Monthly Archives: January 2010

January Exhibitions

I’ve been busy in January; I’ve also been working on preparing for this year’s Melbourne Stencil Festival – yes, already. I have been to a few exhibitions and I’ve been keeping my eyes open on the streets. I ran into performance and video artist, Michael Meneghetti in the street moving lumber by bicycle; it is good to see an artist using a bicycle and not adding more pollution. He told me about the upcoming exhibition at Michael Koro Gallery where he curates the Melbourne propaganda window.

I walked down Flinders Lane even though most of the galleries weren’t open and I wasn’t impressed by most of what I saw. Mailbox 141 had a selection of drawings by artists from various commercial galleries. I finally saw Guildford Lane Gallery, a two-story gallery made from a converted factory; some of the machines are still there. I particularly enjoyed “Vessel” by Janet Carter because it was black, beautiful and made the vibrations of sound visible. Guildford was showing part of the Midsumma visual arts program that occupies most of the gallery spaces that are open in January – City Library, Platform 69, Smith St. and more.

I saw the Pigment exhibition “new release” of recent arts graduates; I meant to see the exhibition of recent graduates at Blindside but was busy on Thursday and was only in the city on Wednesday. The exhibition had an unsettling quality to it because the more the artist looked comfortable and confident with their media the more boring I found their art. The art on exhibition that I enjoyed was neither comfortable nor confident. Valentina Palonen’s centrepiece sculpture “Separation Anxiety” was the most powerful work in the exhibition but it was so funky ugly, kitsch ugly that I never felt comfortable looking at it. I described some of Palonen’s smaller sculptures in my notes as: “ugly kitsch blobs”. Melissa Grisancich’s pop meets Frida Karlo images were also unsettling and mysterious, as were Kate Winterton’s surreal photographs.

Then there was the truly bad art, not just the disturbingly ugly. Bad exhibitions are often shown in January when those galleries that are open are desperate to exhibit something. I went to Brood Box but quickly walked out again as Bill and Helen Kemp mixed media landscapes are horrible. Mixing painting with fabric art is often a recipe for bad art and this exhibition is not an exception.

In the end I didn’t get to the opening at Michael Koro Gallery on Thursday as I was being interviewed for yet another documentary about Melbourne’s street art until 7:15. Maybe I’ll get to see it in February.


Psychogeography of the Yarra River

“Urbanism is the modern fulfilment of the uninterrupted task which safeguards class power: the preservation of the atomisation of workers who had been dangerously brought together by urban conditions of production.” Guy Debord (The Society of the Spectacle, 1967)

The Yarra River divides Melbourne more than just geographically. It is the polluted, poisonous brown snake that divides the northwest of the city from the southeast. It is a psychological division of the city. The Yarra River is the major psychogeographic feature of Melbourne.

Psychogeography’ is a portmanteau neologism by the Lettrists, a proposal for a study of the relationship between psychology and geography. In reality it was an excuse for the avant-garde of Paris to drunkenly wander the streets and for Stewart Home and other British Neoists to write magico-nonsense (Mind Invaders, ed. Steward Home, Serpent’s Tail, 1997). But if we take Debord seriously then the psychogeography Melbourne appears to divide and restrict the movement of its inhabitants, with a spoked network of railway tracks, tram tracks and roads. Whether this “safeguards class power” as Debord argues or merely the result of stupid and short-sighted governments is a matter for political debate.

For more on the psychogeography of Melbourne see Mapping Melbourne and Simon Seller’s “Urban Wasteland: A Pyschogeographical tour of Melbourne”.

The Yarra River was called Birrarrung meaning “Place of Mists and Shadows” by the Wurundjeri tribe, the local aboriginal people. In 1803 when NSW Surveyor-General Charles Grimes named it “Freshwater River”. In 1835 it was renamed “Yarra Yarra” by John Helder Wedge of the Port Phillip Association, in the mistaken belief that this was the Aboriginal name for the river. The name was subsequently condensed to the Yarra River.

The Yarra is not a wide river and there are many bridges; for a visitor of the city the river may not seem like a major boundary but it is to Melbourne’s inhabitants. People living south of the river rarely go further across than the CBD or MCG. And people living north of the river rarely go south of the river. I could go into generalizations about the affluent southeast and the working class northwest of the city or how the radial spread of the city train-lines, tramlines and roads to explain this division.

