Travel Diary 6

Mind the Gap

December 5: Sometimes I can’t believe how stupid I am. As my old primary school teacher Miss Wotherspoon used to say, “Hill, you’re less use than an inch of string.” Mind you, I was only six, and probably trying to stick Lego bricks or Cuisenaire rods up my nostrils, in an early homage to Erwin Wurm’s one minute sculptures. 

What happened was this. I was travelling from my brother’s in Longniddry to my sister’s in Bramhall via Waverley Station in Edinburgh. I had an insanely heavy suitcase. Robin and I had worked out in advance where all the lifts were at the various stations and reckoned I could do it. He got me on to the train at Longniddry, but when I went to disembark in Edinburgh the gap between train and platform was wider than usual and I had to swing the case (Delilah, my trusty Samsonite) out on to the platform. It was so heavy it pulled my over, and my right leg shot down between the train and the platform, while I fell on top of my other leg on the ground. I’ll never forget the look of horror on the face of a middle-aged woman who rushed across the platform to help me up. Anyway, I managed to board the Manchester train, although I could barely walk. As it headed south of the border, both my ankles and feet started swelling and I was worried I’d broken something. Not good when you’re on a multi-city lecture tour. But my sister Ann came to the rescue. She met me at the wonderfully named Cheadle Hulme Station and rushed me to the nearby accident and emergency. After three hours of different tests, X-rays, and sitting in various waiting rooms (wonderful nurses and doctors, from all over Europe, working heroically in an overstretched and underfunded system - how will it survive after Brexit?) I was told I had two badly sprained ankles, but would live to see another lecture podium.


When my old friend Jeremy Diggle returned to RMIT University in Melbourne from the 2O14 Sydney Biennale You Imagine What You Desire, I asked him what he’d liked best. I’d been there myself a couple of weeks earlier and knew it to be - like most biennales these days - full of large-scale installations midway between Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, and a children’s fun park. Less white cube and more post-industrial factory space. 

“John Stezaker’s collages were wonderful,” Jeremy replied immediately. “Fabulous pieces.” I totally agreed, and will forever be grateful to Juliana Enberg for including them in her pick of artists from around the world. Each work was smaller than an album cover, and often made up of only two photographic elements layered together and sourced from black and white publicity portraits for B-movies. Other elements included faded postcards, often with badly tinted colours, of romantic landscapes. 

In the middle of December, at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester, I had the privilege of seeing a complete exhibition of these works, and plan to return several times before it closes in June. But the even better news is that 19 of the collages have been gifted to the gallery by his dealer Karsten Schubert, and a further three by the artist.  So the Whitworth will from now on be the go-to site for the appreciation of this great artist, as the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is the nation’s best go-to resource for the study of Surrealism. 

And I’ve just noticed in The Guardian’s weekly “guide” that Stezaker has curated a Paul Nash exhibition Winter Sea for York Art Gallery (until 15 April). I’ve been planning to go to the Yorkshire Sculpture Parkto see Alfredo Jaar’s Revolt and Revolutions/The Garden of Good and Evil, so look forward to combining both events. 


A tiny black and white woodcut by Paul Nash used to hang outside my bedroom door in Glasgow. It’s one of my earliest memories from the 1950s. It was a wedding present to my parents. It is of an expansive, surreal landscape and had the imaginative power of a mural, even though it was little larger than a postcard. I still have it in my possession. I’ve sometimes thought of blowing it up photographically to, say, 4 metres by 3 metres to see what it would look like. But I suspect like a Morandi painting, or a Stezaker collage, it will always work best at a very small scale. A tiny window into a vast universe. I will leave it just the way it is.


Stezaker, at 68, is young compared to others currently exhibiting. At London’s Serpentine Sackler Gallery, the 83 year old painter Rose Wylie is now showing huge canvases in her poetically named show of recent work Quack Quack. Some I guessed to be as large as five metres by four, reflecting the life she experienced in London’s wartime blitz in the 1940s – warplanes flying overhead while dogs chase each others’ tales in city parks, not unlike Hyde Park beyond the walls of the gallery. 

A few days later, on the train back from Cambridge where I’ve been viewing Annie Cattrell’s astonishing public art sculpture Transformation made up of 18,000 anodised aluminium tiles that ripple in the wind, for the new Anglia Ruskin science building,  I’m listening to a podcast of Phillip Adams broadcast from the ABC in Sydney (the world’s best radio program in my humble opinion). The interview is with The New Yorker writer Patrick Radden Keefe who has researched Arthur Sackler’s heavy marketing of opiods, and before that valium, and the huge death toll that has resulted. The Sackler family’s sponsorship of the Serpentine’s second venue, where Rose Wylie is showing, is being questioned by many in the media and the wider public. It must be hard these days to find a company that is not tainted through oil, arms sales, pharmaceuticals, tobacco, real estate, or general third world exploitation. I once sold a large photographic installation from an open competition at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery. This was back in 1988 after I’d made my first lecture tour around Australia. I came back via Los Angeles, Phoenix, and New York and tracked down the couple who had bought the piece  which was called Faking It, a large cibachrome print full of fake objects and materials, framed inside a formica grid. It turned out the purchasers were called Mr and Mrs Lewis B. Cullman, and they were the billionaire (“richer than God” as one television documentary described them) majority shareholders of the Phillip Morris Company, known for flooding Third World countries with high tar cigarettes. I lunched with Mrs Cullman in a midtown restaurant on the Upper East Side. She was a fine example of what Tom Wolfe referred to in his Bonfire of the Vanities as an X-Ray. I noticed that she didn’t smoke, but she told me they had at last bought the apartment they’d always wanted at 555 Park Avenue, the triple digit name of one of their most famous cigarette brands. When I created my fictitious Museum of Contemporary Ideas a year later (1989), I named its Trump-like billionaire benefactors Alice and Abner “Bucky” Cameron after Lewis B Cullman and his extremely thin wife. I also situated the museum on Park Avenue. The Cameron’s, however, made their fortune through the Cameron Oil fields in Alaska - almost as bad as tobacco. 


Lubaina Himid has just won the 2018 Turner Prize. Described by Mark Brown in The Guardian as “the first woman of colour to win and, at 63, is the oldest winner in the prize’s 33-year history after the age restriction introduced in 1991 was lifted this year.” I saw her, and her work, at the opening in Hull a couple of months ago. Hull is nearing the end of its year as UK City of Culture, the reason the Turner Prize has decamped there from London. It now alternates elsewhere every second year, and has already been hosted by Glasgow and Belfast. Tomorrow we should know who the 2021 UK City of Culture will be. Others in the running are Coventry, Paisley, Sunderland, Stoke-on-Trent, and Swansea. Dundee lost out for the even bigger accolade of 2023 European City of Culture, I’m told because of Brexit. However, it does have the new Victoria and Albert Museum outpost in its stunning Darth Vader-like building by Japanese architects Kengo Kuma and Associates. I can’t wait to see its black-slabbed exterior covered in snow. I remember when the Bilbao Guggenheim opened, it doubled its chances of photo-opportunities when it placed Jeff Koons’ Puppy outside the building. Then it tripled them when a rare snowstorm washed a swathe of whiteness across the new building and the giant floral dog.


On the Saturday before Christmas, I catch the train to Birmingham to visit the Ikon Gallery with Charles and Leah Justin. They are over from Melbourne for a conference, combined with gallery visits in London, Belgium, and Tel Aviv. Charles is already hooked on the McMafia TV series that has just hit our screens. 

We spend an hour or so in the Ikon, enjoying the Martin Creed sound work in the lift, but are delighted to find the main exhibition is of the work of Thomas Bock, who was born in Birmingham and trained there as an engraver and painter of miniatures. As the room notes describe he was “found guilty of ‘administering concoctions of certain herbs…with the intent to cause miscarriage’. Sentenced to transportation for fourteen years, he arrived in Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) where he was quickly pressed into service engraving bank notes. An early commission was a number of portraits of captured bushrangers., before and after execution by hanging, including the notorious cannibal Alexander Pierce.”  I was only sorry to have missed the papers given in the gallery two weeks earlier by old friends Jane Stewart, Principal Curator at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery who co-organised the exhibition with Ikon, and Trawlwoolway artist Julie Gough. Both star graduates from the Centre for the Arts in Hobart.

Later, we have a huge lunch in a nearby Wagamama restaurant, and discuss the catalogue essay they have commissioned me to write for their next exhibition, Black and White and Red All Over (28 February to 30 May). It is a monochrome show from their private collection that will include works by Stephen Bram, Magda Cebokli, Craig Easton, Shelley Jardine, Nancy Long, Nakamarra, Daniel Von Sturmer, Yioryios, and two dozen others. 


On the train back to Manchester a text drops into my phone from my brother Robin in Longniddry: “In other news, I'm currently reading Jonathan Walker's  The Blood Tub: a History of the Australian Army at the Battle of Bullecourt where Sandy Watt was injured. Fascinating, but it makes me realise what incredible horrors he must have gone through.” 

Sandy Watt was our maternal grandfather. My mother’s maiden name was Watt and that is my middle name. I and my sister Ann only met one of our four grandparents, our maternal grandmother. Robin met none of them, but if anything is even more curious to learn more. Sandy Watt settled in Sydney during the First World War, and my mother was born in Balmain in 1923, where the family by then had a laundry business (and we possibly still own a parcel of land somewhere in that now very wealthy suburb). But none of this may ever have happened at all. We are still trying to piece together the sequence of events. But we do know that Sandy Watt fought as an ANZAC in Northern France. He was hit by shrapnel when fighting in the trenches and assumed to be dead. He was thrown onto a pile of bodies. Some time later, we also know, his best mate saw his arm move and dragged him out. He arrived back, wounded, at Circular Quay on Christmas Day 1917. Fifteen years later, on Saturday 19 March, 1932, Sandy Watt carried our mother across the Sydney Harbour Bridge on his shoulders. I often wonder if they witnessed that moment when Jack Lang, the premier of New South Wales, was about to cut the ribbon and officially open “The Coathanger”, and he was beaten to it when a man in military uniform - Captain Francis de Groot,  - appeared on horseback like the Lone Ranger and slashed the ribbon with his sword. De Groot belonged to the New Guard, a rightwing paramilitary organisation opposed to the leftwing policies of the state government. By a strange circularity, our mother died on Christmas Day 2006.


It was just before Christmas 2016, and the stores on Princes Street were offering 3 for 2 on hats, scarves, and gloves. I bought up big. It was going to get very cold. An email from close chums Louise Weaver and Peter Ellis in Melbourne, some time later. 

“42 degrees! We stayed in all day as the wind was ferocious (more than 50 bush fires across the state) – cooler now – but can’t open the windows due to the acrid smoke all about the city…”  I sent them some cooling photos of the snow and ice we’ve had across the northern islands of Europe in recent weeks, a prelude to the New Year storms in England and Scotland. The first storm, at its height a hurricane, was called Dylan, and blew past as I was travelling to the wonderful island of Arran on the CalMac ferry with my niece Katie. Was this someone in the Met Office who was a fan of Bob Dylan, tipping his hat to the bard’s great song Hurricane, about the racially motivated false trial and imprisonment of middleweight fighter Rubin “Hurricane” Carter? But when I checked the meteorological website found that this year’s alphabetical list of storms had been chosen from 10,000 suggestions sent in by civilians around the country. Fionn, Georgina, Hector, and Iona, will be the monikers of the next four, ending the year with Tali, Victor, and Winifred, if The Donald doesn’t blow us all up before then, in his own imperfect storm.


The ferry is full of excited travellers, heading across the water for tomorrow’s celebration of Hogmanay. It is warm as a sauna inside the bar where Katie and I grab the last two seats. Everyone is taking off their thermal coats and  thick pullovers.  Outside, on the deck, where I push against the wind for a few minutes, it is dark and icy cold. I can see how you could get blown overboard. I return to the bar and continue reading The Guardian’s regular feature on how a classic rock song was made. In this edition it looks at The Eurythmics Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This). Dave Stewart begins by reflecting, “Annie and I went to Australia with the Tourists, but the band broke up and we ended up in a hotel in Wagga Wagga. I had a little black and yellow synthesiser and was making didgeridoo sounds. When Annie started singing along, we thought: “Maybe we could make weird electronic music?” But you have to have a good video, Dave continues. “I wanted to make a commentary on the music business but also make something a bit performance art – weird and dreamlike. So we mocked up a record-company boardroom in a studio in Wardour Street and put a cow in it, to signify reality. There we were: Annie and I lying on a table, and this cow, which was peeing everywhere.”

On the second half of the page Annie reflects, “Because of lines like ‘Some of them want to use you…some of them want to be abused’, people think it’s about sex or S&M, and it’s not about that at all.” And as for the song’s title? “Apparently, it’s the most misheard lyric in British pop. People think I’m singing: ‘Sweet dreams are made of cheese.’”

Annie Lennox was a few years above my sister at London’s Royal Academy of Music. Both played flute. Halfway between then and now I remember – jetlagged  after a long flight from Tasmania via Sydney and Bangkok - staying at the Chelsea Arts Club in London. I remarked to the barman that the woman playing snooker (on the table that dominates the main bar, and under which I’ve seen drunken patrons so smashed they crawled on their hands and knees to get to the toilets) looked like Annie Lennox. “It is Annie Lennox,” he replied curtly, leaving “you fool” unsaid, but I still heard it. “She lives just up the road. Prefers the company of artists to musicians.”


Walking to the Glenisle Hotel on Arran just before Hogmanay, the  sky growing dark at 4pm, I’m listening to the Pogues on my headphones and staring across the bay to the first flashes of the lighthouse on Holy Isle. Pladda, the first light I worked on is just out of sight. I think of Paul and Katrina Zika from Hobart, about to enjoy their first Hogmanay in Edinburgh with my friends Kate and Michael. Some of us met up a few days ago in the Fruitmarket Gallery at the Jacqueline Donachie exhibition, along with other old Hobart hands Kevin Henderson and Ronnie and Sheena Forbes. The world, and history, sometimes seems a small and very local place, away from the hubris of Donald Trump and the madness of Brexit.   

As the moon rises over Holy Isle, Shane MacGowan - soon, incredibly, to turn 60 and be feted in Dublin - is belting out into my cold ears The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, the Pogue’s great anthem for doomed youth, of young ANZACS returning to Australia from Gallipoli:


And as our ship pulled into Circular Quay

I looked at the place where me legs used to be

And thank Christ there was nobody waiting for me

To grieve and to mourn and to pity.

