A piece of music - something by Ross Edwards, probably his Dawn Mantras - came on the radio last night that suddenly reminded me of all the country art galleries I must have been in. I grew up in a country town, and what you seem to do growing up in country towns, mostly, is visit other country towns. Mum being Mum, with an interest in all things cultural, in all those country towns, we ended up in country town art galleries.
What strange places they were! Often built on money from the time of the Hawke or Keating governments, their architecture was completely out of place with the rest of the town. And they were absolutely nothing like the more homely arts and crafts centres in such towns, where you might go to a local art fair and see paintings of trees, or buy a few bottles of jam, or pass by some plates which look like they wouldn't be out of place in Dame Edna's crockery collection, or cartoons from a local artist, or to see furniture made out of odd bits of lacquered-up redgum. Walking into a country art gallery was an entirely different experience; instead of that cosy clutter you got a bizarre minimalism: a sparse white wall with a tiny abstract work in the middle. A huge room with an installation or a projection at one end and a seat in the middle. Not a seat you'd want to sit in, with a back or anything like that - why don't art gallery seats ever have backs? Just this black leather affair. Who decided this was the look to have in a country town, where the aesthetic is mostly chintz and crockery that rattles and doilies everywhere*?
And there'd be art gallery attendants who seem to come with the art gallery. (They must have! They'd look out of place if they ever ventured out into the town). One often got the impression they were installed in place with the art gallery. They'd sit around behind desks looking all wispy and important and listen to, well, pieces by Ross Edwards.
As for the art - it was mostly landscapes. This was doubly weird: looking at them, you had the experience of standing in a building in a landscape looking at paintings about that same landscape, the only thing being the painting never actually looked like the landscape it was supposed to be about. In those galleries the paintings never looked like the things they were about. In country arts and craft galleries, people painted trees and horses because they wanted their paintings to be about trees and horses. In the country art galleries, if there was ever a picture of a tree or a horse it was probably supposed to represent the disjointed experience of artificial modern living and its disconnect from nature or the repressive effect of the colonialist patriarchy on the Indigenous mythos. Sometimes I don't think the artists were even sure what they wanted their paintings to be about, which did rather lead one to the suspicion that it mightn't have been about anything interesting at all.
That Ross Edwards piece, then, bought it all to mind. For some reason a particular image came to mind of the first floor in a two storey art gallery, with me wandering around looking at the - mostly incomprehensible - abstracts. Where could it have been? Wagga? Griffith? Mildura? Dubbo? And then, I suppose, we all walked out into the heat of the day and drove through hours of yellow grass fields until we got home. That is the Ross Edwards epoch in Australian cultural history, really - that whole courageous attempt by composers to write a music perfectly in tune with these landscapes. It combined didgeridoo and choir in a new agey way, unfolded in a slow, reverential fashion, represented peculiarities of the Australian environment in ways which I had not thought possible.
I have to confess it annoyed me a lot.
And yet, you know what? Earlier last night another Ross Edwards piece had come on: A flight of sunbirds. Two pianos, simple and playable music. It filled the whole room in just the way that music should. Charming and reverential, in all the right ways and places. Not the sort of music you'd get in an art gallery, at all.
I'm not sure what I wanted to say about all this but, just like an abstract artist, I suppose I have anyway. So I'd better end it there.
*I do like a nice doily.
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