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The Town Hall Affair (review)

This review was first published on Daily Review on 12 January 2018

Writer Norman Mailer was no Milo Yiannopoulos. But his attack on the women’s movement in a 1971 issue of Harper’s Magazine (which became the book The Prisoner of Sex) led Kate Millett and Gloria Steinem to no-platform themselves from a panel Mailer hosted on ‘Women’s Liberation’ at New York’s Town Hall the same year. Mailer settled for slugging it out with Germaine Greer, then on a triumphant world tour publicising The Female Eunuch, Jill Johnston, a writer and dance reviewer for The Village Voice, Diana Trilling, introduced by Mailer as ‘our foremost lady critic’, and Jacqueline Ceballos, New York president of the National Organisation for Women.

The event (minus Ceballos and a couple of hours) is recreated at this year’s Sydney Festival, and this production, by New York’s Wooster Group, reminds us that this was a time when the productive powers of sex, rather than the destructive powers of sex, were being furiously debated.

Mailer is played by both Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepherd, as if the writer’s enormous presence couldn’t be conveyed by one actor. ‘He’ introduces Greer by Life Magazine’s descriptor – ‘the saucy feminist even men like’. But Maura Tierney’s version of Greer is less the glowing Amazon from down under whose book had just been an international sensation, and more the simmering sexuality of the precise Cambridge scholar on the lecture circuit.

The Female Eunuch had argued that women’s liberation had to begin with sexual liberation, with orgasms and ecstasy: ‘the cunt must come into its own’, she wrote. Mailer, in contrast, wanted to put sex back in its patriarchal box, arguing we needed to celebrate the base male desire to fill the female with semen, whose primary role is to mate and reproduce. Unsurprisingly, the event was as bawdy as it was brutal: at one point Mailer offers to “take out my modest little Jewish dick and put it on the table and we can all spit and laugh”. Trilling, dressed like a candidate for president of the country women’s association and played with great verisimilitude by male actor Greg Mehrten, takes on Greer’s codification of the right kind of orgasm: “I could hope we would also be free to have such orgasms as, in our individual complexities, we happen to be capable of.”

But this production, directed by Elizabeth LeCompte, really belongs to Kate Valk’s Jill Johnston, whose incantatory speeches call up the rhythms of the Beats and Greenwich Village and extol the transformative power of lesbian love: “We’re getting to the bottom of women lib, we’re going down on women’s lib, until all women are lesbians there will be no true political revolution”. It’s too much for Mailer, who scolds her for running over time in one of the play’s many funny moments: “I wanna talk to you about lesbianism god dammit, we’ll take a vote”.

The actors on stage are doubled by their real-life counterparts in a screen above – the footage is from a 1979 documentary of the event, Town Bloody Hall. The performers’ ventriloquism of their 1971 twins is both mesmerising and unsettling. At one point actors turn the panel they are seated at and the screen so the figures from 1971 and on the stage in 2018 merge. Along with stretches of dialogue that sound like they could have been uttered this morning, it underscores the ties between then and now. 1971’s Greer appears to predict today’s #metoo: “Is it possible that the way of the masculine artist in our society is strewn with the husks of people worn out and dried out by his ego?”

We’re reminded of Greer’s gift for the crushing one-liner: “Whatever it is they’re asking for, honey, it’s not for you,” she tells one male interlocutor. But the play is also a reminder of the intellectual verve of the era, a time when Freud and social theory about the origins of the nuclear family are effortlessly debated in public forums on feminism. Today the same panel would include a celebrity actor from the latest subscription TV miniseries, while even the rare feminist intellectual who ventures out into the public sphere is more likely to talk about her own experiences of, say, female friendship than Freud or Firestone. The politics and poetic polemic of the 1970s have been usurped by a more personal tone, one that leads us to be easily injured and afraid of tough debate now. It’s a joy then to see two very different thinkers like Greer and Johnston high five each other at the end of their speeches.

Three and a half stars

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Hefner didn’t invent the sexual revolution, he took credit from women


On the death of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, the ABC asked me to consider his legacy. I wrote that it was second wave feminism that drove sexual liberation for women, while Hefner was more interested in controlling women. Read the article, first published online by the ABC on 29 September, here.

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Friday essay: The personal is now commercial – popular feminism online

Notes from the second year

Extract: ‘As I listened to Elaine Welteroth, the editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, speak to the Sydney Writers’ Festival in June this year, it occurred to me that today’s popular feminism would be unrecognisable to many of the Miss America protesters half a century ago.

For Welteroth, an African-American former beauty editor at Teen Vogue, women’s magazines and beauty products are feminism now. “Beauty and style are just really great platforms to open up important conversations,” she said.’

