Friday 29 April 2011

Short arms, deep pockets

As Over the net noted this morning, Ocula - Australasia's new online fine-art auction site - is up and running.

According to the press release, the site's founders (Simon Fisher and Christopher Taylor) "believe Ocula will stimulate the Australasian market by allowing art enthusiasts to research, buy and sell art around the clock and from any location."

As far as I can figure out, the site is made up of several parts. There's a Galleries section, where invited galleries have profiles that how current exhibitions, listing of their artists, and works by these artists that are in stock.

Clicking around this section however, I didn't find any prices, just instructions to contact the gallery for a price. It's always bemused me that dealer galleries put price lists on their walls but so rarely do so on their websites.

Then there's the Auction section. For a minute I got excited and thought maybe works from dealer galleries were going to be offered for auction, but reading further into the site, it seems to be the traditional model of owners consigning works to Ocula, who show some of these works in their Auckland showroom, but run all the auctions online.

I have to say, when you're on the site this is a little unclear. This work by Shane Cotton that's for sale, for example - is that being offered by one of his dealers, by the artist himself, by the owner (using the site like TradeMe) or by Ocula? I daresay it's all in the fine print (and yes, I am outing myself as too lazy - or frustrated - to open all the headings on the subpages so I can skim for the info I want) but it's not immediately apparent - certainly not with the clarity with which existing auction houses present their catalogues online.

One feature I do really like (squished thumbnails aside) is that Ocula is sucking in sales info from the Australian Art Sales Digest, which shows you how much works by an artist have made in recent sales. As far as I'm aware this information was subscription-based recently, and it's data gold.

The site is also curating art-related articles from around the web - a useful service in itself.

It seems appropriate that the first work I spotted up for sale is by Billy Apple. Bidding appears to be Trade Me style - a suggested opening bid, an auto-bid feature, and a tracking feature. Will people display Trade Me-like ferocity and bidding techniques? Not to mention Trade Me-like loyalty? Only time will tell.

[One final note. It's still not clear to me why auction houses seem to be able to skip copyright clearance on the artworks they publish in their catalogues. Does anyone have an answer on this?}

Wednesday 27 April 2011

Born and bred

Today - time permitting, after last week's three and a half minute babble - I'll be talking on the radio about Michael Stevenson's show at the MCA in Sydney, and Martino Gamper, Francis Upritchard and Karl Fritsch's collaboration 'Gesamtkunsthandwerk 2011' at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth

Michael Stevenson

Michael Stevenson exhibition website

Michael Stevenson's website

Gesamtkunsthandwerk 2011

Gesamtkunsthandwerk - the exhibition - GBAG website (and hallelujah for this new and delightful thing, with more installation images than any other NZ art gallery website I can think of)

Martino Gamper's website

Interview with Martino Gamper - New York Times

Francis Upritchard at the Venice Biennale

Review & photos of Karl Fritsch's 2010 Wellington shows

Me talking about Karl Fritsch on Nine to Noon last year
(scroll to the end of the recordings)

Monday 25 April 2011

Long reads

In increasing magnitude, reading for the last day of the long weekend. Pick your poison ...

Christopher Hitchens in The Atlantic on the collected letters of Philip Larkin to Monica Jones

It is inescapable that we should wonder how and why poetry manages to transmute the dross of existence into magic or gold, and the contrast in Larkin’s case is a specially acute one. Having quit Belfast, he removed himself forever to Hull, a rugged coastal city facing toward Scandinavia that, even if it was once represented in Parliament by Andrew Marvell, in point of warmth and amenity runs Belfast a pretty close second. Here he brooded biliously and even spitefully on his lack of privacy, the success of his happier friends Amis and Conquest, the decline of standards at the university he served, the general bloodiness of pub lunches and academ­ic sherry parties, the frumpy manipulativeness of women­folk, and the petrifying imminence of death. (Might one say that Hull was other people?)

