Category Archives: Culture Notes

Ghost Signs of Melbourne

New Theatre

On the corner of Flanigan Lane there is the hand painted sign stating: “New Theatre”. Jeff Sparrow and Jill Sparrow give a short history of the New Theatre in their book Radical Melbourne. The sign dates from around 1937 when the New Theatre occupied “an old tin-doffed loft above a dishes garage next to the Duke of Kent Hotel on La Trobe Street.” (Sparrow and Sparrow Radical Melbourne p.28). The New Theatre was established by the Communist Party in 1937 and  continued into the 1990s. The theatre at Flanigan Lane saw the first performance of Bertolt Brecht in Melbourne. In 1939 the theatre was declared unsafe and closed down but the sign remains on the stone wall.

There are plenty of other ghost signs in that small network of lanes but the new theatre was the only one that I researched. The interest in finding and photographing ghost signs grows. My own take on it is less about the hand painted signs and more about the history and culture that the sign represents.

Telephones

The “Do Not Spit” signs at Flinders Street Station tell of a past Melbourne with an expectorating population that had to be told not to. The metal “telephones” sign in the Degraves Street underpass points to a locked door behind which banks of telephone booths once stood before mobile phones made them obsolescent. The boomerang shaped sign from former Brunswick continental supermarket on Lygon Street and Australian identity; for more see Our Fading Past – Our History in Old Signs.  I have not been able to find out anything about the sign for Balkan Club in Melbourne, but there has always been a Balkan Club somewhere around the city.

Loucas & Christororou boomerang

I am suspicious of the ghost signs from around Chinatown like “Commit No Nuisance” Heffernan Lane in Chinatown. These signs looks too good, perhaps they were restored in an earlier revival of interest in ghost signs. I saw them listed as number 4 selfie spots in Melbourne.The aesthetic popularity of ghost signs is leading to some being purposely revealed, restored or rectified.

commit no Nusaince + paste-up

After the collectors, the fans and the academics, comes the photography exhibitions of ghost signs. Stephanie Stead’s “Signs of Our Times” at the City Library in July was the first of these that I’ve seen but I’m sure that there have been others. Stead’s silver gelatine prints are black and white except for the signs that have been hand coloured in oils. This old fashioned technique matches with the old signs producing beautiful nostalgic images.


Scandal Shock!

“… as a protest against the niggardly funding of the fine arts in this hick State and against the clumsy unimaginative stupidity of the administration and distribution of that funding.” Australian Cultural Terrorists claim of responsibility for the theft of Pablo Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the NGV in 1986.

Melbourne love an art scandal. This is assisted by having some top rate scandals, for example, the unsolved theft of the Weeping Woman. Although sometimes these scandals seem to be borrowed from US culture wars, as in the case of the vandalism of Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ in 1997.

Art scandals have been ruined careers and lives, some of them were crimes and art has been destroyed. Melbourne never gave Vault a fair go. Juan Davila sighs at yet another repetition of the cry of ‘obscenity!’ Some of the unfortunate victims of these scandals and some naive realists might be thinking: “what has this got to do with art?” but this discourse is part of what defines art.

In the wake of an art scandal, even people who have not been to an art gallery in decades will express an opinion. The media is full of the story and more comments and from the informed comments to the mad ignorant rants it is this discourse that, in part, defines art. The year of debate about Ron Robertson-Swann’s modernist sculpture Vault in 1980, although driven by local city council politics, inspired the next generation artists to think hard about art and express their ideas not just in their art but in public forums.

This love of art scandals has created its own artists, CDH and Van Rudd for example, who create their own mass media interactive art works by provoking police, politicians or the public. These artists and their art are well known, although not exactly popular. Creating a scandal that goes viral is not the easiest thing to do and not every attempt succeeds in being both a scandal and art.

It has also helped create the environment that fostered Melbourne’s street art and graffiti scene by giving their contentious and audacious actions a wider public eager to discuss them and collect them.

