On Audi's Arts Adventure

Left: Yves Klein, The Ritual for a Zone of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility (with Dino Buzzati), Paris, 26 January, 1962. Photo: Shunk-Kender © Roy Lichtenstein Foundation; J.G. Ballard, Crash, first edition cover design, published by Jonathan Cape, London, 1973.

It must have seemed like madness to the skipper of the barge, the street sweeper and the Madame’s housekeeper in the crisp Parisian morning air. But there it was, a handsome man in bow-tie, dinner suit and trench coat—two men in fact, and another taking pictures—as the first inexplicably deposited, indeed flung with a kind of obnoxious glee, pieces of gold into the Seine. The man was Yves Klein. It was January 26, 1962, and four months later he was dead.

This action was part of what Klein termed his Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle ('Zone of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility'), a suite of works in which the artist commodified empty space, selling it in exchange for gold and ritualising the transaction by staging a ceremony on the banks of the Seine in which the buyer was invited to burn a cheque (the nominated evidentiary receipt of sale) while Klein released the precious metal to the murky depths. His revolutionary heart was patently conflicted, however, as he kept half the gold for himself to incorporate in his late series of Monogold gold-leaf paintings that now routinely trade hands at auction for upwards of US$1.4 million. Half a century on the totalising effects of Klein’s contemporary Guy Debord’s categorisation of La Société du spectacle is water off a duck’s back. The principle of mutual beneficiaries in art historical legacies—of a cultural and financial inheritance—rules the day, and I think that is as it should be. In this sense, corporate partnerships are but one of many arrangements that can and do yield public good. But it is wise to remain ever attentive. As Debord rightly analysed the prerequisite structural hinge in this paradigm shift is the transmutation of language, as in the ever-growing vocabulary of the art of branding: awareness, identity, alignment, parity, differentiation, optimisation, repositioning, segmentation and the ominous sounding SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats). To be fair, the Situationists had their infuriating jargon too, as do, it is more than plain, those who write about art. 

I came to be a guest of Audi on their Audi Arts Adventure, a three-day jaunt for invited journalists, art directors and media content managers that would take in experiences of Audi’s corporate partnerships in art, theatre, fine dining and hospitality across the Eastern states, not because my formal professional capacity fulfilled their criteria, but simply because the Editor of Art Monthly Australia couldn't make it and instead was kind enough to wrangle an extension of his invitation to an underemployed writer. To its market competitors, no doubt, Audi enviably seems to have the lion’s share of prominent establishments in its keep. The first stop was Brisbane where we toured GoMA’s Sculpture is Everything, a title that is surely more provocative in reverse. That such an impressive show can be staged exclusively with works from its collection in such grand gallery spaces is an eye-popping reminder, as if yet more are needed, of QAGOMA and Brisbane’s hard-earned good fortune. Indeed QAGOMA’s coup of not simply hosting but working in partnership with the Prado to present Portrait of Spain is damn near flaunting it. Dinner at Matt Moran and Peter Sullivan’s Aria overlooking the Brisbane River was a treat, as indeed it was to recognise the beautiful creations of artist Szilvia György, pods of delicate spirals of white porcelain ribbons inside which frosted LED bulbs illuminate diners at their tables. As a long-time artist-in-residence at Sydney’s Newington Armory, I recently worked with Szilvia in presenting her work as part of an exhibition I curated for the Armory Gallery. Letting the pinot go to my head, it felt worthy of a self-serving tweet but, alas, I haven’t any followers; one might say my brand recognition is nil.

