2001: But is it art?

2001: But is it art?

In other eras, the razor-sharp accuracy of hindsight makes movements in the arts world seem as clear as a Jeffrey Smart sky. From impressionism and pop art, to Dada theatre and postmodern architecture, shifts in the spectrum of human artistic expression have captivated and horrified, like a funhouse mirror that distorts an age while undeniably reflecting it.

Then, there was 2001. Postmodernism comes close to explaining a certain grab-bag quality to works across the board, in which genres and forms continue to be plundered from seemingly anachronistic fields. Ricky Swallow sculpts ET’s phone in balsawood at the MCA. The Producers opens on Broadway, a musical based on a film, in which theatre producers create a show designed to fail (called Springtime For Hitler) which becomes a surprise hit. The real-life musical wins the most Tony awards since Hello Dolly! and the show sells out. (Until 11 September that is -“ but we’ll get there shortly.)

There were glimmers of an artistic Zeitgeist, however, in that the exploration of the simple, the banal and even our own bodies, seemed to predominate. If there was a movement in 2001, a shift in the spectrum that is perhaps being thesis’d right now, it is this: 2001 represented a revolution in content, rather than form. From food and genitals, to Princess Di and Lindy Chamberlain, direct challenges to what might be considered suitable subjects for artistic exploration were made across all the fields.

In the same vein as the swarm of single subject books (e.g. Cod), a proliferation of shows that dealt with food swamped Sydney. The Song Company’s Eat And Be Eaten, Richard Weinstein’s photographs of vegies Tastebud and South Korean performance chefs in Cookin! all made an appearance, in a movement that reached its bizarre zenith with The Naked Chef On Stage. Our bodies and even genitals became the focus of the new millennium, probably not surprising in a time historically known for navel-gazing. The Vagina Monologues and Puppetry Of The Penis placed in stark relief the differences between the genders, and there were also Naked Boys Singing!, a photographic exhibition of women’s anuses called Arseholes and auditions for Barry Lowe’s upcoming (we hope!) production of Troughmen: The Musical.
Did someone say musicals? Yes, this year show queens and producer queens went completely out of control. Not one, but three musicals about Princess Diana have opened worldwide, pop music became a rich vein, with songs from ABBA and artists such as Boy George, Pet Shop Boys and even Barry Manilow hitting the boards. Films continued to be adapted into big shoos, including Flashdance, Jailhouse Rock, Earth Girls Are Easy and The Full Monty. Opera was not immune to zany experimentation, with a William S. Burroughs opera, a queer Handel staged at Heaven nightclub and our very own Opera Australia producing Lindy, based on the death of Azaria Chamberlain. Not to be outdone, choreographer Matthew Bourne announced that he would follow up The Car Man -“ a dance version of The Postman Always Rings Twice performed to the music of Carmen -“ with a dance adaptation of Edward Scissorhands.
Of course it wasn’t all about cultural theft. Some artists kept the flames of old movements flickering, though perhaps only barely. Mike Parr visited Australia, locking himself in a room at Artspace for 10 days and filling barrels with his own piss. Various glorious nutcases at The Performance Space locked themselves in the theatre for 12 hours and Damien Hirst even paid the price for revisiting Pop Art when his exhibition so resembled garbage it was accidentally tossed out of his London gallery by the janitor. Orientalism even reared its reductionist head, with a number of exhibitions that celebrated Japanese culture. (Thankfully, the whole Chinese script on bedsheets fad has been sent to the cleaners.) I’d even argue that elements of the recent Buddhist fascination within the arts will seem embarrassing in years to come -“ the Naughties equivalent of the Fifties blue woman portrait with cheongsam fatigues.

Some changes might have been aesthetically pleasing, but reflect that our tight financial times are profoundly affecting the arts. Even prior to the tragedy of 11 September, a sense of experimentation ran parallel with a downturn in box-office support. This year surely saw the death-knell of the Arena Spectacular and even the big budget musical. Hair was cut short and proposed tours of A? and Madame Butterfly were cancelled. Both Shout! and The Wizard Of Oz showed signs of frugal spending, so that for better or for worse, we won’t be seeing a Les Miz barricade for a long time.

A movement that never quite happened also died -“ the expensive and big Broadway play being produced in Australia. The disappointing box-office of Art some years ago should have rung bells, but it took The Graduate to drop out mid-season before producers saw the sense to postpone the upcoming The Blue Room. Maybe as a response to the wings of this butterfly, a number of small, zero-budget performance spaces have been thriving around town, such as The TAP Gallery and the resurrected Darlinghurst Theatre.

So what was good? Lots of things. Il Trovatore and Sweeney Todd at the Opera House; Fireface and The Wharf Revues at the STC; Cloudstreet (again), The Laramie Project and Aliwa at Belvoir Street; Judi Connelli in concert, Other Pictures and Swallow/Swenson at the MCA; Blue Heart at the Stables; Four On The Floor downstairs at Belvoir; Museum Of Fetishized Identities at The Performance Space; Birdbrain by Australian Dance Theatre at the Opera House -“ the list goes on. There were almost as many disappointments such as Shakespeare’s R&J and The Mikado, and probably about a third of the Cabaret Convention was pretty unbearable. The Three Sisters at the STC was as pretentious and text-mutilating as Morning Sacrifice was prescriptive and polite -“ and both were awful, demonstrating that the challenge of making great theatre is still as difficult and heartbreaking.

A toast to 2002! The Americans are currently experiencing a crisis in the arts, with Broadway still suffering from poor houses and media ripples that suggest the arts may be shifting into a more conservative age. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen here and that audiences continue to embrace even the kookiest of the arts. Ah, the yarts: useless, wasteful, thoroughly unnecessary and absolutely fabulous.

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