Welcome, Arjun! (Park the elephant anywhere.)

Among the people who have tried to arrive in Australia by boat in the last few decades were probably many, whatever their religion, who knew all the details of this story already, and knew its lessons …


Krishna reveals his universal form to Arjuna.
Krishna reveals his universal form to Arjuna.

Every Friday night Sebastian comes around for dinner and drinks. Last Friday he asked if he could invite Arjun to call in, late, and join us. I had not met Arjun before. I thought for a moment, trying to recall the name in the Bhagavad Gita. It has been a long time since I read it. A very long time. “Yes… Is it as in ‘Arjuna’?”

Sebastian sent the agreed-upon text message to Arjun’s phone… “Park the elephant anywhere. I’ll come out to show you in.” —As though anyone with a modern Hindu name would turn up for drinks on an elephant.

Arjun arrived later than expected. He had been to an exhibition and the art was ‘experimental’. “I went with an artist who tried to explain it to me. Apparently it starts off being a painting, and then it gets turned into a print, and then it’s projected. There were videos, too.” So, we talked about art.

Every long friendship is a secret place, a bolthole that is also a hall of mirrors where language, laughter and identity reflect on each other. We tell politically incorrect jokes about gays, women, blacks, politics, and then quickly straighten ourselves, pretending to worry that someone might be listening at the window or that there is a microphone hidden under the table. These jokes, to be fair, are often at our own expense. No-one gets out alive.

Blacks call each other ‘nigger’. Gays take back ownership of ‘queer’ and ‘faggot’. But in our colonial outpost at the end of Asia, surrounded on all sides by water, Muslims, Hindus, Maoris and ice, people who look and speak like ‘foreigners’—non-Anglo, non-Euro foreigners—are still having a gruesome time.

It is not difficult to perceive a shrill panic in Australian language in 2015. Online newspapers are stuffed full of (mostly) anonymous complaints about fake refugees. “Surely everyone knows that the countries refugees want to live in are white countries.” “The refugee convention does not guarantee that refugees can only be resettled in the wealthy country of their choosing. Yet, many refugees seem to want only to come to Australia and reject safe harbor in other countries.” And so on. Genuinely racist urges are easily camouflaged with concern that we should not allow refugees to drown at sea.

Australia has developed a heap of festering prejudices. “Why do these people have to come here.” “They’ve spoiled their own countries,” “ruined their own cultures with religious wars.” “We don’t want that sort of thing here.” “There are Muslim countries they can go to. Why don’t they go there?” “The Indian student who faked an attack on himself.” “Oh, God, they’ve taken over the Seven-Eleven stores…” “Asians. I think they’re aliens. I mean really aliens. From outer space.” 

I like to think I know a thing or two about art, but the truth is I do not know very much at all. Asian art, for example, is a mystery to me. I think I am not alone. All the Catholic and Christian stuff I have down pat, rehearsing it since childhood. To my deeply prejudicial frame of mind, Muslim art is easy: they don’t like images. What’s next? Ah, the Hindus: statues with many heads and way too many arms. I have no idea what it means.

What does it mean? I acknowledge it simply as a symbol of exotic excess. Those asian artists, you know, they just do not know when to stop. And there appear to be different versions of the same thing: one is a Krishna, the other a Shiva; some of them are dancing and some not. It’s all just too complicated—and alien.

Properly motivated, it does not take long to find out what it means.

With apologies to Hindus who may be offended by a clumsy contraction of several million words into these few paragraphs…

Hindus, like Catholics, believe in a god who transcends everything in time and space. Brahma is the supreme god of creation (alongside Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer—making the Hindu trinity). It is Brahma who is the father of Manu, from whom all human beings descend.

The central, though not by a long way the oldest, texts of Hinduism are the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Composition of both began around 400 BCE, and the texts finalised around 400 CE. The Mahabharata is the great story of the ‘Bharata’ dynasty—a history of the contest for accession between the Pandava princes and the Kaurava princes. At the core of the story is the recounting of the Kurukshetra war in which the armies of the branches of the dynasty fight each other. (In this and all the other Hindu texts, the ‘story’ is accompanied by much philosophical and devotional material.)

The Mahabharata is the longest verse epic in world literature. While the centrepiece of the poem is the description of the eighteen day battle, the Mahabharata also contains, just before the battle begins, one of the key texts of Hinduism—the Bhagavad Gita.

Arjuna, the Pandava prince, arrives in a chariot to the place where the Kurukshetra war is to start. Krishna, in human form (he is the eighth incarnation of Vishnu), is Arjuna’s charioteer. Arjuna looks at the army opposing him and is paralysed by the thought that many of the people there are beloved members of his family and his teachers.

Arjuna asks Krishna for his advice. Krishna does not hold back. He tells Arjuna his duty and reminds him that there is no point delaying taking action. The fate of the Kaurava princes is already determined—by Krishna himself.

