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The final frontier of art

Big art is a metaphor for Big Brother in both the Orwellian and primetime sense.

Mega-sized artworks are required to cut through the blizzard of images by which the humble spectator is carpet-bombed on an hourly basis.

I’ve looked at a lot of art this year. In 2011 I’ve witnessed the Auckland Art Gallery re-open at more than double its previous size, the Auckland Art Fair with dozens of galleries represented, scores of dealer gallery shows and like most art fans, consumed art online 24/7.

It’s fair to say I’ve seen much more art than you’ve had hot dinners.

In November alone I traversed the following: The Picasso exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Shaun Gladwell at Anna Schwartz Gallery in Sydney, Sarah Smuts- Kennedy at the Wollongong City Gallery,

The Elam Art School end of year show, the Auckland Art Gallery yet again to see a particular Don Driver work for about the tenth time, Julia Morison’s installation at Two Rooms in Auckland, German jeweler Karl Fritsch’s exhibition Rings without End at Objectspace and a great show called Post Pop at Gow Langsford Gallery ... those are just the ones that were particularly memorable.

In between hauling my physical self into actual galleries I also cyber-surfed shows in my own home town I couldn’t quite get to as well as exhibitions present and past in Milan, London, Stuttgart, Wellington and Switzerland.

Based on a rough calculation that goes 365 (as in days) x 300 (as in artworks) I reckon mine eyes have viewed at least 110,000 artworks this year.

No wonder I’m feeling a bit fatigued. I imagine I’m not alone in this regard. I’m sure there are plenty more like me who spend a good proportion of their waking hours looking at art and occasionally thinking about what it all means.

The internet has done for art what it has for TV – exploded the options exponentially. With a limitless supply of channels, the contemporary programme-maker has to get jiggy in no uncertain terms just to get noticed.

Hence the rise of both wince-making reality TV such as Jersey Shore and that grisly spectacle known as six o’clock news. It’s all about getting noticed – as Andy Warhol so presciently stated back in 1968, “In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes”. But boy, do you have to work hard these days to rise above the clamoring horde.

In the art world that future is now, and in the battle for hearts, minds and wallets, size counts.

This point was brought home at train station scale by the above mentioned Shaun Gladwell exhibition Riding with Death: Redux at Anna Schwartz Gallery in Sydney. Gladwell is Australia’s latest rockstar artist, representing Oz at the Venice Biennale and being named an official war artist to Afghanistan in 2009.

The exhibition ticked all the contemporary art boxes marked ‘cool’, with video featuring prominently along with that curious art world fashion fetish object du jour, the motorbike. The other component parts of the exhibition included a container with a video piece inside and poster plus size photographs.

One video featured a pilot filming himself inside the cockpit of a jetfighter at supersonic speed. The whole show reeked of power and big-budget pyrotechnics presented at immense scale. Why? This was the question that plagued me as I wandered dazed from the largest private dealer gallery I had ever seen.

This mastodon-sized art was in stark contrast to the Pablo Picasso exhibition I’d visited just the day before. Picasso was the last great master of the oil on canvas era; many of his finest works are not much larger than your average school exercise book. For sculpture he made do with odds and ends.

Post-2000 artists such as Gladwell, Jeff Koons, Ai Weiwei and Olafur Eliasson employ more technicians than a Formula One racing team to produce industrial-scale spectaculars that rival Cirque du Soleil for their complexity and chutzpah.

Space is the final frontier for contemporary art. Mega-sized artworks are required to cut through the blizzard of images by which the humble spectator is carpet-bombed on an hourly basis. By the time you turn 65, you will have viewed more than two million advertisements – I will have done the same, as well as more than four million artworks!

Another pithy quote from the 1960s assists in cracking the code of these immense staged art pieces. “The medium is the message” was coined by media intellectual Marshall McLuhan in 1964.

We’ve all heard it, of course, but it truly hits home when confronted by a lump of art as big as a service station.

As we shuffle into a peak-oil era of resources competition that coins strange new words such as fracking, the message of hyper-sized art is unsettling. We increasingly feel prey to forces beyond our control. Big art is a metaphor for Big Brother in both the Orwellian and primetime sense. It reflects a unique 21st century unease and it is coming to a gallery near you.