These accidental and deliberate scandals are interesting because they expose the cracks in the facade of our culture and deep divisions in the airbrushed idea of a united society. These scandals raises more questions than they answers prompting further thought, action and creation.


Yarra Sculptures

My brother-in-law, Tom wanted to take a hundred photographs of the buildings in Melbourne’s docklands and riverfront, so earlier this year I went along with him for the early morning walk. We got out at Southern Cross Station, the former Spencer Street Station and crossed the tracks out of the old city. This is not walking Docklands’ public “Art Journey” as Bronwen Colman, the urban art director of the Melbourne Docklands precinct planned but a psychogeographical meandering along the Yarra River.

Webb Bridge, Docklands

Webb Bridge, Docklands

The Yarra River is the reason for Melbourne’s location, it was the transportation hub for the new settlement and it became an industrial site. When the modes of transportation changed in the late 20th Century the river became a neglected site. Another use had to be found for this polluted waterway and like many cities around the world Melbourne turned it into a parkland, river walk, casino, aquarium, restaurants and arts centre. The Yarra River started to be redeveloped in the 1970s with the construction of the Victoria Arts Centre and this urban redesign required more public sculpture.

Patricia Picinni, Seats

Patricia Piccinini, Car Nuggets, 2006

While Tom was photographing the architecture I was looking at and occasionally photographing the sculptures. Just off Batman Hill Drive at the Kangan Institute of TAFE’s Automotive Centre of Excellence I spotted three seats by Patricia Piccinini, the Car Nuggets, 2006. The chrysalis forms of cars or motorcycles about to metamorphose is both typical of Piccinini’s oeuvre and appropriate for the location.

Duncan Stemler, Blowhole, 2005

Duncan Stemler, Blowhole, 2005

We could hardly miss seeing Sydney-based artist, Duncan Stemler’s Blowhole, 2005; a 15 metre tall kinetic wind-responsive stainless-steel and aluminium sculpture located in Docklands Park. In 2008 two of the anodised aluminium cups were blown off but there wasn’t much wind and it wasn’t doing much when we were there.

The area feels deserted until we crossed the river at the Webb Bridge and then things were there was the noise of a flock of parrots enjoying the palm trees. Tom didn’t mind the lack of people, he was happily photographing the architecture of all the new buildings.

As we progress up the south bank of the Yarra there are a few more people were around. I remember reading stories about the early days of Melbourne where people disembarking from ships at the port kept walking up river for what to them seemed like ages until they saw the city. It is very similar today or maybe the city was finally waking up on the weekend.

Further reminding me of the early days of Melbourne the area has these touches of hyper-reality in the old pump house with boilers made by the old Robinson Bros. foundry. I recognised the name of the foundry as they had made Percival Ball’s Francis Ormond Memorial at RMIT.

Megafun, John Dory, 2006

Megafun, John Dory, 2006

On the north bank of the Yarra River poking its head out from amongst the apartments is a giant metal John Dory fish. It was originally on a floating platoon during the 2006 Commonwealth games and was constructed by a company called Megafun. Megafun also provided technical and project management support to Scar – A Stolen Vision in 2001, the aboriginal poles further along the north bank.

The crowds started to build up around the exhibition building and the casino. We had to find some shade so that Tom could see his camera’s screen properly; he was up to his 81st photo.

Simon Rigg, Gaurdians 1997

Simon Rigg, Gaurdians 1997

Outside the eastern end of Crown Entertainment Complex are The Guardians by Simon Rigg. These two large sculptures carved from Italian statuary marble and clad with ceramic tiles. Rigg has a number of other marble public sculptures around Melbourne, including Babylon, 1995 is at 101 Collins Street, as well as, in Beijing and New York.

We come to Inge King Sheerwater, 1994 in front of the Esso building. (See my post on Inge King.) Tom puts his camera away, he has taken his hundredth photo and we cross the Yarra heading up Swanston Walk to Chinatown for a well earned yum cha.

