More from the Mailbag

In the spirit of helping enterprising students get better grades for their university assignments, I hereby answer questions from “C”, who emailed me recently … there may be some overlap with a recent mailbag response to another student over here.

C writes:

Hi Lucas

I am currently studying fine arts at uni, and have chosen In the Balance for my essay in which I must critique a current contemporary art exhibition.

I am very excited about the show as it combines both my interest in environmental issues and in art. I am also hoping that it (and particularly your piece) will challenge art galleries, artists and viewers to think about sustainable practices in visual arts. I have a couple of questions I was hoping you could share some thoughts on.

1. What do you think the main purpose of the show is?

2. I assume one of the aims of the show is to engage the public audience to think about their own role in current environmental issues? Do you think it’s fair to say then, that a good measure of the success of the exhibition will actually be how people respond to the issues they were exposed to, after they leave the gallery? (For example discussing or debating the issues with their friends, making changes in their lives to lessen their carbon footprint etc.)

3. By allowing themselves to be ‘environmentally audited’ and by drawing attention to the relationship between art and environmental sustainability, do you think the MCA has potentially opened themselves up to future scrutiny, in relation to how they conduct future exhibitions and also the types of artists they invite to exhibit?

4. Are you concerned that the public may also hold you (and some of the other exhibited artists) more accountable in the future for the way you conduct your art practice?

5. Have you found the general response to your work and/or the exhibiton, to be positive, negative or both?

Once again I can’t thank you enough for your sharing your time and thoughts with me. Best of luck to you, and I’ll let you know when I am visiting the show again.

Regards C

The Auditor Responds:

Dear C, thanks for your questions. Good ones! Here are my responses…

1. I don’t think I can answer that question. Perhaps you and others can help me out here? What is the purpose of any art exhibition? To entertain? To provoke? To boost the egos of all concerned?

If it helps, Rachel Kent in her introduction to the exhibition catalogue writes that In the Balance “responds to current environmental debates”. Maybe that’s it? It’s a desire by the MCA to chime in – to have something to say about the hottest topic in town right now. I don’t mean to be facetious. It would seem absurd for any contemporary art museum to carry on full steam ahead with their curatorial programming without taking some time to at least consider this subject matter. Don’t you think?

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2. Good question! First of all, you suggest that we might measure the success of an exhibition by the impact it has on gallery visitors’ lives and the ripples in the “real” world outside the museum. One of the difficult things is actually how to go about measuring this impact. How would you do it? With a survey or questionnaire? And what time scale would be appropriate for measuring this change?

Regardless of these difficulties, I do think that your question reaches towards something that is seldom considered in art. Usually we accept the artist’s statement of intentionality, and combine this with an interpretation of the visual experience of the artwork by an expert who writes about it, and we leave it at that.

Thus the whole world of “audience experience” remains an unknown gaseous cloud of wonderment. Personally, I want to breathe in some of that cloud – so I try to build artworks which incorporate into themselves (at least to some small extent) my own audience’s experience (through dialogue online and interaction in the physical space of the installation). But of course all artworks can’t be expected to function in this way…

Just to twist this a little – one way that I have been “measuring” the success of the exhibition already is by noticing some cultural change within the MCA organisation. In this way, the folks who work at the museum themselves form one of the exhibition’s most important audience-communities.

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3. That remains to be seen. I suppose the MCA is viewed to a certain extent as a “public” institution. “We the people” tend to have opinions about how things should and shouldn’t be done in such places. Whether or not the museum had staged an exhibition of “environmental” art, it will be scrutinised more and more in the coming years, and compared to other institutions as to how it performs and behaves in the emerging climate-change economy.

I reckon there will soon be an across-the-board frowning upon the shipping of artists’ (and curators) bodies and big heavy artworks internationally. This will be a sort of “art-miles” idea – the equivalent of the food miles thing that’s currently going around. In other words, an overt connection will be made between the distance the work has travelled and its perceived quality. Quality in art will relate more and more to ethics of production and distribution.

To return to your question about scrutiny… In my own experience, a good way to convert potentially negative criticism into a fruitful generative yield is to jump in first: to subject oneself to public scrutiny before anyone else does. Rather than erecting an impenetrable brick wall around the way they make decisions, organisations (and individuals) can acknowledge the difficulty of living and working “sustainably”, and conduct ongoing, publically open enquiries into how to do better. There should be no shame in not knowing all the answers. This Sustainability Victoria example is a good start I think, but these initiatives could be much more exciting. Real world case studies!

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4. I guess some of the raving in the previous answer will also be relevant to your fourth question. Probably one thing to add is this: it’d be good if we could avoid moving towards a puritanical, nitpicking way of keeping each other accountable (we’re all familiar with that person in the house who is the “switch-off-the-lights-nazi”). It’s heaps more fun when my own mind is blown by the possibilities of making positive changes – rather than operating from a position of fear of being busted for doing something wrong… (And I wonder if the open-ended, non-preachy side of art could play a role here?)

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5. In terms of responses: they’ve been varied, as you might expect. I have been having some great conversations with visitors in the Audit room. These are not really about whether or not they like the exhibition, but more about “issues at large” which might have been provoked by the context of the show, or personal dilemmas. It certainly is a subject that is on people’s minds – or at least, on the minds of those people who step through the doors of the museum.

Quite a lot of “environmentalists” have been coming in – many of them are just pleased that these issues are being presented in a highly visible public arena – they’re not particularly critical of “the art value” of what they see, one way or the other, although they have strong views about particular issues or campaigns of course, and the role that representation plays in politics and so on.

And in terms of Art people… I’m not sure. One cultural specialist I saw in the gallery today said he thought the show was “a bit mild”: too many feel-good soft-lefty approaches, not enough hard hitting stuff.

But I dunno. What about the truism (which I have been repeating probably too often recently): “you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar“?

Well, that’s it from me for now. Look forward to reading your essay, C, when it’s done. Let me know if you need any help with the Harvard referencing system.


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