It was already a controversial year in the arts even before it was announced that the Australia Council (our peak arts funding body) would have its budget cut by $28.2 million over four years and Screen Australia would lose $25.1 million — things got interesting back in February, when a group of artists announced that they would be boycotting the Sydney Biennale over a sponsor’s links to Immigration detention centres.
That move, along with cuts that forced organisations to change their focus, would go on to define a year in which artists and arts organisations shifted back and forth, continuing to struggle to find their place in a digital world, and under a new government.
That being said, it wasn’t a bad year for the arts in Australia — our performing arts companies continued to churn out fine work, and audiences don’t seem to have dropped too much (but we’ll let you know when figures are available), while galleries continue to build profiles for local artists and stay afloat thanks to blockbuster international exhibitions. And our local films and TV dramas had plenty of highlights, even if ratings and box office figures didn’t reflect the success.
Encouragingly, there seems to be a surge of political, socially aware artistic activity. Are we on the cusp of a shift in the local arts scene? We’ll revisit that question at the end of 2015.
Now on to the awards!
While Georgian soprano Tamar Iveri’s homophobic rants shocked and became a national talking point, the Scandal of the Year has to go to the Sydney Biennale boycott. It had Arts Minister George Brandis threatening to cut government funding to any artists or organisations who took similar steps, and Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull accused the artists of “vicious ingratitude” — talk about rocking the boat. The effects of the boycott are still being felt, with arts organisations looking more carefully at their sponsorship arrangements than ever before, and it’s a situation that’s only going to become more difficult as they’re likely to be forced to move away from public funding towards private sponsorship.
And of course, there’s an honourable mention for WA Opera’s scandalous, absurd decision to cancel Carmen because it contained cigarette smoking, as well as the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, which had its share of controversy.
The Taking the World by Storm Award is a tie between two Australian ladies of pop music. Love them or loathe them, Iggy Azalea and Sia have achieved extraordinary feats, both topping the charts in the United States. While indie star-turned-pop hit maker Sia is still very much the darling of Australia after her album 1000 Forms of Fear went to the top of the US charts and picked up four Grammy noms, Azalea has copped plenty of criticism for shunning her Australian roots and modelling her act on African-American rappers. But she did become the first artist to simultaneously hold the No. 1 and No. 2 positions on the US singles chart since The Beatles.
Naming a Play of the Year is a bit of an impossible task given that hundreds of plays were performed all around the country, and I’ve only seen performances in three Australian cities this year. But I feel compelled to do so, as a theatre critic, and one particular production stood above the rest as a revelatory moment of beauty that epitomised the Australian approach to the classics. While not an Australian play (although, for what it’s worth, I’d give the award for best new Australian play to Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland), Belvoir’s The Glass Menagerie, directed by incoming artistic director Eamon Flack, spoke clearly and with great resonance to its audience.
The ‘If That Won’t Get Them To a Gallery, Nothing Will’ Award goes to the National Gallery of Victoria’s The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier. Blockbuster exhibitions are becoming an increasingly important part of galleries and museums’ business models, and although the Gaultier exhibition has been on tour around the world since 2011, it was a massive coup for the NGV. Following close behind is Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art for their Game of Thrones prop exhibition, which had visitors waiting in line for full days. Admission was free, so we can’t label it a shameless cash-grab.
The Back from the Dead Award goes to elderly Australians’ favourite period soap opera A Place to Call Home, which was saved from cancellation by Foxtel and petitioning, picnicking fans. Bless. When Seven announced the series was to be canned despite consistently decent ratings, there was an almighty outcry from the show’s fanbase, who claimed ageism was at play. The whole incident demonstrated our commercial TV networks’ failure to deal with changing audience demographics as viewers move online. And while we’re talking comebacks, Lisa Kudrow’s The Comeback made a slightly uneven, but often spectacular return on HBO.
At the end of 2014, there’s really only one option for The Outstanding Service to Australian Culture Award, and that’s Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton, for 28 years critiquing and supporting Australian cinema. It’s not an overstatement to say they’ve permanently changed the way Australians think and talk about cinema, and while they’ve paved the way for a stronger culture of film engagement, their retirement will leave a substantial gap.
The Loser of the Year has to go to independent artists and smaller arts organisations who rely heavily on Australia Council funding — while the bigger companies will remain largely untouched by this year’s budget cuts, the scramble to secure public funding for other projects just became a lot tougher. The entire arts ecosystem will suffer.
And it’s hard not to give an honourable mention to Redfoo, who spent his year attempting to tell us which Australians had talent on The X Factor before being glassed and then releasing a horrifically sexist (and just plain horrific) song. Hopefully he can stay out of the limelight for 2015 — for both our sake and his. He’s up for Crikey’s Arsehat of the Year, and we’ve got our fingers crossed.
And now I’m going to defer to our film critic, Luke Buckmaster, to give two final awards for achievements in film in 2014:
The Never Say Die Award for True Cinematic Grit. Take a bow, Tom Cruise. The 52-year-old Scientologist with Hollywood’s most impressively perpendicular gait (seriously, have you paid attention to the way he runs? It’s amazing) snags this prize for his go-for-broke performance as Major William Cage in director Doug Liman’s rollicking sci-fi Edge of Tomorrow. The Never Say Die Award may have to be renamed, though, given his character dies approximately 200 times.
Based on the quaintly titled Japanese novel All You Need is Kill, the film’s premise mixes Groundhog Day with a violent futuristic video game. Cage is re-spawned, again and again, blasted to smithereens and exploded to bits, until he’s finally able to save the day. More than just a silly popcorn-and-Coke action movie (it’s that too), it’s a hell-for-leather satire of the infallibility of the Hollywood action hero.
Boldest vision of a world gone wrong. Snowpiercer, the English-language debut of Korean director Joon-ho Bong, presented an utterly disturbing picture of a future Earth — partly because climate change has made the planet all but uninhabitable, and partly because it asks us to imagine a world in which public transport is all we have left. The ticket inspectors (led by an almost unrecognisable Tilda Swinton) are tools of an Orwellian regime to keep the lower class desperate and hard-working while the privileged live in utopian first-class carriages.
Transcendence was frightening because it sucked Johnny Depp into a computer and asked us to ponder what it would be like if he controlled the internet. Existentialist drama All is Lost was disconcerting because it asked us to imagine what it would be like to spend two hours on a small boat with Robert Redford.
But the boldest vision of a world gone to hell in CGI-hemmed hand basket belongs to debut writer/director Zak Hilditch’s ferocious Auspocalypse drama These Final Hours. Based during the final moments of life on Earth, when a meteorite has created a tsunami of fire slowly consuming the planet, the film makes Thunderdome look like a theme park. Armed with a hammer, Nathan Phillips roams streets where bloodied men run around wielding butcher’s knives and nobody says “thank you” anymore. It’s a wild ride and an instant classic. One, as they say, that’s going straight to the pool room.