State galleries have demonstrated overwhelming success in rising to the challenge of expanding and extending Australian audiences. Crowds flow through the doors; children drag their parents and minders in to be part of the often lavish extension services programs they offer and focus groups get special walking-talking tours through exhibitions — often for no cost at all.
This is especially evident during the holidays, during which time any promise of spaces for "contemplative silence" are transformed into labyrinths of often noisily enthusiastic engagement as audiences talk about the work, walk amid the work, lie on the work and interact with the work in a gamut of inventive ways.
The rules of "look but don't touch" have been broken and "keep it quiet" attitudes of rapt respectfulness have made way for works that set out to break the barriers between the art and the viewer, and to establish an awareness of continuities and contingencies that the viewers carry with them into the world beyond the gallery.
Along with such success there's been a growing association of art with entertainment. And while aesthetes and purists might scoff and bemoan that development, the association is hardly a new one. Art has twinned with entertainment in its various manifestations throughout the ages, and it's often used the close relationship as a means of raising other issues — issues that might require longer and deeper responses than quick cheap thrills.
Late in the school holidays in this first summer of 2018, the Australian Open staged its pitch as the sporting entertainment not to be missed. Taking full advantage of the crowd-pull, the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) was quick to draw post-tennis audiences to a week of up-late-live festivities showcasing its own "main game" — the inaugural Melbourne Triennial, an exhibition of international contemporary art featuring the work of more than 100 artists and designers from 32 countries.
While the sporting world is always keen to invite contenders for claims of "the best of the best", the art world, (such as it is) is more circumspect.
Nevertheless, every generation calls into emergence the work of artists who speak with great clarity and acuity about the world and times we share. They give us imagery that helps us to understand our jumbled, data-saturated thought-scapes, and from time to time they provide us with new visual language with which we can rethink hard-worn perceptions.
Yet others are capable of triggering shared responses from which audiences can see freshly with clearer vision; or to re-present familiar issues afresh.
Art gets Insta-savvy
However, in order to do this, exhibitions have to be planned and presented in ways that coax audiences' responses to the work.
Not only do exhibition designers need to be mindful of the broad range of educational awarenesses of their audience members (from the very young to the elderly; from those with rich and informed interest in the visual arts to new-comers), they also need to cater for potential visual exhaustion, and plan an inclusive, diverse viewing experience that generates a range of moods and responses.
It's a tricky job; one that must keep the objectives of entertainment and the possibility of edification in balance.
If the response of the crowds that have swollen all four levels of the NGV since the Triennial opened on December 15 are anything to go by, the art-as-entertainment mix is working. Why? The immediate answers seem obvious:
- the exhibition pulls audiences from awe to wonder to amazement to amusement at every turn;
- it plays with scale in playful ways, jettisoning audiences from Swiftian Lilliputs (where, for example, you seem to hover weightlessly over Alexandra Kehayiglou's woven Santa Cruz river in Argentina) to Brobdingnags (as you wander through Ron Mueck's ossuary of 100 gigantic skulls;
- it's aesthetically Insta-savvy; and
- it's free.
Oh... and there's one more thing ... just when you were thinking you were a mere spectator on the rollercoaster ride of aesthetic fun, it slowly dawns on you that the entire experience has been deeply, often disconcertingly, challenging.
Beyond your comfort level
One of the great strengths of this exhibition is that it's been as carefully planned as a high-end package tour — scattered between the exuberant high-points and the more challenging works are a series of "recovery points" — installations where the viewer can come back to just standing still, or even lying down, to draw breath. For the overall experience of the exhibition is almost as physical as it is emotional. Clever stuff.
It's only after you've left the show that you become aware that you might have been led through something that took you emotionally and intellectually further than you might have otherwise been willing to go.
Individually, not all of the works might be drop-dead "winners". But neither are all the players in the Oz Open; that fact doesn't interfere with the all-over experience of the event. At times the stories behind many of the works — the often unlikely collaborations and communities that brought them to life — are more interesting than the end products.
In the foyer, right behind the NGV's famous weeping-glass curtain, a technicolour felt structure halfway between a humpy and a cut-felt yurt marks the show's start. It's a shelter-within-a-shelter; a meeting-place where clusters of people sit together waiting to join their companions before beginning their Triennial art odyssey. Above them, the structure's limbs arch upwards, each tattooed with riotously colourful stitch-work. The images are details of water that flows through country surrounding the Larapinta Town Camp at Alice Springs. A collaboration between the Yarrenyty Arltere artists, Sao Paolo-based designers Humberto and Fernando Campagna, and Alice Springs based designer Elliat Rich, the project involved a range of small local industries in its construction. It evokes Australian Aboriginal knowledge of place — of country.
