Monthly Archives: November 2010

Talking Points on the Street

In several of Melbourne’s lanes and alleys there a lot of people were talking about the graffiti. There was usual school group with art teacher in Hosier Lane, a young woman taking photos, and a middle aged man who had seen the ABC documentary on graffiti in Melbourne and had learnt to appreciate what he had previously regarded as rubbish. It is an unlikely scenario; strangers talking to each other about art in a city alley full of rubbish bins but in Melbourne it is common. Even if you can’t read the writing on the wall street art inspires communication, it is a social lubricant, providing a contact point for strangers in the big city.

Isn’t that the whole point of art? – To provide a reason or focus for communication. There is a lot of unofficial communications on the street. The streets will always provide a forum for politics that can’t be censored. Many political groups will use a sticker campaign to get their message on the streets. It is an obvious choice if you fear censorship or reprisals or just hassles.

"Corrupt Cops Killed Carl" sticker in Brunswick

Currently on the streets of Brunswick there is a sticker campaign against the Victorian police. A sticker: “Corrupt Cops Killed Carl” commenting on the death in jail of Melbourne gangster, Carl Williams. There are more stickers on the theme of corruption in the Victorian police scattered around the streets of Brunswick. Another much stranger and bigger political paste-ups on the streets of Brunswick (and Fitzroy and Coburg – how big is this poster campaign?) is advocating considering the alternatives.

"Seek an alternative" poster in Brunswick

Finally in this discussion of the graffiti discourse I must mention the Dunny Art blog. Following in the footsteps of photography Rennie Ellis’s books on Australian graffiti: Australian Graffiti (1971), Australian Graffiti Revisited (1979) and focusing on traditional, pre-aerosol graffiti Dunny Art, photographs graffiti on toilet wall around the world. The comment and reply nature of these ad hoc discussion walls is another forum that can’t be censored.


November 2010 Exhibitions

Tim Sterling’s solo exhibition, “Metamaterials” at Michael Koro Galleries is a post-minimalist exercise in sculpture and drawing. Post-minimalism is like minimalism but with a lot more. Sterling’s sculptures use a lot and lots of paper clips held together with cable ties most impressively a small I-beam (17x73x80cm) supported between two perspex pillars. His drawings are made up of a many, many small marks with a pen, his drawing “Wall” is made up of repeated marker pen marks that form bricks in a wall.

At Mailbox 141 Tasmanian sculptor Ange Leech has a small solo exhibiting “Hand of the Composure”. Leech has carved small wooden puppets and masks along with collages that are pinned together. These collages are subject to alteration like the articulate joints of the puppets.

This time of year there are many exhibitions by graduates of art, design, photography and jewellery courses.

RMIT Diploma of Photoimaging Graduates are exhibiting at First Site (“photoimaging” is a portmanteau word includes both photography and digital imaging technology). The reality that photography once implied has been replaced with fantasy and glamour. There is a lot of fantasy in this exhibition to the extent of visionary art, fashion and glamour model photography.

Box Hill Institute jewellery graduates their work at Guildford Lane Gallery. It is not just rings and necklaces there are wall pieces, cups, spoons, an hourglass of luminous sand and a wizard’s staff with a crystal ball. Some of the jewellery is inspired by Alice in Wonderland themes from a course assignment.

Guildford Lane Gallery is strange place to visit during on a weekday; they obviously don’t get a lot of visitors. It is an old factory/warehouse with a music space/bar on the ground floor. Whenever I go in someone asks if I’m here for some exhibition, I say yes and they tell me that it on the 2nd floor. They then follow me up the stairs to turn on the lights.


Bicycles in Art

A century ago the bicycle was the symbol of modern freedom and independence and it was also represented in the visual arts. Catalan artist Ramon Casas in 1897 painted a portrait of himself and fellow artist Pere Romeu on a tandem bicycle. In 1913 Umberto Boccioni painted ‘Dynamism of a Cyclist’ and Marcel Duchamp created his first readymade with a bicycle wheel mounted upside down on a stool.

A hundred years later, for environmental and economic reasons, there is resurgence in the popularity of the bicycle. For over a year I have been looking for contemporary art about bicycles but I haven’t seen much until today (I did hear about the Bicycle Film Festival in Melbourne in 2007). Today I wandered into 1000 Pound Bend to see the visual arts program of Melbourne Bike Fest.

Circular Cycle at Melbourne Bike Fest

Part of Melbourne Bike Fest’s visual arts program was a small exhibition of prints, drawings and paintings on one wall. Amongst the works was a woodblock print by Tom Civil of figures riding bicycles, a smaller version of the stencil backdrop to the stage. I noticed that there were works by other street artists, like SnotRag who did three portraits of bicycle related injuries. In another corner there was a confessional style booth for telling and listening to “Bike Story”. But I was most interested in the Circular Bike and Matt Benn’s “Improbable Bikes” as these were such fun as sculptures. These bicycles as sculptures suggest way of life – imagine riding one of them.

