Monthly Archives: February 2010

Kings Way

Duro Cubrilo, Martin Harvey and Karl Stamer, Kings Way – The Beginnings of Australian Graffiti: Melbourne 1983 – 93 (The Miegunyah Press, 2009)

This massive 373-page book shows the beginnings of Melbourne graffiti, extensively documented in photographs. There is excellent information on spray-cans, marker-pens, trains and train yards; things close to a graffiti writer’s heart. The culture of tagging and train bombing in the 80s and early 90s is extensively covered.

The beginning in 1983 is clearly marked with the introduction of hip-hop music and break-dancing to Melbourne in 1983 with the video of Malcolm McLaren’s “Buffalo Girls”. There had been graffiti in Australia before but the hip-hop inspired work was distinctly different in style. A decade later 1993 is selected as end of this beginning because of changes to the rail network meant that writers moved away from the railways. And, “Writing in Melbourne was a victim of its own popularity, achieving a degree of public acceptance as an art form with some city laneways become designated legal painting zones.” (p.23)

All three of the authors were involved with the early graffiti scene that they are writing about. Their ownership of the history and the documentation of this subculture is the book’s greatest strength and weakness. The intended reader is assumed to be part of the subculture. The exclusiveness of the gang (or crew to use the right lingo) is still evident in the book, influencing not only the writing and photographs but the shape of the history. To put it plainly: they can’t see the forest for the trees.

Most of the pages document the pieces of individual writers or crews. There is an attempt to identify stylistic changes: Abstract Era (1986 – 1987), Technical Era (1988 – 1989) and Experimental Era (1991 – 1993). These eras are rather less convincing than the micro-divisions of cubism into analytic and synthetic. And these eras also fail to match the eras of tag names. (p.242)

I did take some notes from the book to improve my own timeline of Melbourne’s graffiti and street art but the information is poorly organized rather shaky. In writing about the City Square the book fails to establish when the graffiti board was installed 1980.  Some of the text is just plain weird and clumsy. “As with many buildings constructed in the years before this period, the wall and roofing of the abattoirs were ravaged by asbestos, which made the building unsafe for human inhabitation and hence led to its eventual closure and abandonment.” (p.152) Did an editor ever read this sentence?

Maybe I’m expecting too much from yet another coffee table book about street art. After all most people are just going to look at the pictures and the book has some great photographs of Melbourne’s early graffiti. I was particularly struck by the photographs that remind me how tagged the interior of trains were in the early 1990s and ephemeral nature of my own memory of the ordinary experience of traveling by train.

There are now many books about street art or graffiti in Melbourne and none of them is particularly outstanding. Jake Smallman & Carl Nyman Stencil Graffiti Capital Melbourne (Mark Batty Publisher 2005) focused on stencil graffiti with lots of pictures often grouped together by themes: animals, robots, cartoons, music etc. and profiles of some artists. Matthew Lunn, Street Art Uncut, (Caftsman House, 2006) takes a broader view of Melbourne’s street art from aerosol, to tagging to the experimental.


Street Art, the Internet & Digital Cameras

(from left to right) Blek le Rat, Stormie Mills, Reko Rennie, Drew Funk et. al. on Hoiser Lane & now on the internet.

In explaining the history of cultural phenomena, like art movements, a number of elements come together to form a new compound. However, such reactions, as in chemistry, are generally slow, like the oxidation of iron, unless energy or a catalysing agent is added. The energy of cultural phenomena is often obvious but the catalysing agent may not be so obvious as catalysing agents are left unchanged by the reaction.

In explaining the history of street art the catalysing effect of the Internet and digital cameras has often been ignored. Without either of these technologies the energy generated from the sharing of images of street art around the world would have not have existed. Megapixal digital cameras for consumers were first marketed in 1997. Between 1997 and 1999 internet use more than doubled from 11% to 24% in the developed world and from 2% to 5% globally.

Between 1997 and 1999 the number of street artist around world probably doubled too. Street art changed from being a sub-cultural minority interest, associated with hip-hop music, to an international art movement. The internet and digital cameras were the means that changed street art from a sub-culture activity as they provided access to street art from outside of the sub-culture as other people, not associated with the sub-culture, started to photograph street art with their new digital cameras and look at it on the internet. These people would become the new audience and collectors of street art.

During that time I was working for LookSmart.com, before the dot.com bubble burst. I created a category for graffiti in LookSmart’s visual arts section and reviewed all of the graffiti websites from Australia. There were only about 15 sites then – now there are thousands.

The Internet and digital cameras are now as much the media of street art as are walls and cans. Light graffiti takes this to its logical conclusion using the record of the digital camera to create images from drawing with a light in the city.


