Supervised by Brent Harris
October 10 – November 13, 2015
Over the course of a career, an artist develops what is known as a ‘vocabulary’ of materials and gestures. It develops through a process of trial and error and the language that forms becomes somehow intelligible without ever becoming transparent. It is a phenomenon musicians experience in performance, the ability to communicate by a breath, a look, a note. A language in which they are simultaneously fluent and unknowing. What is more remarkable is that this language communicates beyond their ensemble. They improvise with other musicians, other ensembles and find appreciation in new audiences. In Yield, Brent Harris has limited the artists’ vocabulary to its basic materials: plaster, clay wood and paint, iconic materials of painting and sculpture. In proximity the works almost suggest the spectrum of classical genres: ‘landscape’, ‘portrait’, ‘figure’, ‘still life’, ‘history painting’ or is it a subject from mythology? They use conscious manipulations of form, composition, proportion, light and shadow, texture and hue but they have not been made cooperatively or even simultaneously, the earliest, Nicole Page-Smith’s untitled construction made in 1990, the latest, Sean Bailey’s from 2015. Nevertheless, they speak distinctively both in their own voices and together as a group.
Artists’ ‘languages’ are not coherent, they use nonsense words to fill an empty grammar. Their purpose is not to tell us what they ‘mean’ but to provide a foil against which the invisible norms of culture become visible. When I speak, I apply the rules of grammar. I can break off and think about what I am saying, but I cannot speak and analyse simultaneously. To analyse the language of culture, we need to be able to ‘break off’ from it momentarily. There was an idea in the late 1970s, and there are still remnants of it today, that we could adopt a position of cultural neutrality. Objectivity, however, is not neutral, it is the ability to see the world through the eyes of another, to adopt the position of the ‘object’ to my subject. Against these alternative cultures, our own habituated norms suddenly appear foreign. This is what artists do: they create temporary, artificial languages to expose the norm.
This is important because the norm regulates society, it is the measure of what is valuable. If it is faulty, the standard is reproduced in ordinary conversation, passed from hand to hand, telling us what is precious and what is not. When these faulty standards are exposed the effect can be ridiculous. This is why so much contemporary art is funny. Koji Ryui’s slap-stick duo, the one with its head buried in the sand the other observing, the straight man with a dead pan look, could be a metaphor for the artist in the world. The plastic bags printed with the message ‘have a nice day’, force us to think about what we are valuing as precious.
Art is the language of value, nothing more, not materials nor craftsmanship, but value itself. It is its capacity to translate, to elevate base materials to the pinnacle of social value, that makes it so fascinating. In the art world, these language games are entertaining, food for thought. In politics they are more serious, when it becomes the norm, for example, to substitute ‘illegal’ or even ‘asylum seeker’ for ‘refugee’. This is why we need artists to maintain the scrutiny on culture, to keep a constant check on what we are thinking is valuable today and what is not.
Nicole Page-Smith’s construction of plaster, wood and paint behaves in the same way, in its treatment of what appears to be a drawer as a picture frame, you could say she is asking us to view this work ironically. The problem is that as you go through the motions of appreciation, examining the finish of rough black paint, the fall of shadow on a plaster ‘landscape’, it does become beautiful. ‘Appreciation’ is a term used by accountants for valuing assets, things that produce value: the machine that manufactures the plastic bag. Without the machine there are no plastic bags. Without culture, there is no value. By going through the process of appreciation, we are working out our values, the values that maintain our traditions, the common language that allows us to communicate, underpins social cohesion, and most importantly of all, by making us aware of our norms, allows us to change.
There is also something comical about Sean Bailey’s painted concrete with its wooden half-frame resting on top of its circular ‘face’, as if measuring the height of its sitter. One could ask, if art can be made from what in another context might be called debris, if precious materials and craftsmanship are merely distractions from the main game of appreciation, does it really matter this week that Islamic State reduced the ancient Roman monument, the Arch of Triumph in Palmyra, to rubble? While this work scrutinises the value of line and proportion, the question only makes sense within the continuity of art history. By applying classical values critically, it is maintaining our literacy in its language by inviting us to engage in their appreciation. The Arch of Triumph is an enormous loss because it was an asset, not a thing of value, but something that was manufacturing values. The wealth it generated for us and future generations, its language, is lost to us now and we are the poorer for it.
Kevin Maritz bronze figure is much more overtly indebted to the classical tradition. Its carefully finished concrete plinth tells us this is precious, this is art. Perhaps even more than line and proportion, the value of the human figure is questionable now. The figurative tradition places the human form at the apex of culture but reconfiguring the hierarchy is not so simple. His forms are twisted, sometimes with a monkey-like tail. There is no objective position on humanity per se, there is no non-human alternative to the perception of ourselves. The temptation is to turn to God or Darwin, one or the other, whichever you like, but they are both, of course, operating within the existing culture. They are by no means objective.
Howard Arkley’s ostrich egg was one of many given to artists to paint for a charity fundraiser in 1997. It brings to mind the carved emu egg, an Aboriginal art practice and the kind of object one might expect to find in one of the suburban houses of his luminous paintings. In my mind it links colonial and Aboriginal Australia in questions about homeland, Australian land ownership and identity. This however, is not an emu but an ostrich egg, and the most important question to ask about Australian identity is the one of basic integrity.
A week or two ago Malcolm Turnbull became Australia’s fifth prime minister in four years. It has been a tumultuous period in Australian politics since Kevin Rudd was sacked in 2011, but without the creativity one would expect in response to such times. Instead of opposing arguments producing new ideas, the adversarial system has been adapted to avoid scrutiny. The philosopher Jeremy Bentham analysed this phenomenon in the late eighteenth century, describing four rhetorical ‘fallacies’ routinely used by parliamentarians:
First, fallacies of authority... to repress, on the ground of the weight of such authority, all exercise of the reasoning faculty.
Secondly, fallacies of danger... to repress altogether, on the ground of such danger, the discussion proposed to be entered on.
Thirdly, fallacies of delay... to postpone such discussion, with a view to eluding it altogether.
Fourthly, fallacies of confusion... to produce, when discussion can no longer be avoided, such confusion in the minds of the hearers as to incapacitate them from forming a correct judgment on the question proposed for deliberation.
We have seen important debates on mining and media control, refugees, climate change and school education, scuttled by the exercise of corporate authority, the fear of terrorism, the delaying tactics of denialism and lost in the confusion of science and religion. Language, Bentham argues, has to be constantly scrutinised by parliamentarians for the false moral sentiments that can become associated with words. These associations become most destructive when enacted in law, but they are maintained in daily practice through culture. By creating instruments of appreciation, artists keep culture under scrutiny and encourage the growth of value: they make us consider what is really valuable to us now about what we have and how we live. Most importantly, by making us aware of norms to which we have become habituated, they allow us to change them.
Because art is an instrument of language, the changes it encourages are not individual but social. Works of art are rarely revolutionary, their adjustments to the way we see the world are more subtle. Rather than replacing one mode of perception with another, they develop a multifaceted vision. By learning to yield to one another, we discover we have not lost our individuality, but gained an appreciation for the sensation of humanity.
 Jeremy Bentham, ‘The Book of Fallacies’, Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 2, John Bowring (ed.), William Tait, Edinburgh, 1843, p. 382, http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/1921.