The Proposition to be an Australian Artist in London

By Katrina Schwarz

Intimacy and Distance

Underscoring the ambitions of the Australian in London is a suspicion and a fear that home is not enough. At the turn of the 19th century true success required ‘laurels in the wider world’ and, specifically, ‘the hallmark of London approval.’[3]  London, not un-problematically, has been figured in the best-known accounts of expatriation as a lucky, lucky, lucky escape from a country all at once too big and too small, certainly too far away.  Clive James left Australia because he had ‘exhausted what challenges and comforts it could offer him’. Germaine Greer left because ‘the outward bourgeois decencies, the “even tenor” of suburban life, became an offence when unmatched, unrelieved by any stimuli for the life of the mind’. Sidney Nolan felt he had no option but to leave Australia to escape the stultifying artistic and critical environment. [4]

In a previous generation, and for a certain type of career, a choice had to be made: one shore or another. London may ever be a day away from Australia, but in an alternative model, one facilitated by international residency opportunities, an artist is likely to find themselves developing their practice and making their career in more than one country. Because I do not share the chagrin of the expats who have come before me, because I love a sunburnt country and its vivifying, playful, profound art scene I seek out projects that breach the gap between the country I currently live in and the home I miss every day.  Distance and intimacy.

And yet something continues to rankle. Has the desire for approval, for international endorsement and legitimacy, ever gone away?

This is the conversation to which Australia returns again and again. The Tyranny of Distance, Terry smith’s canonical ‘Provincialism Problem’ (1974), has for so long been a peg on which to hang our questions and our insecurities about the visibility of art from Australia, its impact and importance. The fact remains that the promise of globalisation, the ‘Altermodern’ moment of mobility, even the horizontal pull of Asia, has neither ensured greater international visibility for Australian contemporary art nor quelled this debate. instead it has shifted its terms.

The Contemporary Visual Arts and Culture Broadsheet recently devoted its 40th anniversary issue to the global status of contemporary Australian visual art.  The prognosis is not good. As Anthony Gardner suggests, distance is not our only foe, we must also contend with “tyrannical apathy.”

‘Australia as a continent is not only too remote, too far, too many hours away – the usual dull tagline … No, the ‘problem’ is that the continent’s culture is too White, yet not sufficiently ‘Western’ … in short, it is deemed too uninteresting to warrant historical or contemporary notice.’ [5]

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