Saturday, January 23, 2016

The one that got Ai Weiwei

Blue Warhol with Marilyn (2013) by Pants

'My idea of a good picture is one that's in focus and of a famous person doing something unfamous.'

So said Andy Warhol back in 1979 in the bad old days before cameras could focus themselves. My idea of a good picture is one that ends up in the actual camera. There's a sad story to tell. Back in December I had a couple of days in Melbourne. I'd just been to lunch with one of my very specialist blog pals and exceptionally fine it was too. Niece Pants was due to meet up with me after lunch. En route to the meeting point, I received the obligatory text advising me that she would be late so I made my way to the National Gallery of Victoria to wait whilst she completed plaiting her eyebrows or whatever.

I was sitting at the rear of the NGV foyer on one of the soft vinyl furnishings provided, admiring Ai Weiwei's Forever Bicycles. As I pondered the impressive installation that dominates the space in a fashion that appears simultaneously spontaneous and meticulously calculated, a door to my right opened and out walked Ai Weiwei. The headline exhibition featuring his work alongside the work of his predecessor and mentor/muse-once-removed, the aforementioned Andy Warhol, was to open in a few days. Accompanying Ai Weiwei was a very tall woman in a pea-green dress. Around them, no one save a camera operator and assistant.

This is the hell of it. I'm between pocket cameras and I don't (yet) have one of those phones that everyone else has and I'm sort of deciding to get instead of a pocket camera, which I would have had and pulled out and, without even having to think, done as Warhol advised,

'Point, push down, and a lot, repeatedly.'

It was an opportunity too fortuitous to miss so I got out my dumb cereal-box phone, (which does, incidentally make excellent phone calls), set it to 'camera', pointed and pushed down. To my great surprise, the camera informed me that it was shooting a video. Well, I thought, what a hoot. I can post that. Who wouldn't want to see my queasy-cam footage, (minus the audio), instead of the national broadcaster's?

Sadly, the Pants purview is not available for comparative purposes. When Niece Pants finally arrived, long after the departure of Ai Weiwei, I asked her to help me find the footage and it had mysteriously disappeared. Niece Pants shot me a look that indicated she either thought I was pitching a porkie or, even worse, might require hospitalisation in a locked ward in the not-too-distant future.

So, I'm unable to embellish this post, which is (surprise, surprise!) about to feature the Andy Warhol/Ai Weiwei exhibition, with a piece of personal cinéma vérité. In lieu, I offer the one-I-made-earlier Kodakotype above. I hope you'll agree it's in keeping with both the ethics and practices of the two artists, if not exactly circle-squaring in serendipity.

In late December, I returned to the NGV and purchased my ticket to the wonderful world of AW2. I have learned to bring low expectations to exhibitions featuring world-renowned artists in Australian galleries. This is not only because of my highfalutin snobby ways. Australian galleries don't have the grand holdings of their European and American counterparts and it costs a lot in transport and insurance to bring valuable works to this country. What you get, (if you're lucky), are one or two of the great, well-known centrepiece works and lots of minor works, sketches, lithographs, diaries and objects - the workings of the artist's life. This version of an exhibition, if thoughtfully and imaginatively presented and curated, can be thrilling and illuminating - especially if you've been to all the great galleries and seen all the big pictures before.

The penny dropped for this hardy snob in 2011 with two extraordinary exhibitions. The first was The Mad Square: Modernity in German Art 1910-37, (NGV). I had seen a lot of German Expressionist painting but I had never even heard of the signature and centrepiece of this exhibition, Felix Nussbaum's The Mad Square (1931). This painting grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and screamed, 'don't forget me'. And I never have. I've been so haunted by it that I've spent some of the last four years since I saw it, making a painting of my own in its honour. The collages of Hannah Hoch, John Heartfield, Kurt Schwitters, the lithographs of Paul Klee, Ludwig Hirshfield Mack and El Lissitzky, drawings by Otto Dix, Georg Grosz and Max Beckman and photographs by August Sander and László Moholy-Nagy set before me a new kind of gallery experience. It was one that brought me several steps closer to the makers of this work than I had felt before and I liked it - a lot.

A month later, an exquisite array of minor works by Henri Matisse at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) in Brisbane, convinced me that there is a whole range of delights in the unexpected and previously unimagined. An exhibition containing just one major painting, the complete 'Jazz' set and a whole pile of drawings and sketches could so easily have come across as an attempt to part the ignorant and art-starved from their cash. But that's not how it played out. I realised that I had seen a lot of Matisse over the years but I had never seen this version of Matisse.

The great paintings are enigmatic and wonderful to see but there are many filters between maker and viewer. Sketches and drawings bring you closer to the artist's thoughts. I've previously offered on this blog my definition of a work of art - it's the map of a thought. There is something magical about being allowed to witness the imperfections, the workings out, the human frailty and find a connection to creativity, unencumbered by decades or even centuries of gilded preciousness. Sketches and drawings offer a nearness and tangibility that famed framed paintings hung high just won't tolerate. I found myself believing, as Matisse himself freely admitted, that he really wasn't very good at drawing. There was something enormously comforting in that demystification. I imagine it's also not a bad way for children to meet art for the first time and it's certainly a lot easier to see the wood amongst the trees.