Matt Benn Improbable Bike

Matt Benn Improbable Cycle

I ride a bicycle so I am biased in my interest in bicycles in art. For more on bicycle art see Bikejuju section on bike art.

Unliveable Melbourne

This is not a review of Metro Gallery’s exhibition of Mrs Bennett’s (Nyurapayia Nampitjinpa) paintings because I couldn’t get to see it due to Melbourne’s public transport. From one of the world’s most liveable cities (but that was only if you were a senior executive) Melbourne is fast becoming unliveable due to a serious neglect in infrastructure. Melbourne has a lack of drinking water, public transport and other basic items needed for a metropolis of approximately 4 million people. Infrastructure problems have also led to power brownouts and blackouts especially in hot weather. Many of Melbourne’s suburbs like Coburg, are built without adequate public toilets, purpose built libraries and other amenities.

There has been decades of neglect and I mean decades. I frequently review exhibitions at Platform in the Degraves St. subway at Flinders Street; the subway was completed in time for the Melbourne Olympics and hasn’t been renovated since.

The 19th Century colonial vision of Melbourne was for a European city with wide boulevards of trees with trams running up the middle and suburbs connected by a network of trains. However, post-war Melbourne grew to a vast size as a huge suburban sprawl encircled the city. Flying over Melbourne you realize how flat the architecture is; there are very few buildings over two stories high and the suburbs spread out to the horizon.

The lack of a functional public transport system (actually it is not a “system” and the operators use the term “network” to describe the mess), bicycle paths, pedestrian areas and a sprawling car-based post-war metropolitan geography has created other problems for Melbourne. The cars, along with a primary reliance on coal fired power stations to provide electricity, contribute to the greenhouse effect and more extreme weather, as if Melbourne didn’t have enough variety of weather conditions.

This is might appear beyond the scope of this blog’s culture focus (‘get back to writing about art exhibitions’). But the culture of Melbourne includes its infrastructure and the political culture that has allowed the decades of neglect. It is the reason why you aren’t reading a review of an exhibition. If you would have preferred to read an art review instead of this entry then this is yet another reason for you to stop voting for the ALP and Liberal Party that have and will continue to neglect the city’s infrastructure and ruin its environment.


Stencils – propaganda in WWII

This is written for all the stencil artists out there on the streets, especially the ones doing political stencils. Or anyone wondering when did stencil graffiti start? This is also for all the politicians who think that they can stop graffiti; yes, I’m talking to you Steve Beardon. (But I suspect that it will probably be mostly read by WWII buffs.)

Italian fascists, Americans and local resistance forces, used stencil graffiti for propaganda in Europe during WWII. The  French street artist, Blek le Rat became aware of stencil street art after he saw a stencil of Mussolini amongst some WWII ruins during a trip to Italy. “The fascists in Italy used a lot of stenciling during WWII. They would do Mussolini’s portrait. I had seen this when I was young, and I remembered that when I was considering how to interface with the street.” (Blek le Rat in Swindle Magazine)

The use of stencils as propaganda tools is described in declassified OSS files (the OSS being the forerunner to the CIA) from WWII:

“These (stencils) have been especially designed for clandestine work and are small enough to be concealed in shirt or coat pockets…A special paint brush combination is designed for use with the stencils also small enough to be carried in the pocket. No special paint container is necessary…Any paint can be used, old or fresh…it is necessary to carry a rag with which to wipe the back of the stencil…Little risk is involved in the use of stencils, and a sign can be painted in 7 seconds, with implements concealed immediately. This method of spreading propaganda has a special appeal to the young who can have little other part in the action against the enemy.” (Quoted in Psywarrior)

The final two sentences of this description makes it clear the futility of anti-graffiti campaigns; even in Nazi occupied Europe there is “little risk” and “this method of spreading propaganda has a special appeal to the young”. So unless an anti-graffiti campaign is more draconian than the Nazi occupation of Europe there is no hope of its success.

The OSS stencil “Parole Heimat” (Password Homeland) was approved on 7 July 1944 and 300 stencils were delivered on 9 August 1944. What happened to them then is not known but there is photographic evidence of the Polish resistance use of stencils.

