Various art galleries around Fitzroy – March 2012
At Sutton Gallery Brett Colquhoun’s “Spirit” is two separate bodies of work. There are landscapes where the condensation of the breath of the viewer is visibly obscuring the scene. And, in the main gallery, there is a larger series of drawings and paintings, “The Invisible”. In these painting geometric radiating rays of white, like hallucinatory radar grids, filling in the black surfaces. Breath + The Invisible = Spirit.
“Origins” by Damian Vincenzi at Kick Gallery is an exhibition of photographs of nature with a mirror image of one half. It is an old trick but Vincenzi has found some more beauty and magic in it creating visions of animals from mineral structures.
Seventh Gallery packs in three exhibitions into its small space. “Constructing Comfort” by recent Monash Fine Arts graduates, Rowan Moyle and Nickk Hertzog is in Gallery One. Slacker art like this installation is deliberately ugly, unappealing, shoddily crafted and dumb in such a way that it argues, with cynicism, that it must be great art because you and I can’t appreciate it. “Constructing Comfort” is anything but comfortable, although there are tarpaulin-covered shelters.
Leela Schauble’s “Dyeing Waters” installation in Gallery Two at Seventh Gallery is engaging with new visions of the body. In Seventh Gallery small Project Space “New Frontier” by Thomas Breakwell looked like so many other pieces of video art.
Brook Andrew “Maybe it’s meant to happen” 2010 at Gertrude Contemporary
Gertrude Contemporary has “No Name Station – China/Australia Cultural Exchange” The exhibition presents indigenous art from a remote Australian aboriginal community alongside work by contemporary urban artists from Australia and China. The journey into and out of the gallery is the strongest uniting element of this exhibition. From Brook Andrew’s neon installation (“Maybe it’s meant to happen” 2010) the front window to the back office there is a path, sometimes clearly delineated with a fence of branches by Liang Shuo (“Visiting a Show” 2012). There is art along the way there are paintings, videos, weavings and installations. I particularly enjoyed the photograph of the intervention by Zhao Zhao (“Cobblestone” 2007), a stone glued out of place in Tiananmen Square, and the woven Pandanus gift mats with witty slogans by Newell Harry. Is this cultural exchange the colonization of Aboriginal art by the contemporary art empire?
Many commentators have drawn connections between the popular uprisings in the Middle East and the arrest of Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei. But is there any connection between the arrest of Ai Weiwei and the recent arrests of street artists in the USA? This year artist LA II, aka Angel Ortiz, a former collaborator with Keith Haring was arrested in New York. And there have been multiple arrests of street artists in Los Angeles including: Revok, aka Jason Williams, the French artist, Space Invader (arrested 20/4/11) and Smear, aka Cristian Gheorghiu (arrested 16/4/11).
Free Revok - Melbourne, Hoiser Lane
One reason for all the arrests in Los Angles was MOCA’s “Art in the Streets” exhibition attracting street artists to LA. (Sharon Mizota reviewed the exhibition for the LA Times). But this is beside the point, although the law says that the arrests are about vandalism. It is actually about image as no wall has ever been actually damaged by the application of a coat of paint. The arrest of these artists is no more about vandalism than Ai Weiwei’s arrest is about his alleged economic crimes. Although I’m sure that capable prosecutors in both countries will be able to legally prove their respective cases according to their respective laws.
Like many people around the world I have been cheering on the Arab Spring from the security of my home. I have also been trying to watch out for any street art and graffiti developments in these historic events. I keep searching for a story about graffiti in the popular uprisings in the Middle East but it has been mostly small stuff. There is this little report about some graffiti during the protests in Egypt. On 26/3/11 SBS news reported that major demonstrations and subsequent riots in Syrian were sparked when police arrested youths for doing anti-government graffiti. In the Middle East there are donkeys that can be mobile billboards for anti-government graffiti. The added bonus to painting a donkey is that the police can’t capture or kill the donkey and maintain their dignity.
The reason for the government crack down on street artists in the USA, on artists and human rights campaigners in China, and on anyone who protests in the streets in the Middle East is basically the same. The street is highly symbolic; it is the public face of the collective consciousness. Public area is part of a political discourse – does it belong to the people, every individual person, or to the government, and a ghostly idea of “the public”? Street art is a revolt about the definition of public and private space in the modern city. And like the occupation of the streets in the Middle East, or Ai Weiwei’s activism, it is a threat to authority of the ruling party and their claim to represent the public.
