A look back at Flash Forward

If Melbourne was to be represented with a big thing, it would be a big spray can. So I applaud the big spray can by Ling in Wills Street because it acknowledges the graffiti in the city. It fits the location; its spray painted surface is vandalism resistant, and the west of the city needs more public art. It fits in with the street tree and the benches and really makes the location. And Ling has been spraying walls in Melbourne for longer than I’ve been writing this blog.

Ling’s big spray can is part of Flash Forward, a COVID safe cultural public art in central Melbourne’s lanes. Forty visual artists teamed with musicians in some inexplicable combination. And how could I resist a walk to see some artworks responding to the laneway?

There isn’t a path to follow for Flash Forward and I ran into other trails. Lanes that have long been a fixture in Melbourne’s graffiti and street art scene. So I was somewhat confused to run into Ling’s work again at Finlay Alley, given that there is no shortage of graffiti writers who also do murals in Melbourne.

Finlay Alley is an established location for graffiti. So established that there is one of the old “City of Melbourne street art permit stencils” at the entrance. And there are plenty of pieces by Sofles and others in the dark of the covered alleyway.

For years, if not decades, I have complained that public art events in Melbourne ignore the street art and graffiti that is all around them. Ignoring paintings the size of an elephant while promoting the work of some contemporary art-school trained artist. Pretending that they aren’t competing with the street art and graffiti.

Now when Flash Forward integrates them, I will be critical of its efforts because that is what I do. I appreciate Ling’s piece in Finlay Alley with its interlocked letter style and subtle fade from candy pink to purple. The problem with the big spray can and his mural is that it is obvious and bland. It is giant fantasy art.

Walking on. I’m only going to see a very small portion of Flash Forward.

At the end of Platypus Alley, high up on a building, an LED display counts forward, Yandell Walton’s End Passage. This is not the first time this very short alley has been activated with art. Sunfigo had his No Face exhibition in Platypus Alley in 2008.

Walton’s clock is kind of sterile compared to the dialogue that Sunfigo’s stencil of a digital watch reading “NOW has provoked. As I look at the lanes after Platypus Alley, Warburton and Rankins Lane, where street art by Night Krawler, Mandy Lane and others abound.

There are other outdoor exhibitions in Melbourne besides Flash Forward and the unauthorised street art and graffiti exhibitions. MONA’s corner has a photograph, James Capper’s “Prototypes of Speculative Engineering, Hydra Step” 2014. It is somewhere between art and advertising, the distinction is porous, and art percolates through the border. And in the inner city suburbs, there has been a noticeable increase in shop window art galleries Even The Age’s art critic Robert Nelson is looking beyond the four walls of a gallery, but only as far as gardens or their online presence.


Going Underground

There are many children’s stories of subterranean life with the Wombles, Fantastic Mr Fox or The Borrowers that have inspired the “Going Underground”. This is an exhibition at the Dirty Dozen, the display cabinets in the Degraves Street underpass.

Anna Walker, detail from “Marvelous things will happen”

“Going Underground” is the perfect location, underground in the underpass to Flinders Street Station. It is a perfect school-holiday time for a child-friendly exhibition, even though the height of the display cabinets may not be friendly to the shorter viewers.

It is worth looking at if you have ten or fifteen minutes before catching your train home. Many of the vitrines have been transformed into fantastic underground worlds of imagination with keyhole and cross-section views to magical worlds. These wainscot worlds occupy the unseen parts of our world, like the Borrowers living behind the wainscoting. They have a parallel existence to ours instead of being separate, alternate universes.

Anna Walker imagines charming and humous scenes beneath the garden. Tai Snaith creates a floating home for polar bears inside an iceberg. Twee scenes of a miniature world of Mole Creek created by Cat Rabbit. Other artists have ceramics or textiles with images and designs inspired by these underground dwellers.