Painting Ideas

I must really like the Tim Johnson exhibition, Painting Ideas, because I’ve seen it twice. Last year I saw it at GOMA and this year I went to see at the Ian Potter Museum of Art. And I keep on thinking that I want to think about this exhibition a bit more before I write anything – but the exhibition is over already.

The exhibition reminded me of the Gilbert and George exhibition that I saw at the Tate Modern in 2007. Although Painting Ideas is considerably smaller, the story is the similar. A conceptual, performance artist in search of a way of turning ideas into images. After some difficult and strange art the artist finds their voice and now their art is in the collections of major museum.

When I saw “Painting Ideas” at GOMA the open plan gallery arrangement lead me chronologically through the development of Johnson’s now familiar style. At the Ian Potter Museum, the history was told backwards from galleries filled with Johnson’s now familiar style and then upstairs to his early work. Telling a history backwards or forwards does not make a big difference; it is just another way of looking at the causal relationship.

Tim Johnson’s early work was not familiar to me but I’ve seen plenty of similar art from that era. The punk energy that Tim Johnson pushed on the boundaries is familiar. The variety of conceptual and performance art of the time indicated a growth in the arts, as well as, a desperate search for a solution. And the solution for Johnson was to return to painting images and to collaborate with other artists. And Tim Johnson collaborators with many other artists: Tibetean born artist, Karma Phuntsok, Brendan Smith from Brisbane, Vietnamese born, My Le Thi, or the Australian Aboriginal painter Clifford Possum Tjapaitjarri. Not that you can tell where the work of one artist begins and ends, given that the images in the paintings are all from somewhere else, some other tradition.

Tim Johnson’s mature paintings are post-modern pastiches (as in “cut up” – see the comments for more about the word pastiche, which isn’t esactly right) of icons from everywhere contained in a field of dots over a field of colour. They are not so much paintings of ideas but the flow of images in a visual hypnagogic revelry of consciousness.

The paintings are images of a mindscape of a multi-cultural, multi-faith Australian identity. The use of dots is an attempt breaking down the apartheid walls in Australian art. The paintings are landscapes of the mind; mytho-geographic landscapes of Buddhist/Hindu and Australian Aboriginal mythology mix in his paintings along with contemporary manga and pop images.

There is a Youtube Video of Tim Johnson in his studio.


Exhibitions This Week

I saw some of the galleries in Albert Street, East Richmond this week: Shifted, Anita Treverso and Karen Woodbury.

Why overlay images? Ian Bunn, who is exhibiting at Shifted thinks that overlaid images are essentially contemporary. His overlayed images have the intense colours of a cathode ray tube. See one of the videos on exhibition at this link. At Anita Treverso Gallery the exhibition by Tanmaya, uses overlaid images to suggest a person over time. This effect creates surreal images of pregnant children and trans-generational portraits. The amalgamation of images is finely rendered in colour pencil. At Karen Woodbury Gallery, Locust Jones doesn’t overlay images; they are brutally piled up until they fill the large sheet of paper in a deliberately crude but effective style. Locust Jones is creating images about some of the big ugly issues of our time: global warming and toxic debt.

Back to Shifted, where in the second gallery and the office Ede Horton is exhibiting “Perspective”. Glass hands and feet become creatures with glass eyes; the foot with toothy jaw and pointy ear is particularly menacing. Rows of kiln-cast black-glass small faces float in rows of meditation. Only one work, the “Gumnut Offering” was a little too sweet for my taste.

Later in the week I saw the “The Endless Garment” at RMIT gallery. On exhibition were endless machine knitted garments. Amongst the silly (anyone would look silly wearing these garments) or conceptual works in the exhibition there are some elegant knitted numbers. But it is a fun exhibition; even the two boys who came with their parents, while I was there, thought many of pieces were fun, even funny. Aside from being a bit of fun the exhibition did feel like a promotion for the “Wholegarment ®”.

Looking at Belgium designer Walter Van Beirendonck’s skinKing collection that featured knitted hood veils; both my wife and I thoughts turned to the French parliamentary commission recommending laws banning the burqa. Would the wearing of these endless knitted garments also contravene the proposed laws, because the face was covered? Even though there was both a male and female garments. And the craziness of the French passing fashion laws hits me like a wet Gaultier bustier. There are so many veils in this exhibition; but who is going to censor a fashion designer when the objective of the French laws is to attack Muslims. And what about the whole knitted body suits of UK designer Freddie Robins? From head to toes endless knits with no holes anywhere.

Finally at Platform and Sticky they were celebrating zines with “The Festival of the Photocopier”. “The Undiscovered Press” exhibition at Platform is curated by Melissa Reidy features a selection of zines from around Australia. The artwork and printing of zines are slicker than ever.

In Vitrine at Platform I also admired Jessica Herrington’s “A particular excess”, the thick layers of black paint solidified on an un-stretched canvas, the excess of paint dripping down and wrinkles as the skin dries. It is an excess of paint.


