Tag Archives: Australia

Performprint Spectacular

“Extreme printmaking and macho ritual fuel Performprint – a ten-hour exploration of masculinity, live art and print reproduction in the 21st century.” Publicity promised a spectacular event from 9am to 7pm at the Arts House/Meat Market as part of the Festival of Live Art on Sunday March 23rd in Melbourne, Australia.

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The first question that I asked Joel Gailer, when I saw him a weeks ago. Joel looked relaxed, he was leaning on the cast iron lace railing of his terrace house veranda. “Are you in training for Performprint?”

“Yes, I did some training earlier today,” Joel replied. He had been in training. A few days later he and Michael Meneghetti, painted silver and orange, staggering through the Bourke Street Mall, in the centre of Melbourne with very large BBQs strapped to the backs. The ‘Stations of the BBQ’ was a live performance in the lead up Performprint. The masculine domain of the BBQ are locally believed to be quintessentially Australian; “throw another prawn on the barbie” comedian Paul Hogan would say in old Australian tourism advertisements.

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At Performprint, in the historic setting of the old Melbourne Meat Market printer, Joel Gailer and his old friend and collaborator, performance artist, Michael Meneghetti were both in sunglasses, t-shirts, black jeans and boots. They were constantly working with a silent concentrated intensity for the ten hour event except when Gailer would, megaphone in hand, would climb to the top of a ziggurat of half finished copies of Warhol’s Brillo Box to announce his print manifesto and laugh at painters. Gailer proclaimed that “the truth is a copy”, “the copy is primary” and “Warhol is our god”.

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Joel Gailer is an experimental printer; he presses hard up against the boundary of the definition of printing to get a good print of its relief. He has printed in many different processes from etching to commercial printing in art magazines for which he won the the Fremantle Acquisitive Print Award for Hot Process, a page of paid advertising in Art Almanac magazine. Action printing was the next logical step; the LPG gas fire in an iron grill for branding on slabs of pig skin. Branding is a form of print making.

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Gailer and Meneghetti were using many different printing processes from the traditional cast iron printing press to using a lawn roller to make giant prints with large plywood letters. Printing on a giant scale you need a casking gun of tar for ink and a line of rope strung across rigging.

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Meneghetti’s performance art a lot of stilt walking while wearing masks; see his YouTube page. As well as, assisting Gailer with the printing Meneghetti was occasionally walking around in several different versions of the stilts including one made crutches and broken surfboards. There was a video loop of two of his four legged creatures walking around on the rocks of the tidal zone as the water slowly came in.

Other looping videos showed Indonesian fighting cocks being prepared for battle, a man with a spectrum of coloured underpants and a hand holding sprigs of wattle flowers above a flame. The wattle is a reference to both the right-wing nationalist, Australia Natives Association’s ‘Wattle Day’, as a symbol of Australia, and Monty Python’s parody in their Bruce Sketch. Together Gailer and Meneghetti have refined and redefined ideas about Australia and country boy machismo into masochistic endurance performance art. Machismo and masochism are very close.

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There was skateboarding on two ramps at your own risk, with t-shirts printed with legal waivers for the event. The skateboard wheels were carved with letters and the ramps were covered with the printed word. There were many carved wheels and tires that Gailer and Meneghetti pushed around printing words onto the bluestone cobbled floor.

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It was somewhere between print making and rock’n’roll; smoke machines, spot lights, multiple TV sets, video projectors and Harley-Davidsons. This was an event with a bar, a coffee bar and a catering van.

At the end there was the cacophony of competing bands, MY ‘Michael Yule’ Band and Coffin Wolf, and the human branding. At 7:59pm Michael Meneghetti that night posted a photo on Facebook of Joel Gailer at the emergency ward. Gailer went to hospital on Arts House staff advice worried about alcohol poisoning after he consumed a bottle of gin too quickly during and post branding. He sat around for a while and then left before being examined.

A video of a 2013 outdoor version of Performprint.

A video on UStream of the Meat Market event that will make you head spin.

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Prolegomena to Australian Culture

The terrible “Australian” identity debate continues to stumbles around like a drunken bogan. I feel forced to comment because of the subtitle of this blog (the “cultural critic” part) and because of the pathetic nationalist culture statement made by the imbeciles and criminals based in Canberra.

I don’t want to dignify anything that they have said by even commenting on it. Instead this will be a partial prolegomena (I don’t believe the spell checker knew that word – “you know, prolegomena, the clarification of the ground in preparation for further discussion, as in Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics” – thanks to Richard Meltzer’s Aesthetics of Rock for clarifying that). So before anyone says anything more there are a few things that need to be clarified.