Cross Currents, paintings by Wen Jun at the Moreland Civic Centre would be almost entirely irrelevant were it not for the Chinese government currently throwing their weight around with attempts to censor and sabotage the Melbourne Film Festival. And the local debate in Moreland usefulness of having sister cities. Moreland has three sister cities: Xianyang, in China, Viggiano, in Italy and Sparta, in Greece. Moreland does have a large Italian and Greek immigrant population but the connections with China are far more tenuous.
This is the 20th anniversary of contact between Moreland and Xianyang that was established by Wen Jun, Geoff Hogg and the then Mayor of Brunswick (now part of Moreland City). During this time Geoff Hogg has become an expert in public art and cultural exchanges. In 2006 he became the first Australian to be appointed an Honorary Professor of Art at Xianyang Normal University in China.
Moreland and Xianyang City Councils jointly sponsored the exhibition. At the opening of the exhibition there were of course the usual speeches, first by Robert Dorning, the Convenor of the Moreland and Xianyang Promotion Committee. The mayor, Cr Lambros Tapinos noted in his speech that Council has 2 of Wen Jun’s paintings in the council collections. In such low level diplomacy there is always talk about the benefits of such cultural exchanges without any evidence. It is an old line and probably no longer true in a time when there are many more routes for cultural exchange than just diplomacy. Wen Jun made a speech in Chinese, with a translation delivered by his daughter in English, about his art. About 40 people, including the artist, mayor, and city councilors, attended the opening of the exhibition. There was choice of a Long Vern 2008 Shiraz and Loire 2007 Sauvignon Blanc to drink and plenty of delicious finger food, typical of Moreland Council functions.
The best of Wen Jun’s paintings are reproductions of Tang Dynasty tomb frescos. His watercolor paintings are the same size as the original frescos. Xianyang was the imperial capital of the Tang Dynasty and the location for the famous Terra-cotta warriors. In Wen Jun’s paintings of the frescos every crack, lacuna, faded colors and other blemishes on the frescos are carefully reproduced. There are extensive didactic panels in Chinese and English. His earlier work, described as ‘traditional’ or ‘spring festival’ paintings are chocolate box sentimental images.
What is the public to conclude from this display of petty diplomacy hiding behind art and culture? That is all about putting on a good face and political junkets. That art and tourisms celebrating China’s imperial past are favored by China but documentaries critical of China’s imperial present are not. Is there any evidence that after 20 years that such diplomacy there has been any positive benefit for the ratepayers of either city? There is currently a local debate about the expense of Moreland City Council’s gift of a statue of King Leonidas to another sister city Sparta. I think that the debate should be about which local sculptor will receive the commission.
I came back from the final day of the 5th Melbourne Stencil Festival full of optimism for street art. There are more reasons to be optimistic beyond the 5th year of successful small street art festival; beyond increased public interest in street art and beyond the increasingly impressive multi-colored stencils. I am optimistic particularly about spirit of international cooperation and communication amongst street artists.
U.S. and Iranian diplomats are currently barely able to talk face to face. But U.S. and Iranian stencil artists can collaborate to create works of art at the Melbourne Stencil Festival. A1one, a stencil artist from Iran worked with US, German and Australian artists producing some beautiful pictures. (The art was then sold to benefit an Australian charity, the Collingwood Neighborhood House.)
To say that street art is a global art movement is not a sufficient description for the unparalleled increase in communications, travel and collaborations. The internet has been responsible for much of this communications but it takes trust and a generosity of spirit have to make it work.
Street art is a democratic force, not in terms of civil government but in the very human terms of giving a voice and artistic power to ordinary people. Street art gives a voice to people who cannot buy advertising space, property or political influence; young people, minorities and sub-cultures whose voices are frequently censored or ignored by the masses. The question in the back of all art history is not who painted the pictures but who owns the walls. It has often been remarked that great art follows empires, money and power and it has been the ambition and dream of radical artists to end this connection.
There are many other examples of the international reach of street art. Chor Boogie, an American aerosol artist participated in the 1st Street Painting Exhibit in Xi’an China this year. In my last entry Spray the Word I wrote about an exhibition of collaborations between Brazilian and Australian stencil artists and poets.
The geopolitical implications of street art should not be under estimated; it is truly remarkable for an art movement. Nor should it be over estimated; street art will not create global peace and harmony.