The Wild West of Australia

The world has now heard about the destruction of the world’s largest and oldest collection of petroglyphs (rock carvings) by the Woodside Energy Group (previously Woodside Petroleum) thanks to two protesters spraying chalk dust on the perspex cover on Fredrick McCubbin’s 1889 oil painting, Down on his luck, at the Art Gallery of Western Australia in January 2023. Further examination of their actions exposes prejudices about race, law, justice, culture, art’s value, and art galleries.

Western Australia has often been called the wild west, as it has many things in common with westerns. It is a land stolen from Indigenous peoples, ruled by cattle barons and miners.

The destruction of the world’s largest and oldest collection of petroglyphs (rock carvings) by the Woodside Energy Group (previously Woodside Petroleum) started in 2006–2007. Since then, the fossil fuel company has irreparably damaged the rock carvings on the Burrup Peninsula (also known as Murujuga) in WA’s Pilbara region.

The Australian government does not define the destruction of Indigenous art and culture as a crime (unless it is a tradable commodity). Indigenous culture, like the petroglyphs on the Burrup Peninsula (aka Murujuga), are being destroyed on an industrial scale, and even the most egregious incidents, like the damage to the Kuyang stones at Lake Bolac or the destruction of Juukan Gorge, only receive official reprimands or a fine.

However, it is a crime. Australia is an occupied territory with no treaty or other peace settlement with the land’s original inhabitants. Without a treaty, the land is an occupied territory where the ownership of the land is in dispute; therefore, the Geneva Convention applies. The destruction of the property of people whose lands have been occupied is prohibited under Article 53 of the 4th Geneva Convention. The situation is analogous to Russian claims to annex parts of Ukraine, a unilateral declaration that they are now legally part of another country. No, where in the Geneva Convention are occupied people, or their allies, prohibited from destroying the occupiers’ property. This does not give Russia the right to destroy Ukrainian property. Australia is a party to GCI-IV, but Australia’s word is worthless.

The actions of the two protesters, Perth ceramic artist and illustrator Joana Partyka and Ballardong Noongar man Desmond Blurton at the Art Gallery of Western Australia is the best art gallery demonstration yet. A symbolic attack on a symbol of the colonial power to draw attention to the actual crime of destroying the world’s oldest art gallery. Partyka’s damage was symbolic, as was the choice of McCubbin’s painting and the location. The chalk spray, used for marking sports grounds, would not damage the painting—indeed, no damage compared to the actual irreparable damage done to the ancient petroglyphs.

McCubbin’s painting symbolises European colonisation as he depicts European settlers in the Australian landscape. And also because it is a tradable commodity exchangeable for dollars, unlike rock art, which is not tradable because it belongs in its original location.

The Art Gallery of Western Australia is used symbolically by the occupying power, as a token of civilisation, as a venue for state functions, a beautiful decoration for the ugly iconoclasm and state violence.

WA police charged Partyka with one count of criminal damage, nobody has yet charged the so-called Commonwealth of Australian and Woodside Energy with war crimes, but it needs to happen.


Whitewashing Pentridge Prison History

I want to see Ronald Bull’s mural for myself, and I’m sure others do too. To physically look up at it, not just look at a photo of it, to be able to appreciate its size and the stone prison walls it’s painted on. Now that Pentridge is no longer a prison and is being developed as a housing estate, I don’t see why I can’t.

I enquired about the heritage-listed Ronald Bull mural in F Division to Pentridge Village, but there was no response. This is because Bull is not mentioned in the “Former HM Prison Pentridge Heritage Interpretation Masterplan” by Sue Hodges Productions. The masterplan makes almost no reference to Indigenous people, with a single reference to “Aboriginal troopers”. 