Recently the word “culture” has been applied to many things from the “work culture of Systems Administrators” to “deaf culture”. Discussion of “Australian culture” assumes that culture is a singular noun and this may be a grammatical error. The word “culture” may be a collective noun like “water”, “wool” or “dust” so that you have “some culture” or a “lots of culture” and not “a culture” anymore than “a water”, or “a wool”. A quantitative examination is a better foundation for discussion of culture rather than an examination identifying a unit.

Culture is more than the arts; it includes language, education, science, ethics, etc. It is the way that people behave in business, in medicine, in government etc. The limited understanding in Australian major political parties culture policy reduces culture to the arts. This is a narrow, limited understanding of culture and it is typical of the lack of depth to most Australian politicians understanding. Artists are culture workers, that is people working directly on their culture and not as a by-product of a culture.

A culture has material expressions, e.g. fashion, food, figures of speech, activities that identifies and defines the culture to both it members and others. That is cultures have identifiable clothes, food, dance, customs and practices. Vague claims about “mateship” or “ANZAC spirit” are not evidence of a culture. Furthermore, while I am stating the obvious, neither are national constitution (flag, etc.) nor geography evidence of a culture.

A language, in and of itself, does not constitute a culture. There are many languages that have no culture: trade languages do not belong to any one culture but facilitates communication across cultures. Likewise computer languages facilitate operations and communication without belonging to a culture. English is a language that has become free, in the processes of attempting to global dominance, of its original culture. As a language, English, does not necessarily signify any culture but particular expressions can identify the culture of the speaker. Slang, in itself, is not evidence of a culture; a person speaking Singlish is no more authentically Singaporean than a person speaking standard English.

There is so much that could and should be noted: Why have a culture? How do cultures develop? Are all cultures equal? This will have to be part one of this prolegomena.


Welcome Refugees

On the 7 December 2013 in a co-ordinated effort the Refugee Action Collective (Vic) are attempting a mass action “to shower the streets of Melbourne with messages of welcome.”

Refugee Action Collective (Vic) rally at State Library.

Refugee Action Collective (Vic) rally at State Library.

Leaving your country is never easy and even people facing persecution do not take the move lightly. Refugees need to be welcomed, protected and helped; this is the basic standard of a civilised person. Any civilised, rational or moral human would welcome and protect a person fleeing persecution or death, it is an ancient tradition now codified in international law. Australia’s treatment of refugees is a crime against humanity perpetrated by a rogue state backed by a racist mob. Amnesty International reports that: “The United Nations Human Rights Committee has found Australia to be in breach of its obligations under international law, committing 143 human rights violations by indefinitely detaining 46 refugees for four years, on the basis of ASIO’s ‘adverse security assessments’.”

Not that I think that any propaganda campaign of posters, fridge magnets and rallies can change the minds of the amoral psychopaths that dictate Australia’s crimes against refugees. I doubt that it will be any more effective than my rhetoric.

The Refugee Action Collective (Vic) was mildly calling for civil disobedience in encouraging people to “sticker, chalk your neighbourhood”. For yes, even writing in chalk is technically illegal in Melbourne; not that I’ve ever heard of anyone being arrested for it, not that the three police at the demonstration were making any attempt to stop people writing in chalk in front of the State Library. Not that many people were writing in chalk on Saturday morning.

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Melbourne’s street artists have been putting out the welcome refugees and showering the streets with more witty about Australia’s treatment messages for years. Of particular note, is Phoenix who has made the map of Australia into a welcome mat in a long running series of paste-ups. Phoenix sums up the both major parties position on refugees with the phrase: “We scare because we care”, a phrase that started with his paste-ups about the ‘War on Terror’. Phoenix is not directly involved with the Refugee Action Collective but his has donated some of his art to their fundraising auction. He is not a single-issue street artist and has been sticking his political art to Melbourne’s walls for years.

Phoenix welcome mat sticker with Ghostpatrol tag.

Phoenix welcome mat sticker with Ghostpatrol tag.

This sustained campaigns of illegal posters and stencils creates signs that the federal government and the opposition does not represent all Australians on this issue and is not in complete control of the territory it claims. Even though it was buffed with in 24 hours I’m sure that my local member, Kelvin Thomson got the message when the external wall of his office in Coburg was recently covered in anarchist graffiti.


