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Where To From Here? Innovators In The Australian Arts

Stella Rosa McDonald  |  Sydney, 26 November 2013

‘For me, one of the most political acts of the 21st Century is to be vulnerable. It’s not to take a single position or write a manifesto of democracy, it’s to actually make yourself vulnerable to being wrong. If you can do this then you can create a different space of risk for others to come in and create encounters.’ It’s understandable that Alexie Glass-Kantor, one of Australia's most well-regarded curators, has vulnerability on her mind. When we speak, she is living out of a suitcase; after seven years as director of Gertrude Contemporary in Melbourne, last week she packed up and moved to Sydney to begin her role as Executive Director at Artspace in Sydney’s Woolloomooloo. 

Glass-Kantor is part of a cohort of Australians now working in the arts who are defined by their adaptability. This generation looks beyond the schematic to resist definitive models in their respective fields. Through looking at what they do and how they do it, we can glimpse the future of the arts in this region.

Glass-Kantor‘s flexible, open approach to her practice reflects the sometimes absurd, and always emotional, aesthetic experience of art itself.  She peppers her conversation with references to particular works of art, and they come to define key moments in her journey as curator and director. One stands out - a handmade felt banner by Raquel Ormella, across which was stitched, Where to from here?

Her first responsibility at the institution, she says, is not as a curator, but as a custodian. ‘I like working in non-collecting institutions (such as Gertrude Contemporary and Artspace) because what you collect (instead of art) is a community. I had a great time at Gertrude, I loved it, I was very strongly identified with it during the seven years I was there, but I do think its important to know that you are the custodian of those spaces, you don’t own them.’ She sees publications, public programming, and residencies that come out of institutions, as sites for conversations, not just collateral.

In her own practice as an independent curator, which she will continue during her tenure at Artspace, Glass-Kantor doesn’t subscribe to the ‘curator as author’ model. She uses collaboration not compromise and relishes negotiation at every point in the creative process. In her recent curation for Anna Schwartz Gallery, You promised me, and you said a lie to me, artists were encouraged to correspond with each other during the development of the show, which lead to cross-pollination throughout the works exhibited. ‘It’s important to take real risk when you’re working with living artists and commissioning new work or pre-existing forms, to create opportunities for the unexpected.’ Working particularly with artists who have ‘practices that move around form and are responsive to research and material construction’, Glass-Kantor will take on a project just to understand a medium better. In 2008, with a gap in her knowledge, she co-curated 21:100:100, a retrospective on sound art, which featured one hundred sound works produced in the 21st century by one hundred sound artists. 

At a time when even your grandmother is unlikely to lend you a dollar to publish a pamphlet, Das Superpaper is a rarity in arts publishing in Australia: making the point of transaction between the advertiser and the publisher, rather that with the reader.

Das Platforms is a multi-faceted media project run by Robyn Stuart and Nick Garner that started in 2008 with the magazine Das Superpaper; a free journal whose aim is to tell the story of contemporary art from an Australian perspective. Since then it has expanded with the addition of online video and writing content through Das Platforms. At a time when even your grandmother is unlikely to lend you a dollar to publish a pamphlet, Das Superpaper is a rarity in arts publishing in Australia: making the point of transaction between the advertiser and the publisher, rather than with the reader. Being free is central to the ideology of the publication. ‘We have to ask ourselves at every point why we do it in print’, says editor-in-chief Robyn Stuart, ‘I think the object has always been important in art as something you can hold onto (or look but don't touch, as the case most often is). This obviously helps when trying to sell art but less cynically, objects help to ground the more lofty notions. Telling the story of contemporary art is much more powerful in print, in the hand, with the rhythm, weight and texture of the pages.’

