Art of other years promotes 2017
As the chairman said, “SWELL is a stayer!” – and so it appears, to stay forever in its same format, exactly the same year after year. It sets a very poor example for the artists, a torpor displaying a lack of interest in ideas. Sadly, the disinterest appears to be catching. There is no use in repeating previous critiques; everything this year is as before, was; and as before that too: this is SWELL 2017; SWELL 2016; SWELL 2015; . . . all as seen in previous years.
SWELL appears to have no interest in innovation, in excitement, in things new and different. It shows no intrigue with the exploration of ideas and possibilities beyond promoting what happened previously. The graphics are the same; the tents are the same, in the same position, selling the same booklet at the same price – a publication dated 2017, but filled with images of other works submitted in previous years, and with over one quarter of the ‘new’ images being preliminary sketches of works apparently not yet completed, perhaps not yet started, at the time of publication. It can hardly be called a catalogue, and remains a poor record of the event. It is like having Monet’s rough sketches of his paintings published as a catalogue of an exhibition of his finished works. Why might this be acceptable for SWELL when it is likely that a gallery or sales room would find such a proposal dodgy; unacceptable? A catalogue is supposed to represent an accurate overview, a precise presentation; a detailed, explanatory record of the works on display, not just rough ideas for what appear to be incomplete or envisaged works: what might be yet to come.
To be pedantic, the centrefold site plan for 2016 has 52 red dots to illustrate 48 artworks; at least 2017 has 51 dots for 51 works! The two diagrams are identical, apart from the one extra dot in 2016. The 2017 image took out one dot and moved another to get the extra text included: SWELL MEETING POINT. This map shows how SWELL works to a fixed plan, a diagram of a festival to be repeated forever, maybe. The 2015 map, with 55 dots for 55 works, seems to have made more of an effort to represent true locations rather than to merely rehash an old drawing. One wonders: why do these maps never number the works in their locations so that, say, one can walk directly to, perhaps, number 31, without having to wander aimlessly around the whole esplanade and beach areas reading signs? The map could be much more useful than the coloured centrefold infill pretends to be.
SWELL seems to look backwards more than forwards. The works are still scattered in the same way - by same artists? - across the same piece of land, with the same excessive signage and the same poor lighting: everything is familiar, apart from the Smalls Gallery that, this year, was moved two kilometres away – as if getting there might be no problem at all. Previous years saw the sculptures gathered on the esplanade and along the beach. This year they stretched to beyond the motorway, as if to try to connect with the new Smalls Gallery space. “It has a bar” was the apparent explanation that sought to quell the swell of dismay at the idea that this Smalls Gallery might be so distant. It was as if merely walking over the road from the beach might be too easy, too comfortable; perhaps too much related to the commercial food outlets managed by others? Why isolate this part of the exhibition? It was sought out just after 4:00pm on the last day, Sunday, but it had gone. It seems that the place could not close down fast enough; or was it that these were the usual commercial hours of this quizzical DUST TEMPLE? - ‘fearless creativity’: see - http://www.dusttemple.com.au/ One wonders: what relationship has this enterprise with SWELL and its promoters? Is there any connection for this extreme dislocation to become acceptable/desirable?
Is SWELL too involved in itself and its inner organisation to take no notice of critiques; to be concerned with difference; with ideas; with futures? Why is the chairman so happy with everything as a ‘stayer,’ even with his oddly described, ‘ever-diplomatic duo,’ the curators? What is this strange and subtle nudge about? Is it an inside joke? SWELL will die a long and struggling death if it merely keeps repeating everything, year after year: it will stagnate. Why will ‘the public’ come for the same, time and time again? Such a strategy does nothing to suggest that the artists should do anything differently. So we see, if not the same artists, the same techniques, the same materials, the same themes with varying subjects. Familiarity does breed contempt, as the saying goes: SWELL needs to take heed. Seeking and publishing self-praise shields, blinds all awareness of its own problems; it conceals potentials: it embeds a lazy satisfaction. Things must change, offer new challenges; ideas must be pushed to the limit. It will take a concentrated effort. One wonders if SWELL has reached its limit – the boundary of its dreams and endurance.
We see in the works too many little things lost on the lawn, being challenged by the odd rock, waste bin, stump or broken branch, or sign, for ‘arty’ attention. How does SWELL decide to display its submissions; and where? Just plonking pieces on the grass or in the sand, willy-nilly, as the ad hoc maps suggests might be the process, appears to give the current situation, where the effort to fill the available space seems to have become the real challenge, rather than revealing the essence of the works, and enhancing their inter-relationships, both with each other and their contexts so as to display the very best of everything. In the television show LEGO Master, the French artist/modeller pointed out to contestants that when creations are taken outside into a natural setting, things change significantly. He said that the works need height to maintain some identity, otherwise they just get lost as minuscule pieces in nature. The advice can be seen to hold its sense in the scattering of little pieces and parts that lack boldness and coherence, offering merely what appear to be mindless objects lost in space and place: number ‘x’ by artist ‘y’ with a title ‘z’ - next. The trees, the stumps, the seats, the rocks, the posts, even the rubbish bins and other ‘civic’ paraphernalia are mostly larger and more prominent than the artworks. Is this why they assume such an importance; why they frequently confuse the visitor who arrives with so many expectations? The challenge is to make them significant everyday!