And the band played Waltzing Matilda

As they carried us down the gangway…



Dr Peter Hill is an artist, writer, and independent curator. He is Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at RMIT University, Melbourne



Peter Hill

C 2018

Next instalment: February1, 2018



Dr Peter Hill is an artist, writer, and independent curator. He is Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at RMIT University, Melbourne


Peter Hill

C 2018

Next instalment: February1, 2018


Travel Diary 5

John Akomfrah, Gilbert and George, Marcel Broodthaers, Susan Philipsz, Jacqueline Donachie  


The weirdest thing happened a few weeks ago. It was so damn strange. On Friday the 17th November, I was woken at the usual time, 5.57 am, by the alarm on my iPhone (just in time for Tweet of the Day on Radio 4, before the early news – not Donald Trump tweeting, but one of over 500 different bird calls, from oyster catchers to flamingos, accompanied by a voice-over from an ornithological enthusiast). I vaguely remembered I was in my brother’s spare bedroom in Longniddry, as I lunged sideways across a pile of books, magazines, and newspaper cuttings scattered across the bed – The Guardian, Art Monthly, Clive James’s North Face of Soho - to hit the Stop button on the phone. And as I turned, it felt as if the room was turning with me. In the weak light of a frosty dawn, I could see the bedroom cupboards and the bookcases follow my rolling motion, and I thought I was going to be sick.  I headed for the bathroom. I was sick. The more I tried to walk in a straight line, the more the room spun left, and then right. I brushed my teeth. Splashed cold water on my face. I stumbled back to bed, holding on to doorframes and wardrobes to steady my path. I knew I’d had some very strange dreams through the night, but couldn’t remember what they were.

I tried to explain it to my brother. “It’s not like flu at all. Or at the other extreme, not like food poisoning. It’s something quite different,” I struggled to explain my symptoms. “I feel seasick.” That was it. I’d felt like this before. Occasionally on the lighthouses, in a small rowing boat in rough weather. A few years later, on a fishing vessel converted to a tourist boat, in the Aegean, sailing from Ios to Santorini. No rain, but blue skies and gale-force winds. A group of English public school kids singing hymns – Rock of Ages, if I remember correctly - to keep their spirits up. Our backpacks and suitcases bounced around the deck. Several of us took turns to hurl over the side.

Back in Longniddry, I spent 24 hours in bed, trying to lie as still as possible.  When I did get up to the bathroom I would dry-retch into the bowl and comfort myself by remembering Billy Connolly sketches involving creme de menthe and finely diced vegetables. On these expeditions to the kitchen or the bathroom it was as if I was a cast member of the TV documentary Trawlermen, rolling and pitching through a cold, dark ocean. All I had to eat was dry crackers. But as midnight approached I felt well enough to sit up in bed and do some Googling. I typed in something like “I feel seasick but I’m on dry land.” And immediately Dr Google came back with a list of headings along the lines of “Feeling seasick, but you’re not on a boat.” That’s it, I thought.

Some entries said that jumping out of bed too quickly could bring on such an event. Or rolling over very quickly in bed, as I had done to switch off my phone.

I continued to scroll down, and soon came to page after page that warned about seasickness being brought on through watching high definition, IMAX movies. Not that I had been. One heading, titled “Why do 3-D Movies make some people hurl?”, began, “Nothing can ruin a good movie faster than the sudden feeling that you're about to throw up. But for many people, the images in 3-D or IMAX movies look so real that they mess up the brain's ability to sort out the signals coming in from the senses, and trigger that queasy feeling. Researchers who study this type of nausea call it cybersickness.” One such is Andrea Bubka, who researches cybersickness at St Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J. She writes, “Dizziness, headaches, and nausea happens because the brain receives conflicting information from the senses.” There are sections further down on the inner ear being confused by IMAX images, and even symptoms of poisoning being induced by big screen content.

And then I remembered. Of course! I’d been so cocooned within the seasick misery of the past twelve hours that I had blocked out what I’d been doing the day before, the week before, the month before. The day before, I’d gone to the Talbot Rice Art Centre within the grand old buildings of The University of Edinburgh. John Akomfrah’s three-screen video work from the 2015 Venice Biennale[1] had been running for a few weeks (and closes on 27 January), but I had still to see it. When I remembered its title – Vertigo Sea – and when I remembered its rolling-through- the-oceans-of-the-world subject matter, in the highest of high definition, I also remembered that this is what I’d been dreaming about all night. The gallery’s biggest space had been fitted out to professional IMAX standards. The sound system was superb. The cocktail colours hallucinogenic in their vividness. For fifty minutes I sat there transfixed, my eyelids hardly blinking. It put me into an almost hypnotic state. What I believe supermarket psychologists call “the blink factor”, where bright lights and thousands of tiny coloured packaging images send shoppers into a trance-like state and a buying frenzy.

John Akomfrah’s early work was with the Black Audio Film Collective. They were formed of six black British and diaspora multi-media artists, active between 1982 and 1998. Akomfrah’s on-going themes deal with cultural amnesia, mortality, and ecological issues. I hadn’t dipped my toes, or rather my consciousness, into Vertigo Sea for long before I realised it was going to be a roller-coaster of a ride. More than a collage, it was a mash-up of archive images from the BBC Natural History Unit and elsewhere, that went well beyond the Blue Planet populism of David Attenborough. Yes, titanic whales dived into the blue deep. But there were also sepia archival footage of slaves in chains, thrown overboard, referencing the Zong Massacre of 1781, basically a genocidal insurance scam. Polar bears were hunted in the Arctic, crashing down on the ice, in time to the hunters’ gunshots. Brigs such as The Caledonia left Arran for Quebec, as part of the “Highland Clearances”. Elsewhere, whole Highland glens were denuded of people and replaced by sheep. Images frequently leap from one screen to another, adding to my sensory confusion. Melville’s Moby Dick, Virginia Wolfe’s To the Lighthouse, Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra are all part of the mix, musically tagged to what the room notes describe as “tragic opera and melancholic requiem”. Central to the whole narrative, like a Caspar David Friedrich character in a tricorn hat, is freed slave Equiano Olaudah whose autobiography about the massacre, published posthumously, helped outlaw the slave trade in 1807. 

When I get up to leave, already a little wobbly on my feet from sensory overload, I notice the room has filled up with people. I was the only one when I first entered. By Monday morning, after a dreamless sleep, I am fine again.


On the 17th October 2015, a date that would have been my father’s 96th birthday, I am in Hobart, Tasmania, for the opening of one of the largest exhibitions ever mounted of the work of Gilbert and George. I’m part of a press contingent at multi-millionaire gambler and polymath David Walsh’s MONA (Museum of Old and New Art[2]). I am also there to interview Olivier Varenne, the exhibition’s curator, for Art Collector magazine. Olivier has possibly the best job in the world. Every year he has a meeting with David Walsh who sends him out with a wish-list, and many millions of dollars, to buy artworks for the collection. Olivier has also co-curated every exhibition there since this totally unique, and mostly underground, museum - roughly twice the size of London’s Saatchi Gallery, and still expanding - opened less than a decade ago: solo shows, most on a vast scale,  by Matthew Barney, Hubert Duprat, Marina Abramovic, Wim Delvoye, Katthy Cavaliere, Celeste Boursier-Mouginot, Christoff Buchel, Cameron Robbins, Jean Hubert Martin’s Theatre of the World that built on his Magiciens de la Terre, and more recently The Museum of Everything. MONA breaks all the rules of curating. An Erwin Wurm red Porsche sits between an Egyptian sarcophagus and a Jean-Michael Basquiat painting. An Anselm Kiefer library of lead books counter-balances a shipping container with video screens linked to Christian Boltanski’s studio in France (the cost of this work rises every day until the artist dies. If Boltanski lives a long life, he becomes very rich. If he dies soon, David Walsh gets a bargain). A digital concrete maze by Brigita Ozelins, near a suite of drawings by Louise Bourgeois. And a Damien Hirst Cholera Seed, listed on the MONA website under the tag “Stuff David bought when he was drunk”. You can wander, in a dazed state, from a Delvoye Cloaca machine (Food in one end, shit out the other - Walsh owns more than any other museum), to an ever-expanding landscape of James Turrell light pavilions. 

On the final day of the weekend’s celebrations, Olivier interviewed Gilbert and George on the stage of a large Hobart theatre. He began by saying that it was the easiest curating job he had ever carried out. “They don’t like curators,” he said in his soft French-Swiss accent. “They want complete control over everything. They work out the hang. The lighting. The catalogue design. There was nothing for me to do…they do everything.” They sat there, nodding agreement, one artist in two bodies, as they see themselves.

Behind them hangs a large, russet banner with just one word on it:


And over the next hour, when not reflecting on their earlier careers - their drinking sculptures, their glitterball performance of Flannagan and Allan’s Underneath the Arches - they talk about their next big project. In 2015, they’ve already started working on it. It is called Fuckosophy.


London: 21 November, 2017

Just over two years later I’m trying to navigate my way through the streets of Bermondsey. My hands too cold to operate the direction-finding duck on my phone, I keep them in my gloves. The kindness of strangers points me along one street after another, past upmarket tanneries decked out with Christmas lighting, and boutique beer emporiums serving over-priced tapas. I’m looking for the still fairly new White Cube gallery. Nowhere near the size of MONA, it’s still one of the world’s largest commercial galleries. It has a central spine that looks like an airport corridor, all marble and expensive neon lighting. At least five huge galleries lead off it, and then others off those. I’m here to see FUCKOSOPHY. But I won’t get in. Somewhere inside, Olivier Varenne is already there. He texted to say he was flying in from Geneva (by private jet to City Airport. Unlike me, with my well-worn Oyster card and even weller-worn shoes that are beginning to let in the icy November rain). I gaze in astonishment at the crowds queuing to get in. Contemporary art in London is still popular, even though the yBas are sadly turning into elderly non-Europeans. Don’t get me started on Brexit and the dumbness of the ruling elite. I count twenty people and visually double them, then quadruple them, until I get to a ballpark figure of between 600 and 800.  Waitpersons with Ned Kelly beards or fake Jimmy Choos, wheel round bins of Beck’s Bier to placate the surprisingly patient horde. It will be too busy to see much inside, I reflect – or should that be fuckosophise -  and head back to Borough tube station. I have to go to Brussels tomorrow to see a Marcel Broodthaers exhibition. I have some emails to send. I’ll return to G&G next week.


Brussels: 25 November: I am staying in a cheap but comfortable hotel not far from Central Station. On my first full day in Tin Tin town, I in fact leave it to make a return day trip to Antwerp. I have made plans to visit the vast factory-converted studios of Tinka Pittoors and Kris Fierens. In reality a “campus” of studios with various functions. I first met Kris and Tinka in Melbourne, when Tinka was in the Biennale of Sydney (2014, in Carriageworks). Curated by Juliana Engberg, the city’s 19th Biennale stretched across the city and the harbour and was titled You Imagine What You Desire. Tinka subsequently gave a lecture on her work at RMIT University. A group of us crossed the road later to the Captain Melville for some art talk.

Back in their living area of the Antwerp studio we eat well. They smoke and drink. I have recently had my second biopsy report back after another endoscopy. The good news is there is no sign of cancer, and I am sharing my gut with a condition known as Barrett’s Oesophagus, which sounds a bit like a kit home that you assemble at your leisure – full of twisting corridors and blocked drains. So I am now a stranger to spicy food, coffee, and alcohol. But my heart seems to be ticking along nicely, and I try to keep my sense of humour on the absurd side of manic. Kris offers me apple juice and we once again talk art, small countries (geographically speaking) – Scotland and Belgium – and big countries, Australia and China.

Tinka tells me she visited Stromness in Orkney on a school trip. Why do I find this surprising? Possibly because I’m used to telling overseas friends (with undisguised missionary zeal) about unique centres of excellence like Stromness and Hobart, and never expect that they’ve already been there.

Later, we drive from their outer suburb into the centre of Antwerp, and visit seven or eight galleries, museums, and churches that are hosting an expanded art event called Ecce Homo: zie de mens (which Dr Google has just translated as “Ecce Gay: see the man”. Sounding a bit like a Lou Reed song from his Transformer period).

Tinka and Kris drop me off near Antwerp’s wonderful railway station – more like a Gothic cathedral. It had been one of those very special days. Followed by another…


The exhibition I am going to see the next morning, in one of Antwerp’s many Royal Museums (in this instance The Magritte Museum)  – for the next issue of MUSEUM magazine – is a double-headed show of the work of Rene Magritte and Marcel Broodthaers, two of Brussels favourite sons. And, with Broodthaers fictitious Museum of the Eagles, a firm favourite of yours truly. An additional treat, it juxtaposes their work against those whom they influenced – Martin Kippenberger, with his take on Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa (I look long and hard at it, and wonder how it would go alongside John Beard’s interpretation off the same work), James Lee Byers, Barbara Kruger, Ed Ruscha, Keith Haring (and his stylised version of The Is Not A Pipe), Robert Gober, Gavin Turk, and Jan Vercryuse.

There’s something of a trend going on in the international world of curating. Find real, but in many cases fairly tenuous, links between two major artists, and the expectations of the bean counters and the sponsorship uber-sponsors (makers of luxury cars and global perfume brands) is that you will more than double the paying customers at the ticket gate. This doubling of personalities also becomes a good way for the press personnel to sell these exhibitions to the media – print, such as it is, web-sites like The Guardian and Huffington Post, and – most prized of all – a 45 second TV zoom-around at the end of the evening news.

Thus, we’ve recently had Melbourne’s NGV International and its Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei blockbuster (little linking them besides a visit by Warhol to Beijing, and a youthful interest in the wigged one’s work by the prolific Chinese dissident (although I once interviewed him in Sydney on the day he announced: “I am not a dissident artist. My government is a dissident government”); Currently at London’s Royal Academy, and Salvador Dali is paired alongside Marcel Duchamp; and far less tenuous than these, a recent commercial gallery twinning of Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin, who did indeed share many commonalities alongside a close friendship. Even as I type I think there might be an article here on new trends in curating. I was, however, later surprised to find there were many strong links between Dali and Duchamp, that a genuine friendship existed, and that minor collaborations occurred, as well as joint holidays in the sun. 

But Magritte and Broodthaers was as close to perfect as you could wish. The imagination of the former interlocked with the absurdity of the latter, creating a cocktail that fizzed and sparkled. There is no need to look for links here, as the ideas of one fitted the other as closely as a bowler hat on the correct-sized head. Broodthaers, the poet turned artist and film-maker, never disguised his veneration for Magritte. And the images in which they appear together have the warmth of a Morecambe and Wise photo-shoot, or a Monty Python reunion. If I could have wished an extra gallery at the end of the show, it would have included a younger generation (now themselves aging) of Flemish and Dutch artists with surreal, superfictional tendencies: Guillaume Bijl, SERVAAS, Seymour Likely, and other internationalists from Amsterdam’s Torch Gallery stable: Res Ingold, Gary Carsley, and the great photographer and film-maker Anton Corbijn.

