Friday, January 29, 2010

Review: 66a Church Road

The last decade or two have made it painfully apparent that there is a new super-race who regularly gather in secret to create dastardly concoctions the likes of which us sorry mortals could never conceive. Unlike most reptilian illuminati, however, this group meet in quirky places such as treehouses in New Jersey backyards, gingerbread shops in Munchen and sun-dappled punts floating their lazy way down the Cam. They draw charmingly na├»ve pictures of ducks in waistcoats while plotting their next gambit regarding world domination. Sometimes they all wear tracksuits and play elastics and wonder if post-post-irony is a concept worth pursuing. On a quiet candlelit eve, they might crane their necks to look over the shoulders of lifetime members Mssr Gondry and Ms July and the assembled members of The Arcade Fire to watch as Dave Eggers takes a quiet sip from one of their latest homebrews and nods sagely before pronouncing his verdict: 

“Needs more whimsy.”

There’s a bit in Daniel Kitson’s new show where he deprecates the smug arrogance of the person who claims to appreciate the tiny imperfections of daily life – who begs a fondness for the wonky stairs of their home, as opposed to finding them something in need of fixing. It’s a moment in the show that seems vital, since Kitson is exactly this person. He does find meaning in his wonky stairs, and his works in recent years have for me been characterised by just that smug arrogance, dealing as they have with the allure of obsolescence: cassette tapes, lollipop ladies, fireworks, English food.

I never really thought Kitson hit the mark, though. He was a famously misanthropic stand-up who made his name with an inimitable ability to excoriate the targets of his wrath in brilliantly verbose fashion. Then he reinvented himself as an arch-humanist, a teller of modern fables, an observer of life’s less-appreciated moments of tiny wonder. The kind of person who’s three guitar lessons away from calling himself a troubadour. I didn’t buy it.

Review: The Drowsy Chaperone

God I hate theatre. I really do. This isn’t some exaggerated lead-in to a joke but a simple statement of fact. I don’t go to theatre and comedy and circus and everything else out of an undiscriminating love of live performance. I don’t go out of a sense of duty, either, believing that theatre is in some way worthy or important. I think most theatre is unimportant, and self-indulgent without being self-aware, and disposable and tiring and futile. This is why I go to about 200 productions a year. Not out of unbridled enthusiasm but out of spite.

It may sound like a strange admission but I think it’s a healthy approach. It means I enter a theatre with one thought in my head: surprise me. Give me anything at all that won’t confirm my worst fears. Show me why people love theatre and prove that they’re not just weird freaks missing out on life.
It was encouraging, then, to hear the opening lines of MTC’s The Drowsy Chaperone as they rang out in a darkened Playhouse: “I hate theatre. It's so disappointing, isn't it?”

The Bear Facts

Is there a connection between New York's Death Bear and Melbourne's Apocalypse Bear?

"Love hurts. Dreams die. But when you summon Death Bear to your door, you can rest assured that help has come."


"Reality is splintering into shards of mirror and a casual, congenial bear is showing up at people’s houses. If you’ve had a bad day at school, he’ll take you back to where it all went wrong. Or he may invite you to the woods – a place of myth, transgression and discovery, where outcasts can start again – but with grave consequences."

I think I read somewhere that Death Bear's routine of coming to take away objects with painful associations from your home backfired a bit when one of his ex-girlfriends arrived to give him back all of his stuff.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Foreign Dispatch

I went on holiday. How was it? None of your business. Our business here is art, and despite my best efforts I did end up seeing some art on my holiday.


This labour of love is one of the most interesting art museums you’ll never find. It’s located in the basement of a gigantic housing block on an estate in Shanghai’s French Quarter, and it can be a struggle to locate. It’s worth it, though.

Owner Yang Pei Ming has amassed more than 5000 works from postwar China, mostly centred around the Cultural Revolution. Ordered chronologically, it’s a visual tour through a half century of evolving ideology, but just as intriguing is the way art intersects with politics. This was a period (or succession of periods) when Chinese artists were required to create work that promoted particular Communist ideals, but the propaganda aspect often overshadows the fact that these were still the country’s top artists. If Van Gogh or Picasso or Warhol had to follow the party line, would their creations be any less fascinating?

