Sunday, November 8, 2009

How to be a smart arts

By Susan Daly

My Nightwatch column from Friday's Day and Night magazine in the Indo...

THERE is an assumption that journalists have a glamorous life, swanning from premiere to launch, night after night, floating along on a river of free champagne and wine spritzers.

Maybe that was the case once upon a Tiger time (and if so, my gilt-edged invitations must have got lost in the post). But it's a whole new discoball game these days. A girl's got to resort to some serious bluffing to get a free drink in this town. In fact, she's got to be a right smart arts.

A more culturally aware friend than I has taken to grooming me in the manner of Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady. I'm her Eliza Doolittle, screaming "What the frig is that meant to be?" across a hushed art gallery as others stroke their chins meaningfully at a black cube suspended in purple jelly.

I have learned something, though. I've learned that exhibition openings tend to be generously lubricated by free wine. No matter the standard of the art, its quality always improves in direct proportion to the number of glasses you have. Everyone's a winner.

There is the risk however that you will be identified for the philistine you are. An added consideration is not to insult the artist or curator of the exhibition by making it obvious that the installation you are most interested in is the man at the trestle table saying "Red or white, madam?" It's only polite and right to return the hospitality by at least looking as interested in what's on the walls as what's in your glass.

There's a great art to this. If you watch someone who looks like they know what they're looking at in a gallery, they always stand back a bit to take in the bigger picture. (Not that arty types use the word 'picture'. It's a 'piece', goddammit!) Peering suspiciously and leaning in for a close-up makes you look like a toddler trying to lick a TV screen.

Neither is it cool to touch anything which is tempting. I know this from when I was faced with a skull made of marshmallow and was feeling peckish. I think the general rule is to never eat the artwork -- unless invited to.

I read once about a German artist who exhibited a series of glass frames on a wall, each filled with a different-coloured cocktail, for all the world like an optics line-up in a bar. There was a little tap at the bottom of each frame and he encouraged visitors to the gallery to fill their glass from it. That's my kind of interactive art.

The punchline was that each cocktail drained away to slowly reveal a picture of a ... pink elephant. Nope, me neither.

This is the only possibly hiccup to hanging out at art exhibitions when you're not in the know: admitting that you just don't get it. The last piece of art I made was an ashtray out of Plasticine -- God bless the 80s when the fashioning of smoking paraphernalia was considered an appropriate crafts project for children. Badly educated as I am, the temptation can be overpowering to blurt out: "Seriously, what's it meant to be?"

It's the same if you're at the theatre with people who don't just go to plays when someone famous off the telly is in them. You mention you nodded off in the second half and they look at you like you've just gatecrashed their dinner party in a PVC gimp mask.

Kindly folk who want the arts to be more accessible and less intimidating to the general public say that there is no right or wrong way to interpret a piece of work. Well, there is. Observations such as, "Hey, my kid could do that!" or "It costs how much?!" are never welcome. If you can't see anything at all, then murmur something about negative space and how the piece is obviously about what's NOT there rather than what is. People will nod approvingly and you can wander off to top up your glass.

The more of these openings I go to though, the less worried I get about spoofing. I tagged along to the opening of a big photographic exhibition recently and it soon became clear that most people there were only interested in celebrity spotting. I suspect that some galleries are just happy to fill the room on opening night and create a bit of a buzz about an artist's name. And if that makes me a patron of the arts, then let's call me Mrs Saatchi and get it over with.

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