Broodthaers was an outsider in what was very much an artworld full of insiders. But he went on to create his own inside, and be championed posthumously by, amongst many others, Rosalind Krauss, particularly in her lecture-that-turned-into-a-highly-influential book A Voyage on the North Sea. Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, that puts Broodthaers centre stage in the development of mid-20th century conceptual art.  

Before leaving for a fish finger waffle, I pulled myself gladly back for a third viewing of his La Pluie (project pour un texte) 1969.  Broodthaers is sitting outdoors on a summer’s day, with a bottle of ink and a fountain pen. He begins to write, and it begins to rain. The ink spreads across the paper. The rain becomes a downpour, a deluge as impressive as a Bill Viola high-tech video. Yet this is an absurd thought experiment, as far removed from YouTube shenanigans as a fake moustache is from the Mona Lisa. It is realised on a non-existent budget, and it is  absolutely unforgettable.


A few days later, I’m back in the Borough of Bermondsey. White Cube is almost empty. Gilbert and George’s acid-coloured photo-panels of bearded men and once-blasphemous texts, wallpaper the mega-space. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of statements cover every inch of the central spine, alternating black then red, against white. A tiny fragment, taken at random from the main shard reads:












Has their work developed since I last saw even more of it than this, in Tasmania? Or has it become ever more juvenile and formulaic? They once enjoyed an absurd playfulness that would have impressed Broodthaers, with their drinking sculptures that mixed gin with psychogeography. And their huge, wobbly, drawings that looked like David Hockney with a bad case of delirium tremens. Strangely, I found the joyous absurdity I was itching for in the final room.

A film was playing. But it had not been made by either Gilbert (The Shit) or George (The Cunt) – as they a long time ago anti-Christened themselves. The individual artist known as Gilbert and George, had been interviewed at length, many years earlier, by Theo van Gogh, the Dutch film-maker and descendant of Vincent who, tragically, would be killed by a right wing extremist. That interview was recently turned into a highly polished and professional stage opera and the film version of it runs for over an hour and a half. I thought I’d give it five minutes, as one often unkindly thinks when faced with moving images in a gallery or museum situation. Over an hour later, I was still there, utterly transfixed by the professional tenor and baritone, dressed in G&G-styled tweed suits, and the younger, casually dressed, dude who played the part of Theo. Their voices were sublime, their actions predictable but inspired. Trousers were dropped, bottoms were mooned, upper lips remained at all times stiff. And the band played on…       


No one has ever won the Turner Prize more than once. The Booker Prize is different. J.M. Coetzee won for a second time with Disgrace in 1999, Peter Carey for True History of the Kelly Gang in 2001, and Hilary Mantel for Bring Up the Bodies in 2012. I’m not sure what the rules are for the Turner Prize, except that they changed this year to once again have no age limit attached, and flourished as a result. Should a second nomination for the Turner, and a subsequent win, be possible for someone, my top pick for such an honour would be Susan Philipsz for her astonishing sound and video installation at Gateshead’s Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (until 4 March).

On the surface, it is a pared back, minimalist presentation. A large video screen is suspended within the huge space of Baltic’s main gallery. A young violinist plays her instrument. Sound is channelled out of a dozen or so white speakers that surround the – spectator is not the right word, nor is audience. Perhaps “sensory recipients” – clue solvers, puzzle diviners, cannie thinkers - best describes those of us who wander around the space. Above us, others peer down from the high balcony.

But A Single Voice is far more than this. Dig beneath the minimalist presentation and you are rewarded by a curious narrative, as strange as anything the Kabakovs have concocted at Tate Modern, and a technical achievement of timing and coordination that would impress a NASA moon landing crew. And the lunar analogy is apt. This work has its roots in a lost-in-space scenario that is part Heath Robinson, part fairytale, part punk science fiction. Sounds unite life and death across space, like a last despairing phone call from Grenfell Tower, as fire and flame blackens everything beyond charcoal. 

Harry Martinson might sound like an L.A. gumshoe, traipsing along the boulevard of broken dreams. He was, in fact, a renowned Swedish novelist. He wrote his masterpiece Aniara in the wake of the Soviet Union’s announcement that it had exploded a hydrogen bomb.  Science fiction allows us to imagine things that are not yet possible, such as a luxurious spacecraft that can carry 8000 people with all the creature comforts that might be desired. It also allows disasters to happen. As the 8000 flee the horrors of a nuclear-armed earth to set up a colony on Mars – and as they are bizarrely but very Nordicly celebrating mid-summer - the spaceship malfunctions and they hurtle into deep space.

Karl-Birger Blomdahl – now he really does sound like a Scandie detective, straight out of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo -  turned Harry Martinson’s space tragedy (written in the form of a poem), into an opera with a libretto by Erik Lindegren. It contains jazz, experimental writing, and the latest magnetic tape technologies, which of course would seem very dated to our 21st Century high-tech sensibilities. It premiered at Stockholm’s Royal Swedish Opera House in 1959.

Susan Philipsz has taken the score of Aniara – in truth she has totally deconstructed it – so that the violinist, Leila Akhmetova, only plays the one note every time it is called for by the reworked notation. All of the other notes each have their own speaker aligned around the walls of the Baltic’s massive space. The genius of what Philipsz had done is to take something apart, to atomise it, and then to bring it back together so that it reads (sounds) like a coherent whole.

And she presents a second smaller, but related, artwork in a nearby domestic-sized gallery. Here she gives a spooky a capella rendition of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. I was fortunate to be given a detailed tour of the installation by its curator Allesandro Vincentelli. I did wonder later, however, how much of this apparently simple, but in reality conceptually complex, project I would have understood without the extended exegesis from him. Two weeks later, we would meet again at the opening of Philipsz five-gallery survey at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Belford Road. Either show, in my humble opinion, could see her nominated for the 2018 Turner Prize.


On my day-return from Gateshead to Manchester, and then Bramhall, a catering trolley appears in the train’s narrow, central passageway, plump with sandwiches, heavily-salted crisps, heavily-sugared soft drinks, tea, coffee, and booze. I ask the young woman who is trying to steer it past bulging suitcases and backpacks if she has a fruitcake slice? She looks annoyed and rummages about in a plastic container, and pulls out a fruitcake slice. “Is this what you’re on about?” she demands brusquely. I feel like saying, “Well I wasn’t really on about it. I just wanted to buy one.” But I complete the purchase in silence, and return to reworking my Fake News and Superfictions lecture. As much to keep my own interest alive, as for the audience’s, I try and change the presentation at every outing. The first one on this tour was at the Justin Art House Museum in Melbourne, the second in the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness.

A few days ago I gave it at Laban School of Dance near Greenwich, in the astonishing Herzog and de Meuron building (they who designed Tate Modern), with its vast Michael Craig Martin mural near the entrance. When I’m working on trains (and the Laban lecture I put together on the Eurostar from Brussels to London) and especially when I’m writing, I don’t listen to The Pogues or Tom Waits, or Leonard Cohen, my favourite walking and exercising sounds. I almost exclusively listen to Yo Yo Ma cello music on my phone. Music with no words, from Bach to the Mongolian Silk Road Ensemble, to Ma’s interpretation of Brazilian jazz classics.

It was a small seminar group of Masters dance students that I would be working with at Laban – as opposed to (and the news just pinged into my phone as I was hoofing along there from Cutty Sark station) the mega-lecture in Glasgow I would be giving on 2nd February, for Glasgow School of Art, held in the GFT (Glasgow Film Theatre). Their Friday Forums are modelled on the Hobart Centre for the Arts Friday Forums – two of the world’s best art schools.

I decided to give them two events from my life, likening them to Dickens’ “Best of Times, Worst of Times”, when my six months of working on three Scottish lighthouses in 1973 was followed by the Guildford Pub Bombings, where I was almost blown up that fateful night in October 1974.

I asked them to consider how they would choreograph two such events. I described the nightly routine of keeping the light burning and turning, the alternating four hour watches that we did, and the night-life of migrating birds circling around the light until dawn, while hundreds of rats ran through the triangulated beams on the ground below.

And I asked them to consider the choreography of a bombing. The panic, as people ran in all directions, their screams very different in tone from the screams of the actual dying and the injured. And against that, the choreography of the police and the army, tasked with imposing order on the scene. Fake News touched both experiences. The tall stories that my older, fellow keepers would tell at two in the morning about lighthouse murders and suicides. They sounded true, but I couldn’t be sure. And the disgusting falsification of police evidence that saw four innocent people sent to jail for fourteen years for a crime they did not commit. One of the students had been working on ideas about choreography and trauma, and we got a good debate going.

Afterwards, I joined in a student crit, and realised how much I miss teaching and interacting with young, creative minds. Then, with my friend and colleague Tony Thatcher (we were both external examiners for Goldsmiths as La Salle in Singapore for four years and he runs the Masters program at Laban), we went for lunch with some of the students. I’m already working on another presentation, for photography students in Nottingham, mid-January, where I will look at various Film-and-Photo-Superfiction artists, including Broodthaers, but also Joan Fontcuberta, Alexa Wright, Cindy Sherman, Pat Brassington, General Idea, Robert Zhao, Michael Candy, Patrick Pound, and the Seymour Likely group.


There have been three great exhibition openings in Edinburgh in the past few weeks, including the Susan Philipsz show in the NOW series at SNGMA (which also included works by Michael Armitage, Yto Barrada, Kate Davis,  Hiwa K, and Sara Rose (until 18 February, 2018); Age of Wonder at the Royal Scottish Academy, where I saw so many old friends: Sam Ainsley, who’s been receiving glowing reviews and features for her own solo exhibition in Mull, Joyce Cairns with an astonishing powerful painting upstairs, Sandy Moffat, Callum Innes, Kate Downie, Janet Mackenzie, David Harding, and the evergreen Thomas Joshua Cooper whose remarkable photographs were also exhibited in the final room upstairs. Arthur Watson gave the opening address with passion and eloquence; and Jacqueline Donachie’s complex solo show at the Fruitmarket Gallery, which repays multiple visits, as you tease out the various social and spatial relationships that she has created across both floors. And if you are addicted to podcasts, as I am, listen to Jacqueline Donachie being interviewed about this work on the BBC Radio Scotland Janice Forsyth Show. 2pm on Tuesday 14th November. It’s pure dead brilliant!


[1] The next exhibition at Talbot Rice will be Rachel Maclean’s Spite Your Face (24 February to 5 May, 2018), the Scottish entry at this year’s Venice Biennale (2017) 

[2] Is MONA the most exciting art museum on the planet? It’s hard to quantify these things. But if I knew I was imminently in danger of dying and could only visit one museum before I slipped my mortal coil, then that is where I would elect to go – ahead of Tate Modern, the various Guggenheims, or the Pompidou Centre. What’s more, I could leave my ashes there (hidden behind velvet curtains) as part of an ongoing artwork on the ground floor, which gives new meaning to doing an inter(n)ship.



Dr Peter Hill is an artist, writer, and independent curator. He is Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at RMIT University, Melbourne



Peter Hill

C 2017

Next installment: January 1st, 2018








Travel Diary 4

Art Under Canvas: Frieze Art Fair, and Frieze Masters

The internet, as we all know, is a great way to keep in touch with friends and fellow-travellers. A few beautifully written vignettes have dropped into my mailbox recently, like digital postcards from fellow nomads. From Laura in the States:

“It is evening in New York and I’m writing from my home in Chinatown (finally got a permanent place and feel a bit more settled). It’s rainy this evening and a neon sign for a Chinese dumpling restaurant is glowing outside my window: green, blue, yellow, hot pink.”

From Grant in Barcelona:

“Hola Pete, My warmest regards from The Capital of the Independent Republic of Catalunya. Or maybe from plain old Spain? I write to you, of course,

from Barcelona. Free republic or not, Barcelona is as beautiful as ever,

and I am very happy to be here.”

And from Mick in Indonesia:

“I'm on an eight hour train journey across Java. Quite wonderful. I've done this trip six times before, but almost always at night. So now I can appreciate the tropical landscape much more. Endless rice paddies, coconut and banana palms, vast rivers and towering volcanoes. Searing sunlight. Later this afternoon I'll arrive in Jakarta, and Restu's driver will take me to her sumptuous villa at Bogor.

I salvaged all my work from the now abandoned studio in Yogyakarta and put it in a safe storage facility. This includes the work I've made for you for the Tropical Hot Dog Night exhibition and website. I also had beers with Carlos the spy last night. Always entertaining.”



If the Pogues’ Rum Sodomy and the Lash is my music of choice for the start of a journey – when the plane, train, ferry sets off – then Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs is what I play on my early morning walks, when I am based in one place for any length of time, or when I have arrived in a new destination. The first track, Singapore, has a quick beat that fits perfectly with a fast, pre-dawn stride:


We sail tonight for Singapore

Don’t fall asleep while you’re ashore…


It has a menacing, Kurt Weill-meets-Bertolt Brecht feel to it, full of cut-up imagery and wonderful rhyming couplets:


The Captain is a one-eyed dwarf

He’s rolling dice along the wharf

In the land of the blind

The one-eyed man is King


It also makes me think, every morning, of all my good friends in Singapore, Adeline Kueh, Ian Woo, Hazel Lim, Bala Starr, Milenko, Venka, Chandra, Steve, and the rest of the crew from La Salle and Goldsmiths. The best time to play it is, of course, when I’m in Singapore itself. I walk up to the lighthouse, on the hill near the reservoir, every morning. The temperature is already 27 degrees at

Mick, who sent me the above email from the Java train, is always fond of telling landscape painting students “If you keep walking straight ahead, you’ll eventually go right around the planet and come back to where you started.” I think about him, as I walk to Bramhall station for the London train and the Frieze art fair, listening to Tom Waits sing the same sentiments from Rain Dogs.


“They say if you get far enough away,

You’ll be on your way back home”



After a quick change of platform at Stockport, I’m on the Manchester to London Virgin Express, for the opening of the Frieze art fair in Regent’s Park. What will it be like? Over the years of travelling, instead of sensibly paying off a mortgage, I’ve recklessly visited most of the major art fairs, from Cologne (dominant in the 1980s, less so now. Cologne then saw itself as a rival to Manhattan, and London was known for its art magazines rather than its yBas), to Basel (hard to fail there, with so many Swiss billionaires living in close proximity to the convention centre. Their starchitect-designed homes built above nuclear bunkers with bomb-proof viewing rooms for their Picassos, Trockels, and Andy Warhols), Shanghai, Los Angeles, Frankfurt, and Chicago (one of the most romantic art fairs, in a noir-ish sort of way, down in the old Navy Piers, where several of the classic James Cagney movies were shot). But I’ve never been to Frieze. This omission is partly due to the academic teaching year in Australia.  It’s never been possible to go.