It is ‘place’ that needs attention. Distributing works willy-nilly with labels and warning signs that are larger still, does nothing for the experience of the works or the location. SWELL offers nothing permanent for Currumbin, when it could and should. Art needs to be more than the whatever, anywhere: your guess.
A small girl was heard to ask her mother: “What’s that?”
The response was astonishing: “Whatever you want it to be.”
If our art is just anything that one wants it to be, be this seen from the point of view of the artist or the onlooker, then we are in a spinning world of meaninglessness, lost in a fantasy of explanatory words and ad hoc interpretations attempting to transform nothing into substance, like the alchemists of old, trying to turn lead into gold. One does not have to read the artists’ words to know that, as usual, they will be full of, well, themselves: blurbs about some vision, hope or personal experience or intent. We have seen it all before. SWELL appears to offer no guidance to its exhibitors. Why is such seeming trash acceptable?
The catalogue is opened randomly: Daniel Clemmett, number 30, has illustrated a rooster: the text finishes: ‘Busying ourselves with nothing. “My shopping trolley murdered; my groceries just gone!” Pauline Pantsdown.’ And this has to do with a rooster? Just above this, number 29, Manning Daly Art explains: ‘Tidal Intersection symbolises our invisible connection with the moon as the oceans rise and fall.’ The associated image is a blue crescent shape arcing around a sunset: ??? One could go on and on. Consider another random opening: number 27, Jordan Azcune: ‘White Caps optimises its position in reference to the sea while parodying the complex nature of symbols within maritime and surf culture.’ One assumes this might be so for Jordan, but . . . ? Art must be better than this, much better. It is not merely any personal whim with some ‘deep’ explanatory text. It is not random hoo-haa rationalised with an essay on the meaning of life.
Curators, the chairman – everyone involved – need to stimulate matters to create a new energy, a liveliness, an interest that is missing in this regurgitation of other times, and the delight in this self-promotion: ‘look at what we have done! - again!!’ Art must be more than ‘anything interesting, quirky and different.’ It needs substance, grit, true meaning to hold the inner self, to engage and change: it needs necessity. It is not entertainment or a quirky tourist promotion, even if sponsored by Queensland Tourism & Events. It requires care, commitment and skill; and roots – depth and substance. What we see on display this year is the same random clutter as previously presented. The critiques are the same – just read the reviews of the previous years:
One can only hope that next year there will be something of quality to review other than the cliché identity and phantom reality that has become SWELL, a surge that keeps pushing itself forward irrespective of those who might seek to encourage otherwise. In this conservative sense, the title is appropriate. One hopes that it might gain meaning in other senses, perhaps that of an upheaval, an energising push for change, revolution. Without this, every SWELL will be its sure and certain 'success,' promoting itself as the same forever, publishing texts by premiers, ministers, mayors and chairmen that could be repeated every year and still hold some semblance of relevance, complete with the centrefold site plan that always looks the same, surrounded by adverts that are familiar; and numbered artworks that, it seems, may not even have been yet created beyond some vague sketch prior to publication, providing confusion rather than clarity with some scribbled image that one has to link to the final piece on display. Every year the publication is the same, the same content and context, all for $5:00. It is the $5:00 payment required to vote for the People’s Choice! Is this management’s choice? Why not open opinions to all? Why sell voting rights?
Why not try a SWELL without any submissions, merely using the built environment as a basis for numbering and naming? At least this strategy might surprise and allow folk to envisage their environment differently. Maybe both strategies might be possible in parallel? Why not? Just seeing a stack of different ‘artworks’ each year surrounded by what is the clutter of our normal beach place, only makes our esplanade appear less than ordinary – not art. When garden beds get planted with ‘we’ll grow and survive anywhere’ plants, laid out ‘artfully’ as borders and centrepieces, with a conservative, cliché carefullness in a stone circle, then one wonders what hope their might be. Why not have a SWELL improvement of the esplanade rather than a cluttering of it. Just how many signs were there reminding visitors not to climb on or to touch the artworks? The great danger was that these signs themselves could trip folk up, such was their random and plentiful location. Maybe they needed yet another sign: ‘Mind the signs,’ to warn the visitor of the danger? One is reminded of the ever-growing ‘civic’ clutter, of both signs and stripes, that seeks to help Councils avoid litigation.
