March 2017

Arts & Letters

Sweet celebration

By Sebastian Smee

PixCell-Double Deer#4 (2010), by Kohei Nawa. Queensland Art Gallery collection. © The artist

‘Sugar Spin’ at GOMA aims to please and to challenge

There’s a moment each year, shortly after you’re presented with a birthday cake, when your job is to blow out the candles. The singing and shouting will shortly resume, you know that. But there’s a brief, indelible moment when things go dark, and you know for a fact that something’s over.

Sugar Spin: You, Me, Art and Everything, a sprawling show of 250 works at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA; until 17 April), is a tenth birthday celebration. It put me in the best of moods. It would be hard, in fact, to imagine a livelier introduction to the Australian art scene – or a more effective antidote to end-of-summer torpor. The show boasts, among other hits and occasional misses, a single gallery that is the most original and satisfying museum hang I’ve seen anywhere in many years.

But the exhibition is more than just a mood enhancer. It’s a celebration that doesn’t evade the inevitability of that brief, ringing moment in the dark, and what it portends.

I was last in Brisbane ten years ago, for the fifth Asia Pacific Triennial (APT), the exhibition that inaugurated GOMA and spread across both the new building and the pre-existing Queensland Art Gallery (QAG), just a two-minute walk away.

The APT had already established itself as an influential showcase of contemporary art from Asia and the Pacific region. The first APT, in 1993, was attended by 60,000 people, the fifth by 750,000. Each of the three subsequent versions has attracted more than 500,000. The push by QAG to create GOMA hinged on harnessing this success and judiciously applying spurs.

From the beginning, the triennial had been distinguished by QAG’s determination to use the show to build its own collection. More than 70% of works included in the eight APTs so far have entered the collection.

Attending the APT in late 2006, I had a happy sense of an institution making hay while the gods smiled. There had been budget overruns, compromises to the GOMA building’s design, and no doubt other problems, too. But Doug Hall, the director, had capitalised on the energy and goodwill generated by the APT and secured sustained state government backing. His heroic efforts catapulted the institution to the forefront of the nation’s cultural life.

GOMA’s subsequent fortunes have, by all accounts, waxed and waned, as have the fortunes of its parent institution, the Queensland Art Gallery. The two function administratively as one: same director, same budget. But blooming youth is always more alluring than stately age, and there’s no doubt which of the two the public prefers. Despite their easy proximity, only 20% of visits to one incorporate a visit to the other.

Under Tony Ellwood, who replaced Hall when he retired in 2007, GOMA favoured a blockbuster model. A steady drumbeat of celebrated names kept attendances and profile high. Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Ron Mueck, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Yayoi Kusama were all given the treatment. There was also an ambitious surrealism survey and a Valentino retrospective. The blockbuster policy – augmented by worthy but less glitzy shows and a dynamic program aimed largely at children – seemed politically astute. Such shows required major funding. But their success helped justify the expense, and in turn secured more funding.

In 2012, after 14 years of Labor government under Peter Beattie and Anna Bligh, Campbell Newman’s LNP government came to power, and Ellwood moved to Melbourne to become director of the National Gallery of Victoria. QAGOMA’s funding dried up, and its more ambitious activities were curtailed.

Under Annastacia Palaszczuk’s minority government, the money has started to come back – though not yet to its former levels. And with Labor’s return to power, the blockbuster model seems to have been cautiously revived by current director Chris Saines. GOMA hosted a major Cindy Sherman exhibition last year, and is planning a retrospective devoted to Gerhard Richter – perhaps the world’s most influential living artist – for later this year.

In the meantime, we have Sugar Spin, a sprawling group show. It could easily have been a jumble. But it actually gives off waves of energy, beauty and surprise.

Apart from a new acquisition and two new commissions, curator Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow has drawn all of the works from GOMA’s collection. Many will be familiar to regular visitors. But they have been combined in fresh and unexpected ways, and the show feels like the right way to celebrate a far-sighted strategy – acquiring works via the APT – that other Australian galleries must envy.

The range of style, scale, medium and country of origin is dizzying. There are great things by artists from Iceland, Iran, New Zealand, Japan, and all manner of places in between. Barlow laces big, bright, popular sculptures and installations with punchy photographs and works on paper, absorbing short videos, and precious handmade objects from the vaults.

