Welcome to the new look un. It’s smaller, fatter and more colourful. While it feels like a journal, it’s still very much a proposal-based, critical arts publication — essentially we dumped the bathwater but kept the baby. un also has a new team, and so we welcome administrator Melody Ellis, sub editor Helen Hughes, and designer Brad Haylock to our extended family. un continues to survive on the hard work of our writers and artists, as well as the generous support of Arts Victoria and the Australia Council. Most of all, we survive because of you, dear reader. I just hope you washed your hands first…
To briefly address some recent, and appreciated, criticism of un — yes, there is a certain reliance on philosophy and theoretical criticism in contemporary art. It cannot be denied that most art language is steeped in a kind of intellectual currency created by those who lack the other more fiscal variety. ‘We may not be able to afford to sit at your table but our dinner conversation is better than yours’ is one, rather puerile, way of saying it. Nevertheless, this issue makes an attempt to reduce the level of theoretical reliance, and is editorially expanded to include a new section of more conversational interviews with a mix of Australian and international artists, curators and art-lovers.
Having suppressed my desire to turn un into a high gloss hyper-real critique, I succumbed to collective wishes, as we do, and developed something more akin to a social constructivist approach. As a result, this issue appears to be loaded with contemporary historicism. Cycles of change, revolutions if you like, are still bringing various theories and practices from the last century back to the fore, while the rest of the world salivates over the next upgrade.
Like its younger siblings — literature, fashion, photography, film and design — art regularly recycles. Ideas can sometimes take a long time to come to fruition and it’s often better to shove it all in a cerebral compost heap until a fertile period returns. The expansive ideals of the late 1960s and early 1970s have for some time felt idealistic, almost naively optimistic. The promising utopian notions from this era were largely smothered by money-grubbing nihilists who presented the succeeding generation with a rather nasty pie made with fresh cynicism and a celebrity on top. Perhaps if someone had just asked the pessimists to play, we could have avoided a lot of trouble.
In hindsight it is easier to see how new technologies and explosive movements like punk and pop blew away the intellectual cobwebs but they also, quite inadvertently, bulldozed many emerging artistic processes that were informed by the critical vigour of the post-world-war era. If anything, these collaborative and humanist forays into conceptualism and philosophical examination have never been abandoned by the visual arts, they’ve just been lying in the background, buried in unread dissertations, boxed up in museum storerooms, argued about by drunken writers, and maintained by a handful of enigmatic artists — all waiting for the cycle to come full circle. And now the wheel of civilisation has turned with a screeching, groaning, rusty crunch.
Fortunately, some of the more altruistic ideals from the late 20th century are being dusted off and reviewed, while young practitioners acquaint themselves with their more mature contemporaries who blazed the trails for them. Mentoring is back in vogue as an inexpensive and effective technique for genuine shared learning. The sardonic take of ‘it’s been done before’ is being rethought of not simply as iteration but as the next stage of growth in the continuum of ideas. Young artists are reclaiming many of these ideas, not simply in some facile attempt to chase the po-mo dragon, or to satisfy some kind of fetish for intellectual obscurity, but because the revolutions of these former movements are still turning and have something indispensable to offer us yet.
Art is a common denominator. It is usually made to be freely available to anyone who takes the time and, like a chance encounter with a stranger on a street, can be as weird or as meaningless or as rewarding as you choose it to be. un has always had a primary mission to create opportunities for new writers, to explore largely unknown works or, in the case of this particular issue, to go over old ground with fresh eyes.
Our cover artwork this issue represents an overall theme of the interconnectivity of ideas through time and space. The tribal fetish headwear by Adam Cruickshank and the gift of French air by Marcel Duchamp are two pieces, made almost a century apart, that inscribe meaning beyond their own physicality, in a way that great art can. They are selected for their aesthetic and their clarity but also because they represent intangibility and critical nostalgia.
We start this issue with a look abroad, to the recent X Initiative in New York and the associated festival at the Tate Modern with its broad selection of independent artist run spaces from around the world. The trawling of small art communities by major institutions should be viewed with a critical eye and so here in Melbourne — where we have a vibrant history of artist run activity — we watch the uptake of the ARI by the establishment with cautious enthusiasm.
Watching international events from afar has always been our lot, what with being positioned in this far-flung southern corner of the antipodes. Despite the endless flow of cerebral fast food offered online, this distance gives us space for thinking about the past as well as the future. We reflect in this issue on the ways in which Australian artists speak of our own culture to each other and to the rest of the world — from Hobart all the way to Venice — and one of the things we see is the unravelling of our dark colonial past, confronted through the conflagrating present, to an unawakened dream of the future.
Many writers in this issue have looked beyond the typical objectified mannerisms of art practice, to the more open and ingenious ways in which art can exist outside itself, unbound by the confines of the gallery or retroactive curatorial context. We examine the invisible and the intangible — artists who create works of inference, intervention and experience, works that are vitalised and entirely tangible in outcome, yet able to exist unmade even beyond their presentation. We consider artists who look to the very air around us, examining works that engage directly with the unseen, with the ravages of bacteria and natural decay. Unlike those imperceptible organisms, we humans leave mountains of untenable waste — the refuse and dross from our fleeting modernist whims. In the hands of artists, however, these nightmarish and customised dystopias become places of aesthetic transformation, offering us a respite and possible solution by connecting the space of the technologic back to the realm of the biologic.
On the flipside, this issue of un looks closely at the work of artists who engage real communities through direct exchange and collaboration. We look at the ways that scientific thinking affects our perceptions of landscape. We consider the ways language can define but also confine us. We examine new forms of public art, including a community art critique by a Chicago-based collective in the contested ground of Redfern. We talk to an Irish artist about community audio works created in trees in the Bronx. We look at the connections between a group of cake-making feminists and a controversial artist who took her practice to the highways thirty years ago. We look at the collaboration between an Australian and a French artist and their creation of a conceptual third artist. We look at a regional community that has suffered from ecological, economic and emotional loss, and some of the ways that artists can reconnect us to own past to help heal our present.
Throughout this issue, we start to see a picture emerging. Artists are escaping the restrictions of the traditional sites of art, redeeming the ideological potential, to share truly unique experiences with total strangers — strangers who can sometimes reveal the greatest truths about us.