Ronald Bull is a significant Indigenous artist, and his mural in F Division is his most important work. The mural is on the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Register and protected under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 and the Heritage Act 1995 because it is on the Victorian Heritage Register as part of Pentridge Prison. The Office of Aboriginal Affairs Victoria liaised with the developers and their heritage consultants, Sue Hodges Productions. Box-ticking exercise over consultations ignored (I assume this is how the Indigenous voice to parliament will be treated, please correct me if I’m wrong about this).

Writing out Indigenous people from the Heritage, whitewashing history with the erasure of Indigenous people. The developers have been allowed to exploit the history for their profit. The interior bluestone walls were all cut by prison labour. Not to forget that prison labour is disproportionately Indigenous.

The historical interpretation of the site is inadequate. More than one room with photographs, texts and a few objects is required. Decorative motifs of the panopticon are one of the most grotesque pieces of carceral torture ever invented; solitary confinement combined with continuous observation. If the old bluestone walls, gates, and towers are selling points, then some sensitive historical interpretation is needed.

Sue Hodges Productions were approached to comment on the absence of Bull’s mural and the Indigenous people from their masterplan but hadn’t responded at the time of publication. They are still welcome to comment, just fill in the comment box.

For more about Bull and his mural see my post, the life and art of Ronald Bull.


The Temple of Boom

As a teenager, I thought the third-scale Parthenon of Calton Hill overlooking Edinburgh was the wankiest construction I’d ever seen. Intended as a memorial to the  Napoleonic War and to emphasise Edinburgh’s claim to be “the Athens of the north”, it failed at both. So I’m not sure about another one of the same scale in the NGV’s sculpture garden.

As a symbol of western slave-ownership delusional exceptionalism, the Parthenon is best not remembered for its white sun-bleached marble but as a painted temple. Given this, I prefer the Temple of Boom to the one in Edinburgh.

The Temple of Boom is the 2022 NGV Architecture Commission and was designed by Melbourne-based architects Adam Newman and Kelvin Tsang. It is a semi-complete classical Greek-style temple constructed around the Henry Moore sculpture. It is not a temple to Athena, for Moore’s figure is an Aphrodite or a Hera, not Athena.

I wasn’t there for the architecture, the Friday night DJ sets or the VR experience of the Acropolis in Greece. I was there to see what guest curated by Toby Benador of Just Another Agency had arranged for the painting of the temple.

I’ve seen art by two artists on Melbourne’s streets: Drez’s vibrant colours and Manda Lane’s black and white vegetation. Manda painted with a brush which she does paint with a brush on the street when she isn’t doing paste-ups. And finally, there is the luxurious floral art of David Lee Pereira, whose work I’ve seen at Beinart Gallery.

The Temple of Boom served these artists well. Street and mural artists have a close and important relationship with their surfaces’ architecture, which is different from how other artists might relate to the surface they are painting. It is also temporary, ephemeral work for which they are well suited. The tree branch from the NGV’s garden grows into the temple, mixing with the built environment like a reverse of Pereira’s painting.

I’m interested in how street artists work in gallery settings. Within the gallery cage’s confines, the wild art will start to exhibit domesticated behaviour. It is kind of a litmus test for art galleries; are they an anaesthetic environment for art or institutions of colonial appropriation? Not that the Temple of Boom is either of these, it is a play space.

I didn’t see it with music playing, and I was there at a quiet time of day.


Peter Tyndall at Buxton Contemporary

Peter Tyndall is a hedgehog (in reference to Archilochus: πόλλ’ οἶδ’ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ’ ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing”). He knows one big thing.

He has been expanding on that one thing ever since he painted his sign over one of his colour field paintings in the late 70s. Ever since then he has named all of his paintings the same (only the date and the courtesy acknowledgement vary):

Someone looking at something is Tyndall’s big idea. It implicates that the viewer is part of the art. The viewer becomes a responder, a person who is anticipated by the existence of the work, just as a letter has an anticipated reader.

Playful, inventive and fun, Tyndall made his conceptual art visually identifiable. When turned on its side, his visual tag of a box with two lines becomes a diamond, a pattern that can be repeated across his work. Even the elevator at Buxton Contemporary had a variation of this pattern.

