I recently attended the Venice Biennale and then visited other European cities. I saw such interesting and sometimes great contemporary art that I thought I should blog about the highlights.

Established in 1895, the Venice Biennale is the oldest and most prestigious in the world. The 57th International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia runs until November 26th 2017.

Australian Pavilion, showing the work Vigil from Tracey Moffatt’s MY HORIZON. Photograph by John Gollings

Australia’s representative this year is Tracey Moffatt and having known her since 1984 and watched her career with fascination, like many others, I wanted to attend the opening.

A magical day began with the hauntingly beautiful voice of Deborah Cheetham singing in an Aboriginal language.  Tracey  Moffatt’s  MY HORIZON  consists of 2 evocative photographic bodies of work Passage and Body Remembers, and two new video works, Vigil and The White Ghosts Sailed In.


Passage by Tracey Moffatt from MY HORIZON. Photograph by John Gollings.

According to art critic Holland Cotter for the New York Times the Biennale is “tame” and “does not reflect a drastically changed world, and it fails to cohere”. Tracey Moffatt however, was singled out as one of the few artists to leave a “lasting impression” with her work touching on the tragedy of mass social displacement, past and present.

In the latest Artlink magazine Djon Mundine writes about MY HORIZON and Tracey Moffatt here.

The Biennale offers a very diverse selection of artists – I was lucky to catch a talk by Mark Bradford, the lively US artist, but many others, from all over the world and working in many mediums, were not well known to me. Older women like Romania’s Greta Bratescu and the UK’s Phyllida Barlow were given overdue recognition. (Elizabeth Cummings in Australia aged 80+ is also finally getting the recognition she deserves and her exhibition Elizabeth Cummings: Interior Landscapes at the SH Ervin Gallery, Sydney runs until 23 July).

The formal Biennale is in a park called the Giardini.  30 countries have pavilions there, and another 29 are available to other countries.  The artists of some participating countries are also exhibited in other parts of Venice.

But the International Art Exhibition also includes a curated exhibition, in 2017 entitled Viva Arte Viva, and is a selection of many artists from all over the world.  This is situated in the Central Pavilion (in the Giardini), and a short walk away, at the Arsenale, the old shipyard and armory buildings.

The Arsenale provides an intriguing long walk through huge and wonderful buildings with many interesting artists of all ages and working in many mediums, and some collaborations and community projects.  Indigenous artists and African countries are quite well represented.

from Emissaries by Lisa Reihana

The centrepiece of New Zealand artist Lisa Reihana’s Emissaries is a huge screen panorama of the arrival of Captain Cook in the Pacific.  Lisa’s In Pursuit of Venus was described as the best artwork in Venice by the Sunday Times critic and a “witty mix of live action and cunning special effects” that unfolds “in a riveting animated sequence”.

In the latest Artlink magazine Nicholas Thomas writes here about Lisa Reihana and how her work is an animated digital recreation of a giant French wallpaper, Les Sauvages de la Pacifique.  This wallpaper was printed in 1804-6 and was a romanticised imagining of Oceania.

Some critics have been unkind about Damien Hirst’s 50 million pound effort Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable with extraordinary supposed “salvaged” treasures from the monumental to the exquisitely tiny and precious. These are exhibited throughout Punta Della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi, two superb Venetian buildings owned by François Pinault.  Hirst’s colossal and menacing bronze Demon – 18 metres high and up to the third floor in the forecourt of the Palazzo Grassi, is unforgettable.

Demon by Damien Hirst. Image sourced from Culto.latercera.com.

Other excellent exhibitions are scattered through the city and some people have come to Venice especially to see Philip Guston and The Poet’s exhibition which is at Gallerie dell’ Accademia di Venezia until 3 September 2017.

Lorenzo Quinn - Biennale site - big hands

Lorenzo Quinn, Venice Biennale. Image sourced from The Telegraph.

