Your correspondent was in Brisbane last weekend, where he was able to spend a couple of afternoons at the Gallery of Modern Art’s latest contemporary art exhibition, 21st Century: Art in the First Decade.
The gallery was filled with people from across the demographic spectrum: young hipster couples, tourists, senior Australians, and families. So many families. This is an exhibition that seems to to capture the imagination of kids, as well as those who refuse to grow up.
And who can blame them? This particular vision of art in the 21st century could be criticised for many things (some have even used that most devastating of artworld barbs: “safe”), but one thing you can’t fault is its sense of sheer, innocent joy. GOMA’s take on the art of the past decade is filled with the interactive, the relational and the funny, from Martin Creed’s room filled full of purple balloons (Work No. 965: Half the air in a given space (purple)) to Carsten Holler’s signature slippery dip Test site, and from Rikrit Tiravanija’s key relational work — a Thai meal for four — to Olafur Eliasson’s giant Lego play pen, The cubic structural evolution project.
Of these, Holler’s Test site is something of a signature work of the show, dominating the gallery hall over two levels as visitors enter the space. Crikey‘s correspondent was struck by the long stretching lines of kids queuing to go on the slides.
Two of the most popular works at the show were interactive and tinged with a sophisticated play of emotions: Rivane Neuenschwander’s wall of ribbons with wishes printed on them, I wish your wish, and the indoor finch aviary of Celeste Boursier-Mougenot’s From here to ear (v.13). Neuenschwander’s work knowingly winked at the unattainability of so many of our hopes and dreams (Crikey particularly enjoyed “I wish I was a famous cricket player”), while Boursier-Mougenot’s work echoes some of the best installation work of the past two decades, such as Hirst’s 1000 Years, and takes it in a sadder, quieter and more sublime direction.
The exhibition certainly has several potential flaws. As a show substantially built up from the gallery’s own collection, it has an unashamedly Asia-Pacific focus; many of the works chosen to represent important artists such as Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin, Julian Opie and Chris Ofili are far from the best examples of their ouevre. On the other hand, this Asia-Pacific collection is the gallery’s obvious strength, and has taken on a chilling importance with the recent imprisonment of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, whose Painted vases are a part of the show.
A show such as this is something of a risk for a big gallery — or at least once might have thought to have been — especially in comparison to tried and tested blockbuster exhibitions of old masters. Hence, it must be gratifying for the gallery to mount such a well-attended show, despite the devastating floods of summer. Brisbane’s Gallery Of Modern Art/Queensland Art Gallery complex is now the most popular art gallery in the country, according to recently released figures.
It’s indeed interesting that two of the most exciting recent exhibitions in contemporary art in this country have occurred at Brisbane’s GOMA and in Hobart, where the Museum of Old and New Art, or MOMA, continues to wow Australian contemporary art lovers with a collection whose breadth and vision is unmatched in the country (for a recap, have a look at Andrew Frost’s episode of Artscape for ABC-TV).
According to Queensland Art Gallery director Tony Elwood, speaking on a panel discussion as part of 21st Century‘s talks program: “We are a soft target because we are innovative and because we are in Brisbane. We work twice as hard to get half the recognition because we are in Brisbane.”
Pointing to criticisms that the exhibition is something of a “fun park”, he answers: “It’s just disappointing that … by demonstrating just how much we want to reach out to whole ranges of audiences, that we then become a target. Contemporary art is always going to be the most critiqued and the most misunderstood of all the different art histories.”
As a result, Elwood says the gallery worked particularly hard on the ancillary aspects of the exhibition: its didactic panels, its comprehensive blog and the handsome catalogue. The catalogue is notable for a typically clever essay on the theory of contemporary art by the inimitable Rex Butler, who canvasses the Duchampian nature of the exhibition in a few stylish paragraphs, before declaring, in a wonderful double movement, that “the new motto for art in the 21st century should be ‘Please don’t touch’.”
He means that, as art “increasingly heads towards a condition of total immersion, of a psychedelic or even neurological model”, it also embodies a contradiction: “It would be something of the hand … in an age of digitality.”
Of course, you don’t need to understand the history of modern art to enjoy 21st Century — and that’s precisely the point. In its large-scale installations for children, in particular, the exhibition demonstrates just how vibrant and enjoyable a commitment to new art can be. This really is living art.