A young woman reaches for two children. Their large hands emphasis the desire to touch. The ground is strewn with bronze garlands engraved with poetic words that further invoke the separated families. Taken Not Given is a kind of memorial, a reminder of a Parliamentary apology, and a public recognition of the hurt caused by forced adoptions.
The sculpture is by Melbourne-based artist Anne Ross. For the last 26 years Ross has been doing public art commissions around Victoria, NSW, ACT and Hong Kong. Her figurative sculptures are generally playful fun however, for Taken Not Given, she had to reach another tone — one of an absence — of longing.
It was commissioned by the Victorian Parliament after its apology for forced adoption practices following the 2012 Commonwealth Senate Inquiry into forced adoption policies and practices. And was unveiled on 26 October 2018 on a small quiet triangle of garden on the corner of Lansdowne St. and St Andrews Pl. beside the government buildings and opposite Fitzroy Gardens. It can be seen as you come along the street but is obscured from the corner by a large patch of plants. There was no desire line of trampled grass indicating where people had walked over the lawn to the sculpture or read the accompanying explanative panel.
Aside from looking at the aesthetic qualities and style of the sculpture and the landscape gardening when I see a new piece of public sculpture I ask: how is it being used? And, what is it intended to do?
Is this an apology cast in bronze? A solid reminder to the Victorian government not to take children from their parents again.
Or is it art-wash? Buying an indulgence from art to pay-off past sins. Is the sculpture used as a proof of their virtue for apologising and a distraction from the victims?
I’m not sure; but I’m sure that the questions are worth considering. Your answers are welcome in the comments.
On Friday 5 July I met the NAIDOC Week march as I was walking to Fitzroy. The march was coming the opposite way walking from Fitzroy to Federation Square. I felt inspired by the march – I want a treaty and truth (like South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission). Australia needs a treaty with its Indigenous population; Australia is the only Commonwealth country not to have a treaty with its indigenous people.
I considered my options joining the march or continuing my walk into Fitzroy. I decided to continue on looking at public art, street art and art exhibitions but with a focus on indigenous history. My methodology for these walks is asystematic, random, and often without preconceived objectives. This is because I want to take unfamiliar routes and find new things.
This is No Fantasy, the Dianne Tanzer and Nicola Stien’s gallery on Gertrude Street was showing Vincent Namatjira’s exhibition Coming To America. Vincent is a Western Arrernte man from Ntaria (Hermannsburg) and the grandson of Albert Namatjira.It was Vincent Namatjira’s fifth solo presentation at this prominent Melbourne commercial gallery. Black dots beside the works showed that every painting had sold.
Vincent Namatjira’s crude but effective style has an absurd sense of humour. The exhibition has a series of paintings depicting his trip to America, including his time in Hollywood, the White House and relaxing on beach chair at the Miami Beach Art Basel. On one wall was a grid of black and white portraits of alternating black and white people. Namatjira seems to be saying: why so serious when this is fun?
Gertrude Street was named after the daughter of Captain Brunswick Smythe who acquired the land in 1839 in colonial exploitation; in spite of it colonial origins Gertrude Street has many reminders of Melbourne’s Indigenous history. There are several plaques by the City of Yarra Aboriginal Cultural Signage Reference Group and the Aboriginal Advisory Group: The Koori Club, the Aboriginal Housing Board and the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service. (As well as public art I am now looking at plaques — how dull can I get?).
At the corner of Lt. Napier Street, there is the recent ‘Sovereignty’ mural by Robert Young, Heesco and Makatron. They are all Melbourne-based artists but only Young is a Gunnai/Gunditjmarra/Yorta Yorta/Wiradjuri man – Heesco is from Mongolia and Makatron is probably from outer space, or Adelaide.
A bit further along Gertrude Street, at the corner of Gertrude and George Streets stand three “Delkuk Spirits”, 2002, by Kelly Koumalatsos, a Wergaia/Wamba Wamba woman from the northwest of Victoria. The yarn bombed dress on one of thin bronze figures has been there for years, it implies that it a woman and makes the group more inclusive.
On the same corner is Maysar, the Melbourne Youth Sport and Recreation Co-Operative with glass design in the windows and glass doors by Mandy Nicholson, a member of the Wurundjeri-willam clan of the Kulin Nation. Nicholson’s work is familiar to me as she designed Gayip, the stainless steal spiral headed figure with wings perched on a rock on the South bank and the petroglyphs at Birrarung Wilam.