20 million tourists visit Venice each year and Venetians don’t think they can absorb any more. Opposition to giant cruise liners is growing as they disgorge thousands of daytrippers that do not necessarily contribute to the economy, and the ships damage the lagoon.

Lake Como May 2017, Ace Bourke

I finally visited Lake Como and it was as lovely as I imagined. It was wonderful being in Europe again and spending time in beautiful cities, and leisurely visiting art galleries and museums with friends. I loved reading the newspapers which were full of the French and British elections and then unfortunately the terror attacks. Despite the tensions and political upheavals, people overall seemed to be primarily enjoying summer. With heightened security concerns, long queues at airports were understandable but seemingly interminable.


African mask by Romuald Hazoumè

PARIS: This African mask by Romuald Hazoumè was made from discarded biros he found each day.  He is one of many artists in a most exciting exhibition at the Fondation Louis Vuitton: ART/AFRICA The new workshop. It consists of three components: a private collection begun in 1989 by Jean Pigozzi; a curated exhibition of South African artists; and African works from the Louis Vuitton collection.  It is a fascinating exhibition: an imaginative and innovative use of materials; many mediums; a chance to see/share their world view; and a melding of traditional influences and new interpretations and directions.

Writing  recently about this exhibition, The Economist claimed that contemporary African art was “the next big thing” – replacing the interest in Chinese art, and it certainly has a unique imaginative creativity and vitality.

Frank Gehry’s Fondation Louis Vuitton by Ace Bourke

Architect Frank Gehry’s Louis Vuitton Fondation is undoubtedly very beautiful and a signature building.  It took 10 years to build and was apparently technologically challenging. Some buildings can be about the ego of the architect or the client, and can overwhelm the central purpose, and I think in this case some exhibition space for art was sacrificed.  Arken, south of Copenhagen was renovated in 2008, and is both an interesting and utilitarian museum of art.  In London people complained that the extension to the Tate Modern did not achieve a great deal.

The Fondazione Prada in Milan is also a strong architectural statement but I found it dark, austere and unwelcoming.  Milan was yet another historic and attractive Italian city, but with some new and exciting architecture.

Milan by Ace Bourke

I finally made it to Musée du quai Branly in Paris to see the museum where in 2013 Australian Aboriginal art had been incorporated architecturally into spaces in the building, including the cloud series by Michael Riley.  Also at this museum I saw an eclectic exhibition Picasso Primitif  (until 3 July) with paintings by him and objects that he had owned or had influenced him.  There was also a very precious exhibition La Pierre sacrée des Māori of jade objects sacred and sometimes magical to New Zealand Maoris (until 1st October).

The museum’s collection of traditional and indigenous cultural objects from all over the world is superb. Unfortunately, Australian Aboriginal art is exhibited rather badly, especially a group of bark paintings.  For decades now in Australia Aboriginal art has not been exhibited ethnographically, but as contemporary art in art galleries and museums.

In Paris I also visited art dealer Hervé Perdriolle who I initially met through a shared admiration for the work of the late Indian artist Jangargh Singh Shyam. He gave me a copy of his handsome and comprehensive book Indian Contemporary Art which concentrates on tribal artists.

The Pompidou Centre, Paris by Ace Bourke

The Pompidou Centre is 40 years old, and although a little tired looking is still a very striking building that invigorated the whole area. Until 14 August there is a very impressive exhibition covering the long career of photographer Walker Evans (USA 1905 – 1967).  Well known for his portraits of ordinary people, he was a very versatile and wide ranging photographer. There was also an exhibition of the black and white photographs of Czech Joseph Koudelka who Michael Riley often said had particularly influenced him.

Hokusai’s The Great Wave

LONDON: HOKUSAI: Beyond the Great Wave at the British Museum (until 13 August) is a very comprehensive exhibition of the work of the Japanese artist Hokusai. Life presented him with many challenges over his long but always productive career.  The commission in 1830 and success of the Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji woodblock prints was a very welcome respite from financial hardship and family pressures for Hokusai.

