ABC Unleashed: Whip it Good!

As the Spring Racing Carnival begins in earnest this weekend, Michael Hutak says new rules restricting how jockey's whip their horses are causing controversy.
Outside Melbourne Cup time, Australia's multi-billion dollar horse racing industry usually attracts the attention of the wider general public for all the wrong reasons: betting scams, race fixing, money laundering, "colourful" racing identities, horse doping and claims of animal cruelty are the typical narratives.
However, 2009 has been a year for rougher-than-usual hand-wringing for racing's bosses, faced with a public outcry over horse fatalities in jumps racing, the disturbing re-emergence of positive swabs for performance-enhancing drugs, cyber-attacks from the Russian mafia on Australia's booming online betting shops, and, taking centre stage at the moment, sweeping changes to the rules regarding the use of the whip in races.
The grand irony to all this negative publicity is that the racing game loves nothing more than a public row, and that's exactly what it's got following the introduction of the new whip regime at the start of the new season on August 1.
Racing NSW Chief Steward, Ray Murrihy, explained the new rules to the ABC: "Up to the last 200 metres they can only hit a horse 5 times. You can't lift your arm up above your head. (We have had certain jockeys who use to use the whip as if they were chopping a log with an axe.)
In the last 200m, you have to give the horse an opportunity to respond. You can't hit it every stride, but only every second stride, and on one occasion in the last 200m you can hit three strides in a row."
The cause célèbre came on August 22, when Sydney apprentice Daniel Ganderton was fined his riding fee and winning prizemoney percentage (about $4000 in all) and suspended for six race meetings after his winning the Group 3 Silver Shadow Stakes at Randwick on a three-year-old called Deer Valley.
Ganderton flouted the new restrictions, riding his mount with the whip right to the line, to win the race over another rival which was ridden within the new rules. Ganderton told stewards the horse wouldn't have won without the extra pressure, however, while the jockey copped the punishment, his mount kept the race, prompting calls of foul from punters and owners.
The Silver Shadow being a coveted event, the "winner" was now a much more valuable stud proposition, while the owners of the runner-up got zilch.
Even Murrihy admits that had the Silver Shadow been run on July 31, there would have been no fine, reprimand or suspension for Ganderton. "No, none at all. Wouldn't have contemplated it."
Jockeys, and high-profile owners and trainers have since gone ballistic, threatening what amounts to the turf equivalent of civil disobedience. "I'll be doing everything I can to win" said leading jockey Peter Robl. "And if that means hitting more than the allowable three strides in succession, then I'll be doing it. You won't find any other rider that won't do it in a million-dollar race when you are neck and neck with other horses."
Adman and racehorse owner, John Singleton, chimed in with advice to jockeys not to "worry about your fine, I'll pay you double the fee, just win the race". Big-time bookie, Robbie Waterhouse complained it was hitting his hip pocket: "Everyone is talking about not wanting to bet unless they see horses ridden out with the whip. I think it is starting to have an effect on betting turnover."
His wife, leading trainer Gai Waterhouse, dismissed the new restrictions as the unwanted handiwork of "do-gooders". Others bizarrely claimed it was all the fault of meddling "greenies".
While such carefree commentary is refreshing in an an age when sportspeople clog up the tube with banalities and platitudes, Robl claimed he'd been "misquoted" when pressed by stewards and said he would comply with the new rules.
The stewards then warned trainers and owners that it was an offence under the Australian Rules of Racing "if instructions are given or inducements are offered by any person that might result in a rider breaching the whip rules".
It may be an offence but enforcement is the issue. The jockeys also claim the new rules "are putting the health and safety of riders at risk", while they count how many times they've hit the horse instead of concentrating on riding naturally. Murrihy counters: "There's been markedly less interference in races. We haven't had a suspension for careless riding in the last 200m since the whip rule started."
It's not like the jockeys didn't know what was coming; the changes were announced in March after a wide ranging public inquiry conducted by the Australian Racing Board, taking submissions from both racing industry insiders, horse and animal welfare groups and the general public. They've had six months to prepare. Now they want the rules changed to allow them unfettered discretion to use the whip in the last 100 metres. The Australian Racing Board will hear their case next Thursday.
It's true that Sydney jockey Blake Shinn would have almost certainly lost last year's Melbourne Cup on Viewed had he ridden to the letter of the new rules.
By my count he hit the Bart Cummings-trained gelding 26 times in the last 200m. A rule punishing jockeys for excessive or improper use of the whip has been in place for more than two decades, however it was rarely enforced and never in living memory when horses are fighting out a tight finish.
"Historically, as long as horses were in contention for a placing, stewards were very reluctant to deem any riding excessive," admits Murrihy. "You could have had two horses fighting out a finish being hit 40 or 50 times with the whip. Now I don't recall ever in my career stewards penalising riders for being excessive when a placing was in contest. These new rules are designed to bring Australia in line with most other countries and with community standards that find it a bit abhorrent that a horse can be hit 40 or 50 times with the whip."
The new regime is more in line with South African rules which came into effect on January 1. In the UK, where animal welfare groups have been very successful in targeting abuses in horse racing, the whip is used very sparingly, and Murrihy says "it's fair to say now around the world the very best riders use a lot less whip".
Australian jockeys historically have an international reputation for being very tough on the animal and that strong whip riding was an accepted practice. Murrihy says people would be outraged today at the style of three-time Melbourne Cup winning jockey Jim Johnson, last week inducted into racing's Hall of Fame.
Australia now is only playing catch-up and many of today's best riders such as Kerrin McEvoy, Damien Oliver, Corey Brown, use much less whip to great effect. The modern jockey is more athletic, with more upper body strength and a propensity to put the whip away in the closing stages and really push their horses to the line.
It's generally accepted that the best "hands and heels" rider in the modern era was Peter Cook, who rode from the 60s to the 80s. Cook was a quiet, kind rider who could get the best out of a horse without the whip and who seldom resorted to it even in the tightest finish.
However punters, if one were to treat them as an undifferentiated mass, still want to see the jockey win at all costs, ideally with a whip in each hand with every last ounce extracted from the animal in a tight finish. To most, the whip is the accelerator.
Murrihy says ultimately it's counterproductive. "If you belt a horse hoping to instil a fear of the whip, chances are you'll make it into a dog. It won't respond to the whip, it gets sick of getting a hiding, it lays down and won't do its best."
The other innovation in force since August 1 is the exclusive use of a "less severe", padded whip which has a bark worse than its bite. Critics point out, if you're hitting horse with a whip and it supposedly doesn't hurt, then why restrict its use at all? Murrihy says the new whip is more accurately described as "a kinder whip, not that it doesn't hurt.
There's a general abhorrence to belting animals with anything, so if you simply say I'll give you a whip that doesn't hurt as much and you can hit it 40 times in the straight with this, I don't know that gets you over the welfare hurdle!"
Lou Reed used to sing about the whip "in love, not given lightly", and PETA believes the whip should be restricted to consenting adults only. However the whip is part and parcel of the relationship between human and the domesticated horse, a bond of master and slave stretching to pre-history.
In the equestrian world eventing and dressage, there are rules prohibiting and penalties applicable for excessive use of the whip. So it should stay in racing, and it will.
New rules in the racing game are always met with resistance by vested interests. When the administering of steroids for racehorses was banned in the early 1990s, many trainers claimed it would be the end of racing as we knew it. For some it nearly was: one leading Sydney trainer didn't train a winner for four months after the ban came into force.
In fact predictions of turf Armageddon have been the rote response when, for instance, whenever a "foreign" horse won the Melbourne Cup, when mobile phones were allowed on racecourses, when the TAB was first introduced and then when it was privatised, when the AJC Derby was moved from the Spring to the Autumn, when female jockeys were first given licences, when Robbie Waterhouse was banned over Fine Cotton and 17 years later when he was allowed back on the track, when cable TV broadcasts of the races began, when betting exchanges were allowed to operate, when night racing started - every change has been met with claims of falling sky.
All I can say is, as a journalist, it sure makes great copy.

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‘Reality’ bites at the La Budget Biennale

Displays of unbridled wealth are tipped to give way to retro recession chic at this year's Venice Biennale, the world's oldest, most-venerated annual contemporary art event. Held this year in the shadow of the global financial crisis, the international art market, a luxury market, is set to be reminded that collecting art is mostly discretionary. Michael Hutak reports.

Like last year’s return to minimalism on the catwalks, this year’s 53rd International Art Exhibition will reflect global belt-tightening with a back-to-reality motif from Swedish curator, Daniel Birnbaum, who will present "Making Worlds," which he says will emphasize process and materials and will be "closer to the process of production and the venues of creation and training -- the studio, the laboratory -- than traditional museum-style exhibitions”.

Accordingly, we can expect a more muted stanza in 2009 when the four-day preview or 'vernissage' kicks off on June 4, with the official opening two days later, when avant garde totems, Yoko Ono and John Baldessari, will be honoured with Golden Lions for careers that have “revolutionized the language of art”. Displays of unbridled wealth are tipped to give way to a revival of recession chic, and the corporate celebrations aboard the flotilla of luxury yachts, in six-hundred year old palazzi, and at swank already booked out hotels like the Cipriani, or just about any along the Grand Canal or the Lido, will be careful this year to avoid any association with the holders of so-called toxic assets.

Venice is in fact a many-headed “Mostra”, from the art olympics of the national pavilions at both the Giardini and scattered in palazzi throughout the city; to Birnbaum’s curated survey show at the Arsenale, to the ad-hoc independent and satellite shows which simply add to the frolic and ferment.

There will be enough on show to attract more than 50,000 artworld cognescenti to this treasured city to party, play, network or sell. The hard sell in Venice is not restricted to art objects or artists. A growing band of sovereign states turn up to buttress their national brand and draw a reflected glory from their official selections. In 1988, Australia was the last country to secure a lot on the hallowed bohemian Arcadia of the Giardini, one of just 26 elite nations, although our pavilion is widely regarded as a difficult space to present contemporary art, and is often mistaken as the restrooms for the imposing French pavilion which conceals it.

Selection for one’s national pavilion at Venice is often the peak of an artist’s career. While no correlative studies are extant, the attention an artist attracts in the lead up and at the Vernissage always effects prices. In 2007, emerging artist Shaun Gladwell was no exception when the work that appeared in curator Robert Storr’s official survey show, Storm Sequence, later sold at auction in Australia for $84,000, the highest price paid for a digital artwork in Australia.

Clearly the Gladwell phenomenon is still to peak, considering the Sydney-based artist’s selection again for the Australian pavilion this year. Given his 2007 Venice triumph, and his prominence since (he’s been in over 20 group exhibitions since), the perhaps predictable rumblings among Gladwell’s peers have come asking why another artist was not given the opportunity to enjoy the international exposure afforded by being the official selection? Professional development or professional jealousy? We asked Doug Hall AM, commissioner for the 2009 Australian exhibition, what the rationale was for selection in terms of international development of Australian contemporary art.

“Shaun Gladwell was selected because the selection panel thought he was the best fit in terms of the quality of his work, his international profile and career trajectory,” says Hall. “Shaun is a great Australian artist – and that above all was the main selection criteria. His work is fresh, relevant and speaks with an international voice. He was selected from five short-listed artists who submitted proposals to the 11 member selection panel.

“The fact that he was chosen as part of Robert Storr's curated show at the 2007 Venice Biennale wasn't a consideration - only past official Australian representatives are ineligible. We weren’t going to penalise an artist for being successful. The fact that Shaun exhibited Storr's show in 2007 adds to his value in representing Australia in 2009 – it allows a more in-depth exploration of his works by the various curators, artists, and other attending the Biennale.

“It's artists like Shaun, who already have some international profile, that exposure at the Venice Biennale tends to benefit most.”

Influenced by the outback, and Mad Max movies, Gladwell will present a “suite of videos accompanied by sound, photographic and sculptural works”.

The 53rd International Art Exhibition, directed by Daniel Birnbaum, runs from June 7th to November 22nd, 2009 (preview on 4th, 5th and 6th June 2009). Go to:

Satellites of Art

The energising art team of Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro get their widely expected big break with selection by curator Felicity Fenner for Australia’s major satellite show in Venice, Once Removed to be held at The Ludoteca, a former convent conveniently located in the sestiere between the main art venues of the Giardini and the Arsenale. Along with works by Vernon Ah Kee and Ken Yonetani, Healy & Cordeiro will present a new installation cut again with the rich vein of irony at play in works like last year’s show in Berlin with former Australian galerist, Gitte Weise. Works like Intelligent Design or Dust to Dust (which presents pulverised Ikea coffee tables in oak and glass vitrines) can be expected to attract critical attention, supported by pair’s judicious talent for incorporating objects and detritus found on site into their works. As we write the pair are preparing a massive installation for Venice at their Sydney studio, using a stack of old VHS cassettes and a caulking gun. Living as artworld intinerants with shows all over the world in recent years, Healy and Cordiero emerged out of Sydney’s lively artist-run space scene at the turn of the millennium and are represented by Sydney dealer, Barry Keldoulis.

Art champions package it up

Australian art bureaucrats consider Venice the premier forum for presenting our contemporary art to the world; a form of cultural diplomacy that brings real commercial benefits to Australian artists lucky enough to be chosen. The Australia Council contributes a base budget of $700,000 towards the Australian participation in Venice 2009. This is supported by a fundraising program (cash and in-kind) which takes cues from the previous two efforts managed by John Kaldor, art patron and 2005 and 2007 Commissioner. Kaldor fashioned the program with both "supporter packages" for individuals and corporate packages, similar in structure to the marketing of headline sporting events. There are two levels of supporter in the 2009 program – “associates” can give $2000 or more and “champions” can give $10,000 or more if they choose. While there are no quid pro quo’s, those that give can then partake in a series of special supporter events both in Australia and in Venice during the Vernissage. They can also receive Vernissage passes – near impossible to get without connections. However, “this is an act of giving for giving’s sake,” as Commissioner Doug Hall AM says. Major corporate sponsors this year are UBS and The Balnaves Foundation. Already in excess of $1 million in cash and in-kind contributions has been generated by the program. Should one suspect that Venice is the sweetest taxpayer-funded junket in the public service, the Australia Council assures us that “all official Australian events are geared towards raising the profile of the artists during the Vernissage period and boosting attendances at both the Australian Pavillion and Ludoteca. The council says maintaining profile during the Vernissage is crucial to attracting leading curators and other thought leaders to see the works. Collectors interested in becoming a supporter can contact the Australia Council on 02 9215 9090.


First published in Australian Art Collector No.48, April-June 2009

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Race Invaders

Michael Hutak writes about our responses to the globalisation of that distinctively Australian event, the Melbourne Cup...
<Cup Day, and Cup Day only, commands an attention, an interest, and an enthusiasm which are universal and spontaneous, not perfunctory. I can call to mind no specialised annual day in any country, whose approach fires the whole land with a conflagration of conversation, and preparation, and anticipation and jubilation. No day save this one.
Mark Twain, Following the Equator (1897)

When Mark Twain attended the Cup in 1895, Melbourne's population was barely a million and yet 10 per cent of the colony's population turned up that day to witness the event, a remarkable turnout. With Melbourne's population today roughly 3.5m, the Cup is only now again approaching the sort of mass appeal it enjoyed at the turn of the 20th century. Crowds of around 400,000 are expected over the four day carnival, precisely double the attendance in 1993 when Irish champion Vintage Crop became the first internationally-trained entry to win the race, heralding the advent of the Cup's "modern era", an era that coincides with the march of globalisation in trade and communications and in the horse racing business. The success of the event in recent years has been driven in part by the considerable public interest generated by the international contingent that hails typically from UK, Ireland, France and more recently Japan.

So it's Cup time again, and the international horses have arrived in numbers looking to win Australia's greatest horse race, this year worth a hefty 5.65 million Australian pesos. Eight internationals will start in the race and they make up seven of the top ten in the betting market, surprising considering for the visitors, it is no easy feat to win, with just two wins since Vintage Crop's (Media Puzzle in 2002 and Japan's Delta Blues in 2006). Add Australia's strict quarantine conditions to the rigours of travelling a horse across the other side of the world to race two miles, often in scorching heat, then for most the adventure ends up a folly costing at least $100,000.

Still, each year, as the first Tuesday in November doth approach, so crescendos the chorus of whining from local trainers and owners who can barely contain their protectionist disgust at the perceived superiority of the international runners. This Spring His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, was the first to deflate the national ego two weeks back when his classy chestnut All The Good strode away with the Caulfield Cup. This cued locals to bemoan more pillaging of homeland's glory, but they neglected to mention the win was the Sheikh's first Group 1 win in Australia in more than a decade trying.

On cue, the tabloids have been cranking up the emotive language in a brew of envy, gall and indignation: "we" are at "the mercy of the raiders"; the "foreign invaders" are so good they have an unfair "stranglehold" on the Cup; there are "fears" this year that "foreign" jockeys will "blight" the race by engaging in team riding, an illegal practice. And the broadsheets have also got into the act: "Australian racing's defence of the Melbourne Cup from a European blitz took a battering," railed the Sydney Morning Herald when construction tycoon Lloyd Williams' 2007 Cup winner, Efficient, was scratched from this year's event during the week. The nation must be at risk when it's left to a former casino boss to "repel the European Invasion" and save the nation from turf capitulation and global embarrassment.

And then there's Bart. Winner of the race an extraordinary 11 times, every year the old marvel clambers up onto the soapbox to tell why the foreigners should stop coming. This year Cummings said it was a case of "spot the Aussie", prompting a good comeback from Ireland's Aiden O'Brien, Coolmore's private and the world's leading trainer who is here with Cup favorite Septimus and two other lesser lights. Asked why his horse, the highest-rated stayer in training, would win: "Septimus, when you ask him, he gives it all.''

The visitors aren't averse to making their own threats, with UK jockey John Egan facing charges for calling local officials "tinpot Hitlers"! On Sunday Tom Magnier, son of Coolmore tycoon John Magnier, threatened to scratch Septimus, making the extraordinary claim that the Flemington track was "not safe, and we'd rather take the horse home than race in the cup... if the track isn't watered." The visitors always call for the track to be watered to improve the chances of European horses which prefer soft racing surfaces. Officials usually oblige, prompting more push back from the locals that the internationals are getting preferred treatment.


Twain's comment above illustrates the extraordinary popularity the Cup and horse racing held in earlier times in this country. It's not unreasonable to claim that Australians have historically displayed an obsession with the turf not seen among any other people, not even the country which was its cradle: mother England. In fact the thoroughbred is a man-made, in-bred genetic freak which to be eligible to race must be able to trace its family tree back to just three foundation Arabian stallions imported to England in the 18th century. The bluebloods of the turf hold a flattering mirror to the British aristocracy, to which it is its plaything. Breeding is everything, old chap, and the notion that we can breed "the best" with "the best" to realise the equine equivalent of a monarch, the champion racehorse, is the kind of ideology that can launch both a global empire and beget generation upon generation of upper-class twits. With inherited wealth to spare, the poms take their time with their horses, racing them sparingly while young, breeding them to stay the "classic" distance of a mile and half and beyond.

In Australia, it's different. Racing has been a working class and mass entertainment, and we often hear that in Australia the racetrack is the great leveler, where both toff and tradesman are equal before the judge's decision. (Tell that to the 'greencoat' standing guard at the Members' Enclosure gate.) Since the Cold War, we have bred for speed, not stamina, and for a quick return. We buy them as yearlings and race them into the ground at two and three, and then pass them off like a sub-prime loan to the nearest sucker at the first hint of unsoundness. Two year olds scampering with all the precocity of a Chinese gymnast are our go, pounding their baby legs over sprint courses for big prizemoney in races like Sydney's Golden Slipper. As for the Melbourne Cup, its two mile marathon distance has always been an anomaly, and before the era of the "overseas raiders", local trainers used to greet the "Kiwi invasion" of stayers in the English mould with a similar derision.

The Antipodean breed, while technically a thoroughbred, has historically not run thick with the bluest blood of the most influential UK and continental sirelines. Not until the 1990s, when the bloodstock industry went through a period of consolidation and globalisation which has seen the emergence of two dominant global breeding and racing operations: Ireland's Coolmore Stud and Dubai's Darley, owned by Shiekh Mohammed. Following the Shiekh's $400m purchase earlier this year of the country's biggest stable, Woodlands Stud, the two rivals have each established large Australian operations. Coolmore's billionaire owners race Cup favourite Septimus while the Sheikh's big hope, All the Good has been scratched. The racing game as it turns out is a fount of tolerance for the big spending Emir who, along with his brother Sheikh Hamdan build a global empire after rescuing the British racing industry from terminal decline when the local aristocracy were going through a tough patch in the 1970s.

With 24/7 coverage online and on cable TV, racing fans now follow the best horses on a global racing calendar: the Dubai World Cup in May, the Kentucky Derby and Royal Ascot in the Northern Summer, the Arc de Triomphe in October, the US Breeders Cup and the Melbourne Cup in November and the Japan Cup and Hong Kong Internationals in December. The ascension of the Melbourne Cup to the attention of this exalted audience has been due in no small measure to the trailblazing efforts of Weld and Vintage Crop and those that have since made the journey in numbers with, it must be said, not much success.

However the Cup going global seems to have ruptured the proud maelstrom of the Australian turf and the role a horse race plays in the national narrative. In a globalised world dominated by the large developed and emerging economies, "little Australia" must punch above its weight to stay in the game. But faced with international competition in the Melbourne Cup, the locals view themselves as wanting, their bubble of self-congratulation lanced like a boil full of hubris. For the rest of the year they remain convinced that our racing and horses are the best in the world. Except, when one looks at the results of the international horses, three cup wins in two decades, their dominance is also a myth. The key to this conundrum? Anthropomorphism. Thoroughbreds do not vote and are not citizens. Horses are stateless, have no truck with nationalism, couldn't care less about good breeding and have no idea what a cultural cringe is. They win because of talent and circumstance, not what it says on their trainer's passport.

Hutak's Cup tips: New Zealand four year old Nom du Jeu has a regal carriage, a powerful finish, deep wells of stamina and class to spare. Dermot Weld is back again with the classy mare Profound Beauty. With a postage stamp weight of 51.5kgs, and Glen Boss wasting to make the ride, the smart money is on. Melbourne grey Barbaricus has been the local revelation of the Spring. Will race handy and fight on to the finish.

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The Meltdown Cup

When John Howard dedicated his government to transforming Australia into the world's greatest share-owning democracy, the sly fox was tapping into that kink in the national identity that we love to gamble. That the nation "stops" for the Melbourne Cup is often cited as key evidence in this claim. But if the share market maintains its current trajectory, Cup Day may roll around to find a nation already dead in its tracks.

While the Spring racing hots up with tomorrow's star-studded Caulfield Guineas meeting, several big corporate sponsors of racing have announced they are are pulling their heads in at this year's Melbourne Cup carnival, courtesy of the global financial crisis. Investment banks are dropping out, stockbroking firms are winding back, headline sponsors are cutting costs posing the proposition that this year's Cup may see less gross fare for the ruling class and more fanfare for the common man. A paradigm shift from the pusillanimous to the parsimonious.

Being a long-time racing journalist, turf student, and devotee of the thoroughbred, I must admit to greeting this development with more than a degree of delight and a shiver of schadenfreude. For this turf traditionalist, the collapse of global capitalism is a small price to pay if it can make the big end of town less conspicuous at the track, and restore the focus back onto the horses, the hoops and their ding-dong battles for Group 1 glory down the Flemington straight. (Note to the uninitiated: racing aficionados adore alliteration, hyperbole, jargon and cliché.)

Once upon a Spring, it was the horses that were the stars, but since the mid-1990s attention on the nags has steadily diminished and the Cup carnival swung fully into the posture of the "Major Event", replete with corporate marquees, private boxes, hospitality on steroids, all-pervasive PR, marketing gone mad, and world's best practice gladhanding and networking.

Across the racecourse the strategy has worked: the Melbourne Cup Carnival is Australia's largest spectator event attracting well over 400,000 over its four days. Inside the so-called Birdcage is Australia's pre-eminent Major Event corporate location: a sprawling rabbit warren of elegant impermanence, corporate tents filled with celebrities major and minor, a roll call of inherited wealth, trust-fund kids, captains of industry, scions of the judiciary, society matrons, dubious divas, ladies that launch, fund managers, IP lawyers, media moguls, paperback writers, ad-men, minions of marketing, hangers-on, free-loaders... all guzzling as much free champagne and gorging as much gourmet finger food as is inhumanly possible.

"Major events are not fun, they're exhausting," says a media industry CEO who last year scored a coveted invite to the Birdcage's most sought after venue, the Emirates tent, where he witnessed the paparazzi go berserk over the fashionista face-off between Jennifer Hawkins (Myer) and Megan Gale (David Jones) against a backdrop of bubbling Venetian fountains inside the marquee. This is not as enticing as sounds. "You may be rubbing elbows with the elite of the elite, but you're still standing in queues for dining tables, in the company of people you wouldn't normally spend time with, overindulging in ways you know you will regret the next morning."

As corporate muscle displaces tradition, many long-term members of the Victoria Racing Club feel diminished when they previously felt exalted. There was a time when the Members Enclosure was the elite domain; today it's a kind of purgatory of privilege: still too exclusive for the public enclosure, not yet accepted into the Birdcage's cosseted inner sanctums. Maybe the pendulum will swing back a little for the old-world hoi polloi this year as hard times bring a reality check to the masters of the universe. Heaven knows they deserve a break.

Outside in the cheap seats, for the great plethora of punters who cram into Flemington's public areas over the carnival, this is all academic. Such is its scale, the crowd today is its own story and the disconnect with the races, while subtle, is certainly palpable: horses parade, races are run, winners return to scale, race after race but people are having too much fun to pay too much attention.

Part of racing's mythology is that Phar Lap's 1930 Melbourne Cup win gave heart and hope to an Australian public dispirited by the Great Depression. However in both the depressions of the 1890s and the 1930s, racing in general suffered from a reduction in gambling, resulting in reduced prizemoney, racetrack closures and a contraction in the breeding industry. Having just got over last year's equine influenza outbreak, the oulook is bleak.

With levels of personal debt in Australia today reportedly twice that during the Great Depression, and no nag the calibre of Phar Lap set to line up in this year's event, it seems like no one in their right mind should be gambling this Cup Day. And yet many will do just that. Collectively we will splurge like a nation plea bargaining temporary insanity, to the tune of at least $125m. Just whack it on the national plastic. For this one day of the year, we will splurge and gorge and guzzle - and when we wake up the following morning, head hurting, wallet empty, we will have little option but to say to ourselves: you can't complain Australia, you once had had it, and had it good.


First published online at ABC Unleashed

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Russian Pavilion, Venice Vernissage

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Grand Tour: stop, revive, survive

This Northern summer offers an once-in-a-decade opportunity for collectors to sample the latest trends in international contemporary market. Michael Hutak previews a blockbuster European season.

It swings round every ten years, the "harmonic convergence of super exhibitions", according to Artnet, that has signposted the phenomenal growth of the international market since the 1970s. 2007 will see the big four of contemporary events -- the Venice Biennale, Art Basel, documenta XII and the Münster Sculpture Project -- all open within a couple of weeks in June. This fortunate freak of scheduling delivers Basel, the Biennale, documenta, held once every five years, and Münster, held every ten years since 1977, to all strata of the international art milieu: artists, curators, gallerists, critics, consultants, bureaucrats, Museums, foundations, dealers, publishers. Oh, and collectors.

La Biennale di Venezia

With former Museum of Modern Art curator, Robert Storr, taking the reins, hopes for renewal for Venice are high this year. Curators of the world’s longest-running biennale have negotiated a rocky critical road over the last few stanzas. After the sprawling over-determined glut presided over by Italian contemporary art godfather, Francesco Bonami in 2003 (11 co-curators and 375 artists), came a vastly pared-down but no more engaging over-reaction from Spanish co-directors, Rosa Martínez and María de Corral, in 2005 (some 80 artists). Storr, who has had an unprecedented lead-in of 36 months since his appointment to prepare, is expected to deliver a more coherent vision, one that he has claimed will openly celebrate “the plural” as “the very essence” of art. For the Italian Pavilion, which is always given over to the director to make his own special statement on the contemporary scene, Storr has selected artists that include photographer, Rosemary Laing. New York represented Laing is the first Australian to be picked for the Italian Pavilion, eclipsing the past efforts of venerated Australian Venice veterans such as Nolan, Boyd, Kngwarreye or Tillers.

In the national lineup at this, the 52nd International Art Exhibition, Venice’s Olympian pretensions finally widen to include previously “unexplored” territories, with the addition of Turkey, India and Africa for the first time. This pitch has been mired in controversy over the choice of works from the Dokolo African Collection of Contemporary Art for the African exhibition, following reporting of Sindika Dokolo’s alleged links with Angola’s repressive diamond trade. Despite this development, the opening up of the Biennale to African art is a good thing, and means to reflect an international art scene which operates in an age of globalised trade and technological convergence, increasingly estranged from any notion of (an occidental) centre. Of course, Venice during the three day Vernissage literally embodies that centre, as the artworld’s rich and powerful, from billionaire collectors to celebrity artists, converge to see and be seen with 30,000 of their closest friends and admirers.

The Australia Council attributed 2005’s record attendance of 187,000 visitors to see Ricky Swallow at then Australian Pavilion to the efforts of entrepreneurial commissioner John Kaldor. Kaldor led a donor group of some 75 collectors around Venice who had paid a minimum $5000 to earn champion partner status as a supportor Australia’s Venice presence. All very corporate. Chosen to play for Australia this year are three artists – Susan Norrie, Daniel von Sturmer, and Callum Morton – whose work, in a break from tradition, will be presented in three different locales across Venice, a move away from the exclusive use of the unfortunate beach shack that doubles as the Australian Pavilion on the hallowed Giardini di Castello. This year von Sturmer’s video will inhabit the difficult Giardini space, while Norrie will show at the Fondazione Levi and Morton at an uncertain venue. Tracey Emin (Britain) and Sophie Calle (France) will add class to the contest. If you haven’t booked your room yet, you won’t be going.

Vernissage: June 7, 8, 9 for invited guests. Runs till November.

Art 38 Basel

After some well-earned R&R on the Veneto, most art life aficionados will car-pool private jets to deposit them in Basel, Switzerland, for the world’s premier commercial art fair. If Venice is for the artworld’s collective brainstrust, Basel is set up for its collective trust funds. At Art 38 Basel -- it’s their 38th year – organizers invite about 300 of the world’s leading contemporary art galleries which will display the often engaging wares of 2000 of the world’s leading artists; a show so exclusive, some of the world’s most prominent dealers can’t buy themselves an invite. For collectors, all this worlds’ best practice might make Basel appear as though its put on for those to whom six-figures for an artwork is small change. And it is. Still organisers claim the fifty thousand visitors it gets over 5 days “come to see the most rigorously juried selection of what the international art market has to offer, and to meet the insiders and stars of the art scene.” In a pluralist artworld this may seem hype, but it’s also true.

Art Basel divides itself up into Art Premiere (for multiples and editions and emerging galleries), Art Statements (a series of solo shows by selected artists) and Art Unlimited (for large-scale installations and projects). After you’ve snapped up a Miro, a Rusha, two Hirsts, and a Warhol, mingle with the great and good at the cafés on the Messeplatz. From “Down Under”, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery will travel to Basel for the twelfth consecutive year. And outside the main exhibition, the Liste 07 survey of young artists is always interesting and the extraordinary Beyeler Foundation, just outside Basel, will still have its landmark, Edvard Munch: Signs of Modern Art running (till 15 July.

Tuesday, 12 June, 2007 Vernissage for invited guests, runs till 17 June.

documenta XII

If Venice anoints the artists who will be sold at Basel, Kassel is where they typically made their name. Known for breaking the careers of younger artists, documenta’s key venue is the Fridericianum, opened in 1779 as Europe's first public museum. Bombed by the Allies in 1945, it’s damaged frame would be the venue of documenta I, in 1955 by Arnold Bode, whose exhibition of works by modernist icons such as Arp, Beckmann, Klee, Matisse, Mondrian, Kandinsky, de Chirico, Chagall and Picasso, among others, at once renewed post-war German art connection with its past and renounced the repression encapsulated by the Nazi’s infamous exhibition of “Entartete Kunst or Degenerate Art in Munich in 1937. Over the decades documenta, always influential, became archetypically monumental. Okwui Enwezor’s documenta XI in 2002 drew 650,000 visitors but was criticised for being so broad it verged on indigestible. documenta XII director Roger Buergel was tight-lipped on any concrete details at a press conference in February, and confirmed just two artists: Ferran Adria, who is actually a leading Barcelona chef; and Polish artist Artur Zmijewski, who will present a Bach cantata performed by a deaf choir. Buergal, an art historian, has revealed that he wants to ask his audience three questions: Is modernity our antiquity? What is bare life? and the ever-popular, Education: What is to be done? The cognoscenti’s concern is if we can’t come up with the answers who will have failed? Buergel or us? Kassell, the town, is a mixed bag. When visiting Australia earlier this year, curator Ruth Noack, coincidentally, also director Buergal’s partner, told the Sydney Morning Herald the “food is terrible, the hotel’s suck,” and “people only go to Kassel… for the art”. It gets crowded.

Vernissage: 14 & 15 June 2007.

sculpture projects muenster 07

It cannot be merely coinicidence that MoMA, New York, will open a 40-year retrospective of US sculptor Richard Serra’s monumental minimalism just two weeks before the fourth international Münster Sculpture Project, or the sculpture projects muenster. Mounted every ten years since 1977 in this lively German university town, Münster is the pinnacle for contemporary sculptors, and has been a bellwether to the careers of the likes of Serra, Jeff Koons, Donald Judd, Claes Oldenburg and Martin Kippenerger. This year 35 artists have been invited to create new, site-specific work in the city. Expect works from Thomas Schütte, Rosemarie Trockel, and Mark Wallinger to attract attention. The reliably brilliant and esteemed curator, Kasper König, will again oversee Munster, which he has nurtured since the beginning with Klaus Bussmann of the Landesmuseum in Munster.

Grand opening, 16 June


First published in Australian Art Collector

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Turner Prized

Michael Hutak profiles Australian critic and curator Jonathan Turner.

While the international success of Australian artists has become commonplace, it's much rarer to encounter a writer/curator making their mark in the rarefied circles of the international contemporary art scene. Which is what makes Sydney-born's Jonathan Turner Continental presence so noteworthy. Turner, working out of Rome and Amsterdam, has since the early 1980s curated more than 100 solo and group exhibitions in museums and galleries in Italy, The Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, the U.S., Thailand, Macau, Australia, New Zealand. He recently won the prestigious Premio A.B.O., awarded annually to the most influential critic/curator in Italian contemporary art and beyond. Previous recipients have included Rome's current Mayor Walter Veltroni, artists Joseph Kosuth and Enzo Cucchi, English collector Alex Sainsbury, and Danilo Eccher, director of Rome's Museum of Contemporary Art.

"Although it is just an ugly piece of metal, it is in solid silver," Turner quipped in an interview with Australian Art Collector on his rooftop terrace in central Rome. "They even bottle a special wine for the event." The award is named for its patron, Achille Bonito Oliva, director of the 1993 Venice Biennale and best known for single-handedly promoting the influential Italian contemporary movements, Ipermanierismo (Hypermannerism) and transavanguardia, (Trans-avantgarde). Turner first worked with Oliva in Venice in '93 when Turner was on the selection committee of Aperto, the section at Venice dedicated to emerging international talent which that year featured a young Sydney artist, Hany Armanious. Turner considers Oliva "one of the most brilliant, fascinating, charming, and also irritating men you are likely to meet. He was extremely important figure in Italian and European contemporary art in the 1960s and 1970s and invented, the Italian version of neo-expressionism. He identified it, he put it together, and basically proposed a completely different view of what Italian art was considered at the time, which was the arte povera, championed by Germano Celant."

Turner triangulates his time between Rome, Sydney and Amsterdam: "I've put on Italian and Australian shows in Holland as well as Dutch shows in Italy and so on." The author of scores of artists' monographs, he writes widely on European contemporary art for titles like ART + Auction and Flash Art, and has been the Rome correspondent for US magazine Artnews for more than 20 years. In Rome he has been a driving force behind the annual contemporary art fair RIPA and has had a long relationship with Il Ponte Contemporanea, Rome's leading contemporary commercial gallery, where in 2005 Turner curated and an all-Australian group show that featured Tracey Moffatt, Maree Azzopardi, Paul Ferman and others. Turner has also curated shows in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, mainly the Nederlands, for Australians Patricia Piccinini, John McRae, William Yang. In Australia he is probably best known for bringing a touring exhibition of iconic French art photographers Pierre et Gilles to Sydney and Melbourne in 1995. "I work a lot with Roslyn Oxley, Martin Browne and Robin Gibson in Sydney and with Tolarno in Melbourne and Libby Edwards." In the summer of 2007 Turner returned to Australia to curate solo shows for Azzopardi and Ferman.

However it's his internationalist approach that earned him the ABO. "I only work with artists whose work I appreciate. There are a lot artists, both Australian and otherwise, who I've been working with for more than 20 years … I'm not Italian, but I also don't view myself or my work as being a national representative of anything. And again, even though I've lived in Rome for more than twenty years now, I've returned every year to Australia to work - and I feel 'at home' wherever I am."

In this era of the touring blockbuster, Turner believes the independent contemporary art scene has adjusted well by "moving beyond elitism and is thriving. I'm seeing more private philanthropists than I did before, and more collectors and patrons are taking up the role of developing artists that business used to occupy more. I used to work a lot more with business, I'm not now. The corporations that are breaking up collections that they have spent years putting together are very ill-advised."

Turner's criteria for working with collectors: "Anyone with passion is perfect. A good collector tends to have such a strong vision of what they want and like that it's a pleasure to work with them. A collector is never wrong, just like an artist is never wrong." His approach to curating revolves around the demands of the space: "I only organize shows when I know exactly where it is going to be seen. I don't attempt to helicopter a show in, and say here it is, fit it in however you can. Each show must be tailored to the space it will be shown in. You don't try to pander to a particular taste and neither would you pretend that you're so fabulous that people must accept it from on high."

Turner eschews any adoption of a general philosophy of curating: "It can be ad-hoc. Artists tend to need help. And if I think they have talent and I like their work, then if I can help them I do. I'm a bit like a one-man Ministry of Culture." Meanwhile, the art life beckons and our interview ends: "I have to rush, I am going at midday to see two newly restored paintings by Caravaggio, which will be nice for the soul, since both are owned privately, and neither I have seen before."


First published in
Australian Art Collector
No.40, April 2007

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d/Archive: Michael Hutak

Archive of super 8 films courtesy d/lux/media/arts.

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Quai to the Kingdom

TEARS flowed freely at last week’s press preview of the landmark Aboriginal art commission at the Musée du Quai Branly, the new museum in the heart of Paris dedicated to non-western art. Surrounded by the media and basking under the artwork that has colonised the ceiling of one wing of the complex, East Arnhem Land artist Gulumbu Yunupingu broke down as she contemplated the moment. “I can’t believe I am here in Paris, underneath this, my gift to you. My painting brings us together and brings us healing; I am proud that you people here in Paris recognise my painting ... We standing here together. We are standing here strong.”

It was a cathartic moment at the end of a four-year journey that began when French President Jacques Chirac personally petitioned Prime Minister John Howard to join in his pet project on the Seine: a museum, a paean to the diversity and creativity of the world’s people, a project that could not be complete, implored Chirac, without a cultural contribution from Australia’s first people.

The $398m project, the first major museum to open in Paris since the Musée d’Orsay in 1986, attracted controversy from the outset. First due to its origins in two vast state collections of art and artefacts (some 350,000 objects) pillaged primarily from France’s former colonies, and secondly for its self-serving function as Chirac’s bricks-and-mortar legacy in the city where it all began for the former mayor.

In a multicultural nation recently racked by a rioting immigrant population drawn from former colonies, Chirac said the museum was an homage “to peoples who have suffered conquest, violence and humiliation”. Curiously, no solidarity with such black-armband sentiments was forthcoming from the large Australian contingent of benefactors, bureaucrats, curators, artists and their representatives in Paris to celebrate the product at hand, the $1.4m Australian Indigenous Art Commission at MQB.

There was much talk about this being the largest ever Aboriginal art commission, about the respect in Europe for Aboriginal painting, that it was finally being recognised in the cradle of modern art as one of the great movements of the 20th century. All of which is true, but the tone was hollow. As one local dealer in Aboriginal art complained, it was a story not underpinned by cultural cringe but overlaid with “cultural arrogance”. Another local said it had been “a difficult collaboration from the French side. The Australians seemed to think because they were paying for it, they could dictate to us.”

Official claims from both camps that the project puts “Australian indigenous art at the heart of the architectural project” are overstated if not inaccurate. The Australian artists’ efforts augment not the museum proper but its administration block: an ancillary, conventional modern office building which bears no immediately apparent relationship to the striking, unique structure housing the main collection. Putting architect Jean Nouvel’s protean reputation to one side, rather than a meeting of media, it appears the art has been accommodated into an already designed structure.