I turned left onto to Smith Street, named after Melbourne’s Mayor Smith 1855-64 a publican turned politician. At first there was much less reminders of Indigenous history on Smith Street, just on plaque for the Victorian Aboriginal Co-operative Limited at 108 Smith Street, one guy in an Aboriginal flag t-shirt getting lunch and a small flag painted on a house in one of the streets off Smith.
That was until I reached the corner of Stanley and Smith Street where the Glenn Romanis has designed the combination of a micro-park, seating, public art and a map. Glenn Romanis is from the Wurundjeri/woi wurrung and Boonwerrung people of the Kulin Nation, and like Nicholson, Romanis’s public work was familiar from his carving at Birrarung Wilam. The sites are mapped in fossilised wood with granite streets cutting across the sedimentary rock that flows like rivers. Carved in the rock “Wominjeka Wurundjeri Bik” (Welcome to Wurundjeri Country). It was a good place to continue an exploration of Melbourne’s indigenous culture.
Here are a couple of Victorian (in every sense) places that can be seen if you are wandering around Melbourne.
333 Collins Street is one of the best example of preserving the old architecture is the fantastic dome inside a multi-storey building at 333 Collins Street. You can go into the foyer and look up and see the old dome. Through the dome’s windows you can see, instead of seeing the sky, the inside of a new building. It is unfortunate that the architect didn’t plan public access to the roof of the dome so that the surreal sight of an old roof inside a new building is not available. You can easily imagine this site if you look at the architectural model of the new building that stands in the foyer. It is a fine example of the greed and exploitation that is quintessential to Australia. Once the dome was part of Melbourne’s banking’s “cathedrals of commerce”, yes in the 19th century Australia really did build temples to Mammon.
Another of these temples to Mammon is at 380 Collins Street. Like a cathedral there are stain glass windows, carved wood screens and stone guardians in the gothic revival style. Labelled as the ‘ANZ Banking Museum’ with an impressive brass plaque – all I saw of that were two very small display cases on the floor bank. Instead of Biblical scenes one of the stain glass windows there is a series of the motifs from the Victoria Memorial in London. It is also very modern; cast iron pillars support the roof space that includes a large skylight.
The Block Arcade of Marvellous Melbourne has becoming a home to middle-brow tourist art and ersatz culture like the Dr Suess Gallery but it still has a great mosaic floor. A neo-classical Victorian design by Craven Dunnell Pty Ltd. of the United Kingdom made from Italian tiles. (For more on Melbourne’s many mosaic’s see my post Time and Tiles.) George Sala, the man who coined the phrase ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ spent a lot of time in the arcade. Sala needed to coin phrases about Melbourne as he was the special correspondent for the Daily Telegraphy. In 1880s he wrote of Melbourne’s arcades:
“Indeed, but for the fact that prohibitions on smoking are conspicuously placarded about in the Royal, the Victoria, and the Eastern arcades, you might, without any very violent stretch of the imagination, fancy on a fine night that Bourke Street was one of the Paris boulevards instead of being a highway hewn not fifty years ago out of the trackless Bush, and that you were a flâneur from the Café du Helder who had just strolled into the nearest passage to saunter from shop to shop, the contents of which you may have seen five hundred times before, and to rub shoulders with a throng whose faces from long acquaintance should be perfectly familiar to you.” (from The Birth of Melbourne ed. Tim Flannery, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2002, Australia, p.328)
When the Block Arcade’s opening in 1892 there were 15 milliners, three lace shops, a photographer and the Hopetoun Tea Rooms. Only the Hopetoun Tea Rooms survives. The prohibition on smoking in the Royal Arcade remains.
I am trying to promote a new term: ‘green buff’. To ‘green buff’ is to plant in a way that a wall is no longer usable for graffiti. Brunswick Station is a good example of green buffing. It used to be a prime location for graffiti. Adnate and the AWOL crew found their style on the walls around the station. It also used to be surrounded by fly tip of a wasteland. Apart from maintaining the path to the station Moreland Council and the multi railway authorities took no care of the area. Then locals took action and guerrilla gardeners turned it into a garden. Now there is only a couple of walls left around Brunswick Station, the rest of them have been green buffed with trees blocking the view. Green buffing is the best way to prevent graffiti because graffiti is a response to neglected areas, to ugly blank walls.
