Monthly Archives: May 2008

Power & Photography

I don’t want to go over more of the same arguments about the Bill Henson controversy but to consider the photographs and the power of the image.

Part of the problem with recent censorship of the visual arts appears to be an ignorance of photography as art. If they had been more traditional arts, painting or sculpture, then the cavemen in the police force would have understood that it was art. But photographs make particularly powerful images. Many of the police and politicians involved have only encountered photography in family snaps, media photography and pornography. Ordinary photographs do not cause anything near the powerful experience of a Bill Henson photograph; the average viewer has little or no experience of art and so is unprepared for the powerful experience of viewing art.

At the extreme end of the power of images is the psychosomatic illness, Stendhal syndrome caused by powerful art. I have had Stendhal syndrome: when I first saw the paintings of James Gleeson I thought that I was about to faint. The minor effects of Stendhal syndrome, include rapid heartbeat, dizziness and confusion. Stendhal syndrome could have impaired the judgement of NSW Police officers and other people involved in the case.

Another confusion appears to be occurring in understanding the artifice of art. Ordinarily a photograph is treated as evidence except in the case of art. In cinemas and art galleries we regularly see apparent evidence of crimes and nobody does anything because they understand that it is not real, that it art. To charge Bill Henson with obscenity makes as much sense as to charge an actor with a crime seen in a movie.

David Hockney writes about “The power of pictures” in The Guardian 4/4/08. Pointing out the history of power of images and attempts by church and state to control this power. Hockney argues who ever controls the image has power. And the better the image the more power it is able to exert. We should not forget that the Bill Henson controversy started when of an anti-paedophile campaigner used Bill Henson’s photographs to gain publicity for her cause. That is she used the power of art to give power to her cause. And the power struggle continues with artists trying to keep control of their images, media exploiting public interest in images and politicians trying to maintain an image. The ABC joined the debate in changed the scheduled program to rebroadcasting a documentary on Bill Henson on Tuesday the 27th. Finally prominent Australians involved in the arts wrote an Open Letter in Support of Bill Henson.

Images have power, they can convict, they can distort, they can even cause Stendhal syndrome. And in this controversy, and many others like it, people are fighting for control of the power of photographic images.


Street Art Notes – May

Street art is the intersection between art and life, just what the avant-garde always wanted.

“Graffiti…the last free media is in your hands.” Reads a slogan under the new and impressively painted wall near Brunswick Station. The wall near Brunswick Station consists of three wild style pieces with lots of cartoon characters and birds by Awol Alpha, Los Guiros, and Drew (correct me please if I’m wrong I’d like to get the attributions right for the record). Street art likes to believe that it does have a political content, even this fun piece; “the last free media” is polemical exaggeration but the idea of freedom is important to street art. Street art wants to be seen as gratuitous, free expression, outlaw art given to the community.

The freedom of street art is balanced with commercial interests and the commercial use of street art is becoming still more common. I don’t mean exploitation but legitimate commercial work. Although street art is gratuitous street artists are not above making money from their art and not above adding a business logo into their design. Pizzerias and Chinese café have been adding street art to their walls. It attracts the customers and decorates what would otherwise be a blank wall. Aerosol art has always had a commercial application in painting cars and not surprisingly some of the best walls are around crash repair businesses.Ganesa of Florence St. Brunswick

There is a fresh new legal work on the side of a house in Florence St. in Brunswick. The image of Ganesa, the elephant headed Hindu god sits amongst some the wild colourful calligraphy with paisley-like patterns showing through. The piece is popular with the neighbours too – one of them jokingly took credit for it as I admired it.

On Sunday 25th in the afternoon the ABC had a repeat broadcast of Rash by Nicholas Hansen, an award-winning documentary on Melbourne graffiti scene. Watching it again reminded me that some things have changed in the street art scene (there are now street art galleries and draconian anti-graffiti laws) but much has stayed the same. The documentary is available on DVD at Mutiny Media.

