Monday, February 27, 2012

Pearls at Dawn


JG by Pants and I'm afraid I couldn't find the original source for MT - sorry but you know who you are.

Normally on Oscars day/night, you would find the Question why and yours not-so-truly curled up on our respective velour recliners in the home theatre on a Chardonnay drip with a vodkamisu tantalisingly in the offing. But, disaster. The Question why was suddenly called into the Australian Labor Party Caucus room to cast his vote on the future of our country and our butler-cum-vodkamisu chef - known to you as Barney - was nowhere to be found. (He later sent a cowardly text informing me that he was with the Hugo entourage. Apparently, Scorsese has an owly-cat from Barney's batch and is, well, you know, kinda sentimental about that sorta thing).

Worse still, Pants has found herself in gainful employment that simply refuses to go away. So, whilst dramas both real and imagined played out on the national and world stages, I was engaged on the erstwhile shattering issues that engulf Larrikin Shire Council, like whether or not we should allow vehicles built after 1973 to park in Maim Street.

Clearly, a new getting-one's-head-around device is required for the eerie prospect of processing the multiple challenges implicit in understanding why it should be as incongruous for a woman (pearls optional - hopefully), to be leading a government in 2012 as it was in 1979.

A week or so ago, I saw Iron Lady. I lived through most of Margaret Thatcher's Prime Ministership. It was dire for a lot of people in Britain. It was morally corrupt and sabotaged a potentially resilient social housing model to a point from which it may never recover. It very nearly managed to destroy the even more important post-war legacy of the National Health Service. It hobbles like a pantomime horse with two rear ends to this day.

When you're young, fit, well-educated, play in a band and have managed to get a hard-to-let council flat, you protest but also thank your lucky stars. Protesting is the right thing to do and you do it willingly and enthusiastically because wrong is wrong, whether or not you are personally experiencing pain from that wrong. You get to play at a Miners' benefit. That is a real thrill. From a purely selfish perspective, you know living like this is a great experience. You try your best to contribute to the sum of making things right. And sometimes it doesn't work, or it works a bit because you're one of millions who at least try.

But your experience is still your experience and I have to admit, I did go a bit 'awww, the poll tax riots' soft with nostalgia when I watched Iron Lady. It is a great film, about a monumental character and, as much as her singular screwing of a country I called home for a quarter-century rankles still, I found myself totally absorbed in the fictional portrayal of her real-life descent into gagaeity. This is the kind of extreme narrative at which Madama Streep excels. She got the Oscar, of course she did. Excuse me while I grab a frozen vodkamisu for one from the freezer and watch the replay.

And now, inevitably, we come to our very own pearl-wearing iron matron. Today, whilst La Streep basked in her third Oscar win, our Prime Minister Julia Gillard was coming up for air following a leadership challenge from the mad narcissist to whom she gave a consolation prize of a job we'd all be more than glad to have. There it was in all its irksome, laughing-stock glory. It couldn't have been more hilarious if the Coen Brothers had half-baked it and left it out in the rain for some neo-Dadaists to re-imagine. Streep was a sure thing. Julia, less so. But she won.

When the Question why returns from Canberra and Barney from Hollywood, we'll go and see The Artist. We loved Hugo, but it will be nice to see a movie for once that doesn't feel like it has to wrestle you to the floor and invite the Burundi Drummers to take up residence in your ears.

Stand down the pearls for another year. All is quiet now...

Saturday, February 04, 2012

The Art of Dottiness

Reconstruction by Pants

Every so often, the electricity supply here in Larrikin's End blips for about 30 seconds. Not enough time to ruin a soufflé, but certainly enough to throw every electronic device at Seat of Pants into a tailspin. The worst of it is having to go around and reset all the clocks. Every appliance these days feels the need to know the time and, even creepier, to go into epileptic meltdown if it momentarily loses that ability, resulting in fits of uncontrollable blinking.

This is an accurate metaphor for how I'm feeling at the moment. Suffice to say, the reconciliation with the birth-mother country has hit something of a major snag. Our biorhythms are most definitely not in synch at the present moment. What this means is that I'm almost always seeking escape, and this usually involves bumming a ride on someone else's psychic Segway. Happily, in recent months, there have been plenty on which to hitch.

I was in Brisbane a few weeks ago to see the Matisse exhibition at GOMA, (of which more later), and I also popped in to the Yayoi Kusama show Look Now, See Forever. It seems to me that Kusama has this life lark figured out about right. When she's not travelling the world spreading her infectious brand of wonderfulness, she lives in a nuthouse. It could be argued that she is a lot saner than those of us who persist in butting heads with idiots for a far smaller allocation of crust when we could be decorating the world with bright colours instead.

