Tag Archives: Robert Hughes

Summer Reading

I’ve been out of the blogging game for a while now (since August, in fact), but for good reason; in between finishing off my PhD thesis, I have been reacquainting myself with books that have nothing (or very little) to do with academia. Below is my summer reading list, an eclectic mix of fiction, nonfiction, fictional travel writing, art, and short stories. Enjoy!

1. Hav, Jan Morris (2006, originally published in 1985 as Last Letters from Hav)

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“Hav is like no place on earth. Rumoured to be the site of Troy, captured during the crusades and recaptured by Saladin, visited by Tolstoy, Hitler, Grace Kelly, and Princess Diana, this Mediterranean city-state is home to several architectural marvels and an annual rooftop race that is a feat of athleticism and insanity. As Jan Morris guides us through the corridors and quarters of Hav, we hear the mingling of Italian, Russian, and Arabic in its markets, delight in its famous snow raspberries, and meet the denizens of its casinos and cafés.”

Interesting note: In the 2006 introduction by sci-fi great Ursula K. Le Guin, the author points out that following the original publication of Hav, travel agents had to deal with dismayed clients who were told they couldn’t book a cheap flight to the illustrious city.

2. Lost Horizon, James Hilton, 1933

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The classic tale of a group of travellers whose plane is hijacked before it crashes into relatively unknown territory. They are greeted by lamas of the now-illustrious utopian lamasery  known as Shangri-La. One of the most well-known literary adventure novels, the book is well-written, although it retains much of the kind of outdated behaviours and observations common in the 1930s. This fact notwithstanding, the book is very engaging. Great for those who want a bit of escapism.

3. Pastoralia, George Saunders, 2000

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A weird and wonderful collection of stories, quite unlike anything you  may have read before… A satirical and somewhat scathing look at modern America, the stories are set in a run-down caveman-themed adventure park. Highly praised upon initial publication, Thomas Pynchon calls the work “graceful, dark, authentic, and funny.” It is perhaps the strangest thing you’ll read in a long while.

4. Buddha’s Little Finger, Victor Pelevin, 1996

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I particularly love Russian authors and literature; their dark sense of humour and bleak but unapologetic stance on society (as well as their unique way with words) makes them a thrill to read. Here we have Buddha’s Little Finger, initially published as The Clay Machine Gun, and also published in Britain as Chapaev and Void. Another kind of adventure novel, though one intensely bizarre and psychedelic, the book follows the central character Pyotr Voyd, whose reality becomes subject to questioning. In one reality, Void is a poet fighting in the October Revolution alongside Vasily Ivanovich Chapaev. In another reality, he is in an asylum, and is unsure of which reality is real. Combining Russian pop culture with Buddhist philosophy, this particular work is a rare treat by an author described as “the psychedelic Nabokov of the Cyber Age”.

5. The Princess Diarist, Carrie Fisher, 2016

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From Pyotr to Princesses. I was very excited to hear about the publication of this book, ordering a copy in advance before it was published. I managed to read it in only a few sittings (and before the tragic death of Carrie Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds). As a fellow diarist, the book in thoroughly engaging, and for my inner gossip intensely satisfying. Fisher’s writing is, as always, frenetic and full with untamed intellectual energy. While her long-speculated-now-confirmed affair with Harrison Ford is the book’s main selling point (and the diary entires and details on Carrie’s turbulent experience in the affair truly great reading), the remains of the book and Carrie’s in-depth reminiscences make for amusing yet heart-felt reading. The book is tireless from start to finish, and ends on a positive note from someone who defined and changed an entire generation of readers and film enthusiasts.

6. Goya, Robert Hughes, 2003

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Now for a bit of nonfiction. Acclaimed Australian art critic and theorist Robert Hughes died in 2012. Arguably best known for The Shock of the New and The Fatal Shore, Hughes tackles his subject not long after being in a now well-known car accident. I picked up a $2 copy of his extensive treatment of Spanish artist Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes at a monthly Chatswood Library book sale, having always appreciated the dark and romantic works of Goya (Witches’ Sabbath remains my favourite, and I was delighted to see a great colour picture in the book). Hughes analyses the artist’s life and works with his his usual eloquent, insightful writing, but also approaches the artist’s works from a personal account.