People rarely exit an exhibition in an Australian gallery complaining of sensory overload. Our curators have real expertise in making a lot out of a little. NGV has hit pay dirt with this combo because there is a lot of quality work to choose from. Andy Warhol's always being accused of being 'ahead of his time' and he certainly seems to have anticipated the stratospheric inflation in art prices and the affordability consequences to far-flung public galleries. He took the precaution of ensuring that there would always be enough Marilyns, Campbell's Soups and Brillo Boxes to go around. It's not too difficult to mount a credible retrospective of the works of the master of ubiquity, even in Australia. One of the most interesting things about Warhol was his fascination with the banal. Because of him, none of us will ever be able to view a tin or a box as just a tin or a box. The 'fad' that is Andy Warhol has endured for an awfully long time and that isn't because the banal is inherently fascinating; it's because it can be, in the eye of someone who finds it so.

Ai Weiwei inherited the Warhol eye and the 'factory' mentality, being every bit as prolific in output. On the face of it, a mix-match of their work seems like a slam-dunk. There's so much crossover in emblems, tropes, styles, methods, you name it. They never met and yet both of them were interested in almost everything and it would be easier to find the topics that engaged neither of them than to list the subjects that absorbed both. But I can think of a thousand ways it could have gone horribly wrong. For starters, as much as I love the NGV, it can be a rigid and difficult space to navigate. The problem is compounded here by the splitting of the exhibition into two separate areas, which means you have to cross the noisy foyer, find your ticket again and re-engage on the other side of the museum. Happily, it isn't a mood killer.

Would the embarrassment of riches flummox curators used to operating on the principle of  'less is more'? Apparently not. There's thoughtful juxtapositioning*, (sorry, couldn't resist), of categories. Coca-Cola, flowers, snapshots of famous people, posters, publications, cats. Ai Weiwei is just as wonderful as he appears to be. Never has there been an artist who can cause so much delicious trouble and always come out on top. Alison Klayman's film Never Sorry is profound on so many levels, but it enters Nirvana when Ai observes,

'I have forty cats but only one of them can open a door.' (Cut to cat effortlessly leaping onto door handle and exiting triumphantly.) 'but the cat will never close the door,' Ai concludes.

Ai is a cat who walks through doors and leaves them open. Warhol was that kind of cat. And he knew intimately the comedic capacity of the cat. The Cat Resembled My Uncle Pierre (1954), is charming, funny and knowing. There is always a cat who reminds us of our Uncle Pierre, and why we love our Uncle Pierre, despite his frankly catlike aloofness when it comes to his nieces and nephews. To suggest that Warhol anticipated LOLCats is probably fanciful. Plenty of artists before him found cats funny. It's just that when you look at all the subjects that interested him, it's astonishing how many of them turned out to be, well, you know, a bit totemic?

There's so much in this exhibition to smile about. Any artist who takes on the capitalist monster and beats it at its own game is a hero to me. As luck would have it, Ai Weiwei's battles with the Lego company have coincided with this show. The resulting capitulation by the company renders the Letgo Room, made from donated Lego bricks, a triumph. Ai has made this work specifically for the NGV. It champions individuals, in particular Australians, who fight for the rights of others, often at great personal cost. The small 'room' is neither spectacular nor reflective, and yet seems so necessary. It contains faces and statements, bare and bold, made from Lego bricks donated by children. I just know that every child who donated Lego to this project will one day feel proud. Ai has the gift of translating a stance into a symbol that is powerful, universal and beautiful without appearing self-consciously earnest or preachy. And he makes it look easy and obvious.

The sheer fabulousness of both Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei is that they transcend populism by embracing it to the point of strangulation. Combined, they're a potent reminder that the establishment can be destabilized and probably should be, regularly. Their individual and enduring popularity may be that they suggest that a child could do it and probably should consider it as a career. They open the realm of possibility to anyone and everyone.

Andy Warhol wrote,

'Some company recently was interested in buying my "aura." They didn't want my product. They kept saying, "We want your aura." I never figured out what they wanted. But they were willing to pay a lot for it. So then I thought that if somebody was willing to pay that much for my it, I should try to figure out what that it is.' (The Philosophy of Andy Warhol)

He figured it out. The 'it' is product. He found a way to market the 'it' as 'aura'. Warhol's version of artisan mass production blurred the lines of value. People who had never collected art before bought his work. Without Warhol, there would be no Banksy, no Damien Hirst, no Jeff Koons and Ai Weiwei would have been a very different artist. Despite my pathological distaste for shopping these days, I exited through the gift shop in a way I hadn't done for ages, hungry for a souvenir. The catalogue is a good buy at AUS$40. I also splashed out on two postcard collections at AUS$20 each.

Andy Warhol - Ai Weiwei exhibition is at the National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne, Australia, World, Universe etc.) Finishes 24th April, 2016. Cost approx. AUS$20 - and is well worth it.

*please note that I have used neither 'whimsical' nor 'playful' in this piece. I believe that buys me some leeway. As you can imagine, the temptation bordered on heartbreak. My apologies for the 'profound' that slipped in there as well.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Not a partridge in a pear tree

Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo (2014) photograph by Pants
'It's a shower-cap year! I squeal as Niece Pants opens a present from Nana (Ma Pants to you).

