John McDonald Never mind the quality, feel the price, The Sydney Morning Herald, 2001

Never mind the quality, feel the price

The Sydney Morning Herald
Weekend Edition
May 5–6, 2001
Spectrum, p.12

The MCA has a new strategy but the space cadets are still leading the charge. Gallery review by John McDonald.

Times have changed at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Once there were silly exhibitions, attended only by a few confused tourists. Last Sunday there was a silly exhibition packed with youthful members of the general public. What has brought about the change? Is it an injection of new ideas from the “pulchritudinous” Liz-Ann Macgregor (as Giles Auty is wont to describe the MCA director)? Is it the threat of impending demolition still an option if Frank Sartor finds a celebrity architect with megalomaniac tendencies? Is it that the masses have finally seen the light and embraced the religion of contemporary art?

None of the above, I suspect. It is the simple expedient of dropping admission charges that has done so much to attract bigger audiences. This long-overdue initiative, for which the museum can thank telstra.com’s sponsorship, has reduced the feelings of resentment and hostility that used to be a feature of visits to the MCA (and remain a feature of all my dealings with Telstra). The shows may still be lightweight, intellectually garbled or vapidly fashionable but at least one need not feel ripped off. It may even be possible to have a good time. The hordes of young visitors to the exhibition Art > Music: Rock, Pop, Techno seemed to be enjoying themselves - insofar as any teenager can be seen to be enjoying him or herself in this era of conspicuous, inarticulate blankness.

Art > Music is a good idea for an exhibition aimed at a younger audience. The National Gallery of Australia was planning a similar show called Clubland, but the idea has been canned. In light of the good response to the MCA show, perhaps the NGA’s planning gurus might think again because there is an audience for this material, even if it is far from the halls of High Culture.

The show is hung in a way that banishes most aesthetic expectations at first glance: it is an awkward, ramshackle, bursting-at-the-seams sort of mess. This is not necessarily a bad thing because most of the work is individually so slight that the show gains impact through the sheer accumulation of visual data. It would be pointless to nominate particular pieces for detailed analysis, since nothing is engineered to sustain one’s attention for longer than a few seconds.

It is appropriate that the MCA exhibits this work but less acceptable that there is nothing whatsoever in the show or the broadsheet-style catalogue that passes as a critical overview of such an avant-garde flea market. The curator, Sue Cramer, writes as a fan and seems to believe that fandom is an acceptable form of engagement with the latest art and music.

In reference to Kathy Temin’s My Kylie Collection - a teenie bedroom shrine to the pop princess - she tells us that “Temin herself is one of Minogue’s biggest fans” as though this were a mark of integrity. But fans are often like religious fanatics who see their idols as perfect, untouchable models of everything desirable. Those fans who take a more critical perspective on rock, pop or techno are in danger of becoming masters of trivia able to make fine discriminations between works that the rest of the world finds utterly uninteresting. I speak as a one-time master of trivia.

Eager to make up for my own descent into middle-aged ignorance in the ways of rock, pop and techno, I logged on to the MCA Web site in search of a promised “Internet performance” by DJ Spooky. It proved impossible to find. Undeterred, I tried a well-known American music store which provides samples of contemporary music. In one afternoon I listened to bite-sized chunks of Sonic Youth, DJ Spooky, stereolab, Destroy All Monsters, Blur and other acts that happened to be featured in the MCA show. It was a depressing experience, since everything sounded like a throwback to the ’70s and early ’80s apart from Blur, who sounded like the Beatles and provided the only music that bopped along in a vaguely agreeable way. Woo-hoo!

On the menu at the MCA: electronic sludge, aimless pop doodling on a synthesiser, raucous feedback, guitar-based rock that comes across as an awful parody of the Velvet Underground or Iggy and the Stooges. Worst of all: the utter pretentiousness of self-proclaimed avant-gardists working in a no-man’s-land between art and music.

Yet reading Cramer’s descriptions in the catalogue, it seemed she was describing an entirely different show. Christian Marclay’s video Guitar Drag (2000) shows a Fender guitar being dragged behind a pick-up truck, emitting the odd yelp and fart. Cramer finds this “electrifying”. She is likewise entranced by “the sheer beauty and opulence of disco balls” used in an installation by John Armleder. With no apparent irony, she refers to DJ Spooky as “a key figure in developing and promoting the concept of the DJ as an artist, postmodern poet or urban philosopher”.

