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Art Life, The (ATOM Study Guide)

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The Art Life is a three-part television series exploring the current landscape of Australian art, in all its many fascinating permutations. Each episode is thirty minutes long, making it ideally suited for use in the secondary classroom. The series is a tour of contemporary Australian art, what it means and why it matters and whatever you make of writer and presenter Andrew Frost, by the end of the third and final episode you will be convinced that it does matter, such is his persuasive charm and enthusiasm. Each episode profiles a range of artists, while conducting a broader investigation into the very heart and soul of contemporary Australian art, setting some intriguing and distinctive work in its cultural context.

Episode 1: Out There
The opening images of this episode show a splendid gallery space, but it is almost immediately clear that The Art Life is intent on moving beyond the formalities of the institutionalized art world, to the art of the space where most of us live: the suburbs. This space is variously represented throughout the episode as an environment of alienation, isolation and fragmentation; a true heart of darkness in our collective identity; and a reassuringly bland, tepid landscape of normality. Narrator Andrew Frost asks rhetorically, How much do we really know about contemporary art? and then sets off on a journey around the brick veneers, cluttered garages, public phone booths and abandoned shopping trolleys that comprise this world.

Episode 2: Millions of Images
Suburbia is just one part of a bigger landscape, and this second episode of The Art Life focuses on the work of video and photographic artists and the varied ways in which they negotiate a cultural landscape saturated with commercial images. This episode finds Frost in a melancholy mood, gazing upon the beauty and the sadness of the world. He observes that we live in spectacular times, in a culture built on images, with everyday life dominated by them. It would seem our culture of images permeates everything, even the intimate and private parts of our lives. Somehow our experience of the world is rendered unreal, fragmented and dislocated: the sense of ourselves as just thoughts existing in a simulation. Perhaps this makes the role of the artist more crucial than ever. As Frost puts it:

The spectator feels at home nowhere, because the spectacle is everywhere The world is a fake and we know it. [But w]hen I look at the work of the artists who are recording our world, I feel something. The artists show us this world, they make us feel something. They give us an acute measure of where we are in this society of images. Their work is both a result of and a reaction to this world.

Episode 3: Always Busy Dying The Life and Death of Painting
This episode examines how painting has managed to reinvent itself, surviving and thriving in contemporary times, in face of the relentless onslaught of video and photographic images. The invention of photography in 1839 challenged paintings privileged relationship to the world, but death here is not the final word: death itself issues in radical change. Frost speaks of the need for contemporary artists to dare to be great while accepting the possibility of failure, and the wonderful artists we meet in this final instalment of The Art Life all:

dare to connect with our time and place, our sensibilities, the spirit of this age and thats why painting survives, because it can do all those things, make all those connections.

So finally Frost tells us what this thing called contemporary art is and why it matters, ending his three part series on an inspired and inspiring note: Its about who we are, where we live. It tries to make sense of all this: the world and everything in it.

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