Did I really say that out loud? Yes I did, apparently. Ma Pants is nonplussed. She is used to us making fun of her occasionally hilarious stocking fillers. Last time we had a shower-cap year, Sis Pants, Niece Pants and I all received stunning, heavy plastic shower-caps featuring the face of a large mammal. They even had fake-fur-lined ears. Mine's a hippo. I'm still using it - or was. It will be replaced with the infinitely more stylish leopard print from this year's stocking. Ah, the joys of the bathroom en suite. It contains secrets never to be revealed on Instagram.

Ma Pants is prone to giving identical presents to her daughters (aged 61 and 56) and granddaughter, who is now nineteen. Hence we have matching portable miniature lights, beach towels, bags and flip-flops and animal-print fleecy throws with sleeves and pockets. The latter, although extremely weird in concept, has proved rather handy in the bitter Larrikin's End winter. Ma Pants is a sucker for buy-2-get-1-free deals. How convenient that there are three of us. I will admit to being similarly vulnerable, when it comes to films and TV series but I draw the line at shower caps, just supposing it would ever occur to me to buy a shower cap as a present for anyone.

Christmas at House of Pants Snr. is a reasonably relaxed affair. We agreed to keep it low key with minimal presents, as we do every year, with mixed success. We all got what we asked for this year, more or less. One day we will get the hang of timely on-line purchasing. Thanks are due to the yoghurt people who not only got Ma Pants's present here faster than a drone chasing a downhill skier but filled my inbox with endless progress reports on its perilous journey across state boundaries. I'd like also to extend my eternal gratitude to the UK bank where I parked my tax refund all those years ago and from whom I've been requesting a new debit card for at least the last four. Out of the blue you send one! Just in time for me to benefit from the much cheaper UK book prices. Due to some upheaval anxiety idiocy on my part when I set up the account eight years ago, the only access I have had to it recently has been via a cheque book. It isn't a lot of money but, now that I have a new debit card, it will keep me and my family in books we might otherwise deem an unaffordable luxury for a few years.

The under-tree presents contained no shocks. It's in the stockings where danger often lurks. In the past mine has unleashed unusable art supplies, unwearable jewellery, unfathomable novelties and cosmetics including a dubious product called body butter. What am I, a baguette? Happily, I've never said that out loud. The body butter I slid into the darkest corner of the guest bathroom where Ma Pants is never likely to find it. The other things go home with me. Unusable art supplies can sometimes be made to work with a little lateral thinking and the trinkets sometimes breathe new life as an element in an assemblage. And then there was the year I received the 23-piece pedicure kit boasting the claim 'similar to as seen on TV'. Well, I had to lug that all the way home to Larrikin's End where it resides, unopened, in a dark corner of my en-suite bathroom cupboard until I can find an art-related use for it. Nail-clippers is about as sophisticated as it gets around my extremities and I have no desire to alter that state.

Christmas dinner has been a problem in the past as Sis Pants and I are (mostly) vegetarian. Happily, we can flex into pescatarians when necessary. It often is necessary as the vegetarian 'option' at most Australian restaurants is invariably badly cooked penne in insipid tomato sauce with some packet parmesan sprinkled on top if you're lucky. And it costs the same as the rib-eye steak. Yes, I know there is such a thing as a vegetarian restaurant, but I'm reasonably certain there's a by-law prohibiting them in Larrikin Shire. 

Ma Pants can't conceive of a meal containing neither meat nor fish. If I make pizza, it's got to contain at least a couple of anchovies. Like most almost-always-vegetarians, I have a weakness. Mine is not bacon, but its close culinary cousin - smoked salmon. This Christmas we voted to choose a special food each. I chose smoked salmon, and lots of it. Other years we've had swordfish or salmon steaks or barramundi. That entailed me queuing up at six in the morning on Christmas Eve with a lot of people who hadn't been inculcated in the finer points of queuing etiquette. The result was a bad temper and fish that never tasted quite fresh enough when cooked the next day. A cold buffet in an air-conditioned room is easily the best way to eat Christmas dinner in the tropics. 

Christmas can be stress-free provided you do all the planning and preparation beforehand. Every year Ma Pants invites a depression-prone friend for Christmas Dinner. Every year she accepts and then phones at eleven on Christmas Day to say she's not well. We set a place for her and then remove the setting after the call. She phones later in the day to say she's feeling better. It's an event, or rather non-event we simply factor in. Every year Ma Pants and I search the supermarket shelves for cream that can be counted on to succumb to a good whipping. We never remember the name of the brand we got last year or whether or not we were able to whip into a fit state to top the pavlova. I don't care that much as I don't like pavlova. I voted for Christmas pudding - with ice cream. Memo to cream makers - here's an idea from the UK you might take up. There's a market for a product called 'whipping cream', at least in the various houses of Pants.

Every year we forget to put something relatively unimportant out. This year it was the chocolate snowballs. 'Oh no!' exclaims Ma Pants as she discovers the untouched packet in the pantry this morning, 'we forgot the snowballs.' Easily done in a Queensland summer.

And there you have it, a very Pants Christmas. 