The NGV in Melbourne is also showing Hokusai  (21 July – 15 October) which also includes The Great Wave, probably the most famous Japanese work of art. This exhibition also spans his entire life with 150 works including woodblock prints, rare paintings on silk, and hand painted manga.

In 1996 I saw a definitive Alberto Giacometti  1901 – 1966 exhibition in London at the Royal Academy of Arts. GIACOMETTI at the Tate Modern until 10 September 2017 is a smaller but intelligently curated and selected exhibition of sculptures and drawings. You can read The Sunday Times review of the exhibition here.

Battle of Britain by Grayson Perry

I was fortunate to just catch DAVID HOCKNEY: 60 YEARS at the Tate Britain, but I missed Grayson Perry’s The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! which is now on at the Serpentine until 10 September. Read his amusing and informative article about popularity in the art world in The Guardian here.

Henning Larsen’s Opera House, Copenhagen

COPENHAGEN: Copenhagen was another lovely city with beautiful old architecture and the addition of exciting new buildings. I was extremely lucky to see South African artist William Kentridge’s extensive multi media exhibition THICK TIME at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art north of Copenhagen before it closed. It may have been the best and most absorbing exhibition I saw in Europe, and he is one of the world’s greatest living artists.

The museum is situated in beautiful gardens looking out to sea across to Sweden with strategically placed sculpture by Alexander Calder, Henry Moore etc.  Lunch in the restaurant was delicious  – I found it surprisingly hard as a vegetarian in Europe.  The museum shop was full of an extensive range of superb world renowned Scandinavian design. Denmark has recently topped the Social Progress Index – a survey of the best places to live. I asked a friend “what underpins the Danish economy?”.  “Know-how”.

William Kentridge, THICK TIME

LIONS: With World Lion Day coming up on August 10th and Christian’s birthday on the 12th August I will blog about how enjoyable it was to recently catch up in London with friends very involved with Christian the lion.

The last wild. Copyright Steve Winter

The Last Wild Picture Copyright Steve Winter

The Australian Museum, Sydney, are staging (until 7 October) the  annual international touring exhibition of the Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year (2012).  There are various categories and photographers of all ages, and many very exciting and dramatic photographs of birds, animals and wildlife, often in the most beautiful and dramatic landscapes. These Bengal tigers particularly caught my attention. Firstly, they looked beautiful and I liked the composition and reflection.  Secondly, I thought of Tony the Tiger still imprisoned (click here to read about a victory in the Louisiana courts – but there is still a long way to go I fear). But there was also something I found unsettling about the photograph – the tigers looked sad, and were they in the wild or not?  Apparently, the two 14 month old cubs have  killed people, and are in a facility for “problem” tigers in Bhopal, India. Fewer than 3,200 remain in the wild.

Turtle Gem Copyright Jordi Chias (Spain)

Turtle Gem Copyright Jordi Chias (Spain)

There are several very confronting images in the photography exhibition – it can be brutal in the wild as Christian (and Mugie) learned, and I wonder if distressing photographs of animals galvanise you into action? Animal welfare activists often seem to delight in gory photographs, or to be able to talk for hours about the dire conditions of battery hen egg farming for example.  I suppose I am squeamish and I respond better to positive images and discussions of possible solutions.  Australian artist Anne Zahalka recently created this image to be used in a WSPA campaign against live cattle exports.  It was designed  apparently to make us “stop and gasp” –  it is undoubtedly thought provoking.

The worst journey from the best place by Anne Zahalka

The worst journey from the best place by Anne Zahalka

ANIMAL WELFARE LEAGUE: A few months ago I spoke at a conference of the Animal Welfare League NSW.  The organisation exists on donations and manages to run vital services and various campaigns, against puppy farming for example.  Dogs and cats that are to be “rehomed” are well looked after in the excellent animal shelters in the outer Sydney suburbs of Ingleside and Kemps Creek. I must admit I did leave a little broken-hearted, and wish I could have brought a few cats and a dog home.  The organisation primarily relies on the efforts of volunteers, and I was particularly impressed with how lovingly and respectfully they spoke about the animals in their care.  Euthanasia is viewed as a last resort and only for severely injured or very ill animals.