Graffiti writers, those extreme urban decorators of the urban wasteland are still inventive and looking at the beauty of aesthetics in of letters. I keep seeing a development of fresh material in graffiti and in the last couple of years but I hesitate to call it a new style. Saem and Rashe’s work looks like a fresh take on modern artists, like Léger’s cubism or the Russian Suprematist. It is a contrast to all the painted air, the illusionistic space around the letters, blown by the aerosol, that has been the standard for many years. These works are so flat there is no air in it; they are super-flat like Takashi Murakami. It was so startling that I had to stop my bike and check it out.
After more than a decade of looking at graffiti and street art it I feel some burnout; a bit like “I have seen this all before, so many times.” CDH asked me when I last got excited by street art or graffiti. I replied: “Astral Nadir.” I forgot that I put the breaks on my bike for Saem and Discarded; willing to lose the momentum had been hard won with muscle power to look at their work.
So what if I’ve become a bit jaded over the years – I’m still thinking, looking, and exploring the city. Part of my routine over the last decade, aside from wearing down a groove in the bluestone blocks of certain laneways, is visiting art galleries, sometimes the two align but I didn’t expect them to at a high-end commercial gallery like, Flinders Lane Gallery.
At Flinders Lane Gallery (now on the first floor of Nicholas Building) Amber-Rose Hulme’s exhibition — “Context” is a series of photorealist pastel drawings of Melbourne’s walls. The photorealist quality is startling. There was a shock of recognition of same familiar laneways, tags and walls. Unlike the photographers who exploit the popularity of graffiti Hulme has her own vision of these location. It is one of a nostalgic urban wabi-sabi, the acceptance of ephemeral and the decay. Drawing the cracked paint, the splatters and drips with a mix of dedication and patience the graffiti is seen in its context of walls and bluestone laneways.
On world refugee day March 20, the Metropolitan Museum in New York shrouded paintings by refugees. “What would the Met’s walls look like if there were no refugees?” (No Max Beckmann, Marc Chagall, Ibrahim El-Salahi, Max Ernst, Piet Mondrian, Sopheap Pich, Mark Rothko) If that had been done at the opening of RMIT’s exhibition, “Melbourne Modern: European art & design at RMIT since 1945”, there would have been many shrouded works.
In his opening remarks Philip Goad pointed out the contribution of the European modernists to RMIT. Without the post-war refugees RMIT and Australia’s culture (art, design, food, life) would be boiled, bland and ugly. It is clearly visible in the high tide mark of modern art, architecture, jewellery, fashion and other designs in this extensive exhibition at RMIT Gallery.
It is especially evident in the sculpture. The central sculptures in the main gallery are by Teisutis Zikaras, Inge King and Vincas Jomantas; all were displaced by WWII and were essentially refugees.
Teisutis Zikaras was the first of five émigré sculptors to teach at RMIT. His geometric mother and child in the exhibition are a homage to cubism and European modernism.
There are two familiar black steel sculptures by Inge King; many local people would be familiar with King’s sculptures from her public works. Her Daruma are particularly elegant reducing the traditional Japanese doll to two curved planes.
Vincas Jomantas is particularly important to the RMIT art department; indeed the curators refer to 1961-1987 as the “Jomantas years” in wall notes. Jomantas may not be a famous artist but his influence on generations of sculptors is a greater legacy.
Jomantas black wooden curved forms in Birds of Death (1964-5) and his white geometric forms of Landing Object II (1971).
Even at modest scale in their sculptures look monumental. Their simple solid forms stand of symbols of modern sense of freedom.
So much of modern culture has been created refugees. Successful and humane countries took them in far greater numbers and far earlier than Australia. Who knows what damage current Australia’s refugee policy is doing to its culture because it takes decades to measure this; Australia definitely lost at least one refugee who is now a Fulbright scholar.
I don’t want any smug ALP supporters reading this and thinking that anyone who doesn’t support the current refugee policy should support the ALP. The ALP started the cruel policy of indefinite detention of refugees under Paul Keating (a creature with less compassion than a snake) and has no plans to end it. I call on my readers to imagine a better world where there is no ALP or LNP and then to do everything that they can to make it a reality.
