Tag Archives: Counihan Gallery

Nauru, Art and Refugees

As a teenager I briefly landed on Nauru as the single aircraft in Air Nauru was the cheapest way to fly to Japan from Australia. I was in the cockpit as we landed, sitting behind the captain; it was common practice back then for the captain to invite children into the cockpit, although being in the cockpit during a landing was unusual however there were so few passengers on the flight that my brother and I were the only non-adults.

The island is tiny, the runway being the largest feature of the island seen from the air. There was a policeman manning a boom gate that stopped the cars crossing the runway as the plane landed. It looked like the dullest place in the world; it was dull for me and yet there were fat, bored locals sitting at the airport just to watch the plane arrive, probably the most exciting thing to happen all week on the tiny island.

This was at the time when Nauru’s sovereign wealth fund made it, per capita one of the richest countries in the world. It was during this period of prosperity that Melbourne was given a “gift of the people and government of Nauru” the sculpture “Three Businessmen Who Brought Their Own Lunch: Batman, Swanston and Hoddle” (aka “the metal men”) 1993 by Alison Weaver and Paul Quinn.

Now that the phosphate mines on Nauru and it administer sovereign wealth fund has been exploited and mismanaged Nauru has once again become, in all but name, a colony of Australia that uses it as a concentration camp for refugees. There are currently more refugees on Nauru than citizens.

I was reminded of this when I saw Kelvin Skewes, What was taken and what was given an exhibition of photograph at the Counihan Gallery. Skewes photographs of Nauru’s destruction shows the mix between the tropical island and the industrial wasteland, the jagged limestone exposed by the phosphate mining and the new industry of abusing refugee’s human rights.

This not the first time that landscape of Nauru has been the subject of art. In 2010 “The Nauru Elegies: a portrait in sound and hypsographic architecture” by architect Annie K Kwon and musician Paul D Miller, aka DJ Spooky. (See my post.)

Also at the Counihan Gallery is local artist Liz Walker’s The Wave, that also refers to the Australian regime’s criminal treatment of refugees. In the middle of the gallery Walker’s impressive post-minimalist boat made of 37,697 sticks (one stick for every refugee who has travelled by boat to Australia from 1976-2012). One wall of the gallery is covered in old suitcases, Memorial to the beginning of an unknown end, each of the open suitcases contains an assemblage, like Joseph Cornell’s boxes, with a reference to refugees coming to Australia. Walker’s use of worn and aged found materials combines both the poetic and the polemic. (For more on Liz Walker’s art do a search using the search box at the top of the right bar, put quotation marks around her name – there are about ten posts.)


The Brian Robinson Mix

Working on culture in a post-colonial world is more than just cultural maintenance. The post-colonial experience of travelling between different cultures is reflected in the visual culture just like the music and stories. Brian Robinson is like a DJ, or a curator, he was a curator at the Cairns Regional Gallery; mixing and making new sense out of diverse elements. He creates a visual culture mix, like a DJ mixing different sources with a beat to create new music to keep on dancing to.

Brian Robinson makes the kind of art that is loved by judges and the people; the kind of art that art writers and curators enjoy to write about and he clearly enjoys tells the stories of his art. Robinson also clearly enjoys making images with linocut, paper, spray paint, plastic toys, wood and even a shell can be the image of a shell. Story-telling, the myths and legends, are based on visual images as well as a words and his pictures often say more than a thousand words.

I went to his ‘floor talk’ Saturday 21 June at the Counihan Gallery. Robinson shines with friendly, informal, relaxed manner and he has a lot to talk about mixing memories of childhood with detailed knowledge of literature, Greek myths, Roman Catholic, Phantom comic books and popular culture. See a video interview with Brian Robinson on Creative Cowboy.

Robinson is not scared to do the masters, he references them in his linocuts; Leonardo, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Hokusai’s Great Wave. Why should he be? Brian Robinson from Waiben (Thursday Island), Torres Strait, of the Kala Lagaw Ya language group. He is doing it Straits style, mixing in his own stories and he was the winner the 2013 Western Australian Indigenous Art Award and that year’s People’s Choice Award.

Robinson’s art is beautiful, often intricate but it can also be scaled up as in his massive, mixed media wall friezes. He a fan of the art of M.C. Escher and pays tribute to it in Dawn Raid Strategy, 2011. There is more to this image than just a tribute piece, it speaks of deadly strategies and games of chess. For above all his art is alive because he is playing – he must be a great dad except when he takes his kids toys to use in his art.