To prove his point, Krishna reveals his universal form to Arjuna. This is the moment (chapter 11, verses 10 and 11) we see depicted in the paintings of the (often blue) deity with many heads and many arms. Krishna sees everywhere, and his hands guide everything in the universe.

Arjuna’s dialogue with Krishna is crucially important to Hindus—personally, culturally and politically. It is a narrative about fate, courage, the necessity for action, and the role of heroism in personal and social life. Its influence runs deep in Hindu culture. Political leaders, past and present, including Mohandas Gandhi, interpreted the narrative of the Bhagavad Gita to clarify their own ideas and actions.

Careful readers will have noted that Arjuna does not arrive on an elephant.

Among the people who have tried to arrive in Australia by boat in the last few decades were probably many, whatever their religion, who knew all the details of this story already, and knew its lessons. It takes some courage to get into a wooden boat and try to cross hundreds of miles of ocean, does it not?

I understand there are many Australians who believe there is an imperative to preserve life; to keep straight the lines and the lengthening queues of people wanting to come here; and perhaps even to sort through those queues for the kinds of people we would prefer.

Australia is filling up with believers who are concerned to do the right thing.

Speaking only for myself, I have decided that it is not necessary to pretend to judge whether someone is actually a refugee. I do not believe we should pretend it is moral to punish someone who seeks a better life with alienation, abuse and rape; and to promise it will be punishment without relief.

I cannot promise it will make any sense to you because I hardly understand it myself: the story of Arjuna is about how to act, and the need to act, even though we are quite certain that no matter what we do we will cause suffering. These ideas are permanent and universal. They were the same in Asia two thousand years ago as they are now in Greece or Italy.

At around the same time that the Mahabharata was being composed, on the other side of the world, a bronze statue of a boxer was being created. This statue was unearthed on the Quirinal Hill in Rome in 1885 by the archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani. The bronze has copper inlays that make the flesh of the boxer look bruised. When the figure was cast the sculptor took a chisel to his work and gouged scars in its face.

The creators of the Mahabharata and the statue of the seated boxer were both trying to tell us something about human suffering and heroic action.

Statue of a seated boxer, 3rd century BCE, Palazzo Massimo. Photograph by F Tronchin (2007).
Statue of a seated boxer, 3rd century BCE, Palazzo Massimo. Photograph by F Tronchin (2007).

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David Hensel | interview

David Hensel“I cheered on reading Brian Sewell’s scathing article about the Summer Exhibition, because I read it returning from going to the preview, where I’d hoped to find my own sculpture. Instead what I found was the empty base, without the sculpture. We know the art market prefers obscure art as somehow more advanced, and anything can be aesthetic if presented well, but selecting an empty plinth seemed to typify the vacuity of a lot of the work in the exhibition.”


David Hensel, an English jeweller and sculptor, submitted a sculpture of a laughing head on a plinth to the Summer Exhibition of the Royal Academy earlier this year. When he went to the exhibition, only the plinth and bolster were on display. After he released news of the mistake to the press, RA spokespersons asserted that the plinth had been accepted for display, because it had merit, and the head rejected. While the Academy turned error into insult, Hensel has been publicly pondering what the mistake really says about the state of art and art criticism. I contacted him by e-mail and the following interview goes over the facts of the RA story, as Hensel recalls them, and looks at Hensel’s work.

Williams: Let’s start by going over the facts of the Royal Academy (RA) incident. I have only read media reports on the internet. Sometime earlier this year you submitted a sculpture that consisted of a head, a plinth and a wooden bolster to the Royal Academy for its June 2006 Summer Exhibition. The RA has claimed, in the reports I read, that the plinth and bolster were submitted separately to the head. It’s not clear why that should be so. Were they in separate boxes? Was there one or two application forms? Did you receive an acceptance letter or acknowledgement of some kind? Eventually you went to see the exhibition and noticed that the plinth and bolster were exhibited without the head. What happened next? Did you speak to the curators? Was it you, or the RA, that notified the media of the circumstances about your sculpture? How did you, or they, do this? If it was the RA, did they show you the media release before sending it out?

Hensel: In May 2006 I delivered to the Royal Academy a single sculpture which, as you say, consisted of a head, a plinth and wooden bolster. The bolster was tied to a loop in the plinth, and the head was loose. They were delivered as one submission: the entry form gave three copies of the same self adhesive barcode, one of which was stuck on the bottom of the plinth, one on a provided tie-on label which went in a rather ungainly manner round the head, and the third went on the entry form. It isn’t true that they were submitted separately: this idea was apparently devised by the self-protection department of the RA and issued broadly in a press release a few days after the start of the furore. I wasn’t consulted or shown it, it just appeared in some of the press. Most of the papers I saw that carried it also mentioned my more honest version. I recently asked the exhibition co-ordinator about this point, but she didn’t respond.

I received an acceptance letter a few days before the show, after the whole selection process had taken place. This just said my sculpture, ‘One Day Closer to Paradise’, had been accepted for the show.

