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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?

One hundred years ago Marcel Duchamp (or someone close to him, this story has more than one version) purchased a urinal and anonymously submitted it to a New York art show. Although the avant-garde group behind the April 1917 exhibition was supposed to accept submissions from anyone who paid the $5 entry fee, the show’s board rejected the work and Fountain was left behind a gallery screen unexhibited. But the ideas Duchamp suggested with his work – art is whatever the artist says it is, an artist does not need to ‘make’ an artwork, a toilet can have a place in an art gallery – changed the art world forever.

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 simply 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 canvases where he re-imagined the 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 permanent.

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. 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 of 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 a traditional 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 that it is whatever 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 artwork. 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 and a circle of friends that still comes together now and then and 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 bubble 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.

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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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Generation X are having their Don’t Dream It’s Over moment

First published by the Sydney Morning Herald, 26 September 2016

Crowded House’s farewell concert on the Sydney Opera House forecourt in 1996 has taken on a kind of Woodstock folklore: everyone in the country under 35 at the time was apparently there. The pictures and the reports of the concert, and the reminiscing in the years since by those who were there, have so effectively infiltrated the memories of those who didn’t make it’s easy to think one really was there.

It isn’t surprising then to hear it only took seconds on Monday morning for tickets to Crowded House’s November Opera House shows to sell out. In another two decades, at least 10,000 will legitimately be able to claim we were there the second time around. Others will reminisce about how they made upwards of $400 on-selling a coveted ticket – a kind of monetary calibration of how of-the-moment bands whose heyday was 20 or 30 years ago now are.

Gen X is finally taking power, culturally and politically, if not always economically (look, for example, at the 40-something men leading governments and oppositions across the country). And it’s as if the current festival of 1980s and ’90s musical legends touring Australia has arrived to offer a triumphal soundtrack. We’ve had Culture Club and the Cure tour. Bruce Springsteen will be here in early 2017. The Stone Roses will perform at the Opera House in December. I imagine today’s teens and twenty somethings  must feel a bit the same way I did at their age, whenever another front page headline covered in great detail every development – a divorce, a baby or a drug-related arrest – in the life of a by then middle-aged Rolling Stone or Beatle.

It’s a funny kind of thing when the bands of your youth, even ones once considered edgy and indie, come to town, grey of hair and plump of belly, to play shows that can top $200 a seat at the country’s most prestigious venues. The bands understandably want to cash in on their final flickers of fame while international airfares still come without exorbitant senior travel insurance.

The audience, meanwhile, are generally more cashed up than they were in their 20s but are at a peak work-life juggle moment. We want a night out that comes with an insurance policy. A night that can remind us of who we were before our lives were full of cares and worries and complicated histories. A time of life when, as Meghan Daum writes in an essay on nostalgia, “we could walk around with an abiding feeling that, at any given time, anything could go in any direction”.

There is also a more sombre reason to see these bands now. The deaths of Prince and David Bowie makes us wonder if this will be the last chance to see an iconic figure live, to hear a treasured song from our youth (and yes, I know Bowie was a boomer who was dreaming of Major Tom and Ziggy Stardust before many of us Xers had even landed on earth; but we claimed him as ours).

For Gen X the time stretching out behind us now feels much longer than the time stretching out ahead of us. It is no coincidence to me that the march of these ageing bands through our venues is matched by my Facebook feed, which is full of old friends who played music or painted or wrote when they were young finding the muse again. “I just decided I had to do it now or I never would,” says one friend who is writing a novel.

Now that big ambitions are mostly achieved – children, travel, jobs, houses – we’re trying to catch the dreams of our youth. There is something exciting about this middle-aged burst of activity, both from the famous and not-so-famous. And while it’s great to see bands who can take us back to a familiar, youthful place, it’s even better when they find new tunes or create new art too.