Thursday, November 26, 2015

A ribbon won't fix it

Mean (2010) Kodakotype by Pants

Yesterday was Try Not To Bash A Bird Day here in Australia. Our record on domestic violence is so appalling that we now have a dedicated day to angst about it whilst festooning our lapels with yet another little piece of folded satin ribbon to demonstrate our commitment. The Government has even pledged $100 million (or $41 million or $30 million, depending on the media source), for a campaign to educate men that beating up on women and children is 'just plain wrong.' Perhaps we should be spending money on the more obvious problem - if that message needs spelling out, it would indicate a lack of innate morality.

It's not that men don't know it's wrong, more that they're conditioned to believe that it isn't really their fault. This view is supported by the unlikelihood that they will be charged and convicted if they batter a partner or children. It's just as likely that they'll end up with control of the family home and custody of the children, having rendered the woman homeless. We all know that cheating on our tax 'is wrong' but many of us do it because the chances of getting away with it are quite high. This is not an attempt on my part to be flippant. Violence against women and children in this country is as casual as slipping a few extra magazine subscriptions and taxi fares into the tax return for some men. Through convoluted moral manipulation, we can kid ourselves on that it's our right, perhaps even a duty, to play the system. All the better if society tosses us a nudge and a wink.

Occasions like White Ribbon Day afford little more than the opportunity for some public hand-wringing and possibly even a sob as 'we all know someone who has been deeply touched by domestic violence'. But that's all we'll be getting. A website, an app, an ad campaign suggesting that biffing birds is not in keeping with the Anzac spirit, yadda yadda. We can expect to be bombarded with motherhood statements suggesting that being nice to women is good for the economy or perhaps an imperative involving a deus ex machina - 'this violence must stop' - as if violence is somehow externally controlled. It may even be counter-productive as it offers justification for the sufficiency of a token gesture.

Donning little ribbons and chucking some small change at a systemic problem is standard operating procedure in Australia. The $30 million or $41 million or even $100 million supposedly pledged is a drop in the bucket compared to the money that has been withdrawn from women's support services like emergency housing and legal aid over the last couple of years. 

The 'findings' of yet another report into violence against women and children seem to have come as a bit of a shock to our urbane and debonair Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull who appears horrified to discover that his hail-fellow-well-met-countrymen tend to be more Wolf Creek than Downton Abbey. He rather naively thinks the problem is to be solved by ordaining that,

'Women must be respected. Disrespecting women is unacceptable...'

Sounds rather like Lord Grantham issuing a decree that black tie is not permissible at table under any circumstances.

Yes, it would be nice if all the violent men in the country suddenly adopted the silver-tailed etiquette of our prime minister, but in the meantime, perhaps the Government should be considering the consequences of its own enabling actions. Did it not occur to these people that women who have no place else to go might have no choice but to stay with a violent partner? Or that a woman with no access to legal assistance might be shy of going up against her violent partner representing himself in court? 

The other day I was listening to the radio and heard a first-hand account by a bi-polar woman who had had a baby and had to go off her regular medication. Despite warning the doctors several times that she was at risk, nothing was done to assist her. She eventually had a psychotic episode and was hurled into a psychiatric ward with two schizophrenic males in the throes of heroin withdrawal. A male nurse watched on while she showered. Now, that's what I'm talking about. Try not doing things like that, eh?

The hypocrisy mounts. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton was keen to nail his little white ribbon to this particular mast, conveniently forgetting that he is personally responsible for placing hundreds of asylum-seeker women and children at risk of rape and violence in offshore detention centres. I have no doubt that most of the people who participated in yesterday's worthiness are genuine in their desire to see an end to the festering violence happening behind more and more of our closed doors. But misfires abound. Despite criticism from women over years that Walk A Mile In Her Shoes efforts are misguided, male officers of a government department yesterday walked to work at Parliament House in an array of nonsensical shoes.

I'm sorry to have to say it but the behaviour and attitudes are so entrenched in this country that the men don't even appear to know when they're contributing to the inequality deficit. It's no good saying, 'oh well, at least they tried to help', as if they'd merely applied their ineptitude to the washing up and it can all be thrown into the dishwasher later. There are times when the wrong something is a lot worse than nothing.

I'm not sure if it's cluelessness or low animal cunning but men have found a way of maintaining the status quo whilst performing apparently credible caring-shaped actions. They support progressive moves towards greater equality when it suits them. We're encouraged to celebrate 'gender fluidity' but I only see the benefits flowing one way. When men drape themselves in garish versions of women's attire and call themselves women whilst acting out pantomime vanity, it's all women who reap the ridicule of that. That behaviour is attributed to women and it perpetuates the stereotypes of narcissism and silliness that have plagued us since Marie Antoinette's passion for shoes sparked the French Revolution

When gender fluidity results in more women in boardrooms and a woman prime minister who is allowed to govern free from bullying, I might start to see it as a good thing. Right now, it more resembles identity theft from this side of the gender divide. I'm not having a go at transgender people - well I am a bit. I'm just saying, don't let down the sisterhood, otherwise you start to look like a double agent.

It's worth considering domestic violence in context of The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse that has been running for the last couple of years. It has been burbling away in the background, routinely uncovering sexual abuse of children in church and institutional settings as well as schools. A recent case involves a school counsellor in a posh Brisbane private secondary school who was allowed to abuse children unhindered for nearly two decades. And then there's the case of the gun-toting priest in a Melbourne Catholic primary school, whose reign of terror had a similar tenure.