It was in Australia, to be precise Hobart, Tasmania, (one of my two favourite places on the planet, along with Stromness in the Orkney Islands. But don’t get me started, I could bore you for hours), that I first started building fictional art fair booths as artworks. Why did I do this? It was partly because I missed their more-interesting–than–a-museum carapace of new money and reckless braggadocio. While the artist within me was appalled by the “money is everything” ethos of these art fairs’ very existence - the fawning, the schmoozing, the hierarchies of greed and desperation - the novelist in me, by contrast, saw them as fertile ground for plot, characterisation, and murder. Perhaps a serial killer? Twelve art fairs; twelve months; twelve murders; twelve chapters; twelve gallery installations.

I settle down with my decaf coffee. As The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn rattles through my head, I flick through the pile of newspapers I’ve bought in the small, but well-stocked, W.H. Smith’s outlet on Platform 3. Most, either in the news or arts section, are previewing Frieze.





Unlike me, these London-based art writers have probably been to every

iteration [1]and some of them have become a tad jaded.

There were, I knew, two art fairs held simultaneously in Regent’s Park, and both are children who have outgrown their parents, in the form of the magazine Frieze, which spawned them. One fair is simply called Frieze, and hosts commercial galleries from around the world, who spend kings’ ransoms to book a space about half the size of a tennis court, hotel accommodation in central London, freight costs to bring work from New York, Sydney, Dublin, Hong Kong, and Dubai. Then there are the airfares for the gallery staff, ranging from steerage to First Class, depending on the wealth of the gallery and the status of the employee. You have to sell at least one Sean Scully painting, three Sarah Lucas sculptures, or have a totally sold out stand by an “emerging” artist, to start to recoup your costs. Some of the biggest galleries, like the ubiquitous Gagosian, go through this commercial dance almost every month of the year. Last time I counted, he had sixteen galleries around the world[2] (five in New York alone). For the smaller galleries, those existing on struggle-street and who have often travelled the greatest distance, there’s the added cost of psychiatric counselling when they do get back home and have lost so much money the gallery is on the point of bankruptcy. 

 The other art fair is called Frieze Masters, and is a mix of historical and modern (as opposed to contemporary). There you will see a late Picasso hanging across from a wonderful 16th century wood-carving of a tearful Madonna, with human hair for eyelashes, and tiny glass tears glued to her cheeks. Astonishingly beautiful, poignant, and five hundred years ahead of its time. Or you are as likely to see the other Madonna, the rock star, buying an edition-of-one Cindy Sherman photograph from her early black and white period, or a Julian Schnabel broken plate-and-smear painting, big as the side of a Bunnings shed.

Frieze Masters has its own eponymously-named magazine, and I wish it was published once a month rather than once a year. Edited by the wonderful Jennifer Higgie, a graduate of Melbourne’s VCA, who has an intelligently global view of the artworld having lived on both sides of the planet rather than dropped in, or passed through. Why do I like it so much? Partly for the reason I am such a fan of David Walsh’s MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) in Tasmania. It mixes the ancient and the modern, and if you throw its sister publication Frieze into the mix, you have the contemporary as well. The great Artscribe magazine used to be a bit like that, under some of its many editors. A well-researched and academically footnoted article on Tiepolo might sit between an interview with Annette Messager, and a centre-page-spread of “artist pages” created for the magazine by Marlene Dumas.  


Frieze Masters is a twenty-minute walk away, across to the other side of Regent’s Park, past Frieze Sculpture, still running since I viewed it three months ago (5 July – 8 October) and curated for Frieze by Clare Lilley, Director of Programmes at the renowned Yorkshire Sculpture Park.[3] Memories of families picnicking in the sunshine, surrounded by sculptures flown in from around the world, and some from closer to home: Bernar Venet, Urs Fischer, Ugo Rondinone, Tony Cragg, Takuro Kuwata, Reza Aramesh, Rasheed Araeen, Michael Craig-Martin, Jaume Plensa, KAWS, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Eduardo Paolozzi, Anthony Caro, Miquel Barceló, Gary Hume, Alicja Kwade, Mimmo Paladino, and Emily Young.

How good would works from Australia and New Zealand look here? Bronwyn Oliver, Michael Parekowhai, Glen Clarke, Patricia Piccinini…


As I “interrogated” today’s press coverage of Frieze, from the window seat of my train, I thought back a few weeks to the Edinburgh International Book Festival, still the largest, and most fun, of its kind in the world. Most of it takes place in the large green paddock that is Charlotte Square, at the New Town end of George Street, a paperback’s throw from The Oxford Bar, where John Rebus, and his creator Ian Rankin, are known to sink a pint or three.  In the late 1980s, I used to live five minutes from there, in Rose Street Lane (in a flat with Callum Innes, his soon to be wife Heidi, and Kevin Henderson), and vaguely remember spending an evening in The Ox with Alan Johnstone and Donald Judd. The latter was on one of his frequent trips to Scotland (he was passionate about all things Scottish: whisky, tartan {the grid}, and bagpipes) to give a lecture at the Fruitmarket Gallery on “Art and Money”, both of which he knew more than most about. Come closing time, we were “locked in” and continued our banter until about three in the morning. It was one damn whisky after another. I can’t remember – and couldn’t the next day – what we talked about, vague ghost-like memories of his art foundation in Marfa Texas, where he is now buried, in a simple grave with a torn piece of tartan marking the earth mound.  But I knew it was one of those great art world conversations, forever “locked in” to my unconscious.

So as my Virgin train raced through Stoke on Trent, currently hosting the British Ceramics Biennial, and southwards to Crewe, I had an aerial picture in my head of the dozen or so separate marquees that made up the Charlotte Square book festival site. Would Frieze be like that, I wondered? But how could you secure upwards of a billion pounds worth of artworks, and exhibit them to museum quality standards, safe from the sort of hurricane that blew through London exactly thirty years ago?


A quick toilet break before reading The Guardian’s double review of the Frieze extravaganza. I shimmy down the aisle and try to find my balance in the tiny cubicle, like a drunken trawlerman. As the water in the bowl rolled and splashed in time with the train’s erratic movement, a perky female voice – coming from a concealed speaker – instructed me, in a sing-song voice, to “Please do not flush: Nappies, sanitary towels, paper towels, gum, old phones, unpaid bills, junk mail, your ex’s sweater, hopes, dreams or goldfish down this toilet.” The same was, I saw, repeated on the underside of the toilet lid. Good to see Virgin flush with that sense of humour that its be(k)nighted founder espouses. I hope the same lightness of touch is retained when Jeremy Corbyn re-nationalises the railways, abolishes student fees, and provides every worker with a dacha on the former Queen’s former estates, that currently make up a large percentage of these islands.


The Guardian, I soon see as I settle back down, has given Jonathan Jones the job of reviewing last night’s VIP opening of Frieze contemporary, while Adrian Searle has been apportioned Frieze Masters. Jones kicks off by looking at those who are supposedly looking at the art:

“Look around, at all these stupendously well-clad and manicured VIPs, and you start spotting collectors: that guy chomping on an unlit cigar as he eyes a painting [I would spot him too, later that afternoon]; that slim well-heeled young couple who look as if they own a large chunk of the internet. What has brought such a gathering of wealth to Regent’s Park? Well, Frieze London is the fair that defines the new. It offers the most complete picture of the art of our time. What a dismal prospect,” he changes down a gear or two, “for if this is the new, the new is starting to look old and jaded.” And this is where he gets stuck into analyzing what I would call a “Realist Superfiction”, as opposed to the “Poetic” variety.

“Hauser and Wirth have wittily contrived to show all their artists – from Louise Bourgeois to Phyllida Barlow – in a fake museum complete with fading old typed labels and a gift shop that sells postcards and souvenirs. This museum has been put together with the classics professor Mary Beard. There are just two problems. One is that Damien Hirst has already done the same thing, on a more outrageous scale, at this year’s Venice Biennale. The second is that cramming these modern artists into a deliberately archaic museum saps their individuality. It’s not just boring, it’s meaningless…The same can be said of the ‘curated’ exhibition, spread across several galleries, which purports to explore the history of feminist art. It’s called Sex Work and has a lot of full-on anatomical images by the likes of Marilyn Minter and Penny Slinger. Where is the new in this look back at 40-year old radical art?” Two hours later - having booked into my cheap and cheerful hotel The Kings Cross Inn (Forty quid a night. Six quid breakfast in the dark basement. Don’t get a room beside the lift) immediately opposite the station  - I would stand in the same spot Jones was describing and wonder if we were both looking at the same exhibits? Jan Dalley, The Financial Times doughty arts editor, had already given a more engaged reading of this exhibition within an exhibition. “Apart from the question of whether there’s much of a market for this art,” she writes in a 14-page “Collecting” supplement, mostly centered on Frieze and other pan-London art events, “Sex Work is powerfully in tune with a wider trend of rediscovering older women artists [as opposed to the yBas of the 90s]. In the past few years OWAs have been making a vigorous comeback: an extreme example is Carmen Herrera, who last year opened Lisson’s New York gallery with her first solo show in many decades – at the amazing age of 101. Others, such as Bridget Riley (86, recently picked up by mega-gallery David Zwirner), Gillian Ayres (87, currently conquering China) or Geta Bratescu (91, representing her native Romania at this year’s Venice Biennale) display the U-shaped career typical of so many women in the creative arts: a high of early success, followed by long years in the middle-aged dip, re-emerging (longevity permitting) for a brilliant late run.” After focusing on the huge variety of the work, cut loose from gender and age, she concludes that this, “only shows us what we already know. Women are capable of anything.”


Adrian Searle obviously had a far more satisfying time at Frieze Masters, than did Jonathan Jones at Frieze , as you can tell from his lead paragraph.

“I can’t use the word masterpiece except in a spooky Darth Vader voice. Nevertheless, there are always great things at Frieze Masters, an offshoot that is a great deal more navigable than the main show’s overcrowded aisles and stands. Every few feet there is something to arrest you, by both the living and the dead. Something ravishing, something ribald, something risible, something old, something even older. You want religion? Take your pick, from crucifixions to ancient Egyptians, from worm-eaten bird-gods to a Cycladic idol that would have made Brancusi jealous. We’ve got Brancusi, too, as well as oodles of Basquiat and lots of Louise Bourgeois.”

I spent the remains of my first day going round the contemporary Frieze “tent”. Frieze masters would come on the morrow. And I quickly answered my question of whether the event would be held in a series of marquees like the Edinburgh Book Festival. Not at all. Think of a vast aircraft hangar, or an Amazon warehouse, solid and immovable against the strongest winds. Now double it, and that is the first Frieze venue. Frieze Masters, by contrast, is more like a single vast hangar, the lighting dimmer, less like a shouty supermarket. But they are both equipped with restaurants, cafes, bars, press offices, and performance spaces. The uni-sex toilets (2017 is the year we all waved goodbye to gender, as quickly as we pulled down statues to our colonial pasts) were six-star hotel standard, I imagine like the VIP areas of Glastonbury or Burning Man Festival. Fitting, certainly, for hedge fund billionaires and wealthy BBC talk show hosts. But what of the artists, in their fringe-dwelling studios, just-about-surviving, and nourishing themselves on creativity. Most don’t need to worry about their art student debt as they’ll never reach the bottom rung of paying it off.

Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller, who came to fame with his The Battle of Orgreave (2001), a recreation of the 1984 miner’s strike, probably spoke for many young artists emerging into the light of the art world’s uber-commercial fairs, when he told Sarah Thornton, author of the page-turner of a book Seven Days in the Art World, at the Basil Art Fair,

 “It’s been a funny day, just floating about. It’s chaotic, bewildering. The amount of art in the world is a bit depressing. The worst of it looks like art, but it’s not. It is stuff cynically made for a certain type of collector. I’m not a very financially motivated person. My art is almost unsellable.” I bet its not. Go-go Gagosian, who started his career selling posters on Hollywood Boulevard, could find a way of selling thin air to artworld fat cats. He probably has already.


As I wander round Frieze, I pick up brochures, maps, and lecture programs to send to Charles and Leah Justin, founders of the wonderful Justin Art House Museum in Prahran, Melbourne, where my Fake News and Superfictions lecture tour began at the end of May. (I’ve also got a separate bag of goodies to send to artist friends Louise Weaver and Peter Ellis in Melbourne.)

Charles Justin is Chair of the recently reorganised Melbourne Art Fair, risen Lazarus-like from its near-death experience in 2016, and now to be ensconced in a pop-up venue next door to the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art next year.

"Everyone came to the realisation,” Charles told Fairfax newspapers recently, “all the stakeholders from government through to the artists, that they missed it ... that the art fair was an important ingredient of our cultural landscape and they wanted it back."

Frieze had its personal highlights, from seeing new work by Callum Innes at Firth Street gallery, to meeting up with my old dealer friend Hubert Winter from Vienna in the SEX WORK section, showing the important work of the late Birgit Jurgenson. But the most dynamic part – called Focus (and colour-coded blue; each of the many sections was found easily on the map by colour references) - was the large area of invited “emerging” galleries from around the world at the far end of the vast marquee: Galerie Jaqueline Martins, from Sao Paulo; Frutta from Rome; Deborah Shamoni from Munich; Koppe Astner from Glasgow; 47 Canal from New York; Revolver Galerie from Lima; The Sunday Painter from London; blank from Cape Town; Truth and Consequences from Geneva; Rob Tufnell from Cologne; Various Small Fires from Los Angeles; Sultana from Paris…and many more.

It was in the midst of all this that I bumped into Amanda Rowell from Sydney, owner and director of The Commercial gallery. It turns out she too is on the board of the Melbourne Art Fair and was also collecting information for Charles Justin. One of her artists, Agathe Goth-Snape, had just completed a daily performance on the spot where we were standing. Called Every Artist Remembered, it was billed as “a series of informal and unrehearsed conversations between Gothe-Snape and invited artists who each sit for a one-on-one two-hour session in front of a live audience.”


The second day I made it across the park to Frieze Masters, and spent six hours with my friend Annie, exploring the wonders of the Kasbah. It really was an astonishing range of artworks. I enjoy looking at art with sculptors, always working out how things have been made, how they fit together, not worrying if the object is three thousand years old, or is three days out of the welders or the glass factory.

