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Monthly Archives: December 2010

Design City Melbourne

After being driven down Melbourne’s freeways, looking at the varied textures of the sound barriers and the variety of pedestrian bridges, they are an impressive design statement. I don’t drive so I don’t see this aspect of Melbourne’s design in my daily life – unlike the freeways Melbourne’s public transport is not a designed environment. Thinking about Melbourne’s architecture and design lead me to borrow Leon Van Schaik Design City Melbourne (Wiley-Academy, 2006, England) from Coburg Library.

The author, Leon Van Schaik AO (Order of Australia) is the Innovation Professor of Architecture at RMIT. He was involved with Melbourne’s architectural revival, especially at the RMIT campus. He knows his subject is a strong advocate for design and architectural innovation. However, this insider status both helps and hinders the book.

At first I was not sure what Van Schaik means by “design city”. Not a designed city, like Canberra, but rather a city that encourages design – a centre for design. Van Schaik describes the complex and dynamic system of architecture and design in Melbourne. He investigates the modes of cultural production (art, jewellery, fashion, furniture design, graphic design) in relationship their to architecture. There are lots of interesting ideas and facts in the book. He even attempts to resolve the disconnection between Melbourne’s design culture and sports culture with stories of footballers turned designers (Sean Godsell and Greg Burgess) and in other passing references.

Unfortunately the text is almost unreadable, it rambles and the ideas are buried and obscured by poor editing. It appears that Van Schaik is too close to his subject to effectively organize the material in this book. I don’t know how much any of the 3 editors for the book is responsible for allowing this messy content to be published. The “Content Editor”, Louise Porter has certainly not done her job. “Much of the buildings are buried below grade.” (p.53) (Should that be “ground”?) If the content of this book were a blog then it would be on my blogroll but I expect something better, more considered and edited from a print publication.

Another contributing problem to the quality authorship, along with a problem with the editors, is a lack of decent unbiased criticism. (The demands of academic tenure tracking may have also required a hasty publication.) The insider nature of the book means that when it was reviewed in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper (April 4, 2006) it was by Norman Day, adjunct professor of architecture at RMIT – a colleague of the author who gave the book a glowing review. The whole book reeks of this kind of nepotism and it reduces Van Schaik’s vision of a complex system contributing to a design culture to a club.

Photography by John Gollings is a major feature of this publication and without it the book would be significantly less intelligible.

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Writing about Political Art

Following my January blog entry asking, “Where is the Political Art?” I have been thinking more about this issue. I am interested in writing more blog entries about political art. People have told me quietly that my search for political art is misguided because good political art is so rare.

I have tried various ways of writing about political art. Writing about Melbourne’s public sculpture as a demonstration of the collective consciousness has provided a longer view of Melbourne’s culture and politics. Examining the history of these sculptures and their commissions tells more about politics than political issue based art – I will return to explain why. Writing about street art provides a different focus on political issues, as well as, an arena where political activism mixes with art. I have written an article about political graffiti and I reported on a forum about politics and street art at Sweet Streets. I have been disappointed by most of the other political art that I’ve seen this year. 2010 was a year of mild art controversies, compared to the heat of previous years; there was the storm in teacup with Sam Leach’s Wynn Prize controversy and even Van Rudd’s run for federal parliament was mild.

Subscribing to A Cultural Policy Blog provided me with a bigger picture of the mainstream politics of arts policy. I have also been exchanging emails with Sydney based artist, Stephen Copland about political art. “The word Political is often misunderstood as is the Romanticism but that is a long story.” Stephen Copland wrote to me. The extent of this long dark shadow of Romanticism is described in Philip Pilkington’s excellent blog entry about Gabriele D’Annunzio. (Reading about D’Annunzio’s exploits will disturb the ossification of your political thinking if you are right wing, left wing or anarchist.)

Copland suggested that I consider Arthur Danto’s essay 1984 “The End of Art” (I was already familiar with the essay from my thesis research). “The End of Art” Arthur C. Danto The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (Columbia University Press, 1986) and I had just finished reading this essay when I visited “Contemporary Encounters” at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia.

“Contemporary Encounters” is art from the NGV’s collection acquired through the Victorian Foundation for Living Artists. As I was looking at the exhibition I kept on thinking about Arthur Danto’s point that art history only makes sense going in one direction and wondering if this collection would make sense if it was from 26 years ago (in 1984 when Danto wrote “The End of Art”). Certainly the technology, the flat screen video monitors and the tiny video cameras, used in Ian Burn’s assemblage would have been larger and more expensive in 1984 but it would not disturb art history as video art as Nam June Paik had already combined assemblages.

In “The End of Art” Danto examines versions of the history of art and in his own Hegelian account of art history has art becoming pure spirit – philosophy – and therefore the end of art. A history of art implies a future for art (or a post historical stasis as the end of art is not a secession). For art to have a future implies a political theory for the direction of art.