Robinson knows what it feels like to look for lost worlds under the sea. In his 2012 linocut, Navigating narrative – Nemo’s encounter in the Torres Strait, he creates an illustration for the one of the several chapters set in the Torres Straits in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea.

“‘Savages!’ replied Captain Nemo in a sarcastic tone. ‘And you are surprised Dr Aronnax, that when you set foot on one of the lands of this globe, you find savages? Where are there not savages, and in any case, are those that you call savages any worse than the others?’”

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, trans William Butcher (Oxford, 1998, p.152)

There is so much to see and enjoy at Brian Robinson’s exhibition Strait Protean at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick. The title says so much about the way the Robinson mixes images; Proteus is the ever changing adaptable sea god. Much of the work in the exhibition was developed during a twelve month long residency that Robinson had at Djumbunji Press in 2010, his skill with lino cutting has been refined and developed to an amazing level. His adaptable vision makes him not just an artist for the present but also for keeping the past alive into the future.


The Plural of Moose

Moose, spiders, giant cane toads, monsters, fantastic fun, unbelievable, strange and beautiful. All of these feature In Your Dreams, the current exhibition at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick. Curated by Edwina Bartlem and Victor Griss the exhibition is intended “to spark the imagination of children and the young-at-heart”.

I went to see the exhibition with a person who wished to be described as “boy (aged 11)” and his parents, who are old friends of mine. I wanted to know get a child’s opinion of it because of this curatorial intention and also to get a fresh perspective on  the work from artists that I have enjoyed for years.

The boy aged 11, divided the exhibition into the cool, the good and the alright. In his opinion Kate Rohde’s work was “really cool”, especially Tarantula. Here the boy aged 11 proved articulate, as well as, observant, pointing out the glitter covered bird skeleton and taking about South American bird eating spiders.

Mark playing Isobel Knowles and Van Sowerwine, You We're in My Dreams, 2010

Mark playing Isobel Knowles and Van Sowerwine, You We’re in My Dreams, 2010

Words were not needed to express his appreciation of Isobel Knowles and Van Sowerwine’s You We’re in My Dreams 2010 – the boy aged 11 was fully engaged with it. The stop-motion interactive installation puts the face of the player onto the screen making it entertaining to watch and play. The boy aged 11 played on this as his father and I made our way around the gallery again and then waited, reminding him that, there were other people waiting to have a go (me).

Daniel Dorall model, Game and William Eicholtz’s sculpture, retelling the Hans Christian Anderson story of the Princess and the Pea with lamb princess covered in oak leaves and fake gems, both received the honourable mentions of “pretty good” and “good” from the boy aged 11. I’d have to agree with him about that but use different words and I prefer Eicholtz’s other sculpture in the exhibition, Courage, for its beautiful movement, complex meaning, especially for the glowing red rocks.

I was disappointed that the boy aged 11 didn’t have any comment about Sharon West, photographs and dioramas and how they relate to Australian identity (see my previous posts). I thought that her Cook encounters a very large can toad is hysterically funny. Personally I was also glad to see Steaphan Paton’s Urban Doolagahl again, this time in a gallery after seeing them on the street (see my previous post) and to hear some Dylan Martorell, ambient audio track in the gallery.

In answer to my interest in how the exhibition worked for children, the boy aged 11, declared that it was suitable for children aged 7 or older because of the ideas and level of abstract thought required. I asked him about this because there is very little of what could be described as juvenile in the exhibition, it is not a word that comes to mind when I think of the work of any of these artists.

The exhibition raises questions what is the difference between children’s taste and adult tastes? Some tastes (camp, over the top, psychedelic) require experience (yes, Mr. Hendrix, I am) to fully appreciate but that doesn’t exclude children from enjoying them. It was great to see the psychedelic landscapes of Kate Shaw and Stephen Bush in the exhibition. The weird and the wonderful are strange attractors in chaos of different tastes and they can be read in many different ways depending on the experience of the viewer and how the viewer thinks that others will react.

After leaving the boy aged 11 expressed disappointment that there wasn’t more of the exhibition. I felt that way too, all of the artists in this exhibition have been making really fun art for years and I still want to see more of their work.


