The Blake Prize 2018

May 31, 2018
Pamela Leung anticipates the thoughts of visitors to the Blake Prize

It’s been seven years since I last wrote about the Blake Prize, which seemed to have reached a point where it couldn’t get any worse. The good news is that it hasn’t gotten worse: it’s just as bad as it was seven years ago.

When it was founded in 1951 the Blake Prize was intended to revitalise religious art – another genre felt to be threatened by the relentless progress of Modernism. In 1959 Bernard Smith would publish his Antipodean Manifesto, defending ‘the image’ from the growing vogue for abstract art.

Almost 70 years later we can smile at the alarmist tendencies of the 1950s, when the Cold War and the threat of the atom bomb loomed large in the popular imagination. The art of the time responded to this apocalyptic mood, as did the defenders of civilisation who saw a pressing need to champion traditional values against the encroachments of nihilism, formalism and existentialism.

How clean-cut those days appear from a contemporary perspective! There was a simple opposition of communism vs. capitalism, while Christianity was enshrined as the in-house religion of the western world. Nowadays our communities are a complex tangle of religious and political ideas. The optimistic view is that this should make us more tolerant, in the way that different cuisines educate the palate, but the opposite seems to be true.

Christianity’s centrality has been undermined not simply by growing numbers of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, but by a drift towards secularism and new expressions of ‘spirituality’. As society has changed, so too has the Blake, which now identifies itself as a prize that “encourages a conversation about spirituality and religion through art.”

And so we come to the 65th Blake Prize, an event so all-inclusive there is very little room for religion. The Blake has completely blurred the most basic distinction between the sacred and the profane. There are numerous works about social justice, sexual identity and other topics that have nothing much to do with the mysterium tremendum – a sense of awe-inspiring mystery, even fear, that writers such as Rudolf Otto and Mircea Eliade have seen as a defining characteristic of religion.

The Blake is an exercise in normalising religion, stripping it of irrational fears and bringing it back to everyday life. It would like to portray “spirituality” as an infinitely varied, completely benign lemonade which everyone may sip. Spirituality is a soft category, whereas religion is a hard one. Spirituality is a matter for the individual, whereas religion requires a community of believers. Countless wars have been fought over religion, but none over spirituality.

The Blake’s inclusiveness encourages cynicism among artists who feel they can submit anything at all and write a little spin about its spiritual qualities. Worse still, it promotes self-indulgent, cosmic confusion. Too often an individual’s search for their spiritual identity leads only to the cul-de-sac of narcissism.

Tina Havelock Stevens's 'Giant Rock', a deeply spiritual experience..

Tina Havelock Stevens’s ‘Giant Rock’, a deeply spiritual experience..

There are 80 works in this year’s show, so rather than wade my way through the multitudes I’ll concentrate on the winners’ circle. The top prize of $35,000 went to Tina Havelock Stevens for a six-minute video entitled Giant Rock. It shows the artist sitting at a drum kit propped in front of a giant rock in the Mojave Desert. We watch as she hammers away at the drums but all we hear is some wispy synthesiser music. That’s about it, really. In her statement, the artist tells us this is one of several performances from her White Drummer series. The idea is “to inhabit the location visually and sonically, tuning into the frequencies of a specific site and place, the inexplicable and the other.”

It’s depressing to think that of all the entries in the Blake, this dull video with a dumb, poorly written explanation should have impressed the judges most. It might have been a bit more exciting had we been allowed to hear the actual drumming. The rock may be a remarkable sacred site but it’s not clear how one tunes into its ‘frequency’ by bashing the drums. If Stevens had set up her kit in front of an Aboriginal sacred site the gesture would have been less favourably received.

The $6,000 Blake Emerging Artist Prize went to Pamela Leung for a neon sign saying: “Sorry I No Understand”. This was considered to be a profound reflection on social justice and the human condition. I suppose it’s more profound than a neon sign by Tracey Emin saying “I Will Always Love Youse”, or another great line from Celine Dion.

Tracey Clement's 'Metropolis Experiment'.

Tracey Clement’s ‘Metropolis Experiment’.

Tracey Clement was awarded the Blake Established Artist Residency for Metropolis Experiment, a sculptural ensemble of glass laboratory vessels arranged on thin, rusty metal stands. This was one of the few entries of genuine visual interest, although the artist’s rationale is far-fetched. We are to see these vessels and tripods as a metaphor for a ruined civilisation. Clement tells us: “it is a story told in the tradition of the biblical apocalypse; it offers both redemption and hope.”

Really? There’s more science fiction than spirituality in this piece, no matter how one reads it. If the artist had been canny she might have claimed to be a member of the fast-growing Jedi religion, taken from the Star Wars films. Yet this would probably have made the work too overtly ‘religious’ to succeed in the Blake.

It requires a good deal of sophistry to find a trace of religion in any of the winning entries. Yet there was one piece that was both utterly contemporary and impeccably religious: Nyinta Donald’s Iti Jesunya Bethlehemala Ngaringu (Baby Jesus was born in Bethlehem): a three-minute animation using crudely painted figures to accompany a rendition of the Nativity story in Pitjantjatjara.

Nyinta Donald brings the Nativity story to the Outback

Nyinta Donald brings the Nativity story to the Outback

This work was touching in its simplicity, with Aboriginal faces in all the starring roles except that of the Angel – a gleaming white Wandjina-type. Like the paintings in so many churches, the work was made to help teach the story to non-readers – in this case, to young children.

Donald’s video is a sincere declaration of faith in a sea of cynicism and half-baked ‘spirituality’. The judges, however, were obviously looking for something a little more cutting-edge, provocative and subversive. It made me think of a well-known theory of the avant-garde in which the ultimate goal is see art wither away into the stream of life. The Blake Prize appears to entertain the same avant-garde ambitions for religion.

The Blake Prize 2018
Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre,
12 May – 1 July, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 2 June, 2018