Cameron Koczon on A List Apart, on 'orbital content'

We are on the cusp of a complete overhaul of the way in which we interact with online content, and I think you should be a hell of a lot more excited than you currently are. Bookmarklet apps like Instapaper, Svpply, and Readability are pointing us toward a future in which content is no longer entrenched in websites, but floats in orbit around users. This transformation of our relationship with content will force us to rethink existing reputation, distribution, and monetization models—and all for the better.

James Gleick in the Smithsonian Magazine on memes (long long long, but my own pick for today)

In Isaac Newton’s lifetime, no more than a few thousand people had any idea what he looked like, even though he was one of England’s most famous men. Yet now millions of people have quite a clear idea—based on replicas of copies of rather poorly painted portraits. Even more pervasive and indelible are the smile of Mona Lisa, The Scream of Edvard Munch and the silhouettes of various fictional extraterrestrials. These are memes, living a life of their own, independent of any physical reality. “This may not be what George Washington looked like then,” a tour guide was overheard saying of the Gilbert Stuart portrait at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “but this is what he looks like now.” Exactly.

Memes emerge in brains and travel outward, establishing beachheads on paper and celluloid and silicon and anywhere else information can go. They are not to be thought of as elementary particles but as organisms. The number three is not a meme; nor is the color blue, nor any simple thought, any more than a single nucleotide can be a gene. Memes are complex units, distinct and memorable—units with staying power.

Saturday 23 April 2011

Here we go again

Guy Barnett, a conservative Christian Australian Senator and critic of photographer Bill Henson, is chairing a Senate inquiry into the classification of film, books and artworks. According to the Sydney Morning Herald submissions have been heard

calling for any film containing full frontal nudity to be refused classification; artworks and books showing nudity to be classified; and all artworks to be restricted to certain age groups. ''Artistic merit'' should be abandoned when classifying art.

The inquiry, the Herald continues

is a dress rehearsal for a bigger debate about classifications and censorship that will take place when the Australian Law Reform Commission's review of the classification scheme starts this year.

Coincidentally or not, the inquiry is taking place at the same time that Henson has had a show in Melbourne. John McDonald's review, also in the Herald, discusses the work, the context of the 2008 accusations of child pornography, and the media's attempts to whip up another controversy:

Perhaps we're finally ready to approach this business like grown-ups. The Age asked its readers if they found Henson's work offensive and 83 per cent answered in the negative. The unsmiling Channel Ten reporter standing on the footpath in front of Tolarno Galleries spoke ominously about the artist's "trademark nude photographs of children" and mentioned "accusations of paedophilia" levelled at Henson in 2008 but there was nothing in her story that resembled news.

The tabloids have also had a go, telling us that Henson's new photographs "are sure to offend" and have already caused "alarm". But there is a notable lack of alarm this time around. It seems unlikely that we will see any repeat of the hysteria and moral panic that greeted Henson's Sydney exhibition of 2008. Even the Victorian Premier, Ted Baillieu, has come out in defence of Henson, which shows an unusual maturity for a politician.

McDonald raises a point that I haven't heard before, an opinion that I find repugnant:
The current crop of Henson stories shows a media bereft of ideas, trying to create a blaze from a few dying embers of controversy. The blogs are crowded with conspiracy theorists who believe Henson is an evil genius of self-publicity who has orchestrated his own persecution to sell more photos. ...

The most egregious idea, aside from the child pornography claims, is that Henson is deliberately courting controversy for his own profit. A publicity hound doesn't keep the TV cameras at bay or refuse to do interviews. If Henson really wanted to make some money he could begin systematically suing all the people who have slandered and libelled him.

The comments on McDonald's review neatly summarise the two camps of opinion and are worth a read.

Friday 22 April 2011

'The art history we deserve'

Jonathan Jones recently argued in the Guardian that just as Jackson Pollock compelled American art historians to look back over their early 20th century artists and refashion them from provincial talents or local manifestations of international trends into 'part of a proud national art history', a similar thing is currently happening in Britain:

It seems we choose the art history we want, or need. Since Damien Hirst broke the ice at the start of the 1990s, British artists have succeeded and become fashionable at home and abroad. The generation who grew up with this art have now had time to do their PhDs and become curators or lecturers, and the official picture of Britain's art history is changing before our eyes.