Wunderkammer

The lighting in the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick was subdued and dramatic for “Wunderkammer: The Museum of Lost and Forgotten Objects” by Nadia Mercuri and Sarah Field and “Epitaph: Bird Specimens and the Culture of Collecting” by Bianca Durrant.

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The two exhibitions, both with lots of wonderful boxes and vitrines of objects are good but they could have been great. On seeing them I wish that these separate exhibitions had been completely combined, their themes and style are so close.

Guest speaker, Dr. Michael Vale, lecture in Fine Art at Monash University gave an excellent speech at the Thursday evening opening about the wunderkammer and the politics of display. Vale spoke about the way collections dislocate their objects, the currency of the exotic and the power relationship between the collector and the objects. He pointed out that each of the exhibitions subverted the idea of the collection turning wonders to laments.

There really are three exhibitions for although Nadia Mercuri and Sarah Field are exhibiting under the same exhibition title there are no collaborative works and the work has separate themes.

Nadia Mercuri presents her collection of glass from the Australian Studio Glass Movement of the early 1970s through to contemporary glass work. She examines disappearance of glass blowing techniques in Australia. The old movie of the glass tea pot being made projected on the wall with the actual glass tea pot underneath is perfect. This is one of the best exhibitions of glass that I’ve ever seen. Her collections of objects is fascinating because it covers the whole range of glass making from the decorative to the scientific, from finished work to the raw materials (the great box of rods of coloured glass). The rusting glass making tools contrasting the pristine glass. There are even moments of humour with metal spoons suspended in furnace glass.

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Fields works polemically examines violence against women. Although this fits in with the wonderkammer aspect, with the large glass tubes of human hair and the power relationship of collecting. Field’s braiding of human hair is of exceptional quality; Mourning Pieces, 2013-14. However, Fields’s polemic wasn’t that clear in her work; the white ceramic feathers reminded me of the white feather’s that women would send conscientious objectors in WWI and the vitrine of fur, fabric with fur print and white flesh made me first think of the violence against animals for fashion.

Bianca Durrant brings together works in many different media with a focus on the Bird of Paradise. I wondered why there wasn’t a sound aspect to this exhibition as Durrant is the general manager of Liquid Architecture, the National Festival of Sound Art, maybe Bird’s of Paradise are only about the visual. Durrant’s works are mixed, her specimen drawings from the natural history collections of the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin are beautifully presented in contemporary style paintings. There is a fantastic beaded feather in a vitrine (Specimen Sculpture – Astrapia stephanie duclais, tail feather, Ernst Mayr) however her beaded Birds of Paradise were a bit of a let down.

Collecting exotic birds returns to the theme of the wonderkammer. Cabinet of curiosities are part of the development of science and precursors to museums. They showed the magic of the natural world but lack the categorical boundaries that divide and organise. They are shrines to wonders and reliquaries for scientific treasures. As the modern scientific world replaced the wonderkammer there has been a resurgence of artistic interest in them.


Sydney Road Brunswick

The psychogeography of Sydney Road part 1.

Sydney Road is long straight road; it is the golden lay-line of the road leading to the gold fields. Originally constructed by convict labour so that prisoners could be transported to Pentridge Prison. The convicts then had to build the prison at the end of the road. Later in the Great Depression sustenance pay workers (work for the dole) cut much of the granite bluestone for the curbs and gutters.

It has always been a busy road, leading north out of Melbourne and that was before cars and bicycles, now it’s a nightmare. Sydney Road varies wildly between upmarket, fancy and then in the next block or next door it is a run down building selling something cheap. There are pockets of different kinds of activities along the road, clusters of shops or restaurants and all along the road are all the wedding boutiques and Islamic fashion boutiques.

I’ve been researching Sydney Road by foot, tram and bicycle. Riding my bicycle as it makes it easier to check down the lane ways looking for interesting street art.

Franco Cozzo

The sight of the Franco Cozzo furniture shop with its pseudo-rocco bedroom sets instantly brings to mind seeing his trilingual adverts on late night TV in the 1980s (I’ve been told that his Greek was as bad as his English). Now there is the smell of the shisha (or hookahs, Turkish tobacco pipes) bubbling along the footpath on warm Friday night.