When I went to see the exhibition at the third preview (The first was the ‘Varnishing Day’, Monday. I would have gone then but I was teaching. It was pointed out to me that this is where they pick up glitches. The second was what they call the ‘Buyer’s preview’, Thursday. I went on Friday. The show opened to the public on the next Monday.) and noticed the error. I went to talk with the nearest staff member who was a girl at the desk. She said she remembered handling the sculpture herself for the selection (because it is heavy) and it was just the plinth at that time. She tried to contact the appropriate office but no one answered; so I left it that she would contact them the next day and they would contact me about it. It was Wednesday before they did contact me, by which time the papers had the story. The way this happened is this…

I had found myself dissatisfied with the show, and becoming more and more depressed as I went round. I hadn’t found my sculpture yet, but that wasn’t the issue. The work from the Academicians seemed far more repetitive, old and tired, than usual. An RA member is allowed to enter six without selection. Everyone else, anyone else, can submit up to three pieces to go through the selection process. No problem with that—just the tedium. I don’t know if you know the annual show—it’s huge: one thousand items selected from ten thousand. Usually—I try to go every year—it is inspiring in it’s variation and the quality of the real among the fake among the routine. Why was it different this year? I have to go again and find out (but perhaps I’ll wait until my name is no longer dirt). As I went on round, there seemed to be more and more work that may be innovative or would-be subversive. Towards the end there were a lot of items by the famous Britart brigade [Hensel is referring to Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin, etc.], who it appears had been invited in to give the show a boost because the BBC were doing a three-part documentary and not because of artistic merit. I found my sculpture in the last room, on a pair of shelves like a store room. Or rather I didn’t find it. Only the plinth was there. OK, some people can discard a paper bag with such style that it’s almost art, and I agree that my plinth has some presence as an object, especially when viewed in light of the title. (I don’t know whether they saw the title but I’m assuming they did.) It is a monumental task mounting the show. I have huge respect for the organisers—the group of selectors—but there did seem to be rather a lot of dubious quality work there. And you should see the prize winners!

On the way home in the train home I read a terrifyingly scathing article by Brain Sewell. He is usually acerbic, but this time I found I agreed with too much. Something wrong at the Royal Academy, connected with their attempted pose as ‘up to date’. The usual way to sell difficult work is to put it in the white gallery. —But put it, instead, in a context of scholarship, traditional values of excellence, and it doesn’t make it easier to understand.

Anyway, Brian Sewell it turns out was a friend of my late brother in law. Too late.

I told a number of my friends about my missing sculpture. Most just held their heads, some gleeful at the ammunition potential against the fat heads who run the art world. The laughter matches so well the range of expressions of the missing sculpture, including the horror that it has from one angle. I decided to try to contact Sewell to see if he wanted to follow it up. Also I got, from a friend who knows him, the e-mail address of David Lee, who writes a magazine full of unusually well-observed criticism called The Jackdaw. I tried to contact Sewell by e-mail through the Evening Standard, the London paper which had his article. I was thinking about it a lot, somewhat aggrieved but also fascinated, wondering whether it could become a way to say something useful and air some of my views about it.

After the weekend I had heard from no one, but on Monday I was phoned by the Standard, which wondered if I would like to write letter to the paper, for publication on Tuesday. They hadn’t managed to get my request to Sewell or he hadn’t replied. He had been ill. He is 70 or more. So I did, and sent it in the evening. On Tuesday they phoned me again saying they would like to carry the story, as it was, in Sewell’s absence. —Which they did, on Wednesday. The rest is history, as they say.

Williams: Is the sculpture now on display, in part or reunited with its head?

Hensel: The RA did phone me after the Standard’s story, apologies and all that, but they had to ask the selecting artists for their opinion before they could do anything, again relying on experts, and on Friday they still hadn’t been able to get them in to decide, so they started insisting the plinth had been selected on it’s own.

By that time I had seen that there would be more in this by keeping it empty, though I would be willing to reunite them if they insisted. Eventually they said both parts had been viewed separately and the head rejected. I imagine the head wouldn’t come across without a base to stand on, but I know these artists by their work which is very different from mine. Inevitably when selecting from thousands, snap decisions based on taste are made, and if it has presence it can get in. Just because it has presence doesn’t mean it is art: that needs to have something more. Though, I do think it works well in this empty version—and I wish I had thought of it myself! Would have saved a bit of work. An afternoon instead of two months, more if you count learning the new medium I wanted to use.

At no time did I get angry or upset about it because already the words were available to describe the event as an example of cultural theatre in which we in the arts are all actors playing roles self-scripted, inherited from personal background or determined by personal awareness of context and audience and education. If education systems have flaws, they show up in styles of art: thus they are roles which describe the real world through the safety-net of the arts; and I feel this idea is one that can reunite us and save face all round. It’s a difficult concept for some it seems, but we’ll see. (An actor doesn’t need to get upset or embarrassed if his character is unable, slips up, or proves to be unaware.)

Now it is going to remain separate, just the plinth on show, and that suits the next development, which is that The Times is going to auction it as it is, accompanied by a documentation of the event so that it can be seen as a new work of art about the failed one.