The river has become a tourist attraction. In a copy of London’s Southbank, the south bank of the Yarra was made into an arts precinct, later extended with a restaurant and casino area. Princess Bridge has become a prime location to photograph the city at sunrise or sunset. The south bank of the river was the first to be improved, although this had always had parks and boatsheds. A riverside walk and sculptures have been added to the north bank of the Yarra it remains dominated by the railway lines and Flinders St. station until the construction of Federation Square and Birrarung Marr park.

I live in the north and I rarely travel south of the river, except to go to the NGV or other venues in Southbank. I am sorry that I haven’t written more about the galleries and street art south of the river.

(This blog entry is an edited version of two entries published in my old blog, Culture Critic @ Melbourne. My old blog has since been taken down for reasons beyond my control but I thought that this entry was worth republishing.)

Self-referential street art

Nobody seems to mention the old sgraffiti technique of writing in wet cement as a form of street art. This is because mostly it is just names, expressions of love or football mania or the accidental evidence of bicycles, cats, dogs and bird prints. Why isn’t it considered part of street art, like tagging? Maybe someday someone will do something artistic with the media but most of it is just rubbish. It lacks what all art and decoration must have, an appeal or meaning to someone else besides the maker.

At the other end of the spectrum from names written in cement is self-referential street art. Self-referential street art is street art (graffiti, stickers, paste-ups) that is self-conscious about its status, or not, as art. I don’t mean self-conscious in the sense of awkward and shy, but self-conscious as aware of itself and its surroundings. It is self-referential in that it comments on its own conditions, media, and quality. Street art that demonstrates awareness of itself and goes beyond images, brands, tags and logos. Self-referential street art takes street art to a new level, not of quality images, but in the depth of thought. It is where street art meets conceptual art and it involves a lot of words; this is not that strange as street artists always called themselves writers. Yes, this is a heavy philosophical way of looking at what is often the lighter side of street art. It is funny because it is deep rather than superficial.

Self-referential street art is the more political and critical side of street art. Self-consciousness of its nature as art there is street art that attempts to broaden the genre of street art to include; performance art, street art sculpture, light graffiti etc. Once in Stevenson Lane there were some stuck on long trails of paper leaves, a very delicate work to survive as street art (another street artist trying to broaden the medium?)

Some graffiti is so conscious of its position as an underground art world. Graffiti that is aware that it will be photographed and stored in a jpg format file.

This street art appears is so ready for critical essays about culture as it comments on its own position in the art world.

Flinders Street Station Centennial

Today is the centennial of Flinders Street Station. The centennial of Flinders Street Station has been largely ignored amidst the debacle and neglect endemic in Melbourne’s public transport, there is nothing to celebrate. This iconic Melbourne building is a popular and convenient meeting place. The original Melbourne Terminus railways station was completed in 1854 but was soon outgrown but the city. In 1900 construction of the current Flinders Street Station building began and it was completed in 1910.

Jenny Davies is author of the new book, Beyond The Façade, about Flinders Street Station and has curated the current exhibition at Platform. It is very relevant exhibition to the Platform exhibition space, the public and the time. There are artifacts, photographs and didactic panels in a very professional museum display presenting a decade-by-decade view of the railway station.

Major central railway stations are cities within cities and this was the idea of the original design for Flinders Street Station. The station had everything: a gym, a public library, meeting rooms, a ballroom and a children’s nursery. In the 1960s there was even a bowling alley under the station. Nothing has replaced these facilities; they lie empty and abandoned in the building. It is tragic that it has been neglected for so many decades by State governments more interested in building roads and hosting major sporting events.

Along with this didactic historicy exhibition at Platform there is there are two cabinets of art about Flinders Street Station. Artist, John Bates has very flat paintings of the station displayed in the “Vitrine” cabinet. And in the “Sampler” cabinet are stylish images of Flinders Street Station by industrial design student, Tristan Tait,

There are the microenvironments of the city centre that can be changed by the existence of art galleries. For example, the revitalisation of the Degraves St. Subway, also known as Campbell’s Arcade, that goes under Flinders St. to the station from Degraves St. The subway was completed in time for the 1956 Olympics and it has not been refurbished since. It has many of its original features like the long row of telephone booths (no longer functional). Campbell’s Arcade has its own dynamic, given that it is one of the entrances to Melbourne’s main metropolitan railway station. And since the Platform art space the Degraves St. subway became an interesting place to walk through and even sit and eat your lunch on the benches in during Melbourne’s winters.

