Welcome to Hotel Australia

Gabriella Coslovich


For some years now, Australian expat Margaret Morgan has called Echo Park, Los Angeles, home, a leafy, ethnically diverse neighborhood, prone to the odd gangland shooting, but safe, so far, from gold-digging estate agents.

Here, with husband Wesley Phoa, the artist lives and works in a multilevel, hilltop home decked out David Lynch-style, circa The Lost Highway: clean lines, sleek decor, modular furniture. There is one decorating touch, though, that must throw Morgan's LA friends. Even in the room reserved for entertaining Morgan lays bare her fixation with, let's not mince words now, dunnies, loos, WCs.

In the dining room, prominently displayed, are three of Morgan's glossy, cibachrome prints of lifesize, sparkling porcelains, lids aloft for maximum effect. An encounter with these bold conveniences must make Americans, typically coy in their references to comfort stations, a tad uncomfortable. Do they dare use the "t" word? Unlikely. The artist defers to American sensibility - she names her photos "untitled bathrooms".

Like Marcel Duchamp before her, Morgan has long been fascinated by that 20th century icon, the toilet, and all it symbolises about modern life and mind: the neurotic compulsion to flush away evidence of bodily functions, to repress and to hide our emissions, to present a clean slate to the world.

Her oeuvre includes installations of plumbing systems, a photographic archive of public toilets documented over two decades, a portrait of Sigmund Freud created from her own pubic hair, and drawings in urine.

Aged urine is best, Morgan explained when I met her in LA last year. "It gets this beautiful patina, this rich gold color," she said, delicately swirling a jar filled with viscous brown liquid. I politely declined her kind offer to take a whiff.

Sharpminded and impfaced, the genial Morgan, who looks much younger than her 40something years, is in Melbourne for the visual arts program of the Federation Festival, The Australia Projects.

Her contribution, Hotel Australia, a tangle of PVC piping with a glowing red neon sign at its heart, the "Hotel Australia" of the title, continues her use of plumbing systems as a metaphor for social constructs - in this case, the construct of history.

As a young artist, practising her craft in Sydney's west in the late 1970s, Morgan began showing drawings and paintings of the "working class" bathrooms and kitchens of family and friends. "Critics didn't like them, they sort of sneered," says Morgan, who has lived in California since 1992.

Undeterred, Morgan continued to plumb the depths of her art, inspired, in part, by the Austrian Adolf Loos (no pun intended), a pioneer of modern architecture, who decreed: "The plumber is the pioneer of cleanliness. He's the state's top tradesman, the quartermaster of civilisation."

For Morgan, who came from a "lousy high school and a lousy neighborhood", Loos' words were like manna from artistic heaven.

"I wanted to take him up as my kind of Westie entitlement, so I started building these structures out of PVC pipes. Just as people used to sneer at my old bathroom pictures twenty years before ... I would find they would sneer at this plumbing, `What, is this art?'."

One person who has long championed Morgan's work is Melbourne curator Juliana Engberg, who commissioned Morgan, alongside six other artists, to create new works for The Australia Projects.

Morgan has used "flow charts" to explore art histories before, such as 1993's Portrait of Modern Art as Sanitary System, but the labyrinthine Hotel Australia is the first time the system has gone threedimensional.

The work's PVCpipes are covered with plaques which mark the milestones of Australian history: gems such as Max Meldrum bemoaning, in 1937, that "modern art is a pathological disease" and Lionel Lindsay, a year earlier, attesting that "civilisation is the aggregation of good taste.

The plaques are deliberately placed every which way, horizontally, vertically, high, low, forcing the viewer to bend, flex and struggle to read. "I think that's the way we understand history, you're always dodging one thing to see another," Morgan says.

AS well as scouring books such as Humphrey McQueen's The Black Swan of Trespass and Ian Burn's The Necessity of Australian Art, Morgan kept a dossier of her own recollections, a "minor history" which she has included in the work. "There are things like my sculpture teacher in 1977 saying `I'm the Malcolm Fraser of sculpture, sculpture wasn't meant to be easy'."

Morgan, who spent six months researching the work, found the chance to relive the passionate debates that raged in Australia about art movements a stirring experience.

"I'm now eligible to take out US citizenship and I decided I didn't want to, and I don't want to `cause I do really value all the things here that I'm quite sentimental about."

Despite this, and her concern about the "disgusting" state of the American health and education system, Morgan has no desire to return to Australia to live.

"As an artist it's just kind of messier and more interesting to be in LA.

"In a bigger system there are more places for people to go and there are more ways to make your own spaces, but in a smaller system it tends to close down a little bit and spots get filled by the people who are better at schmoozing maybe, or they're less threatening to other people who are already in sinecures.

"At least in the United States there are more places for the good folk to also have positions of influence. What sometimes happens in Australia is that the best people languish.

"I could name names, like why don't the best contemporary curators have major positions ... in the big institutions?"

Name names, please, name names.

"Well, look at Juliana Engberg, she's a major, major contemporary curator and she's becoming world renowned and if Australia's not careful someone's going to offer her that job somewhere else."

Alongside the failure to recognise and promote local talent, Morgan is also concerned about what she sees as Australians' enduring belief that art emanating from somewhere else, be it Europe or the United States, is intrinsically superior. This inferiority complex manifests in locals sometimes mimicking the style of overseas artists, and in Australian governments' willingness to spend vast sums on international works, at the expense of Australian art.

"(Jackson Pollock's) Blue Poles was the exception that proves the rule. I'm really happy that Blue Poles is here. On the other hand, I think it's really difficult for a small culture to spend that much money in Aussie dollars, especially now, for something from somewhere else."

What, then, does Morgan think of the National Gallery of Australia's recent purchase of Lucian Freud's $7.4 million After Cezanne?

"I don't know what the Lucian Freud is like, I haven't seen it, but often in the past it was the secondrate Picasso, the mediocre Matisse, the print of the minor work, which consumed enormous proportions of budgets all in the name of having a Picasso or having a Matisse."

While millions are spent on the minor works of masters, local artists are left floundering. Is this one of the reasons Morgan left?

"It is one of the reasons I left, you know. Because I don't want to be an artist who is viewed as ... " She pauses and struggles for the right words. "I was going to say I don't want my work to be viewed in that context, but that's not true. Doing this piece has made me value the importance of place and the importance of location and the importance of histories, lest we forget."


The Australia Projects, at RMIT Gallery, 344 Swanston Street, until June 2. Gallery open 11am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, 2pm to 5pm, Saturday.


This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/2001/05/15/FFXW0IPJQMC.html