I spotted a tangerine-coloured neon tube, hanging at a forty-five degree angle in David Zwirner’s booth. In the back of my mind – from my pre-fair reading on the train - I remembered that one of the galleries would be selling the very first neon piece made by Dan Flavin. I sidled across to the sales person on the desk and asked if this was it. It was. “How much would I pay for that?” I asked, not pretending for a moment that I would be able to afford it.

“It’s 6.5 million,” was the brief response, snapped with crocodile teeth. I didn’t even bother to ask whether dollars or pounds. And as I swung away, I glimpsed in the far, far distance a tiny, framed painting of what looked like Uluru, glowing ochre against a green sky. I hadn’t seen as much Australian art as I’d hoped over the past few days, and went across for a closer look. Who was it by? Storrier? Makin? Olsen? But the closer I got, the more it changed. Up close, it revealed itself as an early Mondrian, a haystack at sunset with a Close Encounters of the Third Kind greenish glow behind it. Painted long before he discovered the addictive pleasures of the grid.


[1] Iteration: currently a favourite art world term that I wouldn’t be seen dead using in print. It’s up there with “interrogate”, rather than interview, or inquire. Why interrogate? Sounds a bit brutal. Art theory meets fascist torture techniques.

[2] While in London I visited the most recent of his galleries, in Grosvenor Hill. It was a total refurbishment of the former Savills building, the Mayfair real estate company, with even more global tentacles than Gagosian. Across several galleries I pondered the new works of Brice Marden (still undecided. I wasn’t immediately excited as I had been when I first saw his calligraphic “stick paintings”)

[3] I’ve been fortunate enough to see so much great art in London over the past few months, and hardly written about any of it yet, that I think it calls for a separate Diary entry of its own.


Dr Peter Hill is an artist, writer, and independent curator. He is Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at RMIT University, Melbourne



Peter Hill

C 2017

Next installment: December 1, 2017




Travel Diary 3

Never Ignore a Chest Pain


As previously reported, Jon Cattapan had found accommodation for us in Venice at The Palazzo Contarini Della Porta Di Ferro. It’s in the Castello district, midway between San Marco and the Arsenale. Ideal for reaching all parts of the Biennale.

We spent about five days there, and of an evening would stroll down to the waterfront bars, ten minutes from our hotel, and discuss what we’d seen that day. Our favourite bar was right beside the Ospedale (Hospital) vaporetto stop, and the hospital itself. Water-ambulances zipped in and out, like strangely liveried insects, across the flat blue waters of the lagoon. Jon took some photographs of them for his son Luca. I wondered what it would be like in the hospital above us, little realising that in a few weeks time, back in Edinburgh, I would be rushed to hospital in an ambulance, lying backwards on a gurney with no windows, and a whole new adventure would begin.


Taking our wine to an outdoor table, we talked about how we’d enjoyed Xavier Veilhan, in the French pavilion. He’d turned the space into a kind of punk mash-up of a recording studio-cum-participatory sound installation, the walls a maze-like construction of untreated timber. Next door, Phyllida Barlow had an astonishing installation in the UK pavilion –vast sculptures that seemed to roam through the space like giants, and only weakened by the external works with which she’d framed the entrance to the building, looking more like a Foundation Course project, I thought. But inside – wonderful, breath-taking work, the sculptural equivalent of Magic Realism.

Completing the triumvirate at the top of the upward-sloping lawn was Germany (never uncontroversial) with Anne Imhof. Hundreds of people were queuing to get in. It was 37 degrees. Life was too short, and Venice too big; we settled for peering through a side window and seeing the artist, or rather one of her performers, crouched high in the top corner of the building on a specially built pelmet, looking like a demented mountaineer, or parcour enthusiast, in a crouching-tiger stance. I understood the complexity and detail of this work – Faust – better, when I viewed the many YouTube submissions that keep being added to the spider web, each showing different, nuanced, aspects of the whole. Consumed in fragments, it became a collage of acrobatics, opera, deconstructed sculptural props, and daring but intelligent changes to the fabric of the building. Where Hans Haacke, many biennales ago, had smashed the floor of the pavilion to rubble, Imhof built a fake glass or Perspex floor, opening up above-and-below possibilities for extending the work and encouraging chance reflections of the crowds passing through. Elsewhere, two Doberman pinchers prowled and threatened, like dark Giorgione storm clouds.  This work won the Golden Lion for best pavilion, the jury declaring it, in bureaucratic art-speak, “a powerful and disturbing installation that poses urgent questions about our time.” Imhof also won the 2017 Absolut Art Award, which probably is more fun and doubtless involves jeroboams of vodka, and young waitpersons wearing leather uniforms and Venetian masks.


My own contenders for the Golden Lion included Mark Bradford’s expanded vision of painting, in the American Pavilion. Titled Tomorrow Is Another Day, it included abject detritus spread liberally, and deliberately, about the exterior of the building. Then there was Bosnia’s University of Disaster by Radenko Milak; Austria’s Erwin Wurm; and – if collateral events could be considered – two totally different, but equally mesmerising, video installations. Shirin Neshat’s The Home of My Eyes is filmed in the rich black and white to which we’ve become accustomed. Two women, one older, one younger, journey across what appears to be a desert, to confront each other in the centre. As often happens with video installations, I entered it (in the palatial setting of the Museo Correr, at the good- ice-cream-end of San Marco) in the middle of the piece, and was glad I stayed to the end, and then stayed yet longer for the beginning, and thus saw the emotive music hall act that is a precursor to the desert landscape. Equally astonishing was the work of Scottish artist Rachel Maclean, set within the Church of Santa Caterina. Spite Your Face is full of more gold and glitz than Trump Towers, and is a retelling of the Pinocchio story with Maclean (who trained as a painter at Edinburgh College of Art) acting in all the roles and referencing the madness of Trump and Brexit. Her/his nose grows bigger and bigger, as do the lies, until it reaches Xtra Large dildo-like proportions, and is massaged (in)appropriately.  It is an exquisite meditation on what Maclean, in a recent interview, calls “the power of a narrative over a truth.” The production values, if we’re to get technical, were better than Hollywood on a fraction of the budget.


One evening, in our favourite bar, opposite Poveglia, The Island of the Dead, used variously as a quarantine station for plague ships, and later as an asylum, Jon and I discussed Tracey Moffat’s highly polished and ambitious work in the Australian Pavilion. I have often said I thought that the Australia Council sends absolutely the right artists to the Venice Biennale, but sends them five or even ten years too late. For the past decade, over four or five biennales, I have previewed the work all the Australians for Artpress magazine in Paris: Lyndal Jones, Hany Armanious, Simryn Gill, Fiona Hall, Tracey Moffatt, and others. It’s a difficult task, writing about work you haven’t seen, and in some cases work that hasn’t yet been made. So I attempt to put the artist’s previous work in context with new work they are planning for Venice.

But I’ve consistently felt each of those artists would have fitted the contemporary debate better, if exhibited sooner. For me, the most successful Australian artist to have made a project during the Venice Biennale was Laresa Kosloff in 2011, when she made a psychogeographic exploration of Venice, as my old friend - and founding member of the Situationist Internationale - Ralph Rumney did nearly sixty years ago. But in Laresa’s case she was on crutches, with her leg in a plaster (a Superfiction, of course), and had her cast (the work was called Cast) signed by artists she had chance meetings with, along the Grand Canal, or across the Giardini. A quick consultation with Dr Google shows me that those artists included:  Jennifer Allora, Hany Armanious, Richard Bell, Karla Black, Christian Boltanski, Lyndell Brown and Charles Green, Mikala Dwyer, Dora Garcia, Thomas Hirschhorn, Anastasia Klose, David Noonan, Michael, Parekowhai, Grayson Perry, Stuart Ringholt, Renee So, Kathy Temin, Luc Tuymans, Angel Vergara, and Catherine de Zegher. But Laresa wasn’t in the Australian Pavilion. It was part of a much larger, pop-up project, organised by Juliana Engberg and ACCA.  


Jon and I both thought Tracey should have been seen here at the time she made her great Laudanum series in 1998, with its references to Nosferatu, Pauline Réage’s The Story of O with its sadomasochistic master-servant relationship that, of course, also references the coloniser and the colonised. Or in 2001, when she made her brilliant work Fourth. I once interviewed her for The Sydney Morning Herald, in those great days when newspapers were newspapers, and large enough to block out the sun when held at arms’ length, sitting at the outdoor café of the MCA gazing across at the Opera House – she rummaging for her cigarettes, me slipping new batteries into my Sony cassette recorder. She tells the story of Fourth so well, in her own words, that it is worth quoting at length from her dealer Roslyn Oxley’s press release of August 2, 2001:

“The story behind my latest photo series Fourth begins in 1997. It was the year that I started to have a lot of international shows of my photography and films. I was told that someone from the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games Committee had telephoned and asked about the possibility of me being available as the ‘official photographer’ for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. I expressed interest, but after a while I didn’t hear back from them. This didn’t disappoint me; it only got my imagination going. I fantasised that if I really were to be the ‘official photographer’ for the Sydney 2000 Olympics I would photograph the sporting events with my own take on it all - I would photograph the losers.

I imagined myself walking into the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games committee offices, plonking a stack of photographs on their desk saying, “This is what I saw!” They would be looking at images of every athlete who came last. I figured that much of the press would be full of fabulous winners, splashed across the front pages of newspapers all around the world. Wouldn’t it be more wonderful instead to see images of the brilliant athletes who didn’t make it? Of course, none of this happened. To begin with I can barely use a camera with a telephoto lens, let alone push for a spot in the ‘press pit’ along with thousands of sports photographers from around the world, crowding together to photograph the drama of the Olympic Games.

“So, at home, alone, in September 2000, there was just me and the television coverage of the Games. It was then that I narrowed my interest down to the position of Fourth. What could be more tragic than coming Fourth in the final of an Olympic games race? It’s sadder than coming last because when you come Fourth you have just missed out on a medal. You almost made it, but you just missed out. Fourth means that you are almost good. Not the worst (which has its own perverted glamour) but almost. Almost a star!”

So yes, I would have preferred to see Tracey in the 2001 Venice Biennale, where she could have exhibited Fourth alongside Laudanum. And Laresa Kosloff, in the pavilion, in 2011. And who would I have chosen for 2017? Undoubtedly Michael Candy, with his Digital Empathy Device (2016). To see Pat Brassington, with her darkly surreal images, would make me happy in any year. Her work is timeless. The big problem, of course, is navigating the bureaucrats, the sponsors, the donors, and the risk-averse.


One of the great joys of travel, which I will write about in a later diary, is going to a city for one event – in this case the Venice Biennale – and discovering that there is something even more enticing happening that you hadn’t heard about. The sort of exhibition – it is usually painting that does it for me – that has me hopping about in excitement and making incomprehensible grunts of appreciation. An Ur-moment, free of language and knowledge, that can only be described as transcendent.

And so it was that Jon Cattapan told me, shortly after he met me off the vaporetto  at Ospedale, blazing noon-day sun, and me with my over-heavy Samsonite suitcase, now nicknamed Delilah – Jon said the magic words, “There’s an exhibition of Phillip Guston’s late works on at the Gallerie dell Accademia. I saw it yesterday. It’s about the influence of poets on his life and work. A really fantastic show, my friend. Don’t miss it.”

I had to go. Three years ago I’d made a twelve-hour round trip by train from Paris to Frankfurt to see a totally different Guston show, and had two hours in the gallery between the long rail journey back to The City of Light, and our vast apartment in a graffiti-covered block near the National Library, rented from old friends Bill and Anne Gregory of Annandale Galleries in Sydney.  


But it would be another three days before I got to Guston. There was so much else to see in the Biennale itself. And the next day, being a Monday, everything was closed.

On Tuesday, well fed, and rested from the previous night, we set off at a cracking pace. Most of the day was taken up at the Giardini and the above-mentioned National Pavilions, spread across the gardens alongside the vast exhibition space (that seemed sparsely populated with excitement-hopping art) in which the Biennale Director, Christine Macel, had curated her own exhibition, with less high points than were to be found in the nearby Arsenale.


The Venice Biennale is a mix of new ideas framed within old architecture and ancient narratives. A mix of what, in the early 1980s I rather grandly called Synthetic Modernism, bringing together the most tenable elements of Modernism with those of Postmodernsim. But few ideas are ever really new, as I found out when I finally made it to the Guston exhibition. “When you are there,” Jon called out to me as I was setting off, “have a look upstairs at the restored Hieronymus Bosch paintings. They’re amazing.” And the work I saw there would involuntarily flip my mind back to, of all things, the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest.


Gender has now become totally synthetic. Pronouns have an elasticity about them that can come back to whack you in the face if you get them wrong. When Austrian-born Thomas Neuwirth transitioned into Conchita Wurst, it was the first step towards winning that contest, with the song Rise Like A Phoenix, the chorus of which goes something like:


Rise like a phoenix

Out of the ashes seeking rather than vengeance

Retribution you were warned

Once I’m transformed

Once I’m reborn


She inhabits a body and fashion sense based on his teenage idol Victoria Beckham, and a Robin Hood beard he grows with pride, but not total originality, as The Cockettes in San Francisco, and the Bloolips in London were doing this back in the 1970s. Neuwirth has got the pronoun problem sussed - and I’m trying to stick to his rules - in a way that is both sensible and logical (and the two don’t always go together). He uses masculine pronouns when referring to Tom Neuwirth, and feminine pronouns to describe Conchita Wurst. Delving deeper online I discover that “The name ‘Conchita’ has been adopted from a Cuban friend of his,” and in an interview “he also explained that conchita is Spanish slang for vagina, and Wurst is German slang for penis.” After their Eurovision win, other huge gigs followed, at the European Parliament, the United Nations, and the Sydney Opera House. Graham Norton commented, “it seems like Eurovision has done something that matters just a little bit."

Neuwirth does not identify as a Trans woman, but as a gay man and drag queen. Dr Google takes us deeper into the realm of the superfiction when (God! is Google a he or a she?! I’m drowning in a sea of pronouns) s/he tells us, “Neuwirth created a fictional back story for the Wurst character, claiming that she was born in the mountains of Colombia and is married to the French burlesque dancer Jacques Patriaque, a real individual who is a friend of Neuwirth's. He compared the use of the character to American singer Beyonce’s adoption of the Sasha Fierce alter ego, or singer Lady Gaga’s use of various costumes, being a way to protect Neuwirth's own private life.”

