Tag Archives: Singapore

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.


Worst of Public Sculpture Around the World

Here are some worst public sculptures that I have photographed. My examples may not the worst of the worst but they are, each in there own way, bad. There are some terrible public sculptures around the world, monstrosities imposed on the public by mad dictators and inept city councils but I haven’t seen them, except in photographs. These sculptures are not just bad art, but they have also been badly conceived, installed or located.

Bear fishing Ottawa

Bear Fishing in Ottawa, the sculpture isn’t that bad and nor is its location but the plinth is rubbish. It really is rubbish, a collection of rocks and broken concrete held together with some more concrete.

Dali in Singapore

I had to laugh at the statue of Dali in Singapore, this sculpture and its strange assortment of companions trying to add class to an up market apartment complex are a series of bland realist sculptures of an unlikely collection of heroes.

Bronze gold nugget Brunswick 1

Sure, it is fun to laugh at foreigners but Melbourne has some of the worst public sculptures. Top of the list is the “gold nugget” in Melbourne, 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? The next problem is that it is stuck on a bit of curb on the edge of a parking lot along Sydney Road.

Robert Delandere, Statue of Meditation, 1933

Robert Delandere white marble, Statue of Meditation, 1933 outside the conservatory in Fitzroy Gardens is at least in a pleasant location. It was declared by a contemporary sculptor, Paul Montford as one of the worst sculptures in Melbourne. The smooth sentimentality of Delandere’s sculpture is bad and was out of date even when it was made. Imported from France to memorialise the father of Madam Gaston-Sant in the town of Rheola in Victoria’s gold fields. Why it ended up in Fitzroy gardens remains a mystery as does much about the sculptor Robert Delandere. Delandere is the one known sculptor in this list of bad sculpture. We know so little about the truly bad artists, it is a great hole in art history.

June Arnold, Dolphin Fountain, 1982

Sentimental is one problem but June Arnold, Dolphin Fountain, 1982 in Fitzroy Gardens is complete kitsch, with dolphins,  starfish and other marine creatures.


Singapore Renaissance

Since the 1990s, the government of Singapore has been striving to promote Singapore as a centre for arts and culture. The Singapore Renaissance sounded like a great idea based on a sound economic imperative that Singapore could not keep growing based on imports and exports. For more about this there is a very interesting interview on the long term planning for the Singapore Renaissance with Singapore National Arts Council’s Senior Director of Arts Cluster Development and director of the Singapore Arts Festival, Ms. Goh Ching Lee.

It always sounds great in plans for a country to join the “creative economy”. Australia’s Prime Minister, Paul Keating declared that Australia would become the creative country. The idea that society is so malleable to government plans and that training, infrastructure and government support is all that is needed to have a “creative economy”. However, these plans ignore the underlying tensions in creativity acting as if creativity was entirely free from other psycho-social-cultural influences.

I’m interested in the dynamics that make a city a centre for the arts and the history of cities that rise and fall as artistic centers. Countries are too large and diverse to make any study of their creative strengths and weaknesses. Singapore, as a city-state makes an excellent test subject.

There is no obvious reason why Singapore shouldn’t be a centre for arts and culture, just as it is a trade and travel hub. There is money to be made in arts tourism and the arts as Hobart has recently discovered with MONA. It is not exactly about politics, China has made great progress in contemporary art in the same decade. It is not about population Melbourne in comparison has a similar population to Singapore but more artists and more artists tourism. Instead Yogyakarta is the arts capital of South East Asia.

However, Singapore is not a centre for the arts. Is the reason specific to contemporary Singaporean culture? Are Singaporeans too comfortable to deal with the occasional disturbance that contemporary arts can bring? There is less political “harmony” in the streets of Yogyakarta than Singapore.

In part it is about gallery space, as well as space for street artists, as Singapore is a very small island city-state. However, as I have written in Temples without Gods, there is more gallery space in Singapore than art to exhibit in it.

Singapore has not produced many notable artists. Wikipedia only lists two Singaporean artists: Chua Ek Kay and Han Sai Por. Chua’s abstract Chinese ink paintings inspired by Australian aboriginal cave paintings that he saw when studying fine arts at the University of Tasmania and the University of Western Sydney.

Han Sai Por Singaporean sculptor, Han’s carved organic sculptural forms can be seen throughout Singapore especially at the Singapore airport or the Singapore National Museum. I wasn’t that impressed with her sculpture even though she was often working on an impressive scale.

Singapore still seems to be the most unlikely street art location in the world, even after visiting it and seeing the street art for myself. The controversy of the Sticker Lady in 2012 showed that there is still life in Singapore’s street art scene.


Toys Make the Human

Toys are as much cultural artefacts as sculptures, although generally not considered as valuable. As a cultural artefact toys can shows as much about the culture, its values, traditions and beliefs as a small sculpture. Toys show part of the collective consciousness; they are miniature version of the adult world.

