The 60th Blake Prize Exhibition

October 1, 2011
William Blake, Ancient of Days, 1794, watercolour etching
William Blake, Ancient of Days, 1794, watercolour etching

In recent years I have cheerfully avoided the Blake Prize and might have done so again in its 60th anniversary year, had not Rachael Kohn from Radio National asked me to comment on the show. The reason why I generally avoid the Blake is not because I’m irreligious – which I freely admit – but because it is an event that generally blends a very poor quality of art with a high degree of hypocrisy on behalf of the organisers.

When the Blake began in 1951 it was, as sister Rosemary Crumlin writes, in the brochure to this year’s competition:  “a one-off event founded to revitalise religious art particularly in Christian churches.” The winner of that first-ever Blake Prize was Justin O’Brien, for his triptych, The Virgin Enthroned, a complex Neo-Byzantine creation that sat the Madonna in front of a dazzling blue glimpse of Sydney Harbour.

There has never been a more appropriate winner than O’Brien, who wrestled with his Catholic roots throughout his life. Even when he had renounced the church in his old age he still read the Vatican newspaper every week.

Justin O'Brien, The Virgin-Enthroned, 1950-51, oil on canvas

Justin OBrien, The Virgin-Enthroned, 1950-51, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Felton Bequest 1951.

In 1961 there came the almighty scandal of Stan Rapotec’s Meditating on Good Friday, the first abstract painting to win the Prize. But Rapotec was also a man who took religion seriously, even if his chosen visual language was that of Abstract Expressionism. Today his painting looks like a Renaissance altarpiece compared with the winning entries of the past decade.

Stanislaus Rapotec, Meditating on Good Friday, 1961, Private Collection, Courtesy Charles Nodrum Gallery

Little by little, interest in the Blake began to ebb away, paralleling a gradual loss of faith in the various branches of the Christian Church. Around 1999 the prize went into the crypt and was reborn the following year as an award for ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious’ art. At this point the floodgates were thrown open, as the Blake welcomed all creeds and cults, all expressions of navel-gazing spiritual claptrap. The new, all-inclusive Blake recognised no boundaries, and paid obeisance to no deity apart from the evil god, Publicity.

Artists embraced this new model because it meant they could put any old thing into the Blake, say it was deeply spiritual, and get hung. Soon the prize was full of dumb abstracts, dull landscapes, oblique photos, aimless videos, and every other permutation of contemporary art. The new regime also loved to include deliberately offensive works that stood a chance of making headlines. If the Satanists put in an entry they would be welcomed with open arms.

Matters have progressed to the point where many Blake contributors no longer even bother to give their work a ‘religious’ title. This small piece of deception is deemed unnecessary, as there is scarcely any religious content left in the exhibition. Untitled will do as well, if not better, than Homage to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Take away the boundaries, and there are several kinds of work that come to dominate the prize:
1.    Abstract art, because it is non-representational, can always claim to be ineffable and spiritual.
2.    Aboriginal painting, which by its very nature attests to a deep spiritual relationship between the artist and his or her ancestral land.
3.    Art that addresses issues of social justice or compassion. The latest, inevitable trend is an avalanche of works dealing with the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. There is even a special satellite prize devoted to Human Justice.

All of this is very worthy and humane, but it has the peculiar effect of making the Blake an increasingly vacuous exercise. Instead of addressing ‘religion’, which implies a structured set of beliefs; a collection of stories, rules and codes; a series of moral and spiritual disciplines that determine how people live their lives, it now celebrates the New Age self-indulgence of ‘spirituality’. To some this may mean sitting cross-legged on a mat for hours, for others it is a walk in the bush; for many it is a footy match – although in Melbourne it would be fair to say that AFL is a religious rather than a spiritual phenomenon.

One of the other side-effects of this wildly ecumenical approach is that representations of Christianity have become marginalised. Out of 70 works in this year’s exhibition there are only two Crucifixions: a reasonably straight painting by Aaron Moore, and a camp photo-triptych by Luke Roberts, who – to give him his due – has always been preoccupied with religion. Despite the satirical nature of his work, Roberts is one of the few contestants who still seems to take the Blake seriously.

