Article: 1980s Re-Mix Critical Culture

Leigh Bowery, ‘The Metropolitan’ - Collection of the N.G.V.
This is the first presentation from Max Delany, recently appointed senior curator of contemporary art at the National Gallery of Victoria (N.G.V.) Max’s experience with contemporary Australian art is both deep and wide – having been the director of Gertrude Street Contemporary Art Space, curator of Heidi Museum of Art before becoming the founding director of Monash University Museum of Art. Delany’s ‘MIX TAPE 1980s: Appropriation, Subculture, Critical Style’ provides substance to Tony Elwood’s comment earlier this year for ‘Broadsheet – Melbourne’; ‘I can’t ask the community to get behind me if I’m not getting behind them’.1
The space committed to this exhibition spans the north–side galleries on the top floor of Federation Square and offers two separate entrances. Coming up the escalators, I entered galleries via Leigh Bowery’s ‘The Metropolitan’ outfit, so named after Bowery wore it for the opening of Lucian Freud’s retrospective, at the Metropolitan Museum N.Y. in 1993. Freud’s retrospective at ‘The Metropolitan’ featured a number of Freud’s paintings of Bowery. Being shy of openings, Freud invited Bowery to attend the opening on his behalf, which Bowery did, en–regalia, wearing the outfit now known as ‘The Metropolitan’. Although Bowery was an exemplary artist he did not come out of art school in fact he dropped out of fashion at R.M.I.T. in his first year and headed off to London – for good. In London, Bowery made his way as a drag– queen and costumier, working with the Michael Clark Dance Company and others. Although Bowery was an artist of the highest order, he had little or no presence within the conventional art world until he was ushered into Anthony D’Offay Gallery in London, to present his costumes and himself for a one–week performance in 1988. Although Bowery was infamous within the London gay underground his work would have been unknown to all but a small fraternity within the Australian art world. If Bowery was taken under Freud’s wing, it was not because he was an artist as such, but rather because he was just Leigh Bowery.
Thus Bowery’s ‘The Metropolitan’ stands as the silent ‘door bitch’ at the entrance of the NGV ‘Tape Mix 1980s’ exhibition ushering us into the back– end of the exhibition where the Popism manifesto finds fulfilment as the boundaries between art, fashion, design and music evaporate. Via this entry we pass a stack of T.V. sets each playing a different selection from Molly Meldrum’s
1 Dan Rule, ‘Man on the Ground’, Interview with Tony Elwood, the new director of the N.G.V., Melbourne, Broadsheet, 8th January 2013; entertainment/article/man-ground (accessed 25th May 2013)
‘Count–Down’, offering a ‘Rock–Quiz’ style introduction to the period. For a more nuanced introduction of the tastes of the time, some of the artists have been invited to offer ‘tape mixes’ which are piped through out the galleries and available from the head–sets dangling from the exhibition walls. Selections include tracks by ‘INXS’, ‘The Divinyls’, ‘Iggy Pop’, ‘Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’, ‘Blondie’, ‘Talking Heads’, ‘Split Enz’, ‘Lipps Inc.’, ‘Telex’, ‘Boy George’, ‘The Human League’, ‘Spandau Ballet’, ‘Visage, ‘James White & the Blacks’, ‘The Residents’, ‘The Warumpi Band’, ‘No Fixed Address’ etc. Thus the musical tastes of the artists set the frame for the show.
For those who weren’t there in the day, quick glimpse at one of films on offer in the video lounge, ‘Dogs in Space’, starring Michael Hutchence and Saskia Post, by Richard Lowenstein, will give you a taste for the times. Set in the drug–fuelled Melbourne rock scene, ‘Dogs in Space’ offers an appropriate introduction to the extravagances of a generation that spawned AIDS and Gen Y’s, for whom the sub–cultural ethos of the 1980s might seem somewhat excessive. Gen Y’s might do well to remember that for most artists of the 1980s, ‘T.V. was for being–on – not for watching’ and the critical cultural discourses of the day happened somewhere between the studio and the gallery and usually behind closed doors. Unlike popular culture and fashion however, visual arts literacy is not a given rather it is a hard–won understanding contingent upon a familiarity with the cultural references of the times. I am still learning. 
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By Gary Willis

Gary Willis

Gary Willis has been an artist for over 40 years. His post-object work is noted in ‘Performance Art in Australia 1969 – 1992’, his early video work in the global ‘History of Video Art’. For the last 30 years Gary has been a painter. He spent the 1980s teaching painting in Sydney (N.A.S.), the 1990’s in London, painting under the patronage of Arthur Boyd. He completed his M.A. at RMIT, his Ph.D at University of Melbourne. His thesis ‘The Key Issues Concerning Contemporary Art’ is a Google Book. His essay, ’What’s Art Got To Do With It’ is published in James Elkin’s ‘What do artist’s Know.’