My essay about the feminism of Teen Vogue and sites such as Mamamia is now online on The Conversation, the ABC and Daily Review.

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Don’t try this at home: from Duchamp’s urinal to Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca

This Daily Review essay on Duchamp’s urinal, contemporary art & buying artworks from friends was inspired by a new show of works by the talented artist Paloma White.

I was sitting on a toilet when I looked up and saw it. There, hanging on the wall, was a Picasso. Just a black and white drawing, but an original Picasso. The couple whose inner-city apartment I was in owned the gallery downstairs. Their home was filled with art. But a Picasso? In the toilet? While I was having a piss, I couldn’t help wondering: were they taking the piss?

Were the Redfern gallery owners making a witty comment on Duchamp’s century old move? If a urinal could be exhibited in an art gallery (copies of Fountain are now in major galleries around the world) then surely the exhibition could come to the toilet? I was impressed by the cool nonchalance they applied to hanging art. And I envied the wealth that allowed them to own such art.

I covet beautiful artworks. In the Norman Lindsay Gallery in the Blue Mountains I’ve loitered over original prints for sale, repeatedly turning back to a beguiling nude, ownership fever gripping me. Recently in Central Australia my head kept turning to an artwork of emu footprints. In the same way you can find yourself turning repeatedly towards someone in a crowded room, a knot in your stomach building – something about the way their features are arranged (the lines and shapes on the canvas) feels right.  “You know you are in trouble when you keep looking,” an artist tells me.

I’d like to say I don’t buy because, as the late John Berger argued, when a price is attached to art, its commodification is also a process of alienation from the physical thing that is the artwork. Art dealers have “faces like silk purses” he said, adding: “If you could fuck works of art as well as buy them, they would be pimps”.

So I’d like to say my failure to buy beautiful works of art has something to do with the rejection of ownership, but the less flattering reason is that I don’t have the money.

Instead, I buy beautiful, but modestly priced artworks from friends. When my friend Paloma held an exhibition of paintings in Melbourne last year I sat at my desk in Sydney scrolling through paintings she had posted online. Studies of flowers and still lifes, reminiscent, everyone said, of Margaret Preston. They were also like painterly translations of my artist friend. We met when we were 20 or so. She arrived at the flat I was living in, flowers in her hair like a Carlton Carmen, carrying a cake she’d made that morning, like a cloud floating ahead of her arrival that she was holding onto with a string. Carmen and Mary Poppins.

I spent an hour or so gazing at her latest creations. Enlarging the petals. Looking at the refracted light passing through the glass and water of the vases. I settled on one. A personal purchase resisting commodification, I told myself. But my modest friend’s talent far exceeds her fame: I tweeted a picture of the painting. She deserves more recognition, and the brutal fact is that more recognition leads to more sales, more funds to make more work.

I’ve always been fascinated with artists and their craft. There was a moment when I was 15 when I thought I might become an artist. I had a basic technical ability; I could make things look like the things in the world they represented. But I never had a feel for it. Others do. The ability to take the way things look in the world and mix themselves into it.

I once interviewed the painter Nicholas Harding. Paints and brushes and canvasses filled every surface of his studio. It was as if he was conjoined to the artworks, rather than creating them with any kind of distance between the artist and the work. The physicality was intoxicating. Something to do with the artist who has a hand on the object. It’s why we like cards handmade by the giver. And thank you notes in someone’s handwriting.

One of my first housemates was an art school student who would come home with his canvases re-imagininging Russian icon form. They were heavy with golds, reds and a bronze colour that seemed to have dripped from his rusty-hued hair onto the canvas. A few years later he’d moved on to other styles and held a show. I stood besotted in front of a large six-foot black canvas of two ghostly white nude outlines embracing, a mother and a child. The equivalent of two Austudy cheques later, the work was mine. The painting followed me through countless house moves: too large for most loungerooms it’s mostly leaned against my bedroom wall. Recently my mother contacted me to say she’d met my old housemate but he was no longer painting – he had moved on to other mediums – and she wanted me to send her a picture of the painting so he could show his own wife and child.

‘Untitled’, Ben Sibley, 1991

Still lifes of flowers and nudes. I know this is a conservative view of art, a long way from the abstractions and theoretical turn that much contemporary art has taken since Duchamp. I’m not dismissing the value of that work, but I am saying that the cleavage in art between work based in ideas and work that you can hang on walls, now seems almost irrevocably ruptured. In 1967 Berger wrote that “soon a dealer will mount an exhibition of shit and collectors will buy it”.