And there is plenty to see at his first major retrospective at Buxton. The first room shows what Tyndall was painting before his conceptual break; large colour field paintings, mostly in tan. And then the missing link, the painting modified with the inclusion of a symbol Tyndall would use for the rest of his career, the box with two lines, representing a painting hung on a wall.

The way that paintings are hung is important for Tyndall, generally with two long black wires that extend from the top of the painting to screws further up the wall. The label beside the painting became part of the art. His labels are all labelled “Label.” All his labels are identical (only the information about the date and courtesy varies) because they are all details in his single lifelong work.

A good retrospective should show other sides of the artist. There is Tyndall’s mail art, his slave guitar, cast objects, and those on his sculptural wall hangings, made for and exhibited at Venice Biennale in 1988. There are his political engagements with the world, notably his campaign to end the ban on sketching at the NGV and a piece responding to a City of Mildura Councillor complaining that they didn’t get their share of “the cultural dollar”.

But wait, there is more; as part of the retrospective, there are a series of free zines of artwork by Peter Tyndall produced as a “Graphic Design Studio 3” project by Graphic Design majors at the University of Melbourne. 

What was not shown at the exhibition was Tyndall’s blog: Blogos/HAHA. His blog is a work of art and is updated regularly. See my blogroll.


Statuemania

Statuemania (noun) is a portmanteau word used for over a century to describe the obsession with erecting statues.

Barbara McLean’s Daphne Akhurst bust

Statuemania is alive and well in Australia. However, Australia’s love of statues is like a gambler who has already lost a fortune but keeps placing bets. Having spent a fortune erecting a memorial, Australia tries to solve more problems by erecting memorials and statues. And consequently, per head of dead or living military personnel, Australia has spent more on war memorials than any other country. The Australian government is spent $140m-plus for the WWI centenary, compared to the British government spending £55m ($94m) Paul Daley reported in The Guardian (15/10/2013). Lest we forget that Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance was the most expensive sculpture commission in the country’s history.

But the multitude of military memorials is just the pointy peak of Australia’s statuemania. More bits of cast bronze are scattered across the country like shrapnel. A statue of Shakespeare in Ballarat, a city that never existed in Shakespeare’s life. A whole street of statues and other memorials along North Terrace in Adelaide; the avenue of heroes, a feature that Melbourne aspired to but could never agree on what road, Swanston Street, Exhibition Street, or St. Kilda Parade.

There is a circle of thirty-two bronze busts on grey concrete plinths outside the Rod Laver Area. One of every person who has won the Australian Tennis Open. The Australian Tennis Hall of Fame is all the work of one woman, Barbara McLean. McLean specialises in making sculpture portraits from photographs. I’d prefer to see one of McLean’s leggy surrealist sculptures than another of her portrait busts, but I can guess which one pays the bills.

Phrenology should not be conducted on these busts because it will reveal nothing. The image of the Australian Tennis Open winner does nothing to our understanding of their place in history. The shape of the skulls of those depicted means nothing but the monied influence of their supporter says everything. What these statues show is political power and how it distorts history. They create the antique relationship to public space where private money can buy a position in a public space forever, preserving a world where money buys respect; the statues of Michael Gudinski (also at Rod Laver Arena), or General Sun Yat Sen in Chinatown, for example.

Why is it a problem? You might be thinking, why aren’t I enjoying all this public art; after all, I am the author of a book on the topic, Sculptures of Melbourne. Sculptors won’t tell you it’s a problem, not while people put money in their pockets. Statuemania keeps foundries and sculptors in business. It preys on the weakness of uninspired, uninformed people who want to do something good. In the last decade, new sculpture foundries have been established in Melbourne to cater to the increased demand.

These statues are “art” in the same way that photographs of bananas in a supermarket advert are “art” as opposed to “copy”. And in the past, statues were serious art, which doesn’t ensure they always will be. That public money is spent on a statue takes away from better public art.

