20 Australian masterpieces since 2000
To mark the Monthly's inaugural arts issue, we approached 20 arts critics and asked each to identify the most significant Australian work of art in their field since 2000.
Romance Was Born
‘The Oracle’, 2011
‘The Oracle’, the fifth major show by two Sydney-based iconoclasts, initially had Australian Vogue decrying the absence of the “madcap prop styling, the fireworks, the pizzazz” for which the designers, Anna Plunkett and Luke Sales, have become known. (Their first show opened with dancing ‘God’ in a bikini and closed with a pantomime goat sacrifice and the designers emerging from teepees.)
But although the twenty-eighth exit was a ‘bride’ of cascading crocheted wool ‘feathers’ inspired by The Neverending Story’s luck-dragon Falkor, it was clear ‘The Oracle’ marked a pivotal moment in the story of this truly original outfit. Bride aside, the art had finally turned wearable beyond the theatrical costumes shown by the label in seasons past.
The show, accompanied by the rousing voices of the Australian Youth Choir, melded influences from Erté’s illustration, Art Deco jewellery design and modern painting with the designers’ signature heavy embellishment firmly rooted in craft (Sales’s mother crochets the showpieces). All this was tied together by the visceral, graffiti-like sprawl of artist Nell’s prints and punkish handpainted silks. Somehow these disparate influences came together to make the most eloquent statement about what fashion – by way of expression, adornment, role-play and fantasy – can do for the wearer.
Tom Wright & Benedict Andrews
The War of the Roses, 2009
'Masterpiece’ is a chilly word: it takes a work out of the flux of creation and pins it in the gallery of cultural regard. When speaking of performance, it seems especially fishy. Still, put to the question, I’d nominate Tom Wright and Benedict Andrews’ adaptation of Shakespeare’s history plays.
The final work of the STC Actors Company, this eight-hour epic presented in two parts demonstrated the depth and breadth an empowered ensemble can bring to performance. It was bookended by Richard II, with Cate Blanchett in the title role, and Richard III, led by Pamela Rabe. A naked stage adorned with a single visual gesture – endlessly falling gold foil or grey ash, an electric guitar or a field of broken flowers – became a metaphor for an Orwellian state of total war.
It featured astonishing performances from a brilliant cast, including Ewen Leslie’s breakthrough performance as Prince Hal. The austerity of Andrews’ direction foregrounded the power of Shakespeare’s language, excavating the visceral truths of its poetry through gruelling physical demands on the actors. It was desolatingly beautiful, as exhilarating an act of theatre as I have seen.
Swan Lake, 2002
Like Shakespeare’s plays, great ballets get their makeovers by the score all over the world – except that Shakespeare’s words are (mostly) left intact and the choreography of the classic ballets is (mostly) discarded. Cleverly, Graeme Murphy and his collaborators, Janet Vernon and designer Kristian Fredrikson, combined old and new to the familiar music by Tchaikovsky, slightly re-organised, for the Australian Ballet. The iconic sequences of massed swans were retained, but the story was told afresh in choreography that has classical bones but contemporary reach, dynamism and plasticity.
The classic Petipa–Ivanov Swan Lake was first performed in St Petersburg in 1895. It revolves around a prince whose duty is to marry but he can’t find a suitable girl. (Does this remind you of a certain British royal?) Murphy’s characters are, of course, deemed to be fictitious, but there are many familiar references that bring this Swan Lake closer to home than the imperial Russian original. It is still about good and evil, love, deceit, power, transformations of different kinds – more psychological than magical this time – but told in contemporary dance language that is clear, touching and exhilarating.
Storm Sequence, 2000
Iconic, mesmerising, atmospheric and in a zone of its own, Storm Sequence is compelling in its use of place, pace and proposition. As the sea swells, the wind agitates and large droplets of the pending storm start to splatter, a lone skateboarder – the artist – pirouettes, hotdogs and glides along the dampening concrete of a Sydney boardwalk as the storm behind him builds. Slow, graceful, yet charged with a kind of erotic, body electric, Gladwell’s performance recalls the mannerist, Prussian blue raptures of El Greco, twisted into street cred.
Gladwell’s project has been to harness and make apparent the poetry of movement enacted by urban performers – outsider athletes such as skaters, breakdancers, bikers and traceurs. This work captures an essential Australian mood – that moment of release, which comes at the end of a hot summer’s day, when the petulant dark sky opens up and the tense, sun-stiffened body loosens and obtains its languid sensuality again. This is a raw and primal work. Universal and yet utterly particular in its character, it is unmistakably Australian and contemporary. But it is also arcane and libidinous, and travels from a larger human psyche that gives it a mythic quality.
