Themes of intimacy and scale dominate the visual arts component of the Sydney Festival, and though the festival prizes eclecticism there are strong associations between the works on show. The blokes blockbuster strikes again as the MCA and the Art Gallery of New South Wales respectively host Anish Kapoor and Francis Bacon exhibitions.
The blokes blockbuster strikes again as the MCA and the Art Gallery of New South Wales respectively host Anish Kapoor and Francis Bacon exhibitions. Coinciding with the Sydney Festival, and as a part of the Sydney International Art Series, the two exhibitions are the first time Australian audiences have been able to view major retrospectives from both artists.
Propped up in the forecourt of the newly renovated MCA in Sydney, Anish Kapoor’s Sky Mirror (2006) is well suited to a city that loves its own reflection. The large stainless steel disc does exactly what it sets out to do, as do many of the large-scale pieces in a retrospective that presents Kapoor’s key works since the 1980s.
Kapoor’s practice has been to reflect upon what it is to be human, on the tenuous balance of our bodies in space. His use of scale and the industrial quality of his finishes, however, sometimes outwit and overwhelm his intention to articulate something bodily or organic. In Untitled (2012) Kapoor has made fiberglass voids that when viewed seem to move between a vacuum and a sphere. The qualities of the polished and glittery surfaces recall bathroom surfaces - an enameled toilet or a designer faucet. Ongoing in Kapoor’s work is the notion of the autonomy of objects, and this domestic sterility may be a by-product of his practice of working with computer-assisted machinery to initiate the fabrication of artworks.
Kapoor’s work consumes curation; the quantity of the works and the intensity of their scale deny any intention by curator Elizabeth Ann Macgregor to engage the work with a dialogue outside of Kapoor’s own practice. The show is carnivalesque, with the works themselves acting as props in Kapoor’s translation of the world. Sculptures such as C-Curve (2006) utilize reflective surfaces to create illusions of impossible spaces and bodies, and as if to keep some evidence of a physical transformation, the galleries are populated by audiences taking ‘selfies’ on their iPhones.
There are, however, varying levels of engagement in the retrospective. From the anthropomorphic qualities of mirrors, to the inversion of space and gender in works like My Body Your Body (1993) and When I am Pregnant (1992), the works cycle between surface and deep reflection. Memory (2008), stands apart from the repetitive associations in many of the works, and proves the adage that bigger is better. Encountered in two parts, the viewer may first meet its interior via a side room at the start of the exhibition. Looking through the wall into a dark void the sense is that the viewer is part of an immense yet finite system. At the core of Memory is the condition itself. Viewing the whole of the 24-ton Cor-Ten steel structure there is a sense of knowing contemplation, of a journey, of mopping up. As the work reveals its scale and shape we travel from the promise of the before to gathering the immensity of the after. On my visit children, being able to fit through the gaps adults cannot, run neatly around its exterior while we stand reflecting on the larger sum of its volume. The structure refers to the state of time, and articulates Kapoor’s skill in initiating images and experiences that are, as Francis Bacon said "a concentration of reality and a shorthand for sensation" (1).
Francis Bacon: Five Decades at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, feels like a rejoinder to Kapoor’s optical trickery and slick architectural surfaces - something closer to the feeling of being human. Works have been loaned from thirty private and public international collections, covering fifty years of his career. Anthony Bond’s is a decidedly didactic curation that spells out Bacon’s oeuvre at every turn. Wall texts, some placed improbably high on the wall, are accompanied by an array of archival material including notes, videos, photographs, books and images from Bacon’s studio.
The retrospective is arranged around five decades of Bacon’s output, each decade corresponding to a stylistic development, from the thin, transparent application of paint in Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh (1957) to the use of flat high tone acrylics that came to define him in Three Studies of George Dyer (1969).
For Bacon, the experience of life through art lay not in narrative representation, but in the surface and colour of the painting itself. "Man, he said, wants a sensation without the boredom of its conveyance". Though Bacon resisted narrative it is unavoidable in his work, and the curation focuses on the evident tenderness Bacon had toward friends and lovers. Bacon uses scale to infer the passing of bodies through time, of approaching death, terror, breathlessness and fragility. A wall text tells us: "I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail leaving its trail of the human presence… as a snail leaves its slime" (2).
The final decades of his life as friends and lovers died are dominated by self-portraits. Study for Self-portrait (1976) is an attempt to reconcile an interior life with a veneer that was constantly changing, and depicts Bacon with his body impossibly twisted. Much of Bacon’s painting articulates parity between violence and sex, depicting ambiguous figures embracing or fighting, kissing or biting. They have a sensuous and exciting reversibility, like the duck-rabbit illusion, exposing perception as not just a product of the stimulus, but of the man.
Within the former Eveleigh Rail Yards in Redfern, audiences can view the outcome of an unlikely collaboration between Chinese artist Song Dong and his mother. Waste Not, presented by Carriageworks and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, is an attempt by the artist to micro-manage his mother’s grief at losing her husband, and comprises 10,000 domestic objects from his family home.
In Waste Not the home becomes a fantastic refuge for refuse. Covering the foyer of Carriageworks, belongings are organized by design and function - plastic bowls, dried soap, string and lint. The usefulness and purpose of other objects are less recognisable; plastic bags folded into neat isosceles, mango seeds sucked dry of their flesh, a transparent rubber disc. The objects describe the uniformity of Chinese life during the Cultural Revolution, telling a story of life through accretion. It is a work not of the artist but of a generation. The motto ‘wu jin qu yong’ (waste not), evolved from the social and political turmoil during China’s Cultural Revolution, a time when frugality became so necessary as to be deemed a virtue. But while this practice of storing and retaining things used, broken or stained became a burden when goods were plentiful, it was meaningful in the lean times. As the audience moves throughout Dong’s ‘home’, the objects become talismans that switch between purpose and symbol, occasion and identity, becoming evidence of flesh, consumption and energy. First exhibited in 2005, the issues implicit in Waste Not are not lost on audiences bombarded with mass consumerism and preoccupied with the global concerns of climate change. Dong doesn’t reconstruct or revisit the past so much as make it mobile. Like Bacon and Kapoor, his work is about the facts of living, not the life itself. — [O]
(1) Francis Bacon interviewed by Melvin Bragg, The South Bank Show, ITV, 1985
(2) Francis Bacon interviewed by Melvin Bragg, The South Bank Show, ITV, 1985
Stella Rosa McDonald is an Australian artist and writer. She is currently completing her Master of Fine Arts at the University of New South Wales, College of Fine Arts.