Big shout out to the guys at Illegal Fame magazine for sending me their Winter 08 issue, it was very kind of them. There is more editorial content in the issue: news, reviews, interviews and more of their excellent Ghostwriter series, along with the usual pages and pages of photos of outstanding street art.


Poetic Terrorism

From Arthur Rimbaud to Samima Malik poetry has aspired to terrorism. Samima Malik is the ‘the lyrical terrorist’, convicted of “possessing records likely to be useful to terrorists” in the UK in 2007. Visual artists from the Berlin Dadaists to George Bolster’s, Art Terrorist exhibition at House Gallery, (London, 2001) have attempted psychological warfare.

Hakim Bey, the theoretician of poetic terrorism writes in T.A.Z – the temporary autonomous zone, ontological anarchy, poetic terrorism, (Automedia, 1991): “The audience reaction or aesthetic-shock produced by Poetic-Terrorism ought to be at least as strong as the emotion of terror – powerful disgust, sexual arousal, superstitious awe, sudden intuitive breakthrough, dada-esque angst”.

Along with what could be dismissed as mere art there has been direct action by poetic terrorists. In 1986 the Australian Cultural Terrorists kidnapping Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the NGV and issued demands to the Minister of Police and the Arts, Race Matthews. How To Make Trouble And Influence People (Political Hooligan Publications, Sydney, 1996) is a wonderful little publication documenting “Australian pranks, hoaxes and political mischief making” in a random order. It reproduces many fly-posters, altered billboards and leaflets created by these pranksters.

Poetic terrorism is isometric cultural warfare. The culture jammers, nihilists and associated Dadaists are attempting to blow up mass consumer culture. Poetic terrorists are similar to militant terrorists in many ways both feel isolated and ignored. Except, unlike the militants, poetic terrorists do not have an exaggerated belief in the effectiveness of violence. Instead, poetic terrorists have an exaggerated belief in the effectiveness of art and poetry. “Like charging a regiment of tanks with a defective slingshot.” Wm. Burroughs writes about John Heartfield’s anti-Nazi photomontages. Burroughs, himself advocated the use of tape recorders and cutups as a weapon of psychological warfare in The Invisible Generation (1966).

Taoist Jihad is a group of poetic terrorists, musicians and culture jammers. I met members of the group when I was involved with Clan Analogue in the late 1990s. I liked their choice of samples from Bollywood and Hollywood. And I enjoyed their crazy political actions as they always included a sense of fun and danger. I witnessed their black magic action against President Soharto in 1998. The burning an official photograph went very badly as the cardboard smoldered and the black candles kept on going out in the wind but it worked.

I remained in touch with some members of Taoist Jihad. Others have vanished completely. DJ Phatwah maintains that “many of the group went into hiding late in 2001” the truth is that they just denied membership, cut communications and got full-time jobs. The members of Taoist Jihad didn’t intend to become musicians or artists, nor have they become full time artists, their work was the late adolescent creative out bursts of university students. My role has been to facilitate communications from the group and help organize their upcoming exhibition at Brunswick Arts.

Artists & Lawyers

Law Week could have been marked with an art exhibition in a gallery with a theme like ‘justice’ and a tortured selection of art trying to fit this Procrustean bed. Instead there is ‘Passion’ a group exhibition, curated by Catherine Connolly, with a simple but effective concept. The exhibition matches seven artists with seven notable legal professionals. And instead of a gallery the exhibition is located in foyer of Bourke Place, the work place of many lawyers.

The contact between artists from a range of cultures (the exhibition is produced by Multicultural Arts Victoria) and legal professionals and the results of their interaction with the artists is at the heart of this exhibition. Legal professionals are frequently frustrated artists; most that I’ve met are artistic in some way. This should not be surprising as both legal professionals and artists are skilled communicators; one is skilled in English and the other in visual images.

