GOMA Turns 10

December 9, 2016
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian Iran b. 1924 Lightning for Neda 2009 Mirror mosaic, reverse-glass painting, plaster on wood. The artist dedicates this work to the loving memory of her late husband Dr Abolbashar Farmanfarmaian. Purchased 2009. Queensland Art Gallery FoundationCollection: Queensland Art Gallery. Photograph: Mark Sherwood, QAGOMA© The artist
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian Iran b. 1924 Lightning for Neda 2009 Mirror mosaic, reverse-glass painting, plaster on wood. The artist dedicates this work to the loving memory of her late husband Dr Abolbashar Farmanfarmaian. Purchased 2009. Queensland Art Gallery FoundationCollection: Queensland Art Gallery. Photograph: Mark Sherwood, QAGOMA© The artist

After ten fleeting years Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art remains an enormous work-in-progress. GOMA celebrated its birthday last week with the launch of a ‘greatest hits’ exhibition called Sugar Spin; the unveiling of a new public sculpture by Judy Watson; a tribute to leading donor, Tim Fairfax; an indigenous show called Lucent; and a series of uproarious performances by the dancing horses of American artist, Nick Cave.

Sydney viewers may have seen Cave’s HEARD (2012) recently at Carriageworks. It consists of a dance featuring 60 performers, half of them playing the front of a horse, the other half playing a horse’s arse. At one stage the two parts separate and dance separately to infectious African rhythms. It’s a riot of colour, with each horse made from multi-coloured raffia and adorned in harnesses embellished as if for a Hindu festival.

Nick Cave, HEARD•DETROIT2015 Photograph: James Prinz Photography. Image courtesy: The artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York© The artist

Nick Cave, HEARD•DETROIT 2015 Photograph: James Prinz Photography. Image courtesy: The artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York© The artist

I’m not quite sure what it was all about, apart from being a vivid entertainment that got people smiling and tapping their toes. Cave has talked about the work as a metaphor for our to need to come together as a group and work for a common goal, but one could say the same about an ant hill or a bee hive – hardly models of democracy-in-action. It may be that a bit of joyous prancing around is what people crave in times like these. The performers had obviously made an intensive study of horseiness, as their movements and gestures were almost as good as the real thing.

Judy Watson’s tow row, now installed out the front of GOMA, is a large-scale bronze facsimile of a woven fish trap. It ticks all the boxes for cultural sensitivity and appropriateness, but purists will argue that it lacks the formal elegance one might expect from a public sculpture. Watson could reply she is working within a deliberately informal tradition – an area where female sculptors have led the way. I’m thinking along these lines after having seen a show earlier this year at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, Los Angeles, called Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women 1947-2016.

The only problem is that Watson’s sculpture is essentially figurative, regardless of its abstract qualities. As such it is a translation of a woven artefact into another medium, and that’s hard to get excited about – just like that 12-metre metal version of a Maningrida fish trap, made by Urban Art Projects for the National Gallery of Australia. Tow row is work that pays homage to an indigenous way-of-life that once flourished on the banks of the Brisbane River, but in sculptural terms it’s more introvert than extrovert.

One has to venture inside the building to find something flamboyant in the form of Nervescape V - a massive installation of lolly-coloured synthetic hair that creeps up the walls of GOMA’s spacious central corridor, and around the corner into the foyer. This is an installation by Icelandic artist, Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir, otherwise known by the nickname, “Shoplifter”, or simply “Shoppy”.

GOMA 10 Ambassador Patience Hodgson visits Nervescape V 2016 by Icelandic artistHrafnhildur Arnardóttir (akaShoplifter), commissioned for ‘Sugar Spin: you, me, art and everything’ at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane. Photograph: Natasha Harth, QAGOMA

GOMA 10 Ambassador Patience Hodgson visits Nervescape V 2016 by Icelandic artistHrafnhildur Arnardóttir (akaShoplifter), commissioned for ‘Sugar Spin: you, me, art and everything’ at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane. Photograph: Natasha Harth, QAGOMA

This lurid, fluffy concoction is the centrepiece of the anniversary exhibition, Sugar Spin: you, me, art and everything. It’s the brainchild of Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow, the gallery’s Curatorial Manager, International Art, who only took up the job earlier this year. One advantage of being new in town is that Barlow can take a fresh look at works that may be all too familiar to those who have seen off a decade at GOMA.

Her first task was easy enough: bring out all the big, proven, popular attractions. The list includes Carsten Höller’s Left/Right Slide (2010), which allows visitors to take a quick zip from the top floor to the ground via one of two looping metal tubes; Olafur Eliasson’s The cubic structural elevation project (2004) – a table covered in white Lego, for those who are tired of looking at art; and Celeste Boursier-Mougenot’s from here to ear (v.13) (2010) – a room in which small finches fly from perch to perch, playing a kind of randomised music by exerting pressure on tuning pins.