Inge King, Sheerwater, 1994

Inge King, Sheerwater, 1994


Lead Figures (Games and Art)

I was thinking about writing a series of blog post about the tangible art of games, the board and pieces used in play. The art associated with games; painted models, artwork in games and cosplay. The intersection of art and gaming culture is on the rarely examined edge of visual arts apart from when an exhibition of video games comes to ACMI to remind the public. (I have written about games before see my post on De Blob video game that hardly anyone has read.)

Then I learnt that David A. Trampier had died; if you have played AD&D then you will be familiar with his illustrations.

I emailed Mark Morrison, he was my first AD&D DM and now works in the games industry writing and teaching about designing games. I also told Mark Morrison about Sword & Dowkery’s blog post on Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death and lead/tin miniature figures based on the skeleton party in the painting.

When we were teenagers we used to paint the 25mm white metal figures. White metal, is a lead/tin alloy; little lead figures goes back to the ancient Romans but there are health concerns about them now. Skeletons were easy to paint, black in the shadows and white highlights on the bones. The quality of the model figures were amazing and the best of these figures were made by Citadel Miniatures in England. There are plenty of notes to the history of these tiny sculptures, known as miniatures.

Soldiers doing ablutions survive at the Munich Toy Museum

Soldiers doing ablutions survive at the Munich Toy Museum

Some notable sculptors have made dioramas with model figures, the Chapman Brothers, and closer to home, Daniel Dorell, among many contemporary artists. Web Gilbert and Leslie Bowles, who were both familiar with making much larger war memorials, made dioramas for the Australian War Memorial in Canberra; Web Gilbert did the Mathew Flinders memorial near Flinders Street and Bowles made the General Monash Memorial in Kings Domain, Melbourne. Frank Lynch and Wallace Anderson are two more sculptors who also made dioramas for the Australian War Memorial.

The ancient greeks had professional painters who specialised in painting sculptures to give it a life-like appearance. Painting the figures, background and models for the War Memorial dioramas went to another set of artists; Louis McCubbin did the original painting but they have since been retouched and repainted by other artists.

These war dioramas can be controversial; Peter Hofschröer, Wellington’s Smallest Victory (Faber and Faber, London, 2004) is a small book about a small matter of Napoleonic war history. Hofschröer’s detailed research into the Wellington’s insistence on an alteration to Lieutenant Siborn’s Large Waterlooo Model makes his book an exciting read. Siborn’s Large Waterlooo Model is 400 square feet and has hand painted 75,000 10mm white metal figures.

So to all the people painting readymade cast figures, to all my readers with Warhammer armies; remember that you are still doing what can legitimately be called art.

Early Martian army

Early Martian army at the Munich Toy Museum


Drewery Lane

Wandering the streets and lane ways of the inner city I found myself once again in Drewery Lane. The lane extends less than 100m between Lonsdale and Little Lonsdale street and runs parallel to Swanston Walk. I’ve never had any reason to be in Drewery Lane and have only wandered into once or twice before by accident.

It is a surreal location, suddenly removed from the main city streets and dominated by a large white sculpture, on the front of Baroq House, depicting an entwined male and female figures about to metamorphosis into one the London plane trees planted along the lane. The London plane trees, although common street tree in Melbourne, are an unusual feature for a Melbourne’s lane.

Like many of Melbourne’s lanes it is virtually a pedestrian zone because you would never expect a vehicle to actually drive along it. Mostly because there is generally a van making deliveries blocking one section so that even pedestrians have to squeeze past.

The short lane contains a mix of the boutique apartments, the backdoors of businesses and the nightclub, Baroq House. Melbourne Fresh Daily provides information about the patrons of Baroq House and its cocktails, along with photographs of the lane way and some of the street art.