There’s an extra layer of significance given the way much of this work directly represents sides of China’s past that not everyone might want to remember – in the West, at least, there’s a very partial and skewed understanding of this era of recent history. And given the image of extreme state censorship we have of the country’s government, along with the fact that you’re seeing this stuff in a basement… well, there’s an air of mysterious subversion to the whole affair.

Yang Pei Ming told us that there’s no direct word for ‘propaganda’ in Mandarin. The closest, and the word he uses in the Chinese title of the place, is closer to ‘publicity’. Fitting, when you consider how much art produced in the ‘free’ world is exactly that. Publicising a particular politics is often today seen as a degradation of art’s lofty ideals; this disengagement from politics can itself be seen as an affirmation of consumer-oriented, laissez-faire capitalism’s attitude, though. I mean I bought a bunch of art from the Propaganda Museum. What does that make me?


To Taipei: this epic piece of physical theatre fits neatly into that genre I know as “people in amazing costumes walking really, really slowly”. It’s visually arresting but eventually very dull. Here’s some video of the show, but like most stage performances translated into YouTube format it’s a different beast once you’re seated and watching it without the benefit of a telephoto lens. Not that we were sitting far away, but even with a dozen rows between the you and the stage there’s a distance that obscures some of the more interesting details of the piece.

It's a bit like Matthew Barney on horse tranquilizers. Choreographer Lin Lee-Chen seems to be a bit of a national treasure in Taiwan. I’m guessing this on the basis of turning up to a 2pm performance on a weekday and finding the National Chang Kai Shek Cultural Center packed to the rafters, and we’re talking a four level auditorium here. In fact the show was sold out but we scored some tickets after somebody cancelled or something. I wasn’t asking questions (which is fine because I probably couldn’t have understood the answer).

It’s hard to imagine Hamer Hall selling out a Thursday matinee performance of a Robert Wilson-style show. Which is what Song of Pensive Beholding really is: one of those massive international pieces of theatre that aren’t really about anything except themselves. It’s the kind of thing that’s memorable because of its budget, not because of any particularly striking originality on the behalf of its maker. There may have been specific cultural references that I missed, but to me it worked in that internationalist style that screams “pick me up for your festival”.


If you’re anything like me, the question “do you wanna see Legally Blonde the Musical in Korean” only has one possible answer. I mean, the Broadway production scored seven Tonys and musicals are HUGE in Korea, but really: it’s Legally Blonde the Musical. In Korean.

I can’t say that much about the show itself since it was, you know, in Korean. It seemed like a lot of fun. There were two dogs in the show who were the crowd favourites, even if they only appeared for the few seconds it took to wander out to the spot where a doggy treat was obviously planted and then head back to the wings where a wrangler was equally obviously planted.
And there was the unfortunate fact of the leading character’s name – Elle Woods – which is a combination of sounds hilariously at odds with Korean phonotactics. Easier to tackle were the English phrases retained – there are a hell of a lot of “OH MY GOD”s here – although I was disappointed that I couldn’t understand the Bend and Snap song.

There was also a scene set in a Lotte department store, and I don’t recall there being such a ridiculous celebration of shopping in the original movie. Moreover, Lotte is a conglomerate of incredible scope – it’s literally impossible to escape. There are Lotte hotels, shops, amusement parks, candy, cinemas, baseball teams, construction companies, and so on. So when Elle Woods and her new boyfriend go shopping for a suit, it’s both unsurprising to find Lotte popping up and completely bizarre to realise that you’re watching product branding in a commercial musical. I’d love to know the deal that went on there. (Trivia: Lotte is named after a character from Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther.)

Would I see the show in English? Probably. It was bright and fast and colourful, and Kevin Jackson’s review of the London version is pretty positive. There’s also the basic disappointment of seeing a musical and being unable to sing along afterwards because you couldn’t understand a word of it.


This is probably the best exhibition of visual art and sculpture I’ve ever been to. I never realised contemporary Korean art was so exciting, but I was almost overwhelmed here. There’s not really much for me to say and less point in saying it, since unless you’re in Seoul you probably won’t get a chance to see it, but if I were a visual artist thinking of applying for an Asialink residency I’d be doing everything in my power to get over to Korea and try to tap into whatever makes that stuff so dang good.