I’ve recently read Robyn Annear’s A City Lost & Found, Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne (Black Inc, 2005, Melbourne), a kind of reverse history of Melbourne by demolition archaeology, recording the destruction and what was discovered, through the history of an iconic wrecking business. The business closed in the 1991 but Whelan’s sign is still up on Sydney Road classified as a heritage feature and the permit for new development at 605 Sydney Road required preservation and restoration of the sign.

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Sydney Road is so complex and I needed a more systematic approach. I travelled by tram north taking note of the landmarks between stop 19 at Brunwick Road in Brunswick and Stop 40 at Bakers Road in North Coburg.

19. Leaving the parkland of Parkville I enter Brunswick at Brunswick Road. This stop is in a kind of no-man’s-land, a traffic island in a place that once was a colonial hub complete a drinking fountain, a Boar War memorial and a brick clock tower from the nationalist, ANA (Australian Native’s Association). Parkville washes up with the last of the motels and guesthouses. On the corner of Sydney Road there is a fake Irish pub (I used to have a weekly gig there when it was the Sarah Sands) on the other side of road a medical clinic, after this the fashion boutiques start.

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20. The shopping hub of Barkly Square. Down Little Gold Street is Jewell Station. Discount warehouses and, on the corner of Weston Street on the other side of the road is the Brunswick Hotel, a fine music venue where I’ve enjoyed a few gigs.

21. Glenlyon Road and Dawson Street are the same road except that Glenlyon goes east and Dawson west; Melbourne is full of such street name anomalies. This is the official cultural centre of Brunswick: the Brunswick Town Hall with public library, hall and the Counihan Gallery, the Mechanics Institute with another hall for performances. The town hall is an impressive 19th Century building from when every Melbourne suburb had its own city council. Further down Dawson Street there is the Brunswick Campus of RMIT.

22. On the western side Albert Street leads to Brunswick Station.

23. In a painfully sweet Victorian manner, Albert Street is followed by Victoria Street, Brunswick Station where the shopping is less refined with a Mitre 10 and a discount warehouse.

24. Blyth Street, bridal shop and a church

25. Stewart Street, there is a steep hill between stops 24 and 25. At stop 25 there is a bridal and children’s wear shop.

Bronze gold nugget Brunswick 1

26. Albion Street an unofficial cultural centre on Brunswick with 696 Ink, the laundromat and Edinburgh Castle Hotel creating an underground arts hub. There is the bronze “Gold Nugget” at the entrance of the parking lot. It is one of the worst public sculptures in the world; this sculpture is both badly conceived and located. Didn’t anyone in the process of making this memorial that a gold nugget modelled in bronze would look like a lump of bronze? Anstly Station is to the west.

27. Brunswick Tram Depot, Donald Street. There are several empty lots where demolished between stops 26 and 27 – this is an area of transition. The demolition of the old funeral business.

28. Moreland Road, Moreland Station is across the street and further west down Moreland Road. At the tram stop there is pawnbroker and a pub. Moreland Road marks the division between Brunswick and Coburg.

Part 2: Sydney Road Coburg.


Campy minimalism & the Minimalist camp

Two local contemporary artists start the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick’s program of exhibitions for 2014. At the exhibition opening on Thursday evening the older locals around the cheese board were all aghast. They felt alienated and annoyed by the two exhibitions. Maybe the opening remarks of Su Baker, Director of the Victorian College of the Arts might answer their many questions. I don’t know if it did, I wasn’t going to hang around just to find out. I’d seen the exhibitions; there isn’t that much to see but what is there isn’t bad.

In Gallery one is “Diagonals and Some More Tangents” by Laila Marie Costa. It is Latino campy minimalism and subtle amusement at the materials along with some less subtle fun with the whole game of consumer culture, mass production and football. I loved the display case of the revolving Playboy and Win lighter case in the vitrine You Spin Me Right Round (Like a Record), 2013, along with her minimalist tributes to Barry Humphries, Jules Verne, Robert Rauchenberg, Paul Klee and others. Some of the work was a little obvious in the visual puns, like Dipped Wick 2012-14.

