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Experimental Art in Queensland 1975-1995: An Introductory Study by Urszula Szulakowska
In the first issue of eyeline magazine in May 1987, Urszula Szulakowska argued in 'Brisbane Dada: Collaborative Art in a Stagnant Culture' that younger generation Brisbane artists were adopting Dadaist strategies in a 'state of emergency consciousness' against the 'unusually repressive socio-political conditions' of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen government (15, 17). Some ten years later, she has expanded this thesis in Experimental Art in Queensland, 1975-1995: An Introductory Study. It has been awaited with perhaps unrealistic expectations.
Szulakowska's focus is on what she describes as 'radical, experimental' art, that which 'privileges idea above image, discussion above rhetoric' (i), and which resists commodification and the market. Her study covers a period before her arrival in Brisbane in the early 1980s as a Lecturer in the Department of Art History (then Fine Arts) at the University of Queensland, and continues after her departure in 1990. She returned to undertake a brief period of intense research in 1997, examining documents and consulting widely within the community.
Her present position within a university in England, Szulakowska argues, should have 'removed some of the heat from my interpretation since I am no longer one of the contenders within the Queensland art-scene' (iii). While hoping for critical distance, she remains partisan. It is clear that Szulakowska is writing this account precisely because of her longstanding support for particular 'experimental' practices within Queensland, or perhaps more particularly, Brisbane. Szulakowska is fondly remembered for her ever-enthusiastic support of younger Brisbane artists and her regular visits to the then-emerging artist-run spaces and the Institute of Modern Art. She was a lecturer who inspired us with her depth of knowledge, sharp and spirited observations, and intellectual integrity. She inspired in me a sense of humility and a need for close, careful study when examining the work of contemporary artists.
The writing of a local history invariably disappoints. Different contenders or 'vested interests' for the significant roles in this narrative will each have their own view of events (iii). Did she get it right (apparently not in all cases, rumour has it)? Will this put Queensland artists on the map, once and for all (again, perhaps not, especially given the difficulty of obtaining copies of the book, by mail-order)?
Szulakowska is at pains to point out the limitations of her work. It is very much, she claims, 'An Introductory Study'. It is intended for the 'informed lay public', and her method does not adopt 'post-structuralist critical theory' (iv). Her coverage of the regions- Townsville, Cairns and the Rockhampton area, must of necessity be partial, she contends (i). Moreover, her focus is on 'artists of European origins in the seventies and eighties', primarily because those of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent did not enter the 'mainstream' of 'experimental discourses' until the late 1980s (v).
The value of this book, I believe, has been weakened by it trying to do too much, too quickly. If the book is partisan, it should have made this a virtue and concentrated on the period and region of Szulakowska's experience, namely the eighties and Brisbane alone. She admits it is a 'personalised study', but it strives to be more than that (iii). Moreover, if there is value in regional histories, the regions should write their own history. Is there an irony, indeed, in the desire to have a British art historian write our local art history? Nonetheless, Szulakowska has assiduously detailed the activity in these various regions.
If local artists and power brokers were hoping that this book would 'sell' Queensland art to audiences elsewhere, they will be disillusioned. Its primary audience will be a Queensland one. There is a 'cringe' in the book's defensiveness, despite Szulakowska's acknowledgment that '[n]ot all of the production was good art, even by the most generous standards', even being (somewhat patronisingly?) extremely surprised that anything at all happened', due to the 'unpromising circumstances' faced by artists (vi).
Rather than trying to write the story of Queensland art within the parameters of what was happening elsewhere, and with some sense of distance, one is swamped with a multitude of small details. It is almost like dipping into a succession of footnotes, of who did what, when, who they were, etcetera. We proceed more often by names of participants. There is little preparedness to assert what was of most importance, let alone to interpret these events within a wider set of meanings. Inconsequential personal details clutter the text. Minor figures are given glowing tributes. The appellation 'i mportant' becomes somewhat meaningless. Almost as much space is given to Anne Jones, for instance, as is to Robert MacPherson, who Szulakowska acknowledges as 'Queensland's most distinguished artist [who] has finally become part of the Australian historical canon' (11, 13-14). Some artists, such as Robert MacPherson, Luke Roberts, Jay Younger, Scott Redford and Jeremy Hynes are accorded greater significance, but again, discussion of their work is uneven.
Nonetheless, for those prepared to sift through the detail, there is much of value in the story Szulakowska tells of the shifts in Queensland from the 'waste-land' it was or could have been in the Joh Bjelke-Petersen era, to the changes in arts funding brought by the Wayne Goss Labor Government in 1989 and the general level of optimism of those years, to the levelling off and diversification of the last decade. Her work situates experimental practices within political and economic parameters, and within the institutional support structures. With the emphasis on 'experimental' art, special attention is given to artist-run spaces. Indeed, Szulakowska asserts that in Queensland 'it was the experimental artists who created the present art industry' (v), their achievements including the founding of the Queensland Artworkers Alliance in 1986 and eyeline magazine in 1987. Some may see it to her credit that she is inclusive rather than exclusive in her compass, that she errs on the side of generosity; others will criticise her for lack of discrimination. Certainly, any reader who persists will gain an impression of the lively activity happening in the visual arts in Brisbane since the late 1970s, but they may well ask, as in Yes Minister, is activity a substitute for achievement?
Perhaps more seriously, there are questions to be asked about how thoroughly material was checked. Sufficient numbers of small errors crop up to make one nervous. Sam Fullbrook, for instance, may have been surprised to find he was an 'inter-state' modernist (16). Madonna Staunton was in the third, not the first Sydney Biennale in 1979, along with Robert MacPherson, not Davida Allen (17). Barbara Campbell was the administrator at The Performance Space, not the director (42) Ross Searle, it should be pointed out, was not appointed director of the Art History Department at the University of Queensland, rather of the University Art Museum. Pat Hoffie was not in Japanese Ways, Western Means, an exhibition of Japanese artists (161). Apparently Christine Morrow's 1996 Institute of Modern Art exhibition, brevity, made 'subtle, informed jokes at the expense of artists such as Thierry de Duve' (162) - an indication of Szulakowska's indifference to formalist and minimalist practices and their leading international critics? Trifling details, maybe, but enough to caution anyone using this as reference material to check the facts!!
Was there any serious editorial input from Griffith University? Was there any form of rigorous feedback that might have resulted in rewritings and improvements in the text? The book is intended as a scholarly undertaking, and indeed it reads and looks like an Honours research thesis. There are no glamorous frills - no one would mistake it for a coffee-table art book. To be blunt, the cover and overall design is dull (and this after the author reputedly rejected her fee in lieu of design and indexing). The black-and white illustrations are of poor quality and more often than not appear to have been chosen because a work happened to have been held in the Griffith University Art Collection, not because it was a significant work by the artist in question or in some way supported an argument. Visually, the book does nothing to promote the value of art in Queensland, but then that is hardly the text's priority. Images are another mere detail. The whole book looks like a bureaucratic report. This is university publishing at its worst. There was, however, financial assistance provided by the then Queensland Government's Arts Office. It is unfortunate that this project was not supervised by an institution which could have provided greater rigorous adhesion to publishing standards, and some visual interest.