Thus the Guggenheim in Venice is doing British Vorticism, the Royal Academy recently celebrated 20th century British sculpture, and Tate Britain is excavating the British art scene from 1900-1990.

However, Jones argues - a small number of exceptions aside - British art from 1900-1940 doesn't deserve to be resuscitated in this fashion:

Phooey, I say. British art in the first half of the 20th century has never been underestimated. It has been accurately seen for what it was, a backwater. Of course there are fascinating figures, like Sickert and Epstein. After the second world war it all gets much more dynamic in the age of Francis Bacon and Richard Hamilton. But come on. Bigging up British modernism from the 1900s to 1940s is a fool's game. You can get carried away by any art. But it does not matter how many Henry Moore statues are exhibited, they still look tame as soon as they are set next to a Picasso.
Which can't help but make you think: what hope New Zealand art from the same period?

In other art history reading: Holland Cotter in the New York Times asks who's going to pay attention to pre-contemporary art - especially non-Western art - now that 80% of applicants to American art history programmes declare contemporary art as their field of choice?*

*Anecdotal figure

Thursday 21 April 2011

Big and bold and dark as hell

Richard Serra, Untitled (14-Part Roller Drawings), 1973 has a lengthy interview with Richard Serra on the occasion of the retrospective of his drawings at the Met. The interview is accompanied by this slideshow of 20 works, many accompanied by Serra's comments about how the works were made - the materiality and physicality of his process is fascinating.

Wednesday 20 April 2011

Easter reading

I'm taking a week off over Easter, and as always, I've been poring over and refining and re-refining my reading list. Here it is - biology, biography, romanticism, poetry, and a Pulitzer Prize winner:

Richard Dawkins The Greatest Show on Earth

Claire Tomalin Shelley and his World

Richard Holmes Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer

A.S. Byatt - The Virgin in the Garden (I'm on a Byatt re-reading junket, and it's proving very enjoyable) & Unruly Times: Wordsworth and Coleridge in their time

Theodore Roethke Collected Poems

Siegfried Sassoon The War Poems

And thanks to a give-away on Twitter from BooksellersNZ, Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad. By the way, you have until 3pm today to enter their mega Easter books giveaway - it's as easy as an email.

Monday 18 April 2011

Oooh, aaaah

There's nothing better for a punishing headcold than a poke around Melbourne's contemporary jewellery galleries (online, that is - that way you don't have to worry about your nose leaking on a display cabinet).

I've been a fan of the Pieces of Eight gallery for years now - my Craig Spark necklace I bought there in 2006 remains one of my most favourite things. I didn't realise that the gallery had moved into town; I can't wait to see their new place in June. Pieces of Eight also has a very active and picture-packed blog, featuring piece of the day and workbench of the week posts: an immediate add to Google Reader.

It's clearly been a while since I perused the Melbourne jewellery scene, as Djurdjica Kesic's work has snuck up on me unseen. It's always hard to tell online, of course, but her work looks exactly like what appeals to me - non-traditional materials mixed in with traditional, 'precious' materials, a slightly industrial or rough-edged tone, a formal approach to materials, and a sense of adventure and surprise. Kesic has had three shows at Pieces of Eight: Nomad, Transitions and work in the group show My Pet Rock. Fingers crossed I can get to the real thing in June.

I've also started following Karen Thompson's Melbourne Jeweller blog in preparation for my trip (you can't say I don't take these things seriously) - as well as the coverage of local jewellery happenings I particularly appreciate that she uses a Creative Commons license on her blog's content. Also, she out her links page for a long listing of Australian jeweller blogs and hours of online exploration.

Saturday 16 April 2011

Does my opinion look big in this?

