When a fellow artist had occasion to use the keyboard of my computer, they pointed out the letter N was most used and asked why. Unable to answer, two things nevertheless struck me: its overuse was obvious and, although it was obvious, I had not noticed. Alarming enough, there was also this other thing: one would expect overuse of a vowel key, E especially, but N?
A month later, after the trauma of packing up my studio in Sydney and setting up camp in Perth, the answer occurred to me. N is for New. As a Mac user, the keyboard shortcut to open a new page, new window, new anything is ‘Command N’. New, it turns out, is my most overused word — even though I hardly write it.
Overused, too, is New in Australian contemporary art, where the word in its many guises — upcoming artist, fresh artist, young artist — finds PR pundits unable to muster any other distinction to excite an Australian audience.
This will sound dismissive, but I am not. For although all this hankering after the new in art is, well, not new — just as the blinding force of habit left my overuse of N unnoticed — the question is: What is it about the new in art that makes it overused, on the one hand, and so unseen on the other?
By way of answering, it is perhaps of no coincidence that I realised why I overuse the N key when just newly in Perth. Newness is, again, feeling new. This was encapsulated the other day when I purchased the latest issue of Vault magazine from a newsagent on Murray Street in the city, walked down William Street and over the Horseshoe Bridge to a coffee shop in Northbridge on the other side.
What struck me, while doing this, was the dawn-like feeling of walking along a path that held the captivating anticipation of what is new. Yet this feeling took an unexpected turn as I crossed the Horseshoe Bridge. For you see, although I am newly in Perth, I am not new to Perth, I was born here. Crossing the Horseshoe Bridge as a child, where every three of my treadmill steps would equal just one of my parents’, is one of the oldest things I know.
As a child, my heart would sink upon approach of the bridge. Every dint in its curb, every interval in its thickly bevelled balusters, every conversion that passed us by, every bit of dirt historically wedged, every bit of past that built the bridge and by which it stands, still today, exhausted me with information — let alone the sheer effort of willing my legs to keep up.
This time around, though, no dint nor baluster was noticed in what seemed a comparative five strides to cross the bridge — effortlessly. The difference between the effort, then, and the effortless, now, is not dissimilar to the difference between the unfamiliar and familiar, a difference generally accompanied by a sense of struggle.
In this way, struggle defines the new. While the ancients spent a lifetime of struggle to understand one mathematical problem, the same problem today takes a 15 year old just five strides to master. This is the speed of progress. Yet, often accompanying this speed is a mindlessness of the struggle that heralded the progress.
This, though, is necessary. We would become ineffective in our daily lives if we were to recall the genesis of each object we encounter whenever we encountered it. To be effective, the new has to become overlooked: a force of habit. In art, this habituation is the same — and this is the problem. For when we overlook the struggle of art’s new self-determination, we not only overlook the new, but we overlook the art.
This will sound strange coming from someone steeped in a 1960s Minimal art that is, for most, far from new. Yet this art is new, for me, for being so overused while so strikingly overlooked. What, then, in Minimal art is still to dawn? The fact its aesthetic space, the way it is self-determined, is yet to be seen, discussed, acknowledged.
Thanks: Toni Warburton