The Audience Problem

Posted by Andrew on the 1st of August, 2011

A few years ago I became a little bit fixated with the idea that I'd like to make a TV panel show. The show would take its inspiration from 'Beauty and the Beast', a popular Australian panel show of the late 1990s, which pitted middle aged, right-wing and self-confessed 'mamma's boy', Stan Zemanek, with a panel of generally middle aged, middle class, bleeding heart women. They would discuss 'issues', conflict occurred and people were entertained. I would have liked my show to be similar. A host, and his or her guests, speaking different languages and just not getting each other. The panel for my show would have featured prominent West Australian cultural figures and the host would have ideally been the tight fisted mining heiress Gina Reinhart, or maybe even Andrew 'Twiggy' Forrest, the major shareholder of Fortescue Metals Group and at the time the richest individual in Australia. I imagined they would sit behind a desk which would somehow inflate and become unstable when the conversation got loud and heated. They would discuss the arts, the mining boom, money, public spending, welfare, patronage. Conflict would occur and people would be entertained.

Perth was at the peak of the mining boom when I first starting thinking of this. I was going through art school and was becoming distinctly aware that the things I was making, while they were well received in the art school context, were becoming increasingly incomprehensible to 'everyday people.' I was making floorwork tributes to Felix Gonzalez-Torres out of ham sandwiches wrapped in sparkly wrapping paper and computer programs which aggregated sunsets into modernist coloured grids. I was deconstructing and critiquing willy-nilly all over the place, going through the motions like a seventeen year old doing bog laps around South Terrace after just getting his P-plates. While I was encouraged at art school I had a really awkward time trying to convey what I did to everyone else. I began to become aware of the problem of two audiences.

Speaking of Felix Gonzalez-Torres and of audiences, someone once asked him in an interview, "who is your audience?" His reply, "Ross", his boyfriend who later died of AIDs. This relationship perhaps provided the genesis for the subdued and lingering melancholy in much of Gonzalez-Torres work. While Gonzalez-Torres was probably hamming things up for the press, I often wished I could come up with such a concrete and assured answer to the same question. At the time I felt that it was impossible to make contemporary work for a general audience in this city. With that being the case, I believed that the only way to maintain a relevant and interesting practice was to make work with a set of people I knew, mainly other local artists, in mind. A little secret society, a group I could count on my fingers.

Today, in only a few short years, I have fewer of these kinds of reservations about the audience for contemporary art in Perth, things seem to getting better. I am aware that Perth has a history of being a place where things 'are about to really start happening.' Maybe, if we enjoyed the gravitas provided by putting things in a historical context, we could trace this as being the hangover of a pre-gold rush settler mentality. It fits neatly, why not? At any rate, I really do feel like there could be a little Perth miracle. It's too early to be jumping to such conclusions, but I find the emergence of new contemporary art spaces in Perth - including the Museum of Natural Mystery, Venn Gallery, Anthony Riding, and the soon to be opened Galleria - very encouraging.

A recent case in point would have to be Tom Freeman's show '18th and 19th Century Prisoner Art' at the Museum of Natural Mystery. Like all TMNM (The Museum of Natural Mystery, not Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) exhibitions, it was a one-night-only affair. The works were small scale, warm-fuzzy studies which intersected architectural model making, with automatic drawing and craft. Their complexity was disarmed by their small scale and rudimentary materials and construction processes. I'm not the best at reviewing work, so let's just say I liked it a lot. What did strike me though was the thought that there was perhaps nowhere else where such work could be exhibited in Perth. The work required the type of considered, yet ad hoc and small scale format that TMNM provides. I've always thought that one of the biggest problems Perth had was not the quality of the work it produced, but the complete lack of the number and diversity of exhibiting spaces in the city. New spaces such as TMNM seem to be addressing this. Let's hope these types of events go some way towards building the critical mass that I've always felt was just around the corner and just about to happen.

Young contemporary artists from Perth tend to move to Melbourne because they are sensible. There is a quote by George Bernard Shaw that I like that goes something like, "The rational man adapts himself to his environment. Therefore all change depends upon irrational men." Another quote I like is one by Sol LeWitt, who said, "An irrational idea must be taken to its logical conclusion." These two quotes go a long way to explaining why I gave up the idea of a panel show and got more interested in the idea of starting a gallery.

Tom Freeman, 18th and 19th Century Prisoner Art (image courtesy of The Museum of Natural Mystery)