Many works fit the mould of what the great critic Peter Schjeldahl has called “festivalist” art: production-heavy, showboating, crowd-wooing, often interactive works tailor-made for biennials and museums on the make. I’m thinking of Carsten Höller’s spiralling slides, of course, but also of Hrafnhildur Árnadóttir’s Nervescape V (a new commission that covers large parts of GOMA’s atrium with patches of fabric resembling radioactive fairy floss), Nick Cave’s HEARD (a newly acquired installation of colourful horse costumes, which can be animated by dancers), and similarly large-scale installations by Huang Yong Ping (a giant serpent skeleton made of steel), Ron Mueck (a hyperreal sculpture of an anxious woman in bed, massively over-scaled), Céleste Boursier-Mougenot (a room-size installation of live Australian finches, ambient music and coathangers), Olafur Eliasson (300 kilograms of white Lego blocks, ready to use) and Pinaree Sanpitak (dozens of soft sculptures, resembling breasts or Buddhist stupas, on which you can lie back as if on beanbags).

There are more examples – most of them just as craven. But I found it hard to hold anything against any of them. Árnadóttir’s Nervescape V is frankly gorgeous – a colour extravaganza that softens and somehow earths the atrium’s soaring, rectilinear minimalism, and harkens back to Katharina Grosse’s rainbow-coloured spray-paint installation at GOMA in 2007. Boursier-Mougenot’s live finches are a novelty, to be sure, but the installation uncannily slows time and heightens attentiveness. A marvellous work.

The Mueck and Huang sculptures are slightly over-extended (the investments outweigh the returns), but there’s no denying their discomfiting impact. And even Höller’s slide, which sent me scuttling down two levels at an alarming clip, triggered a mental gearshift or two.

Sugar Spin succeeds because it is more than just the aggregate of these “festivalist” experiences – fun as they are. Barlow weaves them into a wider story of five chapters. The narrative’s dynamic is easily grasped: it’s about sugar highs, giddiness and coming down, in spheres that range from the aesthetic to the political and economic. Many ideas flow from this (among them, perhaps, a sceptical take on “festivalist” art).

Barlow’s wall texts are delightful, and in no way prescriptive. She suggests that the viewer imagine, for instance, “a happy hot little hand / a hand full / of sweets” (Chapter 1), “swimming over black water / Bright sunlight overhead / endless depths beneath” (Chapter 2), or “the earth falling away / beneath you, a sensation of lightness / The land below is all pattern and / rhythm, a dappled skin” (Chapter 3).

Chapter 1, ‘Sweetmelt’, is almost feverishly bright. The display is hectic, the impact deliberately dissonant. A photorealist painting by Michael Zavros, for instance, sits alongside similar but more richly coloured photorealist fare by Jan Nelson in a busy salon-style hang that also includes a frantic watercolour by eX de Medici, Luke Roberts’ panel van–style painting of a palm tree and a UFO against a lurid sunset, and a small Aboriginal dot painting in red, yellow and orange acrylics by Tommy Mitchell. You try to decide between real and fake, good art and bad – but all your criteria feel suddenly redundant.

At the centre of this same room is a vibrant display of headdresses created by Baining and Sulka men from the East Sepik and New Britain regions of Papua New Guinea. These, at least, feel authentic, deeply rooted in tradition and place. But you wonder what to make of the fact that they share the same delirious colour palette as the other works. What is the role of ostentation in East Sepik society? Aren’t these extraordinary headdresses themselves a form of “festivalist” art? You might wonder, too, about the headdresses’ similarity to Nick Cave’s rampantly adorned horses in the neighbouring gallery.

You leave the room frazzled, on a sugar high, ready to throw a critical tantrum or otherwise behave inappropriately. But solace arrives quickly in the form of Kohei Nawa’s PixCell-Double Deer#4. An astonishing work, deservedly popular, it consists of two taxidermied deer magically fused and exquisitely coated in glass spheres of different sizes. The glass spheres seem to grow from the cosmic creature’s surface like little bubbles of self-purifying gas. The sculpture is displayed alone in a small, chapel-like gallery, and it seems to lead the soul right to the volcano lip of instant enlightenment. Who needs authenticity when you can have PixCell-Double Deer#4?

There are many happy groupings and magnetic concordances in other parts of the show. Sometimes the associations are felt through form. I loved, for instance, seeing Tim Johnson’s multi-panelled, dot-filled painting, From One Cloth, in the vicinity of a white Yayoi Kusama dot painting, which could easily have been mistaken for one of the many Aboriginal dot paintings.