Curator Meg Rennie has created something extraordinary, bringing together local artists: Evie Barrow, Pey Chi, Maddison Haywood, Tegan Iversen, Isobel Knowles, Yan Yan Candy Ng, Beci Orpin, Min Pin, Cat Rabbit, Meg Rennie, Tai Snaith and Anna Walker. These designers, ceramists, illustrators, and sculptors embraced the theme. And the quality of the work is outstanding, making good use of the depth of these display cases.


Framed reviewed

One of the most mysterious art crimes is the theft and ransom of Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the NGV in Melbourne. Not a lot is known about it apart from some ransom notes sent by the thieves. The painting was returned undamaged after being held by the Australian Cultural Terrorists. So SBS’s four-part documentary was always going to be a stretch.

The various commentators on Framed tell us many contradictory things. That the NGV was amongst the best art galleries in the world and then that it had aircon and security problems at the time. That staff loved that NGV Director, Patrick McCaughey, and that the docents went on strike after he took away their chairs. That Arts and Police Minister, Race Matthews, was good for the arts and that he was pompous. And many guesses at who did the crime while explaining how damaging this was to the people implicated. 

Framed frames people from perennial favourites to secret cabals of art insiders and other wild theories. It then looks at the damage that wild accusations cause. The program presented about five, including Ashley Crawford’s pure speculation, McCaughey’s biography and the anonymous letter sent to Virginia Trioli. And why do all these wild theories assume that it was a man who stole the painting? Why not a woman? If they wanted to go wild, they could have asked Trioli if she stole it; after all, she has written about being involved in stealing the bronze dog, Larry La Trobe.

Part of the mystery of the theft of the Weeping Woman is that it is a very different kind of crime. And it has become a genre of stories, very creative non-fiction in autobiographies and speculations from authoritative sources. As everybody wants to solve the mystery themselves.

Framed doesn’t frame the cubist painting regarding the politics in Australia’s historical relationship to modern art. What it symbolised to the NGV and a “philistine country” (to use McCaughey’s own words). TV is good at setting the scene, and the program includes lots of shots of Melbourne in the early 1980s and McCaughey in different coloured bow ties. Unfortunately, there is not the same background about the painting or Picasso.

Instead of presenting unprovable speculations, the program could have shown more details and context about art crimes. Although it briefly examines art forgery, it doesn’t look at art theft in any great detail and even less about art theft for ransom.

Would someone steal art to get better security for the gallery? Were there art thieves in Australia who could smuggle stolen paintings out of the country? What happens in other art for ransom theft in Australia? And why did the police drain the NGV’s moat in their search? I answer these questions that Framed doesn’t in my yet unpublished book on Australian art crimes. 

Incidentally, presenter Marc Fennell asked the questions when I was a contestant on Mastermind.

Picasso, The Weeping Woman

Paramor at Moreland Station

The prime location beside busy Moreland Road is a car park because the massive LXRP project was all about a hypothetical increase in traffic flow. The priorities are evident and the Louise Paramor’s sculpture was installed not to be seen but to art-wash and tick boxes. It is not a hostile installation, just not very friendly as it is only visible from one side of the new railway station and isolated from most people in the area. Basically, a waste of a good sculpture.

I’ve seen faster installations of Paramor’s sculpture, see my blog post about installing Ursa Major. The landscaping around the sculpture took months with the sculpture isolated behind temporary fencing and bollards.

The sculpture is a substitute, having destroyed the Gandolfo Gardens and its mature trees. Adding to evidence that the sculpture is a substitute, it was born with a plastic spoon in its mouth. It is part of a larger group of sculptures that Paramor has been working on for years.

Studies for a Boomtown (2016) were intended as studies or maquettes for future large-scale sculptures, were made from found pieces of plastic, steel, and wood. Scaled up and fabricated in steel from on a model made of readymade plastic parts, the knitting needle, the wig stand and some kind of squeeze pump.

Visitors to the NGV may be familiar with Paramor’s Noble Ape in the sculpture garden, but it is different because it is beside a train station in Melbourne’s inner north. Melbourne’s train network rarely uses the arts for placemaking. There are few sculptures near train stations, but only Fleur Summers’s Making sense at Jewell (see my post) and FIDO in Fairfield (see my post) are visible from the train. 