Kitchen Status

Visitors to a private house in Melbourne are frequently shown into the kitchen to socialise. If they are in my house there is a combined kitchen and dinning room and is designed to socialise in. A century ago visitors would not have been shown the kitchen then kitchens were small narrow rooms near the back of the house with only space for one or two people in them at the most. Kitchens in a social and cultural context have changed, a complete reversal of status in the house.

Finishing up on my 2006 kitchen renovation

Finishing up on my 2006 kitchen renovation

Socialising in the kitchen allows the hosts to conveniently serve food and drink to guests and family without leaving the room. They are the entertainment hub in Melbourne’s homes from the wealthy to the poor; except where the old house designs do not allow for socialising in the kitchens.

Houses are the form of lifestyles, their architecture defines the way that we live. The architecture of rooms and their use in a house contains information about social hierarchies, taboos and other information about the way of life of its inhabitants.

My kitchen fills half of a large room that also functions as a dinning room and a central intersection of the house. It is the first room after the hallway that a guest usually enters. This combination makes the process of serving food at dinner parties so much easier. I can get up from the table and within a few steps reach the stove, fridge or anything else I need.

The change in the status of kitchens in our culture is a kind of parallel to the change in the status and social role of women. It is also an indication of social equality both in the greater society, in that kitchen staff are no longer commonly affordable, and in the family where the wife is no longer her husband’s servant. My wife and I share the cooking, I probably do slightly more. I’ve been a kitchen hand and I often help when my wife is cooking by cutting up onions or preparing other vegetables.

This change in the status of kitchens has also lead to a change in the way that food is enjoyed and the kinds of food enjoyed. Food preparation may involve designer utensils or novelty kitchen gadgets. Food is a chance to explore the variety of things to eat – fish sauce, Canadian maple syrup and Spanish olive oil can all be found in my kitchen.

In 2006 I built my own kitchen, screwing it together from a flat pack kit. I’m kind of proud of the biggest DIY job that I’ve ever done. Most Australians get professionals to do their kitchens and the kitchen in a Melbourne houses is one of the most expensive rooms. Mine has an island bench, the transition point between food preparation and consumption; most of the plates, bowls and cutlery are stored under the island bench. There is a great flow from the pantry and fridge, through to the cooking area and the finally the cleaning area and waste disposal, sink, dishwasher, and bins. There are three bins: one for compost, one for recycling and one for non-recycling. Then there is the area that where I feed the cat; it has a mat of newspaper because she likes to eat with her paws, dragging her food out of her bowl.

My kitchen is sparsely decorated. There are a couple of vases for flowers and a couple of my paintings on the dinning room side of my kitchen. The fridge is an odd centrepiece to one wall of the kitchen and acts as a kind of noticeboard and place for souvenir magnets. In the 1911 Marcel Duchamp made a small painting for the kitchen of his brother Raymond’s house, “Coffee Grinder”. “It’s normal today to have paintings in your kitchen but at that time it was rather unusual.” Duchamp said, noting the status change in kitchens.


An Expensive Identity

The Australian government is spending $140m-plus for the WWI centenary, compared to the British government spending £55m ($94m) Paul Daley reported in The Guardian (15/10/2013).

A Boer War Memorial in South Melbourne

A Boer War Memorial in South Melbourne

War memorials are a very important part of constructing a national identity for Australia. They stand as demonstrations of loyalty to the Empire, the British or the American empires. Australia defined its national identity by the wars where Australian troops served and were identified as Australians. The first war that Australian colonial soldiers fought and died in was the Boer War and there are many monuments in Melbourne to the Boer War, or as the Brunswick memorial refers to it as the “South African War”. The first war memorial constructed in Melbourne was the monument to the 5th Victorian Contingent in 1903, a gothic revival style shrine by architects George de Lacy Evans and sculptor Joseph Hamilton.

Initially the construction of these memorials is understandable. As the Australian troops who fought in the Boer War and First World War were buried where they died their immediate families in Australia had nowhere to grieve. There are many war memorials scattered around Melbourne and its suburbs frequently with a statue of a soldier on top of them. There are so many local war memorials that a law was passed in 1916 to control their numbers.

Shrine of Rememberance, Melbourne

Shrine of Rememberance, Melbourne

Canada's WWI Memorial, Ottawa

Canada’s WWI Memorial, Ottawa

Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance is huge. It is far larger than other British colony’s war memorials, except for the later constructed Australian War Memorial in Canberra that combines a shrine, a museum, and an extensive archive. The Shrine of Remembrance dwarfs the Canadian war memorial in Ottawa. The Shrine was built between 1927-1934; paid for largely with public donations, although the Victorian and Commonwealth government did make some contributions. General Monash was the driving force behind the Shrine and its status; his background in civic engineering finding expression in this enormous quasi-religious area of the city that has become dedicated to memorials to Australian soldiers and campaigns.

