May 2006

Arts & Letters

‘2006 Contemporary Commonwealth’ at Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia; Australian Centre for the Moving Image

By Justin Clemens

You could be pardoned for thinking late capitalism will never let its minions sleep. These days, Australian cities lurch from one high-profile event to the next, without respite. À la the US military’s famous psychological experiments with sleep deprivation, Melburnians are being festivalled to death – drinking, dancing and consuming until they collapse like enervated zombies.

The city may have moved straight on to the football season, but traces of the Games remain, not least at Federation Square, where the flame still burns in the form of an exhibition of works from the ‘contemporary Commonwealth’.

The exhibition is both uneven in quality and uncertain of its rationale. Given that ‘contemporary art discourses’ noisily array themselves against ‘colonialism’, anything to do with the Commonwealth must fall under suspicion. The solution here is to proclaim that the art is reflecting on the iniquities of the past (and present), and stack up lots of different pieces. If this smacks of having one’s chutney and eating it too, who’s complaining?

I could barely stand still for Rodney Graham’s much-lauded video pieces, or for Yinka Shonibare’s filmic reconstruction of the assassination of Gustav III of Sweden. Shonibare’s intense colours are striking, but the video is too busy labouring to bite. Yet his Reverend on Ice (2005), a sculpture of a headless skater, has real wit. Better still are the extraordinary death’s-head-and-laser-rifle watercolours of eX de Medici, a Canberra tattooist. Her pictures are fastidiously detailed, the lurid muteness of metallic pigments describing coils of fronds and sockets. Tender (2003–05), Fiona Hall’s bird’s nests of shredded banknotes, is so delicate I nearly missed the allegory: art is a simulated economy in which nest eggs are built by destroying money. And Bani Abidi’s Pakistani pipe-band video rocks.

If nothing else, the exhibition is proof that a provincial athletics meet can inspire a half-decent forum for contemporary art. Who’d have guessed?

Justin Clemens

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

From the front page

Image of Clint Eastwood in Cry Macho. Image © Claire Folger / Warner Bros.

Slow motions: Clint Eastwood’s ‘Cry Macho’

Despite patient filmmaking, the 91-year-old director’s elegiac feature is unable to escape the legend of the man

Image of The Sea of Hands, representing support for reconciliation and the rights of Indigenous Australians

The truth about truth-telling

Revisiting trauma is not the road to justice for Aboriginal people

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time today. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

An epic troll

Who is the government’s “anti-troll” law actually designed to protect?

Image of coal for export, Newcastle, NSW

The fossil-fuel industry’s grip on Australian hearts and minds

Is there hope that public misconceptions of the importance of coal and gas can be overcome?

In This Issue

The nelson touch

Research funding: The new censorship


Has the Australian film industry lost its way?

Who’s for breakfast, Alan Jones?

Sydney’s talkback titan and his mythical power

A new historical landscape?

A response to Michael Connor’s ‘The Invention of Terra Nullius’

More in Arts & Letters

Bing Crosby and David Bowie on Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, circa 1977.

Oh, carols!

The music of Christmas, from the manger to the chimney

Image of Gerald Murnane

Final sentence: Gerald Murnane’s ‘Last Letter to a Reader’

The essay anthology that will be the final book from one of Australia’s most idiosyncratic authors

Image of The Kid Laroi

New kid on the block: The Kid Laroi

How Australia has overlooked its biggest global music star, an Indigenous hip-hop prodigy

Still from ‘No Time To Die’

The Bond market: ‘Dune’ and ‘No Time To Die’

Blockbuster season begins with a middling 007 and a must-see sci-fi epic

More in Noted

Cover of ‘Crossroads’

‘Crossroads’ by Jonathan Franzen

The acclaimed US author’s latest novel is a 1971 church drama modelled on ‘Middlemarch’

Still from ‘Yellowjackets’


The US drama about teen plane-crash survivors is a heady mix of folk horror and high-school betrayal

Still from ‘New Gold Mountain’

‘New Gold Mountain’

SBS’s Australian goldfields series looks beyond colonial orthodoxies to tell the neglected stories

Cover of ‘The Magician’

‘The Magician’ by Colm Tóibín

The Irish novelist’s latest ponders creativity and the unacknowledged life of Thomas Mann

Online exclusives

Image of Clint Eastwood in Cry Macho. Image © Claire Folger / Warner Bros.

Slow motions: Clint Eastwood’s ‘Cry Macho’

Despite patient filmmaking, the 91-year-old director’s elegiac feature is unable to escape the legend of the man

Image of Anthony Bourdain in Roadrunner. © Focus Features

End of the road: The Anthony Bourdain documentary ‘Roadrunner’

Morgan Neville’s posthumous examination of the celebrity chef hews close to the familiar narrative

Image of test cricket captain Tim Paine announcing his resignation. Image via ABC News

Cricketing institutions are on a sticky wicket

Tim Paine’s sexting scandal reveals more about institutional failures than personal ones

Craig Kelly addresses protestors outside Victoria's Parliament, 12 November 2021

At the end of our rope

The prime minister’s belated response to death threats against political leaders is a sign of our dangerously hollowed-out politics