These phenomena have so many elements in common; the threats, the victim blaming, the power trip and the capacity to operate with impunity. Hiding in plain sight as the titular leader in any social context appears to afford an abuser seemingly endless cover. The fact that we, as citizens, almost always believe the testimony of the most powerful appears to be the fault in our stars. That is some motivation for a violent opportunist, and it's the rotten core of the problem that needs to be exorcised

I know I'm always saying this but I do truly believe it - this nation won't overcome violence until it comes to terms with its brutal and oppressive foundations. That's the bitch of it.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The desire for desires

Not drowning, waving (2010) Kodakotype by Pants

I'm writing a new novel. It's loosely structured on the subject of desires. Not desire for romance or a new fitted kitchen or bigger tits or anything vulgar like that but the desires that supposedly motivate we humans to do whatever it is we do. It began to strike me that my 'drivers' as they say, are not travelling in the same lane as most people's. In my mind, I'm speeding happily through Tuscany solo in a lime-green Austin Healey Sprite while most of the rest of the world seems stuck in motorway traffic in a white Ford Focus with three petulant offspring and a flatulent Labrador. Perhaps these disturbed souls are dreaming of winning the lottery so that they can buy a BMW X5 or a new fitted kitchen or bigger tits or a sex holiday in Thailand, (with bigger tits as an early booking bonus). A significant point of difference always indicates to me that there is a project waiting in the wings.

It was my birthday a few days ago. I turned sixty-one blissfully unaware that this event should make me miserable rather than put me in the state of heightened glee in which I found myself. The world and I are not singing from the same pianola roll; that has been evident for some time. To my shock and without the slightest dint of cognition, I have morphed into a crazy old bat that everyone humours but no one believes. I received several birthday emails exhorting me to 'do something nice'. Sadly, one of my oldest friends wanted me to 'do something different'. Gratifying to know that people have so much faith in one, innit?

Why would I do anything different? I do exactly as I please every day of the year. Can that be bettered? I hardly think so. I don't measure the value of my experiences on whether or not they'll look good on my CV or Instagram. There is nothing more unattractive to me than going through the motions of an approved activity for the benefit of others. Parties ceased to be fun for me when they acquired the competitiveness and faux earnestness of a nineteenth-century novel and everyone brought Perrier because they were driving or breast-feeding or both. It's so much more thrilling to express abandon alone than to attempt polite conversation with people who think you're drinking too much. Why don't people know that? And yes, I can guess what you're thinking.

Hmmppphhh! I can see why her friends have had it with her!

Perhaps that's how it ought to play out. Perhaps I will come across as someone who protests too much to be credible, but, believe me, I am content with my current speed and direction of travel. I have neither wants nor urges now, merely a fascination with desires. If being understood is out of reach for this crazy old bat, then I have to say that being ignored is infinitely preferable to being 'handled'. I'm presumed to be in state of loneliness - a default position unless one is surrounded by grandchildren and cupcakes. That's not the case at all. I'm solitary. There's a huge difference. And why the fuck does anyone imagine I moved to this idiotic coastal fishing town anyway? I wanted a cheap ocean view and a space to contemplate. And, above all, no distractions. Distractions are the enemy of work.

Speaking of which... The idea for the novel comes from the title of a book of short stories by Leo Tolstoy, Boredom: the desire for desires. I haven't been bored in the colloquial sense in years. The worst kind of boredom involves other people and waiting for them to arrive or leave or decide or fashion a thought bubble into a cogent sentence, that kind of thing. I worked out a long time ago that other people can cause time to elongate in confusing and not entirely pleasant ways. If one limits access, hones focus and adds lots of decent wine, it's possible to enjoy company. So that is exactly what I do.

Yesterday, as I was preparing my favourite brunch of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs on rye toast with fresh dill and parsley from the garden, I listened to a radio item about boredom. From a great height, a penny dropped. Apparently boredom, in the sense that one has failed to be engaged in an approved reportable activity, (hey - that's me paint-balling in world-heritage wilderness!), has been outlawed. An academic expounded,

We're conditioned to say, Oh, I'm so busy!

Now this goes some way to explaining why I've been baffled for so long about why everyone is acting strangely. I must have missed that particular upgrade, the one that conditions us to emote a state of being permanently, madly and outrageously busy on contact. I'm a fleecebook and twidda refusenik and prepared to accept that this makes me a social outcast. I don't mind that. I've been saying for years that conformity on this level is very bad for society. And I've been met with howls of derision. Well, fine, be like that then. I remember how much fun it was in the seventies when independent thought and messing about with ideas was encouraged, along with shoving two defiant fingers into the face of the establishment. It was a time when one didn't have to prove one's sentience by drawing attention to oneself every hour on the hour.

The power to refuse can be potent when control depends on a willingness to join in. I hadn't realised quite the extent to which subversives like me are considered a threat and, well, a bit creepy. Old friends lob me a quarterly email that always begins something like this,

I'm so sorry it's taken me so long to write but things have been frantic.

Routinely, I reply promptly. I pride myself on my time-management skills and I'm unerringly punctual. Invariably, I begin these replies in a conciliatory tone,

Please don't worry, I understand that people are busy...