This accommodation, overseen by Sydney architects Cracknell & Lonergan, has nevertheless installed a visually stunning result, melding the designs and motifs of the eight artists into what are essentially typical workplaces, and avoiding what could easily have been a lapse into mere décor. The works, by artists of such standing as Yunupingu, Paddy Nyunkuny Bedford, and John Mawurndjul, are elegantly transposed onto the building’s surfaces using the structure as a gigantic framing device. As co-curator Hetti Perkins noted: “It is finished and it is good.” However, while the ceiling designs have been installed to be seen by passers-by from the street, the public will not have unfettered access inside. The permanent exhibition of Australian indigenous works in the MQB suffers for being tucked away and hung in relative obscurity, doing an injustice to the works on display, headed by a selection of barks acquired in the 1950s arranged floor to ceiling as if in a fin-de-siècle salon.

The Australia Council has attracted criticism for jumping at high-profile overseas opportunities which play well at home but leave no lasting footprints. This may be changing, with the announcement of a three-year program to promote indigenous art overseas, of which the MQB is the first project.

And when arts-loving adman Harold Mitchell was approached by the AC to donate $350,000 to secure the project to completion, he had long-term caveats. “We were excited by the project but suggested they take it a step further. So we pitched in another $150,000 for a publications program for 10 years and set up our young curators’ program.” Each year a young indigenous Australian curator will take up a residency at MQB and develop a project in conjunction with the museum.

Ironically, Mitchell admitted he doesn’t collect Aboriginal art himself. “Bugger me, I just don’t,” he told The Bulletin. “But I will now. I actually just believed in this project – I reckon it will be very good over the long term both for Aboriginal people and Aboriginal art. And we’ll be going up to some of the art communities later this year and we’ll make sure we pick up some pieces then.”.

First published in The Bulletin

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Dead Aphorism [1991 - 2006]

Dead Aphorism [1991-2006]
Colour photocopy on foamcore.
Exhibited at "Metaphysical TV [still]", May 2006, Loose Projects, Sydney



Metaphysical TV [still]

"Metaphysical TV" was the name of a group of film makers working in
Super 8 in the 1980s who generated their content by shooting directly off the tv
screen. The work in this show will not be screen-based but will be
stills and prints relating to the original obsessions of the group.

This show is also the first in a series of Loose Weeks at Loose
May 24 to May 27, 2006. Opening Wednesday, May 24, 6pm.
Loose Projects, 2nd Floor, 168 Day Street, Sydney.



Death on a Wing

A flu pandemic that could strike without warning and kill millions is on its way.

With the world economy locked into open trade and globalisation, and security wracked by terrorism and fundamentalism, you could forgive the planet’s leaders for being distracted. It’s hard to conceive of anything so tumultuous that it could deliver us beyond the post-September 11 era of suicide bombers and chronic poverty, religious fanaticism and rampant militarism, of record profits and jaded celebrities, cosmetic surgery and low interest rates.

Nothing, except a global influenza pandemic. With the conditions ripe and the world overdue for another global outbreak, government and corporate decision-makers have been jolted in recent months to consider the consequences.

Human flu pandemics spread quickly to all parts of the globe and typically infect more than a quarter of the total population. They deliver high levels of morbidity and mortality and cause major social disruption. There were three pandemics in the 20th century: in 1918, 1957 and 1968. In 1976, governments planned for an outbreak that never came. And there have been false alarms, where novel strains of the virus have been identified but have ended in few cases and limited human-to-human transmission. But in January 2004, health officials became alarmed at the outbreak in humans of a new and dangerous strain of the virulent H5N1 virus, better known as avian or bird flu in Asia. Officials believe all the prerequisites for the start of an influenza pandemic have been met save one: the establishment of efficient and sustained human-to-human transmission of the virus.

After H5N1’s first appearance in humans, in Hong Kong in 1997 when six out of 18 confirmed cases died, the spread ceased after authorities culled Hong Kong’s entire chicken population of 1.5 million. But the virus itself did not disappear. It simply retreated to China’s southern Guangdong province, where it had first been identified in ducks. Between 1998 and 2003, H5N1 evolved through 17 strains at high speed, becoming more pathogenic and resilient, hopping hosts from wild to domestic birds, and to mammals such as pigs and, since 2004, to humans again. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation says 140 million birds have died or been destroyed and the combined losses to gross domestic product are estimated at $US10bn to $US15bn ($12.97bn to $19.45bn). Since the first case in Vietnam in December 2003, there have been 111 laboratory-confirmed human cases of avian flu, with 57 deaths in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and now Indonesia. What has virologists worried is the potential of H5N1 to recombine into a virulent new human-to-human strain, capable of unleashing an unprecedented contagion around the world that would kill millions.

With the first official instance of human-to-human transmission reported in September 2004 in Thailand, the World Health Organisation declared the world had now “moved closer to a new pandemic than it has been at any time since 1968”. In February this year, WHO announced it had entered the pandemic alert period – phase three in its six-phase alert scale, where there are incidents of human infection with a new strain but as yet no human-to-human spread. Some experts believe we have already moved to phase four, with confirmed clusters of cases of human-to-human transmission in Vietnam and China and, last month, in Indonesia. More recently, the fact that migratory birds had spread the virus from western China to Russia’s European frontier in just three weeks – spurring five suspected human cases in northern Kazakhstan – have pushed consensus on the near-term probability of a pandemic from “if” to “when”.
How the pandemic would devastate Australia. If a pandemic with an attack rate of 25% (one-quarter of the population affected) were to occur again in Australia and there was no vaccine or treatment available, over a six-eight week period it could lead to:
* 13,000 to 44,000 deaths
* 57,900 to 148,000 hospitalisations
* 2.6 to 7.5 million outpatient visits.
The figures are estimates only and the likely outcomes associated with a pandemic will depend on many factors such as the transmissibility and virulence of the virus, and the availability and success of health and social interventions.
(Source: Australian Government Management Plan for Pandemic Influenza)


With the virus permanently established in birds in large parts of Asia, “the threat to human health will persist as long as the problem persists in animals”, says Dr Peter Horby, public health expert with WHO in Hanoi. Alarmed by the inadequacy of national and international plans to cope with such a global health emergency, two respected American journals, Foreign Affairs and Nature, in a co-ordinated effort devoted their July issues to “The Next Pandemic”.

In the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918, 400 million people were clinically infected and more than 40 million people perished, out of a global population of 2 billion. A pandemic of that order today would kill between 180 million and 360 million people within 18 months. World trade and international travel would be brought to a standstill, plummeting productivity would usher in economic depression, and the short supply and unequal distribution of effective drugs, coupled with overwhelmed public health facilities, quarantines and restrictions on the movement and association of citizens, would lead to social unrest that would destabilise governments everywhere, notwithstanding the exponential increase in security threats from insurgents and terrorists. Michael T. Osterholm, an infectious disease expert for the American Department of Homeland Security, writes in Foreign Affairs: “The reality of the coming pandemic ... cannot be avoided. Only its impact can be lessened.”

That’s the worst case scenario we should prepare for if we are to heed the warnings of respected health experts. The messages are getting through. In recent weeks, governments, international agencies and corporations have taken steps to brace for the coming calamity. Scientists, while alarmed, still cannot tell us when the pandemic will occur — it could be tomorrow, in six months or six years. But they have told political leaders it’s time to scramble, to begin planning for the worst and hoping for the best.

Still, no politician wants to risk being called Chicken Little. Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott told reporters last week: “There’s a fine line to be trod here between scaring people over something that might never happen and alerting people to something that may very well happen.” The federal government has walked that fine line in recent months, implanting the notion of pandemic preparedness into the public’s brain stem, while emphasising that we’re still in a “no worries, she’ll be right” phase.

Following WHO’s lead, Australia in March went to “Overseas Three” in its own six-step pandemic scale. In June, the government’s “Management Plan for Pandemic Influenza” was launched, along with a new slogan: Prepared and Protected. Abbott laid out Australia’s game plan: “The initial objective would be to attempt to prevent its appearance in Australia for as long as possible. Once there was a case in Australia, we would be determined to limit its spread within this country for as long as possible. And once there was a widespread outbreak, treatment and prevention, prophylaxis, would be our principal objective.”

Estimated deaths
* 1918 pandemic 40 million
* World War I 8.3 million

With WHO estimating at least a six-month lag from outbreak to the development of an effective vaccine, much has been made of the efficacy of the key anti-viral agent oseltamivir, with the tradename Tamiflu. Recent reports that the government has “cornered the world market” in Tamiflu ignore conflicting evidence that many of those infected with H5N1 who took Tamiflu still died, often from the secondary pneumonias that take the heaviest toll in such pandemics. “In responding to a pandemic,” Osterholm notes in Foreign Affairs, “Tamiflu could have a measurable impact in countries with sizeable stockpiles.” Like Australia. But there is “no evidence” that Tamiflu helps if the patient develops the “cytokine storm that characterises the recent H5N1 infections”. Here the immune system fights the virus with such ferocity that the lungs in a sense melt and the patient suffocates.

Public statements from all sides of politics in recent days reflect a lack of engagement with the nature of the threat identified by experts. Greens senator Bob Brown has called for Tamiflu to be sold over the counter, instead of only by prescription. The distinction is moot if there isn’t enough to go round. If the pandemic obliges by striking when we are ready, there will still only be one dose available for every five Australians. Latest clinical trials indicate the effective dose of Tamiflu is much higher than previously expected, meaning even less of the drug to go round. As for vaccine, Osterholm predicts it “would have no impact on the course of the virus in the first months and would likely play an extremely limited role worldwide”. And the government’s agreements with two overseas vaccine manufacturers may come to nothing should their host countries nationalise vaccine production in the event of a pandemic, as the US did in 1976 when it refused to share vaccine for the swine flu pandemic it was expecting but never came.
In a speech to the Australia Indonesia Business Council on August 1, Labor foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd identified “one of the key challenges in the early detection of bird flu was the reluctance of poultry farmers to report the disease for fear their entire flocks, and livelihoods, would be destroyed”. It may be a challenge in China, but for Australia the more pressing concern is when the human-to-human transmission takes hold and the disease sweeps in like any of the “normal” seasonal flus. In this situation, border protection becomes immaterial. According to Foreign AffairsLaurie Garrett, “No nation can erect a fortress against influenza ... national policy-makers would be wise to plan now for worst case scenarios involving quarantines, weakened armed services and dwindling hospital space and vaccines.

“The greatest weakness that each nation must individually address is the inability of their hospitals to cope with a sudden surge of new patients ... the potential for pandemic comes at a time when the world’s public health systems are severely taxed and have long been in decline.”
In this context, last week’s announcement by Abbott and state health ministers that they would stage a “mock outbreak” in December to test hospital capacity will be scrutinised – that’s if we get the luxury of having a trial run. The government’s worst case estimate is that in the event of a pandemic, 2.6 million people would need medical attention, with up to 148,000 hospitalised. We should expect that these numbers will be put to the test.

In the event of a pandemic, the flow of free and accurate information will be more than an ethic; it will be a matter of public health and safety. The last time the spectre of 1918 was invoked was in 1976 when US President Gerald Ford put the nation on alert. Swine flu never materialised, and Ford and confidence in the US public health system were damaged.

Chinese authorities were heavily criticised for suppressing news of the SARS outbreak, and then minimising its seriousness. Now there are worrying signs again from China. In July, a Hong Kong laboratory had its research on the H5N1 strain suspended by China’s Ministry of Agriculture. The ministry also dismissed research by the lab on the recent H5N1 outbreak among migratory birds in western China. The WHO has complained that China is not sharing samples of the outbreak strain.

All this highlights the need for international organisations like the WHO to be free to monitor any pandemic impartially. However, such organisations are critically under-resourced. The WHO has an annual budget of just $400m, and can intervene only when invited by a country.

* H5N1 has found a new ecological niche in poultry in parts of Asia.
* The virus is now more deadly in poultry and in the mammalian mouse model.
* New animals – cats and tigers – are becoming infected for the first time, suggesting the virus is expanding its host range.
* Domestic ducks are excreting large quantities of virus without showing symptoms.
* Viruses from 2004 survive longer in the environment than viruses from 1997.
* The virus is killing at least some wild migratory birds.
* These changes have created multiple opportunities for a pandemic virus to emerge.

First published in The Bulletin

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Venice Biennale: It's the thought that counts

The invisible, the maudlin, the magic at the 51st Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte - AKA the Venice Biennale.

“Ohhh! This is so contempory [sic], contempory, contempory.” So mocked the fake gallery attendants in a singsong that greeted art lovers who wandered into the German Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, the world’s oldest and most prestigious contemporary art festival.

Employed by 29-year-old Berliner Tino Sehgal, the attendants were the artwork. Their catchy refrain would prove difficult to shake, as some 15,000 critics, curators and collectors – and more than a few stray movie and pop stars – hummed their way across the sinking city, devouring the latest the art world has to offer.

In the 51st Biennale to inhabit the elegant Giardini di Castello and some 40 other splendid Venetian venues, that offering boiled down to reams of video art, stacks of installation, oodles of photography, a painting or two, and a sizeable dose of the proudly unclassifiable – works such as Sehgal’s, or works such as could be found (or rather not found) at the Romanian pavilion. Here Daniel Knorr decided that the exhibition space, left unkempt since the 2003 Biennale, looked fine just as he found it. It was the latest in a series of works he calls “invisible” art. It’s the thought that counts. And in the cerebral world of contemporary art, that’s often all there is.

In the elder statesperson category, the transatlantic alliance posed by professional iconoclasts Gilbert & George in the British pavilion and the magnificently maudlin works of American painter Ed Ruscha was more than matched for Old Europe by veteran French installation artist Annette Messager, whose gorgeous, if incomprehensible, telling of the tale of Pinocchio won her the Golden Lion for Best National Pavilion.

No such ethereal mind games at the Australian Pavilion, where art ain’t art unless you can see it, smell it, pick it up and either buy it, or damage it and have to pay for it. New traditionalist woodworker Ricky Swallow presented his new selection of hand-made sculptures carved from jetulong to augment his 2003 masterpiece Killing Time, which took pride of place in the dimly lit pre-fab pavilion that could double as a demountable schoolroom or a stylish beach shack, circa 1988.

London resident Swallow scooped the pool on the opening day of the press preview, thanks to the hallowed presence of Cate Blanchett, who was convinced by Sydney art dealer Martin Browne to lend some Hollywood glamour for “Team Australia”. Blanchett quickly took it away with her again after a chaotic photo opportunity and a rousing, generous speech – “This is visceral stuff: blood and guts, death, the theatre of display, the pivot point between bloom and decay ...” – leaving only Swallow’s menacing works to fly the flag at these art olympics. Sadly the publicity coup generated by Our Cate only deflected attention from Swallow’s gruesome 1:1 dioramas of “freshly” killed animals, skeletons, skulls and vipers: “Blanchett supports artist in Venice” read a typical headline.

Elsewhere, reviews have been favourable. London’s Daily Telegraph listed Swallow as one of the Biennale’s “Ten Hot Artists”, lauding his “certain boyish cool”. More important for the artist’s career was the steady stream of art world heavyweights who popped in to ogle: Tate Modern director Vincente Todoli, Peggy Guggenheim director Philip Rylands, Biennale president Davide Croff, and curators from Britain’s National Gallery and New York’s MoMA. And über-curator Robert Storr, already appointed director of the 2007 Biennale, spent an hour with Swallow and his curator Charlotte Day, dissecting the work the day before the exhibition opened to the press.

Swallow, stoic son of a fisherman, remained above the hubbub even as he bathed in the limelight: “Having been cooped up in abstract isolation for the better part of a year producing these works, it’s been very rewarding to see them suddenly unleashed to this sort of reception,” he told The Bulletin. “But I really don’t think we’ll be able to assess what it means to show here until all this dies down a little.”

The Australia Council spent $1.4m on this year’s Venice adventure, more than half of it coming from private funds marshalled by Sydney arts patron John Kaldor, who was appointed official commissioner. The funding structure set up by Kaldor looked more like an Olympic bid, with its hierarchy of corporate and private donors. To be included in Kaldor’s inner sanctum cost $25,000. For $5000, you got listed in the official catalogue as a “Champion Donor”, plus a private tour of the Guggenheim and tickets to an ultra-exclusive Australian party at the Hotel Cipriani, an event that put plenty of noses out of joint among the large Australian contingent in Venice. While the event may have (briefly) “boasted” a celebrity in the form of Rolling Stone guitarist Ron Wood, the tenor was more that of the launch of a new managed fund than a celebration of a gifted Australian artist – or of Australian art for that matter.

The real tale of Australia at Venice was a repeat of 2003, when the only living Australian artist on show was the one we got to choose for our own pavilion. The Australia Council says they invited Biennale co-curator Rosa Martinez to visit Australia to assess artists for the curated shows outside the Giardini, “but she couldn’t find the time to come”. Beyond the national pavilions, Martinez and co-curator Maria de Corral have put together two spare but exhilarating shows of just 90 artists with stellar works by the great, such as Francis Bacon, Philip Guston and Marlene Dumas, and the very, very good, such as video artists, South African Candice Breitz and Korean Kimsooja. This is in stark contrast to 2003 director Francesco Bonami’s sprawling effort, when he enlisted 12 curators to mount a show of 350 artists.

It wouldn’t be a Biennale without controversy and this year another German, 2001 Golden Lion winner Gregor Schneider, obliged when his proposal for a huge black metal cube for Piazza San Marco was deemed too provocative. The work, a replica of the sacred Ka’ba in Mecca, caused consternation among organisers who were “concerned that it could hurt the religious emotions of the Muslim community”. Fears that the work would render the city a target for terrorist attack shows just how far freedom of expression has been wound back in the post-September 11 era.

The Venice Biennale runs until November.


First published in The Bulletin, Volume 123; Number 12



Market penetration

A LONG time ago, in a land far away, The Blob was one of my favourite movies. Apparently they're doing a remake. That's about all I can be bothered finding out about the remake of the The Blob at this stage.

If you want to know more go and look it up yourself. There are stacks of online resources where you can get all the information you could ever possibly want - and never possibly need - about The Blob and the remake of The Blob. All the goss, all the speculation, all the dross that's unfit to print, but that's so easy and painless to publish online.

And herein lies a problem. The web is awash with too much publicity for nothing worth promoting. Too much spin masquerading as informed opinion. Today movie marketing and film culture are interchangeable, indistinguishable. It is almost exclusively a commercialised sphere - not exactly news in an era of unprecedented penetration of the market into everyday life, almost everywhere on Earth.

American cinema, in particular, is looking wan and tired as its big screen epics heave and clumber round the cineplexes, creating carefully staged ripples of soon-to-be-forgotten pyrotechnic spectacle. As a mass cultural phenomenon, The Movie seems to be losing its conceptual lustre before our very eyes, fragmenting into re-usable chunks of corporate output, part of a matrix of cultural products that includes games, DVDs, marketing and merchandise. Profits are up, gravitas is down.

The surging games industry, now a bigger entertainment "sector" in raw market terms, is itself driving much movie content, while throwing up a greater challenge to the global cultural hegemony of "Hollywood" than TV ever did in the '60s. TV's challenge spurred a financial crisis in the movie business. Today its challenge is one of relevance, supercession and obsolescence. If Hollywood doesn't speak for America Inc. or serve the nation as Washington's mouthpiece anymore, who does it speak for? Moreover, who cares?

The US movie business is geared to serving shareholders and corporate masters over audiences. In fact they're in the business of creating audiences; it's the audience that's the product, not the movie; it's the audience that delivers the profit, not the movie. Most movies are just steaming piles of creative and intellectual waste made only to deliver us - and we're just here to be seduced then abandoned (A.K.A. entertained). This is rarely a satisfactory contract, and irreparable disconnect is imminent, if not already upon us. Even in the face of unprecedented competition for entertainment dollar, the movie business appears on a mission to drive away its key profit driver - its audience - through sheer boredom and indifference.

In other words, enough words wasted on the remake of The Blob. I may catch it on cable in a year or two. Then I'll forget it immediately.

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Mona Hatoum: Exile from main street

Endoscopy, electricity and estrangement drive the thought-provoking art of Mona Hatoum.

"I don't know where this is going," interjects Mona Hatoum during an exclusive interview with The Bulletin last month. "Is this about me or is it about the work?" Well, when you're one of the most lionised figures in contemporary art, about to mount your first Australian show, and it's called Over My Dead Body, then it's got to be about both.

A survey of Hatoum's sculpture, performance and installation since 1992, the show was nabbed for Sydney by Museum of Contemporary Art director Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, when she saw it at Berlin's prestigious Hamburger Kunsthalle lastyear. Hatoum will be in Sydney to oversee the show's installation and participate in public Q&A sessions.

"Much of my work gives a sense of uneasiness with the world," says the Beirut-born Palestinian, who has lived in Britain since 1975 when civil war broke out in Lebanon. "There's an estrangement or alienation ... A lot of works refer to everyday objects which in being transformed become unusable or threatening. There's an undercurrent of some kind of malevolent force." For instance Incommunicado (1993) presents a cot as designed by sadists, made from cold steel with a base of razor-wire where the mattress should be. Malevolent indeed, but in terms of pure design, it is cold, seductive and beautifully executed.

More recent work such as Homebound (2000) "deals with the home and can be seen in terms of women and domestic entrapment, domestic violence". An array of objects - tables, chairs, cups, lampshades, beds - are wired for electricity and alternately glow and buzz. Surrounding the exhibit is a wire fence that has the spectator wondering if it too is electrified. Hatoum says "it's really just to make people question their environment". One much-visited theme refers to architecture as "a kind of institutional violence - as structures that imprison, constrict or regiment the body in some way." In Light Sentence (1992), a "swinging lightbulb casts moving shadows against the wire-mesh [cage] and the whole effect is kind of woozy, like the ground is shifting under your feet." And let's not forget surveillance. InHatoum's celebrated Corps Etranger (Foreign Body), a microscopic camera makes a strangely compelling journey. "The film is shot inside my body using endoscopy," she explains. "It's very seductive but also disgusting. People want to follow it and see where it's going ... it has this double edge to it. It's like invading the boundaries of the body and taking surveillance to an extreme."

Hatoum is also keen to set the record straight on the media’s tendency to distort and “sex up” her biography as some sort of “exotic other”.

“It is a problem,” she laments. “Some people always think that I’m speaking as someone who grew up in Lebanon or from the experience of an exile. It does sometimes enter into the work because I have been displaced, because I’ve had to deal with very different environments, leaving my culture and entering another culture, nothing is secure or stable or understandable, but it doesn’t mean that everything I do is framed by my biography. The geographic part is not what makes the work.

“People often call me a refugee, but please do not describe me as a refugee,” she continues. “It’s an insult to refugees to call me one and I don’t want people to think I’m trying to get any mileage that way. I mean I’m exiled from Lebanon, my parents were exiled from Palestine, but they were never actually refugees.” Hatoum cites a recent monograph that said her my mother (who died three years ago) was living in Sabra and Sha-tila camp, “which is simply not true.”

“I don’t where people get these bizarre facts from. One writer said Light Sentence was about the architecture of the Palestinian camps – I mean how did they come up with that? They obviously have never been to a Palestinian camp, these places grow up very organically, there’s nothing programmatic or regimented about them.”

Hatoum’s is the exemplary post-Cold War contemporary art resume: a graduate of London’s esteemed Slade School of Art, represented in serious public collections from MoMA to the Tate, she had her first solo show at the Pompidou in 1994; was short listed for the Turner Prize in 1995 (and was favoured to win but was pipped by the Shark-embalming controversialist, Damien Hirst); joined Jay Jopling’s white hot stable at White Cube gallery in London the same year; was included in the Charles Saatchi’s landmark landmark 1997 show, Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection; and since the early nineties has been traveling the globe, mounting shows of destabilising wit in public galleries, museums and art fairs, all to a chorus of gut-wrenching, teeth grinding approbation.

Not that it’s gone to her head. She denounces any association with the YBA’s and renounces the patronage of Saatchi: “I’m ten years older than all these guys. The only reason I was in Sensation is that Saatchi got his hands on one of my works. In fact at my first show at White Cube (in 1995) he wanted to buy everything and I said no, I didn’t want to be part of that. He managed to get hold of a couple of works and that was why I was in Sensation but now he’s since sold them all.” (Coincidentally, Deep Throat (1996), the work that appeared in Sensation, still stands as Hatoum’s auction saleroom record, selling for £60,950 at Christie’s London in 2002, against an estimate of £25,000-£30,000.) In an age when artists rush to play self-promoting entreprenuer, constructing celebrity to seduce collectors and seeking publicity to attract commissions, Hatoum’s unguarded commitment to art before the art system is refreshing, and undoubtedly (and ironically) one key to her success.

Hatoum was visiting London in 1975 with her parents when the unholy hell of civil war broke out in Lebanon. She would remain in London pursuing a career as an artist. Now it’s collectors and curators who pursue Hatoum and the curators are winning. “I prefer to have my work bought by museums - I’ve only ever done one private commission,” she admits. “I’m always being asked to do private commissions but I don’t really like that very much… I want the work to exist in the public domain and be visible to as many people as possible.”

Firmly in mid-career, approaching two decades at the peak of her profession, can there still be much to wring one’s hands about in this life? You bet. “If one feels alienated or whatever, the fact that one becomes successful, has a bit more money in the bank or becomes recognized as an artist won’t necessarily change that,” she replies. With lesser lights you might doubt their sincerity, but Matoum displays such a healthy indifference to flattery and critical distance from success that it’s obvious she remains steadfastly uncomfortable about the state of world and burns with a need to say so – no matter how wacky, obscure or difficult the saying might be. And hey, it’s contemporary art and she can get away with it.

“Recently I was asked recently why I wanted to be an artist and I replied probably because artists are permitted to break rules. I always felt I was in a very restricted society growing up in Lebanon and felt that art was one way out of that, a licence to go crazy and do whatever I want.”

“For me, the impetus behind making works that show the world as an alien, foreign or maybe hostile place is in some way to articulate the experience of people who are culturally displaced, exiled, or feeling like a foreigner wherever (they) go – I mean that’s not a feeling one can ever change or that ever changes.”

The entire world will remain a foreign land for Mona Hatoum until she departs it. Luckily for posterity and the world’s patrimony, her artworks will remain to prod, provoke and stimulate us into considering what it means to belong to a society, a culture, a people - but also what it means to not belong, to be lonely in the crowd.

Over My Dead Body is at the MCA, Sydney, March 23-May 29

First published in
The Bulletin, Volume 123; Number 12

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Art Market Notebook: Summer 2005

Chalk up another astounding performance for the Australian art market in 2004, begging the question, just how long can these good times roll?

The most transparent barometer of artworld economic activity remains the auction scene and 2004 continued the stellar growth that has marked the longest upward trend in the domestic market's history. In terms of total sales at auction, the market has been growing at around 10 per cent per annum, according to records kept by the Australian Art Sales Digest. At the time of writing, 2004 was on target to break the magic $100 million barrier in total sales at auction, meaning the secondary market has increased in volume five-fold since 1993 when turnover was just $19.4 million.

Where’s the money coming from? It’s not coming from traditional collecting institutions, whose acquisition budgets are shrinking. And corporations and companies have been actually divesting themselves of non-core activities like art for several seasons now. New collectors, more than likely, are readers just like you: some, no doubt, have heard of the booty to be had in John Kelly’s Cow’s or Tim Maguire’s petunias and are seeking a “piece of the action”; others have simply done the math and are choosing art over other investment options; others still have caught the collecting bug and now officially count themselves art lovers.

While the auction sector has been stimulated at the top in recent years by furious competition between the so-called "big three" - international firms Sotheby's and Christie's, and locally-owned powerhouse Deutscher~Menzies - a raft of second tier (in terms of turnover) players - like Shapiro's, the new joint-venturers, Bonhams & Goodman, Lawson~Menzies, and Leonard Joel - now account for roughly a quarter of all auction activity.

At the blue-chip end, the lightning rod for much of this frenetic competition has been cleaning magnate Rod Menzies and his successful partnership with Melbourne dealer, Chris Deutscher. Since D~M's first Auction in April 1998, annual turnover has increased from $8.5 million in 1998 to $21.2 million** in 2003. As we write D~M was the only house to sell individual works for more than $1 million in 2004: Frederick McCubbin's Childhood Fancies (1905) for $1.23m in March and Brett Whiteley's Lavender Bay at Dusk (1984) for $1.17m in June. Tellingly, both benchmarks were sold at Sydney sales, which anecdotally at least is now the nation’s art collecting epicentre. Menzies’s foray into Sydney with his 2001 purchase of Lawsons has been tumultuous to say the least, with the proprietor's hands-on management approach spawning upheaval in terms of staff turnover. Latest casualty at the top is Paul Sumner, the former MD of Sotheby's Australia, who was engaged by Menzies upon his return from Sotheby's in London to reright the good ship L~M in 2003. Sumner and Deutscher, as naturally competitive heads of rival firms ignored the fact they were owned in the same interest, and set about competing for the same market. Menzies finally called a halt to the dog-eat-dog set-up early in 2004 when Sumner announced all the fine art business would henceforth be referred to Deutscher and L~M would concentrate on mounting a challenge to Sotheby's in the bull-market for Aboriginal art. Now Sumner himself has departed L~M and is running his own business "auction-broking", and marketing personalities.

The move into Aboriginal art for Lawsons was a case of join the bandwagon, with several firms in 2004 jumping into a sector which Sotheby's has had to itself for several years. Credit where credit's due, Sotheby's had done the hard yards developing the Aboriginal market both locally and internationally for a decade. It must irk them to now see its market share now being poached by "upstarts" like Christie's, Bonhams & Goodman, and Lawson~Menzies.

L~M offered 400 lots in their second Aboriginal art sale for the year in late November with sales hitting 80% by both volume and value. Highlights included the sale of Rover Thomas's major 1990's commission Wily Wily for $240,000, Dorothy Napangardi Robinson's Salt on Mina Mina for $85.400, and Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula's The Straightening of the Spears for $58,560. Shaun Dennison, Christie's new Aboriginal art specialist, adopted a more rigorous approach for his first sale with a small but select draft of 160 works. While the spin is rosy Dennison will want to improve rapidly on clearance rates of just over 50 per cent.

Earlier in the year Sotheby's Tim Klingender mounted his usual two-session blockbuster of indigenous art, clearing $6.6 million worth of works for the New York Stock Exchange-listed firm. The sale’s success was overshadowed by the failure of the sale’s “hero” lot, Rover Thomas’s Uluru (Ayers Rock) 1987, to meet it’s ambitious estimate of $700k-$1m. When it should have been bathing in adulation over a sale that could set 17 individual artist sale records, Sotheby’s copped media flak for inflating market expectations at the prospect of the indigenous art sector’s first “million dollar painting”. Some people are never satisfied. Ironically, sources say two private treaty sales of works by Emily Kame Kgwarreye and Thomas have both eclipsed the magic million mark, albeit away from prying eyes.

Kngwarreye and Thomas continue to dominate the market in terms of volume. Forty-nine Emilys changed hands at auction in 2004, out of 83 offerred, with works with a Delmore Gallery provenance featuring heavily among those lots passed-in. Female artists continue to be prominent with works by Queenie McKenzie, Dorothy Napangardi Robinson, Minnie Pwerle all keenly sought. The sudden interest in Central Desert painter Maggie Watson Napangardi is notable. Not often seen in the saleroom, her sale-topping Digging Stick Dreaming fetched $185,225 at Christie’s in October, more than double her previous auction record.

2004 was also the year the phrase “self managed super fund” became more popular among collectors than “your commission is how much?”. Suddenly self-styled art “consultants” are popping from behind plinths to spruik the attractiveness of buying fine art for your personal super fund. Such was the flurry of activity, the Australian Tax Office issued statements and directives that while art can be considered a bona-fide asset class, “storing” your investment above the mantelpiece to enjoy while you wait to retire could mean a “breach of the sole purpose test”. Until a test case is brought before the courts, we can assume that breaches are being made right across the country, such has been the market activity driven by this new source of funds.

Mid-year was dominated by John Shaeffer’s financial travails which necessitated dumping a lifetime’s collecting onto the market. Christie’s handled the so-called “garage sale of the century" - Shaeffer’s Bellevue Hill mansion - with $5.3 million worth of aplomb. Shaeffer’s main game would be played offshore, in London, where the cream of his collection of 19th century British art went under the hammer. The big loser was the Art Gallery of New South Wales and it’s art-loving public, which has seen scores of works “on loan” from Shaeffer retrieved and sold.

Outside the auction scene, commercial galleries continue to thrive, if this year’s Melbourne Art Fair in October is any indicator. Now run exclusively by the fair’s not-for-profit foundation after a bumpy history partnering with the Australian Commercial Galleries Association, this year’s fair showcased the wares of some 800 artists, represented by 81 galleries. Sales of $8 million represented an expected jump from 2002, when $6.3 million worth of primary works by living artists found homes. With 70 per cent of works selling for under $5000, the MAF offered testimony that bedrock of this bull market is the army of small collectors who have entered the market in the past five years.

** All prices quoted include the buyer's premium, and where applicable, GST.


First published in Australian Art Collector



Deal Me In: Shaun Dennison

Christie’s entered the burgeoning fray of the indigenous art market in October with a 168-lot auction in Sydney. The man plotting the strategy for the venerable French firm is tyro auction specialist, Shaun Dennison. Melbourne-based Dennison, a management consultant by trade and an art collector by passion, has only been collecting himself since 1996 – the year Emily Kame Kngwarreye died. Christie’s new Modern Aboriginal art specialist, spoke to Michael Hutak at the Paris preview of the sale in September, then by email after the sale in October.

Michael Hutak: Can you remember the first artwork you bought?

Sean Dennison: No but I remember the first show I attended, in 1996, it was a show of paintings by Emily (Kame Kngwarreye) at Lauraine Diggins, the first works in Ochre. The show was a complete sellout but the works weren’t particularly good for Emily and I immediately decided to find out more, and it just became my mission to understand this work and this market.

MH: How did you arrive at this venture?

SD: First I began collecting, then advising other people on what to collect. Then last year I met (Christie’s Australia managing director) Roger McIlroy. Roger had been keeping a watching brief on the Aboriginal market, waiting for the right conditions to enter the market. The turning point was last year’s Sotheby’s Aboriginal art auction which was incredibly successful - over $7 million in works sold. The market looked easily strong enough to handle more competition. And here we are – not forgetting three or four other auction houses have jumped in as well.

MH: How are you able to run a consulting business (Farrier Swier) and Christie’s “Modern Aboriginal Art” department at the same time?

SD: Well, you’re looking at the department – it’s all me, what you see in this catalogue is my selection and reflects my taste, these are my estimates, the lot. So it gets down to a time management issue and being self-employed there are a lot of synergies.

MH: You’ve never hung out a shingle as a dealer or advisor, what qualifies you for the job?

SD: Because I have a passionate and I would say deep knowledge gained in many different ways from being a collector. As a collector I have followed the auctions very closely and I have been advising people on buying works from the start. Dabbling in my passion got to a point where I’d had enough and wanted to do something.

MH: Have you suspended your own collecting?

SD: I only acquire works for myself through the primary market. Christie’s have a strict conflict of interest policy. I cannot buy any works in this catalogue.

MH: Having never put together a sale before, are you concerned about getting the pricing levels right first time?

SD: Auctions are pretty process-oriented things. It’s very structured. Do I have the eye for a good work? I’ve got that. Do I have an idea of what sells, I think I do. Are the estimates pegged at the right level, that’s yet to be seen. But also, there’s an abundance of material out there that people want to sell and it’s a relatively easy market to research. We’ve deliberately kept the sale modest at 168 lots to maximise the quality. I’ve looked at at least a thousand works and I have echanged an incredible amount of email.

MH: What do you mean when you define your sale as “Modern Aboriginal Art”

SD: I think it’s about time Aboriginal art was more defined in its various sectors. We’re trying to narrow the focus so ‘Modern Aboriginal art’ is works on board, paper and canvas from 1971, from Geoffrey Bardon to the modern day. It’s notable for what’s missing: bark artefacts, water colours pre-1970, so no (Albert) Namatjira or Hermannsberg artists. Also it’s a segment where some artists may not have appeared at auction before, such as Max Mansell.

MH: What is your attitude to provenance in choosing works for auction?

SD: Our policy is to only offer works whose provenance can be traced back an acknowledged Aboriginal art community, and/or by artists known to be represented by a gallery. In other words, I don’t mind if they don’t work for an art community as long as they’ve signed on with a representative or a gallery. I’m looking for relationships between artist and dealer such as Maggie Watson Napangardi and Gondwana, or Ginger Riley and Alcaston. I’m looking for an artist’s commitment to an agency because I think that’s where the top quality emerges. Our commitment is to quality and it worries me when an artist is painting for ten or 20 different sources.

MH: In the 1000 or so works you’ve sifted through for this sale have you seen any being passed off as the work others?

SD: Put it this way, I have seem some works which are either extraordinarily bad works [by name artists], or they are fakes.

MH: Why have you decided to preview in Paris and New York?

SD: It gives vendors the confidence to consign for a start. A key criteria for getting involved in this was that I take the work to the world. New York was an easier choice, there always been a market for Aboriginal art there. Paris, rather than London, I chose because of it’s access to the European market. My expectation from what I’ve seen here is that around half our sales will be overseas collectors. Although it may be hard to tell as most of the big collectors have local advisors and agents who may bid for them. Here in Paris there’s been several commitments to sales and if half of them end in sales it will have been worthwhile making the trip. We’ve had two collectors fly in from London, another is flying to New York for the preview.

MH: What collector demographic are you targeting with the sale?

SD: In Australia I’m looking to widen the market, to attract sales from non-indigenous Australian paintings to Aboriginal art. We have valued about 40 per cent of the catalogue under AUD$10k, about 7 works in the AUD$80-150k range, and only two works above estimated $150k.

With a pre-sale total estimate between $2.5-3.5 million, Christie’s Modern Aboriginal Art sale grossed $1,615,593 (includes premium & GST). Of 168 lots offered, 89 were sold, representing 53% by lot and 56 per cent by value. A respectable if modest opening. After the sale, AAC continued our interview with Dennison via email.

MH: Pleased with the result?

SD: Yes I was happy with the overall result of $1.75m (including buyer premium). Some individual results were very strong (such as $188,248 for Maggie Watson Napangardi’s Digging Stick, and Emily Kngwarreye Yam, lot 59 by Tommy Sheen).

MH: Was "Modern Aboriginal Art" the right way to go?

SD: I still think that defining Aboriginal art into various genres is important and I am likely to continue to do so. However, the next sale I may expand the genres offered.

MH: Were the Paris and New York previews worth the effort? How many sales were generated out of the previews? How active were international collectors at the sale?

SD: Given it was Christie's first stand-alone Aboriginal sale and obviously the first time viewed by Christie's overseas I am very happy with the participation from overseas bidders. Not only did overseas bidders underbid a number of paintings, but in terms of total sales about one third by number and 40% by value went overseas.

MH: How do you think you fared on setting estimates?

SD: I am generally happy. I believe the key is to build on Christie's client base rather than refine estimates.

MH: Any general comments on strategy, the frequency of sales, or the size of catalogue?

SD: I am still to finalise my view on the strategy for 2005, but I think that I had about the right number of lots (I wouldn't go above 200). One sale a year is to be offered, but as I said above, maybe we will expand the genre of Aboriginal art offered to, for instance, ‘Modern and Traditional’.

MH: Were any museums, local or international, buying or bidding?

SD: No, there was no institutional interest.


Abridged version published in Australian Art Collector

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Ricky Swallow: Wood for Thought

Australian sculptor Ricky Swallow, a mastercraftsman carving out a significant niche in the artworld, joins hallowed company with his appearance at the Venice Biennale, writes Michael Hutak.

TIME is running out for rising art star Ricky Swallow. The Venice Biennale is only eight months away and Australia's official representative is feeling the pinch. Two large blocks of jelutong, the Malay hardwood that this master sculptor favours, are still being chainsawed down to size by an assistant, not yet ready for Swallow's chisels and hammers to hone into an immaculate replica of the human skeleton that sits at their side, waiting patiently. Across the studio another curio, a bicycle courier's crash helmet overrun with snakes, is only just taking shape. The man himself is softly spoken, slight, and slightly harried.

"I believe you should only do one thing at a time," he tells The Bulletin on this grey London afternoon in his East End studio. "But right now my head is in three pieces instead of one. This one [the helmet and snakes] should have been finished by now. That one [the skeleton] needs to get started, and the other involves taxidermy and I still have to see a taxidermist next week." The time pressure and logistical demands of the Biennale are intense. "We can't afford to let things lapse into overtime - it's not like you can get an extension - and when things are sitting around half done, it can make me quite anxious."

He needn't be. The centrepiece of his show in the Australian pavilion on the Giardini de Castello will be his acclaimed "masterpiece" Killing Time, recently acquired by the Art Gallery of NSW. During the Renaissance the masterpiece was the work that marked the end of an artist's apprenticeship, whenceforth the artist joined the ranks of master and could set up his own studio. Killing Time has afforded Swallow just such a rite of passage. Seven months in the making, it is a graceful, compelling and uncanny full-scale replica of Swallow's childhood family table, decked with a messy array of "freshly" killed sea creatures, and country kitchen detritus - all meticulously carved from jelutong. It is the art-world equivalent of a barbecue stopper, with the devil in the detailing: "It's an attempt to try and catalogue all the things that I've killed," Swallow says dryly.

