Sunday, March 31, 2013

Getting Smart

Tar 8 with water bottle (2013) by Pants

In the film Master of Stillness, Clive James speculates that the painter Jeffrey Smart chose to spend most of his life abroad because Australian grandees seemed inexplicably compelled to annex the arts for their nation-building agenda. That feels true. Australian artists, writers and filmmakers were then, as they are now, expected to contribute to national identity by 'telling our stories' - as if stories were not universal. James says of this faux earnestness that his friend is 'above all that'. 

There may well have been more pressing reasons for Smart's, er, decampment. His wittily named and erudite autobiography Not Quite Straight gives no hint that he was conscious of a debilitating imperative to paint only Australian subjects - although, as a painter of urban life, he did just that. He had left Australia as a young unknown. I suspect that he wanted what so many of us who leave for an indefinite period want - to see what the rest of the world is like.

Smart is an artist of uncommon discipline and focus but also clearly one with a great social capacity and keen self-awareness. He appears never to have been particularly troubled by his discovery of his own homosexuality, unlike his friend and contemporary Michael Shannon. In the cloistered Australia of the 1930s, he had no way of knowing that he was not alone in the world but he does seem to have had an uncanny faith in his own ability to navigate its hostility. 

There is one ominous note in Not Quite Straight that suggests a very good reason why he might want to leave Australia. He was a sexually active gay man in the 1940s, when homosexuals were routinely and savagely abused. He was also an art teacher who was having regular sex with one of his students. He had the horrendous experience of seeing a friend in similar circumstances arrested. That friend was jailed and also flogged. That's right. This was in Australia, after World War 2. Where would you go? Why Italy, of course.

This is a very roundabout introduction to a review. But this is one of my 'reviews that is not really a review'. A few days ago I drove to Healesville - four hours from Larrikin's End - to see Master of Stillness: Jeffrey Smart Paintings 1940 - 2011 at the TarraWarra Museum of Art. 

The TarraWarra experience is a discombobulating one. TarraWarra Estate is one of the new breed of Australian winery that combines food, wine and the arts. They're all a long way down the road to nowhere. They all have those vast, clattery restaurants serving tiny dollops of putty-shaped food on enormous plates finished with drizzles of this and sprinkles of that and a teaspoon of wine in a glass the size of a bird bath. Some of them stage huge concerts featuring people you thought were dead and some have art galleries.

When you're in the middle of a high-risk fire area and intend to display millions of dollars worth of things that don't need much coaxing to ignite, I suppose 'bunker' is the only real answer to the design question. The TarraWarra Museum of Art fits that description to perfection. It's more mortuary than museum. The sense of time being suspended persists throughout my visit. The building, set between gentle rolls of grapevines, screams incongruity in its concrete lumpenness. And inside, the torpor continued.

I waited several minutes while two people behind a counter stared into open space rather than ask me if I wanted anything, like the opportunity to buy a ticket perhaps. There were no catalogues (sold out) and no souvenir ticket for gluing into the diary - now that was annoying. Even worse, there were no postcards. It's hard to imagine an easier way to make money than to produce postcards of an exhibition that someone has made a 600-kilometre round trip to attend. I'd have bought five at $2 and I'm meaner than a billionaire sitting down to complete a tax return. Australian galleries don't seem to have cottoned on to this business opportunity. They have postcards to be sure, but they're invariably of artworks that you haven't seen. It can't be a copyright issue as I've never struck it anywhere else. I would have bought a catalogue as well. Art books are my indulgence. So there's another $50 unbanked. It's available from Booktopia but I'm not in the zone now, am I.

It's a shame about the catalogue because I'm in the habit of referring to this useful device when writing my recollections. Fortunately, John McDonald has published this excellent essay in the Sydney Morning Herald and this is not really a review, remember. (The exhibition finishes tomorrow, and most of you don't live in Victoria or even Australia so there wouldn't be much point). If you find yourself insatiable for more Smarties you can also munch on this study guide from University of South Australia.

Jeffrey Smart paints industrial bleakness with an intriguingly apolitical sensibility. Rather than critique the utilitarian designlessness of post-war urbanisation, he endows it with a beauty that it does not seek for itself by simply painting it beautifully. In the film (Master of Stillness), which is conveniently on rotation at TarraWarra, he says he loves the messiness of Italy. At the same time he seems compelled to fashion some order from it. In another life he might have been a worker at a tip sorting bottles into colour categories and lining them up by height. There's a strong sense in his paintings, as in the photographs of Diane Arbus, that without him these scenes would go unnoticed. He says, 'we should paint the things around us', which is why you will see exquisitely executed satellite dishes displayed prominently on his canvases.

Clive James notes,

'He was painting the future, the country we live in now. And somebody once said, eventually everyone will live in the Smart country, in Smart Land. Well that was a good guess and the world now looks like what Jeffrey was painting back in the mid-sixties in Italy.'

