’ visited the site on Tuesday to unveil the logo; a photo shows a group of men in suits with gold ties admiring a sign on an A-frame featuring a nine-pointed star (representing the States and Territories plus New Zealand), with some scaffolding just out of shot in the background. Another article on page 2 reports on angry tweets by local journalists who were also invited on Tuesday and then denied a tour of the site. I’m not surprised, judging by the drone photos, which show little evidence of building work apart from an impressive cage of scaffolding. The Centre is due for completion in August (just in time for the start of the First World War), but I reckon they’ll be pushing it to open by 1 November, when the first convoy of Anzacs departed from King George Sound below (‘a defining moment in this nation’s history’ according to the visiting Federal Minister for Veterans’ Affairs).


I first visited Albany about ten years ago with a group of actors researching a verbatim theatre piece about asylum seekers in WA. It was during the Howard era, and a community of Afghanis on Temporary Protection Visas (which denied them permanent residency or the possibility of applying for family reunions) were living in Albany, working at the abattoir and playing for the local soccer team. Our contact was a local member of Rural Australians for Refugees who arranged a few interviews for us with the Afghanis and their supporters in the local community. We also visited the abattoir and interviewed the manager, who wanted them to be granted permanent residency because he needed the workforce and was sympathetic to their plight. Finally we interviewed a couple of members of the local council who’d been involved in an internecine battle with reactionary fellow councillors over a motion in support of the Afghanis being allowed to stay.

How times change.

Now the Abbott Government is reintroducing the cruel regime of TPV’s (charmingly re-titled ‘Temporary Humanitarian Concern Visas’) for asylum seekers already in Australia – together with (following a craven volte-face from Kevin Rudd before the election) an even more cruel regime of indeterminate offshore detention on Nauru and Manus Island (both of which suffer from human rights abuses, democracy deficits and chronic poverty) without hope of ever being resettled in Australia for those who arrive by boat from now on. These are reinforced by a similarly cruel regime – carried out in the form of a military operation and cloaked in the official secrecy claimed for a matter of 'national security' – of intercepting and boarding boats, physically intimidating and punishing their traumatized passengers, putting them on lifeboats and towing them back to Indonesia, without regard for their well-being or the sovereignty of Indonesian waters. All in the name of ensuring that no more ‘unauthorized’ boats ‘threaten’ our own sovereignty; no more ‘queue jumpers’ or ‘economic refugees’ are rewarded for getting here ahead of ‘genuine refugees’ whom ‘we choose’ to resettle from UN camps; the ‘business model’ of ‘people smugglers’ is ‘broken’; and no more asylum seekers drown en route.

Fear not, dear reader. I’m not going to rehearse the arguments and counter-arguments here. Suffice to say that my father arrived in Australia by boat as a Jewish refugee in 1939. Apparently on first sighting Fremantle docks he asked the captain to turn the boat around and take him back to Nazi-dominated Europe. Instead they continued on to Melbourne, where he was labelled an ‘enemy alien’. He found work (and avoided detention) by pretending to be Swiss. Smart guy.

For my part, I’ve never understood why anyone who wants to can’t apply for permanent protection or residency anywhere, regardless of where they come from or how they got here. I think it’s called ‘freedom of movement’ and crops up somewhere in a document called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was ratified by something called the United Nations in 1948 under the leadership of someone called Doc Evatt, a former Australian Attorney-General. In fact I think there’s also something in the same document about ‘the right to seek asylum from persecution’, together with ‘not being subject to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile’ or to ‘torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’. Perhaps the current Attorney-General can enlighten me.

As for the alleged ‘moral dilemma’ involved in letting asylum-seekers in ahead of refugees from UN camps or preventing them from drowning on leaky boats: punishing them in order to deter others seems both morally contradictory and practically ineffective, at least if the evidence of previously failed efforts to criminalise the innocent (like the prohibition of alcohol or the war on drugs) is anything to go by (not to mention the fact that these innocents are fleeing for their lives). On the other hand I’ve never understood why this ‘dilemma’ couldn’t be more simply and effectively addressed by (a) uncoupling the numbers of ‘unauthorized’ asylum seekers from our ‘authorized’ intake of refugees, and (b) establishing a regional agreement with neighbouring countries whereby anyone seeking asylum who arrives there (typically in Malaysia or Indonesia) can be quickly and humanely processed and safely brought here – to the largest country in the region, with the smallest population and the highest per capita income – where, with a little temporary assistance in terms of language, housing and healthcare, they can join and contribute to our economy (much like my father did, and thousands like him).

But perhaps I’m being naïve. In fact didn’t some ‘expert panel’ appointed by the previous government come up with something similar that was selectively cherry-picked by the same government and then sanctimoniously torpedoed by the Coalition and the Greens because it might involve ‘human rights abuses’?