Carsten Höller Belgium b.1961Left/Right Slide2010Stainless steel, polycarbonate and rubber matsCommissioned 2010 with a special allocation from the Queensland Art Gallery FoundationCollection: Queensland Art Gallery. Photograph: Natasha Harth, QAGOMA© The artist

Carsten Höller Belgium b.1961 Left/Right Slide 2010 Stainless steel, polycarbonate and rubber matsCommissioned 2010 with a special allocation from the Queensland Art Gallery FoundationCollection: Queensland Art Gallery. Photograph: Natasha Harth, QAGOMA© The artist

A final item on this list of favourites would have to include Ron Mueck’s In bed (2005), featuring a colossal hyperrealist woman who stares dolefully at the viewers who stare at her.

These large-scale works, along with Shoppy’s efforts, make the gallery feel like the apotheosis of the school playground. Normally when an exhibition is screaming: “Fun, fun, fun!”, my first impulse is to say: “No, no, no!”

On this occasion there may be some conscious attempt to create a party atmosphere and – after all – it’s Queensland, where everything is a little unbuttoned. Even during the HEARD performance someone behind me was muttering excitedly that one of the horses was in Brisbane Broncos’ colours.

Ron Mueck, England b.1958 In bed2005Mixed mediaPurchased 2008. Queensland Art Gallery FoundationCollection: Queensland Art GalleryPhotograph: Natasha Harth, QAGOMA© The artist

Ron Mueck, England b.1958 In bed 2005 Mixed media. Purchased 2008. Queensland Art Gallery FoundationCollection: Queensland Art GalleryPhotograph: Natasha Harth, QAGOMA© The artist

Perhaps conscious that one can have too much of a good thing, Barlow has tried to give the exhibition a bit more structure by dividing it into five “chapters”: sweetmelt, blackwater, soaring, treasure and cosmos. In the time-honoured manner of biennales and triennales, these archly poetique titles are vague enough to permit of anything, but there are some inspired new juxtapositions. One room features a wall of dark blue carbon paper panels by Moroccan-born Latifa Echakhch alongside Huang Yong Ping’s giant-sized serpent skeleton called Ressort (2012). The last time we saw Huang’s piece it was hovering over the water feature at the Queensland Art Gallery. Coiled more tightly in a predominantly blue space, it seems more menacing than before.

Another startling room contains Bharti Kher’s full-sized sleeping elephant, The skin speaks a language not its own (2006), Cai Guo-Qiang’s large gun-powder drawing, and a towering arch of cardboard boxes by Tobias Putrih.

Less successful are those walls where Barlow has attempted a salon hang, clustering small pieces in dense profusion. Such a hang requires an intimate space but works get lost in GOMA’s cavernous interiors, sacrificing their individuality. The display reproduces all the problems of the salon hangs of earlier centuries when artists would vie to have their works hung ‘on the line’, meaning at eye-level. Pieces that are ‘skied’ or crammed into corners suffer from diminished visibility. They become insignificant parts of one large decorative installation.

Another worriesome aspect of the salon approach was a tendency to put wildly diverse works side by side, as if they enjoyed some magical relationship. In truth if any two items are placed next to each other a relationship is formed, but one would hope for a shade more innate compatibility.

A final problem was the inclusion of small tokenistic works by celebrity artists such as Tracey Emin (a sentence in neon) and Damien Hirst (a skull print with diamond dust). It bespeaks an eagerness to align oneself with the expensive, shallow currents of international contemporary art without wanting to spend up big on a major work. For such economies we may be thankful, but it would be better not to go there at all.

The works in A World View: The Tim Fairfax Gift are probably no less fashionable, but more impressive in scale and ambition. Tomás Saraceno’s Biosphere 02 (2009) fills an entire gallery with floating globes, tangled lines and sacks of water. Inside these structures Saraceno has placed hardy Tillandsia plants that draw all their nutrients from water and air.

Anthony McCall’s Crossing (2016) is a new commission from one of the world’s major exponents of light art. Viewers enter a darkened room where thin beams create the illusion of a solid, geometrical structure. One feels both tempted and strangely reluctant to break the beams by walking through the projection.

Over ten years GOMA has been at its best when it has steered clear of the trends and sought out original artworks in Australia, Asia and the Pacific. A great example, in the Lucent exhibition, is a 22-metre barkcloth, (Ngatu Ta Uli), that manages to impose itself on an intimidatingly large room.

The thrill of discovery has been renewed with every Asia Pacific Triennial, giving the gallery the right to boast that it has helped redefine the boundaries of contemporary art. Combine this pioneering approach with a positive energy that almost radiates from the place, and it’s clear that GOMA has every reason to feel pleased with its first decade. All it needs now is plenty of people to come to the party.

GOMA Turns 10
Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, until 17 April 2017

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 10th December, 2016