In conversation with Gordon Bull

'Liminal' from the series 'Word Portraits', Shags, 2015

Gordon Bull is a highly valued lecturer at the Centre of Art History and Art Theory and this year celebrates over 25 years of teaching at the ANU School of Art. I was fortunate enough to sit down with Gordon late last year to discuss his professional journey and thoughts about what art means to him.

SC: So what led you to be doing what you do today?

GB: Look, I’ll give you the quick story of my career. I grew up in Perth and I became really interested in art. My high school art teacher said you should go to art school. So we’re in suburban Perth, and she says, ‘I’ve heard that the best place to study art is at the University of Sydney. So I apply to Sydney University and I get in, but when I arrive I discover that it isn’t an art school at all, it’s an art history department! At this point I know no one in Sydney, I had just enrolled and got on a plane. I went to the youth hostel and found a share house and thought, “well I’m not going back!”

SC: So you were actually planning to do a fine arts degree and you turned up half way across the country and it was actually an art history degree?

GB: Yes, that’s right! I was a bit startled but at that time really the most startling thing for me was that I had to enroll in other subjects. I actually left after a year, and I thought I would never come back, but three years later I was living in London and I realised I was hanging around the art gallery the whole time. I realised that actually I want to do that degree, I want to do art history. So I came back and finished with honours in 1983. In 1984 I enrolled in a research masters and half way through that year I started tutoring. I was surprised, because I did an art history degree because I really loved it but I never imagined that I’d work as an art historian. I thought I’d do what a lot of my smart friends did – finish their degree and join the public service. That was the default. But I started teaching and I’ve been teaching ever since.

So I tutored at the University of Sydney and came to the Canberra School of Art (now the ANU School of Art) as a fill-in lecturer. That was my first experience in a studio-based environment. Then I went back to Sydney, where I received a lectureship at the University of WA in the art history department. I thought that this will be it, I’m going home. In fact, for various reasons I didn’t enjoy working there. I came back to the Canberra School of Art in 1991 in a junior lectureship where I was a lecturer in art theory for six years, and then I became the Head of the Art Theory department for 10 years and then later became the Head of School for seven years. I was then released and came back into what was then the newly established Centre for Art History and Art Theory that was one of the things as Head of School that I had envisaged and helped to negotiate. It was a long, long negotiation…

SC: But we’re here now, and I love it!

GB: Yes, here we are in its second year and its really working so well. The place is going off like a rocket!

So the short answer to your question how did I come to be doing what I’m doing? Slightly by accident.

SC: My next question is a bit different: in your opinion, why should people care about art?

GB: I believe that that art is fundamental to being human. It’s not the same everywhere, but it’s still one of those things that we might see as being universal. It means different things to different people. My neighbors might think that art is of no interest to them, that other people do that sort of thing. But in fact there are things in their lives that they do that are actually art, but they don’t think of it in that way.

So I think it’s fundamental and in a sense inescapable. If you do engage with it self-consciously it’s incredibly rewarding. It’s not all about cognitive engagement, its about the pleasure and joy of art. So if there’s something that’s just sitting there that can enhance your life and make it pleasurable why wouldn’t you do that?

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