Statues were once exhibitions of technological accomplishment, wealth and power, shock and awe. The technical achievement of casting a giant bronze statue was a public demonstration that the society had highly skilled professionals and the wealth to employ them. Now the technology of making sculptures has been superseded. However, colossal statues are still made as demonstrations of wealth and power. Statue measuring competitions exist because they are erected by patriarchal dicks.

”For more on this topic, read GaryYounge’s “Why Every Single Statue Should Come Down”.

Barbara McLean’s Patrick Rafter bust

Painted doors of Naarm/Melbourne


Counihan Gallery summer show 2022

The end-of-year exhibition at the Counihan Gallery’s summer show has the theme of Future Tense.

Tense? I am still masked up amidst a crowd of people at the opening, still concerned about the current wave of COVID. I can’t remember ever seeing so many people in the gallery.

Why am I writing about this exhibition and not others? Hyper-local interest, this is where I live, with the added bonus that Merri-bek has more than its fair share of visual artists living in it. Congratulations to Emily Simek, the recipient of this year’s Noel Counihan Commemorative Art Award, and to Stephanie Karavasilis and Carmen Reid for being highly commended by the judges.

But at my back, I always hear four horsemen drawing near. War, plague, famine and death have been harnessed to the chariot of unimaginable climate catastrophe. Many of the works in the exhibition were activist, most environmental, followed by disability. Pamela Kleemann-Passi Trolley Trouble in Troubled Times records an action by Extinction Rebellion that took place at the intersection just outside the gallery. The fluttering flags contrast the still bodies, their bright colours stand out against the grey tarmac, concrete and stone. It is a combination of protest with aesthetics.

Of course, there was a wide range of interpretations of the theme in a great variety of media and styles, including imitations of cubism, futurism, abstract expressionism and Francis Bacon. However, there wasn’t enough about the location. Kyle Walker’s photographs, The Cat, capture scenes of everyday Brunswick. The photographs are well-composed and poetic without being sentimental.

Another with a focus on the local was Carmel Louise, The East Brunswick, combining photograph and mixed media in a collapsible accordion pop-up book. It is based on the original East Brunswick Hotel and was meant to be critical of the recent high-rise developments along Lygon Street. However, this criticism is muted by the beauty of the paper folding.

Carmel Louise, The East Brunswick, 2022

Bright colours abounded this year; I suspect the cumulative result of many lonely lockdowns. One of these bright works was Claire Anna Watson’s Once when I was six III. An inflated plastic creation involving a mirror, lime green ring, floaties and aubergine. This a contemporary art take on a yoni and a lingam, complete with the aubergine in the middle – emoji reference. Air and inflation have been art components since Duchamp’s Air de Paris (50cc of Paris Air) and early Koons buoyancy basketballs in One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding Dr J Silver Series). And Watson has used vegetable material in previous work. Her artist statement records “floating, hovering between an abstraction of the mind and a nostalgia for what was.”

Claire Anna Watson, Once when I was six III, 2022

While the artists in Future Tense were looking forward, I was reminiscing. Not that want to use Van Der Graff’s Time Pair-a-Docs to go back to the past, but for me, there was a note of past tense in the show. That sentimental, seasonal event, end-of-year feeling, but that’s just memories. seeing new work recognisably by artists I know or have previously written about conjuring ghosts of past years, the evoking of spirits. Shout out to Alister Karl, Julian DiMartino, Marina Perkovich and Carmen Reid glad that they are still alive, creating art and kicking.

Although it is the season of end-of-year shows, the Blender Xmas Party and the 32nd annual Linden Postcard Show are coming up. I am going to take a summer break (if ‘summer’ is the word I’m looking for, given the recent wintery weather).

Thanks for reading.

Cheers, Black Mark

Leon Van Der Graff, Time Pair-a-Docs, 2022

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