Monthly Archives: March 2009

Street Art in Singapore

Street art in Singapore, government funded stencil art classes for Singaporean high school and junior college students, a skate park with legal graffiti walls, are we talking about the same SE Asian city state with a reputation for law and order? Street art is an international art movement but would it be true to assume that Singapore does not readily embrace it. I was curious and so I started to exchange emails with Kamal Dollah, a Singaporean artist and art educator who writes a teaches graffiti and blogs about it: Kamal Dollah’s Art Journal. Here is a dialogue that I’ve extracted from our emails that we intend to publish on both our blogs.

Kamal: It sounds crazy but I got my government backing to teach kids graffiti. My friends in USA could not belief that I got away with this. When I wrote this graffiti programme for the schools in 2004, I did not expect it to be approved for funding as its never been done before anywhere. My view is, you can bore these kids with Picasso and Rembrandts or you could get their attention and still teach them about colours, shape, form, calligraphy and some soft skills like respect and responsibility. Writers have ethics too and somehow that sinks into their head better than any civic class.

Mark: I know that Singapore is serious about vandalism and I didn’t see any graffiti last time I was there. So I thought if there is legal work going on then Singapore is proof that the extreme anti-graffiti lobby are wrong when they say that legal aerosol work encourages tagging and other illegal graffiti. Is this true?

Kamal: Well the anti-graffiti lobby may be right. The situation is different here because this is a high maintenance place. Graffiti get removed very fast. I believe you are familiar with the ‘broken-window theory’. There will always be un-established writers, punks and anti-establishments that will do illegal work.

Mark: Where is the legal street art mostly seen by the public in Singapore?

Kamal: Legal walls are provided by a government agency that oversees youth activity. You can spray anywhere in the skate park located in Orchard Road.

Mark: Do you mean that the skate park on Orchard Road is open to anyone to spray, go down and add your stencil when you finish it, or is there an application process? Has it ended up a mess or has a code of conduct emerged?

Kamal: The skate park in Orchard Road and the Youth *scape park is open to anyone to tag or bomb. No permit or application necessary. They also hold exhibitions and concerts for youth. Street artist hang out there mostly and learn from each other.   Visiting writers from abroad has also done their pieces there.
Believe it, these walls are not messed up with vulgarities but beautiful pieces. This happens when artists are serious enough to own their space.

Mark: In Australia and America, there are little shops selling street style clothing, t-shirts, stickers, skateboards, magazines etc. with poster racks of street artist prints, paintings hanging above the cloths racks or a tiny gallery out the back. Does Singapore does have any of this commercial side of street art?

Kamal: There is a concentration of boutique shops specialising in street wear and that area is bombed pretty bad. Its called Haji Lane. It’s a small lane with small shops with reasonable rent. These businesses come and go. I suppose its the same in every city as we are a connected global village. Yes there are young entrepreneurs here that have tried to commercialise the craft. There is always someone pushing idea for a new magazine, crew, label etc.

Mark: Have any art galleries started to regularly show street art? The only two Singapore galleries that I’ve visited are Plastic Kinetic Worms and the Singapore Art Museum.

Kamal: Plastic Kinetic Worms just closed last year I think. They were pushing the envelopes of contemporary art when they existed but it is not right to say they promoted street art, I doubt they even noticed what happened on the street. Graffiti was not on the radar of high art even though occasional block busters like Keith Haring and Basquiat emerged on the streets in the 80s, recently Banksy and most recently Shepard Fairey (Obey). Art institutions rarely could see the diamond from the rocks. There are occasional exceptions like when the Singapore Art Museum invited eleven writers to bomb their wall in 2006 in conjunction with an exhibition on street art but that wall only lasted two weeks as some conservatives wanted it cleaned prior to the IMF and World bank meeting in town. We also have a supportive National Arts Council. They do recognise that youth like street art and fund some of these artists as long as they prove artistic merit. We do have a healthy exposure to the arts here. I hope that clears any assumption that we are oppressed citizens of a police state. Maybe not you, but that’s what most foreigners (even some locals) like to think.

Mark: In Australia the contradictions between the illegality graffiti and its image of cool urban youth are confusing. It would be good not to have to deal with the confusion and contradiction and just be able to enjoy the images.

Kamal: In Singapore there is no contradiction between graffiti and graffiti graphics as like I said, the city is clean and people generally are not victimised by it. The concept of graffiti is not frowned upon here because it is not so much viewed as vandalism as the public don’t suffer from it and graffiti is associated with youthful trend and art. That makes graffiti appear cool and established artist get engaged for gigs at promotions and public events. Most of the event are organised by government agencies to attract youth. Most writers know of the harsh penalty for vandalism under the Singapore law and how efficient law enforcement is, so it is really pointless to ‘get-real’ when there are legal alternatives. My observation, Singapore is different from other SE Asian countries as we are a small city. The graffiti impact here is very well contained.

