Category Archives: Culture Notes

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.


Against Naive Idealism

Or, why contemporary artists need to study philosophers, such as Foucault. (Yes, this is blog post is written specifically for my most recent subscriber – yes, I do look at your blog when you subscribe – but I know that there are other readers who should think about this.)

There are people who naively think that things are predefined and that a knowledge of English (or whatever language) is sufficient to know what the word means. That the meaning of words is inductively learnt as a child. For example, that they know what ‘art’ is because they speak English. This creates a world where the idea of words exist outside of people’s minds, in which there are true and false things according to how they fit with a predefined definition.

These people have been encouraged to think this way from an early age by conservatives because it helps them to hold onto power. They are told that things are the way that they are and that any attempt to understand why is futile sophistry. They are encouraged to be idealists and Socrates’s story of the cave is endlessly repeated as if Parmenides had never rebutted Socratic idealism. This is for the benefit of conservatives because it discourages any examination that might reduce their power.

The definition of the word ‘art’, like other words (‘men’, ‘women’, ‘marriage’ etc.), is not fixed. Definitions are mutable; the word ‘art’ has changed meaning several times in the last few centuries and will continue to change as society changes. By examining how the words are used and defined the political structure of society can be understood. This is why reading Foucault (or Chomsky or other philosophers) is important; or if you are conservative, why you should dismiss them without examination.

If it is impossible to change the meaning of the word ‘art’ then if you want to be a popular artist then you should make images of girls with big tits (see my post Sexy Girls, Girls, Girls) and refuse to believe that these images have anything to do with the position of women in society. If you want to be a wealthy artist then make images that supports and flatters those in power and refuse to believe that they could do anything wrong. If the meaning of the word ‘art’ cannot change then why do you think that your art can change anything?


Psychogeography

Everyone has their own theory about the methods and purposes of psychogeography, is it magic or unknown science, but the one thing that people are sure about is that it involves walking. Psychogeography may be a form of literary or artistic fiction about a crowd-sourced index and map of various cities. It is not intended for the sole-benefit of the researcher, although it may well be, but for a larger audience. In this it can be distinguished from religious or spiritual walks; pilgrimages, walking meditations or the Aboriginal walkabout as these are done for the spiritual benefit to the walker.

Bionic Ear Lane

There are different types of psychogeography.

There is the psychogeography of the Situationalists; the dérive, and all that programatic pseudo-scientific shambolic stuff at the start. Not forgetting all the other wanders of the city that had come before them, especially in those Paris streets.

The psychogeography of Stewart Homes (London Psychogeographical Association and the Manchester Area Psychogeographic) where the Situationalists philosophy is mixed with the magical geomancy of lay lines and architectural conspiracy theories.

The psychogeography of Will Self with his long distance traverses of the urban landscape of London, New York, Los Angeles… As Will Self explains:

 “most of the pychogeographic fraternity (and, dispiritingly, we are a fraternity: middle-aged men in Gore-Tex, armed with notebooks and cameras… ) are really only local historians with an attitude problem. Indeed real, professional local historians view us as insufferably bogus and travelling – if anywhere at all – right up ourselves.” (Will Self Psychogeography Bloomsbury, 2007, p.12)

All this walking may not be as bogus for historian as Will Self implies; Charlie Ward writes on his blog:

“when I finished a Masters Degree and realised that I was a historian, I’ve noticed the foibles that characterise the guild. One of these is the habit of ‘taking the air’ in locations at which past events occurred. While I remain coy about these activities, I was buoyed to read in Mark McKenna’s excellent biography An Eye for Eternity ,that Australia’s pre-eminent historian, Manning Clark, was a committed practitioner of this eccentric science. According to McKenna, Clark spent days driving across the outback on trips punctuated by the historian pacing about like a bush parson, divining the temper of times gone by.”

My own version of psychogeography are predicated on research and strays into both the territory of local historians and even archeologists. When I asked my friend Geoff Irvin, a real, professional archeologist about describing my activities as “a surface archeological survey” was an abuse of term, he scoffed at the much abused idea of surface archeology and told me to abuse away.

My predilection for amateur local history comes from mother’s side of the family; my mother’s main interests are Chinese immigration to Australia and graveyards in Central Victoria. My maternal grandfather, Harold S. Williams wrote a series of history articles, “Shades of the Past” for the Mainichi newspaper during the years 1953 to 1957 along with a couple of books. He was a bit of flâneur, reporting on the local history, observing the coffee shops and other minutia of life in Osaka, sometimes with a revolver in his pocket. So I suppose that I’m carrying on a family tradition.

I have now been writing this blog for six years. Travelling around Melbourne: walking riding my bicycle, taking trains and trams. I am not a pedestrian purist, like Will Self, for me psychogeography can be conducted by other forms of transport, although for accurate observations being on foot (or on a bicycle because it is easy to stop and start) is best.

Perhaps we need another term, other than crazy ‘psychogeography’, or perhaps the activity has already divided in specialist areas of interest: ghost signs, paint spotting (looking for graffiti), legend tripping and urban exploration.


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