But if you think, as I did, that human gender has only recently entered into the realm of beards and dresses, come with me on a dérive through the laneways and plazas of Venice, to the Gallerie Dell’Accademia Di Venezia where Philip Guston and the Poets was on show. I hadn’t a clue where I was going. This is because Jon had just given me a lesson in using the talking voice option on Google Maps, and I had added my own refinement with my one luxury on this planet, my can’t-afford-it-but-I’ll-buy-it-anyawy Bose noise-cancelling headphones (with Bluetooth). I must have looked odd to any second or third parties, a small elderly gent, lobster pink in the mid-summer sun, with a pair of grey cans clamped to his even greyer head. Suddenly a young woman, who I shall call Conchita for the sake of continuity, was inside that head, in stereo, giving me nuanced instructions in what I took to be a Brooklyn accent:

“Go straight to the end of Casa Leonardo, and veer slightly to the left once you enter San Marco. Keep walking until you come to the Museo Correr. Walk along the left-hand side of the museum. Now go across the bridge and continue for fifty metres along the canal to…” And so it went on. Conchita didn’t quite take me in through someone’s front door, past Nonna shelling peas at the sink, and out the back door. But she did take me down the narrowest and darkest of alleyways, then out into blazing sunshine …another curving bridge…another green canal with a happy accordionist floating by, day-dreaming about Saturday’s football. When she and I started out on the journey, I began by listening to her voice and, simultaneously, trying to watch the cursor on my iPhone veer like a compass needle, similar to the symbol of an Uber car when it has got your booking and has to make a U-turn to pick you up.  With heatstroke only another sunny plaza away, I started free-associating and wondered if there were Uber-gondolas. I’d just seen a gondola hearse pass under yet another bridge, heading for a burial at sea…   


Suddenly, just as I was feeling completely lost, Conchita whispered her magic inside my skull…”You have arrived”. I looked about me, and straight ahead was a large banner hanging from a museum building, inviting the strolling cultural tourists in to “Philip Guston and the Poets.”

Describing great artworks in words, compared to paying witness to the real thing, is a bit like reading cookery books about potentially wonderful meals, with no input from taste buds. So if you haven’t seen a Guston “in the flesh” or “on the canvas,” I can only urge you to do so. And one’s knowledge of a favourite artist grows over a lifetime. I was first attracted to this brilliant maverick when his nowhere-near “childlike” paintings, and not the least bit like “cartoons”, from the late sixties and seventies (he died in 1980) influenced a rising, global, generation of Neo-expressionists – known as “bad painters” in the United States, and the Transavantgardia in Italy (through the Pope-like dispensation of curator and theorist Achille Bonito Oliva). It was a global art movement, joined at the hip to Flash Art magazine in Milan. Julian Schnabel in New York, along with other North American painters (for it was mostly, but not exclusively, about painting), Eric Fischl, Susan Rothenberg, Jean- Michel Basquiat, Nancy Spero, Leon Golub, David Salle (yesterday in Tate Britain, after viewing the gargantuan Rachel Whiteread exhibition, I bought a book of Salle’s recent writings 2.1.3. to How See that I can’t wait to get in to – or should that be in to which I can’t wait to get? Does it matter? Language is a readymade)[1], Steven Campbell and Adrian Wiszniewski in Scotland, with John Bellany continuing his own, deeply felt, form of Expressionism - closer to the original ethos of Max Beckman, George Grosz, James Ensor, and Edvard Munch - and Peter Booth, Linda Marrinon, and Peter Ellis in Australia, Christopher le Brun and Tony Bevan in England, the three Cs in Italy – Cuchi, Clemente and Chia, Marlene Dumas in Amsterdam, Robert Combas in France, and all the Germans – Kiefer, Baselitz,  A.R. Penck, Jorg Immendorff, Markus Lupertz, Eugen Schonebeck, and Rainer Fetting. Some, but not enough, women amongst them – this soon to be spectacularly overturned by Rosmarie Trockel with her industrially knitted canvases – a fresh blast of appropriation - and her dealer, the brilliant Monika Spruth, who has just re-opened her Spruth Magers gallery, in London, just in time for next week’s Frieze art Fair and showing the work of Gary Hume.


So, gradually, I learned more about Guston, the genius who influenced all of the above artists. How his seeding of Neo-expressionism had been but the third act in a long presence on the world art stage. At one point he was a gifted Surrealist, then an Abstract Expressionist, and finally – bravely, for all his galleries dropped him, and museums removed his works from their walls (thought he was mad, bad, and dangerous to be associated with) – he became the first to open his imagination like a can of worms against an icing-pink sky and a baseball hat sun. For me, and I realise many others, his late great works are up there with Picasso’s – light years ahead of anyone else.

I thought he was American originally, then I dug deeper and learned he had been born Phillip Goldstein, in Montreal, Canada.  He moved with his Jewish Ukranian family, originally from Odessa, to Los Angeles. And this is where, when you start to appreciate a painter and become curious about the imagery they choose – for it is seldom a random thing – you find answers to why his work was filled with Ku Klux Klan figures (the movement was on the rise in California), and nooses (his father, with an insecure income, hanged himself in the garden shed and the young Philip Goldstein found his body). Later, these little-known facts become myths, sitting uncomfortably on the dusty shelf of art history, alongside Van Gogh’s ear, Andy Warhol’s wig, and the Mona Lisa’s smile.


When I left the show – fifty major paintings and twenty-five drawings – I almost didn’t go upstairs, as Jon Cattapan had encouraged me to, to see the restored Hieronymus Bosch paintings. I was tired and hungry, and I felt too much on a high after seeing Guston’s work, introduced through the poetry that he’d loved. The poetry of D.H. Lawrence, W.B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens, Eugenio Montale, and T.S. Eliot. But I’d be meeting Jon for a drink, and more art talk, in a couple of hours, so decided I would tackle the rather daunting flight of steps to the upper floor of the Galleria dell Accademia di Venezia. I was so glad I did, because I saw the most amazing triptych, that links back to my ramblings above, about Conchita Wurst, and how so few ideas or imaginings are as new as we think.


Sidling past Giorgione’s La Tempesta, with hardly a glance at the storm-filled sky and suckling mother below (such are the glories of Venice that there is always another masterpiece around every corner, and you have to be discriminating or you die of exhaustion), I soon found what I was looking for. Known as “The Legend of Santa Liberta” (Trittico di Santa Liberata o Wilgerfortis (painted 1495 – 1504 circa) the Bosch displays celebrate the 600th anniversary of the artist’s birth.  

I will let the excellent wall text summarise the story – and I’m sure one day we will be able to buy its Hollywoodisation on Netflix.  Suffice to say, what I appeared to be looking at was the crucifixion of a young lady with a beard, wearing a long, colourful, dress.


“The young martyr, painted with the bearded face, the crown on her head, and with an elegant long dress, was identified as Santa Liberata (or Wilgefortis). One of the variants of the legend dating from the eighteenth century has it that one of the nine daughters of the pagan king of Lusitania (Portugal) had been promised in marriage to a Sicilian king (perhaps a black Saracen). The girl had converted to Christianity with a vow of chastity. Unable to persuade her father and her betrothed, she spent the eve of the wedding praying and imploring heaven to save her from a fate more terrible than death itself, and free her from marriage by depriving her of her beauty. The answer to her prayers was the growth of a beard that made her repugnant to the eyes of the bridegroom who, when he saw her, refused to marry her. The father asked for an explanation from his daughter, who revealed to him the divine intervention. Blinded by rage, the father had her crucified the same as the Christ who she worshipped. During the martyrdom, the princess on the cross prayed, and promised that those who would remember her passion would be granted release from their pain and problems. For here come the names of Wilgefortis (from the Latin ‘virgo fortis’), Uncumber, and Liberata, names that refer to the strength of freedom or escape from slavery, from captivity, or from the ‘suffering’ of an unhappy marital union.

With the latest restoration, despite the extensive abrasion of paint in the face area, signs of a beard around the chin which appear as a thin glaze, have been detected.”


Memories of Conchita Wurst return me to thoughts of Edinburgh, and recent events. When I arrived back, after an art-filled stay in Berlin with Jon and his daughter Pia, who joined us from London, the eleven different international festivals (jazz, television, books, visual arts, the list goes on…) that combine to form the Edinburgh Festival – in its full beauty or horror - were about to kick off. Jon and Pia, meanwhile, were heading off to documenta in Kassel, and the Munster Skulptur Projekte. “Don’t miss the Pierre Huyghe in the abandoned ice rink, or the Jeremy Deller allotment diaries in Munster,” were my final words of advice. “And if you see what looks like an abandoned shipping container outside the KulturBanhof in Kassel, make sure you go inside. Like Dr Who’s Tardis, it will take you into a much bigger universe.”


The much-heralded opening act at the 2017 Edinburgh Festival was to be Conchita Wurst, who the Edinburgh Evening News described as “the bearded drag artist”. But it was not to be. In this age of over-bureaucratic bureaucrats her entire Syrian backing band had been denied visas.

“Sources close to the artist,” journalistic ace Mike Wade wrote in The News, “confirmed that tonight’s concert – intended to highlight the importance of immigration in enriching European culture – had been abandoned because all three members of Basalt had been barred by UK immigration officials. Conchita, who is based in Vienna, refused to travel without Amjad Khaboura, Noor Eli Khoury and Almonther Alshoufi, all of whom have lived in Austria for at least two years. ‘This project is about co-operation, about people who start new lives in a new country,’ an Austrian source close to Conchita and the band said. ‘If Basalt cannot be there it would feel completely absurd for Conchita to fly without them.’”


But the Festival progressed, sadly without Conchita and Basalt. I think I will have to devote a whole Diary entry to the Book Festival alone, and the wonderful sights and sounds of Will Self vaping – in between arguing with audience members – to Siri Hustvedt’s reflections on the two cultures of art and science, Val McDermid’s obvious delight in writing crime novels, and the great Richard Ford’s reflections on his parents, and growing up an only child.

All too soon the marquees in Charlotte Square were coming down, and the green summer leaves were turning autumn gold. The hordes of tourists and culture vultures on Princes Street disappeared like a flashmob returning to base. When it was all over, I jumped on a train, three weeks ago, and headed up from my brother Robin’s in Longniddry to Edinburgh Waverley. I was heading to Edinburgh Filmhouse on Lothian Road to meet my old friends from ALBA days, Bill Hare and Andrew Patrizio. We hadn’t yet decided what film we were going to see  - Geoffrey Rush as Giacometti having just closed – but would decide over a meal in the cinema’s café.

It was during the twenty-minute train journey that I started getting pains in my chest. Right in the centre of my chest. But no pains in my arms. I felt out of breath climbing the steep ramp out of Waverley. By the time I set foot on Princes Street the pain was intense. And by the time I reached the Scott Monument I was almost doubled over. Don’t make a fuss. We all think that. I held on to one of the black railings, and from a crouching position could see the expressionless face of Sir Walter Scott staring down at me. All I could think of was a heart attack. At these moments you are supposed to see your past life flash before you. It didn’t happen for me. All I could think of were the things I still wanted to do. Visit Iceland and South America. Build a new Website. Learn to dance the tango. Visit Mornington Crescent tube station. Finish that article on statues and slavery - glancing up again at Sir Walter - that was going to weave together my thoughts on Krzysztof  Wodiczko’s light projections from the 1980s with the recent work of Michael Candy and Douglas Gordon. But I had to focus on what was happening now. What was I to do? I kept hobbling along towards Lothian Road. I made a probably irrational decision that if I came across a policeman, I would ask her or him for help. But if I didn’t, I would keep going with spavined gait, and hope that Bill or Andrew had arrived and would take over the decision-making process for me. There’s never a cop around when you need one. So fifteen minutes later I wobbled into the lobby of Filmhouse to the welcome sight of Bill looking at me somewhat quizzically.

“You alright?” he asked.

“Think I might be having a heart attack,” I said through gritted teeth, and lowered myself into a chair.

Things happened pretty quickly after that, not least because I’d just managed to send a WhatsApp on our family account and worry my dear relatives from South London to Buckie on the Moray Firth. Andrew arrived, quickly followed by Bill’s wife Margaret – who being an air hostess had dealt with troublemakers like me six miles up. And then the ambulance arrived, with two full-of-confidence paramedics – she driving, and he filling me with morphine, and reassuring me with his friendly banter.

“What film were you going to see?”

“I don’t know,” I said through gritted teeth. “We hadn’t decided yet.”

“Where you from? Can’t place your accent.”

“Been living in Australia…”

“Morphine might make you feel a bit sick,” as I threw up into a paper bowl – mostly dark red blood, almost black. Travelling backwards at speed, with no windows except for a very narrow strip along the top of one side of the ambulance that allowed me to glimpse the Usher Hall, didn’t particularly help.

“I’m moving there next month. To Australia. Got myself a job as a paramedic in Adelaide,” he enthused, with sunshine and seven mile beaches sparkling in his eyes. “My brother lives in Brisbane. Moved there a few years ago.”

“You’ll have to get into AFL,” I said. “I reckon the Cats will meet up with Richmond in the Grand Final this year.” Still finding it hard to speak, but the morphine helping. Musical flashbacks to Lou Reed singing I’m Waiting for the Man star-diving around my head.

“Haven’t figured out the rules yet. Nothing like Hearts and Hibs, is it?”

“They say it’s the game the play in Heaven, mate,” and I wondered if I’d be able to confirm this sooner rather than later, as I filled a second paper bowl with dark liquid.

“Some more morphine?”

“Don’t mind if I do…” And the next thing I knew I was in Accident and Emergency, with more police, and those in their care, visible than doctors – probably why I couldn’t find one on Princes Street. Edinburgh on a Saturday night. Bound to get worse as the minutes turned to darkening hours.

I was rushed in on a gurney at Formula One speed, and taking the first bend saw Andrew, Bill and Margaret patiently waiting in a distant corner. I waved like the Queen Mother was wont to, before surrendering to the constellation of lights and tubing that soon surrounded me. I felt like I was inside a John Bellany painting looking out. Out of curiosity, and back to good health three weeks later, I have just Googled Gurney to find out its origins, and see it is listed as “origins unknown.”  But the example given by reads, “He was trying to talk, ripping his head and shoulders off the gurney.”[2]

Know how he felt, as the first of many kindly, concerned, and wonderful nurses who I would meet over the next five days asked me, “And what film were you going to see?”

“I don’t know…” I said in despair. “We hadn’t decided yet.”