The revitalization of Campbell’s Arcade started with Platform 2. There already was a Platform artist space in vitrines in a subway at the old Spencer Street Station. And buskers have always found the space at the end of the stairs attractive for its position and acoustics. Platform 2, now simply called Platform after the closure of the Spencer Street location. Platform utilized built in display cases that were originally intended for commercial displays but were no longer used.

I have taken an interest in the underpass after exhibiting at Platform 2 in 1995. A year later when a group of friends and I opened Subterranean Arts, an artist run space. There was, already, a millenaries and a shop selling PVA clothes leading the way on the alternate direction for the arcade. At the time there were still the traditional type of shops: the newsagent, second-hand book window and old-fashioned barbershop. Subterranean Arts closed down after six months when energy, finance and direction ran out; the fate of many an artist-run space. Other shops have opened and closed but the trend has been towards boutique alternative fashion and other interests like vinyl records and skateboards. Sticky, a shop specializing in zines, and other limited edition publication opened a few years later and has been growing stronger ever since. It is incredible to think that in the age of the internet people are still producing handmade publications. And Sticky helps them do it with an extra long stapler, badge machines and typewriters for public use. The second-hand book window has been converted into another exhibition space – Vitrine. And Platform continued to expand into more used display cases.

I have written about the exhibitions at Platform many times in this blog – including when it was flooded when road works above collapsed the roof – Is the Art Alright? When I was there on Thursday afternoon I meet the author, Jenny Davis and enjoyed a jazz busker duo playing.

Aside from Platform and Sticky there isn’t much art in Flinders Street Station, even compared to other major railway stations. The only officially commissioned work is the Mirka Mora mosaic mural was installed in 1986.

Bus Projects – January

There is a lot to see at Bus Projects in January with five artists exhibiting in five different spaces. It is a good first start for the new year; I didn’t dislike any it but I enjoyed some more.

In the main space is “For Illusion Isn’t The Opposite Of Reality” by Dida Sundet, an RMIT fine arts student. It is a fun exhibition with lots to look at and look at again. Her surreal photography is excellent, carefully staged with beautiful chiaroscuro lighting. It is like the Mad Hatter meets Hannibal Lector. The series of photographs was awarded two honorable mentions in the 2009 International Photography Awards. Along with the photographs there are elements that have been used in the photographs: painted animal masks are held out by plaster hands and in the center of the gallery there is an installation of a bloody dinning room.

Leo Greenfield’s “The Coverings Project” is installed in the “Sound Space” although not a sound installation. Greenfield is exhibiting a deceptively simple installation; a circle made of recycled t-shirts, titled “My teenage life”, on the floor and a series of six collaged photographs, “Garments in Motion” on the walls. It is almost an anti-fashion exhibition if his photographs weren’t so stylish – complete with Doc Martens boots. They continue the late-modern tradition of documenting body art through photographs but they have been altered with subtle and stylish collage. For more about Leo Greenfield’s art visit Fashion Hayley’s blog entry about him – The Bride Stripped Bare.

Jodi Cleaver’s video, “Little Machine” in the “Window Seat” space in the stairwell, is basically a good music video (without the industry standard images of the band playing) with music by the Ice Cream Creatures. And, why not? Music videos have done some of the most interesting film making for years. It didn’t have much of a narrative; Cleaver describes it as: “A little girl tries to fly her kite while being tempted and pursued by both a machine and a magician.” The video uses stop motion animation like those of Jan Svankmajer where ordinary objects that become magically animated.

In the “Skinny Space”, Brooke Wolsley’s “Feast” is a series of now rather traditional, that is Dada and Pop influenced, mixed media collages. The wall painting by Jessica Wong, “Parallel Universe”, in the Foyer reminded me of Tom Civil’s use of stick figures to draw worlds of people, but I didn’t take a close look at it as all the other exhibitions had distracted me.