Daring not utter the four-letter word ‘work’ so that the adventure might continue unfettered by anything approximating professional responsibilities, the following day my fellow adventurers and I were chaperoned to Melbourne’s Rialto where on the 55th floor we entered Vue de Monde and experienced something of a culinary Ascension. If chefs are the new rock stars then head chef Shannon Bennett is Eddie Vedder, sharing rugged looks and the seemingly unshakeable will of a principled front man appreciative of his fans. The cumulative affect of liquid nitrogen (used to transform a bowl of delicate herbs into a palette cleanser accompanied by cucumber sorbet), paired with the scientifically cool hibernation chamber of the wine room and the portentous clouds that could be viewed rolling in from Bass Strait to blanket the city below, made the curatorial selection of a large Peter Booth painting of a snow-covered landscape at reception terrifically astute in signalling the kind of sensitivity to refinement one can expect at these heights. Having visited the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art earlier that day to be led through a survey of the work of Australian photomedia artist Pat Brassington, we spent the evening at Melbourne Theatre Company for the opening night of Caryl Churchhill’s Top Girls. As directed by Jenny Kemp the production proved mesmerising in performance and a timely, sharp jab to the guts given the ongoing derogatory treatment of our Prime Minister by sections of the media and gutter dwelling angry men. Reading The Age on the flight back to Sydney the next morning I came across the very public incident that befell TV personality Charlotte Dawson during the night and it occurred to me that the antibiosis of celebrity and ‘trolls’ is one sustained by equally unconvincing assertions to the right of free speech; in a fair measure of things the internet has assiduously amplified our diminished civility.

That evening I rocked up to the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia’s splendid quayside entrance to be greeted by the testosterone-charged V8 engines of Shaun Gladwell’s stupendous Interceptors. It was party time. In its fourth iteration as the branded ARTBAR the MCA was on this night given over to the creative ebullience of the hometown artist. And so it was that I wandered between floors to encounter, among other things, two riders balancing on bicycles in a stairwell; a games room with tricked-out Xbox amusements; the memorably named Last Imperial Death Star Photo Op; the techno-babble of cult band Toy Death who squeezed breakbeat ditties out of common electronic children’s toys; and a male and female duo outfitted in the by now distinctive Disruptive Pattern Desert Uniform of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan as they perambulated the galleries balancing (replica) automated rifles on their palms. Too stimulated to sit still, I confess I missed the action in the lecture theatre that included, a trusted source assured me, a diabolically satirical presentation on shoeboarding—a kind of skateboard-free skateboarding, or parkour-lite for the uninitiated—by Sydney artist Matthew Tumbers. Suddenly the round edges of the stairwell rails never looked so inviting to my scuffed brogues. A few more drinks and, as one would expect in Sydney, the good times continued on the rooftop where punters let loose on the dance floor overseen by a looming Harbour Bridge, its incontrovertible steel hulk and immovable presence in concrete reality as if a relic from a half-remembered civilisation.

In his introduction to a 1995 edition of his visionary, hallucinatory and transgressive novel Crash (1973), J. G. Ballard warned that the car is ‘a total metaphor for man’s life in today’s society.' Leaving the festivities behind I thought of the conceptual collision between Gladwell’s streamlined formalism and Klein’s prescient act of artistic audacity and how Ballard might have described it. In a chauffeur driven Audi A8 singularly and silently gliding through a tunnel on General Holmes Drive under Sydney Airport’s tarmac, it was easy to recall the perverse opening scene of Ballard’s novel in which he describes protagonist Dr Robert Vaughan’s spectacular self-initiated death as ‘his car jumped the rails of the London Airport flyover and plunged through the roof of a bus filled with airline passengers.' In the dead of the night, on my way home in Sydney’s southern suburbs, I found myself entombed in a fast moving object (Everything is Sculpture) of such unaccustomed glamour and expertly engineered tactile seduction that the white noise of the world beyond its metallic exoskeleton was effortlessly blocked out of mind. I felt somewhat anaesthetised; a peculiarly modern sensation of inner peace.

'I could die in here,' I blurted. 'That won’t happen,' the driver assured me with bemused professionalism. Wanting to change the subject, for levity’s sake as much as the driver’s, I asked, 'who’s the biggest celebrity you’ve chauffeured?' 'Well, my company handled Oprah when she was in town. But personally? I’d have to say Nicole Kidman. The nicest, too. Some clients treat me like shit, like I don’t exist, as if the car drives itself. But Nicole—Keith too for that matter—she’s a gem. This one time I drove her to a restaurant in Potts Point and when dinner was over her P.A. asked me in and made a point of introducing me by name as the driver. On their way out they took their time to thank the wait staff, the kitchen hands, everyone'. He paused, then said, 'She has everything yet understands the value of things. You know, bro?'

Pedro de Almeida was a guest of Audi on their Audi Arts Adventure, 29-31 August 2012.

Written in September 2012. Originally commissioned by Art Monthly Australia (unpublished).

© Pedro de Almeida 2012.