Soldiers doing ablutions survive at the Munich Toy Museum

Toys are part of an ephemeral culture and most of them are loved to destruction. Conscious of this history and like many aspects of ephemeral culture, toys have become collectable design objects in themselves. Some toys are now consciously created as collectable design objects, marketed to adults, remain in their original packaging as part of a complete design statement. (More do not touch signs and glass cases.)

I’ve been to toy museums and also the occasional a customized toy exhibition or art exhibition using toys. (I should note that I still have a collection of 25mm lead figures that I painted when I was a teenager and won a prize for some of them at Arcarnacon I.)

Toy museums are always interesting places to visit. I have enjoyed my visits to the Munich Toy Museum (Spielzeugmuseum im Alten Rathausturm) and the Mint Toy Museum in Singapore. Curiously both of these museums are extremely vertical, their exhibits crammed into several small narrow floors. Fortunately their exhibits are all on a small scale. The Mint Toy Museum concentrates on the influence of popular culture with toys associated with the space age, politicians, the Beatles, Disney films etc. It has a great collection of Japanese tin toys especially robots. The Munich Toy Museum specializes in teddy bears but also in the past preserved in miniature with toy vehicles, kitchens and armies. There was a whole history of kitchens, the military or transportation told in those toys.

Doll house kitchen in the Munich Toy Museum

President Nixon’s ping pong diplomacy preserved in toys at the Mint Toy Museum.

A few years ago at Villain I saw one of their “Munny” shows (I’ve seen others since at Villain but this was the best – I wish that I’d had my camera that day). A Munny is a customisable toy figure with a simplified round cartoon form either as a standing figure or in a small car. It is customisable in that all kinds of media can be applied to its plastic surface. They are amongst other brands of customisable toys that are for sale at Villain. Every year or so Villain assembles an awesome collection of modified Munnys for an in store exhibition. That year several of the artists exhibiting in the show from the street art scene: Phibs, Deb, and Junior. Phibs sushi crab version of the Munny car was out standing. There were some amazing and fun modifications of the original toy, some beautiful painting and excellent modelling. Some of the modifications left the original form far behind, like Agnieska Rypinska’s large impressive elephant with howdah. One of the works on display was by Katherine Dretzke, a customer who had brought her, now decorated and winged, Munny back to the store for the exhibition; a genuine interactive consumer experience.

Maybe we should look more deeply at toys; maybe they are more than just artefacts that represent our culture but symbols of what makes us human. Desmond Morris argues in the Naked Ape (1967) that humans retain many juvenile ape features and that this juvenile nature has been turned to an evolutionary advantage. The human ability to remain a juvenile and play allows the human to continue to learn as adults.


Bird Roost Heroes

Capt. Matthew Flinders (1923) by Charles Web Gilbert with seagull

It is an old chestnut but it suits a nautical man like Captain Matthew Flinders to have a statue that serves as a roost for seagulls. The bronze statue with its large granite plinth standing shows Flinders standing on the prow of a boat being dragged ashore by two sailors. The statue of Captain Mathew Flinders (1923) by Charles Web Gilbert stands beside the cathedral on Swanston St. in Melbourne. It would have been expected when the statue was erected that it would be joined by other statues of heroes but it looks like the tradition of creating bird roosts is fading away.

In the past it was easy – erect a stature of whoever is the current the culture hero. So the Scots would erect a statue of Robbie Burns, no questions asked, it was that easy. Now, it is not so easy. Who are the great and the good in the 21st century? The collective consciousness of the 21st Century is so mixed up with multiple identities, multiple worlds of merit (politics, war, peace, revolution, science, arts, sports) that are in dispute with each over the virtue of their merits, that any choice of a person as worthy of statue seems absurd.

Statue of Dali in Singapore

I remember looking at in amusement the collection of statues outside Parkview Square, an art deco revival apartment block in Singapore. It was a strange mad collection that only the most superficial understanding of history could put together. There was Dali along with Mozart, Picasso, Lincoln, Churchill and many others. There are some odd collections of statues of the great and the good around the world. When George Frêche, the president of the Languedoc Roussillon region of France decided to erect statues in Montpellier of the greatest men and women of the 20th Century he choose the following figures Vladimir Lenin, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Franklin Roosevelt, Jean Jaurés, Mahatma Gandhi, Gold Meir, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Nelson Mandela, Mao Zedong. (Alexander Chancellor reports in The Gaurdian Weekly 3/9/10 and Ed Ward writes about it in his blog entry “Days of Lard and Lenin”.)

What is the public expected to do with these statues? Worship their idols? There is, I’m told, a statue of Queen Victoria in India that has become a fertility shrine. Now in Melbourne only sports heroes and a few state Premiers are memorialised with bronze statues displayed in public places. These contemporary statues are all by Peter Corlett or Louis Laumen. I would like to see is a Peter Corlett statue of Nicky Winmar responding to racist taunts at the end of the St. Kilda vs Collingwood match in 1989. Here Corlett’s figurative sculpture could be used to create a passionate memorial of a rebuttal to racism that Melbourne needs to commemorate. Who do you think should have a public statue made of them or should we abandon the tradition?


