Imagine you’re a young artist getting a brief on your first commission – your very first piece of professional, paid work.
Then imagine finding out that your brief is to interpret the themes behind some of the most iconic masterpieces from history.
This was the daunting proposal 30 emerging artists faced in the University of Melbourne’s ambitious project, First Commissions; interpreting the themes of work as diverse the Titanic and Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. But it comes with a twist, none of the artists knew that their work would be a re-thinking of artistic treasures.
University of Melbourne students Ashley Perry and Danna Yun are two emerging artists chosen to re-imagine Michelangelo’s David.
The only brief they had was to offer a contemporary vision of human physical perfection – not that they would be re-imagining the 16th century masterpiece.
Both artists embraced the project in markedly different ways, through different mediums and approaches, but with the overarching similarity of their respective spins on human perfection.
“When they announced that I would be getting the brief ‘to create a work that represents a vision of physical human perfection’, my chest just sunk and I had no idea what that would be in the context of a musical work without resorting to some kind of performance art － which wasn’t my thing,” says classical musician and composer Danna Yun, who nonetheless, braced herself for the challenge.
Her Riddle for String Ensemble (2019) was borne out of a contemplative process in which Yun confronted her own life-long striving for musical perfectionism.
The final 12-minute composition played by 23 musicians, deviated markedly from her original conception as Yun realised that her imaginative flourishes sounded different when actually performed.
Like all artists, she had to negotiate the chasm between creativity and practicality.
After two weeks agonising over the brief, she settled on the theme of growth but the whole experience wasn’t easy.
“I envisioned some cloudy, grandiose music but nothing seemed to translate well from my mind to paper,” she says.
Eventually, in bouts of inspiration, Yun settled for a string ensemble piece, a decision which shows chutzpah given that she’d never written for one before and had only conducted and directed a rehearsal once in high school.
Riddle is ultimately inspired by Classical Greek deities.
“They are what I perceive as an idea of timeless beauty and perfection,” she says.
The piece is divided into different moods: the serene, ethereal concept of godliness, followed by the erratic, energetic rebellion as they wrestle with their pristine representation – remember, gods are vulnerable to earthly passions and vulnerabilities too.
Currently in her Honours year at the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, Yun stripped back her vision, despite the temptation to display every tool in her compositional toolbox. But she too, struggled with the idealism of perfectionism－ her own.
“Being from an Asian background, I set my own bar very high. I tie in success and acknowledgement with perfectionism,” says Yun.
“But I also feel like this occurs in artists irrespective of culture and background; I had jumped into university from high school believing that I knew a lot about music already, and that all I needed was a little more spice and I’d be a really cool professional composer.
‘But the more I learnt, the more I realised that I knew nothing at all.
“You can never be too satisfied with yourself, otherwise you close yourself off from improving and discovering wonderful things. I don’t want to be perfect, but I want to learn how to convey an idea in the most perfect, captivating way,” she says.
Yun only had five weeks to master Riddle but despite that limited time frame she learnt a lot about herself and her creative processes.
“I realised that I’d been thinking about composing in a way too idealistic light. My teacher, Elliott Gyger, summed it up well.
“He said, ‘If your grand image is a like a puff of perfume that has a wonderful scent but is intangible and you find that you have no way to achieve it logistically, then it’s your vision that’s inadequate to fit the reality, not your compositional technique’,” she says.
“He says that ‘ideas are not a lightning strike, they’re chipping away at a boulder for ages to gradually see light deep through the cracks’. I love what this commission taught me.”
Like Yun, visual artist Ashley Perry also struggled with the brief for the first few weeks.
His Anthology of human perfection (2019) ended up as a multi-media platform, a quasi-sculpture that features digital screens projecting a range of pictures found on the internet.
He delved deep into the possibilities offered by search engines, playing with digital algorithms in his quest to find out what constituted human perfection.
“The original searches – like human, physical and perfection – came directly from the commission brief, but I continued looking through the links presented in the original searches so there were all these possibilities opening up to things connected to human perfection,” he explains.
Perry studied Sculpture and Spatial Practices at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) and is currently doing a Master of Fine Arts (Visual Art). Throughout his studies he became fascinated “in the intersection between technology and image archives relative to other things, like sculptures, or stories, or events.”
His installation has both printed images and iPads mounted onto a black steel structure; Perry spent some time pondering the best method of construction and representation. Everything－the materials and the methodology－was deliberate.
“I chose the clean, black steel form, because for me it references shop display aesthetics. All the heights reference ideal heights for things relating to human bodies that I found from Google searches. The videos show a slow pan through images, so that resulted in both historical and contemporary images being incorporated,” he says.
Once Perry decided on this idea, the implementation of Anthology of human perfection relied on Perry to satisfy his own personal vision of the synthesis of content and structure.
“There were just minor changes, like the steel structures’ shapes and the number of images to the number of screens and videos,” he says.
It stands to reason that there are disembodied images of airbrushed, unblemished, impossibly perfect model figures in his installation, but why is there a cyborg in the mix?
Perry points out that all the conventional “beautiful” images are present in his work because of the proliferation of beauty and fashion brands, but his anthology offers unexpected pictures too.
“A lot of indirect images are included, from book covers on perfection to samples of comics, memes, and future cyborg concepts. For me, it was interesting drawing out some of the relationships between these seemingly unrelated images.”
But, Perry says, Anthology is not necessarily fixed in time, due to the nebulous, ever-changing nature of the concept of physical perfection and of internet trends.
“This is work that is being shown here at this point, but one that will likely change going into the future.”
Did his Indigenous background influence this particular treatment of a classic artwork at all? Perry is hesitant.
“I’m not really sure about that. Unless you consider drawing on a number of perspectives as something informed by my community. It’s always been important to have many representatives and ideas from different family groups present in community discussions and decision making,” he explains.
For both artists, First Commissions represents an ideal opportunity to create a new 21st century narrative for art that has defined perfection throughout history.
Banner: Jack Riley and Nikki Tarling at the Library of Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze. Picture: O’Rourke & Gates