WWI created a rupture in funerary conventions in Europe and America with the accumulating memorials overwhelmed people. “Whereas around the turn of the century full-length figures were far the most popular, after 1914, and in line with growing nerves about statuemania, busts assume the lead.” [Penelope Curtis, Sculpture 1900-1945 (Oxford University Press, 1999, Oxford) p.43] But it did not slow the production of statues in Australia. Charles Marsh Web (Nash) Gilbert (1867-1925) made a total of 9 WWI memorials, more than any other Australian sculptor.

The present fervour for war memorials and ‘Anzackery’ is because there is almost nothing that unites Australia. It is populated by disposed aboriginal tribes, exiled convicts, British colonists and post WWII immigrants from around the world. Australia it is not united by race, language, religion or any ideals. There is no Australian dreaming.

There has always been very limited social cohesion in Australia (in WWII fearing invasion by the Japanese separate trenches were dug in Swan Hill by the Catholic and Protestants that faced each other). Australia is simply an artificial construct of British law that exists as a client state for the benefit of the Anglo-American empires, so the sacrifice of Australia young men for these foreign causes is very important to Australia’s national identity. This limited social cohesion is reflected in Melbourne’s public sculptures (see my post Heroes of Every Nation).

This explains the investment in making these wars and battles a central element of Australian identity. And as uncertainty grows about what these memorials mean to the collective consciousness of Melbourne more didactic plaques and visitor centres has been added. A recent addition to the art deco Boer War Memorial by Irwin and Stevenson is a large bronze plaque with low relief figures and text to explain Australian involvement in this colonial war in South Africa. The addition of this didactic plaque demonstrates the uncertainty of this monument’s meaning in the 21st century.

Lest we forget the conscientious objectors, the pacifists and the traumatized soldiers who were shot for cowardice by the British Army, those dying in the most brutal of wars so that British imperial forces to murder civilians around the world, Kurds, Indians, Irish, so that Bertrand Russel could be jailed by the British for writing that American army was very good at breaking strikes. Of course none of this will be remembered in Australia’s orgy of commemorations of the centennial of WWI. What is the cost of this national identity?


Is there art without politics?

Ai Weiwei comments (The Guardian Weekly 21/09/12 p.37) on “Art of Change: New Directions from China” at the Hayward Gallery, London and he asks: “How can you have contemporary art that doesn’t address a single one of the country’s most pressing issues?”

I frequently find myself asking this question looking at contemporary art in Melbourne that stands for nothing but superficial gestures and thinking similar thoughts to Ai Weiwei but about Australian art rather than Chinese.

Although Australian art is heavily influenced by contemporary western cultures, it rejects the essential human values that underpin it. The Australian Government claims to the rule of law, respect for international laws and human rights but have so often excepted themselves from any obligations in various circumstances that nobody understands what this means anymore. In Australia you have a right not be discriminated against on the basis of your race except if you are an aborigine living in the Northern Territory. You have the right to claim asylum except if you come by boat. I could go on and on about the exceptions that the Australian Government has granted itself and then another tract about the exceptions that have been granted to allied governments.

Ai Weiwei offers a solution at the end of his comment. “What’s needed is open discussion, a platform for argument. Art needs to stand for something.”

Politics may not be something that an artist chooses but a position that is thrust upon them because their art does stand for something. Bill Henson has become the spokesman for artistic freedom because of the government campaign against him, not because of any overt political content in his work, but the content that government wanted to repress, a discussion that it did not want opened.

Sydney-based artist, Stephen Copland suggested to me that perhaps the political art should be judged from the archaeology of the stratigraphy of exhibitions (and the art exhibited) within the artist’s career rather than individual works of art. In this way the seriousness and depth of the artist’s political interest can best be judged. In a broader survey many artists would mark out the stratigraphy of the burning political issues in the layers of art works.

There are still plenty of largely uncensored platforms in Australia and Australian art is not under as many restrictions as art in China; the ALP did give the Australian Classification Board the power to censor art exhibitions after the Bill Henson furore.  But this freedom counts for nothing if nobody is saying anything or making superficial gestures. So many good artists remaining silent… I see so many exhibitions that are studiously saying nothing.