Mountain Gorilla by Daniel Taylor (acrylic)

Mountain Gorilla by Daniel Taylor (acrylic)

This is a painting!  Daniel Taylor takes many months to finish a painting like this. Only 790 gorillas remain in the wild. You can read about Daniel’s work, his concern for endangered species, what inspires him, and prints of this and other images can be purchased from him here.

MISC ANIMAL & WILDLIFE NEWS:  The International Union for Conservation of Nature recently released their Red List of Threatened Species: 20,934 up from 20,219 last October.  Australia has taken Japan to the International Court of Justice over whaling and we are still yet to see real evidence of any new “scientific data” that they pretend comes from their cruel activities.  Six thousand tonnes of frozen whale meat remains uneaten.  Meanwhile the health of our Great Barrier Reef has just been downgraded to “poor” which is shameful. A successful AVAAZ campaign has seen Europe ban bee killing pesticides for two years. From December 2015 travelling circuses in the UK will be banned from using wild animals.

MUGIE:  I was very shocked and upset to hear of the death of Mugie.  He was the first lion to be introduced to the wild at Kora since George Adamson’s time, now so long ago.   He was killed by a pack of up to 8 hyenas.  It is a reminder of how fortunate Christian was to survive those first dangerous years.  I suppose these days I should not have been surprised to hear the news first through social media rather than directly from the George Adamson Wildlife Protection Trust.  See the released statement about Mugie’s sad death.

I recently spoke to Aidan Basnett who lives in Sydney and on his own initiative has created a Facebook page to raise awareness of GAWPT in this region, and to reflect his love for Africa and animals.  He grew up in Kenya and he unearths great vintage photographs, especially of Joy and George Adamson.  In September he is organising an 11 day trip to Kenya and Kora.  This tour is being run by Bush and Events Africa, click here to view the itinerary.

D’Omah Hotel, Jogjakarta photo by Ace Bourke

D’Omah Hotel, Jogjakarta photo by Ace Bourke

TRAVEL: A while ago, quite a few friends from all over the world met in Jogjakarta, Indonesia, to celebrate Made Wijaya’s birthday.  It was held at the beautiful D’Omah Hotel on the outskirts of the city and we had dinner set up in this garden (above) while being entertained by Made’s fascinating life story.  He grew up as “Michael White”  in Sydney but moved to Bali many years ago, immersing himself in the cultural life, and designing famous gardens around the world.  Jogja is quite an art hub these days, but unfortunately I did not have much time to appreciate this.  I met former Sydney curator Malcolm Smith who has just opened Gallery KRACK there, with 22 artists creating a print in the upstairs studio for the first exhibition.

Borobudur, Java photo by Ace Bourke

Borobudur, Java photo by Ace Bourke

I took the opportunity to visit Borobudur, the 8th century sacred Buddhist stone temple built three centuries earlier than Angkor Wat in Cambodia which I was lucky enough to visit several years ago.  While not on the scale of Angkor Wat (where yet another city has recently been discovered in the nearby mountains), Borobudur is a beautifully sited single structure, and through its construction and carvings ranks as one of the world’s wonders. I felt very lucky to have finally visited it.

Borobudur, Java photo by Ace Bourke

Borobudur, Java photo by Ace Bourke

WORLD:  There is evidence of the depressing effect on us of the often bad and catastrophic news that we are now bombarded with 24/7.  I don’t want to add to that by blogging about much of it – although of course I follow everything avidly. It is depressing counting the deaths as they mount in Syria (93,000), and worrying about the wider implications for the region.  Many of these countries are colonial constructs, and “Syria”  may end up divided and cease to exist as we know it.   We can at least help to support the millions of refugees.  The UNHCR have a Syria Crisis Urgent Appeal and one can donate online at www.unrefugees.org.au.