Which is total bollocks because I have no comprehension of this version of 'being busy'. If you have too much to do, surely you solve that problem by doing less and sticking to the things that are either enjoyable or necessary to sustain life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, don't you? And perhaps you could find a way to tell old friends that writing long emails to them is a burden too far in this modern world. That, I believe I would understand.

On Art of Pants this week, I wrote about something that the artist Michael Craig-Martin said,

People who make things have a different understanding of the world than those who do not.

As I said in that post, I was happy to discover that I have a 'different' understanding of the world as I had previously thought the place a complete mystery and was cheerily resigned to the parallel life I'd managed to establish. However, it appears I might yet be right about a few things.

The academics on the radio show claimed that a lot of people were discontent with this life of frenetic and often meaningless activity and synthetic connectedness. The key, it seems, is to get in touch with one's inner self. Well, no shit Sherlock. Surely there's an app for listening to the birds sing or watching the grass grow. What, no MOOC for teaching your mind to roam free? Well, not quite yet, however, a suggestion was made that learning to daydream could be built into the primary school curriculum.

Laugh, well, I nearly drowned. Ordering children to daydream is likely to be as successful as sending them out to buy cigarettes. I've always been a champion sleeper. In the first few years of primary school the teachers used to make us take off our shoes and lie down on the floor on manky old mats with no pillows, three children to a mat, and sleep for half an hour. Presumably this was so that they could sneak off to the staff room for caffeine and a fag. Slumber under these conditions was impossible. An otherwise enjoyable pastime turned into a nightmare of crawling insects and foot odour. I can just imagine how the children of today will respond to the instruction to daydream,

Please Miss, could we do some long division instead?

I wouldn't trust it either. I would immediately suspect that my thoughts were being monitored for nefarious purposes. And you know what, they probably would be. How else would the system assess the efficacy of this radical experiment? It makes one positively nostalgic for the days when the teacher hurled a piece of chalk at you if you stared out the window.

The novel. Well, I set myself a goal of a lazy first draft to take on Christmas holiday and I'm a little over halfway there with six weeks to go. The process is a bit like NANOWRIMO but without the external discipline. It's also a bit like daydreaming, but with fingers. Oh, do get your mind out of the gutter. I set myself a target of 1,000 words a day. It's a three-month project and I'm comfortably on schedule.

It might not be any good. I don't know and I don't care. That's my superpower - not caring. It's a very useful superpower to have and it's an effective substitute for both confidence and inclusion. It's dancing like no one's watching. It's also a great companion to invisibility, a superpower which all women my age have. Provided we resist the pressure to conform for the sake of others', er, what is it exactly? A desire? A duty? To be reassured? Absolved? I've given up guessing. Provided we can tolerate being dispassionately surveilled, we can do pretty much as we please. This is a freedom I would not willingly relinquish.

My mother never approved of daydreaming. If she caught me staring at nothing, she would always say,

Do you think the rain will rot the rhubarb?

So the obligation to be busy or appear to be busy or whatever the fuck it is that is rendering everyone bonkers isn't a new thing. Sadly, when I spoke to her the other day, Mother said,

There's so much I should be doing!

You may ask yourself what an 86-year-old woman in declining health should be doing, exactly. Wonder not, because I asked. Predictably, the activity was a perennial one in House of Pants Snr; moving her stuff from one room to another 'to make space'.

She and I have a very different understanding of the concept of 'space'. Must go now, the grass is whispering...

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Magpies and makings

Magpies (2015) by Pants

The Australian magpie is not, as far as I know, associated with the superstitions of its European counterpart. Being of a highly superstitious disposition, I salute them anyway, just to be on the safe side. There are plenty about at the moment. Many fear them as they can be aggressive and prone to swooping at the heads of passing pedestrians and cyclists. This hasn't happened to me since I've been in Larrikin's End. I tended to think it was because of the saluting. What bird doesn't respond to a respectful gesture? I now discover that magpies only attack certain people. How they decide upon who is a threat is probably as arbitrary as our government's decision-making process when it comes to the threat posed by refugees to our national security.

I watched a magpie build a nest in next door's ghost gum. It's about six storeys up in a swaying tree. I wouldn't like the chances of any eggs that happen to fall out of that nest. The European magpie is known for collecting trinkets for decoration. Wikipedia informs me that our magpie and the bower bird are passerines. Bower birds are known for their enthusiasm for re-purposing found objects but I don't know if the magpie shares this predilection. The magpie is known for its musical versatility and ability to mimic. I have heard one do R2D2, which was quite a treat. Recently, there's been one around that has mastered the call of my oven timer. I've got a terrible memory when it comes to putting food on to cook and forgetting about it has caused some near disasters. It's not uncommon for me to put eggs on to boil and forget about them so I always put the timer on and then, sixteen minutes later, squeal,

What the fuck is that beeping!

It's just as likely to be a magpie these days. There is a football team in Melbourne called The Magpies. On one of my first trips to the city, I was sat at a pub with a friend and there was a menu board out front. It read, 



And I said,

What's a go pie?

Well? Context is everything. Since then, I've developed a recipe for my own go pie. It contains everything from my fridge that needs to go into a meal or into the compost. Never let a good idea go to waste is my motto.

