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Dishonouring the memory

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.

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Fantastic Worlds

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).

Ann Walker, Mr Huff soft sculpture, 2015

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.

Shaun Tan paintings installation view

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.

detail from Tai Snaith’s A cool shady place

Melbourne Psychogeography Regrets

Like the flâneurs (Sigmund Freud in Vienna, Charles Dickens in London and Gerard Nerval in Paris) psychogeography is pretty much the exclusive purview of a privileged minority of men. Psychogeography (along with the associated activities of urban exploration, surface archeology, ghost-signs, and paint-spotting) is unfairly dominated by white, middle-class, middle-aged men — including myself. From Will Self to the conservative politician Micheal Portillo’s tv program Abandoned Buildings or Tony Robinson walking somewhere else — at the professional level there are no women.

The activity of walking around the city unfairly excludes both women and other people (especially the original owners of the land) simply because they are not always as safe as I am. This is not a desirable situation. I don’t wish to exclude anyone and I would be happy if there was a much greater diversity of psychogeographers. Hence this statement of regret, that I’ve written on behalf of all Melbourne psychogeographers.

I want to write: women reclaim the night and explore the city… Indigenous people tell your own stories of it because it this always was and is your land… but that might not be wise… Indeed (if memory serves me correctly, because I am searching for the source) in the original phase of psychogeography the North African members of the Situationalists who were not legally allowed to explore Paris at night because of a curfew.

We need less cars and more people out on the streets, or even, at the front of their homes would be an improvement. Instead in home renovation after home renovation we have the architectural retreat to the backyard in the suburbs. We need more active witnesses, or ‘neighbours’ as they used to be called, and not passive recording on CCTV (see my blog post on CCTV).

In considering all the practicalities of walking around (insert a quote from Will Self here, something on his gore-tex underwear), the historical research, the documentation and photographs …. We have been forgetting to re-imagine the city. Renaming buildings and inventing readymade sculptures were amongst my first psychogeographical activities; there was the Dalek Headquarters in South Melbourne with its blue panopticon eye surveilling the city, the Cylons in Box Hill … Exercising the imagination is the start of the process.

We have to imagine a city where all people are equally safe, a place where being in public is safer than being in private, because only then can we make such a place a reality.


Makatron’s Book

Mike Makatron In Ten Cities (Trojan Press, 2015)

I read Makatron’s book, if “read” is the right word for book that is primarily photographs, over a pub lunch and two pints of cider. It is a good over-view of his work in Melbourne and around the world.

I have been looking at Makatron’s work in Melbourne’s walls for the last decade and it is easy to see why his work is popular. He mostly paints animals but there is more to his work that just reproducing a photograph in aerosol paint. Makatron’s animals are often distorted surreal creatures, giant animals with buildings on their backs, decomposing fish or stranger creations. The book doesn’t show all his work but it is a fair representation and not just a greatest hits; there are tags, straight letters and photographs of works in progress.

The text is not indulgent or boasting, fun, modest and reasonably informative although limited and containing way too many puns.

How to present the man behind the paint is a problem given that we are not going to get a photographs of Makatron’s face for legal reasons, although there are a few masked versions. There is a bit of autobiography at the end of the book. A born risk-taker Makatron was working as bicycle courier in NYC on 9/11; something that gets a random page of photographs in the middle of the book and is mentioned again at the end.

Although the structure of the book is not irritating or terrible it could be better than the almost random approach. An editor’s view could have made this book so much better than chaotic travels in time and space.

As a photo-books, street art and graffiti don’t make for great photographs; a wall square on in good lighting is the standard format, photographing street art is often more documentation than photography. John Tsialos is credited as the principle photographer but there are others including David Russell (see my post on his street art photography that brings the streetscape into focus).

I borrowed this book from Moreland Library. Like me, Makatron will have received his library lending rights money for this month for all the times that his book has been borrowed this year. Yes, authors do get paid when their book is borrowed. So go and borrow Makatron’s book (and my book Sculptures of Melbourne) from your local library.

Here are some of my photographs of Makatron’s work in Melbourne.



Three model buildings

Looking at three artist’s models of buildings in two exhibitions that I saw this week. From miniature realism to fantastic visions model buildings represent a form of life.

David Hourigan, The Chicken Shop Yarraville

The first two models were in “Uncontrolled Development” a group exhibition at Brunswick Street Gallery. One was by David Hourigan, the other by John Gatip.

Hourigan has received plenty of mainstream media coverage for his models of Melbourne’s disappearing old urban sites, like milk bars and donut stands. They are very detailed, almost photo-realistic, 1:25 scale models of actual buildings. However accurate, Hourigan’s models are just a road to nostalgia, a criticism free version of the past, where there are no regrets or disappointments. (For more on Hourigan’s models see The Age.)

John Gatip, part of Eureka series

Gatip’s ‘Eureka’ series of golden models are abstractions of Melbourne; particularly the nineteenth century Melbourne constructed from the profits of the gold rush. His models are not an accurate representations but the city is clearly recognisable from the forms. Gatip is an architect but these models are very different from architects models. In an architects model the building is shown in an ideal state, as an example to imitate in the actual construction; in the artist’s model it is a three-dimensional representation.

Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, Arrivals and departures

In “Bruised: Art Action and Ecology in Asia” RMIT Gallery, Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan models of buildings are clearly made of corrugated cardboard. In their Arrivals and departures multi-storey towers of dense bricolage homes are piled on top of each other in chaotic constructions. Aquilizan’s houses are lively, with overgrown pot plants, bird boxes, antennas and other signs of life. Each building is on a luggage trolleys, ready to move to a new location on the artificial grass.