Williams: In general, what would you say the public reaction has been to the news of what has happened to you, as distinct, say, from the reaction of the media and the RA?

Hensel: Most people I know have responded with laughter, by clutching their brow in disbelief, or been excited at the potential of the attention. I haven’t met many who are on the side of the contemporary art world, who are generally seen as somewhat fraudulent or stupid opportunists. There’s a recognition that, for dealers, the avant garde is a form of currency that is easy to forge. Of course, there are good artists, but there is a broad recognition that you don’t get fame and fortune by being good or relevant: there are other, esoteric criteria…

A fair proportion of the people I know are artists in one way or another, and they all seem to be delighted, as though it’s a justified come-uppance. There’s a generally held sense that these people deserve it—not the RA really, they’re respected, but the charlatans. Many artists play to the market, but that’s only healthy greed. The cheering is nothing to do with the handling error that caused it, obviously. We all feel the embarrassment they undoubtedly feel.

Williams: Had you ever submitted a sculpture to the RA Summer Exhibition before? I notice there is a piece on your website on a page referring to a previous Summer Exhibition, but it’s not clear whether that sculpture was accepted. It looks like an auto-fellating cherub.

Hensel: Exactly right, that’s what it is. It was accepted for the 2003 exhibition. It was the first time I had submitted anything, so that was pleasing. I couldn’t find that when I went either, but it was there, just high up on a bracket on the wall, presumably out of respect for the old ladies. The title I gave it had reached the stage of ‘The Old Bush Award’, and I saw it as a design for a trophy which would be given annually some time in the future in the name of G.W. [Bush] to worthy world leaders. I had first called it ‘Jerusalem’, after Blake, honoring his wonderful song against the British Empire’s use of Christianity—hence the religious aspect. The foundry called it ‘Angel’s delight’. Later, I changed the title to ‘Fountain’ thinking of Duchamp’s urinal.

Williams: I’d like to know how you describe our own work. You’re a jewellery maker and sculptor, making both indoor and outdoor pieces. Your jewellery appears to be more in the nature of ‘personal sculpture’: many of the pieces are very—how to put it?—visible. They would be hard to miss if someone were wearing them.

Hensel: I once many years ago recognised I couldn’t happily call myself an artist because I didn’t know what art was, so I decided to try to come up with a new definition every day. It’s a useful discipline—keeps the intellect out of the creative process when working. I still don’t know, though, but recognise that the desire to categorise and label is what all artists are trying to subvert, to find ways to get under someone’s skin. So, yes, my jewellery is personal sculpture. I always liked whittling as a child, but that doesn’t make traditional ‘sculpture’ because decisions are made hand-held, not placed on a plinth where they can penetrate the ground and permeate by impersonation into the viewer.

An inspiration in small sculpture was the way I like to find scraps of stuff that had presence, that looked as if they were something monumental, something huge and far away, or I was a giant looking at them. Anyway, it turned into jewellery as a way to have something saleable, and then it made sense to try to make more and more of the found items and to make them out of precious materials. I like finding out how to do the technical parts, getting better at making expressive carving, most of it has involved carving of some material or other—and especially I like the discovery that doing it as jewellery is a way to connect with certain people.

I have to find new ways to work now. It’s getting so disagreeable to work on this tiny scale because of age-related eyesight problems; but also one needs to change because each kind of work supports it’s own kind of thought and I need to move on.

Williams: I don’t want to get bogged down in questions of taste, but staying on question of how to describe your work for a moment, I certainly wouldn’t put you anywhere in the lineage of Brancusi. A lot of your work seems to have a highly stylised, ‘Druidistic’ look to it—possibly in the Blakean sense of the word, relating to a universal, non-Christian proto-religion. Is it something like that?

Hensel: This has happened without any intention on my part. I didn’t study jewellery-making at art school. All my processes have been made up. I am not able to do the fashion thing, the up–to-date style, because you can only work from your own background, in my case rural English, and you can only work towards you own society. I don’t live in a stylistic stratosphere. I don’t design what I do in the way some people work—as adornment, as graphic design, using images and dynamic qualities from advertising, fashion, etc. What I want to do is to make the next thing, allow the fact of making some object, which has it’s own place in the world, to be a way of looking at the world, at people, at myself. I see this is basic to the way art works anyway, it’s a way of looking at the world, provides filters and templates which are the shape of your methods and skills. That people call it druid jewellery (and I was amused a while ago to discover an American agent of mine was calling it just that) is fine. We need to label things both to make them available as well as to protect ourselves from them. What I am most inspired by is being told—and it happens regularly—that what I’ve made for someone is their most beautiful possession. I think it works to make a personal, private mythology for the owner.

Art can work in many ways. A piece of jewellery can be something to hide behind as well as to show off with. Jewellery particularly can be a social way of demonstrating mastery of some aspect of the world, your bank balance, your self image, your emotional depths, and it can be a way of holding in place questions that you need to discover or explore.