Close the Concentration Camps, 2002
A man sits slumped in a chair; he wears a black suit, white shirt and no tie. His right trouser leg is ripped across the thigh revealing the word ‘alien’ branded into his skin. This is a six-hour endurance piece. During this time his lips, eyes and ears are sewn together, rough surgical sutures cross his face, blood and iodine solution run from the wounds onto his white shirt. The man can’t speak; his vision is impaired. Before him a huge mirror reflects the viewers, mostly standing back against the clean white walls, secondary witnesses to the trauma enacted on the artist’s body.
The text along one wall incites us to ‘CLOSE THE CONCENTRATION CAMPS’. In a separate room excerpts from Not the Hilton: Immigration Detention Centres: Inspection Report, published in 2000, are projected onto the walls. Parr’s action is an empathetic gesture, in recognition of the trauma experienced by ‘illegal’ immigrants who were, at the time, sewing their lips shut as a protest against their prolonged incarceration.
Mike Parr consistently uses his body as a site for radical actions that explore the psychopathology of people and society. Staged almost a decade ago, this powerful work still resonates politically and speaks to the nation’s shame.
VISUAL ART (THREE DIMENSIONAL)
Hany Armanious & Mary Teague
Lines of Communication, 2010
Quietly installed in the old North Sydney Telephone Exchange – now a newly developed commercial building – in Mount Street, North Sydney, is a large commission, launched in 2010. Hany Armanious (Australia’s artist at this year’s 54th Venice Biennale) and Mary Teague have produced a work that is at once playful and serious, and refers to the history of the site it occupies.
Two massive polystyrene look-a-like cups (actually moulded in polyester resin) rest on old school desks; as with many of Armanious’ works, materials are not as they appear. The cups are connected by clusters of telephone cabling gathered from the old site. It’s a work that plays with so-called high and low art – old technology in a technologically advanced building. It invokes the past, inviting us to recall backyard childhood games and to think about technology and change. The application of these ideas is complemented by the materials themselves. In re-creating art as a game from childhood and placing it in a contemporary setting, it personalises our relationship to it.
VISUAL ART (TWO-DIMENSIONAL)
Canopy LI (Scelsi I–IV), 2001
Brian Blanchflower is one of the most important painters in the world today and yet he is largely overlooked outside his native Perth. His paintings are firstly material objects, not illustrations of anything beyond themselves, and yet they have the power to invoke thoughts of transcendence. They convey the space and texture of the arid western desert and the canopy of the night sky. His paintings feel and look like the earth underfoot, but from a few metres back they transform into the sensation of infinite space.
These four paintings are made by laminating hessian to create stiff coarse supports. The roughness of the hessian causes the paint to build up unevenly, leaving glimpses through successive layers. This is very similar to the atmospheric effect produced by crusty dry underpainting in Monet’s late waterlilies at the Orangerie Museum. When you move around these paintings of Blanchflower’s, variations in the angle of light hitting the surface reveal structures and grids embedded deep in the coats of paint. Blanchflower applies his paint with large stiff brushes, stippling multiple layers of colour and mineralised paint suggesting geological accretion. This expression of the void in the earth, of being and nothingness, invokes the horizon where consciousness and materiality lightly touch.
Lindsay & Kerry Clare
Gallery of Modern Art, Queensland, 2006
Nowadays ‘masterpiece’ refers to a work of extraordinary artistic merit. But it once described a work by a craftsman made specifically to demonstrate mastery of (his) craft and so gain entry to a guild. This older meaning is appropriate to architecture, a practice lodged somewhere between fine arts and craft. The Gold Medal of the Australian Institute of Architects is a contemporary measure of mastery.
Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art, designed by 2010 Gold Medallists Lindsay and Kerry Clare (with James Jones), is a building readily available to the public. With its large overhanging roof, open verandahs and timber-batten screening, GoMA conveys a typical, familiar and regional expression of subtropical informality at a civic scale. It is a friendly, welcoming building, unexpectedly filled with natural light and with tactile surfaces that successfully deflate conventional expectations of the art gallery as an imposing institution. Here, grandeur and hauteur are exchanged for ideas of accessibility and the ordinary, refined and made beautiful and extraordinary.
