Slicked white hair, dapper shirt and slacks, arm languorously draped with cigarette dangling between fingertips. His look says casual yet confident. It also says that the nude striking an erotic pose beside him is not the first and won’t be the last. Framed against the backdrop of beautifully manicured gardens she seductively clutches her breasts as if pointing them at the camera, and you note that he is probably old enough to be her Grandfather.[i]
Is it wrong to draw a parallel between Australia’s self-proclaimed ‘genius’ artist Norman Lindsay (1879-1969) and Playboy founder Hugh Hefner? Either way the connection was in print long before this review. In 1967 Playboy featured Norman Lindsay’s images in an article on ‘Art Nouveau Erotica’ describing his work as reacting to the uptight anti-sexual values of Victorianism and ‘the most outstanding and erotic of this hothouse genre’.[ii] With turbans, tweaking nipples and sexual positions, this exotica erotica is more akin to the Karma Sutra than traditional fine art. No wonder in the 1940s America US officials mistook 16 crates of his work as pornography and burned them all.[iii]
Walking the line between Art Nouveau and fantasy fiction Lindsay’s etchings and watercolours depict men to be ugly at best, grotesque at worst, and mostly short, angry and literally horny. The women – harlots, nymphs and amazons – are naked, beautiful and sumptuous with bejewelled and feathered head-dresses and heavy handed make-up.
Lindsay’s debauched dream world caused outrage and scandal at the time and his gender politics in modern-day standards are sexist to the point of cliché. Yet a bit like the elderly uncle figure with mischievous glint in the eye, occasional wandering hands and cringe worthy sexist jokes, taken with a pinch of salt you can’t help but be fond of him. It’s a generational thing, right?
I suspect this is the reason why the Blacktown Arts Centre exhibition Dream Merchant included a selection of Lindsay’s work alongside a new collaborative series inspired by his oeuvre by Liam Benson, Sari TM Kivinen, Victoria Lawson and Naomi Oliver. Involving the now-generation was a clever move. Re-contextualising Lindsay’s work makes it more accessible to a broader crowd and less, well, un-PC.
Explicitly referencing another artist’s practice or literally re-staging it presents a fascinating prospect that continues to be revisited. For instance, Maria Abramovic’s Seven Easy Pieces (2005) re-staged seven seminal performances including those by Joseph Beuys and Valie Export. More recently and closer to home was Becos I’m Worf It! at MOP (2008) and Linden Contemporary Arts Centre (2007) which featured 27 artists’ work inspired by Sydney performance duo The Motel Sisters (which is also a collaboration between two of the Dream Merchant artists Liam Benson and Naomi Oliver). Demonstrating the postmodern tendency for sampling, these practices de-stabilise notions of authorship, raising interesting questions around the assertion of creative influence and how new meaning is constructed.
Dream Merchant (2005-07) translates Lindsay’s colourful characters into performances for the camera, documenting the embodied harlots, nymphs and amazons on ‘a walk through the streets and environs of present-day Western Sydney’. Like an over-flowing fancy dress party on one of those rare occasions when everyone bothers to hire, clichéd costumes like Tarzan’s Jane and Busty-Buxom-Barmaid spill out onto urban edgelands. The literal translation of Lindsay’s characters, over-dressed and over-acted, pays homage to the cabaretesque crude humour and theatricality of his dramatic scenes. Subtlety and seriousness are out the window and in true Lindsay fashion the new work is best consumed with a not-so healthily portioned pinch of salt.
The performance on the opening night for instance required seasoning, as Benson transformed from macho security guard to hairy pole dancer transvestite and Kivinen free-styled a dance interpretation of Nymph-Clubber-Slut. The Benson-Kivinen dance lift, cue Dirty Dancing (1987) finale moment, would have looked more at home in Blades of Glory (2007).
Adding a ‘gender bender’ twist to Lindsay’s outdated gender politics would have benefited, however, from a more subtle deconstruction of identity. From Shakespeare’s Much A Do About Nothing to The Rocky Horror Show cross-dressing is a staple ingredient of historical theatre and does not inherently invest postmodern conceptual rigour. As Benson’s successful solo aesthetic marries the dream-like and romantic with the sinister and surreal – qualities abundant in Lindsay’s fantastical works – this presented a missed opportunity.
An other-worldliness is captured in the photographs resembling set-shots from surreal theatre productions. Play Ground’s diffused light and slightly blurry quality observes a mysterious moment mid-choreography, while A Courtly Game glimpses a scene unfolding in a multi-storey car park. Witnessing performances made to an ambiguous audience has an eerie, voyeuristic feel and introduces the viewer into an interesting performer-audience dynamic. Photographically the images are beautifully taken – crisp, clean, and technically accomplished. Yet overall this clarity seems to sacrifice a magical or mysterious quality. In the cold light of Sydney’s sunshine and street lamps it is artist-in-fancy-dress that is highlighted, making Intrigue, for example, quite self-explanatory.
Also taken perhaps too literally is Lindsay’s love for the female nude. While Lindsay was being rebellious we are no longer rebounding from uptight Victorian values. Instead we are used to nudity in entertainment and the media whilst well aware of feminist critiques on the representation of women. So in this present-day condition is the straight reproduction of Lindsay’s nudity either productive or critical? The playful and parodic nature of the Dream Merchant series, however, belies harsh critique. After all, shining a headlight up Liam Benson’s arse can surely only be read as droll rather than dramatic. Nevertheless in the literal translation and crisp photography some of the magic of Lindsay’s oeuvre is lost; albeit erotic and crass his work is also sensitive and surreal.
Dream Merchant undoubtedly breathed new life into Lindsay’s contribution to the ‘hothouse genre’. Certainly for the elderly audience members in the front row practically dodging dancing breasts, the generational gap was for a moment bridged. But the extent to which the exhibition reinvested new meaning is questionable. A local man, both fiercely proud of his area but bemused why I would want to visit, offered to take me on a tour of the main strip to view the multicultural groups of kids, and if it got lively later on, the riot vans and police horses. I can’t help but feel this invitation offered perhaps a more insightful, multi-faceted ‘walk through the streets and environs of present-day cultural Western Sydney’.
Dream Merchant was exhibited at Blacktown Arts Centre from 7 November 2008 – 31 January 2009. The show featured: Liam Benson, Sari TM Kivinen, Victoria Lawson and Naomi Oliver.
[i] Norman Lindsay with one of his sculptures in the grounds of Springwood, photographed by Douglas Glass, 1949
[ii] ‘Art Nouveau Erotica’, Playboy (US ed) V14. N12. 1967
[iii] An ironic incident as Lindsay had shipped them out of Australia to avoid the threat of war
Originally published in Runway, Issue 13, Dead, Autumn 2009, pp.76-77.