Current Issue #488

Seeing art in the everyday

Somerton. 11.33am, 8 January, 2020.
John Neylon
Somerton. 11.33am, 8 January 2020

Another Adelaide Festival looms and beyond that a full card of 2020 exhibitions programming, but how sharp are your eyes and mind to meet the challenge?

I found myself parked on the foreshore at Somerton. Nothing had been planned beyond a stroll along the beach. But a break in the hot weather meant a south-easterly wind had picked up and along with this, some showers. So visually unremarkable was the view that I had to will myself to find anything interesting.

As an exercise I began to keep a list of everything in sight. First the road. The bit that could be seen running out from under the car towards the opposite kerbside was uniformly grey.

White lines – more elongated dashes – ran down the middle until a speed bump in the distance blocked further view. The road met the kerb in a strip of lighter grey concrete. The pathway beyond was composed of light tan pavers interspersed with darker toned ones running at right angles.

Beyond the path, the tips of randomly stacked rocks could be seen. This was the upper edge of the seawall that runs the full length of this section of coast line. I knew it to be composed of irregular rocks, variously textured and coloured and home to stray cats, weeds and lost tennis balls.

The beach was hidden, but not the sea which by now was dotted with whitecaps thatoccasionally merged to form horizontal smudges of foam. Above this, a set of dark clouds was advancing. Some rain drops had begun to settle on the windscreen and side window.

They sat, not as neat orbital items but irregular splodges. As the rain built they each burst their tiny banks and commenced a slow slide to the bottom of the screen.

The edges of each rivulet turned dark as the visual data contained in each was consolidated by the curvature of water. A ute pulled up and a man got out. He closed the door, walked across the road and looked out to sea. He didn’t move for a couple of minutes. Well, that’s not completely true. His clothes did.

They rippled in the stiff breeze while he stood stock still. But then so did the street sign alongside. Not rippling, really – more shuddering with each gust of wind. A few cyclists rolled past without a flutter in their lycra skins.

Resolute walkers trudged by. Trying to visualise and fix these moments was a challenge, made difficult by cars that occasionally passed, obscuring the view. This whole business of eyeballing a ‘non-landscape’ had taken around five minutes (about four minutes longer than many people spend looking at an artwork), which could have been otherwise spent simply waiting for the rain to clear, listening to the radio or dumping emails.

By now, having stood by and allowed the eyes to run the show, the smarty pants brain started to elbow into the action – and put art stickers on anything and everything. There were a lot of Robert Smithson connections – not only in the rocks composing the sea wall but also the fact that these same items were captured in the car’s side mirror (see Rocks and mirror square, 1971).

He would have appreciated the juxtaposition of natural and fabricated constructions. That man, gazing out to sea – where had I seen this before? Answer: Caspar David Friedrich’s The Monk by the Sea (1808–10), one of art’s most compelling images, an almost empty seaside landscape with a diminutive figure gazing into the distance.

The tradesman’s high viz vest rippling in the wind could have come from any number of early 20th century Futurist paintings. Add Boccioni’s power packed Dynamism of Cyclist (1913) to reference the cyclists who kept blocking the view.

As for the whole business of turning a chance moment of waiting-for-the-rain-to-stop-in-no-particular-place into an event of possible significance, look no further than the mid 20th century philosophy of the dérive, that was attuned to the psychogeography of the city and the poetry to be found in the lived experience of the street.

Dig deeper here and listen to Georges Perec (1936–1982) as he invites everyone to keep on looking: “Carry on. Until the scene becomes improbable, until you have the impression for the briefest of moments, that you are in a strange town or, better still, until you can no longer understand what is happening or is not happening.” Rediscovering Adelaide as a ‘strange town’, and its art equally so, might seem hard.

It’s too familiar. Its annual arts festivals and monthly exhibitions tend to slip into a cosy bubble bath of normality like little plastic ducks bobbing up and down. But a dose of finding something in nothing can change all that. The enemy of art may not be good taste after all, but over-familiarity. Enjoy your Festival, may all your ducks line up, and let your eyes do some of the thinking.

John Neylon

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John Neylon is an award-winning art critic and the author of several books on South Australian artists including Hans Heysen: Into The Light (2004), Aldo Iacobelli: I love painting (2006), and Robert Hannaford: Natural Eye (2007).

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