The overwhelming impression you get from this retrospective is one of quiet accomplishment. In the film, Smart is shown painting his last work, Labyrinth. Once it was completed and at the grand age of 91, he retired. The opportunity to see this painting more than justified my 600-kilometre round trip. It also gave rise to a fine example of what my gallery pal Ms O'Dyne and I have dubbed 'Look Beryl' moments.  A 'Look Beryl' moment involves the overhearing of an unusually idiotic observation.

Our most memorable 'Look Beryl' moment occurred at the Napoleon exhibition last year. Mesmerised by a beautiful china cup and saucer ensemble accompanied by the designer's drawings, a woman says to her friend, 'Look Beryl, they actually designed the set before they made it.'The Beryl exchange in front of Labyrinth went like this, 'Look Beryl it says 2011. This must have been one of the last paintings he did before he died.' He's dead? I thought. No one told me.

And of course he isn't. The misunderstanding can only have been due to misleading captioning. A large sign in the entry reads Jeffrey Smart Paintings 1940-2011. Another  mortality metaphor. I was rather glad to get out into the fresh air and discover that the world hadn't, in fact, ended. 

At the end of Not Quite Straight, Smart recounts an incident while buying tickets at the Sydney Opera house,

'The girl asked for my credit card, so I slid it across. As she was recording the details she exclaimed, 'You're not the Jeffrey Smart!' I confess I felt a lovely, warm surge of ego-fruit when I said, with easily assumed pomposity, 'Yes, I am indeed the Jeffrey Smart,' and we both went into fits of laughter.

That is the voice of someone who has lived, and is still living I'm pleased to add, an impeccably examined life.


Saturday, March 23, 2013

The lights are off and there's still no one home

Good parenting (2012) Kodakotype by Pants

I'm not participating in Earth Hour tonight. My reason? Well, apart from the usual curmudgeonly one - that I refuse on principle to obey orders that originate from any source other than the Australian Tax Office or Ma Pants - I'm simply not prepared to descend to that level of pettiness. Yes, pettiness. Besides, the whole thing makes me feel wretched for the squandering of effort it generates and the opportunity it creates to feel smug about doing just this one thing and nothing else.

Australia is the champion of the hollow gesture and now we've managed to export our love of tokenism to the rest of the world. Let's give ourselves a big pat on the back for that. Do we really imagine that turning off the lights on the Sydney Harbour Bridge for an hour will somehow cancel out our huge and, by many accounts, world-leading per capita carbon footprint? According to WWF, the organiser of Earth Hour,

'Australia has one of the world's largest ecological footprints per capita, requiring 6.6 global hectares per person. Over 50% of Australia's footprint is due to greenhouse gas emissions, with the average household emitting around 14 tonnes of greenhouse gases each year.

If all countries consumed the resources that we Australian's (sic)* do, it would take the biocapacity of three Earths to support their lifestyle. The message is clear and urgent

We have been exceeding the Earth's ability to support our lifestyle. Habitats are being destroyed, the soil and waterways are being irreparably degraded. We must get back into balance!'

We adore the thought of being world-class but this is one gold medal that should truly shame us. Yes, I get that Earth Hour is, you know, symbolic but in the book of Pants, hypocrisy neutralises misguided symbolism. This is the seventh Earth Hour. If it were going to make an impact on behaviour, it would have done so by now. Even worse, this displacement activity may produce a net negative. Every year when Earth Hour comes around, experts pop up to warn that the energy required to re-power all the turned-off things combined with the surge when they all come back on at once will cancel out the nano-savings we aspire to make. 

Why do we never learn? And what are enthusiastic Australian Earth-hourers doing tonight? Let me take a wild guess. Barbecuing. They will probably have pre-used some electricity during a peak period to chill beverages and boil potatoes and pasta twists for salads. They may have driven many kilometres to a retail park to buy special solar-powered outdoor lights and they may also have invited lots of their friends to drive many kilometres to their house to enjoy these lights. They will certainly have fired up their barbecues with gas or wood. And then they will hurl huge chunks of beef onto hot grills. That would be beef from the methane factory that is a cow. And half of that meat will probably end up in landfill because there has never yet been a barbecue where all the food gets eaten. 

However, if there is a prize for not wasting beer, I claim it on behalf of our nation.

So what was all that about getting 'back into balance? Here at Seat of Pants, I will be conserving energy just as I do every day. And water too - even though there's no meaningless 'hour' devoted to it. I will be eating vegetables from my own garden and I will be enjoying the warm glow from just one energy-saving light as I do every night. If militant Earth-hourers want to argue with me, they can bring around their electricity bills and we'll soon see whose stand on the moral high ground has the sturdier legs. If we all took a sensibly spartan approach to daily energy use instead of showily donning a fresh hair shirt for one hour on a Saturday night in March we might get that 'better world' that we all so earnestly claim to desire.

* I know I'm always doing this but, really, you would think that an organisation of WWF's stature would at least get a proofreader. There's no punctuation mark after 'urgent' either. Just sayin'.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

If you're happy and you know it clap one hand

Rose Tint (2012) Kodakotype by Pants

Today is officially designated The International Day of Happiness. Did you know? Neither did I until this morning. The UN is fond of springing behavioural directives upon us.  For once I am able to comply without even lifting a weary finger. I am happy. It requires no effort on my part. The mere fact that there is a double door between yours truly and the cause of most unhappiness here at Seat of Pants, (other people - I am firmly in the Sartre camp on this one), ensures positive delirium.