Kamal Dollahs banner

Banner at the Skatepark near Sommerset MRT in Orchard Road, Singapore          – by the National Youth Council.


Gulag @ Counihan

In September 2004 the Counihan Gallery had an exhibition, “Pracitice in Process” that looked at studios in the Moreland area. The catalogue for the exhibition described Gulag studios, amongst the other spaces that were not included in the exhibition as “a private studio housing 4 artists”. It is evident, from the Counihan’s current exhibition “Gulag”, that Gulag studios has grown since 2004, at least in the number of members.

Phe Rawnsley wrote in the catalogue for Practice in Process (2004): “The social psychology of communal studio life shares much in common with that other workplaces. The dialogue, interaction and sharing of ideas that can take place within smaller studio complexes has its social counterpart in the meeting rooms of smaller business organisations. The preservation of past traditions and technologies by artists manifests itself in the heavy printing tables and piles of oil-soaked rags that can be found in many studios. Examples of artists with similar methodologies banding together to share resources are widespread, particularly where that methodology requires the use of large and expensive equipment.”

There is little sign at the Gulag exhibition of shared tradition or technologies or methodologies amongst the artists. Although many of the artists use digital or print technology, there are also a lot of paintings and works in other materials. From the exhibition Gulag studios appears to be occupied by a truly diverse group of contemporary artists.

Some of the artists at Gulag are working with new technology. There is the John Waller’s elegantly simple, prize-winning digital work “Green (breath)” from 2003, Damian Smith’s stereoscopic photographs and Karen Casey’s brain wave generated media. Between the high tech and traditional techniques is Martin King’s etching and hand drawn animation video.

Many of the artists at Gulag work in painting, drawing and printmaking. The paintings by Gary Willis are particularly powerful; in his “Dig” (2001) a green black figure, presumably the artist as he is holding a paintbrush, looks up in desperation from a book. Full of painterly power and set against a burnt orange landscape and sky, this is a great Australian image.

And there are still other artists working in directions as different as Sam Fisher modelling his perspex shirts and other strange garments to Samaan Fieck, Eric Demetriou and Andrew Turland’s “Vent Assemblage 1” (2009). This impressive multimedia construction of DVD, air pump bubbling in an iron tank partially full of water and the longest audio tape loop that I have ever seen or heard. The audiotape looped around a corner of a cell of iron bars and two reel-to-reel tape machines. “Vent Assemblage 1” feels redolent in references to the US detention and torture centre at Guantanamo Bay.

Curator Dr Sheridan Palmer has done a fine job assembling and organising these diverse art works. Evident in the exhibition is the artistic changes that each artist has made in their studio practice at Gulag studios as each of the artists is exhibiting an earlier and current work. 

Wonderland @ Blindside

Wouldn’t you like a bigger picture? Not just a bigger window rather a picture that is more like the way that you see the world. The Holy Grail of pictorial art is a picture that depicts the way we see. All kinds of technologies have been employed in the history of at to attempt this from advances in optics to the ironwork necessary to support very large canvases. There is a huge catalogue of attempts to create a bigger picture from cinema, cycloramic images, holograms, collages of multiple Polaroids, stereoscopes and many more.

Visual artist, Tim Webster’s exhibition “Wonderlands” at Blindside uses an installation of 40 LCD digital photo frames hanging from the ceiling to create a big picture, complete with soundtrack, of Rio’s famous landmark viewpoint. This impressive installation attempts to mimic eye movements. Each digital photo frame shows a short video, a still shot sometimes gently zooming in and out on an area. The installation is like a collage of multiple views. 

I met Tim Webster at the gallery as he was replacing one of the screens that had developed problems. He told me that this was, in a way, for a maquette for a larger work, with bigger screens, an even bigger picture.

Along with the installation there is a series of colour still photographs on exhibition in the Blindside’s second gallery space, however these were unimpressive compared to the installation. And what is there to “Wonderland” aside from the technology and installation of a bigger picture? The subject matter of Christian tourists at a clichéd viewpoint above the city of Rio is less wonderland and more Disneyland.

More Street Artists on Exhibition

“The Clan MacLeod” sounds unified – a ‘clan’. It is a group exhibition with some notable names from Melbourne’s street art scene like HaHa and Happy, but the reality is disconnected art on walls joined together into a room above a pub on Highlander Lane. I don’t know if this strange disconnected group exhibition is due to uncritical mateship, commercial desperation or a deliberate agenda of extreme artistic diversity but the whole exhibition suffered from it.

