Still Together

During a meditation session at the National Gallery of Victoria, Antonia Pont finds a towering sculptural companion is the unobtrusive centrepiece

By Antonia Pont

KAWS, Gone, 2019, bronze, dimensions variable. Courtesy A-Space, Melbourne KAWS, Gone, 2019, bronze, dimensions variable. Courtesy A-Space, Melbourne Still together. Courtesy NGV, Melbourne

KAWS’s seven-metre sculpture, GONE (2019), wherein one of the artist’s trademark Companions nurses a supine Grover, stands watch in the National Gallery of Victoria’s courtyard. Its Pietà-like composition lies somewhere between hope and hopelessness. Grover presses all my childhood buttons.

‘Still Together’ was a led meditation session on Saturday, where, upon arrival, chairs and cushions for the participants had been set up around the sculpture. It wasn’t so much a public art event – as it had been billed. Rather, it was a simple group session run by the Melbourne-based meditation company A-Space, aimed at an art-friendly public newer to structured meditation.

A young woman, with whom I was encouraged to “share”, said the approach was helpful to her, opening an experience that was “quite emotional” and “not possible for her during savasana” (aka the Corpse Pose). The live harp music, accompanied by what sounds like the distorted lyrics of India Arie’s I Am Light (2013) and Des’ree’s Life (1998), sung by the harpist, was – for my purposes – hard going, but again my companion said the music helped her. The session, genuinely well-run, fell in that uncomfortable and ubiquitous zone of Enterprise-meets-Earnestness. The teacher, with whom I spoke, is a bone fide practitioner, quote: meeting the people where they are. Under neoliberalism, spirituality and financial viability copulate monstrously, and we’re left seemingly strung-up between two choices, trapped in a binary of our collective suffering: to be a schmuck, or to be a resentful schmuck... That copulation, confusingly, always also has wholesome-ish spinoffs: my companion was moved. It was Saturday, and she now had a ticket to see some art.

KAWS’s work has its very roots in illegal interventions into commercial advertising, known as ‘subvertising’. It then found itself lucratively co-opted by those very targets. Marc Jacobs ballet slips. Nike high-tops. Comme (des Garçons) wallets, a nice wall clock I fancied, &c. What looked like disobedience-with-politics turns out to be cunning (or now seems it, in hindsight). Capitalism’s genius is its infinite movement of inclusion and its vicious fall-out of exclusion. KAWS’s work got very included and – while also being fun, moving and accessible – it activates the same repetition-with-variation that arguably fuels pornography, profit and irony. The event cost 30 AUD to attend, and hence my single-mother friend decided to stay home.

It’s strategic to collaborate with large organisations in order to remain visible and therefore viable as a small business. So you can hire staff and contribute to the incomes of the precariat. And one hopes the A-Spacers weren’t volunteering (that’s another doozy of the so-called ‘spiritual’ business model – beware). Staff wore t-shirts with the queasy slogan ‘love always wins’ (except it doesn’t – as commitment to thorough event documentation and a working Social Media strategy will attest. And meditation – just sayin’ – has Zilch to Do with a winning/losing paradigm.) A conscientious staffer photographed the event from start to finish. I looked around at one point, knowing from experience how beautiful people look when they meditate. Faces change, soften (even when behind them one is fessing up to hardness, denial, bad-thinking and neoliberal-induced anxiety). I’m sure the photos are lovely, and that I’m in several of them.

Most oddly, the event unfolded as if oblivious to the smooth-surfaced art looming above us. Referencing the art and our location, however, would probably’ve complicated the smoothness of the practised delivery. Maybe my companion wouldn’t have had such a helpful time.

What’s interesting about meditating at the foot of a sculpture by an artist who reframes (and who’s effectively been reframed by) capitalism is that meditation is itself a practice of (re)framing. We sit, with a straight enough-spine, framed by time and intention, and we persist in being exactly ourselves: murderous, envious, hurting, cowardly, small-minded, fretting, desperate, and yes... lonely. We sit – framed – and this minimal difference changes everything. We didn’t explore that. Maybe ‘the people’ prefer a sunnier, less nuanced story? We hovered, instead, like the hard-rendered, soft-looking duo above us, in that very contemporary impasse, between (subjective) hope and (structural) hopelessness. (Oh, Grover. You never made a skit about this.) 

Online exclusive published on 4 March 2020