Around this point my brother Robin and sister-in-law Ailsa arrived, from a wedding they had been attending in the West of Scotland. Later, my sister Ann would come up from Bramhall, and I’d gratefully experience the love and concern from a wonderful battalion of family and friends. If made Prime Minister for a day (trust me, you wouldn’t want me running the country for longer than that) I’d double the pay of all the foot soldiers in the NHS, pay for it by putting a huge tax on yachts and their owners, making global corporations pay their taxes, and diverting large amounts of money from the obscene arms trade.

And with that, I fell into a deep morphine-induced sleep.

I awoke to find there was nothing wrong with my heart at all. “It’s actually in pretty good shape,” the doctor-on-his- rounds said to me next morning, after saying “I haven’t been to Filmhouse for a long time. What movie were you going to see?” It felt like Groundhog Day. He went on to explain that there were two things wrong with me. One was a “cup and spill hernia” in my chest (he’d already lost me). And the other was probably an ulcer. They would have to do an endoscopy (which end does that go in, I wondered, with a mixture of fear and anticipation?). I vaguely remember him saying something about the hernia was pulling part of my stomach against my heart, thus causing the pain…but all medical information from me, in my still drugged state, should be double-checked by someone with the knowledge.

The next few days became a mostly cheerful mix of people coming and going – mostly medical staff, but also the three other men with whom I shared the cosy ward with its views to distant parklands and industrial estates. It was a bit like being back on the lighthouses, getting used to the company of three other strangers. In this case the talk was mostly of football – Hibs and Hearts. “My husband’s a Hibbie. Shocking! I still can’nae believe it,” one nurse confided to Dave in the bed opposite me.

“Ah hope he eats his Cabbage,” Dave replied dourly.


It was my first stay of any length in a hospital. I particularly enjoyed the apple pie and custard. It seemed to be the dessert of choice. But downstairs in the entry plaza, more like an airport than the hospitals of my imagination, there was a Marks and Spencer with a huge range of food, a WH Smiths where I’d buy my Guardian of a morning, and a commercial coffee outlet where doctors and patients supped together in conspiratorial huddles.

According to the posters in the ward, they didn’t like you lying around moping in bed these days, which suited me fine. One commanded, “Don’t lie around in your pyjamas. Get dressed and go for a walk.” Another, “Twenty days lying in a bed with no activity can shorten your life by ten years.” That seemed a bit extreme, but I got the message. I was soon roaming the corridors, listening to podcasts of Phillip Adams on my Bluetooth headphones, and examining the artworks on the walls with increasing excitement. Here was a John Bellany, Madonna of the Bass Rock. There was an Ian Hamilton Finlay. And close to the coffee shop, an exquisite suite of Claire Barclay silkscreens.  My mind flashed back to Hobart and all the Scottish artists who’d visited Tasmania in the 1990s, as Claire had done.


The first time I walked along the ground floor for a fix of decaf (I’m now on a strict regime of no real coffee, no curries, and no alcohol. But that’s OK. Just glad to be alive), I thought the morphine was still affecting me, when I looked out of the wall-length window to an internal courtyard, and saw a giant panda coming at me from a field of bamboo. Closer inspection showed the panda to be a realistic, life-size, plaster model, but the bamboo was real, and growing in the shelter of the courtyard to feed the two real pandas in Edinburgh zoo.

You’ve probably heard the joke, but it’s worth repeating, about the SNP landslide a few years back, and how there were now more pandas in Scotland than Tory MPs. Two of the former, and one of the latter. Later, he – David Mundell – would have the company of one Labour MP, and one Liberal Democrat. And before I get on to the horrors of Brexit – mostly the horrors yet to come - I will wish all my good friends in Europe, and elsewhere, a very good night.


Dr Peter Hill is an artist, writer, and independent curator. He is Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at RMIT University, Melbourne


Peter Hill

C 2017

Next installment: November 1, 2017


[1] Robert Hughes’s apoplectic contribution to the debate was, “Julian Schnabel can’t draw, and David Salle can’t trace.”

[2] Taken from a book with the reassuring title, Knocking on Heaven’s Door. True Stories of Unexplained, Uncanny Experiences at the Hour of Death

Travel Diary 2

Longniddry to Venice by Train

It was one of those daft ideas. Could I travel by train all the way from my brother Robin’s village in Longniddry, Scotland (East of Edinburgh), to Venice, and the 2017 Biennale? It might become one of the world’s great rail journeys. It might be a total disaster. I’d settle for a bit of both.

I’d already been to the openings of documenta in Kassel, and Skulptur Projekt Munster. Venice would complete the once-in-every-ten-year trifecta

It all started with an email from painter, and very old friend, Jon Cattapan, in Melbourne. We’d shared a couple of biennales before, and we enjoy gorging on art and life together, as I believe others devour box sets of Game of Thrones. This time we’d try and book into the same hotel. Jon’s family hail from the Venice region, and he’d already located the ideal gaff for us – The Palazzo Contarini Della Porta Di Ferro. It’s in the Castello district, midway between San Marco and the Arsenale, convenient for all the biennale sites. But it’s a more local, working class area than the tourist ghettoes a few canals upstream. The nearest vaporetto stop is Ospedale (Hospital), and throughout the day and night the sirens of water ambulances racing in and out filled the always-hot air of the archipelago. Having said that, from the images I got back on my phone from (headquartered in Amsterdam), our very reasonably priced hotel looked like the Venetian palace it had obviously once been. Twice a week, large-scale baroque orchestras entertain the paying customers in the large upstairs ballroom.


I’ve always enjoyed train journeys. My nephew Michael drove me to Longniddry station, and I was off! I had a few pieces of writing to complete for approaching deadlines, so the train from Edinburgh to London (changing to the Euro-Star to Paris, and then the overnighter to Venice), would let me push ahead with that. As if the journey wasn’t complicated enough, I had a three hour window of opportunity to put my case into storage at St Pancras and find a pub in Greenwich for a late lunch with John Beard’s clan, recreating last month’s Galway shenanigans.

I had to finish writing a piece on “Fake News and Superfictions” for Vault magazine, and another on the always-astonishing Michael Candy and his Digital Empathy Device for MUSEUM magazine. In this highly topical artwork that combines the use of statues and the internet: when a French bomb is dropped on Syria, a statue in the Place de la Republique, Paris, starts to weep. It is also a seminal work of what I call Adventurism, similar in spirit to those made by Robert Zhao in Singapore, and France’s Mathieu Briand, now based in Port Melbourne.  MUSEUM is the most subversive magazine in the world. I love it. It looks as substantial and glossy as Vogue, full of advertisements for perfume companies and fashion houses. But slow down, look closer, and all the text and images relate to a single, bizarre, theme: “Potatoes” in one issue; “Noses” in another (including several close-ups of noses in portrait paintings from one of the world’s leading art museums; a photo-feature on police “sniffer dogs”; another on “farting”; and my own writings on Adeline Kueh’s scent-based artworks inspired by Lavender Street in Singapore, and the dumping of night soil. That edition had three alternative covers, each featuring a fashion model who, on closer inspection, has slightly flared nostrils).  

I also used my train time from Scotland to Northern Italy to rewrite an essay on “Art and Money”. The working title had changed to “How Many Yachts Do You Need?”, relating to all the Russian oligarchs and Silicon Valley billionaires-who- started-up-in-a-garage and now park theirs yachts on the Grand Canal.  It begins by talking about the disdain my born-in-the-1950s generation had for money, exemplified by The Beatles’ lyrics “I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love”, and contrasts this with contemporary singer Lily Allen’s “The Fear”. She’s obviously not a Corbynite, but they may still share the stage at Glastonbury one day): 


I want to be rich and I want lots of money

I don't care about clever I don't care about funny

I want loads of clothes and fuckloads of diamonds

I heard people die while they’re trying to find them


Anyway, I was Googling away, as you do, “Yachts”, “Contemporary Art”, “Money” and so forth, and kept being lead to links, blogs, and newspaper articles about Sir Nicholas Serota of Tate fame. He the uber-Museum Director, recently retired – but about to become the high-heid-yin at Arts Council England, and be replaced at Tate by Maria Balshaw, formerly director of Manchester’s Whitworth. I was there a few weeks ago, during the Manchester Festival, and Balshaw had returned to chair a panel session with exhibiting artists. At the end, as we all rose to witness a performance event-cum-picnic in the outside grounds, I realised Melbourne’s Juliana Enberg (previously director of ACCA) had been sitting right behind me, and we talked about the many events she has commissioned for Aarhuis, 2017 European City of Culture, in Denmark. And there, too, was the Giacometti stick-like figure of Sir Nick Serota, hovering at the edge of things, looking like he survives on a banana and a few peanuts every day. Which brings me back to those art-and yachting blogs. Apparently there are a lot of angry Tate staff, a few on zero-hour contracts, who were asked to chip in for his leaving present – a yacht!  Now, I’m sure it’s nowhere near the size of the yachts Russian oligarchs have been parking in front of the Statue of Liberty, or alongside the Grand Canal. It’s probably not even up in the Edward Heath class. But in these times of austerity, perhaps inviting staff to contribute towards a rowing machine would have been a bit more politic.


The train journey continued, across France and down towards Milan. I was sharing a compartment with three Peruvian women – a mother and her two student-aged daughters, one of whom had just completed a business degree in Madrid. They’d been to her graduation and were now touring Europe. We shared what food we had and made conversation by using mostly nouns, and pointing. They left at Milan, at five in the morning. I got up and had the compartment to myself all the way to Venice. I bought a coffee and a sandwich and did some work restructuring my Fake News and Superfictions lecture. The first time I gave it was at the Justin Art House Museum in Melbourne. The second time was in the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness, Orkney, on the longest day, the darkening sky still awash with light close to midnight. So at least I’d straddled the globe with the first two outings. On both occasions I kept the lecture to under an hour, but never got through all the material. I’ve introduced a few short video clips which eats up the time: Bill Clinton, for example, repeating three times “I did not have sex with that woman Miss Monika Lewinsky.” Or Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four (I was there on the night of the bombing in 1974), shouting out an animal howl of rage at the cameras when he is released from prison in 1989 “I watched my father die in a British prison for a crime he did not commit. I spent fourteen years in a British prison for a crime I did not commit.”  Police falsification of evidence one of the worst forms of Fake News.

Having to write 1200 words on the topic of Fake News and Superfictions for Vault has been a good way in to rewriting my lecture. Say it all in just over a thousand words, and then expand it upwards towards fifty minutes, around six thousand words. I’ve used Rachel Maclean’s Pinocchio-inspired Spite Your Face video projection in Venice as a way into the piece, with its asides to Trump and Brexit.

The boundaries between truth and fiction – between “reality” and “Reality TV” -  have become dangerously blurred. As Simon Kuper wrote in The Financial Times recently (August 12/13, 2017) “John Kelly imagines he is Trump’s chief of staff, whereas in fact he’s The Trump Show’s new Marine-general character.”

Fake News is not new. Machiavelli, for one, would be astonished that we might think it is. What is new is the ability for an unleashed United States President to be able to tweet to the world at six in the morning through the uncritical network of social media. Propaganda is as old as politics and warfare. Hyper-connectedness, with no built-in space for reflective or peer-reviewed comment, is what is new.


It’s light outside. The train passes olive groves. Rolling hills. The sun is up. We stop occasionally at colourless platforms. Someone comes on board selling orange juice and newspapers. The air is already warm. Another hour, I reckon, until Venice. The evening before I left Longniddry – and yes, it had been a memorable journey, not least emerging from Gare du Nord and seeing some poor fellow knocked off his motor scooter by a speeding car and spread across the road – I’d gone to Douglas Gordon’s opening at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, exploring it with Sam Ainsley and David Harding. Every second person I meet is an ex-student of Sam’s. She’s the best, and she’s taught the best – including Douglas.

So many good friends are in the middle of exhibitions and projects, or about to have them, on both sides of the planet. Sam herself is preparing for a solo show in Mull; David Harding produced wonderful work for documenta, in both Kassel and Athens, as did Bonita Ely from Sydney; Kate Downie in Edinburgh; Gail Dickerson in Sheffield; Michael Candy in Singapore; Louise Weaver in Sydney; Annie Cattrell making land art near Loch Ness; Jon Cattapan at Paul Greenaway’s in Adelaide; Michael Downs in Berlin and Beijing; Jacquelene Drinkall in New York and Sydney; Barbara Nicholls in the New Art Gallery in Walsall; Hilarie Mais at the MCA in Sydney; Troy Ruffels in Devonport; David Thomas from Melbourne and Ian Woo from Singapore both exhibiting together in England soon…the list is long and exhilarating. A few weeks ago, I travelled to Dundee to play a small role in a film that Ronnie Forbes has devoted two years to creating.


But back to Douglas Gordon’s meditations on Burns. It’s an astonishing work of great subtlety. I don’t think any of the London newspaper reviewers noticed Douglas had turned all the many sculpted portrait heads in The Great Hall to face away from the main event. And the main event centered around the famous statue of Robert Burns, made by John Flaxman in 1824, and a broken, black version Douglas has fabricated and placed on the museum floor, hence its title Black Burns.  It’s all about slavery. So much is today. The newspapers being full of modern slavery in the darkest parts of England’s green and pleasant lands – indentured farm labourers in 21st Century Britain, their passports confiscated, their wages never paid. Far worse in the sex industry. And statues. They are very much in the news too. Statues from the colonial past being defaced, removed, debated in a dozen parliaments around the globe. Or linked to French bombings in Syria, in Micahel Candy’s masterpiece. Statues with a history of slavery. A few weeks later, at the Edinburgh Festival, Douglas Maxwell’s new play The Whip Hand would open at Traverse theatre. It flips between the present and the past, between Glasgow today and Jamaica yesterday, and contains the great, cutting, line “It’s not called Jamaica Street  ’cos we dig reggae.” Glasgow’s history of the “tobacco Lords” and their links to slavery have still to be unvarnished.

But the beauty of the show at the SNPG is that Douglas Gordon’s new work was paired with Graham Fagan’s The Slave’s Lament, first seen at the last Venice Biennale (2015). The double catalogue, with its dark, glossy cover, is beautifully produced. Douglas leads you in from one side. Graham, once the catalogue is turned upside down, from the other. Both meet in the middle, where you find a suite of newly minted poems by the Scottish Makar (National Poet for Scotland) Jackie Kay.  These lines from Mirror, printed opposite a mirrored page in the centre of the catalogue:


“Will ye listen tae my voice shift over decades;

My accent lift, lilt into song; afore lang ye hear me in Haiti,

And in France, in Kenya and Jamaica, in Guyana

And Nigeria. Across the world o’ years. Here I am. My face.

Are you Scottish, he says. Are you Scottish she says.

Where have you been? I’ve been Scottish all my days.