From this intimacy, the audience moves into the towering, light-saturated NGV foyer, where Chinese artist Xu Zhen's 18-metre Buddha reclines with an impassive tolerance as a range of statues from Western history crawl over it like so many white maggots. It's big, it's brash, it's confronting, and it lays claim to both the immense scale of the exhibition's ambition while also signalling the less-than-interesting aspects of its showmanship: East meets West, spelled out bold.
From here the exhibition has transformed the gallery cafe into an ersatz Moroccan tea house designed by Hassan Hajjaj.
This is a riotous space, where visual art is recombined with fashion, music, recycled artefacts and food with an inventive exuberance. The artist has re-worked the furniture, the wallpaper, the photographs and the framing in a collision of "high" and "low" cultural forms that sit easily with the impacts of globalization. Concerns about the potential cultural flattening by globalizing juggernauts slip away in a space where you're surrounded by material evidence that new, locally specific cultural forms will continue to bubble up, mutate, transform and survive.
A celebratory spirit continues throughout the exhibition in a range of appropriately nuanced ways.
There's a lot to see — a lot to think about — a lot of selfies to take. And, unlike entertainment at the tennis or movies or theatre, you have the benefit of knowing you can leave at any point and return to pick up where you left off.
Weapons of war as tools of art
But just like avid sports fans, there are "biennale-tragics" who commit themselves to seeing as much as they can. That kind of "feeding frenzy" can exhaust even the most hardened art patron.
Perhaps that's part of the reason why, when I finally made it up to the fourth level of the NGV, Richard Mosse's three-screen installation, titled Incoming, had such an overwhelmingly engaging affect at the penultimate conclusion to the exhibition.
But if so, I was not alone in being enthralled — the darkened room was full for the entire duration of the lengthy (51-minute) screening, with nary a single tell-tale cellphone light-up in sight. The audience was gripped.
Incoming reminded me that, even for the initiated, art can pack a sucker-punch like no other.
Just when you think you've seen all you need to see — heard all you need to hear — about the interminably ongoing plight of refugees and global warfare, along comes a work that delivers a response with such unpretentious immediacy that you're set back on your heels wondering why the universe around you looks suddenly altered.
Inside the black box of the screening room, Australian composer Ben Frost's soundscape alternately batters and assaults, seduces and soars. Across three large screens, cinematographer Trevor Tweeten's imagery is simultaneously eerily familiar and disconcertingly strange: human figures are captured by an infra-red lens that transforms them into fragile skeins lit by an inner light.
They wander through burned cities, refugee camps. They huddle together on frail vessels on high seas; they wait on shorelines like lines of unwanted cargo. The camera moves in to random intimacies - these heat-glowing beings console, play, touch, pray.
But the cycle continues — on board naval vessels, against the soundscape of roaring jet engines, more missiles are launched. On shore, teams of doctors search tiny child-size body bags for signs of life.
The audience sits engulfed, spilled over by flashes of light as if they too are part of that same black/white fluttering of presences brought into vision through shared warmth.
Mosse's infra-red camera is classified under international law as a weapon — one capable of detecting body-heat in complete darkness over a distance of 30.3 kilometers. The artist has turned the surveillance instrument back on its origins, coming in close range to reveal what surveillance sees; revealing the minutiae of detail in responses and interactions that would otherwise be out-of-bounds.
But Mosse maintains his own territory out of range from easy moral and ethical high-grounds. Instead, his work delves into the heart of darkness of each of us in the audience; the work acts like a heat-seeking missile, streaking out through the darkness towards the possibility of making new connections, new perceived contingencies, and the hope of new possibilities for the future.
If Mosse's work is able to be included under the banner of art-as-entertainment, it's entertainment of an extreme kind — one where you exit feeling that all your responses, relationships, responsibilities have been re-adjusted. It's as if you've borne witness for the first time to a war that we were beginning to think we could forget.
There, just as you were relaxing into the entertainment of it all — you have it — art being (eerily) beautiful; art being surprising; art making demands back on those who are brave enough to enter its space.
Of necessity, public galleries must package as entertainment. They're public funded institutions, and they're out to attract broader demographics than the "initiated".
And surely that's as it should be. Perhaps those concerned with diminishing art through incorporating it into entertainment should be less concerned.
Throughout history art has managed to escape from any strictures of labelling and categorical containment. And it is still capable of reaching across boundary-lines and divisions to touch each one of us.
Artist and Professor Emeritus at the Queensland College of Art Patricia Hoffie was named a Member of the Order of Australia in 2018 for her significant service to the visual arts, and to education, as an academic, and as a contributor to a range of cultural institutions and associations.