Happiness clearly means different things to different people. For me, it's silence, stillness and solitude (and a nice glass of Chardonnay - or a mediocre one, for that matter). There are people for whom that would be a version of purgatory and whose happiness can only be secured by the presence of a large cast all talking at once, several slobbering pooches and the imminence of a shopping trip. Vive la différence.

According to the UN,

'The day recognizes (sic)* that happiness is a fundamental human goal, and calls upon countries to approach public policies in ways that improve the well being (sic) of all peoples. By designating a special day for happiness, the UN aims to focus world attention on the idea that economic growth must be inclusive, equitable, and balanced, such that it promotes sustainable development, and alleviates poverty. Additionally the UN acknowledges that in order to attain global happiness, economic development must be accompanied by social and environmental well being (sic).'

This idea, crudely put in the statement above, has been around for a long time. Unfortunately, the UN's attempt to simplify it has stripped the concept of meaning. Broadly, the premise is that GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and GNP (Gross National Product), the measures used by nations to gauge prosperity, are not fair indicators of how the commonweal is faring because they only represent one side of the balance sheet. The hint is in the 'gross'. These measures don't take into account the negative impacts of productivity. For example, here in Australia, our resources wealth has protected all of us from the recession that most developed nations have been experiencing for the last five years. But, the aggressive and ruthless practices of powerful prospectors have divided and, in some cases destroyed, communities where mining happens. The human and environmental costs are not counted. Australian ethicist Clive Hamilton has written eloquently on this, notably in his 2003 book, Growth Fetish.

Reading on we discover that,

'The initiative to declare a day of happiness came from Bhutan – a country whose citizens are considered to be some of the happiest people in the world. The Himalayan Kingdom has championed an alternative measure of national and societal prosperity, called the Gross National Happiness Index (GNH). The GNH rejects the sole use of economic and material wealth as an indicator of development, and instead adopts a more holistic outlook, where spiritual well being (sic + sic)** of citizens and communities is given as much importance as their material well being.' (sic + sic again)***

Bhutan has come to own the idea of 'happiness' as a measure of net well-being. I'd point out that the UK-based New Economics Foundation has been championing a similar concept for a decade or more. And yes, Bhutan consistently appears right up there in polls for the world's 'happiest' people. That couldn't possibly be because the country expelled all of its Nepalese dissidents in the early 1990s now could it? Getting rid of people with opposing viewpoints might make some happy but I don't want to live in a society with no capacity for debate. Sadly, even the NEF has fallen prey to a populist take on net planetary well-being, using the blunt instrument of a crude ecological-footprint calculator to determine community contentedness.

Happiness is such a subjective thing. Australians are not a particularly happy bunch. We worry about everything, not least of all things that probably will never happen. It seems the more secure we are in our GDP/GNP outlook, the more anxiety we have about it all going to hell in a handcart. We are isolated and almost impossible to get to, yet the thing we fear the most is being invaded by small groups of unarmed people landing on our most distant outposts. We are only 22-and-a-bit million people occupying a vast land mass abundant in every resource needed for human thriving, yet we are consumed with the fear of not having enough - of anything and everything.

Being rich doesn't make you happy. Just ask our favourite billion-heiress Gina Rinehart, who's currently at war with her own children. If a prime example of too much never being enough were needed, surely this is it. Wealth and the relentless pursuit of it can have a corrosive effect on the soul. I wouldn't mind seeing a Gross National Happiness calculation for the damage done there. Australian community well-being is being choked by big gobbly fish wanting to eat everything in their path. We fear the oceanic Great White Shark above all other predators. Few of us will ever be bitten by one of these. It's the land-based great whites that are more likely to want to snack on us - and they won't just be wanting a leg.

Ask anyone in Australia how they feel right now about the future and you'll be guaranteed to get a sour answer, no matter how solid their own financial position may be. The political instability and its incomprehensible pointlessness has everyone rattled. There's only one thing worse than a political crisis and that's a phoney political crisis. How does a populace respond to a parliamentary system that's descended into chaos when our fiscal outlook couldn't be brighter?

The only possible answer is to wipe off that (completely bogus) gloomy (fiscal) outlook and put on a happy face (emoticon optional). If you really want to get into the spirit, you can make a pledge to 'try to create more happiness in the world around [you]'. Nearly 20,000 of the seven billion available of us have undertaken this wholesome activity so far today. That's some reach, huh! Clearly this sort of effort is much more meaningful than, say, refusing to buy clothing that is made by enslaved children or refraining from filling your fridge full of food that you will later throw in the bin or ... you get the drift.

'Here's a little song I (didn't) wrote. You might want to sing it note for note. Don't worry. Be happy ... '

*Crusty old pedant here - it really isn't possible for a 'day' to 'recognize' anything as it is not animate.
** Sorry, but this is the UN's official website. There are also punctuation errors that I haven't bothered with.
*** Ditto.