Janet McAllister on the arts

Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Down the rabbit hole

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Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney for arts. Photo / MCA Ltd / Brett Boardman
Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney for arts. Photo / MCA Ltd / Brett Boardman

Janet McAllister mixes with a bunch of art world jetsetters in Sydney and finds that some live in a freakish and lavish bubble.

Not too long ago, a GPS would have had me positioned in Sydney. Really, though, I had fallen down the rabbit hole into the international bubble of contemporary art. The art jetset (and, er, me) had descended on Sydney for the media preview and re-launch of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia.

The inside of the art bubble was lavish, cultured, beautiful - and more than a little freaky. I'm not talking about the art here; I'm talking about the art industry.

You read Museum Inc, a polemic which says the art world values money over art - and then you find yourself drinking Moet with a Norwegian oil shipping magnate art patron at his palatial home, and visiting an installation by German sculptor Thomas Demand, literally perfumed by an international fashion house whose Sydney branch is visible out the window.

The line between prestigious art project and crass advertorial might be dashed-off, Ken Done style, but it's a lifestyle one could get used to.

For four days, I was embedded with a genuinely charming pack of art bubble denizens - mostly journalists but also collectors, curators, artists and publicists - who hop from biennales to residencies to festivals to art fairs. They represented important art magazines based in New York, Germany and Milan; I found out later that one journalist had his own Wikipedia page. Clearly no one else was seeing Sydney as a big-sister city.

Their motto: been there, seen that; go somewhere else, see it again. They had already seen the artworks in Sydney's Arndt pop-up gallery (open until July 10), whereas I hadn't even known that Arndt was an important Berlin gallery. And of course, they all went to the Venice Biennale last year.

I did at least know what that was.

But it turns out the exotic locations which the art bubble visits are really just backdrops to catching up on insider gossip. "Yes," I overheard, "she went to Dubai to give a lecture and was back in New York within hours, I don't know how she juggles it all, she has such lovely skin." And: "where on the art circuit do you go?" "Oh, I adore Hong Kong!" And: "were the attendants on your flight good-looking enough?"

And then: "Sydney tries but it's not really a city of culture. The weather's too good!"

Ye gads, all of sunny Australasia was condemned with that reasoning, with the possible exception of Invercargill. But really, this was art-speak for "Sydney - with its numerous city and state galleries - puts on accessible, popular exhibitions as well as art-insider events". When the CEO of New South Wales' tourism bureau made us a speech and mentioned a recent Picasso exhibition, she added cheerfully, "Of course, we're not all highbrow! We've got the Harry Potter exhibition too!"

Cue mutterings from one art journo: "But Picasso's not highbrow!" He's far too famous for that.

Sometimes, the wisdom of the art bubble is divided between those with money, and those with jobs. We international journalists were taken to a privately owned exhibition gallery, the White Rabbit, Transformation by Xie Kun at the White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney.

which specialises in contemporary Chinese art. The others didn't think much of it, partly because they'd never heard of any of the artists exhibited.

But when I interviewed the owner, Judith Neilson, she was scornful of those who "think China has only produced 10 artists," and said she wanted to bring deserving, unknown artists to the attention of the West.

And why not? Settler-run cosmopolitan cities like Sydney - and Auckland - too often ignore art that doesn't originate from Europe or from our own back yard. Neilson says Chinese Australians are proud of what she shows. I enjoyed a number of its exhibits. And the White Rabbit has been credited for helping revitalise the art precinct of Chippendale in Sydney.

However, Neilson is not at all interested in art which critiques the Chinese regime, and says she has never heard an artist talk of politics having an impact on their life. So someone who visits her gallery gets a skewed idea of Chinese art and life: always bright, shiny and happy, a subtle propaganda. Where's Ai Weiwei when you need him? That's right: prevented from leaving China by the powers that be.

Neilson's don't-rock-the-boat attitude wouldn't matter so much except that cash means her clout, and that of others like her, moves the art bubble particularly strongly. Collectors may be intelligent and interesting, but their main qualification for respect and influence is still their wealth. (Neilson asked permission from her billionaire funds manager husband before buying the gallery building; according to The Australian, the couple got a tax break for opening a public museum.) Money has more influence than artistic genius over what's in the dealer galleries and - more problematically, if usually less directly - what we see in our public galleries.

For example, in Sydney, video art is so hot right now. It's not because the technology represents an artistic breakthrough, it's because "you don't want a blank screen when you have your friends over for drinks," says Isabelle Johnston, director of Sydney Art Tours. So you spend thousands on a 10-minute piece to put on repeat with the sound turned down at cocktails, and before you know it, moving images wash around the art bubble and spill into the public arena. One gallery exhibited so many video works, thieves ram-raided it for the plasma screens. (The other art was left on the walls.)

But on the day we met Neilson, we were also hosted by another art-buying wife with a contrasting art ethos. Lisa Paulsen, a Museum of Contemporary Art Australia board member, showed us around her private collection, which was bold and impressive. I'm not sure I could live, as she does, with Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro's Lego recreation of the fatal Challenger explosion photo in my study, and Fiona Hall's beaded replicas of human body parts - such as one finds in the undergrowth in Sri Lanka - in an exquisite cabinet in my foyer.

Paulsen also had an artwork ink stamp bearing the legend "Australia's shame", referring to the Tampa refugee debacle, which was particularly open-minded of her, given her views are different from the artist's on this issue, as she knows the family who owns the Tampa. Her Norwegian husband, Egil, equally welcoming, is a reluctant art patron who doesn't care for contemporary art at all. We had a fun chat about Captain Cook. He keeps pictures of ships and priceless maps in his study; the rest of the house is curated by Lisa.

So not every rich art collector avoids difficult or challenging art works; is that enough? Does it matter that pain is turned into painstaking artworks which are then mostly displayed in private homes where few can see them? Maybe, maybe not; we do have public galleries. But what are the alternatives?

Janet McAllister travelled to Sydney courtesy of Tourism Australia (www.australia.com), Destination NSW and Qantas.

- NZ Herald

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