The story of contemporary Australian art is not confined to Australia, and though the publication can feel a little Sydney-centric, Das Superpaper broadens the conversation through inviting guest editors to take over the magazine. ‘Having a consistent editor can be a great thing for a magazine but it can also be a very homogenizing thing, and we try to avoid that,’ says Garner. Issue 28 Western Sydney: A portrait of a place, was guest edited by artist David Capra and hit upon the wealth of art and artists coming out of that corner of the city. The next issue is Irrational Agents: Gender, Economics and Affect, edited by Alys Moody. Stuart says, ‘the perfect mix is to have a theoretical essay that grounds the issue, which doesn't necessarily have to be about art or a visual artist, and then to pursue this theme via curated pictorial content, commissioned artist pages, and interviews with visual artists to see how that theme manifests in their practices.’

In addition to Das Platforms and Das Superpaper, together Stuart and Garner produce public programs and co-produced video content in collaboration with institutions like the Art Gallery of South Australia, Campbelltown Arts Centre and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. Garner, who produces the video content for Das Platforms and is the founding editor, says online content adds to exhibitions and artists’ work, filling critical gaps for its audience. ‘I don't necessarily think artists should always be willing and able to be shoved in front of a camera – they're artists not politicians – but when it works it's great. Video interviews can capture an attitude that you might see in the work but that doesn’t show in written interviews or when someone else is writing about an artist's practice.’ 

Ryan Renshaw Gallery in Brisbane represents a new hybrid commercial gallery model. It works beyond the notion of the white cube to offer a mix of shows by their stable of represented artists, as well as non-represented and emerging artists.

Visibility is a trap. Or so warns the French artist Laurent Grasso. With the writing of Amelia Groom, an Australian arts writer based in London, you are reminded that what you see is not necessarily what you get. Groom’s writing speaks to the edges of meaning in its articulation of contemporary art and it reads like a mix between a casual email and philosophy. Groom is a regular contributor to Frieze magazine and most recently edited an anthology on ‘time’ for Whitechapel Gallery’s Documents of Contemporary Art series (The MIT Press), as well as a chapter on Japanese Heian aristocratic costumes for Fashion: The Whole Story (Thames & Hudson). When I ask her what she has been working on she writes, ‘The last few things I wrote were about the 1994 action film Speed; a huge penis on a dress that Grayson Perry wore, and Mariah Carey’s cross-dressing.’ Her flippancy belies the fact that these three pieces of writing respectively looked at threats to temporality in the wake of modernity; the codes we employ when getting dressed; and the bizarre genius of a Mariah Carey video that illustrates how identity is complicated by desire.

Where arts writing can often do little more than promote the work of an artist for gallery sales, Groom’s texts expand the critical context and narrative potential of artists’ works. She says, ‘some art wants more language around it than other art does. A lot of the time, I think, art benefits from being left alone. But writing can be a way to think with the art, rather than to explain or interpret or properly contextualise it. Ideally the writing respects the strangeness of the art and doesn’t tame it.’

Ryan Renshaw Gallery in Brisbane represents a new hybrid commercial gallery model. It works beyond the notion of the white cube to offer a mix of shows by their stable of represented artists, as well as non-represented and emerging artists. In addition the gallery collaborates with other commercial galleries such as Darren Knight Gallery in Sydney and gives its front window box to Wandering Room, a Brisbane based artist-run initiative. Director Danielle Renshaw says, ‘the more spaces there are for young artists to cut their teeth the stronger the future of the art world will become. We have left the age of the disposable and quick fix and as a society as a whole we're moving back to valuing things that are well-crafted and well-imagined.’

Renshaw finds exhibiting work from a variety of artists beyond their own stable is invigorating for both the artists and for their clients. ‘It's important to find artists who you respect and admire and are willing to support through the long haul of a career. Sometimes exhibiting challenging work isn't immediately financially rewarding, but if you believe in the work, you know that eventually people will understand it's worth.’ The discourse generated by this mix of works and artists at varied career stages sustains the scene, over and beyond sales and production. ‘It's the shared experience of cultures that's the most vital. You can enjoy the discussions and the arguments and the successes together. Sometimes exhibiting challenging work isn't financially rewarding, but if you believe in the work, you know that eventually, people will undertand it's worth.' — [O]

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