As usual for Melbourne’s lanes there is plenty of street art. Dean Sunshine has, of course, photographs of one of the larger works of aerosol art in the lane by Putos, Seige, Caper et. al.

Amongst the other buildings along the lane there is Dovers Printery (also called “Sniders and Abrahams Warehouse”). Snider and Abrahams were manufacturing tobacconists in the 19th and early 20th century and their seven storey Chicagoesque style office, factory and warehouse building, now heritage listed, was constructed in 1909 – 1910. It has now been converted into two bedroom, two bathroom apartments with secure parking.

It is “the world’s oldest example of a flat plate reinforced concrete structure” according to real estate agent Mark Connellan; a slight exaggeration. It was the first in the Australia, there were serval earlier buildings in the USA that used the then patented Turner Mushroom System including the Johnson-Bovey in Minneapolis (1906; razed) and the 1906 Hoffman (a.k.a. Marshall) Building in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The architect of the Dover Printery, the American-Australian Hugh Ralston Crawford had obtained the license to use Turner Mushroom System of flat-slab reinforced concrete floors that allowed for thinner slabs and broader spans. Basically it is the first building in Melbourne to employ the modern construction technique typical of modern multi-story buildings.

The some debate about the name of the lane, currently underlined in red to indicate a spelling error. eMelbourne suggests three possibilities. Was it changed from Brewery to Drewery? Or was it named after London’s Drury Lane as suggested by historian Weston Bate in his book Essential but unplanned: the story of Melbourne’s lanes (1994)? Most likely it was the named after the chemist and city councillor Thomas Drewery, as these local politicians love to have their names recorded for posterity.

There are three side branches a lane, an alley and a place leading off Drewery Lane, most of them are also called Drewery, although one is name Snider Lane. The dead end Snider Lane is the one that most retains the aspect of service lane packed with rubbish bins. Taped to the wall above the rubbish bins of the restaurants and hotels is a printed note of complaint in English and Chinese telling the businesses to lock their bins to prevent junkies from going through them and leaving a mess.

Junkies going through restaurant rubbish bins? As I turn back into Lonsdale Street, a groups of three young men pass me and I can hear their conversation. “What are you on?” asks one. ‘Methadone,’ his companion replies.


The National Gallery & Nationalism

There is a vast unexamined area of the reason for national art galleries along with a lack of coherence in explaining why they exist. This lack of coherence and examination rests on another idea that lacks both coherence and examination, the nation state.

National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art , Gwacheon, Korea

National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art , Gwacheon, Korea

The idea of nations and geography makes the artist is built into the very structure of most major art galleries, after all they are often called ‘National’ or ‘State’ galleries. The artificial divisions these gallery make between nationalities and even races perpetrates the idea that the nationality or race is important. (The NGV has a separate gallery of artists who identify as aboriginal.) This nationalism is reflected in the hanging of the art although it does not help our understanding of art history nor the appreciation of the art anymore than hanging the art on the basis of the artist’s gender. The underlying assumption is that there is an underlying core aesthetic to a particular nationality or race is absurdly racist and is not supported by any evidence.

John Burrow writes “For Hegel, in the last part of his Philosophy of Right (1852) (324, 325), it was crucial that the State, in war, could call on the citizen to sacrifice his life. War was no longer, as in the eighteenth century, an affair merely for mercenaries. The State’s right to individual’s life was not just an instrument for his protection (the contract theory), or for the production of welfare (Enlightened Despotism), but a higher spiritual entity than the individual. The requirement of his life was not tyranny but self-sacrifice, submission to one’s own higher will and participation in the life of a higher entity.” (John Burrow, A History of Histories, Penguin Books, 2007, p.459)

The nation state is a religion, a belief in a higher entity. God might be dead and buried but the nation state is very much alive. Several assumptions are made about the sacred nation state but given that nation states are a human invention only a few hundred years old it is not necessary that any nation state exists.