It is also depressing to keep counting the asylum seekers who continue to drown setting out for Australia in transit from Indonesia in leaky boats (50 a few weeks ago).  There is a complete lack of compassion from both major political parties (and it seems the majority of Australians) for the relatively few asylum seekers we receive, and 90% have proven to be genuine refugees.

Egypt is at a very dangerous crossroads – again, but perhaps the revolution can continue.  It is a reminder that democracy is a work in progress (especially an “Islamic” one), and more than just a vote in an election.  The Muslim Brotherhood were intent on consolidating their own position, and were not inclusive or competent.  It has also been concerning that it was necessary for the “middle class” protests  in Turkey and Brazil.

Rainbow south of Bundeena July 2013 by Ace Bourke

Rainbow south of Bundeena July 2013 by Ace Bourke

AUSTRALIA:  Recently we have had an outbreak of ugly racist and sexist slurs indicating unfortunately just how widespread these attitudes are.  We have very influential conservative radio shock jocks here who give people a licence for bad behaviour.  Seemingly each week yet another sportsman gets drunk and behaves badly, and there have been scandals and controversy over the use of performance enhancing drugs and the encouragement of betting and drinking  by sport’s major sponsors.  These Gen Y sport stars are young, very well paid and obviously resent the limitations officials try and impose on them.

I’m also going to try and avoid blogging  too much about the nerve wracking countdown to our election due by November. Although Australia out-performed all other countries during the GFC and has maintained a triple-A credit rating, the government has been incompetent at selling their achievements which also include some very major reforms in education, disability and climate change. There have been unsavoury scandals, and an unforgivable lack of political nous. The Opposition led by Tony “Mad Monk” Abbott seemed to be about to coast to a convincing victory, despite seemingly having had 3 slogans masquerading as policies for the last three years.

Horderns Beach Bundeena July 2013 by Ace Bourke

Horderns Beach Bundeena July 2013 by Ace Bourke

All this changed recently when Kevin Rudd became Prime Minister again, deposing Julia Gillard who had deposed him as PM in a coup several years ago.  (It has been said that people don’t like Julia until they meet her, and they like Kevin until they do). He stalked her for 3 years and was prepared to sabotage the Labor party and undermine her very real achievements in the process.  Rudd has been described by some of his colleagues as a “megalomaniac” that governed “chaotically”.  He is very Machiavellian, never seems to sleep, and is a complete media whore. He loves to roam around shopping malls, and the general public – who probably would not be able to name one of his policies, love him for some unimaginable reason.  However, Rudd is very articulate and clever, and the polls have immediately lifted 10% in his favour from Gillard’s unchanging disastrous lows, putting Labor “back in the game”.

So Australia has to choose between two men I actually find very scary and repugnant.  Abbott is disliked by the public and is already looking rather rattled by recycled Rudd. The Opposition could panic like Labor and re-install ex leader Malcolm Turnbull who many voters of all persuasions prefer.

HOPE:  What is heartening is the increase in more independent news sources like the online The Conversation, The Guardian Australia, crikey.com, PolitiFact.com.au, and Margo Kingston’s No Fibs which are more objective and are challenging the accuracy of information, and providing a balance to the partisan and insidious influence of Rupert Murdoch.  Few media organisations can afford time consuming investigative journalism any more, and the ABC and the Sydney Morning Herald are also adding Fact Checking components. I do like Al-Jazeera providing a broader perspective to our parochial local news, but one does have to remember, especially in relation to Egypt at the moment, that they are based in Qatar and the ruling family are strong backers of the Muslim Brotherhood.

While some may criticise their methods or motives, we are indebted to Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, and Edward Snowden who at great personal risk have dramatically given us a greater understanding of how governments operate.

US: One can only be appalled to learn of President Obama’s industrial scale espionage and surveillance embedded in phone, internet and computer services of 38 foreign embassies in Washington and the UN in New York.  The European Union has been hacked and bugged not only in the US, but in Brussels.  No doubt most countries actively engage in this, but it is the level of surveillance revealed which is alarming.

