Bejmain Genocchio on Avital Oz in the New York Times



Avital Oz's “Linkage” (1982), left, and “Black Sun” (1980), from Benjamin Genocchio's review of his retrospective in the New York Times, courtesy of Art Sites.

Australian visual art audiences will no doubt be pleased to see art Australian critic Benjamin Genocchio writing for thew New York Times.

In a recent article, Genocchio reviews the work of noted minimalist Avital Oz, a former protege of Sol Le Witt. It’s typical of Genocchio’s stylish yet understated prose, which makes him one of our best art writers.

For those interested in Genocchio as a critic and writer, the ABC’s Ally Moore interviewed him last year (click forward to 19 minutes in the sound file). The interview canvasses resale royalty rights and why Genocchio thinks that any droit de suite will only benefit the estates of the top few artists. His most recent book is Dollar Dreaming, about the Australian Aboriginal visual art market.


Art Monthly Australia’s “Arts of Sound” issue



The cover of Art Monthly Australia's november 2009 issue



The glossy art mag Art Monthly Australia has its latest issue out, devoted to Australian sound art. It’s guest edited by noted US arts writer Douglas Khan (who is doing a speaking tour of Australia in support of the edition) and has been ably coordinated by curator Sarah Last. As Sarah explains in her editorial:

A major aspect of recent media arts theory has been the emphasis on the need for media arts to be considered within its interdisciplinary intercultural contexts, rather than the traditional modernist functions and methodologies applied to historicisation and canonisation in art history. Douglas Kahn has been an international leader in contextualising auditory practices within 20th century arts theory, and more recently an underlying thesis of his work has been … one that rewrites the history of communication. With such a sustained and rigorous focus, together with the respect Kahn’s writings have already demonstrated for Australian practitioners, it is entirely fitting that we utilised Kahn’s influence as a guest editor. Far from being a parochial editorial process, this publication amplifies many distinctly different viewpoints from Australian and New Zealand writers and artists.

Without blowing my own trumpet too loudly, I have an article in the issue, looking at the work of Australian sound artists and experimental composers Joel Stern, Lloyd Barrett, Robin Fox and Anthony Pateras. Here’s a taste of what I’ve written:

In a series of interviews conducted with the artists during 2009, a picture emerges of a small, inter-connected and vibrant Australian artistic community, fertile with cross-collaboration amongst artists significantly engaged with the work of their peers.

The work of the four artists examined here shows a spectrum of sonic practice. Anthony Pateras, for instance, is primarily engaged in compositional practice from a western art music perspective; in contrast, Joel Stern and Lloyd Barrett are much more interested in the sonic textures of their experimental practice; Robin Fox sit somewhere in between. Even so, there are some important commonalities amongst these four artists’ work. All the artists examined here cite a strong commitment to performance in their practice. In varying degrees, all had significant contact with the principles of western classical music before becoming interested in different types of sonic expression. Finally, it can be argued that all share a commitment to what might be termed “pragmatic experimentation” – an artistic experimentation which moves their work beyond what Robin Fox calls the “game of nomenclature” that tends to arbitrarily divide music (whether it be experimental or classical), from art (whether it is sonic or visual), to a practice which draws on both traditions in novel ways.


Hazlehurst Regional Gallery’s Sylvania Waters Project


The Kingpins' "Unstill Life" (detail), 2009, from the exhibition page on Facebook

Tonight the ABC screened a documentary on a recent exhibition at Hazlehurst Regional Gallery in southern Sydney entitled “Reality Check”.

It’s a brief but interesting exploration of the curatorial process and ensuing artworks produced as a part of  this exhibition, which was commissioned by Hazlehurst’s curator,  Daniel Mudie Cunningham, and based around responses to the original Sylvania Waters TV series from 1992.

I haven’t seen the exhibition so I can’t comment on the artworks exhibited, but I thought the documentary raised (though lacked the length to explore) some interesting issues. To begin with, let’s look at the artists selected for the show: Mitch Cairns, Carla Cescon, Peter Cooley, John A. Douglas, The Kingpins, David Lawrey & Jaki Middleton, Luis Martinez, Archie Moore, Ms & Mr, Elvis Richardson, and Holly Williams. Sadly, we don’t get to meet all of them. But as a group, it’s collectively what you might call mid-level contemporary artists, some of whom, like Archie Moore and Luiz Martinez, have real talent and artistic credibility, and some of whom, like The Kingpins, I’ve always thought were better known for their splashy performances and canny artistic positioning than for any ground-breaking originality. I found myself wondering what an older, more established artist might have made of the project … or was I perhaps merely curious as to what happens to all the up-and-coming Primavera stars in 15 years time?

The documentary gives us an interesting snapshot of the artistic process in the 2000’s in Australia. One thing I immediately noticed was the run-down condition of the houses many of the artists lived in, hinting at the often penurious circumstances of working artists, even if few nowadays are prepared to take the next step and attempt a class analysis.

We also get to see some intelligent discussion of the original TV series by Catherine Lumby, who I would love to see doing more television and blogging, as well as some photogenic curatorial glosses from Mudie Cunningham.

Overall, the documentary left me a little disappointed. Perhaps it was always difficult to address so much in 25 minutes, but I don’t feel as though – on the basis of the documentary – that many of the artists really engaged with the subject matter at hand. The exceptions are John A. Douglas, who presents an impressively humane perspective on the difficulties faced by the Donaher family, and Luiz Martinez, who painted a scene from the original TV show that beckons an almost Hopper-esque tabluex of ordinary life.

Applied aesthetics: music for monkeys

I’m sure a few of you have already seen the reports about how monkeys prefer music composed especially for monkeys.

It’s part of a growing literature of what might be called “applied musicology” and has some important implications for a long-term project I am working on to develop a theory of taste:

Previous experiments have shown that tamarin monkeys prefer silence to Mozart, and they don’t respond emotionally to human music the way people do. But when a psychologist and a musician collaborated to compose music based on the pitch, tone and tempo of tamarin calls, they discovered that the species-specific music significantly affected monkey behavior and emotional response.

“Different species may have different things that they react to and enjoy differently in music,” said psychologist Charles Snowdon of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who published the paper Tuesday in Biology Letters with composer David Teie of the University of Maryland. “If we play human music, we shouldn’t expect the monkeys to enjoy that, just like when we play the music that David composed, we don’t enjoy it too much.”

Indeed, the monkey music sounds shrill and unpleasant to human ears. Each of the 30-second pieces below were produced with a cello and Teie’s voice, based on specific features from recordings of tamarin monkey calls. The first “song” is based on fear calls from an upset monkey, while the second one contains soothing sounds based on the vocalizations of a relaxed animal.