The disappointing feature of Art > Music is that it reinforces the impression of contemporary art as the cultural plughole of our times. Bad theatre passes as performance art; bad film passes as video art; bad, incompetent music is avant-garde art. Naturally it’s not all bad, but there is a mass of work that merely reinvents the wheel and leaves it somewhat square-shaped. Much of the art reads like a spoof on the formalism of the ’70s given a thin varnish of irony. This is a small saving grace, since the thought that the artists might be serious is too grotesque to imagine.

Look for a little irony in artists such as Julian Dashper or Daniel Pflumm, who make coloured decorations of staggering vacuity. Fear the worst for Marco Fusinato who makes monochrome paintings in response to Thurston Moore’s mistreatment of a guitar. Pipilotti Rist most certainly has her tongue firmly implanted in one cheek.

Art > Music suggests an alarming reliance on recycling, and a dose of cultural amnesia. The words “cover version” appear from time to time in Cramer’s catalogue but she doesn’t make much of the concept. Perhaps it would be dangerous to open the door to such an idea because this exhibition is full of cover versions of vintage avant-garde melting moments.

It may finally be time to reassess Clement Greenberg’s influential essay on “Avant-garde and kitsch” (1939) which became a sacred text for a generation of formalist artists. Greenberg thought there was a “tremendous interval” that separated avant-garde from kitsch. That interval has closed so dramatically that much of today’s avant-garde art is nothing but kitsch. While kitsch is seen as imitating art in forms that are overtly sentimental, popular and accessible, avant-garde kitsch treats art history as a game of charades. Its forms are the shells of previous avant-gardes, emptied of their spiritual or philosophical content. Only the pose of seriousness remains: imagine a DJ with “urban philosopher” written on his business card.

Philosophers who are not DJs have suggested that one of the distinctions between kitsch and art is that art creates a kind of psychic distance between itself and the viewer. One responds to a work on an immediate level, before discerning other layers of meaning. The great works of art seem to be infinitely suggestive, revealing another dimension upon each new viewing. With kitsch, however, what you see is what you get. The experience is immersive, like plunging headlong into a bath of syrup. This is perhaps not so far from those raves or dance parties that generate an atmosphere of all-encompassing repetitive rhythm, in which blissed-out participants jiggle away for hours on the dance floor achieving a state of nirvana a Buddhist could only envy.

One thinks of Luis Bunuel’s film Simon of the Desert, in which the devil finally succeeds in luring the saint down from his platform in the wilderness only to deposit him in a New York disco. The message is that solitude the “school of genius” in Gibbons’s memorable phrase is increasingly hard to find or achieve. A show such as Art > Music is a monument to distraction, an anthology of avant-garde leftovers, rewarmed long after they should have been binned.

One feels that everything in this show was more fun to make than to endure, fascinating for the artist but of little interest for most viewers. It all reads like a massive effort at staving off boredom for another hour or two.

It is worth noting that this exhibition does not include the smartest and most engaging of all recent art and music crossovers: the Slave Pianos project put together by Michael Stevenson, Danius Kesminas, Neil Kelly and Rohan Drape. Immaculately deadpan in approach, the Slave Pianos crew has made musical transcriptions of artists’ music and even the noise generated by artists’ performances and constructions.

These pieces have been recorded on CD and performed internationally by various ensembles, including string quartets and brass bands. The result is that even the most unlovable noise begins to sound like music. This has drawn considerable hostility from artists such as John Nixon and Marco Fusinato, whose work has been included in the Slave Pianos repertoire. Presumably they resent the fact that their experimental doodlings, which may be sampled at the MCA, have been transformed into a persuasive form of avant-garde music.

I suspect the real reason that Slave Pianos has been omitted, and has drawn the ire of the self-conscious avant-garde, is the horrible suspicion that it might all be a piss-take.

Yet the beauty of the project is that it takes this “music” far more seriously than the original artists ever envisaged. The satire comes from the disparity between the banality of the original as opposed to the sophistication of the transcription and performance. Oddly enough, a Slave Pianos satellite “Adawo: Australia’s only Martin Creed tribute band” is included in the show, but with no suggestion that a tribute band devoted to one fashionable contemporary British artist might actually be a send-up.

While the MCA may be more user-friendly nowadays it seems that navigation duties are still in the hands of the space cadets.

ART > MUSIC: Rock, Pop, Techno
Museum of Contemporary Art
Until June 24

John McDonald made Slave Pianos his first purchase during his brief career as head of Australian Art at the National Gallery of Australia.