The matching of legal professionals and artists for the exhibition was well managed. Naeem Rana wanted to work with Julian Burnside because of shared interests. One the artists, Mitra Malekzadeh, was originally represented by lawyer, David Allen, when she first came to Australia and so choose to work with him and photograph him. In the exhibition the art reflects the ‘passions’ of the artists and the legal professionals. Many of the artists produced portraits of the legal professional and their passions, like Andrea Draper’s cool portrait of Justice Lex Lasry playing the drums. Sutueal Bekele Althe painted a more traditional, although still informal, portrait of Judge Felicity Hampel. Other artists had common interests with the legal professional like Naeem Rana and Julian Burnside’s shared interest in human rights, especially the plight of the Bakhtyari family. Rana quoted Burnside’s book From Nothing to Zero with the title of his work “We Love To Hate”. Yorta Yorta artist, Lyn Thorpe and lawyer, Clint Lingard’s share interest in aboriginal rights. Thorpe expresses this with a banner celebrating the Aboriginal dance troupe, Koori Youth Will Shake Spears.

Next Wave – Videos & Notes

Kings A.R.I. has three video artists, part of the Next Wave Festival. Alec Doherty’s ‘Text’ that looked impressive and functional, a tower of technology, wires, cables, circuit boards, suspended from the ceiling with a triangle of DVD players and a triangle of LED displays, However, the connection between Yahoo search terms on LED, Alec’s voyeuristic fantasy interpretations on DVD and the tower of technology failed to come together in any meaningful way. And after hearing Doherty’s talk at the gallery on Saturday 24th May I wasn’t sure if any of his imaginary connections in the work were meaningful.

The other video art at Kings worked a lot better – the ideas were clear, the installation elegant and effective.

Kay Abude’s “Moving Document: Supermarket Exhibition” is a wonderful work about contemporary art with many. Abude takes ideas from minimalist art (Karl Andre and early Christo spring to mind) and creates them using supermarket products. This was videoed and the video installed in the isles the Glenroy supermarket complete with art opening drinks. The art opening in the supermarket was videoed. In Kings A.R.I. the three video projectors show the arrangements of objects, the video installation and art opening in a well-edited sequence.

Julie Traitsis video installation ” Open Embrace” presents a tango dancer’s perspective on video with a choice of an attractive male or female partner. The choice depends on which way the individual viewer faces the screens. There can only face one with the two screens so close together. It is simple concept effectively presented an intense experience looking into the eyes of your dance partner.

People interacting with Absence in Campbell Arcade

I didn’t think that much of Hiromi Tango’s installation, ‘Absence’ at Vitrine and Sample (part of Platform at Campbell Arcade, Degraves St. Subway), just another exhibition of handmade books and works on paper. The Vitrine cabinet looked more chaotic with a range of fluorescent post-it notes scattered across its surface. There were pads of post-it notes and pens for people to use at the Vitrine cabinet inviting interactivity. Nothing to write in blog about I thought but after a second look on Saturday I changed my mind. The post-it notes had spread across the windows of the cabinets and there was a small crowd looking at the installation, people coming and going reading, photographing it and writing more post-it notes. It was clear from the public’s response that Tango’s attempt to engage with the public and that the public (not just graffiti writers) are keen to communicate, tell their story and to leave their mark in the city.

Censorship in Australia

From the long history of censorship in Australia, it is possible to achieve an accurate understanding of Australian culture as dominated by prudish, thin-skinned, sycophantic, philistines.

Not a single Australian politician has come out to defend Bill Henson, not even those who own art by Henson (they are hoping that they can profit from the increased sales price and the witch hunt). The Federal Arts Minister, Peter Garrett has remained silent on the controversy of arts censorship – censoring himself. (Garrett is not really the Minister for the Arts, rather he is just another one of Rudd’s toadies.) International readers of this blog may not be aware that in Australia there is compulsory voting that censors anyone who does not encourage voters to show a preference for both political parties. (I wonder how Bill Henson will be voting but according to Australian law he will have to support a party that condemns his art.)