 Yeondoo Jung: hyperreal images often inspired by childhood drawings (literally in some cases, where kids' crayon scribblings are recreated as live scenes)

Sanghee Song: fascinating photographer with a very subtle, ambiguous touch. A bit like Cindy Sherman, maybe.

Osang Gwon - these sculptures shouldn't have the impact that they do, but for some reason they have more of an 'uncanny valley' effect than anything else I've ever witnessed. Just standing in the same room with them is unnerving, and a big part of you believes that there's someone inside.

Dongwook Lee - beautiful sculptures of tiny people, usually forming a kind of physical pun.

Yong-Baek Lee - it's hard to tell from this shot but in these gigantic wall-sized photos and videos are hidden ARMY MEN WITH GUNS. It's gobsmacking when you realise it.

Also situated in the same gallery (the National Museum of Contemporary Art) is a ‘dialogue’ between Nam June Paik and Ik-Joong Kang. Paik’s tower of hundreds of televisions has been in the space for decades, I think, and is much more impressive than the Paik piece that appeared in Melbourne at the NGV a few years back. Kang has long created miniature works, and here he arranges tens of thousands of them spiralling up around Paik’s tower. I hope it’s a permanent installation, because the effect of slowly ascending and comprehending the scope of this exchange is breathtaking. I’d go back.


Seoul is lovely in winter, it really is.

Monday, January 18, 2010

What's an Arts Minister to do?

Lynne Kosky today resigned from politics. There'll be plenty of coverage of this over the next few days and I'm not a political reporter so I'll leave it to people who can write better or at least more coherently than I can. I do expect that most of this coverage will focus almost exclusively on Kosky's role as Minister for Transport while omitting any mention of her other portfolio. If you can remember what that might be, have a biscuit as a treat (but only one, because biscuits, like The Arts, are a 'sometimes' food).

As Minister for the Arts Kosky was almost *never* called Minister for the Arts. Sure, she occasionally provided a quote or two regarding a festival or a cultural event or whatever, but she certainly won't be remembered for radical action or pushing controversial legislation or forcing a rethink of what the arts in Victoria mean today. She got plenty of stick for the myki debacle and other transport woes, but she - and indeed any arts minister - is rarely held to account for the state of our creative culture.

But that's not a gripe, and indicates something that's pretty tricky. Peter Garrett is in the same position: his lack of action regarding the arts in Australia is frequently a point of complaint, but in the same breath we'll assert that too much governmental influence on the creative sector is a bad thing. Wishy-washy efforts such as the call for a national cultural policy statement are fine because they don't really do anything. More direct involvement with tangible (usually fiscal) outcomes are more suspect, since we don't want bureaucrats dictating the shape of the arts.

So Kosky's successor will probably fall into the same role, stating that the arts are all about pushing boundaries (if anyone's ever spotted one of these boundaries, please email me) and asserting what a great city Melbourne is for artists and audiences. At the same time, venues such as the Tote (the live music equivalent to La Mama) will close and the issue will be seen as one of safety legislation rather than cultural moulding.

Would it be a good thing to have an arts minister who would actively lobby against the closure of such venues? Who would aggressively assert the need for more creative spaces and voices in the same way we need a better public transport system? Who, with their staff and relevant consultants, comes up with proposals and plans that show some kind of vision, or at least passion? Even Robert Doyle, whose politics I often disagree with, is remarkably supportive of the arts in Melbourne and clearly gets a kick out of the stuff the city produces.

And now for my own counter-argument: I don't really have a problem with the way Kosky didn't show up for the arts party during her tenure. With the amount of work her other portfolio must have required, I don't see how she could have found much time to wade knee-deep into the arts. Moreover, nobody seems to be quite sure what an arts minister is supposed to do, and this is largely because there are no precise definitions of what is constituted by "the arts". This is something I noticed when I was overseas recently (ie a couple of days ago):

Despite the moaning, we have an amazing arts culture, if only for the fact that we even think there's such a thing as an arts culture. In many countries there isn't even a thing called "the arts" - there are practices we would put into that category, often brilliantly accomplished, but there's no distinct sphere which goes under that name and can be distinguished from the rest of life. Or, if there is, it's radically different and perhaps unrecognisable to us.

To even have an arts minister is profoundly odd, I guess. What is the minister actually administering? What are the problems they're appointed to address? What dangers should they be safeguarding against? I don't think these questions are often raised, and I'm not sure that they're ever answered.