WWII graffiti - Grunvald on a wall, from Wikimedia Commons

It is interesting to note, in this propaganda war, that the ethics of graffiti is the same for military and anarchic psychological operations. Melbourne street artist, Junky Projects says: “Never hit churches, houses or small business” and the Canadian PYOPS manual: “PSYOP personnel should discourage graffiti on historic, religious, or private structures.” (Canadian 2004 Joint Doctrine Manual B-GJ-005-313/FP-001 Psychological Operations)

It is important to note that, as is the case now, most graffiti in WWII was not propaganda but personal – basically tagging. Examples of WWII tagging can be seen in the photos of American WWII graffiti by Paul and a gallery of photos of Soviet WWII graffiti at Trend Hunter.

Gloves, Locks and Vali Myers

I walked around the city enjoying the spring sunshine after the rain and looking at a few small exhibitions. It looks nothing like Xmas even though they are putting up Xmas trees and other decorations around Melbourne. There is a large red Santa Mail Box in the City Square. Now that the drought is over some of Melbourne’s fountains are flowing again; the John Mockridge Fountain in the City Square is one of them. Melbourne once had fountains in its gardens and scattered around the city but during the drought they were shut off and only the NGV’s famous water wall remained flowing.

On the ground floor “artspace” at Victoria University Peter Burke is exhibiting graphite, enamel and charcoal drawings of 18 of the 55 gloves that he has found on his way to work and back. Each drawing is documented in a stamped format with the date, time and location of the glove: “Green + blue gardening glove, Saturday 10/7/10 11:35am Swanston St. Melbourne.” There are wool, leather and rubber gloves, generally singular although there is one pair. The detailed drawings of the lost gloves have an anthropomorphic quality and a concern with the wabi-sabi elements of wear. “Lost Property: Gloves” combines the conceptual, art/life/game elements of Peter Burke’s art with the fine traditional drawings.

“Unlocked – Abus photography award” at No Vacancy is an exhibition by second year RMIT photography students for a prize from Abus, a German padlock company. So most of the photographs looked liked glossy advertising photographs for their product but a few rose above this, like Hannah Schlesinger’s “Secure the Sacred”. Giles Crook won the $2000 prize and Don Dang won the people’s choice.

There is a small exhibition of visionary art by the late, eccentric bohemian, Vali Myers on exhibition at Outré Gallery. Myers’ obsessive technique of lines and dots are some kind of substitute for quality and artistic development. Along with her art there is a vitrine of her journals, jewellery and other mementos of her life, including the last pen nib that she used. I remember visiting Vali Myers studio in the Nicholas Building in the late 90s. Her single large room on the 7th floor was a combination between a sitting room, studio and sales room. The original art is NFS (Not For Sale) but the prints are. Most of the prints are giclee prints produced by the Vali Myers Art Gallery Trust after her death.

Batman & Fawkner

Standing in the forecourt of 447 Collins Street in Melbourne are two bronze sculptures honouring the founders of the English settlement of Melbourne, Batman and Fawkner. Although they are a matching pair of sculptures, were made by two different sculptors: Stanley Hammond and Michael Mezaros.

Stanley Hammond, John Batman, bronze 1978

Melbourne sculptor, Michael Mezaros created the bronze sculpture of John Pascoe Fawkner in 1978. Menzaros has made several other figurative public sculptures: a war memorial in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, “Spirit of the Skier” (1994) and a life-size equestrian sculpture “Mountain Cattleman” (1996) at Mt. Buller, Victoria. There was another sculpture by Mezaros at the Telstra building, on the corner of Lonsdale and Exhibition streets, but it has been removed with the remolding of the foyer.

In 1990 Michael Mezaros had completely changed his style with the creation of Rainbow, in the foyer of 565 Bourke Street, Melbourne. This 7m formalist abstract work fits perfectly into the modern foyer of the office building even though it is now surrounded by tables and chairs from a café.  Brass squares of sunlight and drops of stainless steel rain.

Michael Mezaros, John Pascoe Fawkner, bronze, 1978

Stanley Hammond, MBE (1913-2000) created the sculpture of John Batman, also in 1978. The sculpture refers to Batman’s diary note about the site of central Melbourne: “This will be the place for a village”. During his long life Stanley Hammond worked on the stone sculptures of the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne and other war memorials in Geelong, Broken Hill and Mont St. Quentin, France. See Heritage Victoria’s “Deep Lead Pioneers Memorial, Western Highway” for more biographical details about Stanley Hammond.

Who now cares about Batman and Fawkner? Their entrepreneurial spirit must have a few supporters in Melbourne’s business district, where their statues are located, however there is little else to recommend their characters. The statue of Batman tried for war crimes by aboriginal activists. The uninspiring bronze statues would have looked old fashioned even when they were new. The time lag evident in these two history sculptures from 1978 demonstrates that the collective conscious in Melbourne was, in the late 70s, introspective, isolationist and conservative.

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