by Alex Wisser
The emergent in art is usually considered in terms of individual talent or intellectual and aesthetic trends. Emergency Display instead attempts to survey and remark upon a region of our city that seems to be emerging as an important locus for the production and exhibition of contemporary art: The Inner West. The conditions for such an emergence are first economic. Such a district must be affordable for artists to live and work in. Much else must happen, but first the material fact of having a roof over one’s head must be seen to. To pervert Brecht inexcusably, shelter first, then art. This is what happened in Sydney’s Eastern suburbs in the 80s and 90s, as it has happened in various neighborhoods in the major cities of the world. Perhaps the scale of comparison is larger than I should like, for I am not interested in comparing Sydney’s Inner West to Soho or Montmartre, but have in mind a far more humble hypothesis: That the material conditions for the emergence of such a district, make possible certain potentials for development, invention, and risk taking in art.
The immediate advantages of such an environment are already well known. The congregation of a large and diverse community of artists living and working in relative proximity makes possible opportunities for collective action, dialogue, and common discovery and development. There is another advantage though, one which is less commented on. The appearance of such a community provides a context for art production that acts as an alternative to the art world of commercial galleries, official academies, and traditional, establishment institutions. Within it, artists are free to make work that does not need to take into immediate consideration the social, cultural, or economic necessities that dominate the Art World. Discarding the worldly considerations of market, career, and even art history and theory, the artist is free to explore those values considered negative to the existing order. In a sense it detaches itself from the given, from what’s already established and makes room for alternative aesthetic and conceptual orders. The only important judge of the work is other artists, who prize honesty, courage, and invention over salability or relevance. The artist is free to take risks that museums and established commercial galleries could not condone — mostly because of the massive weight of economic, historical, and cultural capital invested in them.
This show is not meant to declare the emergence of the next great phase in modern art, but only to celebrate the particular fecundity that we are experiencing in Sydney’s Inner West — to note its singularity and if possible to raise its profile, to remark upon it with the hope of making it that little bit more coherent to itself and to the rest of what we call the art world. The percentages will remain the same. A few artists will make it into the galleries and on to the museum. Many will quit and work in advertising or television and others will persist quietly in their spare bedrooms, in the garage or in the shed, occasionally showing here or there to an audience of friends and fellow travelers. After all, we aren’t really talking about a place, but a time. And if all indicators are correct, soon even Marrickville and Newtown will be too expensive for the artist to live in. The commercial galleries and the establishment institutions are already here. Soon, the artists will pick up and move West to Canterbury perhaps or Burwood, or Strathfield. Wherever the rents aren’t too expensive and the warehouse space is plentiful. But that is the future.