On a weeknight earlier this year, I watched New Order’s lead singer Bernard Sumner bop around the Opera House stage for a couple of hours with his endearing dad dancing, running through all the band’s hits – Blue Monday, Bizarre Love Triangle, Temptation. At the end of the night the band – notorious for refusing encores in its early years – returned to the stage to perform Love Will Tear Us Apart, the song Sumner played with Ian Curtis in Joy Division. This was a rare moment where “rock concert” and “poignant moment” could briefly co-exist. But at the same time, there is also something that doesn’t sit quite right with a much older band and crowd singing such a brilliant but, let’s admit it, young person’s song.

That’s why, although I was tempted, I found it hard to buy tickets for the Stone Roses. Their slowly building, soft, soft then louder songs were the sound of a party about to begin, the sound of something about to happen. But I’m not sure about watching a band already into their 50s singing “I wanna be adored”. That was cute coming from someone in their 20s. But the Stone Roses are well into late middle age now. Their website currently says an upcoming concert was cancelled because one member fell and broke a bone, the injury sounding like the kind of thing that happens to an old person, not the self-afflicted wound of the young.

Gen X know which way we’re heading and we’re dreaming of our past. Perhaps that’s why we’re so keen to listen to Crowded House singing Don’t Dream it’s Over one more time.

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Greek family drama takes us on a voyage of tragedy and comedy

I have an 11-year-old boy, and it’s next to impossible to imagine him running away from home to sell counterfeit whiskey on the streets of Cairo. But that’s what George Catsi’s father did*, and the fantastical tale is one of many in Catsi’s one-man show, Am I Who I Say I Am? Eleven-year-old Emmanuel would ply customers with a small sampler, and once they agreed to buy his wares he’d pull out a bottle of “whiskey” he’d prepared earlier: but it wasn’t whiskey, it was tea. And then he’d run. Emmanuel Katsivelakis was a life-long runner. And a trickster. This small story early in the show is just a short vignette, but it’s important in setting up the themes of Catsi’s father’s life: a chronic tendency to desert family, and a sucession of ever-more elaborate business scams.

It can’t have made for an easy childhood for Catsi, but it does make for a great story. And a great show. It’s family memoir by a performer who is part serious dramatist, part hilarious stand-up comedian, a story about growing up with a mostly absent Greek father who is always spinning epic stories.

It’s also a show that taps into some of the great dramatic themes of Greek drama: sea voyages, battles with monsters, betrayed wives and lost and abandoned children. Like a less-heroic Jason, Emmanuel was just 16 and back living with his family in Alexandria, Egypt, when his mother marched him down to the docks and signed him up to the merchant navy. A few years later he landed up in LA, where he convinced his restaurant employers he was French and seduced Catsi’s mother.

George_AIWISIA

The couple moved to Detroit, and then she followed Emmanuel to the new home he seized upon in Sydney, Australia. Sailing to Sydney on one of a number of journeys following his father between the two countries, Catsi, along with his mother and siblings, ended up in lockdown in their cabin when a partying Parramatta league team embarked on a violent, days-long rampage (there’s your giant sea monsters). And once settled in Australia, it becomes clear there’s been a great Medea-like betrayal, as Emmanuel leaves Catsi’s mother for another woman.

Those are the bare bones, the eternal, mythological nature of the stories. But it’s the details – a family fancy dress party where his father dresses as an Indian chief and invites his lover to come dressed as his squaw, a little boy’s bewildering/thrilling ride in a police car in Detroit – that make the story new again. It’s shocking, appalling, but it’s all leavened with moments of humour and even affection. There’s a particularly hilarious scene where the grown-up Catsi, by this time working in a special needs home, tries to take control of a minibus full of his clients that is hurtling down a main street of Cooma.

Catsi doesn’t make any excuses for Emmanuel Katsivelakis (the evolving surname is an entire subplot), but he does show us both the comedy and the tragedy of his life. And in the end, after spending an hour with this fascinating, scheming character, we’re seduced a little too. And against our best judgement, we even warm to him a little. That’s the trick of the play. Which makes you think: as another spinner of captivating tales, perhaps Catsi really is his father’s son after all.

*At least, that’s what Catsi believes happened. What his father told him happened. But it’s hard to know for sure. His father was, remember, a born trickster.

The most recent season of Am I Who I Say I Am?, at the Petersham Bowling Cub, finished on July 31.

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