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Colbert Inspires Contemporary Art

Seung Woo Back’s ‘RW01-001’ (2004)

Combining two great contemporary elements of the entertainment world- Stephen Colbert and Contemporary Art- there is a new exhibition at Site in Santa Fe, called More Real? Art in the Age of Truthiness. A few posts back was Robert Hughes death, and legacy on the theory of art in, to borrow Walter Benjamin’s term, the age of mechanical reproduction, though today the more apt term is ‘technological reproduction’. This particular exhibition attests to this postmodern rhetoric of reality being not only untouchable, but underrated, and how surface for the postmodernists is depth.

In the pilot episode of his widely successful and satirical spin-off show The Colbert Report, comedian Stephen Colbert coined the term ‘truthiness’, to mean ‘the quality of preferring concepts one wishes to be true over those known to be true.’ Such a term aptly illustrates the mentality of many people today, and artists are now attempting to capture Colbert’s idea. The landmark image being advertised for the exhibition is the disturbing RW01-001(2004) from a series of photos by Korean artist Seung Woo Back made at a theme park in South Korea, filled with replicas of famous buildings and objects, including New York’s World Trade Centre.  Another work, Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s Phantom Truck (2007), a life size model of a mobile weapons lab based on an imaginary vehicle introduced by Colin Powell’s presentation before the war in Iraq, shows the powerful links between war and reality. Jean Baudrillard, popular though heavily criticised postmodern theorist, inspired by the advent of televising war when the Gulf War broke out, published one of his most notorious works, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1991). While critics were quick to spot the flaws, Baudrillard was in fact not attempting to express a belief that the Gulf War was a fabricated pseudo-event for the world, but instead was arguing that in an age where war, just as everything else, can now be televised, the truth is a somewhat dubious and distrustful element when in the hands of the media. All the mysteries of the Holocaust, and all other wars that pre-date broadcast television, die with the event, though with what Baudrillard termed the ‘bombardment of images’, the truth is perhaps even harder to grasp.

Inigo Manglano-Ovalle’s ‘Phantom Truck’ (2007)

Yet the idea that we are in an age of truthiness where artists are experimenting with perceptions of reality is not at all a new endeavour. Rebelling against the rigid realist depictions of the world, the Surrealists, Expressionists, Impressionists and Cubists, among the other Modernist art movements, were obsessed with purposely distorting the world, much to the shock of the bourgeoisie, who found vulgarity in these artful alterations of the world. Today, the difference is that it is harder and harder to become shocked by anything claiming to be a ‘new’ alteration of reality, since such a practice has become incessant that, similarly to pornography, greater lines need to be crossed in order to instil in the public a sense of shock.  This exhibition I would imagine is thus quite tame compared to others that features artists such as Orlan and Mike Parr mutilating themselves in the relatively recent avenue of body art. Meanwhile, questions of reality remain somewhat in vogue, with popular films such as Donnie Darko (2001), and most notably The Matrix (1999), acting as the ‘artworks’ of modern day existentialists. So this exhibition doesn’t entirely break new ground, though it is another intriguing addition to the ongoing debate, a thoroughly postmodern one at that, about what constitutes reality in an age of technological reproduction.

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Robert Hughes Dies

Australian art critic Robert Hughes has died today in New York, aged 74, from a long battle with an illness. I was first introduced to Hughes’ work when I began studying Postmodernism at university, reading his work Shock of the New (1980), based on the BBC Time-Life television series of the same name. The book looks at the relationship between art, technology and Modernism, including insights into the various art movements including Pop Art, the Avant-Guard and Impressionism. In the book, Hughes writes, “ [Picasso’s] Guernica was the last great history-painting. It was also the last modern painting of major importance that took subjects from politics with the intention of changing the way large numbers of people felt about power… the idea that an artist, by making a painting or sculpture, could insert images into the stream of public speech and thus change political discourse has gone, probably for good (108).”

While these discussions of art (along with its place within the theory of postmodernism) have often been criticised of being Eurocentric, it is nonetheless an interesting take on the political and social impacts of twentieth century art that is lacking in contemporary society.  Hughes’ insights and observations, particularly those expressed in the chapter The Mechanical Paradise (“Despite its apparent precision, perspective is a generalisation about experience. It schematizes, but does not really represent the way that we see”(17)), while being overtly postmodern are nevertheless apt in the impact of technology on art.

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