Back here in Albany, I’ve been following with interest the current controversy over the sponsorship of the Sydney Biennale by Transfield Holdings. In case you haven’t been following this: Transfield Holdings has a 12% share in Transfield Services, who have been awarded the contract to manage detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island (where one asylum seeker was recently beaten to death and scores of others injured and intimidated by locals under the supervision of security staff). The holding company retains a seat on the board of its subsidiary; the founder of Transfield was also a founding patron of the Biennale.

A group of 51 artists wrote a letter to the Biennale Board calling on it to sever its ties with Transfield. After the directors of both the Biennale itself and the Museum of Contemporary Art (its principal host venue) defended the sponsorship, ten artists withdrew their work from the Biennale in protest. Criticism ensued from various media commentators. The Board then suddenly announced that it had ‘listened to its artists’ and was ending its partnership with Transfield. This followed the resignation of the board chair, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, who is also the director of Transfield Holdings, a former director of Transfield Services, and a member of the founding family of both Transfield and the Biennale.

Victory for the artists, you might think, against a tangled web of corporate and government complicity in an inhuman refugee policy (let’s not mince words). But no, chorused the commentators (in a hysterical orgy of word-mincing) along with various leading arts managers – whose organizations also turned out to have sponsorship deals with Transfield (including the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Art Gallery of New South Wales) – followed galumphing by the Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull and the Attorney-General George Brandis. Who would have thought a bunch of protesting artists could reap such a whirlwind?

Some of the responses were indeed ludicrous, especially given the space they received. The relationship between Transfield Holdings, Transfield Services and the Biennale was ‘tangential’ and the artists’ victory ‘superficial’, according to ‘a Law and Journalism student’ – whose ‘friends argue a lot about art and current affairs’, and who was given a full-length opinion piece on the topic (for which he gets a spectacular fail from me in both subjects). According to several commentators, the Biennale had been ‘forced’ to separate itself from Transfield and Belgiorno-Nettis ‘forced’ to resign (when in fact he could have chosen to divest himself of shares in Transfield Services instead of putting profits ahead of ‘philanthropy’). In his own words, he’d been ‘vilified with insults’ that were both ‘naïve and offensive’ (although he himself stated in his resignation that ‘last year’s popular election vindicates this detention policy’, and went on to claim in a radio interview that Transfield Services had done ‘nothing wrong’ – which some would say were also pretty naïve and offensive things to say). However, according to Turnbull, Belgiorno-Nettis was ‘a sort of latter-day Medici’ and the ‘vicious ingratitude’ of the artists had ‘driven a stake’ through the Biennale that ‘could spell the end for the event’  (despite the fact that Transfield sponsorship amounted to 6% of Biennale income).

When it came to the artists themselves, things got more revealing. According to one commentator, artists in general were ‘a herd of cats’, and ‘arts activism from Guernica to Pussy Riot’ was ‘sans strategy’, ‘chaotic’ and had ‘a lack of agenda’. The effectiveness of boycotts in general was scorned (even by so-called left-wing commentators) in flagrant denial of the evidence (South Africa anyone?). ‘No one ever changed the world by writing a letter or signing a petition’, one of them proclaimed (I’m sure Amnesty International would be interested to learn that, not to mention Martin Luther). According to another, these artists in particular were ‘bleeding hearts’, whose ‘well-intentioned anger...appeared to have been more destructive than anything’. (All this despite the fact that they had articulated a lucid strategy of divestment and achieved exactly what they set out to.) However, the artists themselves were ‘the only losers’, who had only succeeded in ‘raising the risk premium’ on ‘private philanthropy’ (which in this case was precisely the point, but in all other respects was a hysterical exaggeration, and in any case failed to comprehend that – unimaginably it seemed – the artists were acting according to principles beyond self-interest). Conversely, according to yet another commentator, ‘it didn’t really cost them anything’, and they ‘probably gained some self-satisfaction’ or were even in it for ‘international publicity’ in ‘a shrewd career move’ (this last is beneath comment, even from me). On the other hand, the artists were accused of being ‘morally inconsistent’ or even ‘hypocrites’ who now faced a ‘dilemma’ (that word again!) in returning to the Biennale or accepting government funding in future (this from various ill-informed commentators, who evidently failed to grasp the difference between public money collected by the tax department and distributed by funding bodies that have nothing to do with the current government's detention-centre policy, and corporate profits derived from the management of those very detention centres). Moreover, the cost of their actions would now be somehow ‘born by taxpayers’ (a common complaint against artists, which conveniently ignores the fact that they’re taxpayers themselves). Artists in general should ‘stick to expressing themselves through their art’, according to the general manager of another arts organization sponsored by Transfield (who would be wise to follow his own advice and refrain from telling his employees what to do as private or public citizens). Meanwhile, arts managers that ‘negotiate with those who don’t agree with their sponsorship choices’ (i.e. artists) were compared to governments that ‘negotiate with terrorists’.

