Next Wave has existed since 1994, but Emily’s been at the helm for the past two. It’s unique in its focus on the new – all works and art for the festival has been developed specifically and most are premieres – the literal ‘cutting edge’ of contemporary practice. Artists from around the country have been selected to build an artistic community of Next Wavers and this year, it focuses on ‘Generosity’ and ‘Urgency’. More than anything, it sparks a conversation about what art means to us today, which is what happens when we meet.
“I do think the next wave of art is quite politically engaged, and it’s quite socially interested,” says Sexton. “I think the things that have really resonated in public imagination don’t take themselves too seriously, they’re relevant to the public domain, they’re interested in how an audience will engage with a work. It’s about listening to the world in a different way and making that ordinary, everyday life a little bit extraordinary.”
In Sexton’s director’s statement she puts forth the challenge that “The world is different now.” Though it resonates on a multitude of levels, it’s particularly relevant to this year’s festival. Artists have to respond to the difficulties of how people devour their art in modern times, that’s why ‘Generosity’ is particularly poignant. Sexton saw a preview of Elizabeth Dunn’s Flyway and was charmed by its thoughtfulness. Marching around unused areas of the city, it’s an invitation to a guided birdwatching tour, “but it really inserts nature back into a very dense urban landscape in a really clever, mediated and beautiful way,” she says. The generosity of the artist and people who’ve aided her is obvious – she supplies nuts, for example.
Fifteen, another festival work, is a subtle flash-mob style affair at Flagstaff station narrated via headphones. Its generosity, says Sexton, is in the way the public art performance changes the viewers’ relationship with the particular part of the city. But it’s also masterful in its execution, she says: “It’s really beautiful for us to sit there and watch the patterns, the natural choreography of the city.”
Engaging the public in a conversation about contemporary art can be a difficult feat though. They’ve tried to relax the dialogue about conceptual art so it’s inclusive, offering day passes, she said, to stave off intimidation. But contemporary art does have a tendency to be alienating at times– a view fostered in part by a recent viral story on a global trash-mag –which I ask her views about. She uses Tasmania’s MONA as an example of how we can engage.
“[MONA Director] David Walsh and his curators take the view that art should be about how it makes you feel. What does it do for you in your body, in your mind?
“Maybe it’s not that big a deal to say, ‘I don’t get art’, ya’ know. But I guess because it is a privilege to be in the arts, it is our responsibility to show other people why it is interesting. There’s a whole bunch of different ways we can do that.”
This job is important. Because after all, art, says Sexton, is a reflection of contemporary society, and what we care about as a broad community at that time. And there are reasons it’s changed. “In the ‘80s and ‘90s we could afford to be a little bit more vacuous about the kind of work we were making. [But] there does seem to be different kinds of politics to the way we think, perhaps because we communicate so often in different ways. Artists play an ever important role in trying to help us understand what it is to live, because the speed at which we’re living is so much more intense.”
Maybe a way for it to succeed is to become meta. It doesn’t need to be snobbish, she says. It can be all inclusive. She mentions Hennessy Youngman’s YouTube channel Art Thoughtz, who denigrates Damien Hirst, and James Early of festival performers Lucky PDF (Wake Up: The School Of Global Art: Down Under!). “[James] is really into trash. He’s really into The Voice. He’s like, I wanna know what everyone is interested in. The artists I find most interesting do want to have a really frank and really honest, interesting and funny and big discussion about art and they don’t want that to be exclusive. I think that’s a good thing.”
She’s under no illusions about the gigantic feat she’s preparing to pull off – but is incredibly thankful for it. “If you’re a young curator or a young festival director it’s pretty much the most exciting job in the country I reckon. You’re given a brief to be wild with your ideas and people support you to do really risky things.”
And Sexton reckons artists throw the best parties – see for yourself at the Westspace Festival Club.
BY BELLA ARNOTT-HOARE