Friday, 17 January 2014

Austin, TX

For those three people still unaware of the fact, Texas does not enjoy a uniformly good reputation either in the context of the United States as a whole, or the world at large. All the sins of America as perceived by those who have never been here are apparently amplified tenfold  in Texas where there's a McDonalds franchise on every street corner, just next to the Baptist ministry. So far as the rest of America is concerned, the essence of Texas seems to be a burger-chugging George Bush-voting white guy stood growling outside the local abortion clinic with a gun in one hand and a bible in the other. This is not so much because one can expect to find such people here as that a certain type of person tends to view such lazy stereotypes as convenient because it saves having to think, or even to know anything; and no-one will argue back because
in certain politically decrepit circles defence of a southern state is deemed tantamount to a love of Ted Nugent, slavery, and marriage between siblings. Many times I've tried to point this out to people, only to have them calmly admit that whilst it's true they've never been to Texas, their views are informed by an understanding of ours being a land of gun-toting racist hillbillies, which really isn't anything like an answer.

I know you're not like them, one facebook inhabitant told me, but living down there you've certainly got your work cut out LOL, because apparently I secretly knew that he was right.

LOL indeed.

Terrible acts perpetrated by arseholes may occur in other states because arseholes often perpetrate terrible acts, but down here they happen because Texas. It's exhausting, and not least because absolutely truthfully I haven't found the general populace to be significantly different in character to that of the United Kingdom, except they seem happier, healthier, and generally have better manners; and there are a lot more Mexicans here, which is a good thing.

The exception to the commonly held dim view of Texas seems to be the Peoples' Republic of Austin - as it is amusingly referenced in Richard Linklater's Bernie - the state capitol which is widely perceived as bohemian and adventurous, a liberal oasis with a much lower rate of lynchings than is to be found amongst all its gun-toting, Darwin-hating neighbours. Austin was where Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda were headed in Easy Rider so, y'know...

My wife and I had already explored Austin in search of the Museum of Contemporary Art - as it was identified on both the map and the single signpost marking its existence - or The Contemporary Austin - as it is daringly named in real life, suffocating terms like museum and gallery presumably being eschewed for their evocation of the old, terminally dated, and anything else which happened more than three minutes ago. This was back in July when we followed a winding road along the bank of the Colorado River in search of a cultural experience. We found an art school - which was closed - and a nature reserve containing at least one peacock, but nothing resembling a gallery, nor any sign which would indicate our being on the right track.

In December we made our second attempt with the aid of a more detailed street map, and again we ended up back at the art school, or whatever it was. This time it seemed that a wedding was in progress in the main building. We went forward, determined to find something that would at least definitively prove we had come to the wrong place. People milled around, possibly catering staff. A young man in his early twenties scowled at us from behind a pretentious neo-Victorian moustache, letting us know that our kind didn't belong, or some related sentiment.

'You've got to be fucking kidding,' I growled loud enough for him to hear, because more than anything his moustache had annoyed me, and I was irritated by the notion of an art gallery so exclusive that it didn't want to be found.

We walked around to the back of the building and saw nothing to either confirm or deny our being on the right track. Returning to the parking lot, we noted the presence of a second, smaller building and a number of large sculptures amongst the trees. Within the building was a medium-sized room within which were hung brightly painted canvases, abstract designs which reminded me of Christmas wrapping paper. This, we felt certain, could not be the promised gallery, because there was so little of it, and whilst those few works on display were not actively offensive, neither did they seem to warrant our having driven eighty miles from San Antonio.

Motoring back into the centre of the city, we discovered that The Contemporary Austin occupies two sites, and although it remained to be seen whether we had actually visited the first of these, we had now found the second, its location distinguished by the unusually conventional means of a sign on the side of a large building.

Bess paid ten dollars for the two of us and we and went inside. The exhibits included a twenty-three minute video piece by Liam Gillick, whom I noted with interest had attended Goldsmith's college in London, a five minute bus ride from where I had once lived in Lewisham; and Burned Bridge Junction (Congress) by Marianne Vitale. There were no other exhibits.