Astonishing as it may seem, Swallow is completely self-taught in wood carving, relying on persistence rather than formal training. "You've either got some sort of gift for it or you haven't. I've always thought it better to be a pirate than an expert in any medium; it's better to find your own attitude within it." At one point, when he declares, cautiously, that he thinks "skill is back", it comes almost as an admission. Yet it is precisely his skill as a craftsman that has put him front and centre with critics and collectors alike. While his contemporaries wring their hands about what it means to be an artist in the age of digital reproduction, Swallow has been busy carving hand-made 1:1 replicas of obsolete consumer items and pop cultural icons - a cardboard bust of Darth Vader, a metal detector made of PVC and epoxy, a BMX bike, an '80s ghetto-blaster, a Pirelli tyre, an Apple Powerbook and mouse made of wood - objects rendered with such precision that the artist's hand is actually effaced.

"For me a work is finished when it looks like no one's touched it," he says, "because what I do when I carve is somehow to eradicate that process, kind of removing the mark, in a way I keep promising to leave some more of those marks and I think it's gonna happen with this guy [pointing to the skeleton] because ultimately it's a known fact that I've made them."

We might be tempted to look for a conceptual smuggler in Swallow, an artist able to ferry subversive ideas to the cognoscenti while everyone else remains dazzled by the simple novelty of a contemporary artist who is master of his medium. But since moving to London last Christmas after two years in Los Angeles, Swallow has been taking cues not from Duchamp, Warhol or even Damien Hirst, but from 18th-century masters like art history's most acclaimed still-life painter, Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin, or forgotten styles like the vanitas, popular in 17th-century Holland, where images are composed with a symbology of death and mortality. In works such as Everything is Nothing (2003), in which a skull inhabits a sporty adidas hood, the execution is delivered with a light touch, and the work is anything but morbid, speaking instead of transcendence.

"I've always been attracted to the skeleton ... it's something that's been ingrained in my brain since I was a kid, through things like skateboard graphics and my brother's heavy metal posters. I'm now trying to arrange these influences with other more classical influences."

Thus Killing Time, for example, is not just an eccentric inventory of the sea creatures Swallow has "ended"; it is also a portrait of his father's profession (a fisherman), one that Swallow had the option of continuing. "Out of all my parents' [five] children, only my eldest brother pursued fishing for a while. Now he's stopped so the work also marks a pause in that tradition if you like."

In Venice, Killing Time will occupy the upper space of the pavilion while down below a second large-scale work, a wood-carved wall hanging, will mimic the still lifes of Chardin. "Upstairs things are preserved in time," he says. "Downstairs is much more about showing the ravage of time."

The Australia Council, the federally funded body which backs the Venice venture, has high hopes that Swallow's work will, at the very least, be timely. For the artist, expectation is high: "I haven't been banking on Venice but it is an opportunity to really start things internationally on a different level ... having your country's pavilion in Venice is the biggest opportunity you could get to be seen and, hopefully, respected in the art world."

At 29, Swallow is the youngest artist to be despatched to Venice since Australia's 1954 Biennale debut, when Sidney Nolan, William Dobell and Russell Drysdale flew the flag. Swallow joins an honour roll that also includes Arthur Streeton, Arthur Boyd, Mike Parr, Rosalie Gascoigne, Howard Arkley, Imants Tillers, Rover Thomas, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, and in 2003, Patricia Piccinini - a veritable Mount Olympus of post-war Australian artists.

"It's a compliment to be in that company but I don't think I make necessarily Australian work," he says. "You don't go over there to represent your country ... but I do want to land quite heavily in Venice. I do want to put a kink in some general perceptions about what happens in Australia. Because of the geographical distance and clich‚s about what Australia's about, there's not much awareness about how much good work's being made down there."

He believes he had to leave Australia to grow as an artist. After winning the $100,000 Contempora 5 Prize in 1999, Swallow was named Australia's most collectable artist two years running by Australian Art Collector. It all got too much. "When things were taking off in Australia and there was a lot of attention, I thought, 'Too much too soon, this is bad news and it's gonna really mess me up'. I feel less like that now. I'm starting to be recognised as an artist who has an international profile. The audience is bigger, more opportunities are opening up, whereas in Australia I can think of a handful of contemporary artists who stayed and have almost exhausted their museum opportunities and I'm not sure what else they can do next." Swallow is content to be an ambitious little fish in art's biggest pond - London is now the irrefutable epicentre of the known art universe.

Our interview took place on the Monday after London's biggest weekend in contemporary art in recorded times. No less than three major contemporary art fairs were mounted, with more than 250 of the world's leading galleries representing the work of 3000 artists. The biggest of the three, the Frieze Art Fair, attracted 42,000 visitors and turned over the equivalent of $64m in sales. In only its second year, Frieze is now the world's pre-eminent art fair, further indication that Swallow has chosen the right place at the right time. After being courted by leading London gallerist Stuart Shave at the Basel Art Fair in 2003, Swallow decided to not only move to London but also to cut formal ties with his American dealer, paring back his representation to Shave's Modernartinc, his long-term Sydney dealer, Darren Knight, and the Hamish McKay Gallery in Wellington, New Zealand.

Key to Swallow's work is investment of time and labour. These are unique objects, not multiples that can be dashed off by the score by assistants. But if success is measured by demand, then Swallow is feeling the pressure to increase output. "It's funny, but the more pressure there is, the less I've made every year. But because the pressure is there, because commercial galleries are businesses as well, it was a conscious decision to work with fewer galleries for now."

London may be home but he admits to recurring bouts of homesickness - for sunny California. "I still have attachments there and the climate is pretty seductive. You gotta dig deep to find the love in London. But I'm in a great position, I have a gallery that I think I'm gonna be really happy with, I'm in a relationship I'm happy with [with fellow artist Saskia Olde Wolbers, whose art-world fame eclipses Swallow's after her win in the prestigious Beck's Futures prize this year], I have the best studio I've ever had and I live in a nice place. All that softens things but it's still a hard city - even if you stand up, you're often not counted."

What does appeal to the diligent Swallow is the work ethic: "People work hard here; I know artists whose studios are like the Temple of Doom but they still go there to toil every day."

Taking the long view that we're all destined to dust, Swallow remains indifferent to the obligations recent art history places on young artists. Instead his art seeks to transcend death by rendering the everyday immortal. His armoury isn't irony: it's sincerity, skill, discipline, hard work - and a chisel.

"Three or four years ago when I was working in different types of media, it was all about looking at what I wanted to say and how best to say it. But since I've been working in the wood for the last three years, it's almost like I've found a medium that still challenges me all the time. There are pieces I can imagine that wouldn't work as a carving but this is the medium I'm working in and I've chosen to stick with for a while."

Swallow's neo-traditionalist gambit at Venice will be to invoke the past that lasts, an imaginary arcadia when paint was paint and being an artist meant more than turning on and off a light switch. Swallow eschews post-modernity's obligation to transgression and radicality for their own sake. "I don't have any moral stance on art. My role as a contemporary artist should be to mark the times."

Against a contemporary landscape that's cut its ties to hands-on talent and skill, Swallow's selling proposition is his talent and skill. Come Venice next June, we will discover if he's indeed swimming against the tide or if one Swallow doth a summer make.

First published in The Bulletin, Volume 122; Number 47


Aboriginal art in Paris: In your dreaming

A select slice of Paris’s art collecting elite gathered at elegant rooms on Avenue Matignon earlier this month for auction house Christie’s first-ever exhibition of Australian Aboriginal art. Thirty or so works on preview had been selected especially to tempt European tastes, pulled from 168 lots to be auctioned in Sydney on October 12. Last week another tranche of dots-and-dreaming lots from the sale went on view at Christie’s New York.

The sale itself represents a shake-up in the entire sector. With only sporadic competition, the Aboriginal art auction market has been virtually the personal fiefdom of Sotheby’s aboriginal art specialist Tim Klingender for almost a decade. But this year five different companies are conducting sales of Aboriginal art, with the French-owned Christie’s expected to snare the biggest slice of market share from its arch international rival.

Aboriginal art has been booming at home for more than 5 years, yet internationally the market remains underdeveloped, and even puny compared to other collecting categories. And while European collectors like Thomas Vroom or Karl-Heinz Essl still account for roughly a third of all auction sales of Aborginal art at the top of the market (above AUD $150,000), less than a score of such players operate at this level. Shaun Dennison, who joined Christie’s in March to head its new Aboriginal art department, is instead hunting growth opportunities at a lower level, in the middle band, both at home and abroad.

“We’re looking to widen the market,” said Dennison, “starting with diverting sales of non-Indigenous Australian paintings to Aboriginal art.” In a sale with a total value of $2.5m to 3.5m, about 40 per cent of the lots are estimated under $10,000, and just two above $150,000, top lot being Digging Stick Dreaming by Maggie Watson Napangardi. Dennison expects 50 per cent of sales to come from overseas buyers in Europe and North America.

Dennison has put together a sale short on numbers but high on quality, culling 168 works for sale after viewing more than 1000 works.” Dennison has also framed his sale as “modern Aboriginal art”, which he defines as from 1971 to the present day. “It’s from the time Geoffrey Bardon commissioned the Papunya boards to the present day and its restricted to works on board, paper, and canvas. We aren’t offering any barks or artefacts or watercolours pre 1970, none of the Hermannsburg artists like Albert Namatjira.”

Christie’s catalogue raises the bar in providing detailed provenance for every lot, something never seen in the sector before, from Sotheby’s or anyone else. “It worries me when an artist is painting for 10 or 20 different sources,” says Dennison. “So I’ve also tried to restrict myself to artists who have shown a commitment to selling through one or two agencies - such as Maggie Watson Napangardie and Gallery Gondwana, or Ginger Riley and Alcaston Gallery. That’s where the top quality emerges.”

So who attended the Paris preview to savour the swag of Emily Knwarreye’s, Rover Thomas’s and others? A mostly aging crew of permanent waves and intellectual beards: twinsets and pearls for Madame; basic black wrapped round gourmand waistlines for Monsieur. Canapés and champagne downed to an ambient didgeridoo soundtrack rounded out the picture. Nary a black person to be seen in cooee of this soirée - either Aboriginal or otherwise, in this, Europe’s most multi-ethnic metropolis.

In the absence of her husband and Ambassador to France, William Fisher, art-loving Kerry Fisher at least flew the flag with an egalitarian resolve: “It wouldn’t matter if it was an 'Australian-Australian’, a ‘European-Australian’ or an 'Aboriginal-Australian', we come to all the artists’ shows,” said Fisher. “We try to patronise everyone as much as we possibly can!"
Madame is not alone. Attitudes toward Aboriginal art in Europe remain confused and diffuse, undermined by the carpetbaggers selling sub-par art by the metre on the internet, and held back by poor marketing and persistent if antique notions that contemporary art by indigenous Australians is “folk art” and only of “anthropological” interest, and thus sits outside the scope of the serious modern or contemporary art collector, or the museum curator.

“It’s so very far away, your country, so it’s good that these works are shown here,” offered impeccably-tailored Eric Agote, a Parisian insurance executive and budding collector. “You always must be speaking to Europe if you want more of us to become aware of how original these works are.” Agote owns works by Balgo Hills’ Ningie Nangala and Greenie Purvis Apetyarr, artists whose works wear the bold graphic designs and direct use of line and colour so favoured among European collectors of Aboriginal art.

“Collectors here love the line, they love structure and clarity,” said art dealer, Stephane Jacob, a former student at the Louvre who has been selling Aboriginal art in Paris for more than 8 years. “What flys in Australia can flop in Europe, and vice versa,” said Jacob. “You find that artists who paint very direct, clean and colourful works - like Linda Syddick Napaljarri or Dave Pwerle Ross - sell very well here but not so well in Australia. But good luck trying to sell a Eubena (Nampitjin) here. …”

Dennison agreed, nominating a work in the sale by Balgo Hills artist Helicopter Tjungurrayi, pegged at $4000 upper estimate, as “being very cheap for Europe”. Jacob said prices are also often higher in Australia because, “understandably, Aboriginal art is traded much more heavily there.”

“In Australia you have a lot of private investors driven by individual superannuation funds: they buy, they sell. Here we think in the long term: we buy, we keep.”


Abridged version first published in The Bulletin



Deal Me In: Rex Irwin

Rex Irwin has been dealing in works by “important Australian and international artists” from his first floor rooms in Queen Street, Woollahra, since 1976. Irwin’s business is built around a stable of respected, mostly mid-career local artists, and a trade in works by some of the world’s most famous modernists, from Picasso, Hockney, Freud and Auerbach, to Australian icons like Fred Williams and John Brack.

Never lost for an opinion, Irwin is well placed to comment on the changes and trends that pervade Australia’s dynamic market for fine art. He spoke to Michael Hutak.

MICHAEL HUTAK: Can you tell us a bit about how you started in the game?

REX IRWIN: I learnt my trade back in the 1970s from Frank McDonald, who was a partner with Terry Clune in the old Clune Galleries at the Yellow House [in Kings Cross, Sydney] - Olsen, Whiteley and the rest of them showed there, but Frank would also put on shows of work by (highly regarded 19th century landscape painter) von Guerard before anyone had really noticed him. Frank eventually started his own gallery and was an old-style art dealer who would do things like travel to Paris to find long lost (Rupert) Bunnys from the paint shop where Bunny used to buy his paints. He was essentially repatriating Australian art.

MH: What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed since you started you own business?

RI: When I first came here (to Queen Street) the focus for art was almost exclusively in Paddington. Then after the ’91 recession Queen Street picked up, then suddenly a few years ago Sotheby’s moved in, Shapiro’s, Deutscher~Menzies, Michael Carr and it’s now very much at the centre of things. Now it’s become much like Bond Street in London. We’ve been here since 1976 and we’ve never had street frontage, then earlier this year we managed to get a lease on the shop in our own building and it’s been very good for making us simply more visible, and we find we’re getting new clients in off the street.

MH: Have you had a high turnover of clients over the years?

RI: Clients have a rhythm; you might have a QC, who’s been earning millions, who finally becomes a judge, drops back to earning $150k and stops collecting. There’s lots of new flashy money and like everyone else we need to get some of that, but we’re not as good at getting it as others, such as Denis Savill. I’m walking slowly after them, Denis is in a tank running them down. But Denis is a dealer who likes to own all his pictures... People consign things with us.

MH: Is this new money driving a booming art market, or is it just attracted it?

RI: New money is always attracted into art when the economy is performing well. But the difference between today and the last boom in the late 1980’s was that back then people were borrowing to buy assets. Today people are spending their own money, which means the market is built on genuine wealth and can’t really collapse today, like it did then.

But the truth of the matter is the market isn’t booming anyway. Just because you see seven pictures by Smart, Boyd or Whitely get high prices at auction, doesn’t mean there’s a boom, it just means that seven pictures achieved high prices. The market is meanwhile happily plodding along with that great bulk of collectors who buy something here, then buy something there. It’s those happy plodders who’ve kept us going through the dark years, and they were dark.

The high rollers can come in here and say all they want is a Jeffrey Smart - who used to show with us before he went over to Australian Galleries - because they’ve read about the sales for $300k plus, and there are always opportunists who come into the market when times are good to handle those sort of clients.

But for mine I’m happy to offer them a work by Fred Williams or Nicholas Harding or Lucien Freud and say “this will hold its value”. But what I’m not prepared to say is “you will make 20 per cent on this in 12 months”. The problem for us with these new clients is when they toddle off and buy from the opportunists and find their 20 per cent doesn’t materialise they say “fuck it”, and swear off buying art forever. That’s the great pity, but that’s also the price of greed.

MH: How has the rise in the auction trade affected your business?

RI: I have nothing to do with auctions. I neither buy nor sell at them. I would make two bids at auction per year, but only on behalf of a client. However I don’t believe the dealers shouldn’t feel threatened by the auction houses. For every painting where the hammer falls $500k, there is an underbidder walking the streets the next day with $480k to spend.

MH: Is there too much talk about the market today? Have we lost sight of the art?

RI: You can’t have too much talk about the market, I think it’s legitimate and necessary and inevitable, but there is too much talk today about money. Money is not the be-all-and-end-all. In the end we’re about bringing people into contact with that intangible quality that comes with the great work of art. Otherwise we might as well be selling pork-belly futures. And when all is said and done, what we are selling is our expertise and judgement of what a picture is worth. That’s why our regular collectors don’t bargain, whereas new clients try to bargain all the time.

AAC: What’s your view of the growth in art purchased through DIY super funds?

RI: I think the trend is very good because where a private person once might spend $10k per annum on art, they can now spend $30k to $40k, as long as one gets proper advice in setting it up. I’m told around 10 per cent of your fund should go towards art, anything above 20 per cent and you’re asking for the attention of the taxman.

I don’t believe these proposed pooled art funds are a particlarly good idea. I’m reminded of the British Railways Pension Fund which in the 60s and 70s bought a huge array of objects – furniture, jewellery, porcelain as well as old masters and fine art. After twenty years it had still made only one per cent more or less than blue chip stocks.

I don’t think (the so-called "managed art funds") will wash, there are too many fees off the top and your little picture needs to make 50 to 60 per cent on resale for you to see an overall return. Speaking to someone who was putting one of these funds together, I understand they’re not actually for people who want to collect art or build a collection but are aimed strictly at investors.

MH: Do you deal with many such “investors”?

RI: We are not “investment advisors”, we are art dealers, but I do have people, usually young people, who come into the gallery with a wad of money wanting to invest. I say to them: “I will be happy to invest this for you as long as you do exactly as I say. If you want chop and change and buy and sell you’re on your own.” We sometimes have so called art consultants who present themselves as “investment advisors” coming through looking to buy works for their clients.

MH: Do you offer a commission, discount or “finder’s fee” to these consultants?

RI: No, of course not, fuck ‘em. We deal in art, not in clients. The art world is magic, it’s great fun, and all the cowboys and cowgirls are not going to affect the bedrock of the business which, for me, is very much built on dealing with private clients one-on-one. We don’t deal much with corporations, which mostly are selling at the moment. But the point of running an art gallery is to put artworks on walls so that people might see and appreciate them. We showed a first edition of Goya’s Disasters of War and we had literally thousands come through. More than 70 per cent of the people that come through the gallery are there just to look and that’s a major part of what we do.

MH: What about managing your artists? How do you approach that?

RI: Some artists need managing, some don’t. ALL artists need ‘nannying’; they need their paints bought and their bottoms wiped occasionally. We are very active in promoting our artists. We’ve just assisted Gwyn Hanssen Pigott mount a show at the Tate St Ives (in Cornwall, U.K., runs till September 26).

MH: Do you follow the international art fair circuit?

RI: We’re not really interested in art fairs. We went to the Hong Kong art fair twice in the early 1990s when Mr Keating was in power and believed the region should be interested in us. I notice Gene Sherman is always showing in Asia but I really don’t know that Asia is any more interested in us than it ever was. Art markets are parochial; there are very few artists who fly internationally. Of course, we do deal in the work of such artists – Picasso, Hockney, Auerbach, Freud -

MH: Tell us about dealing in the market for Freud prints.

RI: We are one of only two galleries in the world (the other being Marlborough Gallery, London) licensed by Freud’s sole agents, Acquavella Galleries in New York, to sell his prints and we’ve had great success doing just for over two decades now. Twenty years ago I knew Freud’s London agent, James Kirkman, well, and we sold our first prints to clients here for just $1000. Today they go for $75k. It’s been a considerable part of our business over the years. We’ve survived the peaks and troughs over the decades but in the last three years especially we’ve been getting more and more successful.

MH: To what do you attribute your success?

RI: I love to bring people into contact with beautiful things and I have a truly wonderful life. But really it all boils down to forging strong connections, and being good and middle class and paying your bills. Earlier this year I had dinner with David Hockney one night, dinner with Hockney and Lucien Freud the next night, and then lunch the next day with Frank Auerbach – all those sorts of personal friendships are wonderful and invigorating but it also helps the business. When they go back and see their dealers I have little doubt they might say: “I had dinner with Rex the other night. Make sure we save something for him.”


Abridged version published in Australian Art Collector



Art Market Notebook, Spring 2004

Fierce competition heats up Aboriginal sector

Sotheby’s is moving to meet the challenge of competitors snapping at its heels in the lucrative and ever-growing market for fine Aboriginal art

It had to happen. After nearly a decade of stellar growth, Sotheby’s failed for the first time to set a new Australian turnover record for an Aboriginal art auction, at its 2004 sale in Melbourne on July 26. But it is a mark of NYSE-listed firm’s success in this collecting category that a sale that aggregates AUD$6.6 million* and sets 18 new individual artist auction records can be considered something less than successful.

At least there is a culprit to blame: the “million dollar painting” of Uluru by Rover Thomas, which, in passing in for just $675k, knocked a hole in the catalogue and cruelled the post-sale headlines for Sotheby’s aboriginal art specialist, Tim Klingender.

“If the blockbuster sells it gets us across the line,” Klingender told Australian Art Collector, referring to last year’s benchmark of $7.5m. “We had no $400k or $500k paintings and only four above $200k, so it was still an incredible sale considering we had about 100 less lots than last year. This is a healthy, sophisticated and maturing market.”

Klingender still has no regrets about setting the $1m upper estimate for the Rover, which was more than $200k above the artist’s current auction record, also that for any Aboriginal artist. “It probably scared off a few bidders. With hindsight if we’d set a very conservative estimate of say $300-500k we would have had ten bidders and probably would have ended up with a better result.” However, as a marketing gambit, the “million dollar painting” press releases attracted plenty of pre-sale “million dollar” newspaper headlines.

Back in 2001, when the National Gallery of Australia went to $786,625 to secure Thomas's All That Big Rain Coming From Top Side, saleroom watchers gasped that the top end of the market could run so far ahead of the pack. Were market forces really speaking, or where they being amplified through the megaphone of Sotheby’s slick marketing?

Klingender remains supremely confident that “ten years from now Thomas will be selling for $10m”, but he’s not the only auctioneer who sees dot paintings in his dreams – red dots that is. Sotheby’s position as market leader is under assault as rival houses, Lawson~Menzies, Christie’s, Bonham & Goodmans and Shapiro’s have all begun moves to enter the Aboriginal art sector.

At its first Aboriginal art sale on May 4, Lawson~Menzies sold $1,637,620 worth of art with a respectable clearance rate of 69% It set five artist records, including $94,750 for Limestone Hills, Texas, 1994 by Queenie McKenzie Nakamarra. Klingender was adamant that Lawson’s sale, run by his former Sotheby’s boss, Paul Sumner, was inferior to his blue chip offerings: “There’s not one work in that sale that we would have consigned.”

Under newly-appointed specialist Shaun Dennison, Christie’s is aping Sotheby’s international preview strategy, planning Paris and New York previews of selected works in its “Modern Aboriginal Art” planned for the spring.

With competition for works ruthless, Sotheby’s has been forced to change tack. “From next year,” said Klingender, “we’ll be putting together a shorter, sharper sale of around 200 lots sold over one night where everything is of the highest quality.” Which means say goodbye to 600-lot sales over two days.

In non-indigenous art, “Christoby’s” went head-to-head again in late August in Sydney but both houses saw only indifferent clearance rates, Christie's recording 48 per cent sold by lot, and 61 per cent by value in a sale worth $3.345 million with John Olsen's Landscape and Night Heron (c. 1982) topping the tree at $239,000. Sotheby's sold $4.93 million, 62 per cent by lot with Lloyd Rees’s Surge of the Sea fetching $447,000, a new artist record.

Deutscher~Menzies two-day Sydney June Fine Art Auction showed again the company’s wisdom in going it alone, avoiding the traditional May double header in Melbourne put on by Sotheby’s and Christie’s. A sale aggregate of $7.3m (inc. buyers premium and all GST) outperformed both international houses and setting new benchmarks for David Larwill ($83k), Howard Taylor ($71,250) and Julie Dowling ($24k). After it’s record breaking auction in March Rod Menzies’s Melbourne-based flagship has shifted more than $15.5m worth of art through its Sydney sale this year – a phenomenal performance.

Taylor’s is a breakthrough sale which should herald the emergence of many more works at auction for this revered abstract painter and sculptor who died in 2001. His previous saleroom record was $51k set in 2002 but beyond that only a handful of works have been offered, mainly in Taylor’s home state of Western Australia, selling for sums well under $5k.

Meanwhile, down in the trenches and away from multi-million dollar sales, James Badgery’s new venture, Badgery's Auctions & Appraisers, held its first auction in late June in the old RAN Drill Hall in Rushcutters Bay. The sale went ahead with mixed results, and despite a flurry of legal correspondence with competitor Bonhams & Goodman, which has its offices in nearby Double Bay. If the presence of Badgery’s fledgling operation, which sold just 97 of 276 lots for an aggregate of $306,000, poses problems for B&G, its displeasure must be considerable at Christie’s luxurious new Sydney headquarters, just up New South Head Road in the refurbished former Edgecliff Post Office.

Badgery was unconcerned by the poor clearance rate and was happy to score a few significant sales, most notably $73,395 for the Norman Lindsay water colour, Jewels For A Lady, and several significant aboriginal works in what Badgery’s hopes will initially be his bread-and-butter range: under $20k. Badgery, formerly the long-time managing director of Lawsons, has had a bumpy ride the last few years, surviving Rod Menzies’s acquisition of Lawsons in 2002 before leaving to join Jim Byrnes’s new entrepreneurial venture, Cromwell’s Auctioneers. He left Byrnes late last year and launched Badgery’s in March this year. “After having worked for Rod and Jim these last couple of years, I’m very much enjoying being my own boss again,” he said.

As we go to press the Australian art market is gearing up to once again coagulate, disseminate and sell, sell, sell at the 2004 edition of the Melbourne Art Fair, from 29 September to October 4. The international roll call will expand this year to include contemporary galleries from Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo, Osaka, Auckland, Wellington, Amsterdam, Rome and New York and with sales last year totalling $6.3m, MAF can lay claim to be leading contemporary art fair in the Asia Pacific.

And in the context of the October 9 Federal Election, collectors who vote might want to appraise themselves of the issues on a proposed Resale Royalty Scheme for the Australian art market by reading the discussion paper released by the Howard Government.

Without taking a position, the paper outlines four options for proceeding:
  1. a fully legislated scheme,
  2. industry self-regulation,
  3. contract-based resale royalties, or
  4. no resale royalty scheme.
Apart from canvassing the issues, the paper also includes much interesting data comparing a “droit de suite” schemes throughout the world. Other nuggets of dispersed data include the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimate that total expenditure by households on paintings, carvings and sculptures in 1998–99 was $274 million. You can download the paper for free here.

* All quotes are in AUD. All prices quoted include the buyer's premium, and where applicable, GST.

First published in Australian Art Collector



Collectables: Carbine upstages auction heavyweights

Sales of racehorse art often ride on the animal rather than the artist, as the auction of a portrait of the great Carbine attests.

Carbine, the 1890 Melbourne Cup winner and the greatest racehorse to grace the ­Australian turf before Phar Lap, made a brief return to the spotlight last week – as Lot 62 at Sotheby’s Sydney sale of fine Australian art.
The handsome, if flattering, portrait of “Old Jack” was painted by Frederick ­William Woodhouse snr in 1891, the year Carbine retired from racing and began an influential stud career. The work stood out like a beacon in a catalogue clogged with the usual quality saleroom fare of Olsens, Boyds, Blackmans, Smarts and Co.

After a brief bidding war, the painting was knocked down for $34,000 against an upper saleroom estimate of $20,000 to horse breeder Grahame Mapp, owner of Hobartville Stud near Richmond, NSW, reputedly Australia’s oldest thoroughbred stud. With buyer’s premium and GST, the price tag was $41,095, the second-highest price for a Woodhouse, according to Australian Art Sales Digest, which also notes the Englishman arrived in Australia in 1857 and painted every winner of the Melbourne Cup from 1861 to 1890.

Strangely, Sotheby’s catalogue notes talk exclusively of Carbine’s superlative track and stud record, making no mention of Woodhouse, even though he is among Australia’s most highly regarded “equine portraitists”.

“That is typical with this category,” says Clare Smith, specialist in sporting art at Christie’s, New York. “With themed sales like these, interest lies partly in the artist and partly in the subject matter. Many works in this category are bought by clients who have a personal interest in racehorses, whether owning or breeding or even gambling.”

Mapp is a case in point: he bought the painting for the horse, not the artist. “The money didn’t matter; I just wanted it. Bravo, which narrowly beat ­Carbine in the 1891 Melbourne Cup, was bred at Hobartville. I ­normally never go to auctions but a friend brought this work to my attention and I had to make a quick decision. I actually arrived halfway through the ­bidding and decided to take a punt.”

Mapp plans to find a permanent home for the work in Hobartville’s convict-built, ­Francis Greenway-designed homestead. “It will stay here forever,” he told The Bulletin.

If he ever changes his mind and decides to sell, Mapp would be well advised to offer the work in London, where sporting art aficionados would appreciate the work for both Carbine, as the sire of three English Derby winners, and for Woodhouse, who studied under John Frederick Herring, one of sporting art’s most sought-after artists.

“Themed sales are a successful way of marketing certain works outside the traditional classification by period or style,” says Smith, who has put together a 138-lot sale of works depicting noble steeds, heroic scenes of hunting, and often bizarre canine subjects for Christie’s December 5 sale of sporting art in New York.

Mapp also happens to be the breeder of Toulouse Lautrec, winner of the Carbine Club Stakes at Randwick at Easter.

First published in The Bulletin



Collectables: Rover Thomas

Doubting Thomas: After the high-profile failure of a 'million-dollar' Rover Thomas painting, Sotheby's are questioning the state galleries' commitment to Aboriginal art.

It looked a cinch on paper. An exceptional painting by Australia’s most famous indigenous artist, Rover Thomas, depicting the country’s most mythical physical feature, Uluru. The perfect work on which to hang publicity for the annual blockbuster sale of Important Aboriginal Art at Sotheby’s in Melbourne late last month.

The NYSE-listed company went for broke, pegging the upper estimate at an astonishing AUD$1,000,000. Out went the press releases: “Million Dollar Painting on Display”. Dutifully, out went the newspaper previews, noting Aboriginal art’s “first million dollar painting” in headlines, body copy and captions.

Noone thought to mention that the figure was just an educated, but essentially hopeful, guess on the part of Sotheby’s Aboriginal art specialist, Tim Klingender. Nobody asked why this painting was worth more than $200k above Thomas’s current auction record, [which is also that for any Aboriginal artist]. Notwithstanding the Aboriginal sector’s astounding growth in recent years, nobody bothered to ask who had a million dollars for an indigenous work, given the current benchmark had been set not by a private collector but by a state art gallery, and that the galleries haven’t splurged on a major indigenous work at auction since.

Back in 2001, when the National Gallery of Australia went to $786,625 to secure Thomas's "All That Big Rain Coming From Top Side", saleroom watchers gasped that the top end of the market could run so far ahead of the pack. Were market forces really speaking, or where they being amplified through the megaphone of Sotheby’s slick marketing?

These observers weren’t surprised to see "Uluru" passed in for $675k, failing even to meet it’s lower estimate of $700k. “It was a good painting, but not outstanding,” said one rival auction house expert. “The price it passed in at was a fair one.” While admitting his estimate had scared off potential buyers, Klingender bemoaned the fact that Australia’s collecting institutions weren’t coming to his party.

“It’s amazing the state galleries aren’t here picking the eyes out of our catalogue," Klingender told The Bulletin. "The National Museum of Australia bought three works…, and the Art Gallery of New South Wales bought one, but none of them are buying at the top end – everything above $100k all went to private collectors.”

Sotheby’s sustained foray into the Aboriginal art market since the mid 1990s has been met with disdain and suspicion by the country’s major collecting institutions. Klingender can’t fathom the snub. “The curators of these galleries don’t even come to the previews – it’s ridiculous and small-minded.”

Ironically, the Rover flop cruelled the headlines for what was otherwise another sensational sale from Sotheby’s: $6.5 million in total sales with bullish clearance rates of around 70 per cent both by lot and by value. Among the more than 60 new artist auction records set were such eminently collectable artists as Charlie Tararu Tjungurrayi (new benchmark $215,200); Dorothy Napangardi ($131,725) and Eubena Nampitjin ($52,200).

Collectors need not fear, the indigenous art market’s perpetual boom remains intact, though Sotheby’s position as market leader is under assault as rival houses, Lawson~Menzies, Christie’s, Bonham & Goodmans and Shapiro’s have all commenced moves to grab a slice of this dynamic art market sector.


Abridged version published in The Bulletin

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2004 - Australian Culture Now, Fed Square

"Now" is the operative word in this new survey of Australian contemporary art, the most ambitious mounted in five years, say co-hosts NGV Australia and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI). 2004 - Australian Culture Now represents the first major collaboration between the two principal tenants of Federation Square in Melbourne, the former one of Australia's oldest cultural institutions, the latter barely two years old and playing catch-up.

At its June 14 launch, NGV director Gerard Vaughan announced 2004 had been "deliberately timed for the Biennale [of Sydney]", which opened a week earlier, "to get international visitors to see both buildings fully operating". Hardly a noble aspiration but cultural tourists seeking a quality museum experience will still come away sated. Certainly, 2004 leaves a stronger aftertaste than the thematic conceits of the Sydney Biennale. On Reason and Emotion is left looking a little tired and emotional against the optimism of 2004's brash demand for "strayin' kulcha now!"

Bar a few exceptions, such as octogenarian Aboriginal artist Paddy Bedford, 2004 is stacked with twenty- and thirty-somethings presented as the latest uncomplicated incarnation of "the new". Ten curators from both NGV Australia and ACMI have chosen 130 artists to exhibit in their two gallery venues, on free-to-air television and across vast chunks of cyberspace and other virtual networks. Should 2004 be well received, the plan is to mount the national survey every three years, slotting into the calendar in years complementary to Sydney's Biennale and Brisbane's Asia Pacific Triennial (due again in 2005). At least the major sponsor, Ernst & Young, is happy. The management consultants, standing in as modern-day Medicis, are certain that 2004 offers "a snapshot of the most exciting things happening in Australian art today".

In an age of technological convergence, 2004's gambit is that there are no borders between media for artists anymore. Painters are taking photos, photographers are cross-pollinating sculpture with architecture, conceptual painters are into video art, interactive and networked-art is informed by the maxims and mores of computer game design. Concentric rings of new media, computer games, interactive works, video art and installation wrap around a core of those hardy perennials, sculpture and painting, while 2004's exhaustive and comprehensive website flies the flag online.

Works by 47 artists take up the entire third level at NGV Australia. The theme is "non-thematic", says chief curator of contemporary art, Jason Smith, stressing the unique point of difference. "There's no need for a theme in an expanded field," he adds, citing Nicholas Folland's I Think I was Asleep, as emblematic. Folland, an Adelaide artist, has wrapped a refrigerator coil around a suspended chandelier connected to a small motor. As the show proceeds, the coil generates ice which slowly envelopes and "strangles" the chandelier: a canny conflation of political metaphor, time-based media, kinetic sculpture, performance and installation art.

No theme doesn't mean there are no trends. Living in the same rapidly changing, consumer-oriented, tech-driven culture as the rest of us, many artists are now more keen to demonstrate competence - delivered with a splash of colour and a hint of meaning. Smith identifies a trend among younger artists to present finely finished works that testify to the artist's skill, talent and craft. It's time to pamper the punters again with user-friendly aesthetic values such as beauty and visual pleasure. "There's a real attention to the resolution of the object and a desire on the part of artists to demonstrate serious intent," says Smith. "There's a swing back to the belief in craft. You won't find anything here that's badly produced.

"Painting just won't die," he continues, almost wincing at the cliche. Yet paint is indeed applied with special force in works such as Peter Graham's pleasing palimpsests, David Wadelton's masterly faux-Hollywood tableaux of Surfers Paradise, Jan Nelson's Op-inspired abstraction and hand-painted life-size models, Scott Redford's custom-made surfboards and Guo Jian's perspicacious propaganda. Beyond painting, the art-is-easy school so prominent since the early 1990s, is largely missing-in-inaction, bar the ironic post-grunge moves of artists-as-provocateurs, Nat & Ali. Conceptual art is reduced to an afterthought, although Guy Benfield's wondrous The Essence of Ju Ju is a bold entry.

Photography is also scantly represented. Rosemary Laing's latest series of photo-monuments reveal office furniture in the red centre, while Patrick Pound's seductive images in Soft - A Real Model World, play tricks with photorealism.

Elsewhere, Sean Goodsell conflates architecture and sculpture in order to comment on Melbourne's recently bestowed status as the world's most liveable city - if you have somewhere to live. He calls Park Bench House an "urban intervention"; it doubles as a park bench by day and a "house" for the homeless by night. And 25-year-old Melbourne sculptor Nick Mangan proves punk is also not dead with In the Crux of the Matter, a life-size model of an abandoned motorcycle chassis on which grows futuristic shards of crystal. Mangan says it's about "the death of technology". If he says so.

While the buzz is building for the Ian Potter Centre's 2004 component, the selection of works next door at ACMI has drawn a mixed response, even from within the organisation. The heart of ACMI's contribution to 2004 is in its subterranean Screen Gallery, a long, black "hotwired" space, purpose-built out of two underground railway platforms to accommodate new media art. Only a few works, such as Philip Brophy's The Body Malleable or Alex Davies' Swarm, make full use of its interactive potential. Others, such as Lifesigns by Troy Innocent (is that a stage name?), promise interactivity but enigmatically deliver something else. "How do you shoot this thing?" complained the schoolchildren test-driving it during my visit. Tucked away on the mezzanine, a suite of personal computers offer broadband access to 2004's complement of online and networked art. Check your email while you're at it.

However, single-channel video artworks, such as those of David Rosetsky, Shaun Gladwell or The Kingpins, remain indifferent to any interactive or technological imperative embedded in the space. While some may view this favourably, the schoolchildren ran to the information kiosk for each work, maniacally pushing the touch screens on the expectation that they could start directing the action. Sadly for them, all these videos actually do is run on a loop, and more properly belong next door at Ian Potter with the rest of the visual art.

Critics argue that ACMI - on a par with only a handful of purpose-built screen arts facilities throughout the world, such as the Lux Centre in London or ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany - should have used 2004 to showcase the centre's world-class facilities and to highlight more works by Australian new media artists who are experimenting with interactivity on a high-technology platform. Having already cost Victorian taxpayers $100m, ACMI's administration has been dogged by public controversy and internal politics. After budget blowouts, key resignations, staff redundancies and an acquisition budget slashed and now frozen, ACMI has a lot riding on 2004 and much at stake in talking about "now" rather than "then". NGV Australia, by comparison, has suffered no such intrigue and is enjoying new status in its flash new premises.

It will be interesting to discover who cracks the whip on what's hip, happening and "now" in 2007.

2004 - Australian Culture Now, Federation Square, Melbourne. Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, until August 1. Australian Centre for the Moving Image, until September 12.

First published in The Bulletin

Collectables: End result: lots

With the share price of troubled Tempo Services hitting a five-year low of $1.02 on May 4, its chairman, John Schaeffer, could at least survey the recent dispersal of his art collection warmed by the knowledge he was getting top dollar. However, as the dust settles from the "garage sale of the century" at Rona, Schaeffer's $28m Bellevue Hill mansion in Sydney's eastern suburbs, collectors are entitled to ask: was it worth the hype?

It was to Christie's, which spent a small fortune promoting the sale. If there are any other cash-strapped multimillionaire art lovers out there, Rona was a great ad for Christie's, which shifted 570 lots - $5.19m in paintings, sculpture, furniture and decorative ephemera - at top-gun clearance rates by lot (85.3%) and by value (88.7%).

"For the vendor, these house sales work," one industry insider said. "Most of the big-ticket items [at Rona] wouldn't have done so well if they'd been put through a normal multi-vendor 'dec arts' or fine arts sale." This was echoed by Roger McIlroy, Christie's Australian MD, who praised "the market appeal of single-owner collections of quality with impeccable provenance".

He then added, tellingly: "It augurs well for the ongoing private sales from The John H. Schaeffer Collection." Rona was really just an elaborate prelude for the main game: the sale of 15 of Schaeffer's most valuable pre-Raphaelite pictures in London on June 9 at Christie's (as well as several more being offered privately through St James's dealer, Angela Neville).

Included is Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Pandora, for which Schaeffer paid a record œ2.6m ($6.6m) at Christie's in 2000. The upper estimate next month is just œ1.2m ($3.1m).

But Schaeffer's losses aren't just his own. Of the 94 paintings and sculptures he has lent the Art Gallery of NSW since 1999, just one remains in the gallery's care: Gerrit van Honthorst's Merry musician with violin under his left arm (1624).

Meanwhile, Christie's has denied that it snatched the Rona contract from under Sotheby's nose by offering to conduct the sale for, as one press report claimed, "zero seller's commission, against a backdrop of allegations that Schaeffer owed Christie's London money".

"John Schaeffer has always honoured his financial obligations to Christie's," says McIlroy. "We did not conduct the sale for zero commission but negotiated a much reduced fee, which reflected both Christie's desire to handle the sale and the need to spend money to make money."

Spend it they did, on 7500 catalogues, 10,000 brochures, an international print advertising campaign and no less than five private parties targeting "high-wealth individuals". More than 3000 people traipsed through Rona to gawk and dream.