Williams: I’ll be honest and admit that my instinctive, first reaction to your work was not positive—I thought it looked like a not completely integrated mash of visual styles and attitudes, including Druidism, pre-Raphaelite and Art Deco. However, as I looked through over a hundred works photographed and presented on a jewellers’ website, I began to sense a very strong imaginative impulse in your work that is both impressive and affecting. There are some smallish pieces, for example, that for the sake of a taxonomy have to be called ‘rings’, but in fact they are more like cabinets that can be ‘unfolded’ to reveal a secret interior design and subject matter. Is it correct to say that you (and your work processes) concentrate more on the imaginative work in creating your art than on resolving stylistic problems?

Hensel: I think you are right. It’s relevant to think about what style means, how much it is a starting point determined by awareness of market fashions, how much it is a set of accepted constraints that represent your sense of where and how you live, within which your personal imagination can flower, how much is it a measure of the balance between your awareness and unawareness. That some people value that handmade quality of my work is possibly an indication that they feel deprived in their own lifestyle. That’s an important function of art: that all art has a bodily or personal purpose.

Williams: I’m interested in what has happened to you from the point of view of ‘intentionality’. That is, is what artists mean important, even if we have difficulty getting access to what they mean? It strikes me that what has happened to you is an interesting example of how easy it has become to brush aside the intentions of artists, as though it were both theoretically and personally unimportant what you meant or wanted. I also think it’s interesting that it was, possibly, not an artist or curator that came up with some of the (what seem to me) insulting remarks from the RA, but a publicity spokesperson. Maybe we’ll never know for certain.

Of course, the other side of this situation is that you appear to have been quite open to the comic and creative possibilities of the moment, so that what seemed to be an insult has been turned into a conversation about what art is. This says a lot about you as a person and as an artist, though how anyone could separate the two, I don’t know.

Hensel: I don’t think you can separate them. One of the long-term processes is the integration of the art and the person. One of the skills in any creative process is knowing how to respond to chance. I just applied that in the real life situation. It wasn’t difficult to agree to the new form of the sculpture, and I will learn from that. If something is stuck, you try to reverse it, and thinking how to reverse the possible insult took a while.

I cheered on reading Brian Sewell’s scathing article about the Summer Exhibition, because I read it returning from going to the preview, where I’d hoped to find my own sculpture. Instead what I found was the empty base, without the sculpture. We know the art market prefers obscure art as somehow more advanced, and anything can be aesthetic if presented well, but selecting an empty plinth seemed to typify the vacuity of a lot of the work in the exhibition.

However, one important way the art world functions is that it is in itself a satirical, staged, cultural performance, a parody of the pretentiousness and hypocrisy of our government, our commercial pressures and their propaganda (sorry, public relations and advertising), with their approach of making us feel inadequate so we’ll go out do more shopping and vote for greater protection. To be effective, propaganda must be invisible, must reduce awareness, and thus selecting an empty plinth could be a taken as a warning.

The conscious intention of the artist, the subject’s story, is only a part of what will go into the work of sculpture. A sculpture can work by choreographing spectator motion, holding out new gesture or stance, which carries attitude or expectation towards new perception. Brancusi was important in clarifying the function of the plinth, which reaches down to the ground, so the sculpture can penetrate through and up into the spectator, hopefully catching and moving them before the intellect is stirred to ‘interpret’. People often go round an exhibition and at then end find the world looks different.

The refinement of a work involves working with these factors. It’s an important part of presence, and the various forms of abstract have been explorations of this.

The idea the artist uses—the meaning or subject—are vital for keeping the work process in focus, but because the end result is going to act through different sense channels, this subject can dissolve as the work progresses. One wants to arrive at a resolution where all conceivable aspects that the spectator might perceive have been considered, seen. The aesthetic balance of all these aspects can mean some aspects are reduced to mere hints and suggestions, and include not just the usual sculptural aspects of awareness of volume, forces, scale, etc., but a respect for the likely familiarities of an audience. The artist’s intentions evolve as potentials unfold.

I feel comfortable with this: I see a subject as a question. One can only work from one’s own background and speak to one’s own society; and any work of art is at some level an attempt to discover more about these. The question is a vehicle used to arrive at something special, something which holds a focussed awareness of life in place, and this only has value if it has a presence for others.

This is quite difficult in our time where we have a very sophisticated ability to find meaning in anything has that quality, where we can project meaning and then believe we have found it. The challenge for the artist is to try to rise above this.

I feel lucky that the ‘new’ version matched beautifully with my original subject. All I have done now is to see this and accept it.

Back-tracking a little—I don’t feel it is correct to say I make Druidic jewellery. I had never heard this term, until about 1990, when it was used to describe my work by an American agent. Now, apparently, I make Gothic jewellery as well—when what is really meant by that label is that I make some pieces that might appeal to a segment of the market called ‘Gothic’! These terms just are not within my conscious awareness. In my own perception, my work is ‘handmade’. Societies and tastes change. One adapts to new markets as far as one’s constitution will permit. Labels are presumptive. I recognise some of the influences you mention. The work of an artist is to explore the invisible within themselves, as a prelude to engaging with something more socially conscious.

