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Teams of artists and architects recently installed a suite of sculptural works at the RAIA’s Brisbane headquarters. John Macarthur reports on the Tekhné exhibition curated by Glen Henderson.

Above ‘Street Edge’ by Marian Drew with Larry Weston, photo by Sam Charlton. Below ‘Auditorium End’ by Craig Walsh with Michael Rayner and Michael Moore of Cox Rayner, photo Carl Berggren.

At the same time as ‘design’ becomes an armature of the new commerce of ideas and images, a new generation of government is keen to use the old ‘high’ arts of visual arts and architecture to regulate culture for the public good. And so Queensland has introduced a relatively generous public art acquisition policy, ‘ Built-in’, funded by a two percent levy on the cost of public buildings.
To my mind, Brisbane is already over-full of public art. This tends to be either contemporary sculptures which have been horribly compromised through bureaucratic concerns for public safety, or populist animal and funny-man things that help divorced fathers keep the children amused on custody weekends.
Local artists are hungry to work with architects yet nervous of the odium that public art can bring to a career in proper art. Many architects are fascinated and slightly jealous of the cultural authority of artists and keen to be associated with them, but are annoyed that there is a lack of recognition for architecture as cultural work. Both artists and architects know that the government has no little idea what they do, and doesn’t care so long as there is endless public consultation in the hope of popularity. Artists and architects secretly agree that whatever they do will not have short-term popularity: professional death for them.
Into this fraught territory, artist-curator Glen Henderson has injected the exhibition Tekhné: Artists + Architects. Her proposition was that artists and architects would work together to create site-specific installations on the facade and inside the RAIA’s Brisbane offices, to be displayed during the Queensland Art Gallery’s Asia-Pacific Triennale last September.
The architects and artists did work quite successfully together in teams and, given the unpromising interior of the Institute, produced some interesting works.
However, as objects, the works were generally in the genre of installation art – and this avoids issues of professional differentiation and
articulation which are involved in commissioning a public building with a substantial budget for art.
Certain works did show the kind of inflection that architecture might give to art.
Henderson’s own work with Michael Dickson and Malcolm Middleton of DEM Design was a neat illusion of a stair in the foyer. Wendy Mills worked with John Grealy of Davenport Campbell on an ingeniously structured stack of plates in the foyer. Rodney Spooner, an interesting artist who usually works in the site-specific installation of generic building forms, worked with Mara Francis and Gerry Holmes of Buchan Group to produce the most obviously architectural objects. They made some highly specific concrete blocks and posts which undemonstratively modified the auditorium entry. All the artists at the opening assumed these were a part of the building and only the architects realised that they were art because the carpet ran underneath them.
Henderson also commissioned a thoughtful catalogue essay from Charles Rice which (in advance of the work being produced) explains something of the history of the idea of tekhné as ‘the art or knowledge of making’. And at this level of making, the exhibition was a success. Even where it was not, it opened up the fascination that the sister arts have for one another at the level of working and producing things. But in the politics of culture, there is confusion (and animosity) about the social purpose of art; how its publics are formed and the meaning and value of art and architecture as disciplines. To have any hope of suturing this rupture and making space for real productive partnerships, there needs to be not just a subsidised market for art in public buildings but a lot more work on the conceptual relationship of art with architecture and the meaning of ‘public’.
John Macarthur is a senior lecturer in architecture at UQ



Published online: 1 Jan 2000


Architecture Australia, January 2000

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