Rus Kitchin’s “The Un-Familiar Series” was the small star of the small show; these digital C-prints are like Berlin Dadaist collages, their silvery blue colours making them appear like strange silver nitrate photographs. The series is the story of a European family’s photographs that include the un-familiar, African masked child of modernism. The European family’s identical faces are overlayed with occult patterns like the ritual scarification on the carved African mask, making the familiar un-familiar again.

Andy Murphy plays with patterns from tartans to zebra stripes but including the JEAN Symmonds (in punning denim) distracted from the quality of the rest of his work.

Matlok’s naïve painting style is as ugly, crude, colourful and brutal as the Melbourne streets that he depicts. His paintings are full of little details, word play and shops. He has a consistent artistic vision (that doesn’t appeal to me but that’s not a reason why someone else wouldn’t like it).

Happy is burning his bridges behind him before leaving the country. Happy was exhibiting photographs of burning one of his “Fame” paste-ups (along with the ashes in a jar) and the spray-can vandalism of his framed drawings (along with the results). This is a potlatch, the ceremonial destruction of value in an economy of excess. “We’ve come to wreck everything and ruin your life” is the title of a zine compilation of Happy’s part of the exhibition. It asks the question, in the ephemeral world of street art, are you happy with the creation and the destruction?

The worst was seeing RDKL shoot himself in the foot exhibiting a toilet seat figure, a demonstration of Arnold Rimmer level of taste of the most mundane and repetitive. The rest of his work is a rough and inarticulate psylocibin insipid drawings and computer graphics.

And there was only one HaHa, a black on white stencil “Ned Kelly”.

Cue the bagpipes and march to the exit.

Street Artists on Exhibition

There are currently a few exhibitions around Melbourne with new work from some notable street artists.

Two notable Melbourne street artists are exhibiting at Platform: Tom Sevil (AKA Civil) and Marc de Jong (AKA marcsta). Tom Civil is exhibiting large illustrations of populations at war and peace in paint and marker pen on paper. These new stick-figure illustrations bare no resemblance to his old stencil art images. Except, in the underlying theme of human political, civil relationships and in the clarity of Civil’s communication. I have not seen Civil’s work for a while because I have not been looking in the right places, his illustrations are widely published and he has even been doing stencils on the Channel 10 TV show Guerrilla Gardeners. Marc de Jong is exhibiting a large series of parody public signs in green and white reflective signs and the illuminated “Exist” sign. Although this parody of civic communication and the well-ordered society with word play has been done many times before de Jong makes it fun and fresh with the use of local slang into play with: “She’ll Be Rite”.

At Famous When Dead there is a solo exhibition by Sydney street artist George Hambov (AKA ApeSeven) – House of the Wind Blown Clouds. This body of work has been exhibited twice before in Sydney but this my first sight of it.

Hambov’s paintings play with dynamic superhero robotic forms as art. The paintings have evidence of being handmade: drips, brush strokes, splatters and the surface built up on old Japanese newspaper stuck to canvas. And the images are as much formal explorations of design as illustration. The exhibition is like panels for a vast, never to be written comic book. The story of the robot anti-hero “3 of 5” and the alchemy that occurs it is exposed to ethereal power is the usual mix of the mythological science fiction or the unknown magic of superheroes. There is a wall painting and another little side part of the exhibition are three painted hipflask bottles, the “Katalyst” for the story, a technical achievement with the right paints and hairdryer George Hambov explained to me at the Friday night exhibition opening.

Grab Bag

2009 Melbourne Fashion Festival Cultural Program part 2

By Mark Holsworth with Catherine Voutier

The design and editing of the Fashion Festival Cultural Program was obnoxiously bad without any organization alphabetical, geographical or thematic, just a random list. And it is on two sides of a four-fold sheet with the bright pink printing making it almost impossible to use. The exhibitors who paid to be included in this program did not get value for their money (according to a recent comment it did not cost anything, that explains a lot). Fleur Watson, the Cultural Program Manager, appears to have done nothing more than copy and paste information from the events that paid to be included. That this grab bag of events had a theme, ‘Cause and Effect’, is curatorial balderdash.

The Fashion Festival’s Cultural Program is a random selection of fashion related events. In Bloom, at RMIT’s First Site Gallery was a good fashion exhibition exploring floral themes with work from RMIT students and graduates. Unfortunately it closed before the opening of the Fashion Festival. Why Bus Gallery paid to have Skin and Bones 09 in the program and then ran different exhibitions I don’t know.