One of the primary urges of the artist is to be up to date—a responsibility as well as for fun—to keep the wave-front of consciousness free of opportunism and bias. I feel this mistake in the RA, the one we have been discussing, means they are not paying attention.

Williams: Did we rush to conclude that the person and the artist were inseparable? I remember my feelings of outrage whenever an academic industry develops to point out the political and other defects of an artist who, for one reason or another, has become a target. Virginia Woolf, for example, whose diaries occasionally show her to have been class-prejudiced in a very mean and blinkered way. Artists, though, are often on their best behavior in the act of creation, where an empathic impulse drives the work towards universality. Can we agree on that?

Hensel: This is an interesting question. I think you could say that the artist and the person are inseparable in the same way as an actor and his character are inseparable when he is committed to playing his role for life. Rather than “best behavior”, I would say honest behavior. I feel that the artists who become significant are on one hand the people who reveal in their own awareness, background and obsessions a correspondence with a broader cultural awareness, who are able intuitively or knowingly to explore within themselves and through their technical skills questions that are relevant to others, and by that means to come up with the questions that need to be asked; and, on the other hand, those who manage to make the most eye-watering expressions of being alive. It depends who you work for, though, and what sort of status symbols or control devices they pay you to animate.

Some art commentary tends to blur the relevance, trying to invent and impose their own significance, trying to be seen as interpreter and exponent of desirable taste, and probably being paid to obscure uncomfortable questions. Similarly, historians devise art movements in retrospect, imagining influences, connections and interactions that often seem to confuse, for example, there’s synthetic internationalism, or a demand to be post-modern, labels which I see as divisive, separating an artist from their own native background and natural audience, from their own intuitive engagement with their time and place, which can result in an artificial—although evidently profitable—quality of imitation and fashion.

It’s only through the many stages of working that one can arrive at an expanded sense of universality within oneself. The actual work of an artist is finding what their work is, what their genuine concerns are, shedding adopted influences and assumptions and becoming able to reveal the self as universal, and this is a process that that can be personally agonising, time consuming and difficult.

I want to convey the idea that there’s a sense of responsibility that defines the artist, and I think it’s the artist in each of us who can recognise and respect breath-taking cultural achievements as responsible opportunism. ‘Culture’ is more than party time for the arty: it’s a shared creation of where and how we live.

I know this whole event has been hugely amusing. —Punctured dignity often is. But, looking at the discussions about art, in the press and on the Internet, it’s clear there’s a lot of thought about it. I’m hoping that the interest can persist for long enough for the questioning to turn to why it’s like it is, not so that we get better art—it’s perfect as it is, in that it reveals negative sides to our nature—but so that we can understand a little more clearly how the world works and how the arts reveal that. And I think that’s something we agree is necessary.


Conversations

  • Michelle Ramin | in real life - Michelle Ramin won the San Francisco Bay Guardian 2014 Goldie Award for Excellence in Visual Art. She has exhibited her paintings in San Francisco, New York, Portland, Nashville, New Orleans, and in the UK. She was born in North Central Pennsylvania and currently lives and works in San Francisco. Ramin studied at Penn State University …
  • Victoria Contreras Flores | correspondence - Victoria Contreras Flores received her degree and PhD from the Polytechnic University of Valencia. She was born and lives in Valencia, Spain, and is the creator of ARTNATOMY, and a great variety of other artistic projects.
  • Santiago Cañón Valencia | interview - Santiago Cañón Valencia is a cellist. An emerging solo artist of great technical brilliance, he was born in Bogotá, Colombia, completed his bachelor degree with James Tennant at the University of Waikato in New Zealand and advanced studies with Andrés Díaz at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Winner of many awards, he has performed with orchestras in Colombia, Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Canada, and Hungary.
  • David Hensel | interview - “I cheered on reading Brian Sewell’s scathing article about the Summer Exhibition, because I read it returning from going to the preview, where I’d hoped to find my own sculpture. Instead what I found was the empty base, without the sculpture. We know the art market prefers obscure art as somehow more advanced, and anything …
  • Victoria Contreras Flores | Art~natomist - Artnatomia is a tremendously clever use of Flash and a great educational tool. It is the inspirational work of art teacher and artist, Victoria Contreras Flores, who, with a contrary view of the demands of the art market, has decided to concentrate on using new tools and media to express herself and teach her students. Her …

L’Affaire Dimopoulos: ‘copy’ of ‘difficult’ N.Z. ‘artwork’ installed at Federation ‘Square’

Following the controversy, in 2005, about the Melbourne City Council’s sensible rejection of Kon Dimopoulos’s ‘Sacred Grove’ project, the Minister for the Yarts in Victoria, Mary Delahunty, announced that the AU$73,000 odd dollars ear-marked for the blue trees would be spent instead on a “site-specific” sculpture “similar in concept” to ones already installed at a Toyota facility here and outside an airport in New Zealand.