What does it mean? The intention of public art as a provocation for the public’s imagination seems lazy and optimistic. Ambiguity is often overrated, and it will take time to judge how it has provoked the public. However, public sculptures are successful where the public completes stories of the sculpture. As Duchamp noted: “the onlooker has the last word, and it is always posterity that makes the masterpiece.”

Not that the onlooker is given any information about the new sculpture. No plaque, no title. Not even the name of the artist and Paramor does have the moral right of the artist to be acknowledged. 

Writing about architecture or public sculpture just after its installation is like writing about a battle plan before engaging with the enemy. It is too sympathetic towards the intentions of the architect and sculptor. It doesn’t care about the people who use the space. Only after they engage with the architecture or sculpture and make it their own, often renaming the sculpture in the process, can its qualities be fairly assessed. If a public sculpture is only known by one name, it hasn’t engaged with the public.

Writing about the recently installed Paramor sculpture at Moreland Station might be a mistake. It is a mistake that would favour the sculptor and commissioning process and ignore that it is a public sculpture. Sure, I could ask a few passers-by about their opinion or take some quotes from social media, but that would be merely anecdotal, not a representative sample. Nor is this fair to the randoms because these are just initial reactions, and they have been given no time or experience to form an opinion.

At least it is a sculpture by an established artist. In the past, there was a preference in Melbourne for the commissioning of emerging artists because it was cheaper to ‘foster emerging talents, ’ resulting in many second-rate sculptures. We are also fortunate that we are not living in an earlier time when a statue of Premier Dan Andrews or some other white Christian male would be erected like an unsolicited dick pic.


Blender Xmas 2021

The Blender Studios Xmas party had a food truck, a bar, and a variety of entertainment, along with an exhibition of works by resident artists. Two bands, the electro-soul band Rumpus and Jazz House combination of Jonquil Christmas Quartet, followed by a DJ set by Jonquil. Live acts, including live spaying by Blender Studio artists up on a ladder in the lane. Nakarin Jaikla’s dance performance used the air, keeping it light as the soup bubbles guns at the start and as the former warehouse’s hard concrete floor would allow. The group exhibition had recent work by the two dozen Blender artists. Included jewellery by Edie Black and Emma Rea and gallery work by street artists Akemi, Barek, Kasper and Suki.

photo by CV

It was a long way from the first Blender Studios Xmas Party that I went to in 2009. Dark Horse Experiment was called Michael Koro Gallery, and the party was more of an improvised BYO affair amongst the studio partitions.

Established in 2001, Blender existed until 2004 when it closed, opening again in 2007; so not the twenty years of operation implied. Since then, it has been in two locations around Melbourne’s northwest. The first was on Franklin Street. Now it is on Dudley Street. Geographically and culturally, Blender has always been on the edge of the city centre. Not to forget a couple of years that they were lured to the Docklands with cheap rent on the second floor of a near-empty shopping mall (see my post).

What made it a blender is that has always been a mix of street and gallery focused practices. The street practices meant that it spilled out of the studios and into the laneway beside it. The one rule different from other studio warehouses was that the artists had to show their visitors around to all the studios and with two dozen or so artists that is a lot of studios.

Blender’s only other consistent feature is Doyle, who outlasted Melbourne’s mayor with the same name. Artist, managing director, semi-reconstructed bogan and the subject of the ABC documentary Subtopia (see my review). Creating images of suburbia, this time front-on views of suburban houses.

A hot and enjoyable evening catching up with friends that I hadn’t seen in years. And just like at my first Xmas party at Blender I didn’t take any photos. Cheers!


Psychogeography 2021

The sad trophy of a great white hunter sits on a porch of the Edwardian bungalow propped up on an old armchair — a sad artifact from another continent and another era. The Cape Buffalo, syncerus caffer caffer for all the zoologists, is the least endangered of the big five game hunting animals. It reminded me that both of us spent time in Africa before we ended up in the vast suburbia of Melbourne.   