First published in The Bulletin



Collectables: Fairweather trading

The modernists have been trumping the contemporaries in the salerooms, while a Picasso scooped the pot, writes Michael Hutak.

There's an inverse – some would say perverse – law of the Australian art market that says the more conventional the wisdom, the less sway it holds. An example: in the past few years, we've been told the moderns favoured by old fogeys are on their way out as the market moves to accommodate cashed-up young fogeys, who allegedly prefer contemporary art and art photography.

Last week's round of fine-art auctions threw that theory on the scrapheap as record sales of modernists such as Ian Fairweather and Margaret Preston cast the passed-in works of hitherto hot contemporaries Tracey Moffatt, Tim Maguire and John Kelly into a new, uncertain light.

Since 2001, eight prints of Moffatt's 1989 photograph, Something More #1, have found buyers for sums up to $117,500. However, punters finally brought something less to Christie's last week, marking the first time the artist's calling card has failed to sell at auction. Maguire's flower power also wilted badly, with just one of 10 works offered selling – a 2000 oil that still brought a tidy $135,625. Two of Kelly's cow canvases – only recently a must-have item, according to the pundits – passed through the saleroom friendless. Christie's sold just 60% of its catalogue for $4.9m; Sotheby's just 52% for $4.4m.

While the art trade prays that the gloomy grosses and dismal clearance rates were more an aberration than full-blown market correction, at the Art Gallery of NSW, it's all blue sky for Edmund Capon. The director was ebullient over his gallery's new acquisition, Fairweather's 1936 oil on compressed card, Tea Garden Peking. "It's a very big work and probably the most significant from his Chinese period," Capon says. “When we think of Fairweather we think of this strange, nomadic creature and this work sees him, I would say, at his most exotic.”

The Art Gallery Society coughed up $552,600, three times Christie's high estimate, and more than double the artist's previous auction record, set in 2000. Any suggestion that that was too much brings Capon out swinging: "We made a decision to get this painting so we went out and got it."

"We paid a record price but in the fullness of time, it's what matters for the collection that counts," says Capon. "The estimate was $120,000 to $180,000 but I knew that was ridiculously low. Our Fairweather collection is not terribly extensive, we have about twenty-odd works, but I’d say we’ve pretty much got him covered now.

“Certainly the price we paid bears much more relation to reality than the US$104m (AUD$143m) paid for that Picasso [Garçon à la Pipe at Sotheby's last Wednesday]. I mean, no painting is worth that much… That is just a trophy and I think it’s ultimately offensive when one considers recent events on the world stage.”

He has a point. For the cost of one painting, you could have bought every work sold at auction in Australialast year, and most of the year before that.


Abridged version first published in The Bulletin



Ruckus over resale royalty

With pressure mounting for the introduction of a resale royalty on works of art every time they change hands, auction houses are becoming anxious, writes Michael Hutak.

Fine art worth more than $91m changed hands in Australia's booming auction market last year, yet the artists responsible for those works (or their heirs) saw not a red cent of it. One auction house, Sotheby's, shifted $7.9m of Aboriginal art at one sale last June. Yet living conditions on many of the remote desert communities where the finest indigenous artworks originate remain a national disgrace.

Media attention on anomalies such as the late Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula – one of the originators of the dot-painting phenomenon who spent his final years in abject penury while works he had sold for $30 went for hundreds of thousands in the saleroom – has accelerated calls for a resale royalty to be introduced in Australia.

Such a royalty, also known as a droite de suite after the French scheme that has been in place since the 1920s, is a fee – typically fixed at about 5% of the hammer price – that goes to the artist every time an artwork changes hands in the secondary market. Support for such a scheme gained momentum in 2002 when Rupert Myer made a resale royalty a key recommendation in his federal government inquiry into visual arts and crafts funding.

However, the prospect of a new tax on collectors has the secondary art market in a lather as it collectively points towards a fast-falling chunk of sky.

"It's been highly unsuccessful in France," says Paul Sumner, chief executive of Sydney auction house Lawson-Menzies. "And it hasn't actually reduced the gap between rich and poor artists – it just rewards artists who are already successful."

Sumner, who has just an-nounced that his firm will take on market leader Sotheby's for a slice of the lucrative Aboriginal market, says Lawson-Menzies will pay 2% of its normal commission on sales of indigenous works into a new foundation that will donate funds to improve health and living conditions in Aboriginal communities.

The foundation hopes to raise $200,000 in the first year. However, Sumner acknowledges the impetus for setting it up is to derail the resale royalty juggernaut. "We're trying to head it off," he said. "We think it will be a nightmare to administer and ultimately will only hurt the artists."

But citing a 2003 Australia Council study, which found that 50% of Australia's artists earn less that $7500 a year from their art, Labor arts spokeswoman Senator Kate Lundy argues that artists couldn't be hurting much more than they are now.

The creation of a decent ongoing income stream for artists "is way overdue and it's Labor Party policy to introduce a resale royalty", she says. Lundy, who introduced a private member's bill on the issue in the Senate on March 11, concedes it has no chance of passing without government support. However, she says she's "calling the government's bluff on this. There's simply no excuse for them to delay their response to Myer any longer."

Last September, a year after Myer reported, then-Arts Minister Richard Alston promised a response on resale royalties before the end of the year. Six months later, his replacement, Daryl Williams, who also retires at the next election, is backing away from the idea.

"The government will only commit taxpayers' money to developing an implementation strategy if it is satisfied that we should implement a resale royalty scheme," a spokesman says. In other words, it's not satisfied.

Labor's draft bill is modelled on European Union legislation, where a droite de suite will extend to member countries from 2006. Lundy was advised by the National Association for the Visual Arts, the Australian Copyright Council and Arts Law, which have urged the government to act on Myer's recommendation and implement the scheme.

"We need a decision," NAVA executive director Tamara Winikoff says. "This issue has been kicking around for 20 years and it should be a bipartisan issue. We're very pleased that Labor has committed itself to a bill, and we urge the government to support it."

Not everyone in the trade is contrary. Sotheby's Tim Klingender has gone on record several times in favour of a droite de suite. "I think it would be great if it could be made workable," he says. And leading Melbourne Aboriginal art dealer Gabrielle Pizzi believes a resale royalty is "an inevitability".

But she warns: "Some people will have to be dragged kicking and screaming to it."


First published in The Bulletin



Collectables: Dake Frank

Auction prices fetched by some Australian contemporary artists are rocketing. And those about to take off display obvious signs.

The hullabaloo over painter Tim Maguire hit the heights last November when Untitled 1997, a massive split-screen canvas, brought $329,000 at Christie’s Melbourne – the third time in 2003 that a new peak was set for Maguire's florid photo-realist visions. Just one year earlier Deutscher~Mennzies had offered a comparable work with an estimate of just $10k-$15,000 (it sold for $35,250).

The latest benchmark sent market watchers into overdrive: Maguire was the new John Kelly, who was the new Garry Shead, who was the new Bill Robinson, etc. Such headline-grabbing sales are more salacious evidence of art’s potential for a quick return-on-investment, and the cue for another tranche of cashed-up, dumbed-down, saleroom ingenues to turn up, grab a paddle and start splurging.

But those hoping to get a piece of “the next Tim Maguire” should also note that the savvy buy and sell on the way up, not at the top of the market. The time to pick saleroom sensations is before they become headline fodder. Maguire, however, did fit a model that made him ripe for reaping so here’s a quick checklist for pinpointing who’s next.

First, go for beauty over brains. Ugly doesn’t wash in the saleroom, no matter how much the critics might wax lyrical. Second, stick to contemporary artists, the market’s current growth area. Third, seek out artists in their late 30s and 40s with a good body of work behind them; those who have shown they can conduct a sustained professional practice. Fourth, opt for artists who have been on the critics’ radar for more than a decade but are still new or unknown to the saleroom, ie. those with less than 50 works offered at auction. And lastly, if you plan to hang the work awhile before moving it on, it helps to like it.

Still sound like too much work? Forced to tip, 45 year old Queensland-based painter, Dale Frank, fits the Maguire model to a tee. Ever-present on the contemporary scene for over 20 years, the prolific Frank shows with the country’s leading galleries and has impeccable critical credentials, with reams of favourable reviews, several monographs published, and a retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney in 2001 to boot.

Represented in every major state gallery collection, Franks’ luscious abstract works already bring vast slabs of colour to white-walled foyers and living-rooms from Kirribilli to Kew. Yet Australian Art Sales Digest records reveals just 47 works have ever been offered at auction.

However, again last November, Christie’s set a new artist record of $21,150 for a handsome 2 metre square painting. That was the jump on previous sales that canny collectors look for and it is a very attractive floor price for works that could easily climb to $100,000-plus without raising an eyebrow.

[For the record, I don’t own any of them.]


Abridged version published in The Bulletin



Art Market Notebook: Autumn 2004

The Rise of the Others

The new year began with the fine art auction market flush with cash but fraught with competition, reports Michael Hutak

In 2003 the great Australian art boom continued to gather pace with another $91 million worth of fine art changing hands in the saleroom - a 15.91 per cent increase on 2002 ($79.2) and an aggregate neatly split four ways between Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Deutscher Menzies and “others”, according to statistics compiled by the Australian Art Sales Digest. Tellingly, the biggest increase came not from the big three but in the crowded “other” category, centred mainly around players in Sydney. Swelled by a resurgent Lawson~Menzies (which actually recorded a better sale aggregate than Christies in the last round for 2003 in late spring), last year’s new comers, Cromwells, and the new old-money/new money partnership, Bonhams & Goodman, sales for the “other” category almost doubled in 2003 to $22.3 million, an aggregate representing more business than the entire auction market in 1993. That year it stood at a paltry $19.3m, in the days when “Christoby’s” pretty much split the blue chips among themselves leaving the potato chips for Leonard Joel’s (which celebrated 85 years in the business in March).

The year before, Sydney was big story. 2002 was the year Deutscher Menzies established their March sale in Sydney as a season-opening fixture on the calendar. It was when Sotheby’s cleared an incredible $7.9 million worth of Aboriginal art in June at their first foray into Sydney with indigenous art. And Cromwells, L~M, and Bonhams & Goodman embarked on a harbour city turf war which has made competition for quality stock fiercer than ever. In 2003 contemporary names like Tim Maguire and John Kelly were on everyone’s wish list, but it would prove to be the year of Russell Drysdale, who had four of the top ten highest prices achieved at auction, including the only picture to break the million barrier last year, The Outstation, sold by Sotheby’s in Melbourne in May.

Sotheby's, which topped the sales aggregates for the third year running with $27.3m, has made corporate dispersals the bedrock of its success, having managed sale of the Fairfax, BP, AXA and Kerry Stokes collections in the past two years alone. 2004 continues the trend with the planned March dispersal of the Western Mining Corporation Contemporary Art Collection, with an aggregate estimate of $806k to $1.2m. As to why so many corporations have shed themselves of art in recent years, Sotheby’s MD Mark Fraser told AAC the reasons are myriad: “Such things as share holder accountability; focusing on core activities when art is peripheral area; big increases in the value of artworks; secondary reasons can be a change of premises or a merger or de-merger of companies.” Naming Wesfarmers, Macquarie Bank, Westpac and ANZ as having the finest corporate collections still extant in Australia today, Fraser did say he knew of no major corporations that have started collections in the last two years. In fact several more firms have also sold off their collections confidentially with Sotheby’s through the saleroom.

Over at Christie’s, new paintings director, Jon Dwyer, would be happy with his first year at the helm, one which restored respectability to the French-owned firm’s local operations to post $21m in sales, a 64 per cent turnaround on 2002 revenue. The company had been haemorrhaging market share, living on the glory days of the $16m Mertz sale in 2000 – until Dwyer opened his account with a record $7.1m aggregate at last year’s May mixed vendor auction. 2004 couldn’t have begun better with Christie’s winning the plum business to disperse the contents of ‘Rona’, John Schaeffer’s landmark Bellevue Hill mansion. Shaeffer has compiled arguably the world’s finest private collection of Victorian and pre-Raphaelite art and is now in the process of selling off great chunks of it in order to shore up his exposure to the declining fortunes of his listed cleaning company, Tempo Services, (mooted in early March as a takeover target). Christie’s had plucked the Shaeffer sale out from under arch rival Sotheby’s, which had “limited success” last September in shifting the remains of Shaeffer’s once prized collection of 19th century and colonial-era Australian paintings for well below the low estimates. As Christie's sex it up to break the record as the biggest single vendor sale in this country, the proof will come, come April.

The appreciating Australian dollar however will have varied effects this year on the international market for Aboriginal art, where it will dampen foreign demand but entice foreign consignment of works held overseas. The latter effect is also expected to be felt in the wider market for Australian modernist and contemporary art. And Sotheby’s will have their first serious competition in indigenous art since 2000 when it met, matched and repelled Deutscher~Menzies’ fast and furious foray into the market. Both Christies and Lawson~Menzies have appointed Aboriginal art specialists, and the latter intends to conduct two sales a year of Aboriginal art. Shaun Dennison, a management consultant turned art expert, has been appointed to oversee Christie’s expansion in Aboriginal Art. While the party line has always been that the firm has “traditionally” not separated streams of modern and contemporary Australian art “ethnographically” and has instead incorporated Aboriginal works within the context of its normal seasonal offerings, Dwyer would “not rule out stand-alone auctions of Aboriginal art in the future”.

And at Lawson~Menzies, Cooee Gallery proprietor Adrian Newstead has come on board as Aboriginal specialist for a planned two-sales-per-year operation. CEO Paul Sumner has identified a new niche for his firm, after his art department was recently submerged into brother house Deutscher~Menzies in a bury-the-hatchet manoevre late last year that put an end to the dog-eat-dog competition between Rod Menzies two auction houses. Sumner hopes to head off finger-pointers with his announcement that L~M will pay two per cent of its normal commission on sales of indigenous works into a new foundation charged with donating funds to improve health and living conditions in Aboriginal communities. This move also offers Sumner the opportunity to denounce noises from Canberra that a resale royalty, as recommended by the 2002 Myer Report will be introduced into the Australian secondary art market. While it’s been generally acknowledged that a droite de suite in Australia will do much to support indigenous artists, the prospect of a what amounts to a new tax on collectors has many secondary market operators like Sumner in a lather. "We're trying to head it off," he said. "We think it will be a nightmare to administer and ultimately will only hurt the artists."

For his part Sotheby’s Aboriginal art guru, Tim Klingender says he supports a resale royalty and remains unfazed by his new competitors. Sumner, however, is in a unique position to know his rival, having been Klingender’s MD during the period when Sotheby’s was fending away Deutsher~Menzies challenge in 2000. And since taking over at L~M last year he has had the advantage of swapping notes with D~M’s Chris Deutscher about what went wrong. “I’ve seen both sides of the fence and I know what the processes are at Sotheby’s and I know what to expect.”

Klingender countered that he never comments on the activities of other firms… “especially that one!”.


First published in Australian Art Collector



Australian Auctions roundup, March 2004

After another record year in sales in 2003, the Australian fine art market has entered its second decade of sustained growth, still some people are never satisfied. When Deutscher~Menzies kicked off the 2004 season earlier this month with the highest grossing mixed-vendor sale of fine art ever held in this country – more than $8.4 million - it was greeted with either sublime indifference or churlishness at the failure of several high-value works by high-profile artists to sell, and of others to only meet the low end of the estimate set by the auction house.

One pundit dubbed the sale “a patchy start” to the year, pointing to passed-in works by saleroom favourites like John Brack, Norman Lindsay and John Olsen. Keen market watchers wondered if D~M had overestimated the strength of the top of the market, others saw instead "buyer fatigue" in the face of the runaway price inflation of some “top drawer” artists in recent years.

D~M’s national director, Damien Hackett, told The Bulletin his firm was “very concerned when high value items pass in, during any sale, but this can and does happen for many reasons, not just a weakening of the market… each sale is an individual transaction with its own specific circumstances attached.”

“With regard to John Brack,” said Hackett, “we had estimated Backs and Fronts ($450k to $550k) believing it to be one of the most important works to have come onto the market ever. The result, at $477,825, was in fact the fifth highest price ever achieved for a Brack. One important collector decided not to bid on the Brack, as he intended, because a family tragedy occurred a few days prior to the sale."

Hackett maintained the market for Brack remained strong, despite another work, The Club from 1989, passing in on an estimate of $230,000–260,000. He put the poor showing of other works down to “a number of clients who thought that some of the high value works would ‘fly’ and so did not enter the bidding. As a result, they were dismayed that they had missed out on things, especially the (Ian) Fairweather and the John Olsen”. Rather, the number of dealers buying, or under-bidding, on works in the $100,000 plus market meant “you would expect that (the dealers) are confident that there is more growth in the top end.” After $91 million in sales nationally last year, a 15 per cent increase on 2003, we guess they would be confident.

However one sector keen to get out of art quicksmart may offer the first tangible signs of a market reaching its tipping point. The great Australian corporate art sell-off resumed in 2004 with last week’s dispersal of Western Mining Corporation’s corporate art collection at Sotheby’s rooms in Melbourne. An aggregate of $1.28 million would have pleased WMC patriarch Hugh Morgan, the gross just pipping the high estimate for the entire sale. And with 21 new individual artist records – most notably for the late 20th century modernist, Leonard French, and moody Melbournite, Rick Amor - at least WMC found out they'd bought the right works. The clearance rate was an astonishing 98 per cent by lot.

Corporate sell-offs have become the bedrock of Sotheby’s market leadership in Australia: in the past two years they’ve flogged off the once-prized collections John Fairfax Ltd, BP, AXA and Kerry Stokes. Several other firms have sold off their collections confidentially through the saleroom, and Sotheby’s Managing Director, Mark Fraser says he knows of no major corporations that have started collections in that time. It will be interesting to watch for any moves by Wesfarmers, Macquarie Bank, Westpac or ANZ to liquidate their art assets. Fraser nominated these companies as having the finest corporate collections still extant in Australia today.


Abridged version published in The Bulletin



Australia's Most Collectable Artists, 2003

Profiles written for "Australia's Most Collectable Artists, 2003" from Australian Art Collector Magazine.

Since the late 1990’s Garry Shead has shot into that pantheon of Australian modernist figurative painters who can command prices in excess of $100k. Son of a Sydney North Shore estate agent, Shead is privately influenced by the occult, and works in themes which can traverse several series over several years, taking inspiration from sometimes oblique corners of Australian culture: DH Lawrence’s time on the NSW South Coast, the 1954 Royal Visit by Elizabeth Windsor, and, most recently, the “Ern Malley” poetry hoax of the 1940s, which see him tackle ceramics for the first time – urns etched with poems by Ern! Championed as logical inheritor of the mantle of Boyd and Nolan, Shead quickly embraced the comparison in a recent interview: “Definitely… I like the story telling aspect of painting. I like to express in painting something that’s already there but hasn’t (yet) been done in visual terms.” Sasha Grishin, Head of Art History ANU, the author of several books on Shead as well as catalogue essays for the artist’s exhibitions, says Shead is now “painting at the height of his powers.” He believes Shead is “arguably Australia’s finest lyrical expressionist painter”, adding that his prices continue to grow dramatically. In 1993, the year he won the Archibald Prize, Shead sold just two works at auction for an aggregate of $693. A decade later and one of 39 works at auction included The Secret, which Christies offered with an $80k upper estimate. It brought a new artist record of $129,250 – a spectacular indication that supply is failing to meet demand.

Gordon Bennett
Queenslander Gordon Bennett went to art school in the late 1980s, where he openly embraced the postmodern positions of the time, a legacy still seen to today in a practice the artists describes as “conceptual painting based on the semiotics of 'style' and paint application, images and text, historical and contemporary juxta-position.” Of mixed Scottish, English and Indigenous Australian heritage, Bennett was brought up as a 'white' Australian and has only investigated his Aboriginal heritage as an adult. While issues of race loom large in his work he denounces the term “urban Aborignal” artist as racist, and prefers to be understood as an artist pursuing strategies of appropriation. Dr Ian McLean, who lectures visual arts at the University of Western Australia, is impressed with the long-term commitment Bennett has shown to his practice. McLean compares Bennett to another Aboriginal artist, Judy Watson, who are both “very different painters, but in less than 15 years each has produced an impressive and substantial body of work and built very successful careers as artists.” Says McLean: “Both found their feet quickly and now are at critical stages in their career. However they have demonstrated stamina, commitment and talent as artists, and so probably are yet to produce their best work.” Bennett is well represented in major state galleries but most works remain in private hands. A rare appearance at auction in 2002 saw Bennett achieve his current saleroom peak of $47,500 for an early 1993 canvas. Always the provocateur, his most recent show at Sherman Galleries, in August 2003, conflated camouflage and Islamic designs with ungainly portraits of Saddam Hussein.

ADS Donaldson
Profiled in issue #24 Of Australian Art Collector, this Sydney abstractionist has had a red letter year culminating in making our list for the first time. Donaldson’s select international following walked away with works from the Armory art fair in New York in March and then at Art Basel in June, the world’s most prestigious art fair. In April Donaldson collaborated with fellow artist Elizabeth Pulie for a show at Sarah Cottier’s now defunct Gallery, where he also exhibited 3 enormous large scale silver and blue paintings. Another show of hard-edge abstract paintings at Pestorius Sweeney House in August prompted Brisbane and AAC critic Rex Butler to write in The Courier Mail that "the issues signaled in this modest little suburban gallery will come to dominate the coming century of Australian culture – the battle between ‘Australian’ and ‘unAustralian’ ways of seeing ourselves." Commissions for Aldi and the City of Sydney and another group show at the Kunsthalle Palazzo, near Basel, followed. Already next year Donaldson has group shows lined up in Wellington, New Zealand in March and at the Ivan Doughety Gallery, as part of the Sydney Biennale.

Ian Fairweather 1891-1974
With a body of work estimated at just 500 major works, this Scottish born ‘citizen of the world’ is often acknowledged as one of the most important artists of the 20th century to work in Australia. Fairweather spend between the wars travelling throughout Asia and Oceania; living first in China, later in Bali, the Philippines and India, taking in creative and cultural influences as he went. He first visited Australia in 1934, and took a studio briefly in Melbourne after the WWII but wouldn’t settle permanently until 1952, when he moved to Bribie Island, north of Brisbane. There he became involved in the local indigenous culture and would become the first and perhaps only non-Indigenous artist to successfully incorporate Aboriginal art into his practice, where it joined with disparate influences such as post-impressionism, Chinese calligraphy and Cubism in the realisation of outstanding abstract paintings. Most highly regarded are the abstracts of the late 1950s, early 1960s but works from throughout his career are keenly sought. Many already grace Australia’s major state collections, as well as overseas at the Tate and Liecester galleries and the Ulster Museum, Belfast. Although saleroom prices have been steadily trending up in recent years [his current auction record of $255,500 came in 2000], there is still value and room for significant growth. “For one of Australia’s most important 20th century painters,” says Sotheby’s Chairman, Justin Miller, “his works still seem reasonably priced to me when compared to the million dollar plus prices paid for iconic works by other truly great Australian painters.” Drawings and watercolours, which are more plentiful, may be easier to come by.

Robert Macpherson B.1937
This Brisbane based conceptual artist is an unlikely “grand old man” of Australian contemporary art but with more than three decades of cutting edge practice behind him, that’s just what he is. Macpherson has become a regular feature on our list, first appearing in 1999. Michael Snelling, Director of Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art, goes as far as saying MacPherson is “probably the most interesting artist working in Australia today, although he may well remain an artist's artist.” Snelling characterises the artist as “conceptually tough, viscerally mesmerizing and continues to make work that is both local and global - parochial and universal…” The broadening of Macpherson’s reputation became complete in 2000 with the major survey show at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, curated by Trevor Smith, recently appointed curator at the New Museum in New York. The show took over the whole bottom floor and some of the second at AGWA. “A scaled version toured to the MCA and looked just as impressive second time round,” says Snelling, “The catalogue was the best on an Australian artist seen here for many a year.” Macpherson was Australia's representative at the 2002 Sao Paolo biennale, and then in Face Up, backed by the Australia Council, at the prestigious Hamburger Bahnhoff in Berlin. Continues to be attractive to admirers of contemporary art, although works rarely surface on the secondary market.


First published in Australian Art Collector magazine, Issue #27, Jan-Mar, 2004.



Collectables: Wolfgang Sievers

The art market has finally realised it can no longer ignore 90-year-old photographer
Wolfgang Sievers, writes Michael Hutak

Collectors have been hearing for years that photography is "hot", and a stroll through any major international art fair will confirm that it has become the medium of choice, especially for younger contemporary artists.

Australia's art scene is overrun with snap-happy shutterbugs, with some, such as Tracey Moffatt, Rosemary Laing and Patricia Piccinini, making an impact in art world centres of gravitas such as New York, Venice and Cologne.

But do the sums match the hype? Is photography really a serious alternative for collectors looking to diversify away from, for example, the lucrative but monotonous trade in late-20th-century modernist painting?

"It is still possible to buy a good collection of photography for the price of a good painting," says Daniel Palmer, a critic and lecturer in the history of photography at the University of Melbourne. "But the real plus to emerge from the interest in artists such as Moffatt and Piccinini is that it has helped to establish traditional photography as a genuine collectable."

By "traditional", Palmer means "old-school" photographers such as Olive Cotton, Max Dupain, Lewis Morley or, as a case in point, the vastly under-appreciated 90-year-old Wolfgang Sievers, AO.

Born in Germany in 1913, Sievers studied at the Bauhaus and is revered as one of the most significant architectural -photographers to work in Australia, with many works in state archives, libraries and galleries. However, he has been ignored by the art market. Australian Art Sales Digest records show that in the decade to 2003, barely 10 works surfaced at auction, all selling for sums less than $1000. Or not selling at all.

Then, at Lawson-Menzies' Sydney auction in July, a 1959 silver gelatine photograph of a sulphuric acid plant in Hobart brought $2350 against an estimate of $900. The word was out by the time Sievers walked on crutches into Melbourne's Centre of Contemporary Photography to donate a 1986 print of a 1967 photograph for last week's charity auction to benefit the centre.

The auction, conducted by Christie's, was a runaway success, with 59 works by the cream of Australian photography garnering $79,360 for the CCP. Admittedly a paltry sum compared with the fine-art market but still vital signs of life for the 100 or so -collectors bidding at the sale.

And it wasn't a Moffatt or Piccinini that topped the sale but the Sievers, which fetched $8800 - an almost four-fold hike on the Lawson-Menzies sale.



First published in The Bulletin,
2 December 2003, Volume 121; Number 48



Collectables: John Young

If you want to know the most collectable emerging Australian artists, then look offshore first.

Apart from Aboriginal art, which enjoys the support of both a thriving domestic and international market, Australia’s contemporary art market has been virtually hermetically sealed to foreign collectors: Australian contemporary art is almost exclusively collected by Australians, whether locals or expats.

This is despite the fact that most Australian contemporaries produce art which is international in terms of outlook and ideas, and lacks nothing in execution, ingenuity or inspiration when presented alongside the best international art.

Yet barely a handful are well-known in the artworld’s hot spots like Manhattan, London or Cologne. In an age where artists have joined the ranks of celebrity, only Melbourne sculptor Ron Mueck, officially hot enough to be collected by billionaire tastemaker Charles Saatchi, has achieved anything approaching superstar status.

Yet tides can turn quickly and last week’s successful launch in Berlin of “Face Up”, an important group show of Australian contemporary art, added credence to recent claims that our living artists are starting to make a real impact in the international arena. Of course for Australians, acclaim abroad always resonates loudest at home, thus the canniest investors in Australian art today are looking for artists who are busy building reputations overseas.

A typical target is the postmodern painter John Young. Mid-career and on a roll, this Hongkong-born, Sydney-educated, Melbourne-based artist has just been picked up a prestigious Berlin gallery, Pruess & Ochs. In the past year has had a sellout solo show with Sherman Galleries in Sydney, and shows in Hong Kong, and Berlin, with yet another planned for next month at Anna Schwartz Gallery Melbourne. Already in 2004 Young has solo shows lined up in Pirmasens in Germany, Sydney, Tel Aviv and even Bali. Group shows will take in Singapore, Beijing, Germany and Indonesia.

The auction market tells the tale. After barely a dozen works changed hands for small sums in the previous decade, at Deutscher~Menzies’ Sydney auction in March a work that cost $18,000 from Young’s 2001 show with Anna Schwartz sold for $32,900.

Young’s dealers have crept up prices in the past year to $25,000 - $32,000 for an average-sized work to $60,000 for large works. Such sums are still quite low for European collectors, making work of Young’s quality a bargain, but they represent a trebling in the past five years on the Australian scene, and those who have been buying Young’s works for the proverbial song since the early 1980s must now be feeling very happy.

And perhaps a little vindicated.


First published in The Bulletin



Collectables: Bonhams' Oz joint venture

A new joint venture aimed at grabbing a slice of the booming fine art auction market may struggle to get into the frame.

Breathless excitement greeted the news that UK firm Bonhams, founded 1793 and the world’s third largest auction house, will dive into the local market via a joint venture with Double Bay auctioneer Tim Goodman. “Our brief is to compete with the multinationals in this market,” said Goodman, targetting the world’s number 1 and 2 gavel bangers: NYSE-listed Sotheby’s and French-owned Christie’s.

Bonhams & Goodman have already opened new offices in Perth and Brisbane and Goodman has recruited no less than five former specialists from “Christoby’s” to kick start the venture.

Both Goodman and Richard Brooks, Bonhams’ UK chairman, cut their teeth in the collectible motor car trade. Goodman’s is already the local market leader in this area and also has a strong profile in jewelry and sports memorabilia. In the UK Bonhams’s strong suit is decorative rather than fine art.

Local skeptics doubt whether this latest foray by an international firm in the super-competitive, and now crowded Australian fine art market, can do much more than nudge the dominance of the “big three”: Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and the Australian-owned Deutscher~Menzies, which entered the market in 1998.

In the late 1990’s French-owned firm Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg embarked on a similar quest down-under but failed.

Goodman argues that “the oldest firms are losing market share” in Australia, which is true but they have been losing it most spectacularly to D~M, owned by Melbourne cleaning tycoon Rod Menzies. And although the market itself has expanded to the spectacular tune of an average 10 per cent per year, the big three again have carved up the lion’s share.

According to Australian Art Sales Digest data, in 1992 almost $20 million in total sales of fine art was split roughly three ways between Sotheby’s ($6.9 million), Christies ($5.6m), and all “others” ($6.7m). A decade later, in a market now worth almost $80 million, and Sotheby’s ($23.5m) had increased sales four-fold, Christie’s ($18.2m) had more than trebled, D~M ($25m) had exploded in just five years, while “other” ($13.2m) had only doubled.

Goodman's still remains in the “other” category and while its annual "National Art Sale" has grown in 13 years to a respectable $1.75m in sales last July, the Bonhams joint venture will face stiff competition, not least on their home turf in Sydney from Menzies’s other firm, the new look, gung-ho Lawson~Menzies.


Abridged version published in The Bulletin



Collectables: Rupert Bunny

Change in Tempo: Security and cleaning magnate John Schaeffer has gotten out of Australian art, but not quite while the going was good.

Schaeffer's sell-off last week of almost all his beloved Rupert Bunny’s, plus a couple of other out-of-fashion colonial-era artists was “a limited success,” says Sotheby’s Sydney painting’s expert, Geoff Cassidy. The sale draws a line under the greed-was-good 1980s boom in colonial and traditional art.

The fourteen lots fetched just AUD$1,016,700 - well below the low estimate for the sale of $1.5 million. Schaeffer and Sotheby’s were happy to offload most lots at below the auction house’s low estimate but the sale’s “hero” lot – Bunny’s 1985 Portrait of Jeanne Morel - failed to reach reserve and was passed in at $490,000. Schaeffer paid $500,000 for the work at the landmark Sir Leon and Lady Trout sale in 1989.

“The Trout sale was really the last big one-owner auction of the 1980s before the bust in the early 1990s,” says Cassidy. “Even though the market has well and truly recovered since then you’d have a lot of trouble getting the prices paid for most of those popular artists of the 1980s. The market is definitely moving towards the contemporaries at the moment, and it’s been difficult to sell top-end Bunnys for some time... We were quite happy to move them.”

Cassidy said that when Bunny was at the height of his popularity “John (Schaeffer) was driving the market quite hard and when you take such a major player out of the market it gets quite hard.”

Son of Melbourne Judge, Bunny (1865-1947) spent almost 50 years living and painting in Paris and even managed to get hung several times in the Salon of the late 1880s alongside the masters of impressionist painting. Bunny was a hot ticket in 1980s but in the last 10 years of the 327 works offered at auction 135 have failed to sell and of those more two thirds were offered – and rejected - in the last five years.

The sale was cannily marketed by Sotheby’s as merely a change in focus from Australian art to Schaeffer’s first love, 19th century English painting (he competes with Andrew Lloyd Webber as the world’s biggest private collector of Pre-Raphaelite Victorian art). This is no doubt the case for the super-wealthy, publicity-shy patron to the arts, but like any canny businessman the CEO of Tempo Services also had other reasons for the dispersal (don’t call it a fire sale!).

After a well-publicized split with his wife Julie last year, Schaeffer was forced to sell $7 million worth of his private-holding in Tempo’s stock. He told The Bulletin last November he would be selling off some of his magnificent collection to repurchase his holding.

"My love for this company is far greater than my love for my paintings," he said bluntly.


Abridged version published in The Bulletin



Collectables: Art & Super Funds

Hanging offence: To hang or not to hang. That is the crucial question confronting today's super fund trustee, reports Michael Hutak

FINE ART has long been considered a legitimate asset class within the investment strategy of some of Australia's biggest superannuation funds. C+BUS for example, the building industry fund, counts its important art collection housed in regional galleries around Australia among assets of more than $3.5 billion.

But the most action in this area in recent years has been at the other end of the market, as private collectors rush to purchase art as part of their Self-Managed Superannuation Fund.

SMSFs have been the fastest growing sector of the super industry with approximately AUD$95 billion under management out of a total $530bn. The Australian Tax Office says SMSFs have grown by almost 25 per cent over the last three years to around 240,000 funds. It receives 1,000 new registrations each month and there are around 408,000 people with accounts, with an average balance of $234,000.

With the total secondary auction market in fine art in Australia at just $80 million per annum, the art trade understandably sees a great opportunity to grab a bigger slice of the estimated $10 billion that flowed into SMSFs during 2001-02.

The art market has a good story to tell potential investors: that $80 million already represents a quintupling of the auction market in just a decade. And headline-grabbing sales of telling of 100, 200 even 300 per cent returns for works by artists across all sectors of the market – traditional & modern, contemporary, and aboriginal art – make investing in art an easy, even sexy, sell.

Targeting the small investor, many galleries and art “consultants” are currently spruiking art in an SMSF as making “more sense than other assets in that you can hang it on your wall at home or office and have the visual pleasure of your own work of art.” One gallery’s web site even states: “It is a little known fact that it is perfectly legal to purchase investment artworks, acquired through your super fund, hanging on your wall at home.”

In fact this is not ‘little known’. It’s also not true. The big art-super push has hit a big snag called the ATO. “We’ve gone through this already with people trying to claim anything from Swiss chalets to Coles-Myer cards,” says Matt Frost, superannuation spokesperson for the ATO.

“The bottom line is yes, you CAN certainly invest in art for your fund, but when people ask us ‘can we put it on our wall’ the short answer is, ‘no you can’t.’”

Any investment for the purposes of a SMSF cannot contravene the so-called ‘sole purpose test’: it must only fulfil one purpose and that it is to provide a benefit on retirement. “And any investment that also provides any ancilliary benefit clearly fails the test,” says the ATO’s Frost.

Prominent Melbourne collector and art world accountant Tom Lowenstein isn’t taking the ruling lying down.

“I completely disagree with the Tax Office’s view and I’ve put a submission to them putting that case,” he told The Bulletin. “If the work has been bought for investment and fulfils the aims of the fund’s investment strategy then what does it matter where it is stored? My argument is the asset is just as safe on your wall at home as in storage, and is probably even safer.”

Lowenstein said cost of setting up even a small SMSF were not inconsiderable. With a modest investment of $100,000 “you’d still be looking at $2000 to $3000 in legal, accounting and auditing expenses. Add $5000 to $6000 per annum to insure and then store the works and you’ve probably wiped out any capital gains right there.”

Lowenstein argues, rather facetiously, that he is currently advising clients to either not hang their artworks, or to make sure they don’t enjoy them if they do. Which makes for a bizarre twist on an old adage: I don’t much about art but I know what I don’t like.

He predicts one of two outcomes to the controversy: “Either the ATO will back down, or it will be decided in the courts.”


Abridged version published in The Bulletin



Collectables: Emily Kame Kngwarreye

The market aand experts differ on the value of early and late works by the legendary indigenous artist, Emily Kame Kngwarreye.

Undoubted highlight of last month’s bumper Sotheby’s Aboriginal art auction was the sale of the late great Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s 1991 canvas, Untitled (Spring Celebration).

Bidding on this sensual colour field of green, brown and yellow dots was the most competitive at the 560-lot sale, with four bidders on the phone and several dealers and collectors in the room vying for the prize.

The hammer eventually fell for a Swiss private collector who bid $463,000 – more than three times Kngwarreye’s previous auction benchmark, one of 17 saleroom records set for individual artists at the $7.4 million auction.

But what’s in a record? Are we to assume that this work was the pinnacle of Kngwarreye’s extraordinary achievement?

“These aren’t her best works in my opinion,” says Emily expert, Margot Neale, curator of Kngwarreye’s landmark 1998 national touring retrospective – the first ever for an Aboriginal artist.

“They’re very beautiful and there’s a quiet poetry about these early dot paintings,” says Neale. “But Emily didn’t pick up a brush until 1989, when she was in her late seventies. These works are only two years into her [eight-year] career," said Neale, now director of the First Australians Gallery at the Australian National Museum in Canberra.

“In my opinion Emily really came into her own with those looser, more gestural works of 1993-94, when she put all her verve and passion into it.

"She had enormous physical strength in her arms and hands from a lifetime of camel-driving and in the later works she really gives vent to that physicality on the canvas.”

The market begs to differ. But then the market judged at Sotheby’s corresponding sale in 1995 that a similar work to the new record breaker, Flowers of Alagura 1991, was worth only $2,300.

Meanwhile works from what Neale (and others) regard as Kngwarreye’s best period are still going for more modest prices of around $30,000 and up. Canny investors might look to what is called counter-cyclical buying and snap up these bargains while they last.

But, again, for those that buy for money there is always a downside – they will eventually have to part with a work of art whose aesthetic value is priceless.


Abridged version first published in The Bulletin

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Cox on Venice: Tear down my shack!

It's time for the Australian pavilion at the Venice Biennale to go, says the architect who designed it. Michael Hutak reports.
Prominent architect Philip Cox, fed up with snipes from the artworld, has declared he would support tearing down his "temporary" Australian pavilion in the elite Giardini della Biennale in Venice, the official venue for Australia's participation in the world's most prestigious artfair since 1988.
"I would be very pleased if the Australia Council or the Australian Government replaced that building because it is a temporary structure," Cox told The Age. "I am completely behind putting a permanent building there."
Currently occupied by Patricia Piccinini's critically-acclaimed suite of mutant sculptures, Cox's construction clings to a bank that falls away steeply to a canal, squeezed into a backlot behind the leafy, spacious environs enjoyed by the other 25 national pavilions. Australia was the last country to be granted a permanent pavilion.
Cox said the critics who "always moan about why we don't have something of the order of the French or the German or the English pavilions forget that it's a very cheap building put together in 10 minutes".
"They forget the whole project was virtually gifted to the Australia Council. We donated our services and we got BHP to provide the steel and Transfield to also provide materials. And on the record and to be perfectly frank, it gives me the f---ing shits considering we all worked so hard for nothing to put it there."
The 1988 Bicentennial project bears Cox's trademark prefabricated steel tubing, and might have made a luxurious split-level beach shack for a 1980s high flyer. But as a showcase venue for contemporary art, it routinely comes in for a biennial bashing as an almost unworkable space, one that dictates to the artist, not vice-versa. Wall space is cramped and large paintings are almost impossible to hang favourably. This year, Piccinini was praised for making best use of the difficult space by choosing to display three-dimensional work.
Cox concedes these criticisms, but says the artworld has short memories when it comes to the building's genesis. "The brief was - well, there wasn't a brief," he said. "The Venetians made it a case of either you fill the space quickly now or you'll miss out."
Cox then had a seat on the Australia Council's design board and realised that to be completed in time, the construction had to be prefab. The building permit was issued on May 25, 1988, and Arthur Boyd's show curated by Grazia Gunn opened less than a month later, on June 24. It then promptly closed for two weeks to allow builders to finish the roof, fit missing windows and repair the floor that had been covered by tarpaulin.
Several sources in Venice this year close to the Australia Council said official moves were underway to finally do something about the pavilion, however Australia Council chief executive Jenny Bott confirmed that the venue would remain unaltered for the 2005 Biennale at least.
"We need to develop a 10- year strategy for Venice," Bott said. The council spent around $900,000 on this year's Venice adventure, but Bott said "any capital expense would never come out of our budget".
However the Australia Council's temporary lease over the treasured block this year moved to permanent status, clearing the way for a complete rethink of the building.
In alternating years Venice's Architecture Biennale consumes the Giardini. However the Australian pavilion remains mothballed because, says the Australia Council, "architecture does not fall within (our) brief".
Under moral rights amendments in 2000 to the Copyright Act, any substantial changes to the pavilion would have to meet with the architect's approval.
Cox says he hasn't been approached by the Australia Council but would nevertheless give his imprimatur to a new, more suitable structure.
"I would love the opportunity to design it," he enthused, "but you'd need $10 million to do something decent and where would you find that sort of money for a single arts project in Australia today?"
First published in The Age

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Collectables: Cricket Tragics

Is Don, is not so good: Legend drives the market for items with a direct and personal connection to Don Bradman during his playing days

Nostalgia aint what it used to be – today it’s big business, especially if your name was once Bradman.