The polka dots, her most recognisable image, are an interpretation of the hallucinations that Kusama began experiencing from an early age. As I've mentioned many times before, I'm automatically a fan of any art that can bring glee to the face of a small child. Obliteration Room is an interactive piece that is installed using locally sourced elements. It comprises a suite of rooms containing everyday household objects like televisions, sofas, shelves tables and chairs, all painted in matt white. Visitors are each given a sheet of dots and instructed to place their dots where they please.

It's undoubtedly the best interactive artwork I've ever experienced. It operates on a number of levels. The children love it, of course, and it's not half fun if you're a curmudgeonly matron either. It's completely inclusive. Any person of any age or ability can place a sticky dot. It's utterly egalitarian. There is no wrong place to put your dots and no wrong way to deal with your dots. As you can see, I saved half of mine to create my own artwork, above. Barney ate all of his dots, thinking they were tabs of acid. Judging by his behaviour immediately following, I assume they were.

My favourite thing about the Obliteration Room is that, at some point, it either has reached or will reach an aesthetic peak but no one will be there to make that call and perhaps no one will even notice. The first couple of visitors who deposited dots might have had some pleasure in the blank canvas that was before them but they would not have had much of a glimpse of what was going to be possible. We came about halfway into the experiment and, I must say, it did look pretty amazing. But it will obviously reach the point where it looks like 101 Dalmatians' breakfasts.

Leonardo da Vinci supposedly said, 'art is never finished, only abandoned.' The artist's dilemma is choosing the right moment to walk away. Nothing is ever perfect. That's a given. But over-whipping the cream leaves you with curds, whey and a naked sponge. To most artists, the fear of not knowing when to put down the brush/chisel/spray can puts global warming, international terrorism and being caught with an outdated electronic device in the shade.*

I'll bet that not even Leonardo could have predicted that a half-millennium after he'd painted the famed Mona Lisa, it would still be making news. Last week The Prado Museum in Madrid announced that it had an almost fully restored painting of her thought to be by a da Vinci student, done during the same sitting. If you haven't already done it, it's fun to play with this comparator for a few minutes.

I have seen Leonardo's Lisa several times and a great many other Leonardo bits and bobs to boot. There is no doubt in my mind whatever, that being in the vicinity of any object he made, even down to the roughest, tossed-off sketch is a special privilege. I don't believe it's an entirely conditioned response. Great artists find a sensory level on which to communicate, which is the thing that makes them great artists and the reason not even experts can accurately pinpoint the nature of their allure.

Kusama has made some intriguing signature pieces over her long career. In addition to the dot motif, she does a fine line in flowers and pumpkins. These are happier relics of childhood, recalling the family business - a plant nursery. The legacy of her time as a performance artist in the New York City of the sixties is evident in the psychedelic fantasies she creates in works like Dots Obsession. It's a rabbit hole into which one willingly tumbles. Very much a happening in the best sense.

You'd think it would be easy to do this stuff, but very few artists do it well. Not someone who normally shies from fun, I've been resolutely po-faced at many an ill-conceived attempt to get me to participate in an art event. But when an artist of such insight and skill as Anish Kapoor, Rachel Whiteread or Anthony Gormley tosses a structure in my path and requests my response, I'm er, like, can I be your slave?

Obliteration Room does not carry the gravitas of Cloudgate, House or Event Horizon, but I do admire Kusama's take on public participation. Although clearly obsessively perfectionist in many ways - circles are a giveaway indicator - she is happy to author a work over which she has no control. Its compositional ideal will come and go without her being able to say 'stop sticking now'. She's not the first artist to play around in that territory, but the interesting thing about it is how easily and cleverly it blends with her other impeccably constructed pieces.

It doesn't come across as an attempt to bring art to the masses. It does, very simply, ask for a small but significant personal contribution to a mass artwork. Kusama exploits many aspects of our vanity successfully, using her own best-known symbol. We are all very confident that we can not only stick dots on a wall or object with the kind of aplomb that would make Lady Gaga blush, but we are also convinced that we can improve on what was already there. I'm not entirely sure that toddlers experience this degree of self-congratulation after exhausting their allocation of coloured dots but, judging by the level of satisfaction I witnessed, there was some pay-off, maybe the promise of a baby gelato, which would have been entirely appropriate.

I'm writing this piece now as a major Kusama retrospective is just about to open at one's beloved Tate Modern. And it will have an Obliteration Room. It's not often these days that I get to be ahead of any game.

*someone is bound to email me with the news that you can now get any number of smarty-pants appliances capable of resetting their pointless little clocks every time there is a thirty-second power outage, I just know it.