—Haig Beck and Jackie Cooper
Qantas A380 Economy Seat, 2008
Most designers like to design a chair or two in their career. Marc Newson began his with the famous Lockheed Lounge in 1986 and went on to create the quirky Embryo Chair a couple of years later, with which he thought he had achieved a discernible style. He’s done quite a few more but perhaps the most sat upon will be the economy seat he designed for the new Qantas A380 (and which won the 2009 Australian International Design Award of the Year). It’s a beautiful piece of work, very Newson in its retro-futurist look and curvaceous sculpted carbon-fibre backshell.
He designed the fabrics too, in hues of red, green and terracotta to represent the Australian landscape. The ergonomics are particularly inviting for the long-haul passenger: plenty of leg room and cushioning designed for side-sleep (the position passengers are most likely to adopt). The electronics include PC power, USB and internet ports, an in-seat phone and a wide-screen monitor. Newson has touched nearly every aspect of the A380 interior – from cabin layout to cutlery – so this beautiful seat contributes to a very cohesive design. It almost makes you want to spend 20 hours in the air.
Rolf de Heer
The Tracker, 2002
Australian cinema is prone to chronic understatement – shrinking away from opportunities for sex, violence and catharsis. The Tracker is an exception. From early bushranger movies to The Proposition, Australian cinema has drawn close to American Westerns. The conflict between Indigenous and settler communities lends itself well to a Western treatment.
Here, four emblematic characters – the Fanatic (Gary Sweet), the Veteran (Grant Page), the Follower (Damon Gameau) and the Tracker (David Gulpilil) – travel together through the landscape in search of an Aboriginal fugitive. The Fanatic is a brutal racist, but most intriguing is the Tracker himself, magnificently played by Gulpilil – a man of few words who seems, at first, a compliant slave.
Instead of taking the familiar Aussie escape route, The Tracker follows its premise all the way to a shatteringly logical, gleefully confronting conclusion. Inverting the usual relationship between visuals and musical accompaniment, de Heer places the splendid songs performed by Archie Roach (composed by Graham Tardif) firmly in the driver’s seat. The Tracker displaces the past decade’s reconciliation debates into a primal, melodramatic, stylised form. It recognises the existence of two distinct laws, white and black, and confronts head-on how these laws clash and negotiate with each other.
Summer Heights High, 2007
Note perfect, Summer Heights High searingly captures a slice of Australia’s psyche without mockery or judgement. It provides a sublime bridge between creator Chris Lilley’s sweet syrup of We Can Be Heroes and the more abrasive chip-on-shoulder of Angry Boys. Above all, it is funny. Show me any other short-run series that can simultaneously inspire sniggering teenagers to draw cocks on their backpacks and send menopausal women into sobbing spirals. Lilley dares to offer us flawed, self-involved, megalomaniac protagonists and then forces us to care for them – even to love them, in the long run. He marries the sort of jokes that have you looking at your companions in startled comradeship with beautiful, human storylines about love and loss and pain and hopelessness. Whatever you make of his more recent creative offerings (the vaguely controversial S.mouse giving faceless internet detractors something to bicker over for tedious months), Lilley’s is a carefully crafted, important, uniquely Australian voice. He knows us better than we know ourselves. I say we give him the key to the city and let him run wild.
There are no Ring Cycles or Mahabharatas in Australian contemporary dance. The scale is frequently small and it is a fleeting art that depends crucially on its performers in a specific time and place. Since 2000, Stephen Page’s Skin, Garry Stewart’s Birdbrain, Lucy Guerin’s Structure and Sadness, Gideon Obarzanek’s Glow and Meryl Tankard and Paul White’s The Oracle live alertly in the memory, which is their only repository. But if one work must be selected to be first among equals, it is Tanja Liedtke’s construct.
construct premiered in London, with Liedtke in the cast. She died in an accident three months later, making this her last work. The physical reality of making things, particularly something as emotionally charged as a home, framed a study of the building and breaking of relationships. Construction implies competence, practicality, strength and creativity. There is a need for balance, ingenuity, problem-solving and co-operation. A structure can be a home or a prison; it can stand or it can fall. In Liedtke’s hands these literal and metaphorical notions were effortlessly entwined and animated with wit, joy, playfulness, sorrow, anguish and loss. The resonances were deep and intimate, sometimes troubling, yet rarely losing touch with life-affirming humour.