I hate waste. Yesterday I posted an item on Art of Pants about a small assemblage I made from a plastic paintbrush handle I found on the beach. The whole piece cost me under $1 to make. I bought a frame for 50c from a local charity shop and had the other items I needed to hand (an orphaned fake pearl earring, some black card, Araldite). I conclude rather cheekily on the that post that I can't understand why artists need to apply for grants. What's wrong with making things from whatever one has lying around? It would be different if I wanted to replicate the piece as a 200-foot long balloon and suspend it from Sydney Harbour Bridge, I admit. But why would I want to do that? Arts funding in Australia is so ludicrously fraught that it seems a lot easier to learn to be content with small pieces made from rubbish than to spend all that time competing for money that you probably won't get anyway. This way you get to really assist the environment rather than going to all the bother of explaining to a bunch of arts administrators how you're going to comment on the environment with your artwork.

My favourite work by Picasso is Bull's Head. Forget the $100m paintings. This is the one I'd pick if I had my choice. I do love the ambitious visions of Anish Kapoor, Rachel Whiteread, Anthony Gormley, et al. But I've always been just as impressed by a surprise Banksy suddenly appearing on a street I walked down daily. Art can cost a lot or it can cost nothing and, for me at least, there can be little in it. Damien Hirst's For the Love of God is indeed very beautiful. It is quite something to be in a room with it for a couple of minutes. When I saw that paintbrush handle lying on the beach and pictured it with a pearl for an eye, I thought that idea as profoundly beautiful as a $50m diamond-studded skull.

Sometimes, life really is black and white - with a salmon-pink background, obviously.

Monday, August 31, 2015

PC Issues

Shark Net by Pants (2015)

There is no new post for August as I have PC issues which will hopefully be resolved later this week. Instead, I reproduce this post that appeared on Art of Pants recently.

I finished this piece yesterday*. As I walked around Lake Larrikin in the morning, I spotted a pod of Bottlenose dolphins close to the shore. 'Seeing dolphins is a good omen,' I thought. I bought a lottery ticket, went home and finished the assemblage above. In the afternoon, I lay on my winter-sun sofa and read a section of Karl Ove Knausgaard's Boyhood Island. The boy Karl Ove and his grandfather spot a pod of porpoises in the sea off their Norwegian island and the grandfather tells Karl Ove, 'seeing porpoises is a good omen, you know.' My chances of winning the lottery improved.

When it comes to Karl Ove Knausgaard, I am one of the firmly gripped. Boyhood Island is the third in the series My Struggle. I have read the first two in English and have asked the kindly people at Larrikin Library if they will be so good as to purchase the fourth, Dancing in the Dark, which is recently out in English translation. In the second book, A Man in Love, Knausgaard paraphrases Lawrence Durrell's method of novel-writing - 'you set a goal and go there in your sleep.' This method also works for assemblages. The elements are all out there, they just need a few sleeps to come together. 

I found this piece of driftwood last week. Australian artist Fiona Hall constructed a wall of animal-shaped driftwood for the Australian Pavilion in this year's Venice Biennale. There is an awful lot of it on the beaches of southern Australia and the Larrikin coast is no exception. I've made a few animal-inspired driftwood assemblages myself, some of which have previously appeared on this very blog. The piece featured above struck me initially as shark-like but it could also be a very angry dolphin. 

I immediately began to sift through my mind-closet for a suitable mount and remembered that I had a long, thin, framed board among the many that I've purchased for a few dollars each at charity shops over the years and that it had a blue, 'stressed' frame. It had previously displayed a Zodiac poster - Cancer, the Crab. Presciently nautical, I thought. I had a sample pot of emulsion that would do for background and some water-based gloss so there was no expense there. My initial thought was that I would make a piece that mimicked a trophy. Then I remembered that I had some garden netting in the shed.
Some popular Australian beaches are strung with nets to help prevent shark attack. I am strongly against these (unless of course I am swimming at one of these beaches, in which case I feel a lot safer). The nets kill other marine animals including turtles, seals, rays, dugongs, small whales and, yes, dolphins. Bad, bad omen. 

I decided to make a piece about shark nets. (That lottery ticket should pay off tonight.) Apart from the usual problem I have with assemblages - i.e. the assembly bit (note to self - Araldite will not stick anything to anything). Happily, the piece of driftwood had two well-positioned protrusions on the underside which were amenable to screws. After a great deal of unladylike language and wishing that I had several extra available hands, the thing came together. 

It's not clear from the photograph above, but the little rock at bottom left has the word 'DREAM' chiseled into it. I have no idea where this object came from* but it was kicking around and it was the right colour so it went on - and so far remains, thanks to a generous blob of Araldite. Dream is a word that has special significance in Australia, especially in relation to nature. It seemed right to add it in.

I have a feeling that the 'DREAM' rock might be from a conference pack dating back to the late 90s, when an element of warm-fuzzy, body-mind-spiritedness was often woven in to soften the hard-data coldness that tended to dominate public-sector proceedings. I can never bear to throw this sort of artefact away. Superstition can be good for art.

* July 2015

Friday, July 31, 2015

The awful truth about Australia and racism (again)

Blurring the lines (2009) Kodakotype by Pants

It has been a vile week in Australia. I didn't especially want to write this post because many of the things I'm about to say, I've said many times before. But every week, every month, every year, things get worse in this, the birth-mother country that feels less and less like a real home and more and more like an ideological prison. This week, we really broke it when we hounded an Aboriginal man - a sporting hero and courageous activist - into silence. This post will contain no original thought but this is not a day for original thought. It is a time for simply standing up for what is right.