The claim that the state has a right not to be divided and that protecting that state, in the words of Radovan Karadzic before the UN tribunal in the Hague, “holy and just.” (The Independent 20/3/10)  The assumption that a nation state has a right to exist implies that it is a higher entity. This higher entity, the god of the nation, has a unique history, a unique culture, if not a unique language and national identity, is legislated, paid for and demanded by the nation state. Where there is no evidence of this unique culture it must be invented, developed and manufactured. It is assumed that there is such a thing as Australian art but nobody assumes that there will be Australian philosophy (philosophy in Australia is predominately Anglo-American philosophy with a little bit of continental European philosophy).

 

National galleries are must have items for countries as if they were playing some giant game of Sid Meier’s Civilization but what are the benefits of having a national gallery, like the NGV: “the richest treasury of visual arts in the southern hemisphere”? (The National Gallery of Victoria is a wonderful example because it is now a “national gallery” without a nation since the independent colony of Victoria federated with other Australian states.)

Is the nation state to coil up like old Smaug around its treasure, exuding power and basking in the envy of others? To have a national collection that to use in soft diplomacy to representing the state? As an educational tool to train future artist and designers to better the nation’s productivity? As infotainment, a tourist attraction to bring customers to the city’s restaurants and hotels and improve the tax revenue? Or is it to be sold off when the city goes bankrupt as was suggested for the Detroit Art Gallery?

 


Artists & Creators

People often write to me, or talk with me, with a fixed idea of what it is to an artist. (I will leave the “no true artist” fallacy aside.) An artist is someone who creates art. Before we rush to the big question of what is art; what is it to create something and remember that not all creators are artists, there are many jobs that require creativity.

detail of Evangelos Sakaris, “Word and Way”, 2001

detail of Evangelos Sakaris, “Word and Way”, 2001

There is the eye, the breath and the hand of the creator.

The eyes, or ears in the case of musicians, process the world in a unique mind. Creativity starts in the mind. Eyes are especially important to photographers. The eye as an extension of the mind interprets the world. It selects, organises and focuses.

The breath or the word, written or spoken, of the artist is also important to the creative act. The breath is of critical importance to poets and writers in finding their ‘voice’ but there are other creative uses for the voice. The director is speaking to actors before they perform, so the voice is not heard by the audience. The visual artist may also be directing assistants. Visual artist’s word has always been there quietly declaring that a work is finished. For many centuries the word of visual artists was overlooked until Duchamp and the Dadaists brought it front and centre again.

The hand of the artist has often been written about. The hand of the artist has been praised especially with pen and ink drawing, where the hand is clearly visible. The hand of the artist is also evident in virtuoso musicians and by extension the whole body for actors and dancers. The signature is seen as the embodiment of the hand, but no one is claiming that one creations directly from the hand of the artist are valid art, demanding the read novels in the original handwritten manuscript or decrying all novels after the invention of the typewriter.

Not that all artists use the eye, the breath and the hand equally, different arts emphasise different attributes or combinations. To assume that one way of creating is the only true and correct way is a mistake. To assume that all artists must use their hands ignores all the other ways of creating. The great man doing it all himself is itself a macho idea and forgets that some visual artists can work mostly with their eye and breath.

Not all painters are artists. Discussing Betsy, a chimpanzee from the Baltimore Zoo that did some painting the philosopher George Dickie notes: “Betsy (the chimp) would not (I assume) be able to conceive of herself in such a way as to be a member of the art world and, hence, would not be able to confer the relevant status.”

To be an artist, an artist must have the idea that they are creating art, a word that is used to describe the creative output of artists. They have to learn to use this word in a society, to talk about it with thumping music playing in the room. To exhibit their art and have other people describe it as art. What exactly art is, or if this word has any meaning, is the subject of endless discussion, a discourse that in itself, defines art. (As Andy said, “Art, isn’t that a man’s name?”) Part of the problem with identifying what the word “art” means is that there have been multiple meanings in the last hundred years alone but that is another subject.


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