He was already prophesising Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca Professional (pictured below), a shit-making machine commissioned by David Walsh in 2010 and installed deep in the bowels of the billionaire’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart. (And Berger was also forgetting, it seems, the 90 cans of ‘Artist’s Shit’ produced by the Italian artist Piero Manzoni in 1961). In audience surveys visitors say Delvoye’s crapping machine is their most disliked exhibit at MONA, yet it’s also the one they spend the most time with. When I visited with my children they looked up at it wide-eyed for a long moment, before driven from the room by the stench. Towards a wall covered entirely with moulded vulvas in the adjacent gallery.

We’re wedged between the compulsion to stare and a feeling that the gimmick has gone too far. That someone’s taking the piss. In the background is a feeling that we’re being conned when the most subversive, the most cutting-edge art is owned by billionaire collectors who can dig deep into sandstone river banks to create the capacious spaces that house them. We can find ourselves almost giving up on contemporary art, as I was tempted to do when I stood in front a blank canvas at a Sydney Biennale at the end of the last century. The captions on the works in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s show that year were either irritatingly droll or annoyingly obscure. One caption, accompanying a blank canvas, tested my credulity more than any other: “This artist stops where other artist begins,” it read. I felt like I was being had.

Artists have always quoted and referenced and critiqued each other in their artwork. But now the gap between works of art and works of criticism and theory can be indistinguishable. Artists now speak of “investigations”, “experiments” and “interventions”, borrowing from the language of science and research. It’s the language of the higher education system where art training now mostly takes place, the language of theory, of publications, of grant proposals.

I understand the imperative, but as someone who has made a living composing words, I bristle at prose that is often nonsensical, full of hyperbole or just impenetrable. Most of the time I still want art, no matter how conceptual or theoretical – to have some art, some craft, to it. An idea – as a rule – doesn’t arouse our senses, our passions, our imaginations: an idea could just as well be left to a book.

This isn’t an essay of art criticism. It’s not a manifesto. If anything it’s simply a statement of my own personal taste and preference rather than any attempt to define what is “good” or “bad” art. Apart from anything else, it’s impossible to say that any one thing unites contemporary art except perhaps it is what is made by artists now. But I am suggesting that it is difficult to know now what’s a gimmick, what’s crap, and what’s gold. Perhaps it just comes down to what you like.

Wandering around a park in Bondi at The Sculpture by the Sea I see a portaloo in the middle of dozens of carefully conceived and executed sculptures and installations. Then I hear voices, trapped and trying desperately to reach someone on their mobile phone who will help them get out. What first looks like a much needed amenity in a site crushed with crowds but desperately lacking loos was actually another art work. It’s funny and strangely compelling. Maybe the voice really belongs to someone trapped in the toilet? I forgive the work for not being beautiful. For not being something you can take home. In a place where the surfaces work hard to impress, where human waste is reduced to faecal counts of the water in the beaches below, here is the least impressive surface you can imagine, but also an interesting Duchampian idea that makes me laugh and think.

Contemporary art has cleaved into two – art you can take home and put on walls, look at in private, and art you go and see publicly – sometimes it’s just an idea you go to see. In the former, it’s still the object itself that matters. I’ve often wondered how artists must feel giving up this object. Unlike other artforms – music, writing, or ideas-based artworks – it’s the thing that is important. Wanting to own it, though, that’s easy. For me, there’s appreciation of beauty and technique, but it also has something to do with a desire for a narrative.

I look now at my old housemate’s picture of mother and child, and I can finally see what must have first drawn me to the painting: when I bought it, my immediate family had recently separated in four directions. I’d purchased, without realising it, a representation of the thing I no longer had. When I look at my friend’s picture of flowers, I’m reminded of another time, half a lifetime ago: Paloma and her two brothers, a circle that still comes together now and then like a still life of friends that moves through subtly changing iterations.

After buying Paloma’s flowers I dreamed about taking a road trip down the Hume alone to collect it. I started composing music tracks for the trip. I’d return to Sydney on a sunny day, my cargo carefully placed in the back. Nothing happens how you picture it. On the way to Melbourne I had two children in the car with me, and I had one of those shameful moments of parenting when I lost control. I yelled, I blamed my kids when we got lost. I ran out of petrol half way. My country cousin, calm and competent, bundled her own kids in the car and rescued us.

On the day we left to come home it didn’t stop raining. I drove to my mother’s workplace to collect bags of buddle wrap. A couple of suburbs away I picked up the painting, waiting patiently for us on the porch of a friend’s bungalow. I dashed out of the car and bundled it in wrap. Back in Sydney the painting lay in its plastic bubble armour, until the gloomy mood that had descended on me and gathered momentum as I made my way down the Hume finally lifted. I could look at the bright and cheerful vase of flowers with a feeling that wasn’t totally at odds with what I was seeing. I hung it on my loungeroom wall.