Laila Marie Costa is a Melbourne based artist who last year was artist had a residence at Residencia Corazon, La Plata, Argentina (she has a photo blog about that which is worth a look and shows her visual humour). Also worth a look is Laila Marie Costa there is Jason Waterhouse’s blog post about exhibition at Stockroom Gallery in March last year.  She is described as a cartoonist/illustrator, a zine editor and she makes funky plastic rings (there were some plastic rings on an egg cartoon in the exhibition Untitled (for Jean Paul Gaultier) 2012.

In Gallery two there is “Social Resonance” by Ben Taranto. Most of the space is empty except when it is filled with the sound of the the large steel sheet reverberating like thunder. There are two video projections of water; one over a blue black lenticular triangular forms, like a bar graph of the resonance. The sonic waves are portrayed as the ripples on the water. A single spotlight on a done of slumped glass on a steel square creates shadows with chaotic edges. You can transition through the surface of the water, you can see through the glass and you can walk through the space. Carmen Reid has written an introduction explanation of Taranto’s installation on the room sheet but the locals at the cheese board were unlikely to read it. Lots of stuff about Buddhism and empty space…

Ben Taranto is a recent graduate of the Victorian College of the Arts, in sculpture and spatial practice who is focused on absence. This is his second solo exhibition although he has exhibited at the Counihan before as part of Moreland Summer Show, 2012. He has exhibited in places where I must have seen his work before including Brunswick Artspace 2013 Annual Open Entry Prize but I haven’t mentioned him before.

When a member of the cheese board jury declares that there was nothing to engage with in the exhibition I had to point out that the steel sheet made a sound when engaged. I wanted to add that if you can’t get mental laugh when looking at the work of Laila Marie Costa you either haven’t really looked or you don’t know enough about art history, football and what is unimportant in life but as the cheese board jury weren’t impressed with my first remark I kept it for you. Good selection on the cheese board, a good feta and a blue with bite – I didn’t try the brie or the hard cheese.


Moreland and Art

Moreland Summer Show, the last show in this year’s season of exhibitions at the Counihan Gallery is an exhibition of 40 artists who live and work in Moreland. Don’t fear the community art show; there is no bad café art in this exhibition. None of the art is so terrible that it never should have been exhibited. Most of the works are in traditional media, oils, acrylics, photography, etc. Charlotte Watson’s hard edge abstraction Sans Two in cutaway layers coloured wax showed that innovation in media is not absent. Elwyn Murray used the Oxford English dictionary’s new word of the year #selfie for a backlight outline of a figure taking a selfie on their cell phone etched on mirror; a motion sensor switched off the light showing the viewer their own image. Julian Di Martino had a painting and reference sheet tallying various types of people, 2013 with references. One albino a summer does not make; as the Surrealist proverb goes.

Julian Di Martino, 2013 with references with Julian Di Martino in front making a reference.

Julian Di Martino, 2013 with references with Julian Di Martino in front making a reference.

Good ideas; I mean that, but nothing exceptional in the final analysis but I don’t want to write a boring blog post reviewing the Summer Show piece by piece. That’s not the point of the exhibition. This is not a display of talent/contest demonstrating the glory of Moreland’s artists. This is not about the being biggest, the best or the most innovative.

If we want to get into hyperbole… the opening of Summer Show on Thursday night was one of the most important cultural events in the northern suburbs this month, maybe even this spring. The arts in the northern suburbs art are saving it from becoming a post-industrial wasteland zombie dormitory. As I’ve said it thousands of times (quoting Gregor Muir) – artists are the storm troopers of real estate in transforming urban areas.

There were plenty of artists at the opening meeting up, not just artists in the show, lots of local artists, all networking, catching-up, and general chitchat talking. People kept on starting friendly conversations with strangers asking: “Are you one of the artists?” This is important; it makes the local art world go round.

I was working the room too; glass of red in one hand, pen and gallery list in another. Julian Di Martino was laughing telling me: “The theme of current tendencies is one of the broadest themes for a group show that I’ve seen in a long time.” I talk to the curator, Victor Griss; check that I’ve spelt his name right because I want to give him credit for a good exhibition hanging given the diverse variety of artists and styles.

Where did Benjamin Sheppard go? He was just talking to someone in front of his drawing. I wanted to talk to him because I’ve already written about a hundred words written about his last solo exhibition at the Counihan before I ran out of steam. His very large drawings with multi coloured biros on paper are a great take on ideas about high and low art; the whole idea of illustration and of art media and non-art media, that sort of thing.

See you the same time next year.


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