In his favour, Obama has just promised $10 million towards animal protection in Africa – especially elephants and rhinos.

Hurricane Sandy and the extreme weather everywhere, seems to have encouraged Obama to address climate change.  This issue appeared off the agenda in his first term.  China is also acting – primarily because of community anger over shocking air pollution.  Despite Australia having just had the hottest summer on record, and droughts and floods simultaneously, our potential next conservative leader has in the past described climate change as “crap” and has a pretend policy that no-one much takes seriously.

Neither side of politics dare address the fact that 80% of fossil fuels will have to remain  in the ground if we are serious about the future.

Tracey by Michael Riley 1986

Tracey by Michael Riley 1986

MICHAEL RILEY (1960-2004): In 1986, Tracey Moffatt (above) and I staged the first ever exhibition of Aboriginal photographers.  It challenged the stereotypical representation of Aboriginal people.  This was when this extraordinary  generation of Aboriginal artists, arts curators and administrators began to compete very successfully in the contemporary Australian art world.

Tracey Moffatt is the best known Australian artist internationally, and last year was honoured with a retrospective of her film work at MOMA.

Michael Riley and others became very good friends of mine and we were all very shocked by his early death from renal failure.  Aboriginal health, life expectancy, and the living conditions and lack of opportunities for many, remain a national disgrace. Michael is represented by The Commercial Gallery in Sydney, and his exhibition of portraits taken between 1984 and 1990 are on exhibition there (and online) until 20 July.  Additional information on Michael, including his film work, can also be seen at www.michaelriley.com.au.

It has been a privilege for me to witness Aboriginal art deservedly catch the attention of the world over the last few decades. I have been fortunate to work with many Aboriginal artists from both remote and urban areas, and it has been central to my working life.  In all the interviews we have given about Christian in the last few years, not one person has ever asked me what I have done in the intervening 40 years!  (My agent says “get over it”).

Darrell by Michael Riley 1987

Darrell by Michael Riley 1987

WATCHING:  Sport, sport, sport. The French Open and then Wimbledon have been in the  middle of the night for us and it has been irresistible but exhausting – and now the cricket Ashes have begun in England.  Key rugby league (State of Origin), union (Lions Tour) and soccer games have just been played, and mostly lost.  I remember the days when Australia seemed so dominant in sport, particularly cricket, tennis and swimming!  People are surprised I love sport so much, and also that I sometimes watch television programs such as The Voice. I think these programs can unearth real talent. I was thrilled that young Harrington Craig won The Voice. He has an amazingly mature and beautiful voice, and the X factor.

MAIL:  Thanks for those of you concerned by my silence over the last few months.  Apart from doing other things, this is partly explained by some of my comments this blog.  I do view writing a blog as a great responsibility, and I try very hard to understand the issues, and to be objective and accurate.  While what my views are on the world, politics, leaders etc are irrelevant in the scheme of things, I do think I have an obligation to Christian to speak up for animal welfare and animal rights, and related animal/human issues.  We all have an obligation to work towards a sustainable planet for us and for future generations, and I know many of you feel the same.

Many of us have recently lost either friends, relatives or companion animals and my deep sympathies are with you.

Deb, a complete cat addict continues to source irresistible photographs. Cats dominate the internet and many of our lives – but unfortunately they do have a devastating effect on native animals, and we should definitely keep them inside at night.

Congratulations to Tracey Moffatt for being awarded the 2012 Australia Council Visual Arts Laureate Award, and to Jenny Kee for becoming the 2013 Australian Fashion Laureate – both are so deserving.

Thanks to Jennifer (from Sophistocat) for this photograph of lions in the traffic in Nairobi, Kenya!

Traffic in Nairobi Copyright Gareth Jones, Barcroft Media

Traffic in Nairobi Copyright Gareth Jones, Barcroft Media