An Australian–Indonesian production
The Theft of Sita, 2000
In The Theft of Sita, the roles undertaken by its two instigating creators – Nigel Jamieson shaped the work as dramaturge and director; Paul Grabowsky shaped the music – attest to its quality. They both acknowledged an intense collaboration when working with the production’s Balinese artists. In keeping with Balinese tradition, the work was initially performed outdoors and combined the skills of a master puppeteer in Wayan Kulit, a traditional form able to carry contemporary political themes. The story’s premise – the destruction of beauty (sita) and the way of life in the Balinese environment – was politically challenging, but the work was delivered with skill, zest and joy. It was accompanied by a fusion of Australian contemporary jazz improvisation and Indonesian gamelan. The Theft of Sita sold out every performance it played in Australia and won the 2000 Green Room Award in Melbourne, among others. By the time I caught up with it again at the Zürcher Theater Spektakel it had been performed 73 times all over the world. Given that most music theatre creators feel lucky to get a few performances in an opening season and maybe a couple more, this was a rare achievement.
Justin Hamilton is the stand-up comedian of the decade. His latest one-man show Circular is the masterpiece towards which this most dynamic and daring comedian has been building since beginning his stand-up career in 1994. Of all his work, Circular takes the biggest risks, and the gags are hilarious.
Receiving a message on his phone from an unknown number, Justin hears a voice he doesn’t recognise tell him that a friend he’s never heard of is dead. To solve the mystery, Justin goes to the funeral. He finds that everyone he meets has mistaken him for someone else. The show’s theme regards connection versus dislocation; despite our ability to communicate with anyone anywhere anytime, we’re each struggling to project a unique identity. In every story Hamilton tells, people are being mistaken for someone else. Their confusion turns to terror.
Hamilton’s shows eschew traditional structures and standard subject matter. His work consistently challenges his audiences, asking important questions about history, truth, death and identity. It reveals a razor-sharp intellect and fearless questing heart. His humour is dangerous, offering perspectives that can be frightening in scope and intent. He may well be Australia’s own Bill Hicks.
As Day Follows Night, 2009
Bookended by two wispy Disney-esque ballads, As Day Follows Night has as its body, and certainly its heart, ten beautiful songs. Their melodic strength is the major surprise, given that Sarah Blasko, who penned all songs on the record, worked with a co-writer on her previous two albums. Lyrically she was always strong, if obscure and consciously poetic. Here all pretence is dropped, as a sign of artistic maturity and in the face of having to detail a broken romance – a subject matter she takes way beyond the clichés of a ‘break-up album’. Her songs are magnificently supported by the woody, percussive, fairytale production of Stockholm’s Bjorn Yttling, and she sings magnificently. The choice of Yttling is proof that great artists often make inspired decisions when it comes to collaborators. What is remarkable, re-visiting the album two years on, is the clipped intensity that Blasko brings to her chronicle of a failed relationship; a romance that, given all its human pleasures and problems, in the end must bow (as the singer comes to see) to the laws of nature, the cosmic order, where day always follows the ending of night.
It has been a good start to the twenty-first century for Australian composers and correspondingly hard to pick a single masterpiece. Anyway, how do you compare Ross Edwards’ Clarinet Concerto to Liza Lim’s Cy Twombly–inspired piano suite The Four Seasons? Or the public ritual of Peter Sculthorpe’s Requiem and the private whimsy of Richard Mills’s fourth string quartet, Glimpses from My Book of Dada ? But James Ledger’s orchestral work Chronicles seems to do everything right. The beginning is slow, taking its time to establish tone and mood as it draws its listeners into an intensely personal expressive world. Once in that world, everything changes. It is as though we are being confronted by the sonic equivalent of distorting mirrors. The music becomes bolder, lurching between gestures that are by turns surprising, alluring, rhetorical, majestic and reassuring. Chronicles may last only 20 minutes, but partly because the pacing is so assured it seems like music on a grand scale. It is a piece of emotional extremes in which everything is in balance. By the end, even the surprises seem to have been inevitable. Chronicles was first performed in 2009 by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra under its principal conductor, Paul Daniel.
Ten Part Invention
Unidentified Spaces, 2001
Ten Part Invention is a Sydney band formed more than 20 years ago to perform Australian jazz music. It still has a solid, often ecstatic, following. This album has a wealth of writing from two band members who are among our greatest composers: Sandy Evans and Miroslav Bukovsky. Evans is represented by the title work, a suite whose four sections range across a wide spectrum, from bursting rhythmic permutations to static limpidity. Bukovsky’s ‘Folk Song’ is a vast expansion of the possibilities of a Romanian melody. It billows out in high, transparent and eerily oscillating harmonies, and coalesces in hard, driving sections of great intensity. Here alto saxophonist Bernie McGann and double bassist Steve Elphick produce some of their greatest improvised statements.
