What should contemporary art say and mean today? Is the artistic process more important than the finished product? We speak with Juliette Hanson, Senior Curator and Collection Manager at the Jewish Museum of Australia about these questions and more to coincide with ‘Media Hype’, a collection of works curated by Juliette from six leading contemporary artists. ‘Media Hype’ is currently on display at our c3 Contemporary Art Space until Sunday 26 February with four other collections. The pictured artwork is by Amanda Marburg, ’17’, 2013, oil on canvas, 80 x 100cm, courtesy of Sutton Gallery and the artist.
How would you describe ‘Media Hype’ in three words?
Best. Show. Ever. Haha, just kidding – this is a hard question. How about, intriguing, diverse and playful.
How did ‘Media Hype’ come about?
The idea for this exhibition was originally conceived for a space above an art supplies shop in the city. It was meant to be a celebration of the range of media available to artists. For a few reasons that show never happened, but the idea of using media as a focus for an exhibition was something that I had to pursue. Over the last few years the idea has been distilled and the binding theme of photography emerged really fortuitously as the group of artists changed and the selection of works then was honed to best reflect that thematic direction.
Photography is the common thread that runs through Media Hype’s multidisciplinary works. What is it saying about screen culture?
‘Media Hype’ underscores the many varied ways that photography can infiltrate the practice of artists, even those who would not consider themselves to be photographers. This is meant to be a positive comment on the flexibility and scope of photography. Digital reproduction has resulted in an influx of imagery that is readily available through screen culture. For the art industry this means that images of artworks are more accessible than ever, which can be a good thing in some ways. But viewing artworks on a screen can sometimes lead to misconceptions about the work, particularly in relation to medium for example. ‘Media Hype’ hopes to provide a reminder to prioritise reality and the importance of seeing ‘the real thing’. All the works in the show have to be seen directly, and often from close up, to really understand and appreciate what the work is and how it has been produced.
Is this theme something you’ve explored previously as a curator or writer?
As a writer I have explored photography, and particularly the role of painting in the wake of photography. I have also looked at the emotional and psychological impact of being in the presence of artwork, through exhibitions and through writing. This is the first exhibition I have curated that investigates media as topic in and of itself. In the past, the medium an artist has chosen has almost been a secondary consideration in selecting works, after the thematic content. It has therefore been really good to focus on such a fundamental element of the artists’ work, and to structure the show with a view to presenting the most diverse range of media possible.
You’re a producer, writer and curator. Which practice do you enjoy most, and how do they complement each other?
Curating exhibitions has always been my main focus over the past 10 years. I love working closely with artists to present their work in the best possible way within a context that amplifies their message or the visual impact of their work. The challenge of managing the logistics of this process along with the emotional undercurrent of creativity is really exciting. I enjoy writing because it provides a space for very focused thinking. It is a skill that is so important in bringing a large thematic show together and the clarity of thought needed to write effective exhibition text can’t be underestimated. I have really only worked as a producer for one particular project, a Melbourne Fringe theatre show back in 2013. This was a good experience that demanded a high level of organisation and the ability to provide many different levels of support to the cast and crew. In some ways it took a similar skill set to curating a show, as you have to be across everything, from the big picture down to the smallest practical detail.
Is the message of the artwork more important than the art itself?
Well sometimes it certainly can be. Of course, social and political causes will always be more important than any person, artist or artwork. For me, the importance of art is that it can contribute something totally unexpected and new into the lives of people who see it, into their particular frame of mind and perspective on the world. Not everyone will take the same message from a work of art, and in that way the existence of the work is more important than the message intended by the artist, because that’s not automatically what will be received. It is the possibility of affecting some kind of transition in the mind of the viewer that is most important. Sometimes this transition can relate to a much broader or important message, but I think that the art itself maintains its power within the continuum of social endeavour, activism and provocation, as it has a unique capacity to convey and embody messages.
Does contemporary art have to ‘say something’?
Of course! It has to communicate something. It doesn’t have to be political or have an overt ‘message’ as such, but it must convey a perspective of some kind. Much of the work in ‘Media Hype’ is actually quite self-referential; it is speaking about art as a practice and about the history of the medium the artists have chosen, which are completely valid courses of enquiry and exposition for contemporary art. A lot of contemporary art is about process and investigation rather than an end result, and often it is more a matter of posing questions rather than saying something specific. The function of art can be to act as a catalyst in the generation of new ideas, or to encourage a consideration of some small aspect of reality or perception, and not to make a grand statement as such.
Is this your first time working in the c3 Contemporary Art Space? What sets it apart from other gallery spaces?
This is the first time I have shown anything at c3. The venue is great because it gets such a diverse range of people coming through, not just the committed gallery-goer, but families and people who come for the markets and for days out at the Convent. It’s a great space because it has quite industrial and rugged elements that make the space interesting, whilst maintaining a really polished finish for exhibitions.
Has the space impacted the work and the way it’s been presented?
The space always dictates the format of a show. In this case of course the two-installation works have been the most effected by the particular qualities of the space. In previous iterations, Sean Whittaker’s work has been shown in a vertical format, but in this space, it had to be horizontal. Devika Bilimoria’s work needed a black box, which took a few complicated measures to achieve, and the size of Gallery 3 has a very particular effect on the viewer as they see the very small and delicate work within the generous amount of darkness around it.
You’re currently working as Senior Curator and Collection Manager for the Jewish Museum of Australia, managing a collection of 20,000 artworks. What’s the day-to-day work of a curator in a space like that, with such a large collection to maintain and choose from?
It is a challenge! The museum is really ambitious and so everyone works at a pretty rapid pace. I have only been at the museum since April last year, so I have been working with our in-house curator and external curators on the shows that were already locked in. I am just starting to develop a major temporary show for 2018 that will draw on the collection. Day to day there is a constant flow of problem solving, fine-tuning and schedule management in relation to exhibitions, as well as managing enquiries from the community. In terms of collection management, I have been working really hard to design and implement an online database that will allow people to search our collection through a link from the museum’s new website. This process has involved imaging the collection and researching key items, themes and sub-collections, which has allowed me to get to know the collection quite well.
What else are you working on in 2017?
The Jewish Museum has a blockbuster exhibition coming up later this year, a touring show from the Jewish Museum London that celebrates the life and music of Amy Winehouse, whose family is of Russian Jewish heritage. I am on the board of SEVENTH Gallery, so I’ll also be contributing to their exhibition program and stepping in as acting Gallery Manager for four months mid-year. I am always on the lookout for new opportunities and projects and now that ‘Media Hype’ is up I can start to think about my next independent show.
c3 Contemporary Art Space’s February Exhibition is on now until Sunday 26 February. Gallery hours are Wednesday – Sunday, 10am – 5pm.