No-one really predicted the incredible adrenaline rush that was Sydney during the Olympics. Before the Games, thousands of people left the city, while the rest of us stayed and expected the worst. The lead-up wasnt promising: the public transport system was in serious crisis, there were poor ticket sales, and disaster after disaster beset SOCOG (the Games organising committee, wonderfully lampooned by John Clarkes TV series The Games). Then, suddenly, as the torch slowly wound its way through the endless suburbs, the skies cleared, the trains started running properly, the tourists started arriving in droves, and the press went into overdrive. As soon as the lone horse thundered into Stadium Australia, the city was hooked. Two weeks of gloriously irrational patriotism, festive joy and a new-found interest in everything from Greco-Roman wrestling to synchronised diving. It was a total blast.
Theres been a lot of soul-searching since, with everyone keen to maintain at least some of the pride and optimism that the Games and the Paralympics generated. One thing that has been a constant motif in the acres of verbiage in the papers has been the call for greater recognition of Australias cultural life. There was little public acknowledgment of the creative input into the Games, particularly in the opening ceremony, but also for the artists who produced works for Olympic Park, and for the Olympic arts festival. Sport rules supreme, with the traditional Australian ruthless democracy being conveniently forgotten in the glow of elite athleticism.
So, for most of the visual arts community, its business as usual. Still, there is a palpable sense that Sydney is an exciting place to be, and that must count for something. Theres certainly a wealth of exhibitions to be had at the moment, and things are looking good for the rest of the year. The Museum of Contemporary Art has secured money from a number of sources and finally struck a funding and operating deal with the Sydney City Council. An arrangement with Telstra. com has meant that entrance is now free, which was hugely successful during the Sydney Biennale -the gallery was packed every day. Theres good stuff pending: opening soon is the massive photography exhibition Veronicas Revenge, featuring everyone from Cindy Sherman and Matthew Barney to Fischli & Weiss and John Baldessari. Also coming up is Michael Lights collation of Apollo Mission photographs,
Full Moon. Currently showing is the annual exhibition of young artists, Primavera, which this year has been curated by Gallery 4A director Melissa Chiu (who should be congratulated, by the way, for the successful negotiation of a beautiful new space for the gallery in a stunning heritage building). Highlights are David Jollys paintings on glass (spoilt somewhat by daggy frames) and Lisa Roets monkey photographs, but overall its a strangely uninspiring show. The work is all competent enough, but its almost too slick and tasteful, lacking the edge and passion that should distinguish an exhibition of up-and-comers.
The hottest young artist in Australia is undoubtedly 26-year-old Ricky Swallow, who will be given a major solo show at the MCA in 2001. Currently on a residency in New Zealand, he has had a hell of a couple of years. Since winning the $100,000 Contempora 5 prize in 1999, he has shown in Norway, Denmark, LA and at the Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York. His current exhibition at Darren Knight is further proof of his extraordinary facility for constructing detailed objects from the most basic of materials. His dismantled Rubik cubes of coloured paper, Campers shoes of binders board (complete with tread and laces), and telescope of PVC pipe and putty are wonderful pieces that rely strongly on the double-take (how does he do it?), but overall the exhibition is bitsy and lacks cohesion, perhaps evidence of being stretched too thin too quickly. It seemed more like a transitional, stopgap show, with the introduction of new materials and techniques, the centrepiece being a rather hysterical life-sized skeleton arising from a puddle on the floor and climbing a ladder. Entirely cast from resin, it was masterful but heavy-handed, with a misjudged use of swirly pigments and lacking Swallows quirky sense of humour.
