Sunday, May 02, 2010

Everything big is small again

The Last of England after Hockney, after Ford Maddox Brown by Pants
(watercolour pencil on paper mounted on recycled pizza platter)

Normally I don't watch television. It's downstairs and hardly worth the journey. But this afternoon I had a couple of lazy hours watching back-to-back documentaries about David Hockney and Antony Gormley.

David Hockney, A Bigger Picture followed the British artist's repatriation to his native Yorkshire where he reacquainted himself with the countryside of his childhood with a spectacular energy, culminating in a huge painting which went on display in The Royal Academy's summer show of 2007 where I saw it. It was a breathtaking centrepiece in memorable show.

Antony Gormley: Making Space, traced the considerable behind-the-scenes drama of mounting the Blind Light Exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, also in 2007. I was there too. While Gormley and various assembled experts struggled to get a cloud to behave inside a glass box and build the casts for the exhibition's external companion piece, Event Horizon, another cloud was gathering further north. Gormley's famous installation, Another Place, had just had its permission withdrawn by the local council and he faced the possibility of having to remove one hundred life-sized cast iron figures within the week.

At the council meeting a few days later, which Gormley personally attended, it was decided that the sculptures would remain on Crosby Beach in perpetuity. The locals had grown rather fond of them, and had come out in support when it became clear that the uniqueness the sculptures lent to this otherwise mundane piece of coastline might be lost. The British have always appreciated uniqueness and will instinctively get behind its champions when they are threatened. Gormley said after the council meeting that it was a victory for the British people's adventurousness in art appreciation. He went so far as to say that Britain led the world in this regard and it was no vain claim.

Australia doesn't have this level of confidence in its art and artists which is really a shame because it means almost everything ends up looking like it was outcome-planned to within a millimetre of its grant funding. When an artist does nudge at the boundaries of convention, like Sam Leach did with his Wynne Prize award winning Proposal for landscaped cosmos, the art world and the public look to the popular media for an adjudication. Or worse, they stand back and anxiously await international and/or commercial approval.

I listened to an interview with Sam Leach on ABC radio today. The interview lasted half an hour and the interviewer asked variations of only one question - given the resulting controversy, did Leach not think that he should have come clean to all the plebs that he'd copied some other guy's painting. What was that about? Maybe he should also wear little white gloves when he paints.

Ultimately, the fear that the interviewer was expressing on behalf of us all was that we would look foolish to the rest of the presumably more culturally enlightened world. As it turns out, none of the art experts on the judging panel recognised the considerable liberties Leach had taken when deeply immersing himself in his inspirational source. Maybe it was embarrassing for five minutes but I have news for fellow Australians - the rest of the world has other things to worry about and quickly moved on, assuming it paused to notice at all.

Antony Gormley's Event Horizon was a joy to witness. The scale of Thameside buildings was perfect for the Gormley-shaped figures with which we in Britain had all become familiar. It was neo-classicism, neo-Stalinism, neo-Fritz Langism and Where's Wally all rolled into one fabulous but restrained, in a very City of London way, treasure hunt. I remember standing on Waterloo Bridge with a friend and spotting my fourth only to find there was one right behind me! It was pure and delicious pantomime.

Event Horizon opened in New York City last month and the emergency services immediately received calls from the public thinking they were witnessing potential suicides. And that is the difference between London and New York.

But I'm thinking about a time before the recession and I don't know what will happen to the British art tradition that I came to know. The one that quite literally rose from the ashes of the fires that Thatcher and her cronies lit. The Royal Academy and Gormley exhibitions were amongst the last I saw in Britain. I was gone a few months later. I hope the new dour that is bound to descend no matter who wins the election next Thursday doesn't mean we've seen the last of the England that is Hockney, Gormley, Emin, Kapoor, Whiteread, Hirst and hundreds of other artists who made it their business to embiggen the small for us all.