The original article from the New York Times, in which Randy Kennedy looks at Met Museum director Thomas Campbell's initiatives around wifi, digital technology, and reaching out to audiences:

Such ambitions for the Met might not sound revolutionary, especially after the kinds of grand expansions and acquisitions that more than doubled the museum’s size during the de Montebello years, leaving little room for his successor to start putting his stamp on the place.

But in two wide-ranging interviews over the last month Mr. Campbell said that he did not see it that way and that he viewed the museum’s next frontier to be less physical than philosophical and virtual: a change in the Met’s tone and public face, making it a more open and understandable museum, largely by thoroughly rethinking the way it uses technology.

“It’s not sexy and glamorous, like building a new wing,” he said, “but I think it’s a fundamental part of our responsibility to our audience.”

The response by Jed Perl in The New Republic, where he rips Campbell a new one for condescending to audiences:

Are the people who run our museums aware that their solicitude for museumgoers sounds a lot like condescension? A few weeks ago, Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums, explained that the Metropolitan Museum of Art “can be intimidating” for people who don’t “already know something about art and have a familiarity with the place.” Thomas Campbell, the Met’s very own director, is singing the same song. “We have to recognize that a great many of our visitors don’t know their way around and they don’t know much about art.” I realize that Campbell and Bell are well-meaning fellows. They do not want to be pegged as oblivious elitists. What they may not realize is that their ready-for-prime-time populism is another form of elitism—maybe the worst kind of elitism. When I read these remarks by Campbell and Bell I have the sneaking suspicion that they regard the museumgoing public as the little people, dumb as rocks, a blank slate with no inherent taste, insight, or sensibility. When museum people start to talk about improving the public—there is now a field known as “visitor engagement”—the unspoken message may be that administrators and bureaucrats do not really believe in the public.

And the response from Mark O'Neill in The Art Newspaper, citing Perl's article as 'typical of attacks on museums which seek to renew their relationship with society, and hence their legitimacy as public institutions.'

Happy weekend reading!

Friday 15 April 2011

Tasty new stuff from the Tate

I've been having a play this week with the Tate's beta collection site, Art & Artists.

I'm liking the way the Tate have built in lots of powerful search tools, while also making the browse experience enjoyable. The thumbnails on the homepage, for example, are generated from the items with the most views, meaning the most popular collections items appear (and allowing for sudden peaks of interest to be recorded and communicated to site visitors) (and, yes, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you want to be picky about it).

The Artists tab is also ordered by Views. It has the nice option to let you order artists by number of works in the collection, which is how I discovered that there are nearly 42,000 items by JMW Turner - which seems astounding.

The above screenshot shows the homepage of the site with all the initial facets expanded. Facets and metadata currently play quite a large role in my life, and I appreciate how the Tate has tucked them away. They're there for the power user, but hidden from the casual browser. I do find some of the facets odd. For example, you can split artists by gender, and I can't think of a use case for that (apart from doing a comparison of number of works in the collection by men and women). Nationality and time period might be more informative here (but then, of course, how do you deal with someone born in Italy who worked in Belgium and France and died in England, or who painted between 1888 and 1934?).

Individual item pages have a simple and roomy display, and once again you can also hide and expand more filters/links/facets. I quite like the stepped approach taken towards the subject descriptions.

Some collection items have multiple views - a basic info page, a detailed catalogue entry, and another page titled 'summary' but which is more like 'interesting context-rich short essay'. The Tate has traded off keeping the first page simple and focused on the image with the chance that people might not click through to the following pages for even more, even richer information (and god knows we're all about even more information).

As this is a beta release, I'm expecting incremental changes and the addition of more functionality over time. In particular, all forms of user engagement and social media integration (from Facebook like buttons to commenting) are currently missing, and I betcha they'll start to dribble out.

Wednesday 13 April 2011

Theft, cultural archaeology, politicial dissidents

UPDATE So, that's what I was going to talk about. My time got crunched though and I ended up having 3.5 minutes to burble away about Ai Weiwei. More Stevenson next time.

