The importance of being aware

In the increasingly conservative political backdrop, art has a tendency to rage against the corporate machine, or quietly submerge into an unassailable world and go about their business. In the competitive art circle, however, corporate sponsorship and the arts make strange bedfellows. Luke Strevens takes a look at the dubiously named NAB Private Wealth Emerging Artist Award.

Banks suck. We all know this. Massive bucks, dubious dealings, one goal in mind – to maximise profits. So why on earth would a bank sponsor an Emerging Artist Award? Well there are many reasons why a corporation might fund or promote an artistic endeavour. But the three main reasons are – firstly it gives the company more exposure. Secondly, it will hopefully give said company some cache or prestige. And finally it might make the corporation appear to be more altruistic and interested in other things besides just the bottom line. The $10,000 prize given by the NAB Private Wealth Emerging Artist Award to the winner is but a drop of sweat dripping from a South African diamond miner’s forehead in terms of The National Australia Bank’s weekly earnings but here they are donating a sum of money to be awarded to an emerging artist. Wonderful. With my potent cynicism in check I approach Pier 8/9 down on Hickson road with open eyes and a steady heart. HASSELL – a multinational architectural firm with tentacles reaching into Europe, China and Australasia – has been kind enough to house the exhibition, and as I approach the front of the wharf I see that with delicious irony, on the directory board out the front, HASSELL’s office is above Transfield, those exceptional benefactors of the Sydney Biennale who are also kind enough to house and feed a bunch of tourists seeking sunshine and good times up there in Manus Island and Nauru.

The flyer for the show grandly states that the artists selected are “The next generation of creativity”, and knowing some of the artists I thought, phew, this better be good! I was immediately greeted by what could only be called a “hostess”, who asked me to sign in with the date and time, where had I heard about the show and what I did professionally, no doubt she was sorely disappointed when I told her I was an artist. She then proceeded to guide me around the exhibition as if I’d lost all bodily and frontal lobe autonomy. Anyway onto the “Art” and to be perfectly honest, for the most part, it wasn’t too bad. Tully Arnot’s Nervous Plants, 2014 – the work that won the award – was cute, but nothing more. His other work Lonely Sculpture, 2014, a finger tapping on a smartphone was more pertinent, highlighting our ever growing connection to a digitised reality, as fellow human beings in an already fractious society are increasingly unaware of other peoples existence. One need only have to walk down a street or catch a bus to know that the worst thing that could ever have happened to our species was to give us access to the internet on our phones. Indeed the brilliance of the capitalist corporational system is to make the individual consumer feel as if they have total control, when in actual fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Technology is increasingly controlling us. But I digress, back to the Art!

Camille Serisier’s work Sweet Harmony #6, 2014 left me confused until I read the blurb. It states “Using eco-feminist theories of critique, she deconstructs forms of Australian culture to explore ideas of narrative construction and interpretation”. Phew, now I get it. Holy Moley. Jason Wing’s piece titled Fossil Fuel, 2013 certainly had a strong message, with what appeared to be fossilised clam shells to look like skulls. Mike Hewson’s Turbine Shed, 2014 was pretty cool and Lisa Sammut’s series of collages were actually quite beautiful. I wasn’t much affected or engaged by either Katie Lee or Julian Day’s works but I was somewhat distracted as I did have to view the works at the same time as employees of HASSELL went about their daily business. A problem that might have been canvassed at the forty seat table in the conference room just off the main foyer.

One must always be dubious when a corporation sponsors an Art show, but unfortunately and increasingly, in order for events such as Art Month to exist, of which this award is a part of, the obsequious task of involving those who hold the capital is a sad realistic endeavour. Which paradoxically brings me to arguably the finest work of the exhibition. Bridget Walker’s videos all entitled Eclipse Bureau, 2013, a series of three each portraying a dark prophecy of dystopic visions – a future plagued by uber capitalist hyper consumption, of total industrial militarisation, an existentially taxing catastrophic world doomed by viruses and maddening maladies, a dead planet of disconnected mindless drones – robotic humanoids. As I watched this engaging work I thought to myself, either by masterful brilliance or just delicious fluke, the interior of one of the buildings in the central video looked astoundingly like the very one I was standing in. Huzzah! Either way, was anyone at NAB or HASSELL aware that Walkers video’s were highlighting the endgame or critical mass to everything they held dear? I left post haste with this thought in mind and put The Doors song Ship Of Fools on my ipod and listened to it with glee. ipod you say? Weren’t you just railing against technology and all things corporational? Indeed I was, but let me finish my diatribe with the lyrics of the Propagandhi song Resisting Tyrannical Government, from their 1996 album Less Talk, More Rock, who put it far more passionately and better than I ever could, “Why don’t we plant a mechanic virus and erase the memory of the machines that maintain this capitalist dynasty? And yes I recognise the irony, the system I oppose affords me the luxury of biting the hand that feeds. That’s exactly why privileged fucks like me should feel obliged to whine and kick and scream, Yeah until everyone has everything they need.”