Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Encounter in a suspended room

Just had a few days in Melbourne, catching up.  Catching up with sleep, with a couple of exhibitions, with some restaurants we've heard raved about, a bit of retail therapy ... that sort of thing.

The restaurants were great (one Indian, and one a blend of Chinese, Malaysian and Vietnamese).  Decor-wise, they were basic to say the least (paper on tables, no heating, gritty utility rather than fancy-pants aesthetics), and because one was full we were led past the kitchen and up rough stairs crowded with crates and baby-chairs and the behind-the-scenes accoutrements of a restaurant, to what felt like a spare room, but the food was delicious---absolutely---some of the best---and incredibly inexpensive.  Wonderful curries and naan bread in one, and excellent laksa in the other.

Got hold of a copy of Charles Bukowski's Post Office (a Gary Davison recommendation) from Borders, watched Pirates of the Caribbean at the Casino multiplex, and did all the other stuff people do when they live a fair distance from the city and want to make the most of a few days amongst the hustle and bustle of its commerce and culture.

One of the reasons we went this weekend though was to catch a couple of exhibitions at the National Gallery of Victoria.  An exhibition highlighting the Guggenheim_001work of 'Australian Impressionists'/Heidelberg School (McCubbin, Streeton, Roberts et al) only had a few days to run and we didn't want to miss out, and another exhibition featuring work from the Guggenheim collection just opened, so we thought we'd catch both.  Propitious timing.  Two exhibitions covering one hundred years of art, from the sentimental and occasionally twee to the self-indulgent and often pretentious, but with many stunning gems between.

So here we are, standing in a gallery where a cliché stencilled across a wall is declared to be a sculpture in the medium of language, and a slashed canvas explores the fourth dimension of art---the space behind the canvas---and a randomly heaped pile of liquorice lollies subverts elements of Minimalism amongst numerous other things, and I'm thinking ... well, this is when I notice the Pollocks opposite and also realise that the area of tiled floor I'm standing on is, in fact, an exhibit that invites me to directly interact with it as if it's a tiled floor, which of course it is and which of course I do.

I'm all for philosophical discussions about the nature of art and for playful exercises which challenge our perception of perception, the ways in which we see things, but find it difficult to accept that such exercises are art forms in themselves simply because they're questioning the nature of art.  It all seems to have little to do with artistic skill and more to do with a 'pseudo-intellectualisation of art' on the one hand and 'art as an investment commodity' on the other, and makes me wonder, as far as Conceptual Art is concerned, whether lunatics haven't ended up running its particular asylum.  So it's with a mixture of relief and trepidation that I step away from my interaction with the tiled floor and step over the threshold into a plywood 'room' suspended by four cables from the ceiling (so that it's held several centimetres from the ground).  Maybe by escaping into this sanctuary for a few minutes, I can better suspend my disbelief.

In the room stands a man, and for one moment I'm unsure whether he's part of the installation or not.  But he looks at us, then scans the room as if he's looking for something, and then looks at us again and laughs.  There's a note of uncertainty in his laughter, but he can't hold it in any longer it seems.

"Perhaps I'm not meant to laugh," he says, but is unable to help himself now.

We look at the four bare walls and the ceiling of bare plywood and begin laughing too.  The three of us are standing in a box laughing.

"I'm sorry," he says, holding his sides.

"Laughter's honest," I suggest, wiping my eyes.

"I think we're supposed to believe the room's floating," he says, and begins laughing again before stepping out.

And we step out a few seconds later, but he's gone.

And it's an interesting thing that, despite seeing some great paintings and prints further on in the gallery, it's this man's honesty I enjoyed most about our trip round the Guggenheim collection.  It's the image I want to remember above all others.  Whilst kids were told not to touch various exhibits (except the liquorice lollies, which they're allowed to interact with), and everyone was probably mindful of the millions of dollars spent on the collection, and some people 'oohed' and 'aahed' and some looked quietly baffled, here was someone who more or less said: "The Emperor's got no clothes on.  How bizarre."

And for my money, he was right.  It was refreshing to hear it said.  It was refreshing to leave the exhibition for Victoria Street and to find our way to an unpretentious restaurant that served great food at a price almost everybody could afford.

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