Sometimes it looks like all that many contemporary artists are trying to achieve is to fill a gallery space and I don’t mean completely fill up a gallery space, like the “New York Earth Room” (1977) by Walter De Maria. I mean just scale up a simple drawing so that it fills a wall or projecting a looping video onto a wall. As if filling up a gallery was an end in itself. Not that this should be taken as a complaint against all contemporary art installations as a whole, it is not about skill or technique or lack of them. There are boring exhibitions of highly competent paintings and the work of skilled crafters. Almost every week I see exhibitions that are a bit of a bore.

And the artist’s comment on this whole empty process appears to be bored and empty. Sometimes it appears that contemporary artists have done post-graduate studies in grant and application writing. This involves the composition of studied art world patois involved in over complication and indulging in obfuscation. “The exhibited works appear as chapters severed from their context” – that’s a nice way of say it is an incoherent exhibition. “Post-planning” – they are making it up as they go along. “Leading artist” – who is being lead? (For more on this art speak see Hyperallergic’s “How to Talk about Art” column.)

Why do we put up with these solipsistic, self-absorbed creations that contribute nothing to the wider cultural discourse of politics or life or anything of than other contemporary art? Who is responsible, who is to blame for this awful boring art? Let me say this first off, it is not all the artist’s fault; they are too obvious and too easy to blame. Nor is it entirely the fault of their teachers, the curators, gallery and arts grants boards. It is also the fault of the critics and art reviewers – it is my fault.

I should have slammed the artist’s work from the moment my fingers touched the keyboard. I should have dismantled their flimsy ideas and dammed their pretentious self-indulgent attempts at art. Perhaps I should have howled at the other critic’s praise for these artists. The fact is there aren’t really that many arts writers, even including bloggers, in Melbourne to complain about. We are living in a time when people in all seriousness praise the arts coverage in MX, the free paper distributed on the trains, over any other newspaper in Melbourne simply because they print more pictures.

I am not expecting that art will change that many minds or that art should be judged by its political efficacy or position. In 2010 Marcus Westbury asks “Does Political Art Work?” with the danger preaching to the choir or the tabloid frenzy the sidetrack issue. I’m not expecting art to work in politics all I’m asking is for the artists to make art that stands for something important. (The artists don’t have stand for political office, like Carl Scrase or Van Rudd.)

I am expecting that “art needs to stand for something.”


Melbourne Don’t Blow

“When a gentleman sounds his own trumpet he ‘blows’. The art is perfectly understood and appreciated among the people who practise it. Such a gentleman or a lady was only ‘blowing!’ You hear it and hear of it every day. They blow a good deal in Queensland – a good deal in South Australia. They blow even in poor Tasmania. They blow loudly in New South Wales, and very loudly in New Zealand. But the blast of the trumpet as heard in Victoria is louder than all the blasts – and the Melbourne blast beats all the other blowing of that proud colony. My first, my constant, my parting advice to my Australian cousins is contained in two words – ‘Don’t blow.’”

- Anthony Trollop (The Birth of Melbourne ed. Tim Flannery, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2002, Australia p.283)

I am sorry to report that over a century later Melbourne is still loudly blowing its trumpet. There is a belief that a bigger local noise must mean a significant culture. I forget how many times have I heard that something in Melbourne is amongst the best in the world. World’s first feature film, world’s best drinking water, the world’s richest horse race, the finest fashion, world’s most liveable cities…

It just goes on and on – I hear street artists declaring that Melbourne street art is amongst the best cities in the world. Musicians talking about Melbourne’s little bands and its electronic music, from Percy Granger to the present day. The whole Melbourne and Sydney rivalry is part of this phenomenon.

Australian culture is obsessed with its own feedback but only stories that praise Australia are feed back into the loop, criticism is dismissed as ill-informed. It is just embarrassing to hear especially when you know that it is not true. Southern Cross Station even has signs that say: “world class station” – it is far from it but they won’t hear of it.

Australians are insecure and do all this blowing to be reassured. Australians have long felt insecure, as far back as the first colonial settlement and this colonial inferiority complex has many significant cultural and political implications. The Australian “cultural cringe” coined by Melbourne critic, A.A. Philips in 1950 describes the attitude of inferiority to Europe in all areas except for sport. This insecurity has also lead to sycophancy in politics and an inability to accurately assess or deal with criticism.

I feel that the constant sound of this blowing has deafened Melbourne’s public to any criticism. So I’ll say it again on behalf of Anthony Trollop because it obviously needs repeating – Melbourne please don’t blow.


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