Tuesday, March 23, 2010

After The Crash, Part One

For the past several weeks, I'd been resigned to the ineluctable fate of someone who had crashed and (quite literally) burned. Everything was at an end. I was trapped beneath the wreckage and I had no idea how – or even if – I'd manage to get out.
The clinic's psychiatrists advised a quiet life – a regular, highly structured, nine-to-five life, in which emotional stability would evolve through predictability, a life of work-free weekends and frequent social interaction. The way to happiness, they insisted, was to mimic a suburban everyday, albeit modified with psychoanalysis, hardcore pharmacology and the medically induced seizures of electro-convulsive therapy.
There is no cure for bipolar affective disorder. There is only tentative relief achieved through treatments with serious side effects. Most people consider the side effects (including internal organ damage and the risk of memory loss) a small price to pay for peace of mind, a modicum of stability and contentment.
The more I've thought about what I want, the more I realise I don't care that much about contentment. What I want to be is highly functional – to be consistently imaginative and productive, to be very successful. What I want requires long hours of self-disciplined, hard work, hours filled with uncertainty, obsessive commitment and an active and intact (if flawed) mind. It leaves little time for a life outside art. It discourages conventional relationships. But this is OK with me. For better or worse, I prefer it.
What drove me to a break down last year weren't the rigours of making art (although, I concede, the toxic enamel I used was enormously detrimental to my physical health). Rather, it was always trying to do what others – family, friends, doctors, even collectors – kept telling me was 'right'.
This herded me into a stultifying, bourgeois existence: I lived in the same area for five years. I set up a home and separate, large studios. I employed staff. I tried to keep regular hours. I even thought about having children.
I ended up losing any sense of myself. Ever since I was a teenager, I'd made art as a way of processing my life. I ended up making art to make ends meet and to meet the shifting expectations of long lines of collectors, many of whom really had no interest in my work and were solely concerned with catching the market and getting a high return on their investment.
I shouldn't have been surprised. My work has always dealt with commoditisation – of art, of women, of myself. In irony (and sugar-coated anger), I painted candy-coloured enamels of idealised women using myself as a model and argued for the role of artist as producer and of the art work as product.
Of course, my collectors began to demand the after sales services associated with any well-positioned brand or product. I was expected to advise on, create and deliver my art – and sometimes repair or clean it before it was re-sold – without ever encumbering the 'customers' with the messy personality traits that are typical of most artists.
As far as my collectors were concerned, being emotional, anarchic, fragile and unbalanced worked fine for my image but it wasn't good for business – even one as well-organised and seamlessly managed as mine was until about a year ago.
I can't say I didn't see the crash coming. But the suddenness of the impact – and its devastation – were traumatic. In just a few days, I lost everything. I defaced and burned every work in my studio, including several already bought by collectors, then I destroyed my studio. I left a note on the door telling my assistants to find another job. Thankfully, instead, they called my best friend and my mother.
I'm still clawing my way out of the wreckage. Even when I'm discharged from the clinic, there will be significant challenges to face: I've been made bankrupt, I have no home, I have no art to sell and no money to buy materials to make new art. And yet I can't help thinking that I've been given a second chance.
This is not the end. This is the beginning.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Ready For It?

I am coming to the end of my seventh week in the clinic. Like a prisoner, I've been marking the passage of the days by in my diary but I've lost track of what's been happening in the outside world.
On Thursday, this week,
Menzies Art Brands will offer yet another of my early enamel on canvas paintings, Every-Ready (Fresh Out Of Bed) as part of an auction titled Important Fine Art at its Sydney saleroom, 12 Todman Avenue, Kensington. The auction, which will also feature works by some of Australia's greatest painters, including Sidney Nolan, Brett Whitely, Jeffrey Smart and Arthur Streeton, will start at 6.30 pm.
I painted the relatively small (105cms x 143cms)
Every-Ready in 1998, just as I was beginning to figure out what I was trying to do – and, more importantly, say – as an artist. Unlike most of my work from this period, I still have a sneaking regard for it, maybe because it has elements of ideas that emerge again, more fully developed, half a decade later.
Curiously, it was the first of my paintings to snatch a glimpse (so to speak) of a persistent personal fetish that would eventually insinuate itself as a repetitive, humorous element into later work: pink panties.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Curator's New (Old) Clothes