Like an artist who must expire before his works soar in value, the Don’s passing in March 2001 has ushered in an era of record prices for collectibles at one end of the scale, and rapacious trading of memorabilia at the other.

Christie’s London set the benchmark in June when Bradman's baggy green cap from the 1946-47 Ashes cricket series attracted a record auction price of AUD$88,835. And last month the prodigy’s most famous ‘baggy green’, worn in his final innings in 1948, was sold privately for an unconfirmed $425,000.

Christie’s Australian head of decorative arts, Richard Gordon, says the July sale should not be cited as a new benchmark for the Bradman market simply because it was so unique. “Given that he may have never had another chance to buy it, it was clear the purchaser was prepared to go to great extremes,” says Gordon. “It now seems very unlikely to come onto the market again in the near future.”

Gordon acknowledged that the market for such genuine collectibles – items that had a direct and personal connection to Bradman during his playing days – was being driven by the legend that has built up around the Don.

“These items are steeped in such history and the man himself seems to generate such divided passions in people – he is not universally loved.”

Tell that to the purveyors of the burgeoning market in mass produced memorabilia and limited editions. Bradman’s attempts to devalue his signature by flooding the market – it is well known he would sign anything put in front of him in an effort to ‘decommercialise’ it’s significance – has done little to dull the appetite of cricket fans for anything vaguely associated with their hero.

A random search at online auction house EBAY found 124 Bradman items up for grabs ranging from a signed bat - starting reserve $9,999 and purchased from “a close friend whose grandfather was said to have known [the late] Clarrie Grimmet,” - to a used 1996 paperback on the Don, asking price $2.

In between one can bid on still more bats and books, plus stamps, coins, posters, pewter and porcelain figurines, trading cards, coasters, balls, audio tapes, videos - even a “very rare” fork and spoon set.

Just $150 will open the bidding on a shop-soiled entry ticket to the Australian’s tour match against Surrey in 1934. Bradman made 61 not out that day. Talk about tragic.


Abridged version published in The Bulletin



Collectables: Important Aboriginal Art

Aboriginal art continues to bring the bids and bouquets at Sotheby's in New York.

SCANDALS ASIDE, the Aboriginal art sector has been the most dynamic performer in last five years of Australia’s booming fine art market and Sotheby’s upcoming winter auction of Important Aboriginal Art has become the key barometer of the sector’s health. Each year the local franchise of the NYSE-listed company trumpets “the most valuable collection of Australian indigenous art ever assembled for sale”. Each year the boast is proved correct.

In 2002 Sotheby's shifted a record $5.1 million worth of precious paintings and rare artefacts. This year the 560 lots to be knocked down at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art on July 28 and 29th have been pegged at an upper estimate of $9.69 million. With more than 20 lots listed with estimates above $100k, saleroom records will likely fall for the established hit parade of indigenous artists: Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Ginger Riley Munduwalawala, Alec Mingelmanganu, Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, Dorothy Robinson Napangardi and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri.

However, this year’s indisputable highlight, the massive 5 metre by 8 metre Ngurrara Canvas 1, underlines the collaborative nature of much Aboriginal art. Painted in 1996 by 19 artists from the Great Sandy Desert to demostrate their Native Title claim to 800,000 hectares, it is valued between $300,000 and $500,000. Consigned by the artists themselves, it would look nice in a State gallery where everyone could contemplate its ongoing significance: the land claim is still in dispute.

After seeing off a brief challenge from rival auctioneer Deutscher-Menzies in the late 1990s, Sotheby’s virtually has the serious end of the market to itself. This year, with the war in Iraq casting its shadow, the firm’s Sydney-based Aboriginal art specialist, Tim Klingender, cancelled the traditional New York preview, but made up for it by scoring a front page article on the sale in The New York Times. This week (July 23) The New Yorker magazine publishes a similar glowing appraisal.

Sotheby’s prints around 4500 catalogs for the sale and despatches 500 in equal measure to collectors in Europe and North America. Klingender says there are around 100 serious private collectors who consistently bid for works worth more than $50,000, and only about 10 kindred spirits who can afford to wave their paddles at works worth more $500,000. “They are a disparate group of people,” he told The Bulletin, “mainly Swiss, French, Dutch and American. What they all usually have in common is that they’ve visited Australia at some stage and fallen in love with Aboriginal art.”

The record price for an indigenous artwork was paid not by a private collector but by the National Gallery of Australia, which went to $786,625 to secure Rover Thomas's All That Big Rain Coming From Top Side for the national estate, at - where else? - Sotheby’s 2001 sale. The firm has three more important ‘Rovers’ on offer this year with upper estimates scraping $350k. Yet, as The New York Times acknowledged: “The one group of Australian citizens rarely seen in galleries and salesrooms are Aborigines themselves, who are too poor to buy the products of their own culture.”


First published in The Bulletin

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Deal Me In: Stuart Purves

Australian Art Collector caught up with Australian Galleries' Stuart Purves in Rome, where the dealer was passing through en route to Tuscany where he planned to take possession of the latest raft of works from his octogenarian stable star, Jeffrey Smart.

STUART PURVES: I’ve come to Italy to honour Jeffrey [Smart], who’s in his early eighties now, and why not, we’ve been dealing with eachother for over a quarter of a century. I am a second generation dealer and I had two parents [Anne and Tam Purves] who were full-time art dealers. Believe it or not I’m the oldest continuing art dealer in the business. I can’t believe it coz I’m still young and that shows you how young the art world is in this country. But what it all comes down to that it is art before money. It really isn’t a business, instead you’re more like a leaf floating down the river, steering a course. There’s no real competition in the art world because everybody is in a sense heading in the same direction - to find that kernel of proper and inspiring art. There’s too much chasing of the money in it today. The money’s there, it’s always been there for good things–

MICHAEL HUTAK: -but as a dealer your responsibility is two-fold - one to your collectors and one to your artists–

SP: -and one to myself! I don’t want to be misunderstood here. I’ll wring as much out of it as I can. But what you have to ensure first is that you’re putting good work forward, and then make a powerful shot at the money. Not the other way round.

MH: - there’s no mint to be made out of mediocre art.

SP: You can for a while, but then it goes back to that adage that eventually you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.

MH: What effect has the rise of the auction scene in Australia had on your business?

SP: Absolutely fantastic. If you took the auction scene out of the galleries now, the prices would go back to about a quarter of what they are now. They’ve popularised it and they’ve proved it. The thing is they have also destroyed some artists as well, but they are quite forgiving in that they don’t talk about that much, whereas they sure as hell make a big fuss about the things that go up. It’s a bit like an undercurrent, it’s inclined to drag everything along – rubbish, weeds, sand, shells, crabs the whole lot - and I think that’s the effect it has had on the entire art world.

I remember one day, I was at Euen Heng’s place, we’d been dealing with him for quite some time and he’d never been offered at auction and I was looking at the work as we were about to have an exhibition. So I was looking and thinking, this work was just fantastic and I thought what can I do here, and I turned to Euen and said ‘We’re going to double the prices’. They were $9000, they would now be $18,000. Well, he went pale, I got in the car with a dry throat thinking 'what have I done?', but I might tell you they sold better at $18,000 than they had at $9000. His previous clients who’d bought three or four were thrilled because the works they’d bought had immediately doubled in value and it was simply a case of saying, well if we don’t respect this artist’s work how can we expect anyone else to?

But the whole thing was also timing. I didn’t do it when it wasn’t ready. I didn’t do it until the day I looked at these paintings and thought, shit, this guy is a real artist and we had better respect that. It’s not as flippant as that either. We changed our attitude on framing, we produced a proper catalogue, we backed it up, we played the right music for it and it’s worked out very, very well.

MH: And that’s now Heng’s new base level.

SP: Absolutely, and I think we’ll be doing it again, because he really deserves to be up there and one of the ways you can call that attention is to raise the prices. I mean you can show and show and show, but sometimes you have to make the leap of faith and back your artist’s talent.

MH: What happens when say an artist like Jeffrey Smart has a breakthrough sale at auction that is streets ahead of his current gallery price? How do you cope with that?

SP: It’s pretty easy. You just add a zero to everything you’ve got in the stockroom. (laughs) But, what it means is this: it’s time. It’s as simple as that - the market has told you. Because for every sale like that there’s an underbidder. Jeffrey is a perfect example, he’s been a perfect gentleman in every sense of the word, and his paintings have honoured him in the same way.

Like I said we’ve been representing Jeffrey for over 25 years and the first painting we sold of his was a thing called The Dome. It’s quite famous now, and we sold that for $6000, good money in those days but now we sell similar works for $250,000 maybe $300,000. I think it gets back to the fact that Jeffrey’s senior, and the art world is interested much more in itself than it once was and therefore it is looking back to its senior artists, and they are few in number on the ground. It has to go that way. He’s also had recent retrospectives, [Art Gallery of New South Wales’ director] Edmund Capon is a fan and that doesn’t go astray.

I’m now becoming more interested in the contemporary area. When my parents ran the gallery, you have to think I grew up with Sydney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Albert Tucker, Fred Williams, John Olsen and Brett Whiteley, and then I’ve done my own reshaping and I’ve made the gallery quite big – I mean it’s now four galleries in two cities, a production department, it employs 14 people, it needs ten thousand fresh dollars of profit every day to stay in business, we have a publishing program. But the other thing is I feel as though I've got to keep growing with it so an artist can grow through the gallery, doesn’t have to leave and go somewhere else.

Think of Brian Johnson, Violet Guila, William Mora, Rudy Komon – the common factor with all those dealers is that their galleries died with them and I don’t want that to happen to our gallery. It’s a long term family business, it will be 50 years old on June 13th of 2006, we’re going to do a big production book for that. We’ve got a record of every exhibition we’ve ever had going back to 1956, the date and what pictures were in it. We’re scrapbook people. (I might tell you our house burnt down in 1970 and we lost an enormous amount of records, two Boyd Bride paintings – the impact killed my father, he died at 59 years old.) But we’ve got 25 volumes of newspaper clippings, the State Library has a program where they keep our correspondence. I’m interested in shoring up what my parents started, I’m interested in my own success with this group people that I represent now, and I’m interested in starting two contemporary galleries, one in Sydney and one in Melbourne, so that the whole thing continues to roll on.


Abridged version published in Australian Art Collector

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Collectables: Jeffrey Smart

Jeffrey Smart has virtually no market outside Australia, yet short supply keeps his work in demand

With his latest show at Sydney’s Australian Galleries another sellout, evergreen artist, Jeffrey Smart, appears at 82 years of age to be at the height of his powers and success. Netting almost $5 million in sales, the show comes hot on the heels of another record auction price: $439,450 for the 1990 work Near Pisa Airport, paid in late August at Christie’s sale of the BHP Billiton Collection.

Smart’s signature style – the industrial settings and motifs, the clean lines, bold colours and precise attention to composition – settled in when he left Australia in the late 1960s for the rural idyll of a Tuscan villa. From his studio there, for almost four decades, Smart has meticulously produced 20 to 30 major works per annum, feeding shows for his Australian dealers who can barely get their hands on works before they are sold.

Not too many investments outstrip Sydney real estate but Smart’s average price at auction has more than trebled since 1997.

Melbourne football identity, Sam Newman, kicked things along in 1998, blaming too much red wine when he paid a then-record $288,500 for Guiding Spheres (Homage to Cezanne) II at Christies Melbourne. The tabloids scoffed at the folly, but Newman, it appears, knew exactly what he was doing (or was acting on sound advice). The major touring retrospective of Smart mounted in 1999 by the Art Gallery of NSW sparked another jump in values and a minor rush on Smarts - 27 oils were offered at auction that year with only four unsold.

While they are a genuine blue chip investment, we are unlikely to see an glut of works by Smart filling auction catalogues any time soon.

Unlike, for example, Brett Whiteley (around 15,000 works) or Arthur Boyd (some 20,000), Smart’s lifetime output numbers only about 1000 major paintings. Exacting a rigid quality control, he has often destroyed works which, in his opinion, haven’t made the grade. Rarely does an inferior work reach the market. In the past ten years only 145 paintings have been sold on the secondary market through the auction room.

No more than 100 major works are in state or public galleries, the rest are held tightly by private collectors who typically would have bought them straight out of a show with his dealers.

The short supply has meant Smart has virtually no market outside Australia, yet he does have international standing. Global art auction data firm,, rates Smart No.407 among the top 9,000 artists at auction, just below Mexican Frida Kahlo (402) but above the more-renowned contemporary Joseph Beuys (447) and venerable English master John Constable (436).

Today Smart enjoys his fame without paying the price. “I don’t really want to be well-known here in Italy, I’d like to lead my quiet life here,” he told The Bulletin when we visited recently. “It’s very thrilling to go back to Australia and find out you are Mr Famous.”


First published in The Bulletin



Strictly modern

Intriguing connections surround the recent Australian visit of British art critic and author Matthew Collings, best known here for his British Academy Award-winning television series, This is Modern Art.

Collings, who has charted the rise of the so-called Young British Artists movement of the mid-1990s, wound up a sell-out speaking tour last week with a talk at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art, where his subject was "The Solemn and the Trivial versus the Serious and the Playful". Collings' witty, plain-speaking accounts of the works of YBA stars such as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst have done much to demystify art for the general public.

But now he believes that, while the popularity of modern art is on the rise (in Britain, at least), artists should have no obligation to be popular. Indeed, art is "neither democratic nor a form of entertainment but is a specialised endeavour for those willing to make the serious effort to engage with it".

While Collings' thesis is less applicable in Australia, where contemporary art more often attracts derision than praise in the popular press, the would-be painter is apparently planning regular sojourns down under.

Collings' visit was organised by Melbourne artist Mary Lou Pavlovic, who revealed to The Bulletin ambitious plans to open a gallery in Melbourne next year - working title: Pav Modern - with her first show being paintings and mosaics by none other than Collings and his artist wife, Emma Biggs.

Pavlovic met Collings at the height of the YBA ferment when she was studying at London's influential Goldsmiths College. The tour, she says, is just the beginning of her entrepreneurial forays onto the local art scene.

She says Pav Modern's backing is already secure and she will be joined in the venture by her brother, pop music promoter Steve Pav. He is a key figure in alternative music circles, being responsible for bringing bands such as the Beastie Boys and Nirvana to Australia long before both acts became household names.

Buoyed by crowds of several thousand for Collings, Pavlovic is thinking big and plans to stage art events that openly court controversy. She cites the landmark Sensation exhibition, where works such as Andres Serrano's Piss Christ were deemed an affront to public morals.

"I've just become sick of the apathy," she says. "Things have been too conservative for too long in the art scene in this country. We need an upbeat, broad-ranging art scene that connects more with what's happening internationally."

While factors such as the proverbial tyranny of distance may kick in before she gets going, either way Pavlovic seems determined to crash through or crash in a blaze of glory.

By Michael Hutak
457 words
22 October 2002
The Bulletin
Volume 120; Number 43

First published in The Bulletin

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Ken Burns: oxymoronic hybrid

Dubbed the world's most influential documentary film-maker, Ken Burns has made his name and fortune bringing the past to life. "I've become so influential," Burns told The Bulletin, "that one of our most respected historians said recently that more Americans get their history from me than from anywhere else, to paraphrase the [American] ABC news slogan."
Burns delivered the keynote address at the 2002 NSW Premier's History Awards last Friday. Premier Bob Carr had been trying to get Burns to Australia since he instituted the awards in 1997. He was booked to come last year but September 11 intervened. Yet the director of the most watched documentary in television history, the epic nine-part The Civil War, admits he is "completely untrained in American history".
"I'm an amateur historian, a popular historian at best, but I have a huge, huge following in the States. We estimate that over 75 million Americans have seen The Civil War, 50 million saw Baseball and more than 35 million watched Jazz, and that's an amazing testament to the power of television." Burns puts his success down to an ability "to touch the popular nerve" and to produce films that "rather than express an already arrived-at end, are rather about me sharing with the audience a process of discovery".
But it also takes a magician's skill: "I mean I've got these dead, morbid still photographs, these first-person quotes lying dusty in an archive; I've got the commentary of scholars who over the course of a two-hour interview might be as dry as toast; I've got some narration and I'm trying to make a historical event come alive. It's what I do to those materials that hopefully makes you feel for a moment what it was like to be there." Burns recently redigitised every photograph in The Civil War, and added new voice¬overs and remastered the sound for the series' DVD release. The revised program has just been rebroadcast in the US, again with record ratings.
Carr hosted a dinner for Burns last week which included self-confessed US history "tragics", former federal opposition leader Kim Beazley and former Wran government minister Rodney Cavalier. Burns was apparently impressed with his host's depth of knowledge of American history. "I don't come to Australia with any expectations, but I'm thrilled to be here because a politician in your country not only has a love of history, which is rare, but of American history, which is even rarer. My films have actually done extraordinarily well here; The Civil War had higher ratings here [for SBS] than in the US – and it remains the highest-rating program ever aired on PBS [the US Public Broadcasting Service]."
Burns originally wanted to be a Hollywood director but discovered non-fiction in college. He moved 25 years ago to rural New Hampshire where "I could live for nothing and have the luxury of being unconcerned with the marketplace". But working in the public sector is no impediment to wealth in the land of the profit motive. "I've actually made a huge amount of money and I've paid back all my grants. I'm a unique oxymoronic hybrid – a documentary film-maker who is actually known and has made money."
He spent Friday with Carr in Port Macquarie for the announcement of the awards, where Nadia Wheatley won the $15,000 Premier's History Prize for her 2001 biography of post-war author and columnist Charmian Clift.
Of slight build but determined disposition, Burns has the tenacity to see his multi-hour epics to completion not over months but years. "You never know it's going to be 19 hours long going in. Jazz took 6½ years to finish, to the day." His schedule is all booked up for the next 10 years, with a major series on Martin Luther King in development and another on World War II slated to air in 2009 or 2010. "I have a lot on my plate." Meanwhile, Burns' 2001 four-hour biography of Mark Twain airs next year on ABC-TV.
And the next target for NSW's impresario premier, who previously brought Gore Vidal to Sydney for the 1998 Sydney Writers' Festival, is historian and former JFK speech-writer Arthur Schlesinger jnr.

First published in The Bulletin

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Collectables: Export vs. Heritage

Auction stations: The export market for indigenous artworks is being stymied by bureaucracy, argue the auction houses. But not surprisingly, Michael Hutak reports, the bureaucrats disagree.

What is more important? Australia’s multi-million dollar international market for Aboriginal art, or the value of that art to the cultural heritage of the nation as a whole? That’s the crucial question driving tensions between international auction house Sotheby’s and the federal government’s Movable Cultural Heritage Committee.

Five months after its annual sale of Aboriginal art in July, Sotheby’s is still waiting for the MCHC to decide whether seven works knocked down at the auction will be granted export licences to leave the country with their new owners. The auction house faced a similar situation in 2000 and the subsequent denying of export permits for three works resulted in the sales being cancelled and, according to Sotheby’s, the vendors being unable to achieve the proper market value for their paintings.

Sotheby’s 2001 sale again broke all auction records for Aboriginal art, with sales totalling $5m. But for the company’s Aboriginal art specialist, Tim Klingender, the worrying statistic is the percentage of works bought by overseas collectors, which fell by more than a third from 69% to 39%.

“It’s been nothing short of a disaster for us,” says Klingender. “International confidence in the Aboriginal art market is being affected. We have been advised by the largest private collector of Aboriginal art in the United States that he will not bid on any lot that does not have an export permit prior to the auction being held.”

Klingender says he told the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, which administers the relevant act, before the sale that some 75 works fell within the act’s guidelines for assessment. But the department would accept only 15 applications, eventually denying export licences to seven works.

After the auction, the department required 16 more works go to the MCHC for assessment, seven of which are still in limbo. A spokesperson told The Bulletin that to process 75 works within Sotheby’s timeframe would have “overburdened the committee; delayed other applications for objects that were definitely intended for overseas export; and risked a more superficial assessment of the cultural significance of the works”.

Klingender claims Sotheby’s has no problem with important works being banned from leaving the country as part of cultural heritage. But he maintains “the irregular meetings of the MCHC contributes to a process that is unacceptably long and frustrating to all involved”. He says: “We want the whole process to be streamlined. The expert examiners of works who advise the committee should be remunerated for their time and expertise and time limits and deadlines placed on their assessments.”

Brenda Croft is the indigenous art expert on the heritage committee. An Aboriginal artist and curator who has just been appointed curator of indigenous art at the National Gallery of Australia, she is unmoved by the auction house’s criticisms.

“People [on the committee] aren’t just there sitting on things,” she says. “We aren’t out to hamper the market but I don’t have a great deal of empathy because I’m not here to further the interests of the auction houses or commercial galleries. Our primary interest here is to protect cultural heritage, not to facilitate sales of work.”

With key US and European collectors refusing to consider works without an export permit in place, one leading Melbourne dealer in Aboriginal art said the act had effectively halved international prices and it was having a knock-on effect in the domestic market, creating an artificial, two-tiered market.

“I don’t take that argument on board,” says Croft. “There are many, many works that have secured permits. And besides, with a lot of the works that do go overseas, the onsale doesn’t go back to the artists, anyway, because these are secondary sales.”

This differs from the situation in the European Union, for example, where artists have a legal right of resale – or droit de suite – in which they are granted a percentage, usually 2% to 5%, of any resale of an original work.

“We’re not here to stop people selling,” says Croft. “But in my own mind I’ve had problems with seeing indigenous works sometimes seemingly traded like stock and bonds, particularly when I know there’s no right of resale to the artists.”


First published in The Bulletin



Interview: Ben Mendelsohn

For a professional actor on a mid-career surge, Ben Mendelsohn is uncharacteristically modest... “I’ve been doing this (acting) since pretty much the beginning of my teenage years, and I’ve been financially independent since I was fifteen but it’s not really a career, is it? It’s a series of jobs, is what it is! I mean, you will never get to be ‘Head of South East Asian acting’. You might have a great life but it’s not a career.”

It’s mid-morning and we’re talking in a café overlooking Bondi Beach. “Bondi’s got a bit hectic – I’m shifting basically. I remember seeing this great TV special when I was 12, it was about Penthouse Pets and one of ‘em lived in Bondi – and I remember all these shots on the beach and I thought what a promised land – Bondi! I love living here but it’s getting very hectic.”

Mendelsohn is dressed smart casual, freshly shaved, hair combed and still wet from his morning shower. His world weary delivery, punctuated by a steady succession of ‘Styvo Reds’, are at odds with his image, which is reminiscent of a naughty boy wagging Sunday school. How refreshing, we comment, to find an actor not obsessed with his public image; a thespian, no less, unencumbered by “vaulting ambition”. Oops, spoke too soon…

“Oh, I have very unhealthy ambitions,” he protests, “but I don’t see the point in advertising ‘em, y’know? I don’t see the point in sitting down and telling you (slipping into mock American accent) what I’m gonna do next. Coz if I do it I’ll do it and we’ll know about it then.

"I can just see that quote coming up – ‘I have a lot of unhealthy ambitions’.”

If there’s blood coursing in his veins he should. On the back of good notices for his supporting role in the Hollywood blockbuster VERTICAL LIMIT, Mendelsohn is on a roll, with last year’s SAMPLE PEOPLE garnering him favourable press and anticipation high for his new release, a comedy drama called MULLET, which reunites the actor with David Caesar, his director in the 1995 hit, IDIOT BOX. And with CHILD STAR, his third film with director Nadia Tass, set for release in a couple of months, now is a good a time as any for ambition.

“Since the whole Vertical Limit thing my face has been back in the newspapers, and I’ve had a few more scripts come my way. I mean I’ve been in this business so long that I’m not expecting that much. It’s about working, y’know? About getting a bit of money in the bank, enough to not have to work for a while. I mean I don’t give a fuck – y’know? I don’t give a fuck.

“I hang out with a couple of actors but most of my time isn’t spent with other actors. My private life is not in the business. I’m not a big networker and luckily I’m not in a position where I need to do that and I’m glad about that. You’d go fucking mad – all you talk about is how much you’re working or how much you’re not working – I think about that stuff enough, I don’t need to pump it up any more.”

Having spent half his young life in the limelight, he’s more than accustomed to the drill. A new film, a round of publicity, same old questions: “It’s all bullshit, mate,” he intimates in reassuringly hushed tones.

Mendelsohn has been in the public’s consciousness since he was 15 and the HENDERSON KIDS was a hit on our TV screens. And it’s been more than 14 years since his remarkable film debut in the director John Duigan’s groundbreaking THE YEAR MY VOICE BROKE, a film that also launched the career of his contemporary, Noah Taylor.

He remembers the film fondly. “It was slated as a telemovie, in amongst a bunch of films that Kennedy Miller were doing for TEN. They loved it so much in the first weeks that decided to go ahead and make it into a feature. I had no idea it was going to be so big.

“Duigan was fuckin’ great! He’s like a horse whisperer. He’s got the abilty to point you in a direction and just let you go. They’re the ones I like to work with, and look at the performances he got out of us – they’re pretty fucken on the money!”

Mendelsohn won the first of his AFI Awards for the role, and a string of distinguished performances ensued in some of the local industry’s best films of the late 1980’s and 1990s - THE BIG STEAL, SPOTSWOOD, MAP OF THE HUMAN HEART, SIRENS, METAL SKIN (attracting his second AFI Award), COSI, and IDIOT BOX. He’s an actor that relies on his natural gift and sheer charisma. You can drop all that method "bullshit"!

“One of the misconceptions about performance is the idea that you can get it perfect, that the more you wring your hands about it the better it’s gonna be – that’s bullshit. If a director or another actor asks me what my motivation is, well, I tell ‘em it’s got nothing to do with them.

“I wanted to be a spy when I was a kid,” he says straight-faced, which somehow figures perfectly. “I left school at 15, and I haven’t ever formally studied acting. I mean talking about acting is a bit like fucking for chastity, y’know?” He checks for a second, and is obviously keen to impress that he’s still very serious about his work: “That doesn’t mean I don’t do whatever I need to do to get the performance up there, I just think there’s a certain cult that focuses more on the preparation than on the actual result whereas I think here’s a lot to be said for just jumping in and doing it. I do like to think I’m getting better at it, but I don’t know that! I’m very critical of my own work and I see the bits that don’t work before the bits that do.”

Mendelsohn’s aim is to be ‘in the moment’ when the camera is rolling, a characteristic self-evident in his easygoing performance in MULLET, a modest but moving comedy drama set in a small south coast fishing village. Headlining a bevy of accomplished Australian actors like Susie Porter, Andrew S Gilbert and Steve L Marquand, Mendelsohn carries the film with an easy Aussie charm. He plays the lead role of a bloke in his late twenties who returns home from the Big Smoke. When Mullet upped and left after three years earlier he didn’t tell a soul, and so his friends, family and ex-girlfriend don’t exactly accept him back into the fold with open arms.

“Mullet’s a guy whose taken a turn in life and he can’t go forward without taking a counter turn… and so he has to go back home and try and reconcile what it is he’s trying to leave behind. Which is place, where he comes from, the situation with his family.”

Mendelsohn himself comes from Melbourne, but he’s been “living in Sydney close on ten years. I lived back in Melbourne in 96/97 for a year or so… I still see myself as an expatriate Melbournite more than a Sydney boy."

And after the exposure afforded by VERTICAL LIMIT, what about the ‘States? “Yeah, what about the ‘States? I dunno, I guess I’ll go over and have a look. I was there recently very briefly, saw a couple a people. I’ve got an agent there but I don’t talk to her. I got an agent in Britain too, but I don’t talk to her either.

“I’m Australian based until I’m not. More or less.”

One thing’s for sure, when he does do it, we’ll be the first to know.


First published in Australian Style

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Moulin Rouge Splits Genders

A new poll has found that Baz Lurhmann’s MOULIN ROUGE has sparked a rift between the sexes, with women and men split equally for or against the controversial ‘Hollywood on the Harbour’ production. The snap survey of close friends and associates, taken at the weekend, reveals that of those who had actually seen the movie, sisters universally saw Lurhmann as a girl’s best friend, while for the masculine gender, it’s a case of ‘no Can-Can do’, Baz-boy.

Women, without exception, said that they “loved” the film. Some reported “feelings of joy” upon exiting the cinema, others hailed it “a creative triumph.” One Bondi-based IT consultant, who can’t be identified, declared it “the chick flick for a digital generation”. Fellow Bondi resident, Suze, claimed the film’s emphasis on “decoration, singing and dancing, tragic fantasy, and cultivating community” all reflect largely, if not exclusively, “chick aspirations.”

“It’s about the triumph of fashion over formula, of largesse over logic,” said Suze, a media advisor for a public agency. “Watching it was like leafing through the pages of a beautiful magazine.” Jodi, a skincare consultant from Bondi Junction, agreed. “It’s primarily concerned with looking good – and you know I can appreciate that.” Her friend Rachel, a photographic agent from Darlinghurst, declared Rouge “a romp” with canny Scotsman Ewan Macgregor oozing the “it” factor.

“Ewan is so dreamy,” sighed Rachel, prompting a loud scoff from her husband, Andrew. “It’s greatest sin is that it’s just plain boring!” said the self-described “tech-wreck survivor”. Like all the men polled, Andrew rejected the film outright, branding it “rococoesque and shallow”. Geoff, a commercial photographer from Petersham, said he simply failed to suspend disbelief: “The few moments of exhilarating spectacle are dwarfed by a maudlin landscape of overwrought sentimentality."

Josie, who actually works in the film industry, told The Bulletin she copped the full brunt of the emerging gender split first hand. “I walked out calling it visionary and the boy I saw it with ridiculed me for the next two days. “But seriously, putting aside the hype, I think if this film had emerged out of nowhere we'd all be calling it visionary,” Josie added. “And for anyone who grew up in the 1980’s the soundtrack is just fantastic.”

“That’s the problem” countered Alister, a print manager from Summer Hill. "It’s just postmodern pap. It’s got nothing to do with the real, historical Moulin Rouge. There’s no real connection with Paris, or the French, or the Belle Epoque!

“And there’s no CAN-CAN! Lurhmann should hang his head in shame,” Alister exagerated.

The only odd woman out in the poll was Catherine, a TV writer from Surry Hills, who vowed to “never ever” see the film. She blamed the climate of conflicting word of mouth for her indifference.

“I’m getting on with life,” she said. “Barring acts of god, I shan’t be going.”


First published in "The Bulletin"

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Chopper for children

Mark “Chopper” Read has written a children’s book. Yes, the Mark “Chopper” Read, notorious self-confessed murderer and former stand-over man, now best selling author and media cause célèbre.
The 3000 word fable, to be illustrated by Sydney artist and 2000 Archibald Prize winner, Adam Cullen, is a far cry from Read’s previous titles such as “How to Shoot Friends and Influence People”, “No Tears for a Tough Guy”, or “Hits and Memories”.
“It’s called ‘Hookie the Cripple’ and I invented this story when I was 18 or 19,” Read told The Bulletin from his Tasmanian rural home, where, after spending 23 of his 46 years in jail, he now lives with wife Mary-Ann and two year old son, Charlie.
“It’s about a hunchback in 16th century Italy,” recounts Read, “who every day for 21 years is tormented by the local butcher to the point where he stabs him 21 times. When he goes to court, no one will defend him then just as all is lost the greatest lawyer in all of Italy steps forward…”
Read and Cullen are “in negotiations with several publishers” but, can a book by Mark Read about child abuse, fatal stabbings, and a criminal trial be a book for children?
“It’s less violent than an Aesop’s fable but I’m not talking about toddlers here,” Read retorts. “It’s for teenagers. It’s like an adult children’s story…adults would enjoy telling it to kids. I told the story to Andrew Dominik and he was gonna put it in the Chopper movie. But unfortunately Eric Bana couldn’t pull it off.”
“It’s true,” confirms Dominik, who wrote and directed multi-award winning feature. “We shot it twice with Eric, but it didn’t quite work, so we cut it. We are going to release that footage as an extra on the DVD.
“I always found the story of Hookie the Cripple completely fascinating in what it says about Mark. I think it’s very much a disguised version of Mark’s own story.”
Read’s own childhood was dominated by a religious zealot mother who, when Read renounced her faith, had him committed where he underwent electric shock therapy. After showing a “kindler, gentler” Chopper to the world in last months’ ABCTV documentary, Australian Story, is ‘Hookie’ Mark Read’s plea for understanding?
“No, I think that’s a very feeble excuse to blame childhood on how your life’s turned out. There are people who had childhoods as bad as mine that end up High Court judges. The story is what it is, and people can draw their own conclusions.”
In recent months Read has struck up a close friendship with Cullen, and the two talk several times a week by phone and correspond via hand written letters. Apart from ‘Hookie’, they are working on several other collaborations, and Cullen is planning a portrait of the man he calls “Chop Chop”.
“I’m interested in Australia’s criminal history and I’d read almost all of his books,” says Cullen, “so I contacted him with a view to doing an artwork and we hit it off straight away.
“Chopper almost personifies the kind of work that I’m doing which is really about the underbelly of the Australian experience.”
Says Read: “They reckon we’re the perfect combination. I’m the bad boy of the literary world – I don’t think anyone would confuse me with Bryce Courtney – and they call Adam the bad boy of the art world, the mentor of the mentally ill. In his case I think they probably just mean ‘artistic renegade’ ¬because Adam’s a pretty nice person really, a decent chap.”
Since writing his first book “Chopper: From the Inside” in 1991, Read has become a one man media event, publishing nine books, releasing music and spoken word cd’s, becoming the subject of an internationally acclaimed feature film, and making legendary appearances on live television, as Lisbeth Gore, Kerry Ann Kennerly and Alan Jones can all testify. In recent months Read has also been the subject of controversy over his appearance in several advertisements – one for a pair of sunglasses and another advocating road safety. But Read claims he’s profiting from his talent not his notoriety.
“No one has that much notoriety that they can go out and sell 500000 books. It’s not as if people are rushing out saying ‘oh, he’s notorious, we’ll immediately run out and buy his book, we won’t read it because we don’t like him, but we can put it on the mantle piece.’
“It’s quite obvious that people like what I’m writing.”
Critics are quick to point out that the victims of Read’s crimes or their families will never have the luxury of building a media profile out of their pain and anguish. Read, about to publish his tenth “true crime” book, fully expects more controversy over ‘Hookie’.
“There will always be the inevitable reaction whenever my name is mentioned,” he says. “My critics are blinded by their personal disgust that a person like me should dare to write a book in the first place. I’ve got to live with what my critics say about me, but I know when I’m dead other people will come along and have something else to say.
“I will probably never live down my past and I will just have to wear it. I’ve run out of answers trying, I simply have nothing to say.
“There is nothing I can say.”

First published in The Bulletin

Regional Leap

A renewed engagement with Asia was the pitch when the heavy hitters of art and capital congregated at the Art Gallery of New South Wales today (Wednesday). They were there to hear former PM, Paul Keating, officially launch the Institute of Asian Culture and Visual Arts, or VisAsia,.
With its headquarters in Sydney, and corporate backers like IBM and Malaysian construction giant IPOH Garden, the peak body is promising a ‘great leap forward’ in cultural co-operation throughout the region.
In a quest to develop new audiences for art and new sources of corporate funding, VisAsia will pool the resources of the AGNSW’s own Asian Art Department with those of other major public galleries in Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, China, South Korea, and Vietnam.
The unique model is the initiative of AGNSW director, Edmund Capon, and prominent trustee and 1996 Australian of the Year, Dr John Yu, who will serve as VisAsia’s first chairman.
Capon said VisAsia will provide the new Asian Art Gallery (opening early 2003, part of a $13 million re-development) with a steady stream of quality exhibitions from partners like the Hong Kong Museum of Art, and the Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore.
Capon said he had personally invited Keating to appear because of the latter's ability to "send a message”.
“Our political body language toward the region in recent times has not been what you would call warm,” he said.


First published in The Bulletin



Freudian slip

In between dealing with a hostile press, public brawls with former and current staff, controversial appearances before Senate estimates committees, and complaints about the air-conditioning, National Gallery of Australia director, Brian Kennedy, has found time to pursue a painting – one with an asking price of $8 million, no less. News broke last Wednesday in The Australian that Kennedy would acquire British artist Lucien Freud’s 1999 painting After Cezanne for a sum that would make it most expensive painting ever purchased by an Australian public gallery.
However on Friday Kennedy told The Bulletin that he was “taken by surprise when the story appeared,” and that the Gallery’s negotiations with the artist, who still owns the work, were continuing. As we go to press, Kennedy still has a $1m shortfall to make up from private benefactors in order to clinch the deal.
Suspicions that Kennedy himself leaked the story seem unlikely, given that it is highly unusual to seek publicity for a work you hope to purchase. There are fears now that Freud may now even raise his asking price, now that he is aware that the work is so keenly sought down under. And for the sale to fall through now would surely be a highly embarrassing nail in Kennedy’s professional coffin.
Informed reaction to the acquisition has, in general, been positive But not everyone is happy. One former director of a major Australian state gallery told The Bulletin that the NGA’s “whole collection policy needs to be reviewed and sharpened. Why in 2001 are we buying up the work of British artists? Why aren’t we looking to the Pacific or Asia or here in Australia for that matter?” And one leading benefactor to the NGA declared if he “had the choice of spending $8m on a British artist or a similar sum on Australian work I know what I’d be choosing.”
However William Wright, curatorial director of Sydney’s leading commercial gallery, Sherman Galleries, dismissed such criticism as shallow. “In New York they wouldn’t blink at such a purchase. It’s a worthwhile purchase.
“It’s a large composition, an excellent transcription of a remarkable earlier work (Paul Cezanne’s L’Apres-midi a Naples) that the NGA already owns. Freud is the best living artist of his kind by a long chalk and we have too few of them here.”
Should it make the voyage, After Cezanne will bring the tally to four Freuds in Australian collections, three of them in public galleries.
The Art Gallery of Western Australia purchased Freud’s Naked Man with Rat (1977) in 1983 for just $78,000. Today it is valued at $6.5 million, marking the $8m for After Cezanne as a fair market price.
The AGWA’s deputy director, Gary Dufour, says his Freud’s worth to his Gallery since it’s purchase has been more than simply fiscal.
“For smaller public galleries like ours, if you don’t have works in your collection that others want to borrow, it affects your ability to borrow works in turn,” said Dufour. “Our Freud has spent half it’s time with us out on loan to galleries all over the world – in Paris, Washington, London, Berlin, Frankfurt - if we hadn’t been loaning out the Freud for the past decade most of these major international galleries would not even know we existed.”
Asked which Freud was the superior work, Dufour said he wouldn’t comment only to say “I’m pleased that we have the one that we have.”
In the mid 1980’s the Art Gallery of New South Wales had the chance to buy an important Freud but decided the asking price of $360,000 too high. Three months later the work was eventually sold for $1.2 million.


First published in The Bulletin



Saleroom’s Lot

An auction market in contemporary Australian art appears assured after the French-owned international auction house, Christie’s, conducted its second successful sale in the emerging category in Melbourne last week.
Bidding was brisk and competitive with a respectable 70% clearance rate on the 131 lots, which ranged in estimate from $1000 to $180,000.
Top selling lot at $99,875 was the late Rosalie Gascoigne’s ‘Lantern’1990. Other winners on the night were collectors of Brisbane conceptual artist, Robert Macpherson, whose ‘Scale from the Tool’ 1977 set a new saleroom record for the artist of $70,500, confirming his rank among Australia’s senior living artists.
Other artists to post strong sales include Ken Whisson ($49,350), Imants Tillers ($44,650) Robert Hunter ($32,900) and Dale Hickey ($32,900)
With few dealers or museum curators active, Christie’s Head of Contemporary Art, Annette Larkin, said buyers at the sale were predominantly younger, private collectors. “We also had a several successful bids from ex-pats in South East Asia - young lawyers and bankers earning US dollars in Hong Kong and Singapore who were eager take advantage of the exchange rate.”
The sale aggregate of $918,000 was, according to Larkin, “excellent, considering several big ticket items didn’t sell”. She said the total compared favorably with the $1.2 million achieved at Christie’s inaugural contemporary sale, held in Sydney last August.
The poor performing items were works by Howard Arkley, whose prices had skyrocketed since his untimely death in 1999. The formerly buoyant market for the artist’s airbrushed, day-glo images of suburbia took a stumble when four of five lots failed to meet reserve.
Arkley’s ‘Eastern Suburbs Pink Home’ - the sale’s ‘hero’ lot - was passed in at $130,000 against a low reserve of $150,000, however prominent Melbourne gallerist, Anna Schwartz, believes the correction was long overdue. “Howard would be turning in his grave if he knew his works were being passed in at that figure, but we can see the market for his work is in the process of correcting itself.”
Some dealers have been critical of Christie’s foray into their territory but Schwartz was supportive, saying the sale was “the best advertisement commercial galleries could get. Not enough of the art-buying public are knowledgeable about contemporary art – auctions like this educate them.“


First published in The Bulletin



Europeans fancied to lift Melbourne Cup

MELBOURNE, Australia, Nov 5 (AFP) - Irish entry Far Cry and England's Enzeli have firmed as favourites to lift the Melbourne Cup on Tuesday -- Australia's biggest and richest race.

