June 2005

Arts & Letters

Boy’s in a hood

By Justin Clemens
Ricky Swallow goes to Venice

An overturned bucket of fish, their jaws gaping with a death-rictus, pours out onto the tabletop. A crustacean on a plate is contorted, all hooks and limbs and tail. Opened mussels rest on heavy folds of cloth. A crab clasps its claws, almost meditatively. It looks like a good day’s fishing on the open seas. But you cannot eat this catch; it will not stink or putrefy. It is a work of art, painstakingly carved in wood. It is Ricky Swallow’s Killing Time.

There was never a chance Swallow wouldn’t make it. Picked up by Sydney dealer Darren Knight while still at art school, he staged his first solo shows in Melbourne, Sydney and Auckland at 24. A year later his triumph at the 1999 Contempora 5 Art Award, with its $100,000 prize, consolidated his reputation as Australian art’s wunderkind. He is too reserved to be its enfant terrible. These days he exhibits worldwide, from Dunedin to Tokyo. Major art magazines declare themselves inspired by his work. There’s even a hagiographical book about him – Ricky Swallow: Field Recordings by Justin Paton. Now he has been chosen to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale, running from June 12 to November 6, perhaps the most prestigious art fair in the world.

T.S. Eliot once told the writer Colin Wilson that he had achieved fame the wrong way: too early, too fast. The giddy vacuity of critical and commercial success has undone armies of promising young artists, and Wilson rapidly degenerated from promising British existentialist to pulp hack. Swallow, though, seems undismayed by his own success. His work is as weird and intense as ever. His mastery of diverse craft skills seems still to be improving. In person he favours hooded tops and is compact, restrained, quiet. Yet he trembles with an anxious energy. Bumping into him on the street or in a gallery, I am always struck by his conversational sharpness, shifting rapidly from one topic to another in a kind of éclat of tangents. This speed evokes that of our accelerated, delocalised universe and its strange imperatives: don’t ever rest, keep moving, lest something unexpected waylay you.

If the developed world now engages in a ceaseless orgy of ultra-hyped art festivals – to the point where Australian poet Michael Farrell says he’s “just trying to take it one festival at a time” – certain events still stand out. The Venice Biennale is one of them, and Australia is going to be there. As the Australia Council for the Arts proudly notes in its own publicity material: “The Australia Council has managed and funded a long history of Australian representation at the Biennale since 1954 and has participated in every event since 1978 (except in 1984).” Well done, Australia (except for 1984).

Whatever the irritating restraints on art in this country – the lack of any decent national art magazine, for instance – Australian art bureaucracy somehow retains much of its larrikin slapdash appeal at the very moment it adopts a harder-edged professionalism. If you’re an American and want to get to Venice it’s going to be a nightmare. If you’re an Australian simply submit your two-page proposal to the Australia Council, sit back and cross your fingers. You might be a genius bozo from the sticks or some well-connected, big-city mediocrity; either way, the selection committee will decide your fate while pondering “the appropriateness of the artist/s and the artist/s’ work to the event”. If you don’t get it right, try again next year. It’s not a bad system, mixing mercantile necessity and hard-nosed spin with democratic openness. This year’s managerial personnel are an impressive array of art investors and aesthetocrats, and if anyone can “maximise Australia’s art potential internationally” it’s probably them.

Certainly they were eager to talk about the forthcoming show in Venice – until I started asking about money. Wrong question. The first thing North Americans often ask is: “How much do you earn?” Australians are so coy about financial transactions you get the feeling their economic life is far more private and exciting than their sex life. No matter that I could get the figures easily enough through Freedom of Information laws – the Australia Council is still, after all, a public body – it just isn’t right to go sniffing around bank accounts. “And no, don’t bother contacting Ricky yourself, you have to go through me.”

There are understandable reasons for such anxiety, including fear of other people’s envy. Australians are envious about how much others earn, whether they be judges, CEOs or art workers. But there’s another issue here too. International festivals like Venice demand particular kinds of art, which are then reproduced and circulated in the glossies as being somehow representative of a nation’s aesthetic endeavours, though they are clearly nothing of the kind. The late English critic Peter Fuller coined the dismissive acronym BICCA – Biennale International Club Class Art – for this unhappy state of affairs, believing it inimical to any genuine culture.

Swallow’s work is unquestionably perfect for such an international market. Many critics are insistent on this point. Swallow, they say, despite his upbringing in the Victorian coastal town of San Remo, is hardly an Australian artist; his art was born with an eye to global success. It’s more art-market than art. Yet these critics also admire his extraordinary technical skills, his attention to finish. Several youngish Australian artists offer a slightly resentful meta-version of this: “Why, when people talk about Ricky, do they always mention how well-made the work is?” Notably, that’s as nasty as people get, a rarity in an art world where tastes can be as stable as a dot-com bubble and where opinions don’t need to be fair to have serious personal and professional ramifications.

Swallow’s work shows it’s been worked, a riposte to the tiresome lament of reactionary art critics that “no one pays their dues to technique anymore”. His recent hand-carvings in wood are exemplary, from the hilariously sinister “Come Together” – a bean-bag into which a skull has been idly tossed – to “Sleeping Range”, a two-metre-long sleeping bag. The effort that must have gone into them is mind-boggling. His 1999 work “Peugeot Taipan, Commemorative Model (Discontinued Line)” is a full-scale BMX bike reconstructed out of PVC and bleached white, like a skeleton picked clean by time. At the other end of the scale he produces tiny turntable dioramas, such as “The City Sleeps”, where tiny figures sprawl in an apocalyptic urban landscape. If your optometrist is up to the job, check out the detailing on the figures’ pants.