My personal abhorrence and intolerance of racism has been expressed many times on this blog. One of the reasons for this post is that, of the six hundred entries on That's So Pants over nine years, one of the most popular is this one. I wrote with some pride in 2007 about how Sydney had responded to the Cronulla riots by training a group of Muslim women as life guards. At the time I was living in Britain, where I had been since 1982 and was blissfully unaware of how skilled Australia is at papering over nasty cracks with a token gesture and a few reassuring words. I got played. I believed the hype. I wanted to believe it. And now things have gotten a whole lot worse since I rode back in on the wave of hope and enthusiasm generated by Kevin Rudd's apology to Indigenous people in 2008.

I have written in support of Aboriginal football player Adam Goodes before too. Now, the former Australian of the Year has taken time out and may even retire after being hounded by crowds and pilloried by the media over a prolonged period of time. Curiously, his singling out coincides with his speaking out about racism, calling for reconciliation and overtly expressing cultural pride. Journalist and football fan Waleed Aly spelt it out here - this really did need saying. And it needs repeating until we finally get it. 'Australia is generally a very tolerant society until minorities demonstrate that they don't know their place ... the minute somebody in a minority position acts as though they're not a mere supplicant, we lose our minds.'

Australia is and always has been a racist country. The degree to which racism manifests depends on 1) how regressive a government we have at the time and, 2) what's happening in the rest of the world. Right now, our political 'leaders' are a bunch of a self-serving, light-fingered jobsworths captained by a fork-tongued creep who makes a show of head-patting Indigenous people for the television cameras whilst openly plotting to cut off their essential services and hand over their lands to his mining buddies. Would you like smallpox with that blanket? (Snigger, snigger.)

And the rest of the world? Well, that's a very sorry story too. With the mega-rich hoovering up more and more global wealth, there is less and less for us ordinary folks to share between us. When that happens, we look for someone else to blame for our reduced opportunities. We can't blame the rich because they're paying our shrinking wages, so we turn to a group we've traditionally oppressed and we have another bash at them. The rich and powerful are leading by example, setting the tone. Trickle down doesn't work with money but it works a treat with oppression. Look at what's happening in Greece right now. You lean on people, they lord it over someone even more powerless.

There's an especially virulent form of racism that white people reserve for black people. White Australians have routinely directed casual racism at other fellow immigrant groups from the Chinese who came during the nineteenth century through to continental Europeans after the Second World War, the Vietnamese following the Communist victory and lately refugees from conflicts in the Middle East, North Africa and Sri Lanka. But Indigenous Australians have always been bottom of the heap. All the other groups form a buffer, so that we can occasionally say, 'see, we pick on them too.'

I agree with Waleed Aly, visibility plays a big part. Racism against black people generally is becoming more pronounced and violent whether it be towards Australian Indigenous people, African Americans or refugees waiting in Calais for the opportunity to scramble onto a truck heading to Britain. Racism in the United States has gotten worse since Barack Obama was elected president. A black man in charge terrifies the cotton socks off white men. And he's talking about racism now - finally, but who can blame him, you're no good to anyone assassinated. Many black Americans have written about the primal fear that white America has of blackness but few as potently as Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic this month.

Back home, Celeste Liddle tackled the white fear of black assertiveness in The Guardian with the challenge, So an imaginary spear is more terrifying than racism? Really? Many have drawn the obvious parallel - if the Maori Haka is routinely performed at sporting events to roars of delight, what's wrong with Adam Goodes doing a traditional war dance when he scores a goal? Is it because only one of these displays is a programmed and approved activity for which we white people have been given a full and satisfactory explanation? Two years ago, Adam Goodes called out a 13-year-old girl who called him 'ape' during a game. At the time, it was generally felt that he handled the situation with grace and sensitivity. Now, he's being recast as the villain of that situation - a grown man bullying a child who obviously isn't very bright.

So, let's accept that, as a nation, we're racist. Then we can look at the equally interesting question of why are we so desperate to see ourselves as something else entirely? This piece by Sean Kelly provides a comprehensive roundup of the many avenues of denial down which we have been merrily strolling. Why go to all the bother of enacting this elaborate charade to conceal our racism when it would be so much easier to confront it and move on? Isn't this what you're supposed to do with bad character traits? Why doesn't someone call Dr Phil and get us on a program so that we can sort this out once and for all? The first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one, right? Somewhere in the collective consciousness, we know that racism is wrong otherwise why would we bother brazening it out like a bunch of primary school kids who've been caught trying to set fire to a toilet block?

Anyone who has ever been bullied in this country will tell you that once the bullies have crushed you, they'll immediately gush with faux concern about the state of your mental health - the inference being that you must have been a bit cracked anyway to break like that. And so it is with Adam Goodes. Suddenly everyone's angsting about the effect this will have on him emotionally. Guess what fellow citizens - this is not a group hug moment. This is a group shame moment. We must act to stop racism now.

If you would like to demonstrate your support for Adam Goodes and honour his courage, please sign this petition on