Today on the radio I'm going to be talking about Michael Stevenson's survey show at the MCA, Ai Weiwei's detainment by Chinese authorities, and 'The Art of the Steal', which is playing around the country as part of this year's World Cinema Showcase (and, if I get time, a plug for 'Herb and Dorothy' as well).

These are the links I sent to Radio NZ (plus a few more)

Art documentaries

The Art of the Steal schedule - World Cinema Showcase

The Art of the Steal trailer - IFC Films

Review of The Art of the Steal - New York Times

Herb and Dorothy website

The Vogel 50x50 art website

Michael Stevenson

Michael Stevenson exhibition website

Michael Stevenson's website

Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei petition

International museums call for Ai Weiwei's release -

Ai Weiwei's last interview - The Guardian

Ai Weiwei - strange new accusations -

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Some recent YA fiction

As in 'recently read' rather than recently published:

Jo Walton, Among Others - part boarding school story, part teen misfit, part fantasy, and dollops of 197os science fiction. Loved it all the way up to the last two chapters.

Scott Westerfeld, Behemoth - I still find the character and plot a little thin (and it is aimed at 'middle-school', after all). But the central conceit - that the First World War is going to be fought between the Clankers (the German-Austro-Hungary alliance, who have evolved clockwork and steampower to intricate, magnificent, destructive effect) and the Darwinists (the Allies, led by England), the namesake of whom didn't just figure out evolution but burrowed deep into the gene, meaning their society is powered by genetically engineered beasties - entrances me.

Patrick Ness, Monsters of Men - as they say, a fitting end to a stand-out series. If you're looking to dip into YA, there's no better place to start than the first book in the series, The Knife of Never Letting Go.

Melvin Burgess, Bloodsong - putting the fate back into fatalism, with a blend of futuristic dystopia and Norse mythology.

Jackie French, Oracle - solid ancient Rome YA (well - ancient Mycenae, to be accurate).

Sherman Alexie - The Absolutely True Diary of Part-Time Indian - funny, scathing, heartbreaking (one of the most-banned books in American school libraries)

Friday 8 April 2011

One long read

Rather than clicking through to a bunch of links and reading the first two paragraphs, why don't you carve out 20 minutes over the next day or so and take in John Jeremiah Sullivan's review of David Foster Wallace's 'The Pale King' at a leisurely pace?

And if you're after more good long articles, I heartily endorse longform and Longreads. Always worth a minute in your day (and then another half an hour ....)

Wednesday 6 April 2011

Asking the question

The Minneapolis Institute of Art has gone to the polls, asking blog readers whether they think a figure of sportsman, inserted sometime in the early 1800s into Meindert Hobbema’s Wooded Landscape with a Watermill, should be masked by conservators (to restore the painting to its original state) or left as it is (as a part of the history the painting has collected).

On their blog the MIA have used a nifty little 'wiper' like those used for before and after photos of the Christchurch earthquake and Japanese tsunami, so people can see whether they prefer the painting with or without the figure.

As Tyler Green observes, the MIA have changed their call for action, from 'your vote counts towards our decision' to 'we're interested in what you have to say. Should art institutions be out-sourcing conservation decisions out to the public? No, of course not. But is this an easy way to show people what happens behind the scenes at art galleries and museums? Well, I voted ....

Speaking of conservation, I do admire Te Papa's efforts to share their behind the scenes activities through floortalks, blog posts and their e-newsletter. Te Papa conservators are currently blogging their work on the recently acquired portrait 'Poedua' by John Webber: check out part 1 and part 2.

Monday 4 April 2011

Managing cultural property

Nick Poole, the CEO of the UK's Collections Trust, was a keynote speaker at last year's National Digital Forum. Here are the slides from a recent workshop on managing cultural property.

What I find interesting - and useful - about the slides is that Poole is advocating an end-to-end process. You need to be thorough when acquiring items for your collections. You need to be proactive with assessing whether any items in your collections might be subject to calls for repatriation or reclamation. And should these calls be made, you need to be decisive and open. Smart and practical advice.