The new “site-specific” sculpture has now been installed at Federation Square in Melbourne. An Age editorial mentioned that the sculpture had arrived (7 June 2006), and an article by Jonathan Green, a senior writer at the same newspaper, extracts some comment about public art from notable persons:

Vault eventually moved to the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, while Sacred Grove was recreated in miniature for the Hotel Sofitel in Collins Street, a small gesture towards artistic tolerance that was opened by the director of the National Gallery, Gerard Vaughan, a man who had been saddened by the demise of the original elm paint plan. Red Centre is part of Federation Square, standing between its bars and the Yarra.

It seems that little raises the ire of a certain section of the community more than “difficult” public art. “Some people don’t like to be challenged, I suppose,” said Dr Vaughan.

In the mind of art critic Robert Nelson, the clamour that greets work such as Vault and Sacred Grove points to a fundamental difficulty in introducing serious art into public places.

“The natural air of contention around any art work reaches a hysterical pitch in a public space, so there’s an incentive to go with work that is decorative and not particularly challenging,” he said.

“You are left with symbolic neutrality … like all those little bronze dogs in the city, they’re just slightly pompous garden gnomes.”

—Quoted from Jonathan Green’s article, ‘Will Red Centre be the new Yellow Peril?’, The Age, 7 June 2006.

“‘Difficult’ public art”? —I wonder whether Gerard Vaughan is kidding. Here is the “difficult” public art in question:

This detail of the Age photograph accompanying Green’s article shows ‘Red Centre’ in daylight. It is lit at night. The Herald Sun photo, published on the same day, shows that the reeds are red, black and yellow. The interesting thing, though, is that this “difficult” work by Dimopoulos looks very much like other equally “difficult” installations. Make up your own mind:

… The ‘Firebird’ installation at a Toyota facility.

… The ‘Pacific Grass’ installation at a New Zealand airport.


(The last four images from the Dimopoulos website.)

… Two more versions — ‘Yellow Carex’ (top) and ‘Grassland’ — in parks and on private properties in New Zealand. And there are others. (Actually, some of the others are better!) You get the idea.

Someone might like to explain to me (please) what’s “difficult” about these installations. When you see them it’s difficult to understand what Minister Delahunty’s press release meant when it promised a “site-specific” sculpture “similar in concept” to others already installed elsewhere.

Robert Nelson’s comments are, ironically perhaps, right on the money. Dimopoulos’s installations are not art at all, in my view: they’re pure decoration. Pret-a-porter urban design; one-concept-fits-all intellectual laziness where the only things that change from one site to another are the dimensions, the colors, the title and the price tag. Could you imagine New York settling for tripe like this? ‘You mean Wellington and Melbourne have them!? OK. We’ll have one, too… Make ours just like the others.’

Worse is that the whole enterprise — both the installation and the commentary on it — lacks imagination, directness and rigor. In the intellectual vacuum of corporate art it is a positive value to exhibit no imagination, and to repeat, by rote, tricks performed elsewhere; to copy oneself shamelessly.

A writer, by contrast, would not be permitted to abscond with public moneys after having left behind them an already published novel — no matter how good — that had been re-typed and only the title changed.

Dimopoulos is not the only ‘artist’ who behaves this way. John Kelly’s remarkable, and deserved, success with his many images and sculptures of cows has led him to repeat the trick maybe more than a few times too often. But Kelly, at least, was for the most part putting his hands in the pockets of the rich to pay the poor (himself). It is a different matter to strike a pose of artistic intention with a title like ‘Red Centre’, when uncannily similar objects have different titles elsewhere.

Ironising the ironisers: Edwards does Britney from behind

Daniel Edwards’ take on the pro-life debate is so outrageously perverse the pro-lifers are beside themselves, not knowing if they should be thankful or horrified. Edwards plants Britney Spears on all fours on a bear skin rug, arse in the air, the head of her baby crowning between her spread legs while her milk-laden breasts hang underneath her. The media release, reproduced below (from Capla Kesting Fine Art), is a finely tuned comedy sketch, from which no-one gets out alive.

Daniel Edward's sculpture of Britney Spears.

The three photographs of the work on the web site are all taken from the side or front. There are no ‘posterior’ shots, so to speak. This leaves some drama for the collectors’ vernissage, I suppose, and saves unsuspecting under-age art lovers from throwing up on their computer screens. This little fit of modesty also serves to emphasise the main beguiling feature of the sculpture: Britney has such a calm, sexy (if you like that kind of thing), knowing expression on her face, not at all the kind of look you would expect to find on a woman pushing a baby through her pelvis. Indeed, as little Sean Preston is about to squeeze out the other end, Britney seems to be concentrating on showing the bear a good time. The bear, actually, appears to be enjoying himself, in the middle of a sort of bear-ecstasy and letting out a little growl.


