Try and Fail

This year Todd McMillan tried to swim the English Channel – but he didn’t quite make it. He swam until he became tired. He then abandoned the attempt for the safety of a boat, still in sight of the shore. He failed.

An exhibition by the young artist opens next week at GrantPirrie, a contemporary art gallery in Redfern. It celebrates failure.

This new series of video works carries on from other McMillan videos in which the artist has endlessly and pointlessly hit golf balls down a driving range somewhere in Germany, or stumbled around on crutches with a plaster cast on one leg. Failure is his theme.

You would be forgiven for wondering why an artist would take on failure and, indeed, why a show about failing would be worth watching. Isn’t art supposed to be about success?

The popular measure of artistic merit is a demonstration of the artist’s ability to use craft skills – to paint a portrait that looks like the subject, to take a lovely photograph, to convincingly chisel a head in stone. These are the things that make people say, “Wow, I wish I could do that.”

Failing to swim the English Channel is something that everyone can do. Or fail to do, if you know what I mean. No special skills are required not to be able to do something.

We generally like to enjoy looking at things being done by people who have the ability to do unusual things, in the same way we appreciate a monkey using the telephone. That is a very special skill, and it’s noteworthy. “Oh look – the monkey is wearing pants.”

McMillan is notable as a successful failure, and his work is being taught in high schools as part of the Kaldor Projects video art package.

But he is just one of a generation of younger artists who strive to fail. The Melbourne-based performance video artist Anastasia Klose celebrates the fact that she has failed in romance, has failed to get a decent job, or to make a decent living from her art. Another artist of note is the young Sydney painter Tom Polo, who combines frank admissions of failure with the ambition to win.

There are many other examples of failure in contemporary art, and it must be said that these examples are of intentional failure. Unlike the performance of the Australian cricket team, this is an ironic kind of activity that is not truly a mistake, or a disaster, since the artists do manage to finish their works, exhibit them and, in some cases, sell them to people who appreciate failure when they see it.

The roots of this trend towards disgrace are found in the rich soil of Australia’s artistic legacy. Older artists such as the painter Adam Cullen or the performance artist Tony Schwensen have tackled the cold-toed comedy of Samuel Beckett who, after all, wrote an entire play about a lead character who fails to show up.

The popularity of failure should also be blamed on the British artist David Shrigley, who parlayed his inability and unwillingness to draw into huge multinational art stardom.

There may be another reason that being so crap is now so popular – and that is the ugly tendency in Australian culture to revel in triumphalism. One need think only of the absurd and unreasonable expectation of success at every level of sporting competition to realise just how deep the need to win runs in the Australian psyche.

The much-touted Anzac spirit – based on an event best characterised as a noble failure – is an exception that it is also sadly out of date. It is not about how you play the game these days, it is about winning.

I like to think Australia’s attitude to winning and losing is best summed up in the stunning victory of the ice skater Steven Bradbury at the 2002 Winter Olympics. Bradbury, who had managed to get into the final after a series of improbable strokes of luck, won a gold medal from last position when all the other competitors fell. Bradbury is now a folk hero.

Todd McMillan’s inability to swim the English Channel is far more interesting than had he made it.

Being a winner, a success, or a top athlete or artist, is incredibly overrated. To happily fail is an admission of the essential frailty of the human condition. We all should strive to fail again, and to fail better.

Published as Being a success is overrated – we should strive harder to fail well, Sydney Morning Herald, July 22, 2009.    © Andrew Frost, 2009.

Image: Todd McMillan, swim 5 (from the series ague), 2009.

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