The last days of the Caponian empire

August 9, 2011
Locust Jones, News of the world
Locust Jones, News of the world

What a deathly year it has been for artists! In quick succession we have lost Cy Twombly, Lucian Freud, and now John Hoyland. The latter was especially disturbing, as I had just contributed a catalogue essay to his exhibition with Charles Nodrum in Melbourne. Logically there is nothing surprising about someone dying at a ripe old age, but it is always disconcerting.

In Sydney we all knew that Margaret Olley was getting frail, but it was still a surprise to hear she had gone. Without trying to sound glib, it was almost as great a surprise to learn that Edmund Capon had finally decided to retire from the directorship of the Art Gallery of NSW at the end of the year, after 33 years at the helm. Edmund’s reign has encompassed the entirety of my critical career, and – even though he has provided as many reasons for irritation as celebration – it won’t be the same without him. Last week he was wandering around the gallery like a restless ghost, probably wondering what life will be like without having to attend fund-raising dinners and harrass politicians for a few extra dollars.

No retirement has been anticipated at such inordinate length. If you google “Edmund Capon retirement”, you’ll probably get a very confident article that Alex Mitchell wrote for Crikey.com in 2008, announcing that Edmund was just about to go.

Edmund must have felt a keen pleasure in confounding every prediction of his imminent disappearance. Did he finally go voluntarily or was he given a little push? We’ll probably never find out. Perhaps the best indication will be how quickly the AGNSW manages to find a replacement. The Head of Trustees, Steven Lowy, has had plenty of time to contemplate a new appointment, and I wouldn’t be surpised if there is somebody already waiting in the wings – perhaps somebody who is not on the predictable list of candidates that the journalists are compiling.

It’s no small achievement to run an organisation such as the AGNSW for 33 years, and it will take time before the full scope of Edmund’s directorship is put into focus. If I wanted to sum it up as briefly as possible: he has been the most successful director of any public museum or art gallery this country has ever known. When he took over the AGNSW in late 1970s it was a slum. Today, regardless of all criticisms, it is a formidable institution.

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Last Thursday I sat on a forum at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation with Nick Jose and Julian Burnside, discussing ‘Art and Activism’. The catalyst was Din Q Lè’s impressive installation, Erasure, which currently occupies the main SCAF space. The topic, however, was one of those old chestnuts that generates endless debate but no conclusions: “Does art have the power to affect political change?”

History would suggest a short answer: “No”. The last artwork anyone can remember having a real impact was Picasso’s Guernica, which floored ‘em at the 1937 International Exposition in Paris. It was recalled on Thursday night that when Colin Powell gave a press conference about Iraq at the United Nations in 2003, he stood in front of a tapestry of Guernica that was covered over for the occasion.

Apart from that, the most powerful “artworks” have been photographs from the days of the Vietnam War: the summary execution of the Vietcong operative, the aftermath of the My Lai massacre, and the naked girl fleeing a naplam attack. The only thing recently that has had a comparable impact were the shots of American soldiers torturing prisoners in Abu Ghraib. That’s one they’ll never live down.

Governments today are more wary of providing such photo-opportunities, and – as we see in Syria – adept at putting their own spin on the most horrifying images. The greater access to communications also allows a greater access to disinformation.

If artists cannot bring about real and tangible political change, they might at least strike a few angry poses. However, there is so little indignant imagery about it seems as if most of them have decided it’s all a waste of time. There’s George Gittoes, of course, who can’t stay away from war zones and scenes of brutality. But perhaps a bit more attention should be focused on an artist such as Locust Jones, whose wild, angry, obsessive drawings were shown recently at the Dominik Mersch Gallery. Jones’s News of the World, is the only artwork I’ve seen so far that comments on the scandal that is undermining Rupert Murdoch’s all-seeing, all-knowing omnipotence. It’s strange that an opportunity for a global expression of Schadenfreude should go begging.