Finally, in a genuine act of terrorism, the Attorney-General wrote to the Australia Council describing the outcome as ‘shameful’, ‘an appalling insult’ to ‘an exemplary corporate citizen’, and ‘the effective blackballing of a benefactor merely because of its commercial arrangements’. The letter directed the Council to ‘develop a policy’ that ‘deals with’ organizations who refuse or terminate corporate sponsorship (presumably by depriving them of funding): a spectacular flouting of ministerial propriety and failure to grasp the elementary principles of arm’s-length funding, for which this Attorney-General should immediately resign.

A hysterical orgy of word-mincing, mud-flinging and sabre-rattling, then, which reveals two things: (a) far from being ineffectual or inappropriate, the Biennale artists’ actions hit home, and hit a deep nerve; and (b) the reaction by all and sundry reveals the patronising contempt for artists (in this, not unlike asylum-seekers) held by those in power, from government ministers and corporate executives to arts organisation boards, directors, administrators, arts journalists, media hacks, and even some fellow artists – a contempt which leads to outrage when the worm turns.


The solidarity between artists and asylum seekers should come as no surprise. It’s the solidarity of minorities, groups, collectives or communities that are systematically deprived of power. I’ve been thinking about this since my time at APAM, and touched on it in my Postcards from Brisbane. There’s simply no doubt of it now in my mind, when I think about the social status, average income, employment prospects and, above all, lack of voice in decisions regarding their own affairs that artists have in our society. I mean Australian society specifically, for I don’t believe that a controversy of this kind would even be a controversy in Europe, where artists are at least treated with a modicum of professional respect. In American society, I suspect, artists are similarly despised and even mistrusted – unless of course they also happen to be celebrity entertainers. Elsewhere around the world, of course, they are persecuted – and in some cases, even flee to places like Australia seeking asylum.

The specific issue here (the response to Transfield’s sponsorship of the Biennale) has been repeatedly described as ‘complex’. In reality, as with all such so-called ‘wicked problems’, the problematic nexus between arts companies, corporate sponsorship, business and government is indeed ‘complex’, but the issue itself is simple. The detention policy is an abomination, those who implement and profit from it indeed ‘have blood on their hands’ (if that phrase means anything at all); those who accept sponsorship from them are compromised (as is inevitably the case to some degree with all forms of sponsorship); and artists and audiences have a right to conscientiously object to this form of ‘collaboration’ (I’m deliberately using the word here to evoke a different form of ‘power-sharing’ from the artistic kind). Indeed they have the right to abstain from and protest against any form of sponsorship or policy they feel compromises their freedom or values, as the Biennale artists have done.

More recently, an environmental protest group has threatened to stage a protest at GOMA this weekend against the gallery’s sponsorship by Santos (a mining company engaged in fracking for coal-seam gas who were recently fined for contaminating an aquifer in the Pillaga in northwest NSW with uranium). The protesters are targeting an installation by Cai Guo-Qiang (which I reviewed in an earlier Postcard from Brisbane) that ironically features an artificial pool of clear water, which they are proposing to temporarily ‘poison’ (presumably with a dye). The gallery has issued a statement supporting their right to protest peacefully as long as the safety of artworks and public are respected, but has called in the police to enforce this and refused to end its sponsorship agreement.

So far.


As artists and citizens, we live in testing times. In this country, and under this government, the situation is urgent with regard to human rights, social justice and environmental sustainability; war, conflict and largely man-made disasters loom large elsewhere around the world, and we’re all implicated as international citizens in an increasingly globalized world.

As the man said: what is to be done? On the issue of asylum seekers: everything possible until the current cruel and inhumane policy is overturned. On other fronts: responsible divestment from corporations that do harm is a not a bad starting point. Evil prevails when good people do nothing.

On the issue of giving and getting more power for artists: both top-down and grassroots action are required. In essence: those with power need to share it, and those who lack power need to seize it, wherever, whenever and however they can. In my view, this is the basic moral and practical principle to be applied in what is an essentially political question, in the arts and elsewhere.

To be more specific: I call for more artists to take and be given positions of power in existing arts organisations, including biennales, galleries, companies, venues, festivals, funding bodies, teaching and training institutions. I also call for more permanent salaried positions for artists as the core staff of arts companies. I stress the word ‘artists’, rather than arts managers and administrators (with no disrespect intended to the latter, who have their own essential skill-sets and provide their own essential services to the arts). In the context of the performing arts, I particularly include performers in the preceding recommendations, as key artists in those art-forms. In general, I recommend part-time and shared positions, to give more artists a share in that power, and allow them to continue to work as artists, rather than simply being absorbed into the ranks of management and replicating the status quo.

Beyond this: I call on more artists to seize the initiative politically and professionally, act on their own behalf, and set up and run their own organisations. The same goes for other marginalized groups: from workers and the unemployed, to young people, the elderly and disabled, women, members of sexual or cultural minorities, regional and remote communities, Aboriginal people and even – why not – asylum seekers and refugees.

That’s it. My Albany Manifesto.

More reviews on Perth arts and theatre next week.