Bush goes punctual, he goes…..  



'Stephen Bush goes punctual, he goes.' Ideal Work, Adelaide: Experimental Art Foundation (1999)

Bush has definitively undermined the monolith of Western art history. That much goes without saying.

But let’s say it any way, for form’s sake. At a time when the end of art history has become orthodoxy, official recognition of this closure is yet to take place. The final wave of modernist transgressions is now subsiding into a network of artists run spaces, state-sponsored accessibility programs and hyperlinked web sites. Can we retrieve the bang out of the whimper?

The beginning of the end of the end

We know that dialogue with the absolute is no longer possible. Like Nietszche’s lunatic shouting ‘God is dead’, the scandal is not its announcement but the blithe continuity of life that follows it. Against this tide, there are a few ‘fools on the hill’ still groping for the absolute, clutching their books on deconstruction and negative theology. Following the Hebraic proscription of God’s name, the absolute is revered in silence.

The most literal expression of negative theology in art history may be found in the minimalist movements of painting and music. Yet such approximations of negatively are firmly located within a philosophical foundation of art as the science of mimesis. The kind of totalised minimalism we experience today is the absence not within art, but the termination of art as an historical quest.

Within modernism, Cassandras have been legion. How many theorists have heralded the end of art history? How many have bemoaned the persistence of institutions beyond their historical mandate? But while many passengers have observed the end of the road, the drivers are yet to apply the brakes.

Some may already have slipped out the back door without anyone noticing. We take for granted a rapid turnover of artists, so one less is easily ascribed to market downturn, alternative career opportunities or loss of self-confidence. Thus the problem in acknowledging the end of art by ceasing to make art: how can it be interpreted as neither personal failure nor just another clever work of art?

One answer to this conundrum is through fiction. In 1991, the lifestory of Melbourne painter Susan Fielder [1] was constructed to imagine what shape such a departure might take. Her career move into the medical speciality of oncology reflected the pathological state of art as a virus lacking any capacity to limit its reproduction.

As a fiction, such an exercise is destined for the margins of art history. For its full realisation, what this termination of art required was a definitive full stop. We needed a grand Samson-like gesture to bring down the Philistine temple forever. Without it, an art will continue which is empty of meaning—a mere epiphenomenon of cultural machinery. Radical surgery was required to excise this tumorous growth so that fresh spirited expression may replace it.

Digger Bush

So why did Stephen Bush elect himself to this role? Compared to the heroic artists such as Mike Parr, Bush is a downright effeminate figure who turns art history into a costume drama. But just as the parodic Dave Graney becomes the legitimate heir to the King of Pop throne, so Bush’s very inauthenticity qualifies him for the role of self-abnegating hero.

Bush is art’s Moses, releasing his people from their subservience to the Pharaohs of artistic genius by a miraculous parting of the earth. Long barred from the art academy, the people now have unlimited access to the very bowels of its bastion.

There is some irony in this victory. Popularism extended the life of the art world: ‘viewer empowerment’ provided justification for further tweaking the controls. But this popularism inevitably undermined it, for where is art without its privileged centre? Bargain with the devil and you sell your soul.

I exaggerate a little. Bush is not really altering the course of history. He is actually only dramatising it. Before Bush’s tunnel, institutions had already agreed to a dense web of excavations necessary for information cabling. The hydra of computer networks is in many senses an invisible realisation of Bush’s tunnel. They infiltrate the cathedra of power with agents of the public eye, leaving no shadows in which authority might be secreted. The clandestine nature of this process makes Bush’s shaft all the more revelatory.

In defence of radical realism

This inverted Christo gesture is a swan song of artistic genius and deserves celebration. It is disturbing then, to read a respected critic such as Dede Pol attack the artist. Until recently, Dede Pol was one of the best commentators of Bush’s art. Bush’s defiant obscurity seemed well placed in Pol’s characterisation of the Australian art scene. His interest in the karaoke culture of post-colonial Australia provided a rich context for reading the faux exoticism in Bush’s work.

Pol’s recent response to Bush’s tunnel project seems shortsighted in the least. The Lithuanian critic is dismayed by Bush’s ‘retreat from the speculative into the refuge of the actual’. Pol argues that Bush’s work would have been more coherent as a paper exercise, rather than an actual labour.

In the past, Bush’s work was pervaded with a charming aura of whimsy. His potato museum, the series of Baba paintings, and the last exhibition of personal specimens all invoked a subjunctive margin in the determinations of reality politics. Their distance from the real world delimited a space for the more creative impulses. Creativity, after all, is an autumn breeze—a potent mixture of the everyday and the fantastic. By choosing to ‘get real’ in planting these tunnels under the national museums, Bush is succumbing to a deeply logocentric model.