Bruised is part of ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE 2019 the art festival that is unfortunately so necessary in this climate emergency (see my other posts about visual arts exhibitions the ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE 2019: The plastic jewellers and Art in the face of a climate emergency).


The Ardern mural

Apart from the graffiti pieces at their base the old silos have stood empty for decades. Now there is a mural by Loretta Lizzio of Jacinda Ardern embracing a Muslim woman on one of them.

So why in Brunswick? The silo is owned by a Muslim and Coburg’s Islamic community has supported the mural. The mural was crowd funded and the artist, Lizzio donated her time. And Ardern is considered far more believable than any current Australian politician according to a recent poll.

I wouldn’t call it an original work; as is a copy of a photograph taken in NZ after the Christchurch massacre. I assume that it has been done with copyright permission from the photographer. And originality is not the purpose of the work, it is getting the image and message up there.

Tinning Street is a good area to explore and see street art and graffiti in Brunswick. There are often fresh new graffiti pieces in the other nearby lanes and there were some guys painting when I was there this week. There is also the vibrant Ilhan Lane, the Hosier Lane of Brunswick for street art. (Ilhan Lane is named after “Crazy John” Ilhan. Remember when retailers would advertise that they were mentally ill? Crazy John, Ken Bruce has gone mad, Bipolar Bill; okay I made the last one up. I’m glad that trend came to an end.)

At Moreland Station I notice that OG23 and Askem have repainted the same wall that they have been painting for decades. It is not unusual. (See my post Same Walls.)

OG23 & Askem

Has Melbourne’s street art and graffiti reached an almost steady state? In my last blog post about street art wrote that it had. A point where very little changes except for the names and locations; although many of the names and locations have been the same for decades. A decade ago new forms of street art were being explored: installations, yarn bombing, people even thought that you could grow moss in patterns.

Adnate and Fantauzzo

Vincent Fantauzzo collaboration mural with Adnate in Strachan Lane serves as a reminder that street art is now another luxury commodity. F is not a street artist and his fine art works with a theme of luxury and fashion. Artists can have their careers entirely within the street art and graffiti scene, rather than moving to another career in graphic design or fine arts. This professionalism has brought an end to the D.I.Y. aspects of the culture.

What will alter the current stasis?

Locally I have seen that growth of guerrilla gardening out compete graffiti along the Upfield trainline. Planting at Brunswick Station now obscure walls that were once regularly painted. Along the tracks the vines on the side of The Commons building at Anstey Station have green-buffed large sections of that wall.

Scanning the horizon with a global look I wonder how will the environmental hazards of the current street art and graffiti be tolerated? The chemicals, the one-use cans and other aspects make it environmentally unsustainable. Painting another mural to raise public awareness will only be a sustainable argument for a short time.

Van Rudd, climate strike mural

Archibald Prize 2019

 All that a hopeful artist has to do to win Australia’s most prestigious prize for portrait painting is pay the $50 entry fee and deliver their painting to the loading dock at the rear of the Art Gallery of NSW at a certain date. Each year thousands of paintings are arrive and if a painting makes the final exhibition it is doing well.

Installation view of several finalists in the Archibald Prize 2019

The portrait must be of a notable in the fields of arts, science or politics (although judging from the entries this is very flexible). It has to be painted from life, meaning that the artist must have actually met the notable person; the subject has to sign the entry form to confirm this. Mostly it is artists painting other artists, or themselves, in a daisy-chain of insider promotion.

It was a relief to see that there were no portraits of politicians amongst this year’s finalists. No of the finalist artists wanted to be associated with any Australian politician. Although ugly, morally bankrupt thugs have been the subject of Archibald finalists in the past, such as Adam Cullen’s portrait of Chopper Reed, there were no portraits of popular criminals this year.

One positive aspect of both of these trends is that there were a lot more small portraits suitable for domestic display.

Kirpy, Dylan

As a focus of this blog is the intersection of street and gallery so I should report on the two street artists in the exhibition: ELK and Kirpy. Both portraits are very large, more than one square metre, multi-layered stencils spray-painted in aerosol paint and use acrylic paint to fill in the larger areas and give weight and texture. And both compositions have strong horizontal elements, in a rather rigid and static structure. Kirpy’s painted Dylan Alcott Paralympic gold medallist and founder of the musical festival Ability Fest. And ELK (aka Luke Cornish) did portrait of businesswoman and media commentator Sue Cato, along with her dogs, Callie and Comet. In 2012 ELK was the first street artist in the Archibald Prize finals and the following year first street finalist in Sulman Prize.

For the exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW is not just the Archibald but also the Wynne and Sulman prize.These prizes receive far less attention in the media than the celebrity focus of the Archibald.

The Wynne Prize for landscape painting or figurative sculpture is, not surprisingly, dominated by Indigenous artists this year. Figurative sculpture has become far less significant in Australia’s art world and there were only two pieces amongst the finalists.

The changing significance of types of art reminded me that the Sulman Prize is for subject, genre or mural painting. And given the increased significance of mural painting I don’t know why more street artists and graffiti writers don’t enter that prize.  After all Guido van Helten’s Brim silos mural project was the winner for the mural prize in 2016.

I haven’t seen the actual Archibald prize exhibition for many years but as I was in Sydney I can report on it.

Wynne Prize finalist Nongirrna Marawili, Pink Lightening

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