I avoided writing an end of year blog post for a couple of years, but 2021 needs one because it was a very unusual year. I saw few exhibitions; it seemed like I was always seeing one the night before the city would go into another lockdown, with some of these exhibitions being about art created in the previous lockdown. So I’m not even going to try to name a favourite. Melbourne endured the longest lockdown in the world, which has left deep scars psychic on the city.

Possibly due to the bad craziness fermented during the lockdown, two new sculptures were vandalised and a Discus Thrower from the Melbourne Olympics was stolen from suburban garden.  Some sculptures are vandalised every year with more inefficiency and completeness than the unfinished damage inflicted on a statue of Gandhi and Fallen Fruit.

For me, it was an enforced period of hyperlocal psychogeography, not the psychogeography of Iain Sinclair, based on literature and history, nor the long-distance walking and speculative psychogeography of Will Self, nor the esoteric psychogeography of ley lines and occult architecture. There could be no grand projects circling the city, only a limited circumference of kilometres from your home. It was the basic dérive that Debord wrote about, drifting through suburban streets — wandering to escape the confines of your home. To lose yourself on the walk, the complete opposite of those English celebrity goes somewhere shows. Who was that masked man?

“All space is occupied by the enemy. We are living under a permanent curfew. Not just the cops — the geometry.” Raoul Vaneigem words are pertinent to Melbourne’s experience; the Belgium writer would have been familiar with the curfews based on zero medical evidence, the cops and the occupied space, the shuttered spaces, closed shops and quiet streets. Last year I wrote a post about walking around in lockdown, and this year I wrote one about COVID related street art or graffiti but I didn’t really want to think about it during the lockdown.

It was hard to form memories without events to distinguish them when even the deaths of friends went unobserved — walking, eating and sleeping, day after day like the seemingly endless streets of Melbourne suburbia. Past police investigation, a forensics team digging up and examining the tarmac under a burnt-out car. Past suburban emergencies, a ruptured gas main. Past garden and architectural nightmares; houses with twenty-eight gables, kitsch concrete garden sculpture grottoes, or last-capitalist hordes of wrecked cars.

Should I organise a Melbourne Psychogeographical Association? (Please get in touch with me if anyone is interested in such an association or regular walks). I don’t know if anyone will be willing to engage in psychogeography for a long time. Or have the anti-vaxers, and Qanon conspiracy theorists discovered a kind of mass psychogeography in their repeated meandering protests around the city? Has it become worn out as a revolutionary strategy? The glass taxidermy eyes of the buffalo only give the look of seeing and don’t register images.


Street 2021

We are getting to the bitter end of the sour 2021, so I thought I’d look back at the street art and graffiti I saw around Melbourne. It has been a year of lockdowns and vaccines, which Melbourne’s street artist’s Cell Out and Phoenix had to comment on.

Melbourne’s street artists commented on the other current issues; the end of the Trump era and the continuing failure of Australian governments to deal with the climate crisis.

A couple of smooth pieces by Sleek stretching letterforms caught my eye.

As did the old school hip hop style of Mickey xxi in Croft Alley.

But what really made my eyes pop were these pieces in Brunswick, taking graffiti letter form to a new level of calligraphic complexity.

Street artist Manda Lane takes things in a different direction, applying foliage to the city’s walls.

You mYou might be surprised at the amount of ceramics in street art because you would think that there was none. If you had forgotten Space Invader’s unauthorised mosaics. This year I have seen ceramic street art by Discarded and Far4washere. For more on Discarded, see my post. For more on Far4washere, search Instagram or on the streets.

Melbourne’s street art was once world famous for its stencils. And there are still a few stencil artists spraying its walls. Much of it is anonymous like these beautiful and well placed trees; I am enjoying the images of local gum trees combined with the worn wabi-sabi elements of the wall. Some stencil artists are known like this piece by Xuf, a Melbourne-based self-proclaimed “wall beautician” from Indonesia.

I’ll be signing off shortly, in the mean time here are a couple of sign offs that I’ve seen this year. Cheers, Black Mark

P.S. Search the streets if you want to see more of Melbourne’s street art.


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