Other times, the connections were conceptual. Chapter 4, ‘Treasure’, for example, is dominated by a scientific, classifying approach to the wilds of nature, emotion and human commerce. Fiona Hall, Bea Maddock and Lee Mingwei all frame and contain their inventions, conceits and invitations to intimate communication with grids, vitrines and other fearful symmetries. Barlow herself indulges this urge to frame and classify with her own display cases filled, Kunstkammer-style, with Japanese netsuke, silver bracelets, Greek and Roman coins, and a Palawa shell necklace by Tasmania’s Jeanette James.

Chapter 3, ‘Soaring’, is the inspired hang I mentioned at the outset. It’s so affecting because – although the work in it is as disparate in style, intention and origin as elsewhere in the show – Barlow has imposed, with the gentlest of touches, an astonishing harmony on the room.

Almost all the work in ‘Soaring’ is in shades of grey or tan – that’s the first thing you notice. (The contrast with the ‘Sweetmelt’ gallery couldn’t be more sharply etched.) The next is that so many of the works, whether big or small, flat or in the round, evince a strange dynamic, both literal and metaphoric, to do with skin, scarring and damage.

Most arresting is Bharti Kher’s white fibreglass elephant, collapsed on the ground and covered in bindi (the dots applied to foreheads in India). Bindi are associated with the Hindu notion of a “third eye”, but they are also ornamental. They’re manufactured commercially on a massive scale. The work’s title, The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own, evokes a dissonance, a failure to reconcile spirit and surface. But really, before any intellectual interpretation can take hold, the sculpture itself has drawn you in close, only to break your heart.

The dying elephant’s trunk, curled on the floor, rhymes with the slithering burn lines in Cao Guo-Qiang’s exploding gunpowder work behind it. This arcs around the far side of the room, a backdrop to the theatre of the elephant’s death. At the same time, in a brilliant ploy that activates the entire space of the gallery, Tobias Putrih’s giant arch of stacked cardboard boxes soars overhead.

From this elevation, and from a smaller Gabriel Orozco piece hung high on one wall, we’re invited to picture, as Barlow puts it, “the earth falling away beneath” us, the land below resolving into “pattern and rhythm, a dappled skin”. Precisely this sense of distant, secret-concealing surface is evoked by Doreen Nakamarra Reid’s Untitled (Marrapinti), a pulsating painting consisting of zigzagging lines made from conjoined gold and white dots on a black ground – one of the most beautiful Aboriginal works I’ve seen. Its squirming, mesh-like pattern chimes, in this same gallery, not only with Kher’s elephant, covered in writhing dots, but with the knotted-string fishing net by Dorothy Bienenwangu Dullman, Finau Mara’s lovely woven baby mat, a bark painting of stars (described in small crosses) by Gulumbu Yunupingu, and a beautiful Omie bark cloth from Papua New Guinea by Stella Upia.

Reid’s evocation of a skin covering hidden things also links to Mella Jaarsma’s Hi Inlander. Jaarsma makes garments from sewn-together animal skins (kangaroo, frog, fish and chicken). These are hung head to foot over human-size armatures. They deliberately resemble body-covering jilbabs worn by Muslims.

Jaarsma is Dutch but now lives in Indonesia. She made Hi Inlander (a slightly contemptuous phrase commonly used by Dutch colonials to greet indigenous Indonesians) for APT 3, in 1999, when Indonesian politics was in turmoil. At that year’s opening party, the garments were animated (like Nick Cave’s horse costumes) by performers, who cut haunting, desperate figures as they mingled with the gathered crowd. Flesh from the species from which the skins were removed was cooked at the same time.

The performance component of the piece plays no part in Sugar Spin. The garments are enough. They’re at once alluring and repulsive. The work appears to be about empathy – the idea of wearing another’s skin, living in another’s body; flesh-eating as a form of love and identification (as in the Christian tradition). But Jaarsma’s chosen materials are so visceral that the garments wind their way into darker grottoes of the mind, and stand as a rebuke to the bright conviviality of the rest of the show.

An exhibition that hopes, as Sugar Spin does, to be both a birthday celebration and a crowd-puller should not be ashamed to be brightly coloured and convivial. What’s impressive about this show is the way it gives substance and heft to spun sugar, acknowledging darkness, and refusing to turn seduction into a watchword against intelligence.

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is the art critic for The Washington Post and winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He is the author of The Art of Rivalry, and a forthcoming book on Berthe Morisot and Édouard Manet.


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