14 March 2011

In or out or mine or yours

I had a few minutes to spare so visited the National Gallery to see the new outdoor sculpture (Within without by James Turrell) and the refurbished entrance. My thoughts on the Turrell work? I don’t like it. Firstly, it’s incongruously and insensitively out of place in dry Australia. Its entrance is all water and expanses of lawn that reek of wetter climes. Our Parliament House is similarly insensitive, embedded as it is in a lawnswept overlay that’s meant to represent the grassy hill that was removed for the construction. (But they did wonderfully with the reds and greens in the chambers). Secondly, I have a problem with artists claiming beauty from nature. In the Turrell piece, you navigate more water spaces and enter a central egg-shaped construction that is internally bland with white and grey and a few tiles and a little marble in the centre and an opening to the sky like Rome’s Pantheon. We’re obviously meant to contemplate our return to the egg and the beauty of … nature. Yeah, nature's lovely. It’s sublime. But what’s Turrell done other than to claim it? It’s perfect art for an era that individualises the commons to convert it to personal gain. On the other hand, I have to say how neat was that circular opening. It really did seem precise and without an edge and it did internalise the sky. Congratulations to the builder. Thirdly, it must have cost a motza, what with all that perfectly level construction required for those water features. So it was with some surprise that I found water all over the floor of the first internal space. Maybe it’s leaking or more likely it’s just someone splashing water. Now that’s more apt for our Australian gallery: some kid splashing water.

The other reason for my visit was to see the new entrance. I liked it. It’s boxy and functional. It’s got a big space for functions and another for the shop. It’s got modern toilets although surprisingly not waterless urinals (I wondered if this is a theme with the Turrell work). I walked through the Aboriginal galleries. I liked the spaces well enough and especially enjoyed the additional works that could now be displayed. Interestingly, it disperses its spaces like the neighbouring National Portrait Gallery, with larger rooms and little rooms off to the side. It’s nothing like the original gallery that you got lost in, with fabulous spaces and unexpected vistas. This ’60s brutalism is commonly derided, but I like it. It’s plastic and formed and expressive of space and intriguing to visit. I also visited a diminutive space for a changing photography collection. The lighting was too low for me and it was a restricted and uninviting space. I remember the Gallery in the ‘80s with its extensive photography display and good lighting (where the Asian exhibits are now displayed). I miss the Ansell Adams and the rest, although I was fascinated by the Asian collections and liked the current photography well enough. These places change, and so they should. The new extension may be architecturally disappointing, but it does its job well enough and I guess it’s reasonably cost-effective. So be it. We are richer these days, but our horizons are more restricted.

The last point to note is that the NGA now prevents photography. I’m disappointed by this, because I like to visit with my camera, but I understand. There’s copyright. It’s a legal argument and I fully respect copyright on CJ but I don’t think it’s a strong argument. I can’t imagine a few pics are really going to steal value from a work on display in a gallery. In fact, it will probably do the artist a load of good for tourists and others to be showing pics of their works. The real issue is the damage to fragile colours and pigments from flash. It seems most people don’t know how to control their cameras; they don’t understand when and where they should use flash; they don’t know how to turn flash off; they don’t know the damage they do. And they all carry cameras in their mobiles and these cameras have flashes that will automatically work where light is low. I think I’ve come to accept that photography is banned in many galleries although I still wish I could snap a few incident light pics for CJ.

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