Whilst Gillick's video piece may have been wonderful, neither my wife nor I felt inclined to sit and watch footage of what appeared to be the Colorado, a river we were both entirely capable of appreciating under our own steam; and myself having completed a fine art degree specialising in video back in 1987, it still seemed too soon to renew my acquaintance with a medium I had grown to dislike quite intensely.

Marianne Vitale, so the brochure informed us, transforms decaying elements of rural life into rugged visual poems. This referred to two intersecting
replica bridge structures built from burnt wood and taking up the main space of the building. It looked okay, but aside from the novelty of its residence within a gallery that charged five dollars admission, there was not a lot to say about it. As my wife went off in search of the lavatory, I strolled around Vitale's work and waited to feel something. I walked up to it and sniffed, but even the charcoal tang of smoke was faint and unremarkable - nothing I could really savour. Five minutes passed and the burned bridge failed to inspire me towards any strong feeling.

'Are there any more galleries in here?' my wife asked back at the reception desk. 'I mean it's just the bridge and the video, right?'

The assistant held open the brochure, turned towards us so we could see photographs of the other site, the Laguna Gloria from which we had just come.

'We saw that,' I said. 'There was something like a wedding there.'

'Yes. That sounds like the place.'

'We thought we'd wandered onto the grounds of some guy's house.'

She began to tell us about the sculpture park, but we had already lost faith in The Contemporary Austin as an institution. The art was dull, of a kind which communicates principally to other artists, and we had paid ten dollars to see it; and rugged visual poetry was really stretching a point. It was a burned bridge, and a scaled down replica of something which may well have appeared almost magical in its original setting but was dull within the confines of an art gallery, and was at least as pleased with itself as a possibly ironic neo-Victorian moustache, and it was defended by the somewhat tired premiss that if you don't like it, then you're too stupid to understand and should probably stick to Thomas Kinkade.

Artistically unsated, we wandered a little way up the street towards the capitol building, comparing notes about what we'd just seen and whether it had truly been as pointless as it had appeared. This didn't really require a lot of discussion, and as it was freezing cold we returned to the car.

It was still early afternoon, and so next we went to The Bullock Texas State History Museum on the grounds that it was near and would be warm inside. We might have gone there first but Bess had not believed that I would find it engaging. Whilst there was more reading than I really like in a museum, and too many of those annoying interactive touches designed to draw in the terminally uninterested and fool them into learning something, the core material was fascinating, not least because so much of it contradicted the received wisdom of the character and history of this state and its people.

Since the arrival of Europeans, Texas has been part of Mexico, an independent republic, and then part of the United States - a contested land won and lost during a succession of revolutions and annexations. Inevitably not all of this history has been group hugs and slumber parties, but there's very little human history which has passed without any kind of trouble or injustice. Texas may have more than its fair share of arseholes, politically speaking, but then last time I looked, political figures imposing extreme and reactionary policies upon voters was not an exclusively Texan phenomenon; and nor does mere residence in Texas necessarily mean that one voted for or agrees with whatever people who've never been here are saying we as a homogenous group have done this month.

So, just for a change, it was nice to find the good in Texas represented alongside the stuff everyone already knows about - the rich Mexican culture of the south, the space programme, the great artists, musicians, writers, and so on; and then there's the historical smallprint of civil rights activism which, for some reason, never seems to warrant a mention in the usual places, and details such as the Meusebach-Comanche Treaty of Fredericksburg, one of the few treaties drawn up between First Nations people and European settlers which was never broken.

It may not sound like a lot, but it's always nice to be reminded how there is much that is good down here, and that the stereotype of Texas as the source of all things bad says more about those who peddle that stereotype than about the cultures to which they lazily refer. This sort of deal might once have been the job of contemporary art, but I guess times change.


  1. But the fact remains that some of the most nasty, ignorant, bigoted people who drag the national conversation of the USA downwards are elected by Texans - Rick Perry, Louis Gohmert, Joe Barton. On the other hand, you've got Wendy Davis, and she rocks.

  2. Yes we know, but the point is often missed that quite a substantial number of Texans have never voted for these people and aren't likely to start doing so. Everyone here is painfully aware of the sort of creeps we have running things. Wendy Davies does indeed rock which is probably why I've seen chattery internet types suggesting that she can't be Texan, which is apparently hilarious, like y'know, a "hard-working Mexican" >snort<