Bookmakers report strong support for both the Martin Pipe-trained Far Cry, which has firmed into 7-1 second favourite, and 1999 Ascot Gold Cup winner Enzeli, which has been heavily backed this week into 10-1.

The other two European entrants, Arctic Owl and Godophin stables Lightning Arrow, both from English stables, also feature prominently in the market but have yet to be significantly backed in ante-post betting.

At a press conference Sunday, the visiting trainers all expressed satisfaction with the way their horses had settled in and preparedness for the big race.

"Far Cry is just as good as he was going into the Ascot Gold Cup when he ran second to a very good horse in Kayf Tara," said Pipe.

"Hes very laid back, doesnt worry about anything but he comes to life in a race so were very happy. We wouldn't change a thing going into the race."

Barring Arctic Owl, the European entries faired well in the crucial barrier draw.

Enzeli is perfectly placed in lane six, as is Far Cry in 10. Lightning Arrow in 14 will need luck, but they all do in two mile (3,200 metres) races with 24 runners.

Arctic Owls Newmarket trainer James Fanshawe said he was "not too disappointed" with the horses draw in barrier 21.

"Theres a long run to the first turn at Flemington so he has plenty of time to get into a position," he said.

While Fanshawe was concerned at the horses lacklustre temperament early last week, it worked strongly Sunday morning and was "much brighter now and more like his old self."

Enzelis Epsom Derby winning mentor, John Oxx, said his horse had not been flashy in his workout but he was still happy.

He did though sound a note of warning on the task ahead: "In these days of international competition in racing, to come halfway round the world and win this race is a much bigger task than people realise."

Melbourne property developer and former casino owner Lloyd Williams bought Enzeli last month from the Aga Khan for an undisclosed six figure sum, and promptly engaged local jockey Greg Hall for the Cup ride.

"We would normally have brought over Johnny Murtagh," Oxx said. "But Greg Hall is retained by Mr. Williams and he has the local knowledge.

"There is always a debate about who might be best -- the jockey who knows the horse or the jockey who knows the track. But the Melbourne Cup is a unique race, a tough race and Im not sorry to see Greg on the horse."

Godolphin stable manager Brad Marzato was bristling with confidence over Lightning Arrows prospects: "He has really picked up in his work and I couldnt be happier."

However, the five-year-old lacks the class of his fellow travellers and is the least fancied of the international runners.

Certainly he is rated inferior to Godolphins runner last year, Central Park, which ran a mighty race for second behind Bart Cummings 11th Melbourne Cup winner Rogan Josh.

Incredibly, Cummings will be without a runner this year after Oxford Dollar was balloted out of the race on Saturday night.

No Northern Hemisphere raider has been successful in the worlds greatest two mile handicap since Vintage Crops courageous Cup victory for Dermot Weld in 1993.

Every year international runners such as Double Trigger, Oscar Schindler, Arabian Story, Faithful Son and Travelmate have been touted as vastly superior to the home breds, but almost every year the local heroes win.

This year the John Hawkes trained Freemason will carry the Australian hopes.

Other local runners to attract betting support are Diatribe at 7- 1, and New Zealand's Kaapstad Way at 8-1, which will not run if the track is severely rain affected.

But after drying winds in Melbourne over the weekend, the track is likely to be in good order for "the race that stops a nation."


First published by Agence France-Press

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Traffic (2000)

Dir: Stephen Soderbergh

...never fails to seduce.

It's beyond trite to say this is an landmark film, even though it is one of the most gripping and suspenseful thrillers I've ever sat through. This stylish and multi-faceted film sees Stephen Soderbergh display a command of the director’s craft that he only promised in earlier films like sex lies and videotape, King of the Hill or The Underneath. Latterly we have become accustomed to him bringing his independent smarts to the studio system in films like Out of Sight, or his crossover mainstream hit of last year, Erin Brockovich, a film which forced me to flip my view of Julia Roberts from appalling to appealing, such is the maestro's skill.

But Traffic is something else again - a film so accomplished it attracts critical clichés like moths to a flame. It is nothing less than the most authentic portrait of America’s drug trade yet committed to celluloid. With an all-star ensemble cast, filmed in 8 different cities and over 110 locations, it is a vast undertaking that takes the viewer on an exhilarating ride of intrigue, suspense and drama. Traffic’s tableaux is populated by characters which traverse all strata of the supply and consumption of illicit drugs, from the highest officials - both honest and corrupt - to the frontline victims of hard core addiction. Sparing us sermons on why people shouldn’t take drugs, the film ultimately demonstrates how America’s policy of waging an unwinnable supply-side "war against drugs” has only ended up entrenching organized crime, corrupting the public sector, and punishing the victims of addiction, while doing precisely nothing to stem the rising destructive tide of drug use at all levels of society.

Such a thesis is built quietly, subtly by a screenplay that intertwines three stories: an honest cop (Benicio Del Toro) trying to function within a “entrepreneurial” police force corrupted by the ruthless cartels that traffic drugs across the US/Mexico border; a conservative judge (Michael Douglas), whose appointment as the President's new national anti-drug czar coincides with his daughter's (Erika Christensen) slide into addiction; and a naïve society matron (Catherine Zeta-Jones) whose bourgeois life is thrown into turmoil when her husband is arrested for drug trafficking. Hitherto, she thought he was an upstanding pillar of society.

Soderbergh mixes up the cinematic styles for each thread of the narrative, for instance the Mexican sequences are given a dreamy treatment, shot hand-held by Soderbergh himself in saturated colours on a stock so grainy it could be Super 8. The sequences where Douglas’s anti-drug czar goes on a fact-finding mission to “the frontline”, inspecting border crossings, or high tech anti-trafficking facilities have a semi-documentary feel, again shot hand held. Zeta-Jones sequences are shot like movie-of-the-week, as her lady-that-lunches, faced with losing everything, must swot up on the family business of engaging hit men, laundering money and dealing with the Tijuana cartels.

The detailed portrayal of police work rings true, in fact the whole films proffers a “no bullshit” authenticity, wrapped in the hip, contemporary apparel of independent filmmaking. This is intelligent cinema that assumes - and demands - an engaged and interested audience. That said, it flows freely and with ease and never fails to seduce. The cast is so good they render superlatives meaningless. Just go and see it. Then we can talk.


First published in Australian Style.

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Gallery 19 closes

Another CBD `stepping-stone' Goes Under

By Nick Leys

When Gallery 19 closed its doors last Wednesday night a space where one of Sydney's few remaining artist-run galleries has displayed over 300 artists for the past two and a half years the invitation was more like an end of financial year closing down sale.
Several hundred well-wishers responded to the ``EVERYTHING MUST GO!'' bugle call, cramming into the previously disused coffee shop where artists including Adam Cullen, Max Cullen, Maclean Edwards, Simeon Nelson and indigenous artist Harry Wedge have hung their works.
Gallery 19's final exhibition called on displayed artists for a $20 donation ``to help meet our considerable wind-up costs'', with the gallery taking its usual zero per cent commission fee for sales.
A member of Gallery 19's 10-strong management committee, Michael Hutak, said the reason for the closure was the sale and redevelopment of the premises in the prime location of Campbell Street in Haymarket, opposite the Capitol Theatre.
``We were only able to keep the gallery going for so long because of the cheap rent, $300 a week on a month-by-month lease,'' he said after the doors had been shut for the last time.
``That's the only way you can run an artist-run space -- precariously.''
Gallery 19 is just the latest such display space to come to an end. In the last two years, other artist-run galleries like 151 Regent Street, Pendulum Gallery, Side-On-Studios and South have succumbed to rising rents in and around the Sydney CBD, a situation exacerbated by Olympics-driven redevelopment.
``The reality of the inner-city property market means the rich tradition of artist-run spaces in Sydney is coming to an end,'' Hutak said.
``I'm sad it's over, but glad we were able to get away with it for over two years.''
Archibald Prize winner Adam Cullen credited Gallery 19 and other spaces as crucial to his development as an artist.
``If these sorts of environments end, it sort of rings the death knell of art,'' he said.
``Artist-run spaces showcase art that is very fresh. It is straight from the artists' studios and so is usually of the best quality. I started in them, exhibiting in them for 10 years before being taken on by a commercial gallery those spaces are where dealers and owners get artists from.''
Fellow artist Mark Titmarsh said these spaces were of great importance for artists wishing to experiment with different media.
``They are definitely spaces for experimental artforms they quite often showcase the art of the future from up and coming artists,'' he said.
``They are the stepping stone between art school and commercial galleries.''
Anna Waldmann of the Australian Council of the Arts, which funds some artist-run spaces through the Emerging Artists Scheme, agreed the spaces were an important platform for emerging artists, but said they were always ``coming and going''.
``They are very fluid; that is their nature,'' she said.

First published in

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Losing Tickets, Gallery 19 - press

Odds-on favourite

Michael Hutak's ``tribute to the little punter'' is a cool reworking of the ``found'' object the artist's failed betting tickets. Exhibited in the genteel, poverty-stricken surrounds of Gallery 19, the visual gesture creates a kind of wallpaper, combusting high modernism and lowly craft. The art of the racetrack is one place where aristocracy and the herd meet, not only in Landseer's and Wallinger's world, where the racehorse is more inbred than bred, but in egalitarian Australia too, where 17 cents in the betting dollar is squirrelled by government. This mug punter's Losing Tickets are scanned, mounted laserprints. Their pristine surfaces resemble more the calligraphic registrations of Marinetti's speedy posters than any humble betting tabs. In the reprocessing of such objects, questions of ethics and more take turns, for Hutak was once a racing journalist. However, a nose for the track is not needed to rate this finely edged show. Phone 9212 4776. Until Saturday. The Galleries - Courtney Kidd, 2 May 2000, Sydney Morning Herald.


Colourful racing identity

IF you spent five years trawling the racetracks of NSW and then found a job in the artworld, what would you do on weekends. Former Gadfly columnist Michael Hutak put to use his days spent scraping up the seamy side of the track by collecting bookmaker's betting tickets. He has blown them up, put them on a wall and that's art, baby, opening in an exhibition at Gallery 19, Haymarket, on Tuesday. Hutak says Losing Tickets is a ``tribute to all punters who have done their dough'', i.e. Australia. Candace Sutton, 23 April 2000, Sun Herald.

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2001: A Space Odyssey

Dir: Stanley Kubrick

Released at the height of psychedelic hysteria, Kubrick’s supra-philosophical mind fuck was billed as the ultimate trip, but was dismissed by critics as little more than a ponderous light-show with a few riddles thrown in for diversionm, and thus didn't rate even a nomination for Best Picture at the 1969 Oscars. Carol Reed’s musical, Oliver! won that year, with Kubrick nominated for Best Director but also losing out to Reed. Thirty three years later, if you haven’t seen 2001 on the big screen, then take the chance while it’s going. But if you’re all Kubricked out - and who isn’t after the orgy of hype surrounding the maestro’s death and the release of Eyes Wide Shut - rent Oliver! instead and see what all the fuss was about.
First published in Australian Style magazine, national. April 2000

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Interview: Kidman on Kubrick and 'Eyes Wide Shut'

So just who was Stanley Kubrick and why should you care? What’s so special about this filmmaker that he commanded such awe and respect in the movie business and could indulge his cinematic vision like no other director before or since? Nicole Kidman spoke exclusively to Juice a week before the Australian premiere of her latest, and by far most eagerly anticipated movie, the late Mr Kubrick's sexual sayonara to the cinema, EYES WIDE SHUT.

We began by asking why do Kidman and husband Tom Cruise, two of the most sought after stars in Hollywood, give over 3 years at the height of their careers to participate in what is, despite the somewhat deceivingly raunchy marketing, an intellectual art film in the European mould?

"People have said 'How could you do this?'" says Kidman. "My answer, of course, was why not? I would have been mad to turn it down. There are very few times as an actor when you think I will be forever proud of this work - that it is timeless work - just in terms of the director. I can never be objective about my work. But I am so honoured to have been a part of Stanley's body of work. Full stop."

Based on "Traumnovelle", an obsure 1926 novel by an obcure Viennese novelist Arthur Schnitzler, the film stars Kidman and Cruise as two psychiatrists whose marriage is cast adrift when they embark on a series of torrid sexual adventures and experiments. Kubrick had held the rights to the novel for over two decades. In development for four years and produced under typically paranoid secrecy, it took 15 months to shoot in, according to Kubrick's biographer, "the longest continuous shoot in motion picture history."

From the opening scene of a naked Kidman, EYES WIDE SHUT is "truly the riskiest film of Kubrick's career", according to respected critic Janet Maslin, of the New York Times. "The man who could create a whole new universe with each undertaking chose the bedroom as the last frontier."

Less charitable commentators have dubbed the film "Eyes Glaze Over". The film relies heavily on the believe-ability of Kidman and Cruise's on-screen relationship, and Hollywood's hottest couple have a lot of credibility riding on the film's success. Past efforts don't augur well. The cars were more riveting than the acting in DAYS OF THUNDER while the most memorable thing about FAR & AWAY was watching the stellar pair struggle with working class Irish accents.
But the buzz is that it's Oscar time for Kidman at least. That she broke her schedule to talk to Juice testifies more to the weight of responsibility she feels to Kubrick and the film, than her own image. When the enigmatic auteur died just after completing the film, the burden of explaining to the public the master's intentions in the complex and dark project fell entirely to its stars. With an evangelistic zeal, she appears to be reveling in the task.

"Kubrick, Bergman, Kurosawa, Fellini - they were the great masters of the cinema - and anyone who is interested in films thatchallenge the way they think should see this film. You know Scorsese, (Sidney) Pollack and Gus Van Sant all saw the film thesame night and each of them came up after and hugged us. Scorsese said 'Can I hug you nowbecause you worked with the master and you have made one of the great films' -and coming from Martin Scorsese - also one of the great film makers of ourcentury - I thought 'Wow!'"


Stanley Kubrick was born into a on July 26, 1928, in the Bronx. A brilliant but bored underachiever at school, Kubrick got his first break at 17, scoring a job as a still photographer for Look magazine. But the cinema was always where he was headed and between 1951 and 1953 he set about producing, directing, writing, shooting and editing three short documentaries. A brilliant chess player, he financed the films by hustling on the streets of New York, plus a relentless pursuit of the funds of friends and family. He would later say that making a movie is like chess: "It is a series of steps that you take one at a time, and it's balancing resources against the problem, which in chess is time and in movies is time and money."

One-time beatnik, jazz drummer, and self-appointed expert on every subject from flying to poker to making hamburgers, it was Kubrick's know-all personality that set him on the road to filmmaking. "I didn't know anything about making films, but I knew I couldn't make them any worse than the majority of films I was seeing," quotes John Baxter in his excellent Stanley Kubrick: A Biography.

His uncompromising one-man-band approach would only realise 13 feature-length films over the next 40 years, but, apart from SPARTACUS (1960) where he was brought in to take over directing after shooting began by executive producer and star Kirk Douglas, each film has the irrefutable mark of its director. Film is a collaborative medium but with a Stanley Kubrick film, it is the director who is always the real star. But while his films - to date - have won 8 Oscars, none were for Best Director.

In 1954 Kubrick teamed up with producer James B Harris and moved to LA where the pair would make the three films which would establish Kubrick's reputation as one of Hollywood's brightest and most daring talents: the noir racetrack heist, THE KILLING (1956), the moving anti-war drama PATHS OF GLORY (1957) and the controversial LOLITA (1961), Nabakov's dry tale of illicit sexual obsession. LOLITA begins Kubrick's most successful quartet of films. The black comedy, DR STANGELOVE OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964), released in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Kennedy Assassination, is the ultimate expression of Cold War nihilism in the form of high farce. It ends with images of the atom bomb accompanied by Vera Lynn's wartime standard, "We'll Meet Again." The film was branded by the New York Times critic of the day as "beyond any question the most shattering sick joke I've ever come across". With Peter Sellars in three roles, it was a huge hit.

In 1968 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY was also panned by the critics on release as just a ponderous light-show with a few futuristic riddles thrown in for diversion. It too went on to box office glory, lauded in the age of psychedelia as the ultimate trip movie, a hyper-philosophical mind fuck.
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) opens with a youthful Malcolm McDowell kicking a drunken tramp to death while giving a caustic rendition of "Singing In The Rain". Orange is arguably the most subversive youth culture movie yet made, and certainly a most prophetic vision of aliented urban youth which predicted the punk revolution by at least 5 years. David Bowie said that with Ziggy Stardust he "wanted to 'deviolence' the look of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE." Meanwhile The Times was holding Kubrick personally responsible for the unravelling of Britain's social fabric: "The cases of rape, murder and beatings attributed to the film's influence are too numerous to be dismissed as tabloid hyperbole. Tramps were killed, girls were assaulted and beatings were dished out as Kubrick's symphony of violence rang in then head of the perpetrators."

Kubrick was always mistrustful of Hollywood and had settled permanently in England in 1974. But he wasn't doing the Welles thing; he wasn't banished or in some self-imposed exile. He just liked England better. But after the violent reaction to A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, he became so reclusive for a period that an Englishman impersonated him for several months before being discovered.

In another recent biography, Vincent LoBrutto pins down all the essential elements of the Kubrick myth: "a cool, misanthropic cinematic genius who obsesses over every detail, lives a hermetic existence, doesn't travel and is consumed with phobic neuroses."

As is usual with myths, Kubrick the man was something quite different. "People always think he was this idiotic dictator," said Christiane Kubrick, his third and last wife of 40 years, after his death. "But he was always asking everyone's opinion on most things. What do you think of this? What do you think of that? Do you think I should have done this different?"

It's true he demanded take after take from actors, sometimes running to over a hundred takes. The reason? Because actors didn't know their lines. "If people don't do their homework, the only thing I can do is spend time doing multiple takes while they learn what their job is supposed to be." Aperfectionist to the last, but as Kirk Douglas would say to him after SPARTACUS: "That doesn't make you perfect!"
To cinephiles Kubrick is the director's director, certainly one of the key artists of the cinema's second 50 years. Ever since the furore that greeted the release of Lolita, every new Kubrick film has been greeted as a landmark cultural event. But while he made seven features in his first decade, he took over 30 to make the final six. Many reading this may not have seen any of his films.

icole Kidman is right to think Marty Scorcese makes a fine contemporary referee, but Hollywood hugging aside itÕs been twelve years since Kubrick's last film, the searing Vietnam War drama, FULL METAL JACKET (1987), briefly burnt up the screen then was pretty much forgotten.

You have to go back another seven to find THE SHINING, Kubrick's chilling adaptation of a Stephen King horror story and his most openly commercial film, but then clearly the work of a director treading water. Go back five years more and you hit BARRY LYNDON, a beautiful but boring 18th century period drama which picked up four Oscars (for music, cinematography, art direction, costume design) but recouped only $9.5 million of its $30 million production cost.
So it's still not surprising that Variety tagged EYES WIDE SHUT as having "questionable appeal for under-25s". It will "captivate older audiences more than it will mainstream Tom Cruise die-hards", said the movie industry bible. Bums on seats at EYES WIDE SHUT have more cellulite per square centimetre than those that sat through, for instance, AMERICAN PIE, the latest hit teen sex comedy which EYES WIDE SHUT ironically displaced from No.1 when it opened in July with a first weekend box office of over US$21million, a record for any Kubrick film.

Both films were rated 'R' in the US, for "strong sexual content, nudity, language and some drug-related material", but while American Pie is a funny but forgettable farce about "losin' it", EYES WIDE SHUT is an art film in the European mould which Variety called "a deeply inquisitive consideration of the extent of trust and mutual knowledge possible between a man and a woman."

Thus for Juice, Kidman is keen to dispel the vibe that this is 'adult fare' that's not really gonna be 'dope with the kids'.

"To underestimate the intelligence of a younger audience is patronising," counters Kidman. "I know when I was 16, l8 and l9 I remember seeing DR. STRANGELOVE, then LOLITA and then 2001. Then, when I was twenty-one, I saw A Clockwork ORANGE and it really shocked me and awed me - you know? All of Kubrick's films have that ability to shake the groundwork that you have, to shake it up and challenge you philosophically and I think young people today desperately want to see that - it's just they aren't given it that often.

"Kubrick was oneof the masters and this is his last film and I think young people are interested. Anyone who is interested in sex, jealousy andobsession will relate to this film, so of course it is a film for youngeraudiences as well as older audiences."

In the US, the film was heading for a dreaded NC17 rating which translates roughly into Box-office poison. In order to secure a R rating Kubrick agreed to alter 65 seconds of the orgy scene which is the centre piece of the film by adding digitally created figures to obscure the 'action'. Kubrick wasn't averse to such compromises, having gone through similar negotiations with censors on both Lolita and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Still The Los Angeles Times put to Tom Cruise that if Kubrick was such an uncompromising filmmaker, why didn't he have the courage to say with Eyes Wide Shut: "this film is unsuitable for a 15-year-old kid".

"Stanley knew he had to deliver an R-rated film," Cruise replied. "And he didn't think it hurt the integrity of the film. If I was 15, I'd like to have the opportunity to see the movie, even if I didn't comprehend everything.

"I don't think it's offensive to see people having sex, but that's just me."

The final irony is that although the uncensored version is screening in Australia, an R rating here means only 18 year olds and up can view the film without risk of prosecution.


"I am in a world of shit," declares Private Joker (Matthew Modine) in the final moments of Stanley Kubrick's second-last film, the 1987 war drama FULL METAL JACKET. "But I am still alive. And I am not afraid."
Sadly, Kubrick ain't alive anymore. But when you look back at his canon of thirteen dazzling, incredibly diverse features, you find he wasn't afraid to depict thirteen worlds that are indeed full of shit. Lightning rods of the popular cinema they may be, but they span four million years of dubious progress of the human race.
It's not easy to be light and breezy about Kubrick. Variously regarded as a pefectionist, myogynist, nihilist, anarchist, genius and visionary, Kubrick isn't about providing easily consumed entertainment, despite the fact that his films are immensely entertaining. Instead he is about spectacle, seduction, voyeurism, horror, atrocity, indifference, hypocrisy, madness, obsession, lust, suspense, anxiety, emotion, and ideas. No easy answers in that list, only uneasy questions.
His films are populated with common criminals, sexual deviants, juvenile psychopaths, insane purveyors of mass destruction, even computers that kill. The Shining, about "an ordinary guy who just wants to murder his family" according to Jack Nicholson, is typical Kubrick fare. Not a frame out of place, not a plot-point astray, not a moment of suspense or horror wasted, not a punter in the house that isn't scared witless. Nicholson himself couldn't wait to get off the film: "Glad to be off that one," he said at the time. "That was rough duty."
Not merely powerful stories brilliantly told, Kubrick's films created new benchmarks in their use of advances in filmmaking technology. In production design and art direction, 2001 on the big screen today feels more like a documentary from the future than science fiction. Many interior scenes in Barry Lyndon, his picaresque tale set in Georgian England, are lit with candlelight.
More than a director or technician, Kubrick was the complete filmmaker who took meticulous control of every stage of production from script through to marketing. "I know how to do virtually every job on a movie," he said in an interview in 70s. "I can light, I can record sound, I know where mikes go. I don't know how to act. But I'll tell you this, we will get the best shot."
One of the few American directors who had the prestige to make big-budget movies while working outside the Hollywood mainstream Kubrick was "the one person in the film industry who knew how the industry worked in every country in the world, remembers one Warner Brothers executive. "He knew all of the dubbing people, the dubbing directors, the actors, he had relationships with foreign directors who would supervise his work because he couldn't be there to supervise himself. We had to go around to every cinema to make sure the projection lights were right, the sound was correct, the ratios were right, the screens were clean."
Warners have released nine of his features on home video to coincide with the local release of Eyes Wide Shut. All his major films are in the collection except for A Clockwork Orange, which the director decreed be exhibited in theatres only.
As we write Clockwork Orange was playing in its 234th consecutive week of late night weekend screenings at Village's cineplex on Sydney's George Street movie strip.
"About 18 months ago we had to replace the print," says George Livery, general manager of Village Cinemas. "So we had to apply to Stanley to get hold of a new print, and he gratefully signed off on a new one. Of course also he had to approve of us showing the film in the first place.
"We get a lot film students at the screenings. ItÕs been running so long I canÕt remember why we decided to bring it back in the first place, although itÕs been in repertory really ever since its original release."

It's understandable that EYES WIDE SHUT has been hailed - like John Huston's THE DEAD - to be Kubrick's 'last will and testament', the crowning acheivment of an extraordinary career. But the one thing the cinema's most famous control freak couldn't schedule was the timing of his own exit and he never intended Eyes Wide Shut to be a swan-song. That honour was to go to AI (artificial intelligence), based on a Brian Aldiss short story "Supertoys Last All Summer Long". Wanting to top 2001, which he believed was his most complete film, Kubrick spent seven years this decade developing AI. Throughout the early 90s he wrote several drafts with Aldiss and made exhaustive use of George LucasÕs peak special effects house Industrial Light & Magic but with Kubrick calling on ILMÕs resources to conduct more and more obscure and intricate experiments, Lucas eventually called a halt to work on the project, telling Kubrick they were too busy working on another film called JURASSIC PARK.
Warner Bros had originally agreed to give Kubrick carte blanche on AI on condition that he first produce 'a quickie'.
Four years later that quickie - EYES WIDE SHUT - was in the can. Four days later, Kubrick died in his sleep in his English home.
But its clear that Kubrick has bought himself life after death - his films will remain to speak for him literally till doomsday. They will be there to remind us that movies can be more than just money making exercises in niche marketing, demographics, and manufactured entertainment.
Of course, with the exception for BARRY LYNDON, his films DID make money, which means he could keep making them. Kubrick proved that you can have it all - creative, critical and commercial success. His films have cost millions, made millions, and been watched by millions. But as he told his accountant after closing a lucrative deal with a major studio to make a picture: "You know, I'm glad they don't know I would do this thing for nothing if I had to."
Says Kidman: "He had a great belief in the cinema as an art form - so when you work with somebody like that, you say: 'I am willing totake the journey with you. I am privileged and honoured to take the journey with you.'"


First published in Juice magazine

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A Pure Formality (Una Pura formalità) 1994

Dir: Giuseppe Tornatore; Stars: Gerard Depardiue, Roman Polanski

professional and manipulative

Gifted Italian writer/director Tornatore admits he has been a little in limbo since his celebrated memoir Cinema Paradiso trumpeted his arrival on the international scene in 1988. But if such a creative hiatus can guarantee films as good as A Pure Formality, then writer's block should be added without delay to every film school syllabus.

Tornatore echoes these struggles in his main character of Onoff (Depardieu), a once-celebrated but now-defeated writer who has been living unproductively in rural isolation for some six years.

After a murder is committed near Onoff's farmhouse, police pick him up wandering the forest in the rain, deluded, and without ID. Dragged off to a suitably desolate police station, he is interrogated by a strange Inspector (Polanski), who, being the genius writer's greatest fan, brutally ridicules the suspect for impersonating his hero. The tables turn once it dawns on the Inspector that his hero and suspect are one and the same, and the film settles into a see-sawing psychological joust as the inspector tries to extract a confession from the uncooperative, unhinged poet.

The film isn't driven by suspense or an unravelling plot but by performances and dialogue which amount to extraordinary studies in character. Rendered in luscious, bleak cinematography, Depardieu cuts an unforgettable figure: a brooding, ranting beast of a poet, haunted by memories of the murder, unsure if he committed it or merely wrote it. Polanski's Inspector is his perfect dramatic foil: sycophantic yet cruel, professional and manipulative.

Indeed, Polanski's mere prescence recalls the claustrophobia of some his most memorable films as director, such as Repulsion (1964) or The Tenant (1976). And Tornatore's own masterful choreography of the elements of film only invites such comparisons - from the screenplay right through to his own astonishing work as editor. This is a melancholic but uplifting film, as rich in detail as it is in wisdom.

Add a shrieking, luminous score from Ennio Morricone and A Pure Formality becomes, without question, one of the most perfectly complete examples of film art to emerge this or any year.

Rated 'A plus'.

First published in
Who Weekly, Australia, Time Inc.

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A Judgement in Stone (La Ceremonie) (1995)

Dir: Claude Chabrol

Refreshingly unsentimental

Now that it's 'eyes right' down in Canberra, those in the ruling class planning on whooping it up would be well advised to first take a sobering look at this truly subversive psychological thriller from veteran French director Claude Chabrol.

You simply can't get good help these days. Just ask the Lelievre family, a self-satisfied bourgeois nuclear unit who live in high-cultured good taste on their comfortable Brittany estate. The new housekeeper of their model home is the stoic Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire). A loner fond only of chocolate and tabloid TV, the near mute Sophie serves her new masters with skill but dispassion, fearing they will soon discover she is illiterate and sack her, as other employers have.

Madame Lelievre (Jacqueline Bisset) thinks she's "a bit odd but a real pearl", but when Sophie forms a liberating bond with town rebel and local postie, Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), she raises the suspicion of the Master of the House (Jean-Pierre Cassel), who believes Jeanne is secretly opening his mail. From here the narrative pivots around a series of increasingly odious revelations, unsettlingly delivered by Chabrol with an almost transparent touch. Suffice to say that the class war is alive and well, as those who are denied by life's lottery seek 'judgement' on those born to hold the winning tickets.

Chabrol, a former film critic who along with Godard and Truffaut was in the vanguard of the French New Wave in the late fifties, based his script on a 1963 Ruth Rendell novel (way before Inspector Wexford found fame). He weaves a quiet, austere tale which steadily builds its ironies and suspense to an unexpected climax, aided and abetted by some on-the-money acting. Bonnaire's surgical portrait of the sullen Sophie deservedly earned a Best Actress award at the French Oscars. As Jeanne, Huppert lays a rich psychological complexity beneath the character's sunny surface. Both realise dark yet unnervingly sympathetic portraits of feminist defiance and class solidarity.

Refreshingly unsentimental, A Judgement in Stone leaves its mark well beyond the cinema with a lingering sense that uncomfortable truths have been uncovered without fear of the consequences. Rich bastards will leave the cinema shaken. The rest of us will merely be stirred... perhaps into action. Only, a word of warning: don't try this at home.

Beat Magazine, Sydney. September, 1996

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Metal Skin (1994)

Stars Aden Young, Ben Mendelsohn, Tara Morice, Nadine Garner

Australian writer/director Geoffrey Wright's new film has been a long-time-coming and judging by it's savagery, he's had plenty on his mind. Like his promising 1992 debut Romper Stomper, it takes place on society's frayed edges, but where Romper's forthright engagement with racism struck a nerve, Metal Skin's confused and ugly vision of the world risks alienating audiences with its jaundiced world view.

Motorheads expecting "Days of Thunder Down Under" will be disappointed. The hotted up Chargers and GTR-XU1's career impressively around desolate streets but are secondary in screen-time to the main game: broken lives, doomed love, social disintegration. The kids are bad, their parents are mad, and everyone's one push away from the edge.

Set in the inner-urban wastelands of a bleaker-than-usual contemporary Melbourne, Metal Skin follows four troubled twenty-somethings as they walk the tightrope of love and fall off, one by one. There's lots of snogging and lots of sex, but all four are either unloved, unlovable or degrees of both.

Revhead misfit 'Psycho' Joey (Young) is in love with Roslyn (Garner), but she's in an destructive relationship with drag-racing anti-hero Dazey (Mendelsohn). Sevina (Morice), a delusional black magic devotee, in turn loves Dazey, who uses, then rejects her.

After an impressive first half spent chiselling these characters, building their connections and their world, Wright literally loses the plot, lets the whole shebang off the leash and the film spins out into a series of gory, ugly and hysterical episodes.

This is a pity for the gifted Young, who continues to deliver outstanding performances in ordinary films. Morice, Mendelsohn and Garner also do extremely well to draw genuine pathos from their near comic-book characters.

On a technical level the film is equally impressive in design, cinematography, and editing, with action sequences that pack a punch not seen in local cinema since Mad Max 1. But all these noble efforts of cast and crew are wasted in a script which gives in to the decadence it seeks to portray, lamely opting to trundle out a bunch of downbeat melodramatic cliches - from an homage to the "tower scene" in Hitchcock's Vertigo down to the ultra-violent car chase finale.

Metal Skin is a glorious failure, an exiting disappointment. It's own newspaper ads admit as much when they scream that "everything is about to got totally out of control. "And so it does, but to what end remains a mystery.

Rating B-.


First published in Beat Magazine

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Interview: Alex de la Inglesia

Alex de la Inglesia interviewed by Michael Hutak, September 1995


If nothing else, Spanish filmmaker Alex de la Inglesia is in your face.

“I hate the real violence but I love the violence in the cinema. Violence is necessary in all artistic creation. Violence is part of humanity. Shakespeare works with the same idea. There is no drama without violence. My mum is violent, my dad is violent - the best thing to do is laugh.”

Emerging from the patronage of countryman Pedro Almodovar, Inglesia is on the phone promoting his latest film, Day of the Beast, an occult/sci-fi/splatter black comedy, which won six Spanish Academy Awards and has just opened locally. It tells the unlikely tale of a middle aged Madrid priest who discovers the antichrist is about to be born. He enlists the services of a tabloid TV host and a death metal freak in a desperate and hilarious attempt to stave off Satan and save the world. In the best Spanish traditions of the theatre of cruelty, gory, grizzly, and garish are words that spring to mind. And funny. Very funny.

“Day of the Beast is a local story - a story about the chaos that exists today in Spain. I set myself a hard task - to make an action film with an old man as the star. It is black humour - oil and water. The old man discovers a big secret, that the world is going to end, and this is too big a task for him.”

Portrayed as a decaying, morally bankrupt sespit, Madrid comes off very poorly in Inglesia’s vision, but “it’s not just a critique of cities, the problem is the people. When you put so many people together.

“The worst people are the normal people - who watch TV and go to the supermarket. I prefer people who say ‘I am not normal’. I’m afraid of the people who are satisfied.” When I ask if these people aren’t precisely his audience he lets out a strangely evil laugh, like I’ve caught him out. “I don’t think of my audience. I think of me. I try to explain the story, that’s all - like Hitchcock, the best director in the world,” he says, before adding cheerfully, “People enjoy it when you insult them. Ha, ha.”

While he may have disdain for the common man, his two features to date have been box office hits with the great unwashed in his native country. Day of the Beast, which cost just $US2 million, was the most successful local film in Spain last season. His first film, Militant Action, produced by Almodovar, was also a hit. “It was about handicapped terrorists who attack normal people. It’s a black comedy.”

Inglesia describes himself as a country boy who went to Madrid to draw comic books. He then started working in film, first as a set designer, then as an art director, before he got his big break when Spanish film’s most famous bad boy Almodovar read his script for Militant Action and offered to produce. “This is the best thing about Almodovar,” says Inglesia without missing a beat, “We have nothing in common at all. He loves Douglas Sirk. He is homosexual. Almodovar is not a person who likes followers.”

Talking from Mexico on the set of his latest film, Inglesia’s enthusiasm for his chosen craft pummels infectiously down the phoneline, his pidgen English struggling to match the obvious speed with which the ideas are coursing maniacly through his head.

“I have one or two proposals in Hollywood. Little movies I can make in Spain. I can do anything I want in Spain. I have no limits.” Coincidental to Australia, Spain swung to the right in elections earlier this year after 13 years of socialist government. “It was a very open country,” he laments, “in the last 20 years it was a cultural paradise, now it’s like the finish - the party’s over.

“That’s why I’m working in Mexico. In my next movie all the people are talking about God. It’s so funny. It’s a road movie with an android sex slave and a nymphomaniac girl of 12 years. But we needed more money - the budget is $US6 million which is very expensive for Spain so we are making it in America. Ciby2000 has the rights.”

“If I work in Hollywood I want a big budget. The most thing I love is sci-fi movies. But I want to do something not commercial - very violent, very sexy. Sci fi now is pathetic. When you have $US50 million budgets you have to make a family movie. This is not me.

“I work fast, I’m afraid to respect things. It is dangerous. I don't believe in talent, I only believe in work. I am only learning now - I have only made two movies. Movies aren’t mystical, they are work. I think if you make 80 movies, then you are a good director. The most important thing is work.”



First published in Beat magazine

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Heavy metal out, easy listening in

From Seattle to London to Sydney, squares and swingers alike are revolting against the rock 'n' roll ethos in the name of cocktail culture.

TO SEE Tony Bennett become hip once more, and the Carpenters become suddenly cool, is like watching the tip of an iceberg finally appear on the horizon. What's really going on is a worldwide resurgence of interest in a much-maligned, misunderstood musical genre: easy listening.

The broad church of easy listening - also known as "lounge" - stretches from the '50s bossa nova to Brian Eno's ambient music; from the exotique sound of Martin Denny to the Ray Conniff Singers to Phillip Glass; from Lawrence Welk, to Klaus Wunderlich's Hammond Organ Sensation, to Moog Plays the Beatles.

With a radiant Audrey Hepburn on the cover, the hip London magazine The Idler devoted its latest issue to what it has dubbed lounge culture, and declared the birth of the Cocktail Nation. Says The Idler's Joshua Glenn: "Today's crop of young people are suffering from metal fatigue. We have grown up listening to nothing but primitive id noise, and we can't take it any more."

Glenn says lounge music is "merely the soundtrack to the cocktail hour, that time-out of time during which one seizes the chance to relax completely, to live for the moment". It is an existential condition grunge rockers might call nirvana, but which "citizens of the Cocktail Nation call Happy Hour".

Now Sydney's loungers will finally have a venue to call their own when a group calling themselves The Adult Contemporary Swingers launch a new nightclub next Sunday night at a rejuvenated Les Girls nightspot in Kings Cross, now under the studious management of the local impresario Ian Hartley.

"We're calling it The Tender Trap," says organiser and easy- listening devotee Sean O'Brien. "It will be a celebration of cocktail culture at its most sophisticated and savage - multisensual stimulation for the Moog generation," a straight-faced O'Brien told the Herald.

Although the playlist will feature Brazil '66, Bacharach, The Fifth Dimension and Tijuana Brass, O'Brien insists The Tender Trap is not about kitsch. "Kitsch implies a certain shallow crassness. This will be highly tasteful and very deep. The Tender Trap is about reclaiming what it means to be an adult. It's a pastiche of Australiana and Americana from the mid-'50s to the mid-'60s - a bit "Rat-Packerish", some Las Vegas primitive exotica, a bit of Beat - for once the parents will understand."

Simon Holmes, the manager of Half a Cow Records in Glebe, says: "While there's always been a hard core of people hip to cocktail music, it has definitely become fashionable of late."

Holmes says three things can account for the surge of interest in Easy listening: "First you've got the release of two books in the past year called Incredibly Strange Music, by San Francisco publishers Re/Search." (Re/Search's Modern Primitives edition some years back single-handedly made body piercing popular and gave grunge an aesthetic to call its own. Its Incredibly Strange Music volumes are like bluffer's guides to the underground world of obscure, cult and exotic recordings.)

Second, Holmes points to the crossover success of American bands like The Coctails from Chicago and especially Combustible Edison, the tuxedo-clad combo led by Michael "The Millionaire" Cudahy, a former member of Urge Overkill with impeccable punk rock credentials. Combustible Edison (apparently named after a renowned '60s cocktail) have emerged from the American underground as the breakthrough "lounge" act. It is significant that they are signed to Seattle's SubPop label, the company which pioneered the Grunge aesthetic with bands such as Nirvana.

And third: "There's a feeling that there's no longer much innovation in popular music, especially in guitar rock. So there's a relief to be had in the whole easy listening thing in that it's light-hearted, and I think its popularity is a reaction to the (bombastic nature) of rock. Also a lot of acts like the Coctails only release their work on vinyl - it's pre-'60s and pre-rock, not just in style and attitude but also in technology."

Tuxedos and cocktail dresses will be de rigueur at The Tender Trap, but O'Brien insists there will be no "door policy" with one exception: "'80s power dressing is totally out |" Jeans and thongs are OK, so long as they are worn with a Beat Generation demeanour.

While it all may sound way too nostalgic for some, The Idler's Cocktail Nation Manifesto provides one cogent answer: "That a thing is original is no guarantee that it is the best ... a wig is better than unwashed hair |"

* The Tender Trap will be launched this Sunday night at 7 pm at Les Girls, 2 Roslyn Street, Kings Cross.