Street Art around the World

Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat,

Coz summers here and the time is right for painting in the street.

(Apologies to Marvin Gaye/William “Mickey” Stevenson/Ivy Hunter)

Of course the list of cities where they are painting in the street is a bit longer than a few cities in the USA. Is there city in the world where there isn’t graffiti or street art? It would have to be the most repressive of police states and probably affluent without slums or other areas of neglect (e.g. empty factories). Nor could there be any indigenous tradition of wall painting. It is not Singapore, Iran or even the Vatican City (where there is both ancient and modern graffiti). In Tahiti there is Kreative Concept, l’association graffiti de Tahiti, representing Tahitian street artists. The site is in French (try Google translate) but has lots of photos as you might expect that require no translation. Requiring no translation is Cebu Street Art, from Cebu City in the Philippines. Of course we can just forget about war torn states like Somalia where a Canadian soldier reports “graffiti on everything”. I don’t know where there isn’t graffiti and I wouldn’t bet a dollar that any city in the world was graffiti free now.

As I explored the wide world of graffiti and street art I thought that I would to find more regional differences in this the most international of all art movements but there isn’t anything as obvious as that. The internet has made street art influences global even the cultural divisions of languages and alphabets is not significant in street art. The domination of English language in street art is surprising; even some francophone artists use English. It is disappointing that there aren’t more local references evident in global street art. Surely somewhere in the world traditional wall painting has merged with contemporary street art?

I have been reading, or rather looking at because it is ≈98% photographs, Nicholas Ganz Graffiti World – new edition (Thames & Hudson, 2009). I’m glad that I borrowed it from the library rather than buying it. Artists from the Americas and Europe occupy most of the book so the title is misleading. Although it mostly photographs with very short pieces of information about the artist and it does provide some small overviews of street art in various countries. For example, that Eastern bloc countries were late in developing a street art scene because of government bans on the sale of aerosol spray cans. And Nicholas Ganz reports that the first pieces have gone up in Burma and North Korea (p.374) addressing the question that I raised at the start. There are a few parochial features mentioned in Graffiti World like drawing on rail cars in oil chalk in Canada or the strategies of the some street artists from Brazil. I haven’t been able to compare it to the old edition (2004) but the list of Australian and Singaporean artists appears to have not been greatly revised in this new edition.


Stuck on Stickers

Stickers are a type of communication, a self-adhesive media. There are stickers all over the city, political, religious, advertising promotions, stickers that are peeled off and reapplied by accident or design and street art stickers. With all of these stickers it is difficult to spot the street art amongst the commercial, political and promotional. It is like finding a poem on a noticeboard.

Street art stickers or sticker art have been created to be small graphic works of art with self-adhesive backs. They are quick to apply and can fit on the backs of signs, poles and other surfaces in the city.

Stickers are another form of tagging, especially the ubiquitous “Hello my name is:” stickers with a tag written on it with a fat marker pen. Like tags stickers are often linear, that is they follow a line, along a street, applying a sticker to every suitable pole.

Arrowsoul Warriors in Singapore

Arrowsoul Warrozz (Singapore)

No matter how tough the city authorities are about other kinds of graffiti stickers are around.  Stickers thrive in anti-graffiti environments like Singapore.

Back of sign in Fortitude Valley, Brisbane

Back of sign in Fortitude Valley (Brisbane)

Although Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley is not an anti-graffiti environment like Singapore, stickers also thrive on the back of the street signs in the area. A lot of these Brisbane stickers, especially those of Loki One, Mzcry and ZKLR are created using stencils and aerosol spray cans. I have seen some of the best street art stickers on the back of street signs on Brunswick St, Fortitude Valley.

Stickers are the most collectable aspect of street art because of their size. I have a very small collection of stickers, especially when compared to Michael Anderson who has collected about 40,000. Mostly I just photograph them. So here are some more of my photographs.

Happy - Graffiti Colour My World in Brunswick

Happy – Graffiti Colour My World (Brunswick, Vic)

Happy’s “Graffiti Colour My World” parody of the Crayola Crayon advert and slogan. This is one sticker that I do have in my collection but the photograph is of one in its natural state beside the Upfield train-line.

Still Life in Spraypaint (Fortitude Valley)

Still Life in Spraypaint (Fortitude Valley)

There are many self-referential street art stickers that is self-conscious about its status, or not, as art. I don’t mean self-conscious in the sense of awkward and shy, but self-conscious of its own conditions, media, and quality. It takes street art to a new level, not of quality images, but in the depth of thought. Yes, this is a heavy philosophical way of looking at what is often the lighter side of street art. It is funny because it is deep rather than superficial.

God Has a Plan to Kill Me (Melbourne)

Lister – God Has a Plan to Kill Me (Melbourne)

I like street art stickers, especially the ones with a witty message like “God has a plan to kill me.”


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