Street Art @ Brunswick

When the weather has been pleasant I have been riding my bicycle around and photographing street art in Brunswick. I saw a guy with a tattoo designed by Phibs on his calf, a permanent commitment to Phibs tribal inspired style. And it is not the first street art inspired tattoo that I have seen.

There are plenty of new pieces in the streets between Brunswick and Anstey stations. At Royal Nuts, the whole factory painted by people from Don’t Ban the Can with a nutty theme. If you want to see how good Melbourne legal street art can be, look around this small area, there are several fresh and outstanding walls. It is a demonstration by the people from Don’t Ban the Can as a protest about Victoria’s draconian anti-graffiti laws. So far they have been able to convince businesses and private citizens but not the local council or state government. Is there something wrong with Australian politics that it is easier to convince private enterprise than the politicians? Of course, private enterprise, like Royal Nuts are being rationally whereas the politicians are not and cannot.

I photographed this stencil work in Brunswick; it is a plagiarism of a work of Noel Counihan, Melbourne artist with connections to Brunswick. Many stencil artists are no more creative than the photocopiers that they use.

Street art sculpture doesn’t always work and this tree, that was hung with junk over the silly season, looks like rubbish after two weeks.

This rectified billboard poster advertising a carbonate beverage now simply advertises “Freedom”. I don’t know why advertisers pay to use this billboard by the Upfield line as it is repeatedly altered.

Where is the political art?

Perhaps I was being unfair to Gordon Hookey in my review, repeating Wm. Burroughs remark about the Dadaists anti-Nazi propaganda: “like charging a regiment of tanks with a defective sanitary device from 1920.” Maybe the propaganda is the act of charging the regiment of tanks with what ever you have or just standing in their way like that man in Beijing, just before the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

I don’t think that there are enough artists making art about the critical issues in Melbourne. Some people, like the curators of the 2009 Istanbul Biennial, believe that the last 20 years of international contemporary art have been to hedonistic and frivolous. When I look at an exhibition or a work of art I ask myself: “how relevant is it?” Often there is no answer to that question or when there is it is as glib as press release.

Sure there are some Melbourne artists, Ash Keating for example, who are really doing something but I haven’t seen many great works of art about critical issues. Critical issues like human rights, the greenhouse effect and war are ignored by most of Melbourne’s art world; Bus Gallery’s “Apropos” exhibition in 2007 being one exception – I’m sure there are others. Melbourne’s art world plays at being relevant by supporting popular, dramatic and superficial charities like the Victorian bushfire appeal or kids with cancer. (There are now more charities for kids with cancer in Australia than kids with cancer.)

In writing about political art and critical issues I have to note that WorkSafe Victoria in 2009 has managed to use art to push an important message. It does take commissions (and other involvement with the arts) in order to produce good art about critical issues. Along with the frightening mainstream adverting campaign Worksafe Victoria has also been using graphic artists and street artists to get their message across. The Big Mouth campaign targeted a younger audience, the audience that is most likely to be injured at work. How effective this is might be is debatable but the images produced have been desirable. The artist is Jonathon Zawada and the image is a skull with a red bandana and a zipper mouth. Who wouldn’t want that? I picked it up for the stickers. I’ve also noticed that there are a lot of searches for ‘big mouth’ on my stats page. The image has become a rhetorical device to inspire people to do find out about the campaign for themselves.

The street is still the best place to see artistic images about critical issues. Political graffiti is still alive and topical. Even a big multicoloured piece of aerosol art has a ‘no war’ comment. The stencil art has anarcho-syndicalists and situationist influences and politics; appropriating and altering (detouring) slogans and cartoons. “Unmindfully the anti-capitalists joined those demanding that we must earn our living.” Reads one stencil, along with Tom, the cartoon cat, lazing around. Elsewhere a stencil of a little TV with arms and legs that shows us lies. This situationist propaganda is still, almost fifty years later, a potent alternative on the street to the current political morass. Street art does have advantages in that it is about timing and placement of the image; it is also as ephemeral as the current issue.

However, neither the WorkSafe big mouth advertising campaign nor the scattered political street art are great works of art and this still leaves me asking where are the great, significant, powerful works of art about critical issues?

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