Down Elizabeth Street at Sarah Cottier, Hany Armanious, who rarely lacks humour and divides critics like Swallow unites them, has come up with a humdinger. You either love or hate Armanious, and everyone is talking about the scathing review in the national paper that the show received from the normally genial Ben Genocchio. Armanious, wrote Genocchio, is an artist suffering from a crisis of content, one whose deliberate ineptitude has been lauded for far too long. Armanious is a difficult artist at the best of times, leaping from one medium to another with a seemingly wanton carelessness. Using a kind of automatism (the show is called semi-automatic), he attempts to get to the heart of the materials he uses, whatever they may be and wherever they may lead him. This time, its a Japanese pen that draws with multiple colours, forming the basis for a series of squiggle drawings, blown up and printed onto vinyl-infused paper. In the next room, Armanious has printed a range of disparate images on Chux Super-Wipes that perhaps do nothing more than uncover the screen-like properties of kitchen cleaners. Youre never sure with Armanious, but its that kind of show. Upstairs, the heavily theorised work of Julian Dashper holds the room with a series of black-and-white paintings, based on a black photograph attached to one corner. The photograph is unique; the paintings are editioned. Theres not a single aspect of this show that isnt laboured over, from the spaces between the works to who paints the black part and the white part to the way that photographic paper shrinks slightly when printed. The gallery sheet contains a list of 100 such bon mots, an exhaustive and exhausting litany of things personal anecdotes and art-world observations. My first thought was get a life, but this is Dashpers life, and hes doing very well, thank you (hes got a Fulbright -thing numbers 20 and 21).
On a more poetic note, Martin Browne Fine Art (which has now opened a branch in New York with two ex-Matthew Marks staffers) is showing the UK/ Australian photographer Adam Fuss. Martin Browne is the most salon-like gallery in town, with soft grey walls, mood music (the day I was there, it was Natalie Merchant) and a lounge area with big, cosy sofas. The assistants are studly Darlinghurst types, and you almost expect to be served an espresso on entry. Fuss uses archaic photographic techniques such as daguerrotypes and photograms, producing silvery images of smoke, swans, and wispy dresses, with a tortured woman in silhouette as a motif. My Ghost is the name of the show, and its also peppered with prints of ponderous Khalil Gibran-type texts (the catalogue, though not the exhibition, has Sanskrit versions as well). Its all deeply serious, even pretentious, though Ive always been a sucker for those who dare to be wankers. Its a long way from Armanious, and if you let your guard down, there are some moving moments to be had, particularly the enormous, diaphanous swan above the comfiest couch. I could have sat there all day, swan floating above, spunky assistant opposite, imagining a more gentle, introspective, refined world where even death is heartbreakingly beautiful.
Back in the real, raw world of the inner west, above a Chinese restaurant, is the home of Ian Geraghty and the site of Grey Matter Contemporary Art. A corridor and lounge room of the tiny terrace is painted white, walls and floor, and one of the most exciting exhibitions Ive seen in a while has just opened there. Entitled The Palace of Exaggeration and Everything, it is a cluster of 12 separately curated and titled group shows, solo exhibitions and collaborations all rolled into one event. Almost every artist-run-space and collective in town is involved, including RubyAyre, Imperial Slacks, Blaugrau and Michael & Michael Visual Arts Project Management. Every conceivable space is used, from the clothesline (including works by Mikala Dwyer, David Griggs and Polly Staple), to the ceiling (a series of scientific mobiles by Simon Yates) to the kitchen (Keith Pipers CD-ROM Relocating the Remains) and the bathroom (Michael & Michael have placed a camera opposite the toilet and the monitor on the door). There is an interactive element, which is a series of objects that will come and go during the show depending on contributions (what the organisers call kinetic curating). RubyAyre contributed a wall image that looks like a maze but is apparently based on a graffiti tag, entirely constructed from its exhibition invitations; Imperial Slacks covered the floor with bricks wrapped in brick-pattern paper; Blaugrau filled one end of the corridor with grey painted shapes and fake plants; while Ron and George Adams supplied three elegant pieces based on the work of Steve Reich. The work is good, the concept even better, boding well for a more integrated and dynamic artistic community that for so long has seemed too fragmented. I dont know if its the Olympic mood that has brought everyone together, but lets hope it lasts.
Russell Storer is a writer and curator who lives in Sydney. When he was little, he avoided gender confusion by pretending to be a cow. This embarrassed his parents and resulted in several painful grass-eating episodes. He still has a penchant for parsley, and laments its demise as a popular garnish.