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Nick Waterlow OAM Memorial Lecture – Rupert Myer AO

Speeches and Opinions
Mar 20, 2018

Thank you for hosting, Maud, and thank you, Jo-Anne, for your generous remarks. Congratulations to you, Mami, the board and staff of the Sydney Biennale for conceiving of and implementing the 21st Biennale of Sydney, Superposition: Equilibrium and Engagement.  Thank you for the invitation to make some introductory remarks this evening.

I would also like to acknowledge that we meet on the land of the Gagdigal people of the Eora nation and I pay respects to elders past, present and emerging.

Distinguished guests.

On behalf of the Australia Council for the Arts, I would also like to welcome and thank René Block for agreeing to travel here for the Sydney Biennale, to be amongst friends and to deliver this Nick Waterlow Memorial Lecture.  The title of your lecture, A propos of myself: Am I or is Australia far away? is so apt for the time, for the place of our artists and our audiences in the world, for our cultural ambition and for the themes of this Biennale.  We all greatly look forward to hearing how you navigate us through this timely subject.

One of the privileges of my life was knowing Nick Waterlow. He was encouraging and profound, gently and firmly compelling, charming, whimsical. Grounded like stone but able to lean in, his curatorial work and ideas took hold often in rocky places and they thrived, were persuasive. The last time I saw Nick was at a dinner at the National Gallery of Australia. He and Juliet had come to support an opening event, as they would, and we sat in the members lounge at long tables. He was a rock star there, loved and admired.  His presence in the building was a joy for the curators and staff.  He brought the perspective of the other, recognised the value of contested ideas, the value of time.  He saw humility as an enabler not an inhibitor, and he knew that he could attain humility by serving others.

A named lecture is a wonderful way to honour the life, ideas, work and achievements of an individual.  As we gather for this Biennale, we do so at a time when there seems little room in public debate about art for gentleness, for nuance and subtlety, for connoisseurship (now there is a word that doesn’t get much use), for thirst for knowledge, for learning from each other, for deft curatorial practices rewarding personal discoveries, surprises and delights.  So often it’s a case of ‘didya gettit?’ with no room left for discussion, for the paradoxes and inconsistencies, for the relativities.  Audiences are being railroaded and, too often, are being told what to think.

We should all be afraid when the ‘I’ defaults to the ‘We’ with the accompanying assertion of a singular totemic view about the worth of ideas.  Don’t buy it.  You don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to think differently.  Don’t be scared.  Speak up.

These introductory remarks may seem to honour an earlier place and time when the democracy of ideas was more widespread.  Indeed, they do serve to honour a greater spirit of cultural democracy with the warmth of inclusion and the rejection of such a totemic view, determined by only a few.

As in this Sydney Biennale, it is the sum of freshly minted insights as well as the reinterpretation of ancient ideas that should enlighten audiences, and be thoughtful, provocative and challenging. It is the plurality of ideas, the broad views of histories and hugely diverse interpretations of the present that save us from the narrow views and propaganda of some.  What a comfort it is to know that art and artists play a central and critical role in this.

Nick would want us, I think, to get busy interpreting and synthesising the ideas and techniques of the artist to help us navigate our times, our work, our relationships, our everyday.  And I am sure that he would want us to place centrally in our lives the quiet contemplation of the object and the animation of our own aesthetic, imagination and taste. We set the agenda for our own lives.  We do that by choosing, by being deliberative, by being human.  We don’t do it by waiting to be told.

In another place, not so long ago, I told an audience that I had the great good fortune of living in a household of enthusiastic musicians.  Our mealtimes are often taken up discussing composers, instruments, past performances and up-coming concerts. Of course, there are also expressions of frustrations about the time taken to practice and rehearse.  Our direct personal experience is in complete alignment with what is endlessly researched and known implicitly: that there is a strong positive correlation between musical knowledge and performance with high academic attainment as well as a ‘way in’ to contemporary culture.  The evidence is overwhelming.  Too often the belief is scant, especially amongst those that should know better.

But even that doesn’t tell the full story, not even half of it.  The real story is that musical knowledge and performance prepare you for lifetimes of musical pleasure and an ability to communicate across geographies and cultures.  It is no exaggeration to say that it’s a short cut to a happy life.  Participation in the visual arts, and a wallowing in contemporary expression, ideas, enthusiasms, experiences, experimentations, diversities, are two further ways to achieve those inestimable pleasures.

It now gives me great pleasure to introduce Mami Kataoka, the inspired and inspiring Artistic Director of the 2018 Sydney Biennale.


Rupert Myer AO, Chair, Australia Council