Main image: Coburg Lake, oil on canvas, Paloma White, 2017. Mono/Chroma, New works by Paloma White and Brendan Lakin, opens at Steps Gallery, 62 Lygon Street, Carlton on Friday September 1.

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The only way is up (via anxiety and endless self-promotion)

This story about LinkedIn, self-promotion, anxiety and Derek Zoolander, first appeared in Overland on 3 March 2017.

The folded sheet of paper, one of those fundraising notes that regularly turn up in kids’ school bags, asked me to buy a photoshoot that would furnish me with an image for my LinkedIn profile. The parents behind the note are talented and lovely, but the missive still managed, in a few short lines, to tap into the river of anxieties modern parents and workers flail about in. The niggling worry that your school just might not have all the resources your child needs to thrive. The expectation that you are involved daily in all aspects of your child’s life. And the reminder that we are always at work now: even if it’s just our online avatar promoting the work we are doing, or sending out round-the-clock signals we’re looking for new work.

Read the rest of the story online here.

 

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The Gifts of John Forbes (Meanjin)

Two decades ago my friend, the late great poet John Forbes, would leave poems behind for me when he visited Sydney. Now I’ve finally written a tribute to him, out now in the Summer issue of Meanjin.

You can subscribe to Meanjin here.

meanjin_summer2016_3d

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Daniels trump the world’s Donalds

First published by the Sydney Morning Herald, 9 November 2016

Their first names start with D, they’re both ginger-haired, and they both have interests in real estate empires, but otherwise Rosehaven’s Daniel McCallum and Republican Donald Trump couldn’t be more different.

A large part of the pleasure of watching Luke McGregor (Daniel) in the new ABC drama is, surely, that our hero plays the anti-Donald. When you spend your days trying to duck from near hourly clips of Trump boasting about grabbing pussy, or his tearful victims’ testimonies, tuning in to watch Daniel – a man so terrified of hurting himself or anyone else you imagine his first word was “sorry” – functions as a form of “cultural crack“. The show screens out the world’s awful blighted reality, replacing it with a nicer, lighter high.

Trump is all unrestrained and aggressive id – Freud would have had a field day with his split attraction/aggression towards women, his obsession with breasts, and his disgust for women’s bodily fluids (who would have thought menstrual blood and toilet trips would become a presidential campaign talking point). Anxious, striving Daniel, meanwhile, suffers from an excess of superego. And unlike Donald his respect for women is clear: his best friend is Emma (Celia Pacquola), a benignly bossy woman who pushes him to stand up to bullies and chase the girl he still loves.

While shows such as Seinfeld, FriendsThe Secret Life of Us, and more recently Please Like Me and Girls, have long portrayed friendships between men and women as a standard feature of modern life, it’s still rare to find a show where a platonic friendship between a man and a woman is the central – and completely unremarkable – premise. There’s no backstory of a past relationship, and no sense of a love affair in the air. And it avoids the sweet but now terribly tired and easy trope of the straight woman/gay man best friends.

It’s been more than a decade since Ethan Watters’ book Urban Tribes dissected the way friendship groups are the new family for a generation that is delaying marriage, prolonging studying and sharing group houses well into their 30s. The post-1970s generations didn’t invent friendships between men and women, but they are a defining feature of young adult life now. Stories that portray how such friendships work, and are central to many people’s lives, are long overdue.

I’m not suggesting there aren’t any Donalds in the post-1970s generations, or that there aren’t 70-year-old Daniels in the world. But when you’re  raised with the belief that the differences between men and women, if they exist, are wildly exaggerated and overly prescribed, withholding empathy from the other sex simply becomes that much harder.

Not that differences don’t remain and aren’t sometimes useful. Daniel doesn’t force Emma to talk about her marriage breakdown, and you suspect that had Emma turned to an over-empathetic female friend she might have fallen into a self-pitying hole. As Graham Little, writing in his book, Friendship, says about our need for friends who aren’t mirrors of us, “Friends dread the tedium of being merely echoed in a conversation, their attitudes not enhanced or contradicted but Xeroxed”.

It’s time we recognised and celebrated our opposite-sex friends. Those people we’ve known for decades, who offered us friendship when we started work in a politically-charged workplace. Who helped us move out of an old home or decorate a new one. Friends who have been there for births, funerals and every bad joke or career screw-up.

Now that significant friendships between men and women often outlast romantic relationships, a show that acknowledges this friendship is a welcome breath of sexual tension-free air. The audience for the early episodes of Rosehaven, a fictional, though truthful story about a platonic friendship between a man and a woman, was similar in size to the final episodes of the Bachelorette, a real but totally fantastical story about finding true love on national TV. Viewers, it seems, agree.

Rosehaven screens on ABC TV Wednesdays at 9pm.

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