First published in The Sydney Morning Herald

Diversity bound by identity

A group exhibition of Aboriginal art steers away from familiar stereotypes, writes MICHAEL HUTAK.
SINCE its emergence as a dynamic cultural force in the 1980s, Aboriginal art has become submerged in a myriad of stereotypes.
For a fresh perspective, those seeking to forge a new connection with the culture of indigenous Australians would be wise not to miss Narratives, the latest show at Boomalli Gallery, in inner-city Chippendale.
Mounted by Boomalli's resident curator, Hetti Perkins, Narratives displays the work of four generations of Aboriginal women painters, offering insights into each artist's practice, and revealing the sheer diversity to be found in contemporary Aboriginal art.
And as the title implies, the thread that binds the generations is not just race but the will to tell of their lives. Beginning with the 24-year-old Kgamilaroi artist Peta Lonsdale, whose work has graphically portrayed her early experiences avoiding the mission system, Narratives offers not just a snapshot of contemporary Aboriginal painting but a stark image of a people who have suffered yet survived to tell the tale.
But, importantly, Perkins praises Lonsdale for "deliberately avoiding the'victim' mentality".
"Peta finds faith in the strength of Aboriginal society and culture to reinterpret our circumstances and find a positive resolution," says Perkins.
The South Australian artist Kerry Giles, in her early 30s, left her white mother at 16 to rejoin her "mob", the Ngarrindjeri people. Since then she has found a voice in her painting, prints and photographs and has few qualms about imbuing her work with striking political messages.
"This is documentary," she says. "It's graffiti." The massive canvases she is showing in Narratives depict before-and-after aerial views of the Murray River: before and after white settlement.
The first she calls her "pretty boy" painting: "It shows how the river Murray used to be before colonial people. You've got the whole ecosystem, full of bush tucker: musta, brolga, wombat, goanna, catfish, yabbie, freshwater turtle, periwinkles, mussels, stumpy-tail lizard and all the bush berries." A self-sustaining environment.
The next two paintings depict the gradual destruction of the river system culminating in Ugly Painting, Ugly Subject, a harrowing, almost nihilistic vision of the river. It is a conglomeration of quotes and newspaper clippings depicting the graphic degradation of the environment.
"It's past crisis point," says Giles. "People take pretty photos of dead trees that were killed by salt. It's a graveyard of dead trees.
"For instance, today the Ngarrindjeri people have to ask at farmyard doors to get the rushes to weave the baskets that they've been weaving for thousands and thousands of years because there are no rushes left.
"Paintings are not just pretty pictures on the wall - they are identity."
Elaine Russell, in her early 50s, is only just beginning her career in the visual arts and Narratives is her first major exhibition. "I always knew I could draw, but I've only been painting for 12 months," she told the Herald.
For Russell, painting is an expressive medium which gives her an outlet to tell of her past: "There are so many more stories I have to paint. I love it. It's so new to me. When I get a brush in my hand I just can't stop.
"And everything I've painted I've sold, so I must be doing something right|"
Russell's disarmingly straightforward paintings depict her childhood experiences on the Murrin Bridge Mission, during the era when fair-skinned children were forcibly removed from their parents' care.
"We did what we were told - if we didn't we wouldn't get our rations. It all left me very resentful of the whites in my teens, but it's OK now, I'm married to a white."
The paintings are supported by short texts, an extension of oral history traditions and reminiscent of the work of fellow Aboriginal artists Ian Abdulla and Harry Wedge. Her work reflects the "regimental and policed nature of mission life", according to Perkins.
The last of the foursome is Pantjiti Mary McLean who has been encouraged by a fellow Kalgoorlie artist, Nalda Searles, to introduce figurative elements to her practice of dot paintings. It has unleashed in Pantjiti a seemingly unending creative source.
"Mary's work is about everyday things. What you see is what you get," says Searles. "There's no dreaming here; it's all a huge story about everyday life
"She lives in a small settlement on the outskirts of Kalgoorlie where she's the only artist, so in a sense, she is working alone.
"Her work has become so popular because it's so colourful and joyful. There's never any violence in her work - there's abundance and the bush is alive and flourishing and so are the people.
"Because Mary doesn't read, her work is not linear and goes in all directions. She just turns the paper around and around."
Searles described an "enormous" painting Pantjiti has produced for the Tandanya Aboriginal Arts Centre in Adelaide. "It's four metres long by one-and-a-half metres wide and there are literally hundreds of figures on it, all coming together in a big celebration," she says.
"She's found her calling and now paints everyday. She's a wonderful inspiration to the children in the community."
Pantjiti Mary McLean also has a solo exhibition of works on paper called Homelands at the Aboriginal and South Pacific Gallery in Surry Hills, until July 16.
What drives Pantjiti, now in her 60s, to paint?
"It comes from the happiness in my heart," she says.


First published in The Sydney Morning Herald

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Home is where the art is

It's knock-off time. Time to wend your way back to your quarter-acre of heaven, your dream home in the 'burbs. But something's not quite right here.
There are 36 perfectly formed sand castles on the back patio, and three chocolate brains in the kitchen, gathering mould. The upstairs toilet is wall-papered with signs warning"Danger - Corrosive" and in your daughter's bedroom there's a neon sign blaring "No never means yes".
And where's the TV gone? Someone's put it in the roof, but you can watch it through the periscope in the walk-in wardrobe. Suddenly you scream: "This is not my beautiful house | This is contemporary art |"
You have stumbled into Sweet Dreams, a satellite exhibition for Perspecta, the Art Gallery of New South Wales's biannual survey of contemporary art.
Sweet Dreams is the brainchild of the curators Isobel Johnston and Suhanya Raffel. They have chosen eight artists to design work specifically for"Balmoral", a dream home at Homeworld II, the country's largest project home village at Prospect, near Blacktown in Sydney's west.
"I think this is a pretty logical step," says Johnston. "Many artists today are working with domestic ideas and this house can provide a venue where you have an audience which was already prepared to look at the notion of the home when they come to view the work."
Raffel says the show is another example of the growing interest by artists in working outside museum and gallery spaces.
"But we were also aware that a lot of art in public spaces has been difficult and not particularly successful because the work was usually in 'nowhere' places like billboards or in transit on the backs of buses," Raffel says. "This site, however, comes with it's audience. The audience has come to buy a home, not to go to an art gallery.
"Sweet Dreams also shows that there is a growing awareness at the art gallery of its responsibility to greater Sydney."
The curator Victoria Lynn has talked about this year's Perspecta as dwelling on, among other things, "the shadowy side of urban nightmares and suburban utopia", and Sweet Dreams embraces that spirit to the letter.
Eugenia Raskapoulos chose the daughter's bedroom for her neon installation for obvious reasons.
"Neon can be such a seductive, beautiful source of light but the message it carries here isn't such a pretty sight," she says.
"Because alongside all those dreams of owning a house and having a wonderful family, there are many women out there who have been oppressed within this environment. Rape can and does start at a very young age with incest and my piece is dealing with all those issues."
A number of the works are time-based sculptures which emphasise decay and disorder, such as Neil Wing's chocolate brains and Therese Saaib's 36 sand castles. Saaib fully expects the elements and visiting children to gradually destroy the precisely formed castles.
It was Robyn Bracken's idea to watch TV through a periscope in the closet. Her piece plays formally with the mechanics of perception but there's also a symbolic dimension.
"In a house like this the television is often the focal point of family life so I just wanted to dislodge it from that pride of place into a secret, closeted place."
So why would a commercial builder like Clarendon Homes willingly let a bunch of artists loose in one of their packaged dreams?
"Ultimately the public's perception will be that we are involved in what's happening today," says Clarendon's marketing manager, Peter Brown.
"It's not about house design or development of future housing trends. It's a personal view by the various artists of their interpretation of the family home."
The exhibition runs seven days a week until November 21.
Caption: ILLUS: Step inside for chocolate brains...the artists with marketing manager Peter Brown (right), all part of an unusual project. Picture by Ben Rushton.
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Publication date: 19-10-1993
Edition: Late
Page no: 23
Section: News and Features
Length: 756



Ian burn lost in rescue drama

THE art world is in mourning as news of the death of Ian Burn, Australia's leading conceptual artist, begins to circulate. Burn drowned on the South Coast yesterday while swimming with his daughters.
Milton police told the Herald Burn, 53, of Rozelle, was swimming at Pretty Beach, an unpatrolled beach in the Bawley Point area, about 35 km south of Milton.
THE art world is in mourning as news of the death of Ian Burn, Australia's leading conceptual artist, begins to circulate. Burn drowned on the South Coast yesterday while swimming with his daughters.
Milton police told the Herald Burn, 53, of Rozelle, was swimming at Pretty Beach, an unpatrolled beach in the Bawley Point area, about 35 km south of Milton.
"He was there swimming with his two daughters between 10 am and 11 am when the incident occurred," said Constable Greg Crumblin. "They had gone straight into the water and were swimming for a while with no dramas until a large wave came and everyone was in deep water. They were caught in a rip and got pulled out.
"One of the other girls there started screaming. Burn went to help her and held her up. Some guys on surfboards came to assist. Burn then actually made it back into shore, and then went back out to help someone else - just who, we're not sure.
"There is a feeling that it may have been one of his own daughters who he thought was still out there but I can't confirm that. Then one of the surfers went back out to help him but Burn had already gone under by the time he got there."
Constable Crumblin said Burn's body was eventually located and resuscitation was attempted with no result. His body was taken to Milton Hospital where a routine post mortem will be held today.
Burn had been an outstanding student at the National Gallery School in Melbourne. He left Australia to work in London and New York, where he became involved in the growing conceptual art movement and was a member of the influential conceptual art group Art and Language.
He returned to Australia in 1972 with a firm international reputation and became a key figure in Sydney's leading conceptual art gallery, Central Street Gallery.
In the late 1970s Burn kept a low profile, preferring to teach, write and work rather than pursue a gallery career. Eventually he left his teaching position in the Fine Arts department at the University of Sydney to become a founding member and director of Union Media Services. He continued to create, write and curate until his death.
Indeed, in the past year public interest in Burn's work reached a peak, with a retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Minimal-Conceptual Works 1965-1970, and the show Looking at Seeing and Reading, which he curated at Paddington's Ivan Dougherty Gallery with Nick Waterlow.
"There aren't many of whom you'd say they're indispensable but he really was," said Waterlow yesterday. "So seldom do find someone who is an artist, a writer, and a curator of exhibitions - Ian was all three and he wasn't only concerned with his own area - conceptual art. I remember reading his incisive writing on Sidney Nolan and Fred Williams, an incisiveness you wouldn't necessarily expect from a conceptual artist."
Obituary page 21
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Publication date: 30-9-1993
Edition: Late
Page no: 24
Section: News and Features
Length: 602
First published in The Sydney Morning Herald



Walk into a garret today

In an innovative move, the Museum of Contemporary Art has linked up with six inner-city galleries to promote young contemporary artists.
In an innovative move, the Museum of Contemporary Art has linked up with six inner-city galleries to promote young contemporary artists.
Directors of the six galleries played host yesterday at an open day to museum members. Today, members and the public will be able to visit and view the work of 17 emerging artists in their studios.
"Originally, the event was exclusive to members," the museum's Natalia Bradshaw told Inside Sydney. "But, because the museum is still so new, we've decided to open up Saturday's studio walk to everyone, so people can experience the type of member benefits the museum offers.
"We want to be the catalyst for people to take an interest in, and learn more about, contemporary art. And these visits to artists' studios will be the perfect introduction."
The six galleries behind the venture are the Beatty Gallery, Kunst, Legge Gallery, Lime, ROM and Pendulum.
The idea for the visits came from Rosemary Luker, director of the ROM Gallery at Taylor Square.
"It's really all about two things: making the art more accessible to people, and making the public - and potential patrons - more accessible to the artists," she explained.
"There are similar studio visits held every year in the Marais district in Paris and in Berlin, and they're extraordinarily successful."
Luker said the artists would work in their studios throughout the day, on hand to discuss their work with anyone who popped in.
Participating artists work in a wide range of media, stretching from Brad Allen-Waters's metal sculpture to George and Ilza Burchett's large murals and frescos.
Those interested can pick up a map of the studio locations from the MCA in Circular Quay.
Caption: Illus: Show-offs ... from left, Faith McGirr, Constantine Nicholas, Gary Christian, Stuart Watters, George Burchett, Liz Miller, Simon Hartas, Joe Filshie, Maree Azzopardi, Brad Allen-Waters, Ilza Burchett, Jose Garcia-Negrette. Picture by DEAN SEWELL
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Publication date: 4-9-1993
Edition: Late
Page no: 15
Section: News and Features
Length: 417
First published in The Sydney Morning Herald



An injection of commonsense

Law enforcement temporarily reduces the drug supply and thus causes prices to rise. Higher prices draw new sources of supply and even new drugs onto the market, resulting in more drugs on the street. The Government reacts with more vigorous enforcement - and the cycle starts anew.
- Milton Friedman, Nobel Laureate economist, New York Times, May 9, 1993.

As the illicit drug trade continues to exact its tragic social cost unabated, a sea-change in attitudes towards drug policy is beginning to sweep the international community. MICHAEL HUTAK sought some expert opinions.
As the illicit drug trade continues to exact its tragic social cost unabated, a sea-change in attitudes towards drug policy is beginning to sweep the international community.
That Milton Friedman - arguably the most influential right-wing economist of the postwar period - should be putting forward such views of the illicit drug trade would have been unthinkable in the Reagan/Thatcher years of the"war on drugs".
Friedman was speaking in favour of the Hoover Resolution calling on the Clinton Administration to end the United States' 20-year "war on drugs", a policy which concentrates on restricting drug supply through rigorous prohibition.
The resolution notes that the billions of dollars spent on the drug war -which escalated to $A64.4 billion under the Bush Administration - has led to widespread corruption and violence, and has undermined governments throughout the world without any reduction in drug abuse and drug-related crime. And the international drug trade continues to boom.
The ever more obvious failure of this unwinnable war is finally seeing the official tide turn in favour of a harm minimisation policy.
Harm minimisation aims to reduce the adverse health, social and economic consequences of drug abuse without necessarily eliminating drug use.
While the policy still attempts to limit illicit supply and use, it places equal emphasis on reducing drug demand in the community.
Officially, harm minimisation has been Australian policy since The Drug Offensive was launched in 1985.
And that commitment was reaffirmed last month when a National Drug Strategy was endorsed by all Australian governments at a meeting of the Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy, the peak body through which the country's health and law enforcement ministers determine national drug policy.
But the professionals in the field - from policy analysts and lawmakers to police, health and social workers - are asking just how committed the Government is to harm minimisation, while Australian drug laws fill our prisons with drug offenders.
As a consequence, many are calling for new and radical solutions - such as the decriminalisation of marijuana, or even the open legalisation of all drugs of addiction.
MICHAEL HUTAK sought some expert opinions.
Dr Alex Wodak, director of the Drug & Alcohol Service, St Vincent's Hospital:
"It all boils down to this: once you recognise drug use is essentially here to stay, does the community want to preserve the present system where responsibility for selecting and supervising people who get heroin has been delegated to underworld criminals?
"Or do we want to see whether an imperfect medical system would be any less bad?
"Despite all our inadequacies in running the health system, I can't see how the possibility of providing clean drugs - of known concentration - could fail to be less evil than the present system.
"I think initially the community will only allow us to prescribe heroin within a program that encourages rehabilitation. Whether or not that's defendable is another question."
Peter Baume, Professor of Community Medicine at the University of NSW, and a former senator in the Fraser Government, who chaired the Senate select committee which produced the landmark 1977 report, Drug Problems in Australia- An Intoxicated Society:
"First, whether drugs are legal or illegal is a matter of fashion, not absolute knowledge. Second, drugs themselves are neutral - it's what people do with them. Third, prohibition has very major costs which, many believe, far outweigh the benefits.
"And of the deaths from drugs, 97 per cent are from the legal drugs. If we're worrying about drug policy, that's where our attention should be going. Ask yourself what the people in favour of prohibition are trying to achieve?They want a drug-free society - and there has never been one in all of history.
"It's a load of garbage, and we said as much in that very first report way back in 1977 - that a drug-free society is not an option. And that's why, on balance, I'm in favour of legalisation of all drugs. It's not desirable to use drugs but all we can do is work out ways that are accommodating to the reality that people do use drugs.
"At the moment all we are doing is filling our jails full of young offenders, making the drug producers and suppliers wealthy, and producing corruption in our police, our Customs, our magistracy and our prisons."
Justice Michael Kirby, the president of the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal, who was recently invited to sit on a new international tribunal on drug policy, based in The Hague, The Netherlands:
"I don't know that Australia really has embraced harm minimisation. Ministers can, at meetings, agree on sensible policies. But getting national and State laws changed from the present supply-reduction strategy - not to mention the international conventions which bind Australia to that strategy -is much more complicated.
"Despite the very stern measures adopted, a large number of cases before the courts are still drugrelated. There is no easy solution to this problem. What we have to look for is the least worst solution.
"I support a strategy which treats the issue as a public health problem, rather than a law-and-order problem - because the latter is only of random, intermittent and unpredictable success. But I don't see myself as entitled to defy the law. And while it is as it is, I will enforce it.
"There's no doubt that if people are addicted, they are sick. And a civilised society will treat them as sick people not as criminals - that's the bottom line."
Jim Snow, the Labor MP for Eden-Monaro, now lobbying Federal Parliament to make drugs of addiction, such as heroin, cocaine and amphetamines, available on prescription:
"When I was apprenticed to a pharmacist in 1952 people were able to get linctus heroin, which was prescribed for a cough. We had to report suspected addicts. It was treated then as a health problem, rather than a legal problem
"My proposal will be better for poor people because it will be cheaper -you'd only have to find $50 rather than $2,000 - and purer.
"Currently, the wealthier you are, the better quality you can get and the more reliable your source. The poorer you are, the poorer the quality of drug, the less reliable your source and the more likelihood of contracting AIDS or hepatitis B.
"I'm not interested in hardened addicts - we've got to tolerate the fact they'll keep using. I'm interested in reducing crime and the number of new recruits.
"Both doctors and pharmacists should be entitled to prescribe and dispense for recreational use - as long as the users are prepared to be recorded. And I do think it should be kept out of pubs.
"It's just recognising that if people want to do it, it should be safe for them to do so.
"While it would still be illegal to supply drugs other than on prescription, I wouldn't prosecute for possession. But I think that's an issue which should be debated."
Frank Costigan, QC, whose Royal Commission into the Activities of the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers' Union, 1980-84, revealed widespread organised crime on the waterfront:
"The 'war on drugs' as practised by the Reagan/Bush administrations was madness. And while there's not a lot of empirical evidence about, the argument that legalisation reduces the influence of organised crime is a strong one. Nobody could talk seriously about buying drugs at Woolworths, but the question is, shouldn't we be dealing with this in a different way?
"My view is, yes, you've got to pursue the people making immense profits from drugs - the criminal organisations involved in major trafficking and importing should be dealt with with the full severity of the law. But the problem of users should be treated as a health issue with rehabilitation, counselling, treatment and so on."
Tony and Judy Foley, whose son died from heroin use, and who vehemently oppose the decriminalisation of drugs of addiction:
Tony Foley: "Our memories will be of the people out there selling drugs and involving young people - and that to me is just so destroying. I hope one day the Government thinks about the influence drugs have on our society, and what drugs are doing to our children.
"Heroin is a destroyer and there are not too many survivors."
Judy Foley: "The regulations are very hard in countries like Thailand and Malaysia. I can't understand why we don't have a similar system in this country. Any person who's brought in millions of dollars of heroin or cocaine is nothing better than a mass murderer.
"I don't think legalising heroin or cocaine will ever fix this problem."
Milton Luger, the founder in 1977 of the Odyssey House McGrath Foundation rehabilitation program:
"There's been a big push to get heroin legalised. But it didn't take off, so now they're pushing decriminalisation as the first step. I believe this is a pay-off for all the board members who are snorting coke on weekends; for the yuppies who don't want to get busted with marijuana; and for everybody who's making money and using drugs recreationally ...
"None of this will help the kids who are in despair, who have nothing going for them in life, who only use drugs to block out their pain because they've been sexually or emotionally abused by their parents or whoever.
"These are the kids who won't be satisfied with a regular supply - they'll want to use more and more. They'll never get enough.
"Does harm minimisation mean telling young kids it's OK to use drugs? Does it mean you tell them it's normal to use mind-altering substances? Sure, the answer is not to send anybody to jail, but to give them a chance to get off the drugs - and then expunge their record after a year."
Ann Symonds, NSW Labor MLC, and member of the Australian Parliamentary Group on Drug Law Reform, a national bipartisan group, which in October will formulate a national charter on drug law reform.
"I belong to the group because I believe this is the way to declare publicly that the 'war on drugs' - which we've adopted from the Americans - is a failure, and it's not serving our society well.
"The bipartisanship between the major parties in support of the status quo really annoys me because what hope is there for change? These politicians are afraid of the media because this issue is usually dealt with in such a sensationalist way that nobody wants to be condemned for apparently being uncaring about the plight of drug users.
"Our National Charter will show another kind of bipartisanship exists for those who want change.
"What our more vocal supporters have in common is they're either independent or retired - people like Sir Rupert Hamer, Nick Greiner, Neville Wran, Frank Costigan, Don Dunstan and Sir John Gorton. And that's an indication of how vulnerable politicians feel about talking about drug law reform.
"If we can generate a wide-reaching, backbench movement, then we believe ministers might develop the courage to follow our lead."
Craig Thompson, a Sydney magistrate and the president of PRYDE (Parents Reaching Youth through Drug Education).
"The big missing factor is education. Advocating responsible use is a pro-drug message - it says use the drug, but do so responsibly. For kids to hook into that is not a good thing.
"Laws which stop kids getting legal drugs up to 21 years of age are there for a darn good reason - because the immature nature of growing cells makes them much more susceptible to harm than adults, particularly during puberty.
"Making drugs like marijuana and heroin more easily available to young kids is not good for them or society."
Gabriel Bammer, Australian National University fellow and the co-ordinator of a study investigating the feasibility of prescribing heroin to registered addicts:
"The ACT Government became alarmed at the spread of AIDS/HIV and decided new responses were needed. One such response is the provision of heroin to registered addicts in a controlled manner.
"So the Government asked the ANU's National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, and the Australian Institute of Criminology, jointly to conduct what has become known as 'the heroin trial'.
"It's a long way from legalisation. It's not about wholesale ready availability. It's a feasibility study about whether or not the ACT should implement a new method of treatment for people who are heroin-dependent.
"My fear is people will pre-empt the study. Once people take a position it's hard to get them to change - and I'm worried about prematurely polarising people's views."
Wesley Noffs, the director of the Ted Noffs Foundation:
"I can see the arguments for prescribing heroin. But just say you did. Some people would require the drug four times a day - because it's one of those substances which the more you have, the more you want.
"They would spend virtually all their time in a clinic using the substance. You'd get a situation where the addicts tended not to go home. Of course, you could argue they're not overdosing or using dirty needles. But let's see the models of how it would work.
"Anyone in drug and alcohol work would be watching the ACT 'heroin trial'with interest. I do support harm reduction completely. It's something which should be taken up by every drug and alcohol agency. And magistrates should make themselves aware of it - and I don't think they are.
"The very top echelon of the police is aware of the strategy, but I don't think it's filtered down yet."
Chris Puplick, former Liberal senator, commissioned by the NSW Minister of Health to investigate law reform appropriate to the National Strategy on HIV/AIDS:
"We'll be looking at things such as the operation of the needle exchange program, the methadone programs in prisons, and situations in general where people share needles - in essence, all aspects of drug policy as they impact on the way we manage the AIDS crisis.
"We'll also look at whether some drugs, particularly marijuana, have any relationship to the therapeutic treatment of HIV/AIDS conditions.
"There is a considerable body of evidence suggesting that in the later, almost terminal stages of the virus, marijuana does in fact offer some physical and psychological relief.
"Given that marijuana use constitutes a serious offence under NSW law, the question arises whether that is appropriate in this situation. But it's unlikely there will be a spate of prosecutions - after all, we're talking about people who are terminally ill.
"I expect to report to the minister by the end of November."
Tony Day, the NSW Police Association president:
"Of the drugs described as illicit, we would favour seeing them remain that way, from your soft drugs to your hard drugs. But we do see a need not to jail people for the use of marijuana, for instance, which could be treated by way of an infringement notice - as is done in South Australia."
Caption: Illus: Dr Alex Wodak ... "I can't see how the possibility of providing clean drugs could fail to be less evil." Picture by PALANI MOHAN
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Publication date: 28-8-1993
Edition: Late
Page no: 46
Section: Spectrum
Length: 2695
First published in The Sydney Morning Herald

AGNSW defends controversial donation scheme

AMID debate over the launch of the NSW Art Gallery's Contemporary Benefactors' Scheme, administrators defended the move yesterday as the only option to counter dwindling government support.
The controversial scheme - designed to entice younger, free-spending collectors into the gallery's circle - will be launched at a $75-a-head gala dinner in the gallery's main entrance hall next Saturday.
Amid debate over the launch of the NSW Art Gallery's Contemporary Benefactors' Scheme, administrators defended the move yesterday as the only option to counter dwindling government support.
The controversial scheme - designed to entice younger, free-spending collectors into the gallery's circle - will be launched at a $75-a-head gala dinner in the gallery's main entrance hall next Saturday.
At the heart of the art world's angst is a proposed auction on the night of works donated by Australia's leading contemporary artists, with the proceeds going back into buying more contemporary Australian art.
"Some artists have been a bit iffy about the idea," confirmed Sydney artist Rosemary Laing, who's donated one of her works now hanging in the gallery's"Strangers in Paradise" show.
"And I understand the argument: it's a disturbing trend, in that artists are always expected to make the work and mount the show for next to nothing, and now they're being asked to donate work to attract benefactors.
"This sort of thing has been going on for 10, 20 years. But this time it's the art gallery instead of, say, Artspace."
But the gallery's curator of contemporary art, Tony Bond, is adamant the move is a one-off.
He explained: "I've always been dead against the idea of getting artists to cough up in this manner. There's a lot of it goes on all the time at the alternative spaces but it's the first time we've done it here.
"However, these are modest works which don't compete with the artists'commercial practice.
"The real issue is we don't have any funds for buying contemporary Australian art because of government cutbacks."
Bond said a "massive gap" had emerged between State Government grants and the gallery's actual running costs. As a result, areas such as local acquisitions and maintenance of the collection have slowly had funds siphoned off simply to run the gallery.
The gallery's international programs had remained buoyant because they were supported by fixed bequests. But Bond says the Australian contemporary collection program has been starved of funds: "We have the Rudy Komon Memorial Fund, which produces about $25,000 a year. But that's it.
"We need at least $100,000 a year to get a decent program going."
Sydney galleries have been encouraged to book entire tables at the launch, and Roslyn Oxley and Gene Sherman are two directors who've already taken up the offer.
"I knew Roslyn and Gene would participate, but Stephen Mori has been a bit equivocal about it," Bond noted.
"I know one of his artists felt it was not an appropriate sort of thing for an artist to be doing, and I don't have any problem with that. It's a personal decision."
Mori declined to comment.
After a pre-dinner stroll around the Surrealism exhibition to the tones of a wind quartet, patrons will sit down to a menu designed by renowned Sydney chef Anders Ousbach.
Sotheby's Robert Bleakley will conduct the auction of the works of 16 of Australia's leading contemporary artists: Ian Burn, Debra Dawes, Anne Graham, Bill Henson, Michael Johnson, Janet Laurence, Rosemary Laing, Lindy Lee, Hilarie Mais, John Nixon, Bronwyn Oliver, Mike Parr, Julie Rrap, Imants Tillers, Mark Titmarsh and Ken Unsworth.
Bond expects the event to raise at least $20,000, but added: "During the evening we also hope to sign up patrons for the benefactors' program, which means a commitment of anything from $500 up."
Meanwhile, Laing sees the initiative as long overdue. "I support the event because, from a broader outlook, it's in my interest as a contemporary artist."
Caption: Illus: Art for auction...Tony Bond with a self-portrait by Mike Parr which will go under the hammer next Saturday. Picture by Ben Rushton.
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Publication date: 31-7-1993
Edition: Late
Page no: 15
Section: News and Features
Length: 765
First published in The Sydney Morning Herald



Art college friction isn't fiction

Premier John Fahey's announcement this week that Sydney College of the Arts(SCA), now amalgamated with the University of Sydney, will be relocated to a new $19 million facility at Rozelle means, publicly, an end to 18 years of poor accommodation and inadequate funding. But behind the scenes the country's leading art school remains embroiled in a bitter power struggle among senior management.
At the end of last year, the friction became so intense that the university's vice-chancellor, Don McNichol, was forced to intervene.
He commissioned an inquiry and appointed an independent facilitator to bring the college back from the brink.
The inquiry's confidential report - Inside Sydney has obtained a copy -finds a prevailing climate of "distrust, side-taking, suspicion, low morale"resulting in a "lack of effective decision-making and action ... a climate not conducive to allowing an obviously talented and committed staff to give of their best".
In the eye of the storm is internationally recognised Sydney artist Richard Dunn.
SCA's director since 1988, he sees the genesis of the problem dating back to the college's amalgamation with Sydney University in 1990.
Dunn commented: "If you join an institution and they say 'this is how you must be' - and it's very different from how you were - then there are bound to be difficulties.
"The uni created a school within the college and then appointed a person to head the school. It hadn't been structured that way before and there was confusion about roles and duties."
And according to the vice-chancellor's own report, this led to escalating conflict between Dunn and the head of the school, Associate Professor Helge Larson.
As the acrimony grew, lines of communication collapsed and, notes the report, "previously neutral staff (were) being drawn into factionalism ..."
Inside Sydney was unable to contact Larson but, according to Dunn, his current job will no longer be there when he returns from holidays next month.
Dunn revealed: "He will be my deputy, now that the vice-chancellor has decided to remove the school from the college and adopt a structure where the director also has the duties and responsibilities of head of school."
Dunn said he was willing to work with Larson on his return.
"I'm sure we'll develop a good working relationship, but we need to sit down and talk about where we go from here.
"There are ongoing problems with a minority of people, but that's nothing surprising."
While the new structure is still to be ratified by the university's senate, the independent facilitator, former Dean of Arts Dr Pat Lahy, took up her role last month.
"I'm trying to move the college more into line with the way a faculty at the university works," Lahy explained.
"In a faculty there's more collegiality, people have more input into the decision-making process and some say in what happens.
"And I'd like it known that the process is working."
Constituted by the Whitlam Government in 1975, SCA has coped with sparse funding and poor accommodation ever since.
Scattered over three ramshackle campuses in Glebe and Balmain, it has produced a steady stream of graduates who have slotted straight into the vanguard of Australian contemporary art - such as Jane Campion, Lindy Lee, John Young, Janet Burchill and Dunn himself.
The acting vice-chancellor, Professor Susan Dorsch, told Inside Sydney SCA was an asset to the university, and the move to the heritage-listed, 19th-century Kirkbride buildings at Rozelle Hospital would go a long way to solving the college's problems.
She said: "They've been labouring in bad accommodation for such a long time that Kirkbride must have a positive effect, mainly because it removes that climate of uncertainty."
Dunn agreed that staff relations had improved since Lahy came on board.
"It's slowly being worked through," he said. "Essentially, we have a staff working under appalling conditions producing students who are incredibly good."
Caption: Illus: SCA director, Richard Dunn ... hoping for an end to the bickering. Picture by GARY McLEAN
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Publication date: 24-7-1993
Edition: Late
Page no: 15
Section: News and Features
Length: 808
First published in The Sydney Morning Herald



Artspace turns 10 as it changes its emphasis

INSIDE SYDNEY: Artspace, Sydney's first publicly funded contemporary art gallery, celebrates its first decade next week, culminating with a party at its expansive new home in Woolloomooloo on Saturday. Artspace, Sydney's first publicly funded contemporary art gallery, celebrates its first decade next week, culminating with a party at its expansive new home in Woolloomooloo on Saturday.
Gallery director Louise Pether recalled: "Looking back, there have been such phenomenal shifts in the last 10 years.
"Originally Artspace seemed a real 1970s concept, in that anybody could exhibit and it was catering for people straight out of art school.
"But gradually the artist-run galleries have become more numerous, to the point where today you have spaces like First Draft WEST, Arthaus, Black and Lime all filling that gap.
"That leaves us somewhere between them and the Museum of Contemporary Art or NSW Art Gallery."
Before shifting last year to the new $1.5 million Gunnery Visual Arts Centre at Woolloomooloo Bay, Artspace occupied the first floor of an aging Surry Hills warehouse for nine years.
"Artspace was important because it was the first space in Sydney to address contemporary art, as it was practised at the time," explained artist and former Artspace committee member Merilyn Fairskye. "It combined an international outlook with a commitment to local artists and writers. But, just as crucially, it provided a place where artists could learn to negotiate the art world and begin to take control of their careers."
Pether - who succeeded previous directors Judy Annear, Gary Sangster and Sally Couacaud - estimates that 550 artists have participated in more than 200 exhibitions since Artspace opened but said the Gunnery necessarily meant a shift in emphasis for the exhibition program.
"Suddenly, we're in these quite splendid premises. It's corporate - almost glamorous - and the art really has to look good, otherwise everything falls apart.
"So, in terms of experimentation and risk-taking, the sorts of shows we have here will be different to those we experienced at Surry Hills.
"We've decided we're no longer a place for first exhibitors. But we are still a place for emerging ideas, and these can come from any generation or an artist of any experience."
Caption: Ilus: Art of time ... Abby Mellick, Julianne Pierce and Louise Pether, of Artspace, ready to celebrate the gallery's 10th birthday.Picture by PETER RAE
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Publication date: 17-7-1993
Edition: Late
Page no: 15
Section: News and Features
Length: 476
First published in The Sydney Morning Herald



Oxley makes plans on a fresh canvas

INSIDE SYDNEY: Leading Sydney gallery owner Roslyn Oxley yesterday confirmed major changes to her contemporary art business, including a dramatically smaller stable and plans to move from her Paddington landmark. "We had an offer for this space which really surprised us," she explained. "So we're considering the move because, economically, it's really too good an opportunity." With commercial galleries enduring a sluggish market, Oxley said she has no option but to meet the challenge.
"What we're doing is contracting. We're fairly small, in terms of personnel, and it's become very hard to manage artists properly. So we're paring down our stable.
"At McDonald Street (her earlier Paddington exhibition space) we could have five shows running at once. But in this gallery we can only have one or two at the most - and I find we're only concentrating on the artists we're really interested in.
"It's not fair to the others. So perhaps they'll get full attention somewhere else."
Oxley nominated 17 artists as a workable target - and said claims that she had 72 on her books at the height of the 1980s boom were "absolute garbage".
She added: "At our peak we probably had 35. But that's not full representation. At any one time you've only got the capacity to represent fully 12 or 15 people at a maximum."
In slashing numbers Oxley is echoing the trend set by new players on the Sydney scene such as Gene Sherman's Goodhope Gallery and the Sarah Cottier's new gallery in Newtown (scheduled for launch late this year).
Both are entering the market with small, select stables - and have secured representation of some of the biggest names in contemporary Australian art, including former leading lights from Oxley's gallery such as Dale Frank (now with Sherman Goodhope) and John Nixon (Sarah Cottier).
Oxley worked for 20 years as an interior designer (both in Australia and in New York) before returning to begin her gallery in an old rented warehouse in McDonald Street, Paddington, in early 1982.
Showcasing risky, emerging artists, Roslyn Oxley Gallery was an inst ant success.
Oxley had the foresight to buy a warehouse in Soudan Lane, Paddington, before the 1980s property boom - and relocated there in March 1990 after a lavish refurbishment.
"We always planned to move here, if we couldn't buy McDonald Street," she recalled.
"And we're not thinking of selling this place - just renting it out and relocating the gallery.
"But the whole thing is still under wraps, and I'm not going to tell you anymore until we've completed it."
On the current market, she summed up: "It's become more and more difficult... Quite frankly, I'd prefer to sell socks.
"But the art's the thing and, although it's hard, it's a fabulous business to be in.
"I'm very optimistic about the art that's coming out of Australia. It has a real edge that keeps coming through, and this is without doubt a very exiting time."
Caption: Illus: Roslyn Oxley ... "Quite frankly, I'd prefer to sell socks." Picture by DEAN SEWELL
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Publication date: 10-7-1993
Edition: Late
Page no: 15
Section: News and Features
Length: 605
First published in The Sydney Morning Herald



More snapshots of the rising generation

WHILE we're still dining out on our trans-Tasman triumph at Cannes, it's worth remembering Jane Campion found her first mainstream audience at the Short Film Awards which preface the Sydney Film Festival each year.
Campion's A Girl's Own Story, winner of the 1984 Rouben Mamoulian award, had the State buzzing that year with talk that a stunning new talent had arrived. What wasn't new was the talk itself - the awards always generate much debate, and are viewed in the industry as a snapshot of the coming generation
The Dendy Awards, as they are now known, are on again at the State Theatre tomorrow, beginning at 9 am, and the screenings are open to the public.
Taking the name of the current sponsor, the awards have traditionally occupied the festival's opening day since their inception in 1970. A cigarette manufacturer was sponsor until 1978, when the Greater Union Organisation took over. Sydney's progressive arthouse cinema, the Dendy has been sponsor since 1988.
This year, from more than 100 entries, 20 films have been chosen for screening and will vie for $2,500 in prizes in five categories.
Strictly speaking, the Dendy sponsors awards in just three of these: fiction, documentary and general.
The two other awards are the Yoram Gross Animation Award, first presented in 1987, and the Ethnic Affairs Commission Award, instituted last year to encourage films which reflect Australia's cultural and linguistic diversity.
Another $2,500 prize, The Rouben Mamoulian Award, is chosen from all the finalists by a panel of judges made up of overseas guests at the festival. This year the Taiwanese director of Wedding Banquet, Ang Lee, heads the panel
There are four entries in the fiction category (which begins screening at 10.30 am) - Flowers by Request, directed by Susan Wallace, Just Desserts, directed by Monica Pellizari, Mick Connolly's Opportunity Knocks and Anne Pratten's Terra Nullius - with Pellizari tipped to win.
Among the entries in the documentary category is Jan Aldenhoven's and Glen Curruthers's Kangaroos - Faces in the Mob, which was shown earlier in the year on ABC TV. The film follows the progress over two years of a mob of eastern grey kangaroos.
Other entries include Noriko Sekiguchi's When Mrs Hegarty Comes to Town, an examination of cross-cultural exchange between Japan and Australia, and Steve Thomas's Black Man's Houses, which seeks to redress the myth that Tasmania's Aborigines are extinct.
In the general category, for films which don't quite fit into any other category, Ross Gibson's Wild is favoured to win. Wild is a melange of docu-drama, cinemaverite, experimental cinema and academic film essay.
In the Ethnic Affairs Commission Award, Christina Andreef's loosely autobiographical Excursion to the Bridge of Friendship is among the entries. It was also selected for Cannes this year.
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Publication date: 10-6-1993
Edition: Late
Page no: 25
Section: News and Features
Length: 604
First published in The Sydney Morning Herald



Americans now the largest collectors of aboriginal art

INSIDE SYDNEY: Gallery director Helen Hansen has returned from this year's prestigious Chicago International Art Exposition reporting a surge of interest in Aboriginal art in North America.
"Aboriginal art is starting to break seriously into the United States, which is why we've made two trips there in the past six months," the co-director of Paddington's Hogarth Galleries told Inside Sydney yesterday.
Hansen returned on Tuesday from Chicago, where Hogarth became the first gallery ever invited to show Australian Aboriginal art.
"There's enormous interest," Hansen said. "They were fascinated by the connection between the land and the sand and dot paintings. On the other hand, a high percentage of people knew something about Aboriginal art because they had seen the Dreamings Exhibition at the Smart Museum in Chicago in 1989."
Hogarth's showing in Chicago was boosted by the enormous interest generated by Aratjara: Art of the First Australians, a major survey of Australian Aboriginal art showing in Dusseldorf, Germany, until July.
Hansen noted: "By our reckoning, the largest collectors of Aboriginal art in the world are in America."
She added that works of Emily Kame Kngwarreye - paintings of the desert country for which she's responsible as a tribal elder - attracted great interest.
"People were just bowled over by the energy of this woman," Hansen said.
"They'd ask if she'd seen the work of certain contemporary European artists and we'd say not only has she not seen it, she's an 82-year-old Aboriginal woman who lives in the Australian desert and speaks very little English. They'd be amazed at the artistic overlaps and similarities."
John Mawandjul's bark paintings were also a hit with the Americans, with one major work selling for $6,000.
Hansen said the surge in international interest in Aboriginal art was not merely a romantic return to the West's obsession with exotic, so-called"primitive" art.
"The American market has gone beyond that," she said. "It's more sophisticated, and Australian Aboriginal art these days is part of mainstream contemporary art. That's the way we show it - certainly not as primitive art -and people judge it on its own merit. And on that basis, it does extremely well."
Caption: Illus: Helan Hansen, co-director of the Hogarth Galleries in Paddington... found enormous interest in Aboriginal art in the United States. Picture by STEVE CHRISTO
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Publication date: 3-6-1993
Edition: Late
Page no: 2
Section: News and Features
Length: 504
First published in The Sydney Morning Herald

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Purves calls off closure of paddington galleries