A major contributing factor to censorship in Australia is prudish, Christian morality. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd introduced his religious bias quickly into the debate of Bill Henson’s art with his “God forbid” remark. Rudd believes, without evidence, in the idea of the “innocence of children”, introducing Christian dogma to the debate. Christians are not in a good position to throw stones as they frequently expose children to an image of sadomasochistic pornography with a nearly naked man hanging on a cross. [Andy Soutter “The Greatest Porn Star Ever Sold”, Rapid Eye 3 (Creation Books, 1995)]

In 2004, the ACMI was responsible for the censorship an artist’s work that they had commissioned. ACMI then exhibited an altered version of the work against the artist’s consent. The censored work exposed the pornographic sadism in the central Christian icon. And in 1997 there was the vandalism of Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ by a thug with the blessing of then-Archbishop, now Cardinal Pell Pot.

Censorship is also an issue at the 2008 Sydney Writers Festival. Journalism students of University of Technology, produce ‘Festival News” for the Festival. The first edition of the Festival News was censored by the Writers Festival because of references imply that the Minister of the Arts was not popular. The festival claimed that the publication was ‘offensive’ when it was merely critical of the government. This action is similar to the demotion of academic Dr. Paul Mees by the University of Melbourne for criticism of the Victorian Government. This sycophantic aspect of Australian culture is disgusting; it makes it very difficult for critics or intelligent debate and retards civic progress.

The chill effect of the recent censorship of artists self-censoring out of fear will damage the careers of artists in Australia and further retard Australian culture (if there is such a thing). Read about the experience of recently censored Melbourne artist Cecilia Fogelberg in her blog.

More Art Censorship

Another exhibition has been censored in Australia. In the same month that Cecilia Fogelberg and Trevor Flinn’s exhibition at Platform was censored by Melbourne City Council. Again this has been due to a single a complaint about nudity in photographs. But this time the NSW Police has supported the censorship shutting down the exhibition. And this time it is an internationally known photographer, Bill Henson and Roslyn Oxley9 gallery, a major Sydney commercial gallery.

For the news story read: Photographer Bill Henson exhibition under investigation

The last time that NSW Police were stupid enough to venture into art censorship in 1982, was also at Roslyn Oxley Gallery. Then they fueled the career of painter Juan Davila. I don’t know what they hope to achieve this time as Bill Henson’s career is well established, but the price of his photographs is sure to rise with the increased controversy. It will also increase the long held reputation of Australia being a country of prudish philistines.

“The discussion about Stupid as a Painter in the press and in the art scene was predictably ‘Is it art or is it pornography’, only a repetition of the long history of censorship in Australia.” Juan Davila (Hysterical Tears, 1985, p.13)

The discussion about the Bill Henson exhibition will, unfortunately, be same. The claims of morality and protecting people underlying censorship are hypocritical considering Australia’s record of genocide, war crimes and brutalisation of refugees (including children) in Australian concentration camps. It is not surprising that nudity in art is being regularly censored in Australia as it helps maintaining the failed illusion of decency.

The parrots of Australian politics came out to show their hypocrisy, ignorance and philistine attitudes. Leading the charge was the ever-righteous Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on Bill Henson’s photographs –  “I find them absolutely revolting.”  NSW Premier Morris Iemma said he found the exhibition “offensive and disgusting”. NSW Opposition Leader Barry O’Farrell followed the trend condemned the exhibition. If this is Rudd’s real opinion of Henson’s photographs what level of revolting, beyond the absolute, does he have for his US allies torture program or the abuse of children by Catholic priests? Or are those things less revolting to Rudd? He certainly acts that way.

And so the real reason for the police raid is to help these slimy politicians make themselves appear like moral leaders. It is difficult to make an Australian politicians with no regards for human rights appear moral but beating up an artist over nudes is probably the best way to do it.

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