Unfortunately, Pol reveals a tokenism lurking behind his Baltic indulgence. Bush, for Pol, is a Yahoo Serious of the Australian art scene. Pol’s Bush is a gentle antipodean whose head is filled with marvellous fancies for the mild amusement of those from the Old World. Suddenly, this dreamer starts making a difference in the physical fabric of the world. He doesn’t belong here. Go back to the playroom.

I certainly think we should be grateful that an overseas commentator, particularly one as distinguished as Pol, takes an interest in our fringe culture. However, we need not accept his views as expert. After all, Pol lacks a familiarity with the milieu in which an artist such as Bush operates.

The leader of the artist’s state Victoria is billed as a man of action. He combines a magisterial supervision of great public works with a ministry of the finer things. One of the few recent openings he attended was the completion of a section of the City Link tunnel. This tunnel is being hacked through the innards of Melbourne so motorists are not distracted by scenery when they are passing through the city. So proud of this work of art was Jeff Kennett that he even asked workers to sign pieces of debris that he then installed in his office, alongside the Drysdales and Streetons.

The finer arts fit comfortably within this economy as a compartmentalisation of individual expression. Confined safely within the bluestone walls of the National Gallery they are kept apart from the real issues that affect the running of the state. Bush appropriates the heroic story of construction into his boudoir sensibility. It’s a bold break out from the crystal palace.

Others have attempted this before. Ivan Durant slaughtered a cow at entrance of the National Gallery of Victoria to bring some life (death?) to the cold institution. Another artist recently adorned the hoardings of a construction site with anti-state messages, so to be taken down. Yet none of these leaves a material impression to the degree of Stephen Bush’s. [2]

There is a collective sigh attending the tunnel construction, as though someone has at last braved the empty dance floor so others can release their pent up energies. This excavation inaugurates the ‘post-virtual’ age, when ephemeral concepts are winnowed out from substance and individual dreams coalesce into a collective reality. Trash becomes treasure in this New World of reality-snatchers.

Sugar in your latté?

While Pol might be excused for ignorance of the local political scene in which Bush operates, he should have acknowledged the role that Pauline Hansen played in this galvanisation.

When the One Nation party reproduced a Bush tractor painting on the cover of their upmarket publication, Latté Nation, there was understandable controversy. Many were surprised that the right-wing party had the imagination to extend its support beyond the bitter rural backwaters. Worse was the strange attraction this post-modern version of social realism had on otherwise cynical urban minds.

Bush naturally protested at the unauthorised use of his work, but some canny legal advice saved Latté Nation from copyright breach. The artist’s ironic use of social realism had now been tainted with its more literal use as a celebration of rural labour. While most rallied to support the artist against his exploitation by a neo-fascist movement, the damage had been done. Just as Nietzsche’s ideas were contaminated by their use in Nazi philosophy, so Bush’s oeuvre is now defiled in the realisation of usefulness to corruption. Naturally, there were some that took advantage of this to publish long-awaited attacks on decadence of local artists.

Dede Pol’s intervention misread the situation entirely. For Pol, this was not a tragic loss at all, but a cunning strategy to imitate the aggressor, in the style of Slovenian rock group Laibach. This argument is based on the assumption that Bush had control over the use of his painting, which we know to be otherwise. But even if Bush had deliberately put his painting in the hands of One Nation, Pol’s strategy would not make sense in an Australian context. On European soil, with a relatively fresh memory of totalitarian rule, an exposé of subliminal fascism would be quite effective. Here, this kind of passive aggression would be too easily dismissed as adolescent paranoia.

The real tragedy of Pol’s intervention is a missed opportunity to herald the exhaustion of irony. Only this would provide a sufficient preface to the radically unambivalent gesture that followed the One Nation affair. Of course, Bush could have responded with a heroic portrait of Pauline Hansen, in the style of Komar & Melamid, but that risked the even greater danger of becoming a direct endorsement of the movement’s leader.

No. Now that images circulate so widely, artistic intentions can no longer keep up with their subjects. In this situation, the best response is to create a work for which intention is irrelevant. Rather than a plaything of political interests, Bush now prefers to place himself at the dead centre of power.

The quandary of success

The curious question we ask ourself now is: ‘What follows?’ If Bush has successfully punctuated the progress of art, then we may well expect nothing to ensue. On the other hand, a cynical person might expect that the deracinated galleries would eventually adorn their tunnels as temporary exhibition spaces. What is not so easily imagined is the consequence of success. Will the ultimate triumph over art be to see masterpieces hung in McDonalds Restaurants? Perhaps it is the questions we now ask ourselves in the wake of Bush’s quarry that is his real achievement.

Would you buy a painting from this man?

[1] Her story is accessible online at “http://home.mira.net/~dpol/sf/sfhome”

[2] In Hegelian terms, this call to action represents a move away from the flower religion (‘self-less idea of self’) to the animal religion (‘being for self’) with its ‘earnestness of warring life’. Such conflict is no doubt likely to proceed with inevitable attempts to fill in the tunnels.