INSIDE SYDNEY: Australian Galleries director Stuart Purves yesterday revealed that he no longer intends to wind down his Sydney operation.
"I've done enough airing of my emotions," Purves told Inside Sydney. "It's been tight. I've been wounded and depressed and said we would close.
"But then I gathered myself again, and now it's business as usual. I probably should have said nothing."
Purves announced in January that his million-dollar, four-year experiment at the sumptuous Paddington gallery would close - and Australian would consolidate from its Melbourne base.
"We'd made all the necessary arrangements and our bank was encouraging us to close," he said. "But right at the point when we were about to make the move - literally in the last few months - the market began to lift.
"And there's nothing like a couple of sales to give an art dealer a personality change."
In response, Purves has restructured his organisation to revitalise the Sydney end.
"Janine Purves, my wife, will be taking a much more active role," he confirmed. "She'll be based in Sydney, and I'm going to oversee the whole thing more from Melbourne.
"I'm taking my Sydney administrator Marie-Claire Courtin with me. She's the best personal assistant in the gallery world."
Purves has also appointed Stella Downer, who managed Macquarie Galleries for seven years, as his Sydney manager.
Australian Galleries was established in Melbourne in 1956 by Anne Purves(Stuart's mother) and her late husband Thomas, and has been a mainstay of the country's art establishment ever since.
But the Sydney gallery was Stuart Purves's initiative: "I started Sydney because I wanted to make a stroke in my own lifetime.
"Tim Storrier found this building for us, and Brett Whiteley designed it on the back of an envelope. Alexander Michael, the interior designer, then did all the detailing and we worked on it for 57 working weeks.
"It cost just under $600,000 to purchase - and we spent a good deal more than that again just doing it up. We realised we were over-capitalising, but we felt that wasn't the point.
"We had to spend the money - not only to get the sort of space we wanted, but also to demonstrate a commitment to Sydney."
That commitment was shaken earlier this year when John Olsen, after 20 years with Australian Galleries, went to Gene Sherman's nearby Goodhope Gallery.
"I certainly felt flat when John moved on," Purves said. "But there's life after Olsen and I wish him well."
Purves added he's ridden the "boom and bust", and that the art market has finally begun to stabilise.
"From 1986 to 1988 it went through the roof - and we all thought we were catching up with Europe and our hard work was paying off," he recalled.
"But what you found out was the money wasn't there. Like everything else, people were buying paintings with money they said they were going to make.
"So it all went over the top and we were just kidding ourselves.
"But the markets are like the oceans - they find their own level. And prices have come back to a level where everyone can participate."
Australian has Sydney shows planned for John Coburn, Daevida Allen and Justin O'Brien.
Caption: Illus: "Enough of airing of my emotions...." Stuart Purves to keep galleries going. Picture by MICHELE MOSSOP
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Publication date: 26-5-1993
Edition: Late
Page no: 2
Section: News and Features
Length: 675
First published in The Sydney Morning Herald



AIDS painter captures canvas of life

INSIDE SYDNEY: At 26, William Barber has already seen 130 friends and acquaintances die from AIDS.
Two years ago Barber himself discovered he had the virus - and tonight at Newtown's Bare Gallery he'll open his first exhibition of paintings and poetry which tell of his experience.
"I want to show that, even though you have a terminal illness, there's always the opportunity to do more," he said yesterday.
"My art is straight from the heart. When a friend dies, that's when I paint or write.
"Or sometimes I'll paint a friend who has just found out they're HIV - to catch them when they're happy and healthy."
Barber painted one work the day he found he was going to die. He called it Diagnosis. "A couple of days later I was so depressed I ripped it to pieces," he said. "Since then I've stuck it back together, to show I've felt that way but worked through it."
The show chronicles not only the human impact of the AIDS pandemic , but one man's efforts to come to terms with it.
"I've lost so many friends to AIDS, and this work is about them," he said.
"At least when I die, there'll be a record of how somebody felt as they went through it.
"But the main reason I'm having the exhibition is to show those people who've helped me out of the doldrums, that their support has paid dividends."
People like Sister Noelene White of the Good Shepherd Community at Kings Cross.
"William is a person who's confronting HIV," said White. "He hasn't given up on life.
"Instead he's made the courageous move to bring something positive out of his situation.
"He's using his experience to educate others. He addresses adolescents and helps them understand that people with HIV are, first and foremost, people."
Barber believes his exhibition of vivid, semi-abstract works is premature. But he realises time is not on his side.
"I always thought I'd be a serious artist when I was 50 or 60," he said. "Now I know I'm not going to have the chance to get to that stage.
"I don't want to make people accept me. I just want them to understand."
Caption: Illus: Fighting on ... Artist William Barber with his dog Monty in front of his painting Headspace. Picture by ANDREW MEARES
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Publication date: 25-5-1993
Edition: Late
Page no: 2
Section: News and Features
Length: 480
First published in The Sydney Morning Herald



Venice selection boosts Cottier's launch

Sarah Cottier's Newtown gallery, due to open later this year, is the talk of the Sydney gallery set - especially with the selection of one of her young stars, Hany Armanious, for the prestigious Venice Biennale next month.
Armanious is one of only five Australian artists ever selected for Venice.
Cottier had planned to stay quiet about her venture - not scheduled to open for six months yet - until her stable was finalised. But her hand has been forced by the selection of her hottest prospect for the 45th Venice Biennale.
Cottier told Inside Sydney yesterday: "Hany has been selected for Aperto, which functions as a platform for emerging artists under 40.
"It's very prestigious - and Hany was delighted, if bemused, when he found out."
Armanious's star is rising rapidly - his work has appeared in four major shows in the past year: the Sydney Biennale; Wit's End at the Museum of Contemporary Art; Shirthead at Mori Annexe; and Monster Field at the Ivan Dougherty Gallery.
Cottier described Armanious's work as disconcerting.
"Hany takes everyday objects directly around him and assembles them into a sophisticated, perverse personal index.
"His work ranges from the whimsical to the grotesque."
Cottier, a former editor of Interior Design magazine, left Yuill/Crowley Gallery last month.
The Sarah Cottier Gallery, as it will be known, will be based in the former smallgoods factory now used as a photographic studio by Cottier's business partner and husband, Ashley Barber.
"We see setting up in Newtown as taking the art to where the artists are,"Barber said.
"The art community is moving away from the city core," Cottier said. "When the Paddington galleries were setting up, there was a community there which supported them. But they've exited now."
With the Sydney art world undergoing a turbulent period of readjustment in the wake of the recession, rumours have been rife about who Cottier will be representing.
"The full picture will be clearer when I've massed a stable," she said. "But it will be small and focused - probably about eight to 10 artists."
Apart from Armanious, Barber confirmed that former Roslyn Oxley stal wart John Nixon had also made the move - a coup for the new gallery.
"We have five or six artists we're sure about, but John and Hany are the only two we can discuss at the moment," Barber said. "We don't want to be ruffling feathers at this point.
"Because of all the movement going on, it's not politically expedient to discuss it.
"However we're not offering artists huge financial incentives to come across to us. We're attracting people with a new context and focus, a new identity."
Caption: Illus: Sarah Cottier ... "The art community is moving away from the city."Picture by PETER RAE
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Publication date: 20-5-1993
Edition: Late
Page no: 2
Section: News and Features
Length: 565
First published in The Sydney Morning Herald



New dimension for Tokyo filmmaker

INSIDE SYDNEY: The visiting Japanese filmmaker Keita Kurosaka has made a whirlwind visit to Sydney where he was special guest at Matinaze, a survey of independent films screening this month at the Art Gallery of NSW.
Kurosaka - a leading figure in Japanese independent film and a lecturer at Musashino University near Tokyo - said his first visit to Sydney had added a new dimension to his work.
The visiting Japanese filmmaker Keita Kurosaka has made a whirlwind visit to Sydney where he was special guest at Matinaze, a survey of independent films screening this month at the Art Gallery of NSW.
Kurosaka - a leading figure in Japanese independent film and a lecturer at Musashino University near Tokyo - said his first visit to Sydney had added a new dimension to his work.
"I am encouraged by Australians," he explained. "I have new confidence that my films can communicate with overseas people, rather than just for the Japanese.
"Back home people take my films very seriously and are too self-conscious to laugh.
"But here they laughed spontaneously - and the difference was very stimulating. It was a cheerful, open and lighthearted response."
However, the harbour city left Kurosaka with some curious impressions. "I am particularly surprised that the public toilets are so clean | In fact, your city is very clean and well-organised. But where are all the people? There are hardly any people |"
He explained his dazzling animations: "I want to give new possibilities to the things we take for granted. I want new angles on daily life."
While he acknowledged a debt to traditional Japanese ways, Kurosaka said"the past is not so important - we use what is good and ignore the rest. More and more in Japan, it is not past versus present but commercial versus non-commercial. TV has all the power in Japan."
Considering its population, Kurosaka said Japanese citizens give much less public support to independent cinema than Australians - and it showed in the confidence of our films and filmmakers.
"Your young filmmakers, their themes and styles are not rigid but more relaxed and smooth," he summed up.
The Matinaze screenings continue on Saturday with a program of Japanese films including Kurosaka's latest work The Age of Box.
Caption: Port: Keita Kurosaka explained that his Sydney visit would add a new dimension to his work. Picture by PAUL JONES
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Publication date: 18-5-1993
Edition: Late
Page no: 2
Section: News and Features
Length: 465
First published in The Sydney Morning Herald

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Art heavies rage over Sulman

INSIDE SYDNEY: This year's Archibald, Wynne and Sulman exhibitions at the Art Gallery of NSW may have closed on Sunday, but the debate rages on.
Surprisingly, the controversy has not sprung from the Archibald, but from the Sulman prize for subject, genre and mural painting.
Under the bequest from Sir John Sulman, the gallery's trustees choose an artist to select the works and judge the winner of the $5,000 prize. This year, the painter Imants Tillers had the task of sifting through more than 600 works in just one day.
But while Tillers emerged in the 1980s to join the leading rank of Australian contemporary artists, his Sulman selection has triggered a major debate.
Many Sydney art world heavyweights took the show as a slap in the face.
"It is an outrage," said the Woollahra dealer Rex Irwin. "They were the worst possible pictures, most with little or no merit.
"It was an intellectual wank at the expense of those selected - and an insult to those who weren't."
Speaking from his Surry Hills gallery, Ray Hughes declared: "I don't know what Tillers is up to, but the Sulman's just becoming a haven for undergraduate art - for people more concerned with stacking their CVs."
Irwin added: "Perhaps Tillers used the opportunity to make a political statement. But that's not what a prize is all about.
"All it did was make a fool out of the art gallery."
But the director of the Art Gallery of NSW, Edmund Capon, said the criticism of Tiller's judging was "extraordinarily pretentious".
"One expects to see the signature of the curator to come through, and good on him too. I don't have a problem if we ruffle a few feathers," Capon retorted.
He noted that Tillers represented a radical choice on the part of the Gallery's trustees, but a necessary one.
"Imants represents a different breed, a younger generation who are very active, very established," Capon said.
"They have a voice, and a right to be heard alongside the views of those more mature members of the art world.
"Personally, I didn't much like the end product either. It was rather like a fascinating chamber of horrors, with some truly fairground pictures."
However, Annandale Galleries director Bill Gregory said he "found it quite a lot of fun because it was very subversive".
"I thought it was a send-up at first. But I realised he was trying to explode the whole concept of selecting, of being a judge."
Tillers, who is mounting a show in Latvia, could not be contacted by Inside Sydney for comment.
Sue-Anne Wallace, senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art at Circular Quay, believes this year's Sulman was "awkward", but that Tillers has, at least, shaken things up a bit.
"The Sulman is crucial to our artistic heritage," she said, "and one thing Tillers has done is make people think about the Sulman, about where it is going."
Caption: Port: Imants Tillers ... debate continues over the Sulman.
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Publication date: 12-5-1993
Edition: Late
Page no: 2
Section: News and Features
Length: 604
First published in The Sydney Morning Herald



Leading Aboriginal barrister honoured

Aboriginal barrister Robert Bellear will receive an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from Macquarie University this morning.
The award is in recognition of his professional and personal commitment to the advancement of his people.
"I'm sort of a doer rather than one who goes on about what he's done,"Bellear said last night. "But I'll certainly accept the award. It's not a token gesture, and I feel I've probably earned it."
Born in Murwillumbah, the eldest of nine children, Bellear left school early to help support his family, working as a mechanical engineer.
He graduated from the Law School at the University of NSW and was admitted to the NSW Bar in 1979.
From 1979 to 1983 he was a member of the NSW Corrective Services Advisory Committee and was appointed Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1987.
On behalf of the Northern Land Council he undertook a number of land rights cases for traditional owners.
Bellear co-founded the Aboriginal Housing Company in Redfern and worked as director of Redfern's Aboriginal Medical Service, Aboriginal Legal Service and Aboriginal Children's Service.
"It's the Year of Indigenous Peoples," he noted. "And people - both Aborigines and nonAborigines - have got to strive to educate each other in their respective cultures.
"While, slowly, there have been gains, Aborigines are still behind in education, health and housing to name just a few.
"But to gain a reasonable education, for example, one has to be mindful that kids have to go to school with a full stomach.
"Things are a lot better than they were 10 years ago, and multiculturalism has gone a long way towards bringing about equality.
"But I hasten to add there's still a long way to go."
Caption: Port: Bellear ... "sort of a doer".
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Publication date: 29-4-1993
Edition: Late
Page no: 2
Section: News and Features
Length: 393
First published in The Sydney Morning Herald

Redfern's new Access to art

Here is the writeoff or the first paragraph After almost eight years in Balmain, Access Contemporary Art Gallery is investing $1 million to move premises to a new warehouse in the heart of Redfern's emerging gallery belt.
"The building cost us in excess of half a million, and the refurbishment will cost the same," gallery director Brenda May revealed yesterday.
Access - which specialises in Australian contemporary painting and sculpture - will begin refurbishment of the Boronia Street premises next week and plans to move into the 550-square-metre space in October.
"At the moment it's actually just a brick shed," May said.
Robert May, of May & Swan Architects, will direct the refurbishment.
"He's also my husband, which means he's got a very difficult client," May quipped.
She explained the move was spurred by the realisation that, in Balmain, they were isolated from the nucleus of Sydney's art scene.
"We opened in Balmain in the first place because we didn't want to be seen as yet another Paddington gallery," she said.
"We wanted to do something different and develop a different feel. But, in retrospect, we made ourselves less accessible.
"Balmain's gorgeous and I love it. But it's become very gentrified, whereas the East Redfern-Surry Hills area hasn't yet.
"It still has that character where there are older residents who haven't been bought out and moved on."
May noted there were "heaps" of advantages in moving to Redfern: "When people go to galleries they don't usually just shoot out to one. They like to take a few hours and go to a few.
"And we're right in among the gallery belt here - next door to Yuill/Crowley, 10 minutes' walk to Ray Hughes, and Legge Gallery is down the road.
"People will start at Taylor Square, go to the artist-run galleries like Ten Taylor Street, then take in Ray Hughes, Yuill/Crowley, us and so on.
"Redfern is also one of the few areas that still has decent-sized warehousing."
Apart from Access, Redfern will also see a new gallery, Pendulum, open in June.
Pendulum directors Cameron Prince and Mishka Borowksi are seeking to support younger artists.
Pendulum will swell the number of exhibition spaces from Taylor Square to Redfern to at least 17.
Caption: ILLUS: Moving pictures ... Brenda May in the new gallery space in Redfern. Picture by BEN RUSHTON
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Publication date: 27-4-1993
Edition: Late
Page no: 2
Section: News and Features
Length: 482
First published in The Sydney Morning Herald



Art row leaves bitter taste on the palette

Reeling from recent controversy at Australia's oldest commercial art dealer, Macquarie Galleries, Sydney's art world has been besieged with calls to get its act together.
"We all think the art world has this patina of gentility about it. But it doesn't," leading arts lawyer Shane Simpson told Inside Sydney. "It's not about chardonnay - it's about getting paid."
Bought by Eileen Chanin in 1978, Macquarie Galleries has been embroiled in acrimonious claims and counter claims about the use of artists'proceeds - and the brouhaha has renewed calls for commercial galleries to adopt more conventional business practices.
Australian Commercial Galleries Association chairman Frank Watters, OAM, owner of Watters Gallery in Darlinghurst, is moving to address the problem.
"Anyone we thought was guilty of malpractice has been dropped from the association," explained Watters, who's in the process of reviewing the group's guidelines for membership.
While he wouldn't cite the offending galleries, he did maintain it was the artists' responsibility to hold their dealers to account.
"You had everyone bitching away. But when we set up an ethics committee, we couldn't get a single artist to file a complaint," he noted.
"And what you often find is there's no clear understanding between the artist and the gallery in the first place.
"But we are taking steps. I feel quite optimistic, and I wouldn't have said that a year ago."
Simpson, however, believes the only answer is legislation: "Self-regulation might boost the reputation of the industry.
"But there'd be no enforcement of any guidelines, and not every gallery is a member of the association."
Ian Collie, director of Sydney's Arts-Law Centre in Woolloomooloo, advocates use of trust accounts and written contracts, and is organising a public forum on the issue.
"There's no reason why an artist-gallery relationship should be any different to that of a solicitor-client or a real estate agent-landlord," he said.
"Moneys held by agents should be kept in trust and not be made available for cash flow."
As for contracts, Collie claimed the visual arts were the only branch of the arts not to embrace the written agreement.
"They are the norm in music, film, theatre, almost everywhere," he said. "But visual arts people still rely on the good old verbal contract."
However, Frank Watters disagrees: "Contracts just don't work in these situations.
"We've never had a contract with an artist in 30 years, and our record as an agent would be unparalleled."
Inside Sydney surveyed other Sydney members of the Australian Commercial Galleries Association on their attitudes to trust accounts and written contracts.
* Gisella Scheinberg OAM, director of Holdsworth Galleries, Woollahra: "I couldn't care less about trust accounts. I never use anybody else's money. I have plenty in the bank.
"I tell the artist my policy, but I don't believe in contracts. You can't tie down artists. It doesn't go with the artist mentality. Anyway, you can't sue them, they haven't got anything."
* Brian Hooper, manager of Coventry Gallery, Paddington: "All arrangements here are by verbal contract. As for people jumping around saying 'trust account, trust account' - they involve legal and commercial obligations which require extra expense.
"The artist has ultimate power in any artist-gallery relationship: they can withdraw."
* Lin Bloomfield, of Bloomfield Galleries, Paddington: "We're not selling washing machines. It's a very personal relationship between an artist and a gallery. I've been representing some artists for 20 years and I've never had a written contract.
"We do keep trust accounts, but I don't think they're necessary. Where the trust comes into it is between the artist and the gallery."
* Robin Gibson, Robin Gibson Gallery, Darlinghurst: "Half our artists are in the red. We advance them money and pay things in advance for them - such as framing and so on. I don't know how one would work this if one couldn't dip into the account to actually pay it.
"But I know if I didn't pay my artists in time, they'd be screaming. And I've seen what were otherwise good relationships come to grief over contracts. I'd rather take the risk that the artist will stick by me, as I'm prepared to stick by him."
* Roslyn Oxley, Roslyn Oxley Gallery: "We've set up trust accounts for artists mainly on commissions. But we make it our business to pay up front, and quickly, so we don't have much need for them. And often we extend money to the artist and they owe us.
"A lot of people pay off paintings, which complicates it further. We have had contracts, but there's no point in a contract if an artist doesn't want to work with you."
* Rex Irwin, Rex Irwin Gallery, Woollahra: "I don't use trust accounts and I will do what I've always done. Our reputation is still fine. I'm against regulation in principle.
"Making lots of rules and regulations won't help. It hasn't in any other business, has it? I don't believe you can teach people ethics.
"But let's not be too hard on the art world. I don't think greed is a disease peculiar to us.
"It's shake-out time from all that excess of the 1980s. And in the end we'll be left with the people who were there in the first place - because they're the ones that aren't in it for the money."
Caption: Illus: Frank Watters outside his gallery. Picture by DEAN SEWELL
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Publication date: 22-4-1993
Edition: Late
Page no: 2
Section: News and Features
Length: 1030
First published in The Sydney Morning Herald



Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

Dir. Francis Ford Coppola

As we have come to expect, Coppola has procured excellence from cast and crew to realise a work that is undeniable; in a word: BIG. Shot entirely on the Sony soundstage, this is a physical film, a juggernaut one endures rather than simply consumes: the sound design bodily assaults; the camera is forever dancing, trance-like and manic forcing the viewer to read the film; the use of colour is lurid, sensual, and oh so bloody red, as the costume design and art direction burn the idea of this Dracula deep into the memory.
Bar the appalling Keanu Reeves, the acting is exemplary with Gary Oldman again delving into his nether-regions to produce a genuinely enigmatic performance as the tragic, lusty Count Dracula. Playing opposite is winsome Winona Ryder who suffers from occasional
bouts of overactus hollywoodenae in amongst probably her most impressive role to date, while the supporting cast is led in cavalier fashion by the ever brilliant Anthony Hopkins, and impressive newcomer, English actress Sophie Frost.
Coppola's decision to tell this traditional screen romance by avoiding modern special FX technology (such as computer animation, morphing or blue-screen matteing, etc) in favour of old fashioned in-camera, "trick photography" (such as reversing footage and multiple exposure) works extremely well. The mood is like a Hammer film with production values raised to
the Nth degree but without the camp sensibilty in fact Dracula offers a lexicon of pre-cinema photographic illusionism. All FX were performed by second unit director, Roman Coppola, F.F.'s 27 year old son, continuing the rich tradition of creative nepotism that runs through his oeuvre.
On the level of performance Dracula bears no flaws, gaps, or gaffes: it's seamless, entertaining and engaging. Still all the brilliance doesn't seem to drag the resonance of the script above the archaic, perhaps because it keeps so true to Stoker's Victorian novel.
It IS a period piece and comes replete with Victorian social and moral baggage, but it begs the question: of what contemporary relevance is this?
Why do we need this movie now, today?
Just to clear Coppola's debts? Digging for clues, one interesting move is the backstage role christianity plays in the plot's denouement: the Count is a sort of underworld stand-in for Christ, forgoing immortality in the name of life rather than the other way round. It's a truly subversive moral manouvre: Dracula willfully brings about his own demise in the name of Love, not in the face of God's power. This is admirable but instead of being driven home it lays meekly buried 'neath all that silver screen "magic". Desperate for other sweeping metaphors, the AIDS epidemic is obvious: Blood + Sex = Death. But if it's Coppola's intention to draw his Dracula as a parable on the mythic, primeval link that humans make between sex and death then he's obscured it behind some extremely fancy footwork. Somehow a great film gets lost behind its dazzling archive of performance.

First published in Filmnews, 1989

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The Super '80s: Australian Super 8 Films of the 1980s

San Francisco Cinematheque, 31 May 1990
Curated and presented by Michael Hutak

Program notes:

This program charts particular moves within a peculiar film scene: Australian Super-8mm film in the '80s. Historically, the emergence of a renewed local Super-8 film culture around the turn of the decade sprang from a perceived winding down of 16mm activity in the late '70s. Super-8 was championed by practitioners as almost a democratic medium offering direct and easy access to the contemporary image maker. After the success of the first Annual Sydney Super-8 Film Festival in 1980 a new scene was quickly defined and promoted as the "Super-8 Phenomenon."

Local art journals such as On The Beach and Tension were in the forefront of promoting the scene as straddling both independent film and the visual arts, with many artists, writers, and mixed-media artists trying their hands in both theory and practice. The scene reached a peak of activity around 1984-85 with the festivals of those years giving birth to a notorious "theatre of cruelty." Here any film which exhibited a sincere or self-important posture was greeted with howls of derisive laughter from the rowdy audience. The festival was replaced with a mixed-media event — The Sydney Film & Video Event — in 1988 and Super-8 as a popular phenomenon has been on the decline ever since.

The works which sprang from this milieu had at least one thing in common: absolute diversity. Therefore this program makes no claim to represent any wider field of practice but rather displays some of the more engaging films by artists who produced a body of work during the period.

One significant feature which the artists here do share is an absence of a self-conscious foregrounding of national identity: Australia is more a state of mind than a birthright, and while not easily denied, can certainly be ignored. Made by citizens of the worid, these films celebrate the decade when the world went global!

— Michael Hutak, 1990

Carumba! (1986), by Nick Meyers; Super-8mm, color, sound, 4 minutes.
Hoard (1981), by Stephen Harrop; Super-8mm, 9 minutes.
Twisted Legend (1985), by Richard De Souza & Rhondda Kelly; Super-8mm, 6 minutes.
Untitled (1984), by Merilyn Fairskye; Super-8mm, 3 minutes.
Suspect Filmmaker (1984), by Rowan Woods; Super-8mm, 10 minutes.
S.S.S. (1986), by Andrew Frost; Super-8mm, 6 minutes.
Shock Corridor (1985), by Mark Titmarsh; Super-8mm, 4 minutes.
Westworld Story (1984-5), by Catherine Lowing; Super-Smm, 6 minutes.
Ropo's Movie Night (1986), by The Marine Biologists; Super-8mm, 15 minutes.
Macbeth's Greatest Hits (1987), by Michael Hutak; super-8mm, 22 minutes.


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Mystic Pizza (1989)

(USA 1989;dist: Newvision Film; rt 104 mins)

Mystic Pizza has modest aspirations: it aims to draw the viewer's identification only, it seems, for the film's duration. Beyond that it enters the realm of the forgettable: that ever-growing catalogue of 'films-I-have-seen'. Rack up another one. Get ready for the next.
Not that this viewer's identification was ever held with gay abandon. Mystic Pizza plays out a string of Hollywood cliches all aimed at clinching the sale - ie.getting you to love the characters and be right in there gunning for the predictably happy outcome to their trials. This is a feel-good-again movie, where everyone's happy by film's end, leaving you with a feeling in your stomach like too much cheesecake.
Lip service has been paid to '80s shifts in mores - there's swearing, open talk of contraception, the central characters are all women, etc. But that's where contemporaneity ends - it's all 'seek and ye shall find', 'diligence will be rewarded', 'follow your feelings', like some scripted version of Snakes and Ladders. And, like a dutiful daughter, the film effaces it's technical performance directing the viewer to transparently concentrate on the story.
To be fair, the film isn't irredeemable: it is well paced, cinematography is of a high standard, all the actors try hard and are, indeed likeable, but, really, this film is made for Americans, who really go for this sort of thing. However, if life-decisions, blossoming adulthood, and sexual awakening among the post-pubescent of a fishing village in New England sounds like fun to you then Mystic Pizza is recommended. Others might find the pastry thiick with too much cheese buried under layers of overcooked ham.
-Michael Hutak

First published in Filmnews

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Interview: Mark Titmarsh's Conceptual Painting

Sydney artist Mark Titmarsh interviewed by Michael Hutak.
As the noise and the clamour of the last three decades subsides, one valuable legacy of post-structuralism is its foregrounding of how language deflects or complicates the philosopher's project. Deconstruction as a methodology works to undo the idea, demystifying the claim that at some point we are able to dispense with language and arrive at pure, self-authenticating ideas. Though much philosophy strives to efface its textual or 'written' character, the signs of that struggle are there to be read in its blind spots of metaphor and other rhetorical strategies.
With his construction of 'conceptual painting', Mark Titmarsh shows his concern with this entire field - blind spots along with sweeping unobstructed vistas. He talks of striving to produce an impossible but 'wise' object, speculating on what a painting might be like when it knowingly displays a relationship to Conceptualism. A painting which, although undertaken after the fact, does not exist in Conceptualism's shadow but instead embraces and celebrates its own impossibile status, concieved as it is within language and history, but constituted by enigmatic imagery. The imagery gestures meaningfully beyond these origins, exceeding them like a good pupil.
Titmarsh's hallmarks, (or trademarks, if you prefer) can already be catalogued: layers and transparencies, the prescence of the brushstroke, creating space without perspective, creating emotional effects without narrative, creating images of the act of creation. The work's work is the production of layers - of literal, and of other uncontrollable readings, a gesture of tears, a pop star eulogised, the trace of character etched in line and space. Titmarsh reaches almost casually for lofty themes - the personal, the tragic, the ecstatic, the sublime. In this endeavour he is guided by a Nietzschean conception of 'the hammer as cut-creator'. Thus rather than appropriation/quotation he claims that he "allows things to eternally return as they must.
These points of departure signal a 'fresh' attitude to painting, and to the role of the artist, in relation to philosophy especially.
Consider Titmarsh's notion of the artist-philosopher. The artist-philospher possesses expertise in both the field of action & ideas. With regards to action, the importance of manner over dexterity or artisanal skill is stressed in the production of sensory effect. This is complemented by the idea skills or 'knowledg-abilty' which the artist philosopher must possess. The artistic value of the work has no relation to the materials of the work except that it has been chosen over others. Titmarsh has nominated these as his concern.
Guaranteeing subjectivity rather than knowledge, Titmarsh charts innocently and in good faith the collision of the subject and the real. But not without duplicity, without a pleasure in lying and deception. We learn the maxim that all personality wilts, surrenders and fails if only taken at face value. But to take things at face value today invariably assumes the 'surface' as nothing but the skin of 'depth'. Titmarsh's painterly surfaces undermine this phallacy, displaying, rather, an indeterminate order: admitting nothing, denying nothing, telling all.
And so Titmarsh redoubles irony. He ironises irony in his figuring of an intentional sincerity, of the posture of the artist as creator, author. Irony, parody, simulation (which all rely on recognising an origin) must here be willfully produced by the viewing subject, for nowhere are they intentionally figured in the work. In this way it is Titmarsh who possesses and reveals our 'true' character. It is when confronted by his work that we recognize our own will to interpretation.
MICHAEL HUTAK: A metaphor you often deploy is the hammer. Can you tell me something about that?

MARK TITMARSH: The hammer is firstly a symbol of my opposition to all the ideas and practices of quotation, appropriation, pastiche, and parody. The hammer is none of these. It is a tool, a weapon, and a tuning fork. It occasionally smashes things into concentrated fragments, and at other times, like the hammer of the silversmith, it gently beats precious metal into shape. Obviously for me, my precious or base metal is a bank of images. Something of this idea obviously comes from Nietzsche, who as you know philosophised with the hammer.

You are not merely working with given forms...

As much as words in a dictionary are given forms. So certains fragments of images become elements in a new "visual sentence". You can ask yourself when talking or writing, how is it possible to say something new when all the words available to us are limited and pre-packaged in the dictionary. Yet it is possible for words, just as it is possible within my own use of available images.

So your work is not about questioning processes which arrive at meaning but involves simply the creation of new meanings.

It seems a dangerous, perhaps paradoxical 'yes' - but yes. New, but steeped in traditional categories of art history and philosophy: asking questions about the nature of existence, how one can see and know anything, and how those questions might be posed via the well known categories of still life and portraiture.

Do your paintings ask these questions or answer them?

Probably a permutation of both mixed with a prophecy, the true nature of which will not come into focus until it is seen or actively 'looked upon' by free spirits, fearless ones, perhaps the first born of the 21st century...

Fearless? Of what? Fear itself?

If you can hold your head while all around are crying "I must love, I must hate, I must do my duty, I must honour father and mother and history!" then you become the judge and avenger of your own law, and you preside fearlessly over history and over what will be. It's like being a star flung forth into empty space and the icy breath of solitude. If you can say 'yes' to this you can say 'yes' to anything, you can say 'yes' to life.

So are you seeking to express some rebellious inner tendency?

Yes and no. I'm rebellious and unruly in the prescence of the prefect. Otherwise I am studious and compliant because rebelliousnes would only deepen my ignorance.

Do you paint as 'therapy'?

Yes and no. I don't begin with an emotional problem and hope to work it out by pushing around oceans of paint on a canvas like Nick Nolte in New York Stories, but yes I do hope to solve my miserable existence through some glorious moment of insight in my work.

Do the works, then, necessarily portray this catharsis.

Defintiely not catharsis, rather a speculation on the brink of infinite wondering. Catharsis seems to me be linked to the bowel, bladder, and spleen of the artist. These are important parts of my anatomy but I'm drawn more upwards and outwards through the heart, the eye, the mind.
Getting away from the psychodrama, let's talk about works themselves. You have a number of 'tropes' which you seem to be developing as trademarks, signatures. For instance many works incorporate book covers, magazine photos, post cards and so on, and almost all your paintings utilise layers - for instance, line drawings of portraits which 'hover' above other fields of imagery.

Could you expand?

I like to construct plausible linkages across impossible distances, to make things co-incident, to occupy the same space and time, in contravention of the laws of physics, occupying a conceptual, fourth dimension. To produce those works you mention I had to produce my own speculative history of transparencies, which I call the Genealogy Of Transparencies. Beginning with Arcimboldo, this genealogy runs through Picasso's Synthetic Cubism, Picabia's 'Transparency' period, to the recent work of Sigmar Polke, and David Salle. This 'history in the shadows' is yet to be ratified but it's speculative nature is the machine for producing my own transparencies. These are a layering of solid, semi-opaque, and wholly transparent elements made up of a field of images from art history, and mass culture.

You seem to be foregrounding an awareness of the mechanics of perception. Are you buying into a more general speculation on the nature of perception?

Yes, I guess I want to try and pick up from Minimal art issues around the phenomenology of perception and present them in the very midst of figurative and semi-narrative work so that in some of my paintings an observer might initially only see spacial shifting between untramarine blue and alizarine crimson, and only later does it become apparent that those two colours are also the bearers of narrative information such as a face, or a scene depicting the battle of the centaurs. Or the whole process can occur in reverse, ultimately one is made aware of the very processes of both looking and producing meaning.

So is it the 'work' of the viewer to produce their own meanings or do you deliberately point the way?

It's both. Everything tends towards ambiguity but it is not chaotic. Nothing is fixed, things keep appearing out of the depths, even for me. Yet there are things that do suggest a general inclination towards the metaphysical. I'm reminded of that 19th century parlour drawing where at first glance one sees a skull, and then on closer observation it turns out to be a woman pondering her face in a mirror. And so I hope to achieve a similar ambiguity whereby a banal moment or object suddenly becomes shot through with symbolic prescence. Or again in reverse an image that appears theatrical or philosphical becomes mute and latent.

Is this what you mean by semi-narrativity? The narrative experience of working through perceiving these various moments or objects?


There's a prescence in your work of the figure of the Artist, the Author. Do you consciously construct that? How does that come about?

What I see in my work is a directorial expertise - giving things a direction and a prescence rather than expressing my emotions, I don't seek to give free range to my emotions rather I try to elicit an emotional response. However I do like to wear masks, become occasionally the paint-stained artist, the acid-stained alchemist, the heavy-browed philospher, the lonely wanderer above the mists.

Some of the works are very personal, judging particularly by some of the titles - 'Why I Am A Destiny', 'What I Owe The Ancients',

'We Fearless Ones' -

- the image is being claimed, possessed by the speaker, is it not?

Such titles are intended to accentuate this notion of masks, and to remain as open-ended as the images. Many of the titles are in the form of questions and make no attempt to tag the image. I like to suggest first person subjectivity - I, we, etc. - to draw the spectator into identification and contemplation, we free spirits, we lovers of danger, first born of the 21st century.

Do you think an equivalence or a nullity comes into play when you conflate images?

No. The exact opposite occurs. The images expand upon eachother in varying degrees of affinity. They are either dynamic or enigmatic in relation to eachother and never nullify eachother.

What factors are involved in you being engaged enough by an image to want to incorporate it into a work? Is it the same process every time?

It's not something that happens all at once. It involves a long process of collecting things, almost like a bower bird. These things vary from collections of book covers, post cards, and the compliation of something like a slide library of images I find in art school libraries or while casually leafing through magazines. What usually dominates are faces. What I look for inall these places are the elements to a language of faces. My ideal face is a sublime face. A face that has the same effect on a viewer as a sublime landscape. So the process involved in choosing the images is something like waiting to be transfigured by that face.

What about the relationship of the source image's history to your use of it - is that an issue? Do you use an image in relation to how that image has circulated in the past.

It's not fixed and not always obvious from the work itself but, still I like to have it both ways. Sometimes I use an image without any recourse to or knowledge of its history. Some aspect of its surface meaning is all I require. Say, a reclining figure in a preliminary sketch by Raphael or a picture post-card sent home by the survivor of a battle, some pungent anecdote that becomes a humble brick in another construction. Or, conversely, I can enter into the spirit of the image and attempt to deal with it on its own terms, let it tell its own story, to do what it has always done best, or argue with it, perhaps perfect it. For example the way I have used the still lifes of Morandi. Morandi is best known for the symbolic, metaphysical power of the his still lifes - they are just bottles and vases yet they seem to say so much about existence. And a whole lot more about the physicality of paint. They fill you with a wondering about the transient nature of things, what it is to have an almost synaesthetic relationship with paint and canvas. He says all this through inanimate objects. So when I use his still lifes I hope to evoke the same sensibilty -

and complicate it?

Not really. To simply re-evoke it, to press it back into action, to become part of a new team

Is this akin to calling on a character reference?

On a marker, I suppose. It's like declaring "I agree".

So within your schema you are representing a Morandi, rather than quoting, or appropriating it?

It's not representing it. It's not quoting it. It's not appropriating it - it's not even Morandi! All that remains is metaphysics and synaesthetics. And, of course, the all too human desire to know "yeah, but where did it come from?".

Me? I keep coming back to that lineage we talked of earlier. And the more I look at cubism in general and particularly Synthetic cubism, the more I find a kind of template for many of the "isms" of the 20th century. Particularly Abstraction, Minimalism, Contructivism, Conceptual Art. I find them all figured in the works Picasso produced between 1907 and 1914. But, to be more generous to 20th century art, I would say that it all begins with the triple tension between Picasso, Duchamp and Malevich, representing maximalism, conceptualism and the void. I mention Picasso first because I see him as creating all the preconditions which allowed artists like Duchamp and Malevich to work.

Is your own work art historical?

Inasmuch as I rely heavily on art history, learning as much as I can from it, and formulating my own interpretations from close study. I've accepted that the boundaries of my work fall within what's been conservatively defined as art history. I'm not trying to extend those boundaries at all. I want to concentrate my work within those areas.

You've nominated a perimeter?

Precisely, It's like what I do with film... I have never been interested in expanded cinema - multiple screens or incorporating performance or installation in to the filmwork. I'm quite happy to make everything work inside the frame and be projected in a totally conventional manner, to have everything at stake occur within those conventions. So it's the same thing with painting, I'm not interested in turning art into life or in breaking down the differences between painting and other disciplines. I guess it's something like the love of necessity, suddenly noticing that everything you wanted and everything that could be was already within arms' reach.

Does the crux of your work reside in the art object? You're not in any sense a conceptual artist where idea takes precedence over the object, where the object is devalued?

Well, Conceptual Art is something that was once, and can never be again. But it is something that's very important to me. The main push of Conceptual Art was to dematerialise the art object, probably to blend life and art together. Recently, I've been playing with the notion of Conceptual Painting. Conceptual Painting might be the work of one who is aware of Conceptual Art but runs against the grain of this dematerialisation to produce 'wise objects'.

Do you, therfore, value the object over the image? Must your work be experienced as paintings on walls to be fully grasped?

What I aim for is the best of all possible worlds. Some things can only be appreciated by experiencing the painting on the wall such as its 'theatrical prescence' and the sheer physicality of the materials - paint, varnish, resin, impasto, paper, and so on. At this level of observation, the two-dimensional image is quite secondary, and one is made more aware of a play of three-dimensional prescences on the surface of the canvas. Sometimes texture is image and vice versa. But of course, when the painting is reproduced and enters the information chain - magazines, etc - the image still retains its veracity to all the things we've discussed here.

But I don't a posit an ideal viewer. My hope is that the more you bring to the work the more you'll get out of it.


First published in Tension magazine.



World View

Australian Centre for Photography, Paddington, Sydney.
August 16-September 10, 1989.

...In Gallery Two a young artist, Michael Hutak is showing World View, which consists of a 20-minute video plus several photographs taken from it. These photos have been enlarged via colour photocopies and applied to canvas.
Hutak's footage from such sources as Hollywood religious epics, crime and spy movies, and even an interview with the Pop artist, Andy Warhol, is spliced together, and then recombined, using a sound track often at variance with the images.
This results in an amusing, terrifying or enigmatic juxtaposition.
One scene of a plane on fire and crashing towards the ground is repeated obsessively, giving it a nightmarish quality. Asked if his work was a comment on postmodernism, Hutak said: "It's bubble-gum postmodernism. Lots of postmodernism is about overload and the death of meaning. I want the images to look definitive but escape a definitive meaning at the same time." The work is powerful, and, although slogans emblazoned on it appear to provide the images with a superficial didacticism, on closer examination the idea of a straight forward interpretation fades and the signs make a slippery escape.
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Publication date: 24-8-1989

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Issues, c.1984

  • the construction of the real, deconstruction of the unreal
  • the constitution of the subject
  • power, knowledge, ideology
  • the psychoanalytic state of the subject
  • film as text, and how that text is constructed to produce meaning
  • the circulation of texts to produce specific meaning in specific & differing contexts
  • the unseen, the unconscious
  • the operation of ideology & historicity
  • the restoration of a lack
  • the desire for closure
  • film as language



Train of Events

Train of Events (1986), Super 8, Colour, Sound 5 mins

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