Ensembles such as this (ten pieces in this case) have made some of my favourite jazz. Allan Browne, Stu Hunter, Sam Keevers and Paul Grabowsky have also recorded outstanding examples, where the writing creates architecture and atmosphere – a cityscape if you like – which is populated by some of our most distinctive and brilliant solo voices. Evans and Bukovsky are amongst those in Ten Part: likewise trombonist James Greening, trumpeter Warwick Alder, baritone saxophonist Bob Bertles and drummer and founder John Pochée. The towering figure on the day is Bernie McGann, whose fire and melodic beauty are marvellously showcased.
Peter Grimes, 2009
When Opera Australia staged Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes in 2009 (co-produced with Western Australian Opera and Houston Grand Opera), the company already had a venerable Grimes on its books that was far from showing its age. Yet the sad human plainness of Neil Armfield’s conception of Grimes – a work that profoundly represents the isolation of the human condition – combined with Stuart Skelton’s faultless performance in the title role and strong partnership with Susan Gritton have etched this opera on the memory like few others.
Skelton not only captured the visionary transcendence and fierce strength of Grimes but embodied these in his voice as he cut through the petty gossip of the crowd with the quiet sustained top Es in ‘Now the Great Bear and the Pleiades’. Ralph Myers’ design placed the work in a drab, stifling community hall while, to the side, the unfathomable sea threatened and beckoned. The spectre of the absent sea – the source of hope and terror, nourishment and death, origin and destination – is greatly felt in this production, manifesting itself in the four orchestral interludes where conductor Mark Wigglesworth managed to conjure distilled clarity, like clear thought on the edge of the void.
Is it a cheat to suggest this quasi-memoir by a South African–born Nobel Prize winner as the best work of Australian fiction since the dawn of the new century? Perhaps it shows how problematic those categories have become.
Whatever the case, the third volume in the autobiographical trilogy Scenes from a Provincial Life is the best thing Coetzee has written since Disgrace (itself a signal novel of the last quarter-century). A fictional examination of the author’s life between 1972 and 1977, constructed by a curious biographer following Coetzee’s death, Summertime is built from archival fragments and the invented testimony of men and women who knew him well.
The conceit of posthumous authorship permits a liberation of sorts after the grimly censorious third-person perspective of predecessors Boyhood and Youth. Coetzee’s trademark melancholy and self-laceration remain, of course. But there is joy here, particularly in those passages dealing with his return as an adult to the Karoo, the harshly beautiful land of his forebears: “This place wrenches my heart, he says. It wrenched my heart when I was a child, and I have never been right since.” To read lines such as these from Coetzee’s pen is like watching a cold-climate plant slowly swivel toward the sun.
Friendly Fire, 2005
Jennifer Maiden’s fourteenth poetry collection is a masterpiece in the original sense of that word: fantastical, intelligent, unassuming and conversational, it gives full expression to her talent. In this collection, there are few borrowed or conventional elements; to a remarkable degree, the style of these poems expresses her particular vision.
Maiden takes imaginative possession of all that presents itself – on TV, at home, in the news, out the window. Her poems zigzag from public events to small happenings: from George W Bush to the sight of clouds over the Monaro. In this way, her poems suggest how what we might describe as important finds its place in the everyday, haphazard and provisional. They test how we allocate pity, for instance, to some categories of experience and not others.
Friendly Fire is remarkable for its independence and for its approach to form – taken not as a technical exercise or traditional achievement, but as a shaping principle of thought. There aren’t many poets who bring together poetry’s lyric, confessional and satirical modes as deftly as Maiden. Her ambition is not to be impressive but to be true.
from ‘Reflected Hearth at Bowen Mountain’
… The primary colours
of someone’s neighbouring TV
dance in an upstairs pane, vast glass
where worlds juxtapose unmoved.
If I lean forward
I am in the window, but the fireplace
with its stove and chimney dominates
as if the outside bush were made to frame it,
not just its reflection. The tree boles
lean on the wind fully-charactered
like those by a river, like firewood
in this fire. The sky is not grey but
colourless-cold and vibrant-cold with power …