“Melbourne Modern: European art & design at RMIT since 1945” was curated by Jane Eckett and Harriet Edquist.
Public statues are about honouring the person portrayed, especially when they are larger than life-sized. There are no public portrait statues created of people who it was not intended to honour. This is because the tradition of portrait sculpture started with the depiction of Ancient Greek gods, demigods and heroes.
The campaign, “Wentworth Must Fall”, at Sydney University to remove the statue of William Charles Wentworth from the Great Hall and rename the Wentworth building is based on the Oxford University “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign and other campaigns for statue removal that are known collectively as the Statue Wars (see my post Statue Wars 2017).
Removing a sculpture or burning of an effigy is not revising history — it is a symbol of regime change. It is about moving from colonial to post-colonial. The changes in public statues, place names and other symbols is part of post-colonialism. And the question that Sydney University students are asking their university in this campaign is what are they doing to decolonize. Leaving a public portrait statue of a person who is no longer honoured distorts the historical record by implying that the person is still honoured.
It is traditional to burn the effigies of hated figures and remove statues of them. Often when a statue is removed it is destroyed because the people removing it hate the person it represents. This doesn’t have to the case and the statue can be stored, archived, and exhibited in contexts that do not honour the person portrayed (for example in an exhibition of the work of the sculptor who made it).
The statue of Wentworth was made by Pietro Tenerani, a sculptor based in Rome and a student of the Danish neo-classical sculptor Thorvaldsen. During his career Tenerani produced work to order for the Catholic church and nationalists around the world — from a statue of Simon Bolivar for Bogota to a statue of Ferdinand II of Naples for Messina. His portrayal of Wentworth as an orator is more creative than accurate. When the statue was made Wentworth was in his sixties but is portrayed as a younger man. Wentworth himself was not a supporter of the statue. He believed that the funds could have been better spent.
Regardless of the details of Wentworth’s life his statue was and always will be a colonial symbol. The inauguration of the Wentworth statue was an imperial event (as reported in Empire p.5 24 June 1862). Before its unveiling the statue was covered with a flag and the band playing God Save the King several times. Australian nationalists are keen to cement their claims with statues of colonial heroes and post-colonialism is heavily resisted. The current government worships Captain Cook as a demigod of imperial colonisation, worthy of a multi-million dollar memorial.
It is the plinth or pedestal that is the crucial element in the hero worship of these statues. Lying on its side without its plinth statues of Stalin or Felix Dzerzhinsky are inoffensive. If the statue of Wentworth was placed in a pit (maybe with a glass roof so that people could walk over it) it would have a very different meaning.
Art in children’s picture books is how most of us first experienced art and the current exhibition at the Counihan Gallery could be some children’s first experience of an art gallery. “Fantastic Worlds” is an exhibition of children’s book illustrations that has been specifically curated for children (aged 2 to 10 years old).
It is not just the subject of the exhibition that is designed for children. Low plinths allows easier viewing for children. Cushions and beanbags offer a place for children to relax. There is also an interactive work, Story-go-round by Cat Rabbit and Isobel Knowles, that was commissioned especially for the exhibition. And there are story-times, workshops and other events that are part of the exhibition.
Even if you are no longer a child there is plenty of appeal in this exhibition; emphasis on the word ‘plenty’, for unlike the minimalism of many contemporary art exhibitions with ten illustrators there is plenty to look at. Shaun Tan’s paintings and sculptures have their own power as art; the rough surface of the paint and the solidity of these imaginary places. Elise Hurst fantastic pen and ink illustration from Imagine a City (2014). Graeme Base’s intensely detailed watercolour and ink illustrations from Animalia (1986), The Sign of the Seahorse (1992) and Uno’s Garden (2006) — and much more.
What I didn’t expect was so much collage. Alison Lester’s figures are cut out and collaged onto a background; they stand out fresh and lively in the original (although it might not be as obvious in the print version). Tai Snaith does more obvious collage mixing cut paper and stoneware clay to create very three dimensional images for Slow Down World (2017). And then there is the digital collage and gothic cyberpunk styling of Lance Balchin’s mechanical insects, from his book Mechanica: a beginner’s field guide (2016).
“Fantastic Worlds” at Counihan Gallery in Brunswick was curated by Edwina Bartlem.