More of Melbourne’s Public Sculpture

Although public sculptures are generally intended for a specific location they are sometimes moved due to changes to the usage of the site. Melbourne has a number of major sculptures that have moved due to the taste of adminstrators. Melbourne’s moving sculptures include, “Angel” and “Vault”, the orphans of the 80s who are without a permanent home. “Angel” by Deborah Halpern originally stood in front of the NGV on St. Kilda Road before it was moved to, Birrarung Marr, on the banks of the Yarra River in 2006. There was no controversy over the sculpture or the move unlike Ron Robertson-Swann’s “Vault”.

Ron Robertson-Swann’s “Vault” is currently in its third location; originally commission for the city square, and installed in May 1980. “Vault” was controversial, many people in Melbourne had a avoided any kind of modern sculpture and in reference to Australian xenophobia the foreign modernist sculpture was nicknamed “The Yellow Peril”. Melbourne City Council quickly caved into the critics and less than a year later, in 1981 Vault was exiled to Batman Park the banks of the Yarra, then a forgotten area of the city before the casino was constructed on the opposite side of the river. After the casino was constructed, in 2002, “Vault” was moved to its present location in the aesthetic preserve near ACCA. The people of Brisbane appear to have no problems with their Ron Robertson-Swann statue “Leviathan Play” 1985. Maybe it is the color but more likely it is the location outside the art gallery.

Ron Robertson-Swann, Leviathan Play, 1985

(This part of the entry was inspired by comments by Shifty MacDougal on my blog entry on Melbourne’s Public Sculpture. Thanks Shifty.)

I didn’t mention Simon’s Perry popular sculpture “The Public Purse” in my earlier blog entry on Melbourne’s Public Sculpture. “The Public Purse” is a giant stone and metal purse in the Bourke St Mall. “The Public Purse” is excellent public art; you can sit on it and it is witty, even if it is an idea borrowed from Pop artist, Claus Oldenburg’s urban monuments. Simon Perry studied art in England and now lectures in Sculpture and Art in Public Place at RMIT. Less well known is Simon Perry’s “Rolling Path” along the Merri Creek bicycle track. I like Simon Perry’s “Rolling Path” better than the “The Public Purse” because it is simpler and less derivative.

Petrus Spronk, Architectural Fragment, 1992

Another very popular Melbourne sculpture is “Architectural Fragment” by Petrus Spronk, 1992, at the State Library. It is popular even though it is post-modern sculpture with neo-classical references and you even can’t sit on it (although there is wear on one edge from skateboard riders). “Architectural Fragment” makes me think of the end of Planet of the Apes with Charlton Heston on the beach but instead of the Statue of Liberty there is a corner of a library’s classical portico. And speaking of the beach, “Architectural Fragment” is based on Spronk’s sand-sculpture works.

The State Library forecourt has several other statues following the classical tradition of heroic statues: “St. George and the Dragon” by Sir J.E. Boehm and “Jeanne D’Arc” by E. Fremiet. These bronze editions of 19th Century heroes belong to another era; they were imported to Melbourne with the aspiration of giving the public inspiring art that would morally improve them. This is not the aim of most contemporary public sculpture.

Peter Corlett, La Trobe, 2006

I couldn’t find the name of the artist who made the statue of Sir Redman Barry, in the State Library forecourt, on the plinth’s panel amidst the all the many words about the subject and the commission. It was made by James Gilbert in England and finished by Percival Ball in Australia.

At least, the artist, Peter Corlett, has not been neglected mention in the panel about the statue of Governor La Trobe. The bronze statue has some colour to parts of its finish, a feature that would have been seen as retrograde by Hegel. It is not the colours on the statue that concern me but the very small plinth that makes La Trobe look like an eccentric soapbox orator. Peter Corlett has numerous other figurative, bronze, public sculptures around Melbourne.


Curators & Current Exhibitions

Some current exhibitions that I’ve seen in Melbourne made me think about the curators. In reviewing exhibitions in this blog I have endeavoured to give credit to the curators but it also time to give them some critical attention.

Bernhard Sachs and Brad Haylock curate the current exhibition at West Space. I don’t know why they bothered. The title of the show is a beautiful work of art in itself: “The Office of Utopic Procedures Presents: The Aesthetics of Joy – The Infinite International of Poetics” but the exhibition doesn’t support it. Both curators are also exhibiting in the show along with a more or less random selection of artists. Was the exhibition about the aesthetics of joy or was the title so vague that anything could be included? The works in the exhibition are diverse in every sense and there is little cohesion, even the hanging on deep blue walls didn’t create a unity. The exhibition contains the usual contemporary curator’s mix of video art, installation and wall painting. I expect something more from a curators than this exhibition with its pretentious title.