Dedication honors nude Britney Spears giving birth

Pop-Star’s Pregnancy Idealized In Brooklyn ‘Monument to Pro-Life’

Daniel Edwards
Monument to Pro-Life: The Birth of Sean Preston
Capla Kesting Fine Art […]

BROOKLYN (March 22, 2006)——A nude Britney Spears on a bearskin rug while giving birth to her firstborn marks a ‘first’ for Pro-Life. Pop-star Britney Spears is the “ideal” model for Pro-Life and the subject of a dedication at Capla Kesting Fine Art in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg gallery district, in what is proclaimed the first Pro-Life monument to birth, in April.

Dedication of the life-sized statue celebrates the recent birth of Spears’ baby boy, Sean, and applauds her decision of placing family before career. “A superstar at Britney’s young age having a child is rare in today’s celebrity culture. This dedication honors Britney for the rarity of her choice and bravery of her decision,” said gallery co-director, Lincoln Capla. The dedication includes materials provided by Manhattan Right To Life Committee.

Monument to Pro-Life: The Birth of Sean Preston,” believed Pro-Life’s first monument to the ‘act of giving birth,’ is purportedly an idealized depiction of Britney in delivery. Natural aspects of Spears’ pregnancy, like lactiferous breasts and protruding naval, compliment a posterior view that depicts widened hips for birthing and reveals the crowning of baby Sean’s head.

The monument also acknowledges the pop-diva’s pin-up past by showing Spears seductively posed on all fours atop a bearskin rug with back arched, pelvis thrust upward, as she clutches the bear’s ears with ‘water-retentive’ hands.

Britney provides inspiration for those struggling with the ‘right choice’,” said artist Daniel Edwards, recipient of a 2005 Bartlebooth award from London’s The Art Newspaper. “She was number one with Google last year, with good reason—people are inspired by the beauty of a pregnant woman,” said Edwards.

Capla Kesting denies the statue was developed from a rumored bootleg Britney Spears birth video. The artist admits to using references that include the wax figure of a pole-dancing Britney at Las Vegas’ Madame Tussauds and ‘Britney wigs’ characterizing various hairstyles of the pop-princess from a Los Angeles hairstylist. And according to gallery co-director, David Kesting, the artist studied a bearskin rug from Canada “to convey the commemoration of the traditional bearskin rug baby picture.”

An appropriate location for permanent installation of “Monument to Pro-Life” by Mother’s Day is being sought by the gallery.

Another Kon job goes belly up

Another Kon Dimopoulos disaster, this time from NZ, is breaking news: a wealthy New Zealander, Michael Hill, who dreamed of having a sculpture park in his backyard that could be seen from the moon (yes, he said “moon” but I think he meant ‘space’), has packed his AU$120,000 Dimopoulosiana into the shed, thrown up his hands, and his dreams with them. Hill shouldn’t despair: Kon has other sculptures, indistinguishable from Hill’s backyard job, still set up in NZ and Australia. And, besides, I’ve heard the audience for ‘art’ that can be seen from the moon… let’s just say he’s not going to be getting many letters of complaint about the cancellation of the gig.

Hill removes art after council indecision
14 March 2006

Jewellery store king Michael Hill says frustration with Queenstown Lakes District Council led him to remove a giant work of art from his garden.

He told NZPA if he ran his business the way the council’s resource management division department ran its decision-making process, “we’d just be gone”.

Mr Hill erected a five-metre-high $120,000 Kon Dimopoulos reed sculpture on his land around a year ago.

New Zealand artist Dimopoulos is most well-known for a Pacific Grass sculpture located on the roundabout at the northern end of the Wellington Airport runway.
Mr Hill said the artist took a “great deal of care” with the sculpture’s placement, taking into consideration “the area, the environment and the mountains must not be competed with”.

He said he had also planted fir trees to eventually hide it from the nearest road.
Problems started, however, when he asked the council for resource management permission.

“I really wish I hadn’t,” he said.

“The Resource Management Act doesn’t have separate clauses for art, so the council had to view the sculpture as a house. In the end, it took so long to hear from them I put it up anyhow.”

Since then, he said he has been working with the council for consent, but has been left constantly frustrated.

“People in these positions are frightened to make decisions outside of the square of the Resource Management Act,” he said.

“It just needed someone to say: put it up, take it down, anything! Any decision is better than no decision,” he said, sighing.

“And that’s why I pulled it down as you can’t carry on anguishing.”

The sculpture, which now sits stacked in Mr Hill’s workshop, was just one of many he had planned for the area.

“I wanted to have a sculpture competition here, but I won’t be able to do that now,” he said.

“The valley is going to be lacking a significant supporter. These works of art are not cheap. I was going to put up over a million dollars – the council and most of the community can’t afford them, and here was the perfect opportunity.”

Eventually, Mr Hill said he wanted to emulate amphibious craft entrepreneur Alan Gibbs’ sculpture park in Kaipara, Auckland.

“Art that you can see from the moon … it’s unbelievable … I would have liked to have done something similar here,” he said.

—from http://www.stuff.co.nz

See also: L’Affaire Dimopoulos and Risk-free ‘art’

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