Then there are the winners, a family choice: the Neumann family. Like history, those with money and control create the choice that becomes the story. Number one was the rusty crab, (sculpture 08), $15,000; number two, the fabric lighthouse, (sculpture 06), $3,000; three was the ‘white whale,’ a puzzling frame of feathers and fans, (sculpture 17), $3000; four, for an ‘emerging’ artist, the monster, (sculpture 39), $1,500; five, a meagre $1000 for a Peer Award – so much for experience - was the chain hands, (sculpture 51): see http://www.swellsculpture.com.au/awards/ - yes, a chain sculpture again. The first one was excellent; the second one was interesting; then the others seem to be ‘as seen previously,’ no matter how much effort went into the clever work.
What might one have chosen? It is always difficult, because small pieces never appear to hold the stature or public prominence required for a ‘big’ prize. The glass tree that looked like jade mesmerised; the silver leaves in the tree were subtle; the pink noodle structure was simple and powerful, reminding one of the Pictish brochs of old. The latter pink plastic structure was certainly big enough to qualify for a big prize, but its material probably let it down – cheap foam plastic noodles pushed through a rusty mesh grid does not, apparently, make ‘great sculpture.’ What might Michelangelo have thought?
There was some surprise with the military pieces; a certain disquiet. Why a bomb? Why pencils becoming artillery items; a wall of sandbags suggesting a bunker? Has our era some sense of imminent war? Then one hears just this morning, 20 September, Trump’s careless, almost foolish, unstatesmanlike words at the UN to ‘rocket man,’ that the US will ‘totally destroy’ North Korea if challenged. Maybe the ‘war’ pieces are ‘saying’ something about our time?
A bus stop to Chile? - WOW: is this not clever? The work puzzled and worried. Is this why architects now try to create fragmented and fractured, 'light' works? Is this approach to fabrication now seen to be arty?
‘WOW!’ appears to have become the ‘in’ expression. It is heard repeatedly everywhere on television – WOW! Is it such shows as Britain’s Got Talent etc. that seek out the ‘WOW!’ factor in performances that have generated this outcome in ordinary, everyday speech, an expression that has the frequency and same nonsensical meaning that ‘COOL!’ has? ‘WOW! COOL!’ is seen as a useful communication, just as ‘COOL! WOW!’ is: “WOW!! How about that! COOL!” . . . etc.
It is really easy to create ‘WOW!’ and ‘COOL!’ - it is extremely difficult to capture, to hold meaning in substance that can move spirit and mind. A prancing acrobat can do the former; a quiet Buddha, the latter. Too many artists are acting like clever acrobats, not realising they are crashing to the ground. It was not immediately obvious that any artists at Currumbin were making ‘Buddhas,’ although their texts might be suggesting otherwise.
There are only challenges remaining. One can always say that SWELL is better than nothing, that it does engage people, ‘the public,’ with art; but what sense is there when anything can mean anything? This is the definition of chaos, of Babylon: babble seeking sense but remaining meaningless, incomprehensible. When might we learn to attempt something of substance; something truly beautiful? First of all we need to understand that beauty can resonate only when it touches reality. Dreams and visions of self-promoted geniuses are not art, and never will be useful for anything but self-promotion: ‘Look how clever I am!’
Yes, just look to see how ‘clever’ SWELL is, doing what it always appears to be doing, promoting only itself. The artists seem to have learnt from this strategy. Does money only get given to the safe and conservative outcomes? Are prizes only given likewise, or, in the extreme, given to the most outrageous so as to generate ‘promotional’ material in the press outrage? A few bits of chicken wire, rope and string on some sticks will be unlikely to win prizes, although the mask work by Sally Simpson, number 18, is astonishing in its clarity and transparent simplicity, while it holds the power of mystery and tradition not seen in anything else.
Wandering through the works, it is probably more interesting to look at the people, their children, and their dogs: children asking questions; climbing and playing on and around the works; standing looking with puzzlement; explaining their ideas; asking questions: the dogs doing likewise in their own way. One lady stood at the Vince Vozzo twisted head sculpture, number 34, with her head twisted likewise, mirrored askew, as if successful viewing required this contortion. Many paused, looked, moved on after clicking the mobile phone, verbally summing up the piece, or dismissing it, ready to do likewise with the remainder. The task was to see all the sculptures. Others walked and talked into their mobile phone, oblivious of the surroundings: “I have only another two weeks on my contract then . . . ”, more interested in ‘otherwise,’ anything else, than being there; as were other talkative, perhaps lonely beings, who love regurgitating their life stories to strangers, as though they might have been travelling on public transport. Being at a sculpture festival only seemed to offer an array of new listeners for these loud folk, little else.
The 'thought of the day' seen in a Dubai restaurant came to mind: Those who talk all of the time only tell what they know; those who listen quietly can learn something new. There were just too many distracted minds wandering along the esplanade, concerned with much more than the artworks before them. Did this say something about the ‘art’?
The final response has to be on this year’s commentary is: see the other years’ reviews and ponder possibilities missed:
Is this apparent inattentive nonchalance why our everyday environment is becoming such a shambles?
Mind the signs
2016 chairs and dog in 2017 catalogue:
what will 2018 reveal?
For previous SWELL catalogues, see: