I was approached by Thames and Hudson to write Australiana to Zeitgeist in late 2012, and my motivation in doing so was to increase the audience for contemporary Australian art. At the time I was running Utopian Slumps, a non-profit turned commercial gallery in Melbourne, and wished that the artists I was supporting and exhibitions I was putting on had more reach. I hope I’ve put together an accessible entry into what otherwise might be considered challenging Australian art practices, and that this might increase their understanding and appreciation.
The book is thematic, which ultimately fed my selection of artists, as once I had the themes I then started thinking about which artist’s practices and works are strongest in those fields. My other self-set criteria was to look at ‘under-represented’ artists. This doesn’t necessarily mean not commercially represented, although that could be the case, but also artists who are emerging or early career, or mid-career artists who have not yet received the level of attention that I think they deserve.
Over the five-years of putting this together there have been many highs and lows! The most challenging part was trying to find the time and distance to write and edit while operating a gallery, then while pregnant and in the early months of first-time motherhood. The highlight was the communication that I had with the artists, and their invaluable input and feedback at various drafting stages.
The art world in Australia is very small and a small number of collectors and institutions support a considerable number of artists. So I hope that this book might be a factor in increasing the audience for, and eventually the support of, contemporary Australian art.
I think that my selection of artists is generally a bit riskier and newer than those featured in other resources. Don’t expect to see the Archibald winners of the last 10 years in this book!
Z for Zeitgeist
The German word ‘zeitgeist’ defines the prevailing spirit or thoughts of an era, typifying the general moral, intellectual or cultural climate of the time. The word comes from the writings of nineteenth-century German philosopher Georg Hegel, who believed that art reflected the culture of its age and thus exemplified its zeitgeist. We can see this in the art of the 1960s, which encapsulated a decade of revolution and change. During this decade environmental activism propelled the land art movement, and a desire to bring art to the masses inspired pop art.
In Australia the late-nineteenth-century Heidelberg School artists depicted colonialism and rural life. It was the first movement to portray the harshness of the Australian bush. To do this they adopted the painting method of en plein air, as practised by the French impressionists. This group of artists including Frederick McCubbin, Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton, were also known as ‘Australian impressionists’.
The Angry Penguins comprised artists Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker and Joy Hester. They came together in the 1940s to shake up the conservative nature of the art establishment of the era. They were at the forefront of the artists of their generation, instigating a new modernism in painting.
Contemporary Australian artists that embody the spirit of their generation include Hany Armanious and Mikala Dwyer. Since the 1990s Armanious has tested the limits of his audiences’ understanding of art by including blobs of hot glue, worm castings and outdoor furniture in his sculptures and installations. His work has a distinctly grungy appearance, which has helped to lead the zeitgeist of contemporary Australian art from the decorative into the cerebral. Dwyer, also active from the 1990s, has promoted anti-monumental installation through her invisible sculptures and suspended mobile works.
Andy Boot, Adam John Cullen and Marian Tubbs are part of the next generation of Australian artists who form a new material and aesthetic era. Boot references Internet and digital culture in his work while retaining an interest in physical form. Cullen combines ancient and contemporary materials to reflect on the culture and economics of today. Tubbs uses digital technology to slow down the eye, and in the process analyses the fast-paced nature of our society.
More in depth profiles of Boot, Cullen and Tubbs follow this chapter introduction in Australiana to Zeitgeist. Retailing for $49.95, the book is available to purchase online, here, or at book stores throughout Australia.