I am still at the clinic.
I have a private room, with a writing desk overlooking a leafy garden and my laptop connected to the 'net via a wireless USB. Between daily appointments with doctors and therapists, I have begun to re-engage with the world, albeit slowly and at a remove.
I started opening emails today. The first was an invitation to listen to the high-profile curator, David Elliott, discuss "his upcoming Biennale of Sydney" with the director of a state art gallery. I smirked at the patriarchal ownership of the event but a quote – actually, self-promoting schtick veiled as artistic concept – from Elliot really got under my skin:
"For art to be art (a medium of numinous, sometimes symbolic power), it must maintain a distance from life. Without distance, art has no authority and is no longer special."
In other words, for art to be taken seriously, it must be seen only in a context – a gallery, an institution – that removes it from life.
This is just an ill-considered mash-up of an idea introduced by Marcel Duchamp almost a hundred years ago and adapted relentlessly not only by artists to justify their 'work' but by the entire art establishment to justify their existence. Which is to say that instead of coming up with an original concept for the 17th Biennale of Sydney, of which he is artistic director, Elliot has devised a rickety, out-dated defense of the crumbling traditional system he serves.
So much for the Biennale of Sydney being a major art event.
Art has been a meaningful part of life for centuries. Art galleries – which separate art from life – are a recent, mid-nineteenth century invention. When, in 1917, Marcel Duchamp bought a second-hand urinal, named it Fountain, and photographed it as sculpture at an art gallery, his idea was that removing an everyday object from life gave people an opportunity to look at it differently. This act made the 'found' object art and it had enormous influence on the development of conceptual art – and the 'importance' of the gallery.
The trouble was, galleries, both commercial and institutional, figured out that this was a good way to position themselves – and their curators – as essential not just to distributing and exhibiting art but to defining which artworks and artists should be taken seriously and why.
Now it's the 21st century, not the 20th, and everything is different. The traditional gallery system is dying – soon to be extinct – after a mere 150 years.
Starved of funds and struggling to argue their relevance – look at what's happening at London's venerable ICA – both commercial and institutional galleries are being forced to rethink their functions or close their doors.
Art dealers are scrabbling to find a foothold in the virtual world (I know of a handful who have resorted to attending 'social networking' workshops taught by other art dealers). As bricks and mortar galleries crumble, the magazines they once funded with their advertising – in return for editorials on their latest 'product' – fold.
State-funded art galleries still ignore the virtual world and instead, invest in architectural showpieces to house the relics of the famous dead and dying, while their curators, once feted as celebrities, claim ownership of the exhibitions they assemble, desperate to promote their personal brands and pimp for extra-mural, usually corporate-sponsored employment.
Everyone within the traditional gallery system is struggling to retain either full-time employment or a fan-base. And yet the best Elliot can come up with as a theme for the Biennale of Sydney is a justification of this system's existence? It's so out of touch that it fails both as cultural propaganda and self-promotion.
Art itself is flourishing outside of the traditional system. Artists are distributing their work and ideas everywhere via the web and connecting directly with those who are most interested in them. More and more, their work is nourished by direct contact with this 'audience'. Artists are also connecting more with each other.
The power of curators and gallerists to fence off some art as 'good' (presumably because of its "numinous, sometimes symbolic power" - wank) and dismiss the rest is declining. Artists don't need the blessing of curators and gallerists to be taken seriously. More and more people are becoming interested in art and even better, buying it but they no longer need an outdated, inefficient, elitist system to tell them what is important and what they should like.
If David Elliot has gotten one thing terribly wrong it is that art has to "maintain a distance from life" to have authority. He's too old to understand that ubiquity of access not rarity defines value in the networked 21st century. Art is now, more than ever, part of everyone's lives – and hard drives.