How much hindsight is needed to assess an era? According to Gallery of Modern Art director Tony Ellwood and his team, not an awful lot. This exhibition of art from the first decade of the 21st century opened a fortnight before the end of 2010. Including more than 200 works from more than 40 countries and billed as the largest exhibition of contemporary international art ever staged by an Australian institution, it was definitely big – and so were many of the art works. In its representation by big institutions, bigness, it would seem, continues to occupy a big part of contemporary art.
While the catalogue essays struggle to locate totalizing tendencies from ‘art in the first decade’, it’s more accurate and useful to approach the show as a selection of ‘some art in the first decade’. Nevertheless, the exhibition revealed some zeitgeisty themes. When I visited in mid-February the riverfront museum had only just reopened after suffering water damage from the severe flooding that blighted Queensland. This leant a bleak pertinence to the works that dealt literally or otherwise with threats of climate change and natural disaster, such as Danish collective Superflex’s transfixing Flooded McDonald‘s (2009), a life-size video projection showing the interior of a McDonald‘s restaurant steadily filling with water.
Thomas Demand’s Landing (2006) is a photograph of the artist’s disorientatingly faithful model reconstruction of a conservator’s photograph of the aftermath of a deliciously slapstick incident: a visitor to Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum tripped on his shoelace, fell down a flight of stairs and smashed three priceless Qing Dynasty vases. The image was displayed amidst a cluster of works that question the valorization and treatment of cultural objects. Nearby, for example, were more precious Chinese vases – Neolithic earthenwares that were given new veneers of bright synthetic colours by Ai Weiwei. Next to them was Xu Zhen’s ShanghART Supermarket (2007–8), a full-scale replica of a typical Chinese convenience store including neon lighting, a cash register and shelves fully stocked with products that turn out to have been meticulously emptied. What initially appeared to be an abundance of consumer goods turned out to be all packaging and no content.
The vast majority of works came from the museum’s collection; many were recently acquired in anticipation of this show. I was left wondering whether one of the curators doubles as an ornithologist. An inordinately popular work in the local media coverage was Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s room of live finches, from here to ear (2010). There was also a taxidermied two-headed bird displayed alongside disembodied living cells created from scratch by the Perth-based neo-life/bio-art duo The Tissue Culture & Art Project (Odd Neolifism, 2010); Louise Weaver’s stuffed peacock shrouded in a technicolor hand-crocheted wrap (Phoenix, Indian Blue Peacock [Pavo Cristatus], 2008–9); Fiona Hall’s delicate replica bird nests woven from shredded paper money (Tender, 2003–6); and Parastou Forouhar’s photograph of a lone chador-clad woman riding a swan-shaped paddle boat (Swanrider, 2004).
The winged, feathered, beaked and airborne also appear in the Palestine-based artist-architect-activist collective decolonizing.ps’s The Book of Migration (2009), which documents the group’s proposal for a contested site near Bethlehem that was evacuated by the Israeli army in 2006. Drawing attention to the fact that the area is an important stop on the migration routes between Europe and Africa for millions of birds, the group’s proposal is a ‘project for obsolescence’ that will accelerate the decay of the existing infrastructure and return it to nature, starting with the insertion of perforations in the walls to provide nesting sites. The work documents decolonizing.ps’s legal battle, in which they have strategically made a claim for the site against civil administration on behalf of birds rather than people. The Israeli military’s response remains undecided.