The curators do hit the jackpot with a work by Kellie Wells, a video installation with wall painting that actually appears to be on the exhibition’s theme. Kellie Wells is jumping for joy amongst horizontal strips of elastic. These horizontal strips appear in the minimalist wall painting. It was like the children’s game except played by an adult. The ominous rumbling soundtrack to the installation is the only discordant note in the work.

At Michael Koro Gallery I saw a simpler exhibition. It is simply titled with the names of the participating artists: Ash Keating. Andrew Hutson, Daniel Du Bern and Marcin Wojcik. No curator credited but the hanging was elegantly simple. Ash Keating likes to separate rubbish – it is the environmentally responsible thing to do. And Ash Keating takes rubbish separation to an art – a black pile of plastic waste and white pile of plastic waste. Andrew Hutson is exhibiting three sculptural scenes made of painted paper-mache. They have a whimsical mood, a simple direct style and clear ideas. Daniel Du Bern is showing 10 oil ink prints of strange handmade weapons, perhaps handed in during a police amnesty, as suggested by the series title: Amnesty. These crude but deadly weapons are depicted in a cool, neutral and grey style as artefacts. In the laneway next to Michael Koro Gallery Marcin Wojcik has made small sailing ship made of sticky tape over a wooden frame.

I also saw the Shilo Project at the Ian Potter Museum of Art is curator by Dr Chris McAuliffe. In the exhibition pop music album covers, and dot to dots, meet contemporary art. It is a curatorial dream of an exhibition to include so many artists with a theme exhibition with iconic pop status. The 100 works of art looked coherent because they were all on 100 copies of Neil Diamond’s Shilo album with its dot to dot drawing cover art. There are no breathtakingly great art in this exhibition but the installation of the exhibition is a curatorial work of art incorporating the record store style, a record player and even imitation record store bins full of Neil Diamond records. CDs, with their smaller format, killed the art of the album cover – this exhibition does not attempt to revive it but to redirect it.


The Museum of Electrical Philosophy

The Nicholas Building is the home to a lot of artists from the late Vali Myers (1930-2003) to the very much alive Stephen Giblett. They have their studios and exhibition spaces in the rooms of the Nicholas Building. It is also the home of Collected Works bookstore, the best bookshop for quality literature in Melbourne, along with the Victorian Writers Centre and other interesting shops. It is a wonderful old building that is well worth a visit itself, the mail cute in the stairwell and the antique elevators speak of another era of city office life.

The very name “The Museum of Electrical Philosophy” evokes all kinds of ideas about this prime force. The idea of a strange private museum, like a UFO museum exhibiting in glass cabinets things as evidence for their belief. And it is plausible, after all the Nicholas Building houses the offices of many a small and little known organization. The display at the door changes each month – then it was an electrical circuit that counted itself, kinetic sculptures powered by electric motors including a small revolving Madonna in a crystal. Each of them has had some electrical content.

There is a fringe to the art world, where there is an on going dialogue about the very nature of art and the way it is displayed. The Duchamp code of deconstructing the art world with ordinary objects has expanded to boring the audience with its continuous repetition. In articles by Jean Baudrillard and so many other critics on contemporary art there is an element of despair about this direction. And I felt, having written a thesis about Duchamp’s readymades, that I was part of this unfortunate conspiracy. But there is another side of Duchamp, and consequently the post-Dada fringe, Duchamp’s strange optical machines, his inventions, and chess obsession. It is somewhere between eccentric, prank, madness and life; it is the part that never stopped having fun. This is the part of art that is truly critical of the boredom of contemporary art, the alternative, experimental part outside of the art galleries. It is the Dadaist element manifest not just in street art, or zines but also in the creations like Jim Hart’s “Museum of Electrical Philosophy”.

“The Museum of Electrical Philosophy” examines the aesthetics of the museum, the act of putting things on display under a title. It makes us think about the evolution of the wunderkammers and cabinets of curiosity towards contemporary exhibition practices (I recommend reading Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, 1986).  I haven’t seen that many museums-as-art before; Tsuyoshi Ozawa’s “Museum of Soy Sauce Art” (1999) was complete with a fake history, curatorial notes, a kiosk, and ancient, modern and contemporary soy sauce art. Another was the “Museum of Modern Oddities” (2001) that had its own curators and guidebook to explain the exhibits, combining both visual and performing arts. “The Museum of Electrical Philosophy” may be the smallest of these museums but it is a continuous one.

And, of course, there is the Museum of Electrical Philosophy Blog where Jim Hart writes about the Museum and the Nicholas Building.

(This blog entry is an edited version of an entry published in my old blog, Culture Critic @ Melbourne. My old blog has since been taken down for reasons beyond my control but I thought that this entry was worth republishing as the Museum of Electrical Philosophy is still operating.)


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