I’m translating as ye speak across the rivers and seas.”


Jackie herself, born to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father. I hear her read a few weeks later at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. It is just the best. Tears and laughter like intertwining streams.


Burns came close to leaving Scotland to work as an overseer on a slave plantation in Jamaica (sugar being the local currency rather than Lily Allen’s diamonds, that people still die, and still are enslaved, trying to find), escaping both poverty and various fraught elements in his personal life. However, his first book of poems was published before the ship sailed, and he spent the rest of his short life in Scotland. Graham Fagen’s The Slave’s Lament is inspired by Burns’ elegy on the life of an African in Virginia, remembering his homeland in Senegal and his life before enslavement. It’s a four part video work that beautifully merges classical European instruments with the soft reggae-inspired vocals sung by the gold-toothed Ghetto Priest.  It’s much, much, more of course, and I can only recommend the fine catalogue essays by Julie Lawson and Michael Morris.

I never did get to the last Venice Biennale, so I never saw Fagen’s work there, but I was rapidly approaching this one, and trying to push newspapers, laptop, and more cables than a shipyard into my backpack as the train – how does it do it? – glides across the water towards the Grand Canal. And reflections on that, and my return trip via Berlin, will have to wait for next month, as I am still digesting and reflecting on the many wonders Jon and I saw, ate, and occasionally bumped into.

(that last is a reminder to me to tell you about how I learned to use Google Maps in Venice).


Dr Peter Hill is an artist, writer, and independent curator. He is Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at RMIT University, Melbourne




Peter Hill

C 2017

Next installment: October 1, 2017










Travel Diary 1

Bramhall, Manchester, London, Dublin, Galway, Bramhall, Longniddry

At Swim Two Rafts

John Beard’s After The Raft of the Medusa

 Until last week I was a Galway virgin. Now I feel like an old tart, rambling on about the great experiences I’ve had, in an all-too-brief 24 hours, in that fine city - a city just announced as European City of Culture for 2020. If you’ve ever visited Stromness in the wonderful Orkney Islands, it has that same sort of feel. But while Stromness has a population of some 2000 inhabitants, Galway is a mega-city of 80,000 very lucky souls.


I’m a great believer in the maxim that the shorter a time you stay in a place the more it is fixed in your memory. Many years ago, I worked as a lighthouse keeper on three uninhabited islands off the West Coast of Scotland. It was the time of Vietnam, the Watergate hearings, and the music of Captain Beefheart, The Incredible String Band, and Leonard Cohen, all of which I listened to on my bigger-than-a-phonebook ITT Cassette Player. I had two other keepers for company, along with the basking sharks and – on Ailsa Craig – the world’s second largest gannet colony. I wrote a book about it called Stargazing: Memoirs of a Young Lighthouse Keeper (Canongate). I only did the job for six months, so the memories all remained crystal clear and drip-fed into my narrative. Had I spent the rest of my life working “on the lights”, everything would have become mundane and everyday, and my stories would have lost their immediacy. So it was with Galway. I spent more time getting there and back than I did in the city itself. And I remember every split second of it, from the vicious knifing scene in the climax of Woyzeck in Winter at its world premier, to the fine young artists at Woodquay, who called a group of us in off the street and treated us to an impromptu tour of their festival show, Memory has a Pulse, using stunning juxtapositions of text, image, and raw emotion. And I’ll never forget booking into the Radisson Blue Hotel, where I was staying with the rest of the Festival guests. It’s one of these low-rise, early 21st century hotels with a footprint the size of a football field. “You’re on the first floor,” the chirpy receptionist told me, his voice as smooth as a pint of Murphys. “You’re in Room 1248,” and I headed to the lifts with my heavy suitcase. Twenty minutes later I had circumnavigated the first floor twice, but could find no sign of Room 1248. There was nothing to do but haul my heavy case back to reception. “No problem, I’ll show you where it is, it’s dead simple,” he said. We set off on the long trek around the First Floor and eventually came to another lift. “What you do is take this lift up to the second floor, and your room is six along on the right. See, the second number of your room number is 2. That’s where you went wrong. Room 1248. And you’re in room 48.” 

My strange but exhilarating journey – my odyssey – began in Manchester, the day after another arts festival closed, (earplugs provided) by the band New Order, curated by artist Liam Gillick and composer Joe Duddell. It was held in the old Granada Studios, the last event to be held there before the building is demolished to make room for Rem Koolhaas’s first UK piece of Starchitecture, a £110 million cultural centre called The Factory. I stood at the back of the hall, next to Johnny Marr of The Smiths – an intense looking and sober vegan who has weathered the years well. He watched every movement, parsed every riff, and nodded his head with the subtlety of a Jeevesian lifted eyebrow. We’d met up with him earlier in the night when a group of us, led by Joe Duddell, one of my colleagues from the Goldsmiths/La Salle external examining group, formed a fictitious band called Witness Protection in the beer garden of a nearby pub called The Briton’s Protection.  On the way to the venue, not far from the life-size sets of Coronation Street, we bumped into Marr (see photo below) who quickly agreed to become lead guitarist with Witness Protection.

The next morning, to get from Manchester to Galway, and lose the rough edge of a hangover on the way, was a twelve-hour adventure by train to London, flight to Dublin, and then a three and a half hour bus trip up the left cheek of Ireland. I was running to a tight deadline. I had to get to a lecture by 2pm. You see, my primary reason for this visit was to see the astonishing art installation After The Raft of the Medusa by Welsh-Australian artist John Beard, winner of the 2007 Archibald Prize at Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales, for his painting of fellow-artist Janet Laurence. This work was part of a series of portraits of fellow artists he has created over a number years, many of which have been Archibald contenders. These include Hilarie Mais, Ken Unsworth, and William Wright, as well as Joseph Beuys, Francis Bacon, Raphael, and Manet. As I write this, the 2017 Archibald is being decided, and it is interesting to reflect on the careers of its winners after the event. An exhibition of Australian art has just opened in Berlin (until September 29), curated by two-time winner Del Kathryn Barton and featuring  works by Pat Brassington, Ben Quilty, Brook Andrew, Dale Frank, Patricia Piccinini, and the late Sally Gabori  amongst others (see SMH July 21, 2017).

The world is full of centenary exhibitions in this dark decade that we seem to be (just) surviving – from the battles of the First World War to the Easter Rising of 1916. But Beard’s “expanded field of painting” installation takes us back a full two hundred years to the sinking of the frigate Medusa, off the West African coast in 1816, as it does to the great French painter Theodore Géricault’s rendition of the tragedy, Raft of the Medusa, first exhibited four years later in 1819. This is a story of a shipwreck, a story that will have currency for a full four-year period, bookended by the anniversary of the event itself, and by Géricault’s memorial to it. So if you missed Beard’s “talk of the town” unveiling in Galway by Stephen Bann, Cambridge Slade Professor of Art History, fear not, it may turn up in a city near you some time before 2019. And I nearly missed its unveiling myself. Having just made it to the Galway bus station at five minutes to two, my three-stories-a-minute cab driver took me to The Porter Shed, rather than the plain and simple The Shed, both confusingly at opposite ends of the waterfront. No matter, in the heat of a day that would make you feel you were getting value for money in Barcelona, I stumbled into this vast space just as the good Professor was saying “Several different factors combine to make John Beard’s monumental painting After The Raft of the Medusa (1819) not so much a reproduction as a reflection: in other words a work that encourages us to think creatively and constructively about the role of Western painting as it has developed over the past two centuries… Géricault himself took the initiative of circulating full-scale versions of the original work, which were shown to the public in London, Dublin, and Edinburgh, receiving a mixed response. He would surely not have been disconcerted to see the tonal range of his painting converted [by Beard] into a scale of black and white.”

So what are we looking at here? Let me first say that Géricault’s original canvas, full of Romantic grandeur and keening pathos, is a jaw-dropping 16 feet by 24 feet. It is the early nineteenth century equivalent of a blockbuster movie. The sort of grand narrative that Parisians would queue up to see, to argue about, and to revisit. It hangs in the Denon Wing of the Louvre, a brief side-step from the gaggle of tourists ganging up on the Mona Lisa, smiling enigmatically just around the corner. Not only has Beard reinterpreted it on a Borgesian scale of 1:1, in which “the map is the territory” – ie it’s the exact same size, but he has built on it and given us something far more than the easy Appropriation Art of Sherrie Levine and Jeff Koons, so flash-in-the-pan-popular in the mid-1980s. John Beard’s great artwork, it could be argued, has more significant differences than similarities to Géricault’s own. Not least because Beard has created a second, far darker version, in a digitised format, that reflects across the 30 meter space of The Shed and takes human, visual perception and cognition to its outer limits. Now, I’m no great believer in miracles, having invented a fictional group of artists (what I refer to as a “Superfiction”) called AAA (Art Against Astrology). They are supposedly a trio from Brooklyn who examine all forms of mythic thinking. However, I will make an exception for this installation as I believe it to be a miracle that the dimensions of The Shed are such that it can (almost to the millimetre) accommodate not one, but two, versions of Géricault’s masterpiece, and that it facilitates a near-perfect viewing distance between the two works (surely one of the best potential arts spaces in Europe. And wouldn’t it be better if Galway, now European City of Culture in waiting for 2020, extended the run of its art exhibitions beyond the length of their festivals, as Edinburgh and Manchester do? An exhibition of this calibre deserves at least a six week run in the middle of the tourist season).

John Beard trained at London’s Royal College of Art and now, in his mid-seventies, divides his time between studios in Greenwich, Lisbon, and Sydney. Always a great experimenter, he is now working at the peak of his ambition, constantly pushing at new technical and conceptual boundaries. 

To stand, alone, in between his – what shall I call it? – “stereo echo chamber”, that will do – gave me an epiphany similar to being in Tate’s Rothko room, or lying on my back in Tasmania, as  I was a few weeks ago, looking up at the dawn sky through one of James Turrell’s awesome (a correct use of the word) light pavilions at the magical Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) outside Hobart. It was a truly sublime experience, if we take the sublime to be a combination of great beauty and white-eyed terror. The dying sailors on the raft tried to stay alive by eating their felt caps and leather belts. The raft itself, for God’s sake, was not much bigger than the actual canvas that depicts it. Some sailors were pushed overboard to make more room, until someone thought of cannibalism, and the darkness grew even darker, then darker still. It does not take a huge leap of the imagination to draw parallels with contemporary events in the Mediterranean, and with refugees drowning off the coast of Australia.

Beard’s painting (one half of this installation) has been sold for a seven-figure sum to an Australian collector who wants to remain anonymous. But as there are full-size digital versions, that can be of varying darkness to the point of almost complete blackness, the mention of MONA above makes me think David Walsh’s astonishing art museum would be an ideal home for such and installation. Although he would probably have to design a special gallery for it, as he did for Sidney Nolan’s 46 metre long Snake (1972 – 74).

I know that John is keen to exhibit his Raft in Scotland, before it returns to Australia. I arrived in Longniddry, south of Edinburgh, late last night and am typing up these words in a little breakfast café opposite the train station with a stack of freshly bought newspapers: The Guardian, The European, The Scotsman, and the (Glasgow) Herald. In the latter, I read that “A gallery dedicated to modern art that was threatened with closure is to reopen on Saturday with a major new exhibition. The decision over the future of historic Inverleith House in the Royal Botanic Garden (RBGE) caused uproar in the artworld. A campaign urging a rethink won support from Euan McGregor, Irvine Welsh, Val Kilmer, Fran Healey and Janet Street-Porter and 700 people demonstrated in the grounds.” I remember this well, as I do the wonderful gallery – think London’s Serpentine but on a grander scale. It was formerly home to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art before its move to the John Watson Institution in 1984. Many of the world’s leading contemporary artists exhibited there through the curatorial excellence of Paul Nesbitt, over a thirty year period. More Turner Prize winners and nominees have shown there than in any other UK space except Tate, including Douglas Gordon, Richard Wright, Callum Innes, Jim Lambie, Cathy Wilkes, Karla Black, Mark Leckey, and Luke Fowler. I wonder if this might be a venue for John Beard’s raft? According to The Herald, Professor Christopher Breward, principal of Edinburgh College of Art led a working group to “examine the case for keeping a more specific gallery (and) last month proposed a series of measures to ensure its longevity, including plans to showcase at least four seasonal shows, touring exhibitions, and residencies.” The first of these opens on Saturday and is called The Plant Scenery of the World, with work by Laura Aldridge (Glasgow), Charlie Billingham (London-based), and Bobby Niven (Fife). As the commuter trains to Edinburgh rush past across the road, I finish my coffee and wonder whether this might be a suitable venue for John Beard’s Raft? (or, indeed, an exhibition of John Wolseley’s paintings, similar to that shown recently in Melbourne’s NGV? – perfect with its botanical influences and The Wallace Line connections, that great dividing line between Asia and Australia. A previous exhibition at Inverleith House showcased the work of Rungiah and Givindoo’s South Indian Botanical Drawings).        

But time to get on the road again, or at least the 10.40am to Waverley. When I travel – as I’m doing on this crazy two year Fake News and Superfictions lecture tour – I begin and end every journey by playing The Pogues’ Rum, Sodomy & The Lash, loud, on my headphones. I’ve been doing it for years, at least since 1983 when I’d fly occasionally to Belfast to teach on Alastair MacLennan’s MFA program on York Street (last time I was there, two of the about-to-graduate  students were Annie Cattrell and Stephen Snoddy, who have both since had stellar careers). When I interviewed Marina Abramovic in Hobart a couple of years ago, for Artpress magazine in Paris, she described Alastair, with great affection, as the grandfather of Performance Art and the inventor of “durational performance”. One of our Galway Group, Stevey Scullion, like me originally from Glasgow, is a fellow artist who has been overseeing the mammoth task of setting up John’s Raft. And he bears an uncanny resemblance to Alastair MacLennan (far left in group image below). Later than night, the magnificent seven of us, retired to a pub in the centre of old Galway, and celebrated beneath the ice-white stars, on a still balmy evening.

Postscript: The Pogues, as I say, make for great travelling music, whether taking off on a 747, or winding through the streets of Dublin, back to the airport, in a mid-summer tourist coach, the smell of Galway seaweed still in my nostrils. And I’ll leave you with a second miracle. The album cover of Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, which I’m looking at on my iPhone back in Bramhall (outside Manchester), is a reproduction of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa – the terrified sailors still waving their shirts and pointing towards the distant – almost impossible to see - ship on the horizon…


Dr Peter Hill is an artist, writer, and independent curator. He is Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at RMIT University, Melbourne



Peter Hill

C 2017

Next installment: September 1, 2017