What Swallow does is apply a craft sensibility and craft techniques to materials and ideas usually treated in far less rigorous fashion by high-end artists. In a field where grand but vacuous gestures often reign, Swallow sweats harder than anyone, like a small-business owner at the tail-end of an economic downturn, worked off his feet but dreaming of a windfall somewhere down the track. Except that Swallow isn’t in it just for the money. What matters is that he gets to keep going – his hard work an insurance policy against succumbing to aesthetic disaster – and to do so he tries to maximise his audiences and minimise his risks. Representing Australia at the Venice Biennale is not the culmination of all this. But it’s an important waystation.


Compared with other young Australian artists, Swallow’s range and tastes are encyclopaedic. From hi-tech computer design to old-school teeth and skulls – if it works, he’s prepared to use it. He is also smart enough to know that fickleness and fashion are ungovernable seas. Ambition, talent, sweat, good luck, the right connections; you can have it all, and still be swept into the gutter of oblivion by the broom of art history. So you get the sense that art is not entirely fun for Swallow. On the contrary, he’s staking his life on it. Other wannabe artists take part-time jobs, or turn into curators or designers, or enrol in one of the innumerable fine arts courses offered by Australian universities. Swallow’s vision allows no time for time out.

It is an obsession with time that holds his ideas together. Time passing, time hastening, time wasting; the blindness, impotence and frustration of being a being in time. He is conscious of pretensions to monumentality, as in pre-mummified assemblages like the geological Darth Vader mask “Model for a Sunken Monument” (1999). “Everything is Nothing” (2003) is a carved skeleton’s head in an Adidas ski-cap. Swallow creates BMXs you cannot ride; optical instruments you can only look at, not through; sound pieces you can’t play. This hoary theme of a time that renders all vanity is itself mocked, as in “We the Sedimentary Ones/Use Your Illusions Vol. 1-60” (2000), a wall array of techni-coloured resin key-chain skulls, their little jaws gaping in disbelief at their unjust treatment; or in “iMan Prototypes” (2001), its human skulls courtesy of Apple computer design. Swallow’s magic is to capture the consequences of entertainment technologies in a striking gesture without being too direct, too cheesy, too worthy. His pieces tend towards a dissociated blank beauty, their content distanced by the effort dedicated to their making. He knows how and when to shift materials, forms, techniques, media, places. He moves from high-tech to lo-fi, from wood chiselling to water-colours, and then back again.

Despite his range, discussions of Swallow tend to emphasise his weird saintliness, his ascetic devotion to his art. What emerges from a long-time familiarity with his work is a peculiar combination of hip anaesthetic promiscuity with extreme protestant solitude. He’s like a hooded monk: to make the sort of work Swallow does requires such concentration, attention to detail, inventiveness and sheer brute persistence that most of his time must truly be spent alone. It’s not that he doesn’t have friends, partners and a fulfilling personal life. It’s just that his life is absorbed almost entirely in his work. One of Swallow’s beautifully carved works in wood is a bird sitting in a running shoe entitled “Together is the New Alone”.

The philosopher Simone Weil once spoke of the beatitude that envelops a child struggling with a maths problem. One suspects the happiest and most intense moments of Swallow’s life are when he’s carving a lobster out of a hardwood block. It’s suggestive in this context that Weil’s example is of a boy – presumably she was thinking of her brother André, one of the 20th century’s great mathematicians – because there is something very boyish about Ricky’s obsessions too: skulls, Game Boys, BMXs. You don’t need to be a psychoanalyst to discern a swerve away from the messy details of human sexuality and towards the safer boy-zones of solitude, sci-fi and death. I can’t think of a single work by Swallow that directly confronts sexuality in any interesting way; his apocalyptic chimps, whacked-out robots and Hollywood serial killers are typical symbols by which adolescent boys deal with the banal traumas of growing up. In the end, what exposes itself through all the pop references and high finish is a melancholy sense of dereliction, a Swallow utterly alone. Or as Nat, from the Australian art-duo Nat and Ali, wonders: “Why is a guy so young wound so tight?”

This tension invariably means that a Swallow piece will be gorgeously made and impeccably finished, the product of long thought and hard labour. It will probably fit comfortably in a variety of spaces, perhaps in an architect-designed summer mansion at Pretty Beach, New South Wales, or on an expensive coffee table in a New York condominium. The work will bristle with allusions, both kitsch and high-art, from dinosaur theme parks to Philippe de Champagne. It will have a great title. It will contain tiny details that, properly noted, will impress dinner guests. It will hint at intense autobiographical events. Yet it will be immediately accessible. A child could appreciate its symbolism – even if no child could have made it.

If art says something about its time and place and the culture it emerged from, one would have to say from looking at Swallow’s work that Australians are tense but flexible, dedicated performers and conservative inventors, still deeply anxious about sex and money, ambitious workers who remain sensitive to all the things of this world. And, for all their restless activity, it seems they somehow still feel alone.


Justin Clemens

Justin Clemens writes about contemporary Australian art and poetry. He teaches at the University of Melbourne.

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