Aaron Moore, Crucifiction IV, 2011, oil, charcoal and acrylic on canvas

Aaron Moore, Crucifiction IV, 2011, oil, charcoal and acrylic on canvas

Luke Roberts, Three figures at the base of the crucifixions, 2011, Digital type c print

Luke Roberts, Three figures at the base of the crucifixions, 2011, Digital type c print

He has little competition because there is almost nothing else in the show that demonstrates the smallest religious interest. An Aboriginal Pietà by Martin Sharp? A small study of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by Khadim Ali? A luminous abstract by Ella Dreyfus? A grid of photos and words by Zoe Ali and Christos Tsiolkas? A photo-portrait of a veteran gardener by Joyce Evans? Richard Morecroft’s photos juxtaposing spiritual and material needs? Nell’s scrawled list of the year’s spiritual ups and downs? Brian Robinson’s print showing a Torres Strait Island version of Noah’s Ark, compete with comic book superheroes? Any of these might get the benefit of the doubt.

More elaborate pieces, such as Danie Mellor’s large triptych, seem to have hardly any religious underpinnings. It is business-as-usual for Mellor and about three dozen other artists.

If Christianity is passé with the Blake nowadays, the Islamic faith has never been more fashionable. This is undoubtedly a reaction to the foolish vilifications of Islam that have arisen all over the western world in the decade following the events of September 11; let alone the ongoing sagas of Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq. But the intolerant attitudes of the anti-Muslim lobby should not mean that Islam is made into a fetish, as it is with this year’s Blake Prize winner, Khaled Sabsabi.

This work,  (2010), is a ninety-minute video presented on three TV monitors, showing a group of Sufi Muslims practising a weekly ritual, consisting of communal prayers and chants. In the press release this is described as “a beautiful and unique visual manifestation of a contemporary Australian ceremony.”

The writer of this propaganda must live in an environment that is exceptionally ugly, dull and insular, because this video could not be more humdrum. The Sufis go through their paces in a plodding, dutiful way, sitting grouped together on the floor. They look entirely uninterested in the ceremony. Far from being unique, it gives the impression they have been through this rigmarole so many times it is tiresome to do it again, even for the camera.

In a completely touristic way, when I think of the Sufi faith I think of the poems of Rumi and Hafeez; the whirling dervishes, the incredible voice of Nusrat Ali Fateh Khan, and the mesmeric sounds of Qawwali singing. When I watched Sabsabi’s prize-winning video, I saw a totally mundane version of Sufism that looked about as attractive as a job on an assembly line.

Alas, this is probably the point of the work. Sabsabi does not aim to romanticise – or orientalise – Sufism, he wants us to see it as a part of everyday life in a western suburbs household. Even the banal presentation adds to this impression. The judges’ statement commends the piece because it “utilises video as a means to access and forge connections between people, representing and enacting the hospitality shown by a religious community in opening up their practice to draw in a wider audience.”

Khaled Sabsabi, Naqshbandi Greenacre Engagement, 2011, 3 channel video

Khaled Sabsabi, Naqshbandi Greenacre Engagement, 2011, 3 channel video

But there is no connection here. The ceremonies remain completely hermetic. We barely constitute an audience because there is no performance per se.

Having managed to bring Christianity down to earth, the Blake now seems set on banalising another great world religion. Maybe next year it will find a way to make the Jews or Buddhists seem utterly boring.

After visiting the Blake Prize one would hardly imagine that religion is the cause of the bloodiest world conflicts from time immemorial. Instead of revitalising religious art, the Blake is now trying valiantly to kill it off. It is time to go back to the drawing board and rethink this monument to artistic cynicism. On its sixtieth anniversary, the Blake Prize has but one outstanding claim to fame: it is the greatest advertisement for atheism that exists in Australia today.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, October 1, 2011

The 60th Blake Prize exhibition, National Art School Gallery, until 15 October.

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