Everyone need fashion accessories and there were, of course, a many of Melbourne’s jewellery designers were included in the program. There was Leah Heiss’s hi-tech jewellery at 45 Downstairs. It was nothing special to look at, new materials like heat sensitive wires are interesting but it failed to be made into anything attractive. In the other direction at Glitzern in Crossley Lane there was plenty of jewellery from recycled and found material with a nautical theme. There were bracelets of brass buttons, a hat like a ship, a black sequinned lobsters and fun eye patches with sequins and netting.

The Stiches and Craft Show at the Melbourne Show Grounds was also part of the 2009 Fashion Festival Cultural Program. Taking fashion back to its basics. This featured an exhibition of women’s dresses the 1890s to the 1960s, one from each period. The dresses were not couture but handmade or made by local dress makers. Also bringing fashion back to the grassroots, craft bloggers had their own spot at the show.

Also taking fashion back to its roots Craft Victoria had Chicks On Speed, and it looked like it. It is a fun packed exhibition, a mash-up of workshop, performance space and installation. Visitors had to carefully pick their way between all the stuff. It had rock’n’roll levels of energy – not surprisingly Chicks On Speed are a punk rock band with several CDs of music and they take the little old lady out of embroidery. Poking critical fun at the fashion industry Chicks On Speed have a funky, punk do-it-yourself style. Rock’n’roll has always been an adjunct of modern fashion as Chicks On Speed are effectively demonstrating.

On the other hand Prostitution Institution by Trimapee at No Vacancy Gallery looked impressive with black figures like ninja’s hanging from the ceiling, large extreme contrast paintings of women, decorated Doctor Martens Boots and photographs in light-boxes. However, it didn’t have any depth and wasn’t doing anything new.

“Black is the new red, again.” Read the acetate lettering in the light-boxes in Brad Haylock’s installation, Everything you never wanted to know about fashion  (but were too afraid to ask) at Vitrine in the Degraves Street Underpass. This should have been included in the Cultural Program but obviously they didn’t pay to play (or didn’t get his application in on time, see comment below).

Couture Exhibitions

2009 Melbourne Fashion Festival Cultural Program part 1

By Mark Holsworth and Catherine Voutier

The blockbuster exhibition of the Melbourne Fashion Festival was out of Melbourne at the Bendigo Art Gallery. There has been an average of 2 thousand visitors daily and a long wait in the queue to gain entry. The gallery’s staff and facilities couldn’t cope with the avalanche of people and Bendigo is experiencing a boom in tourists.

This was all for The Golden Age of Couture – Paris & London 1947-57 that featured dresses from Christian Dior and Cristobal Balenciaga. Other items included tiny travelling mannequins about 40cm tall that the French couturiers would bring over to England to display to clients. There were some fascinating British & French films from the period including one showing a model being dressed in the extensive underdress that the New Look form required (corseting, girdles, padded bras, extra padding attached to hips and shoulders). The films also revealed more men attending shows than would be the case today – the men at this time were the ones buying the clothes for their wives. There were also photographs by Cecil Beaton, Richard Avedon and Erwin Bloomfield. Bloomfield’s free Dadaist experiments in photography were not always successful but always adventurous and ambitious. Previously, fashion photographs were taken in studios. With the New Look, models were photographed in the real world showing the clothes as they would be worn in everyday situations.

The National Gallery of Victoria’s exhibition Remaking Fashion deconstructs the process of making fashion. And even in a modest way the way of exhibiting fashion had been deconstructed with the raw wood back frame. A series of Christian Dior toile versions of dress designs showed the structural basics and introduced the rest of the exhibition. This included Westwood’s experiments with traditions updating them to contemporary life, dresses and a slashed jacket by Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, and an impressive women’s dress remade from men’s garments by local fashion label SiX.

Fashion boutique Marais, located on the 1st floor of Royal Arcade, had a small exhibition of the work of designer Annie Valerie Hash. There were lots of beading and others quirky details. Some of Annie Valerie Hash’s dresses showed the distinct influence of Coco Channel. And on the 2nd floor of Royal Arcade, Don’t Come has cool street clothes and a one room gallery with Drella New York, photographs by Maripolarama. These are mosaics of enlarged snapshot-style photographs of the cool glamorous of NYC. Look there is Andy Warhol eating with Keith Haring, And there’s Madonna, Grace Jones, and hey, there’s Jeff Koons! But this isn’t couture anymore this is street d.i.y. fashion; the subject of our next entry on the 2009 Melbourne Fashion Festival Cultural Program.

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