With Ken Whisson: As If currently on show at Melbourne’s Heide Museum and scheduled to open at the MCA on 28 September, Curator Glenn Barkley discusses the collaboration.
You and Heide Curator Lesley Harding have collaborated on a major retrospective of Ken Whisson’s work entitled As If currently on show at Heide Museum in Melbourne until 15 July and coming to the MCA at the end of September. How did this partnership come about and when?
In 2009 I included the work of Ken Whisson in the MCA exhibition Making it New: Focus on Australian Art. I have had a long standing interest in Whisson’s work from when I first saw it as a painting student in 1992. In 2011 when we at the MCA started planning a Whisson retrospective we discovered that a similar plan was underway at Heide Museum of Modern Art – it made sense to combine our resources. It was felt by both institutions that a Whisson retrospective HAD to be shown in both cities.
Lesley is a great curator who’s writing and curating I admire and Heide is a terrific institution. The staff, from director Jason Smith to MCA alumni Linda Michael and Sue Cramer, and their team have been great to work with.
Heide is one the sacred sites of Australian art, and to work there has been a thrill personally.
Ken Whisson is such a prolific artist. How did you share the curatorial workload and selection process? Were you often in Melbourne and Lesley often in Sydney? Or was it more of a digital collaboration via Skype and email?
It was a collaboration between Lesley Harding and myself with important input from Ken. He had quite a clear idea about what he thought were key works. There are major holdings of his work with private collections in, mainly, Sydney and Melbourne, and also with both his galleries, Niagara Galleries in Melbourne and Watters Gallery in Sydney. The National Gallery of Australia, Canberra has the largest public collection of Ken’s work so we visited there also.
Ideas were discussed excitedly over the phone and in a series of meetings, usually combined with looking at works in both Sydney and Melbourne. Overall there has been a lot of support for the show from people who have been involved with Ken as collectors and supporters over many years. All were as excited and keen as us to see this long overdue survey of his work come to completion.
We also had the great fortune of being able to visit Ken in Perugia where he moved in 1977. Ken only holds on to a small amount of works, both paintings and drawings, for the most part he sends completed works back to Sydney and Melbourne but we did find a number of drawings in particular that revealed parts of his creative process as well as an early sketchbook and notebook all of which are included in the exhibition. Talking with Ken and spending time with him in Perugia a beautiful walled city with layers and layers of history was a privilege.
As we developed the ideas and list of works we constantly kept in touch with each other and with Ken. When writing the catalogue essay Ken gave us the freedom to explore our own ideas about his work and life.
Will the show at the MCA be very different in terms of the hang and art on display?
There are additional works in the MCA exhibition. The exhibition will take place over the new level 3 spaces. I am very excited about seeing it! We want to open up the new spaces as much as possible stripping back temporary walls, opening it up to natural light. It’s going to be exciting to see the works in such big expansive spaces.
In the resource room at Heide, there is a rather impressive selection of books that the artist has chosen to share with the public as his favoured texts. Without giving the whole list away, is there a particular book that you recommend for its insightfulness into Whisson’s practice? Will the MCA have something similar?
Ken is a great reader and, more recently, radio listener – always hungry for new ideas across a broad spectrum from music to politics. We developed a reading list with the artist that is published in the exhibition catalogue and forms the basis of the books in the exhibition resource room. We are also able to include the beautiful B+W film by Maya Huxley Ken Whisson, Artist (1973).
If I was going to recommend one book it is Herbert Marcuse One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (1964). BUT fiction wise I couldn’t go past Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Heart of a Dog – fantastic in so many ways. Working with Ken has been a revelation in terms of my own reading – Marcuse in particular is a tough book but well worth the effort and as revolutionary now as when it was published.
On another note, when was your very first visit to Heide?
When I was at high school one of the first books, maybe the first book, I read on modern Australian art was Richard Haese Rebels and Precursors: The Revolutionary Years of Australian Art (1981) which so fluently brings the period of the Melbourne moderns based around John and Sunday Reed at Heide to life. So the first time I went to Melbourne in 1993 while still at art school I went to Heide with my then girlfriend, now wife. I can’t remember what was on but do remember walking through the beautiful gardens.
Thinking about it reminds me of the Sweeney Reed work Telepoem (1969 – 75): LETS WALK A SKY TOGETHER STOP/AND HERE SILENT WORDS STOP/SOMETIME SOON STOP/LOVE STOP/TELEPOEM 1969 “HEIDE”
Ken Whisson: As If is on at Heide Museum of Modern Art until 15 July and then on at the MCA from 28 September to 25 November 2012.
Posted by Kelly Stone