Perhaps I need to refine the vague and fuzzy question that I posed to myself – something about political art. What is the grand narrative of art history? Basically, what kind of the story could be told about all of art and how would contemporary art and street art fit into that story? So my conclusion to how to write more about political art is to think and write more about art history.


Happy 20th Birthday Platform

In 1990 Andrew Seward and Richard Holt established The Platform Artists Group Inc. 20 years on and it has become Melbourne’s longest running artists-run initiative and public art project in the CBD. It is open to the public every weekday and Saturday mornings all year. It is a non-profit public art organization supported by the City of Melbourne, Arts Victoria and the Australia Council.

Megan Clunes writes about the Platform’s 20 years in Broadsheet Melbourne. The photograph accompanying the article shows the original Platform in the curved underpass at the then Spencer Street Station (now Southern Cross Station). The vitrines in the Spencer Street underpass were curved streamlined modern cabinets that became redundant after failing to predict the future of advertising. I remember seeing some early exhibitions in the Platform cabinets and being under-whelmed by the experience.

The cabinets at Flinders Street Station originally were known as Platform 2 and were opened 5 years after the original Spencer Street space. It was known as Platform 2 when I exhibited there in 1995 with members of Dada tribe #373.

“Celebrating 20 years of Platform” is an anniversary exhibition at Platform. There are lots of familiar names in this exhibition; not just from Platform but from the whole artists run spaces of Melbourne. (Try entering their surnames in this blog’s search box – don’t bother with their first names, it is a simple search system and will return every entry with that word.) I reviewed Brad Haylock’s neon “them/us” when it was originally exhibited at Platform; this is also a review of an exhibition by Simon Pericich, who is also in the anniversary exhibition.

This time when I looked at Platform’s cabinets I was most impressed with the Christopher Scuito’s exhibition in the “Sample” cabinet (next to the coffee shop booth and the exit to Flinders Street). “Sample” presents the work of art school students. Scuito’s has collaged beefcake cigarette lighters onto reproductions of classic sword and sorcery fantasy images emphasizing the S&M and homoerotic quality of these illustrations. Patrice Sharkey has beautifully curated Scuito’s exhibition; the details are tremendous from the black backboard supported by stacks of comic books to the whip on top of the black-framed images.

There is a publication, What Art, Which Public: Platform Artists Group 1990-2010 edited by Angela Brophy. I haven’t been able to get hold of a copy of it (I did ask at Sticky Institute but they didn’t know anything). Platform has rarely made history; its internal chronology has not been tumultuous either. In 2008 the roof of the Campbell’s Arcade collapsed when road works on Flinders Street broke through but this only damaged the shops and not the exhibition spaces. Later that year Cecilia Fogelberg and Trevor Flinn’s exhibition at Platform, ‘The Puma, The Stranger and The Mountain’ was censored for nudity. But it was overshadowed, a week later, by the subsequent attack on Bill Henson.

Looking back over my blog entries I have reviewed so many of the exhibitions at Platform, not because of the quality of the exhibitions but because it is so accessible. I can easily see the exhibition a couple of times before writing about it.

Enjoyed or ignored by the public who pass through the pedestrian underpass each day on their way to or from Flinders Street Station. Platform’s exhibitions space presents a variety of works by mostly student and other new artists. 20 years is a remarkable achievement for any artists-run initiative, it is an institution for a whole generation of Melbourne artists. Platform will probably continue providing exhibition space to new artists until the subway is renovated which is unlikely to happen in the next 20 years.


New Ways of Selling Art

There is always some entrepreneur trying some new idea to sell art. This year there is “Innovative Art” adverting on heavy rotation on late night TV. A company selling you art in your own home with 70% off works on canvas – no gallery space needed. The “art” in the advertisement looks like something from a mass production painting factory.

The current gallery system was established a century ago. It is time for more changes and radical experiments with new ways of selling art. Slight variations on the gallery model like a framing service or a bar/coffee shop, have helped some art galleries but have not addressed the real problems of providing access for artists, encouraging quality art and helping artists achieve the best financial return for their work.

The previous experiments of rental art spaces and artists-run spaces have not solved these problems. Many of these spaces have no effective control of the art that they exhibit and their reputation is only as good as the last exhibition, a situation that I experienced as part of the management committee at 69 Smith St. The rental art spaces and artist-run spaces put the financial risk on the artist. The artists have to pay two or three weeks rent for these spaces, as well as, publicity and wine for the opening making it a financially precarious proposition to exhibit.

Online art galleries have been around for over a decade now providing access for artists. Internet galleries of images have been instrumental in street art and the current wave of illustration. But online galleries have made little real impact on art sales.

After a few years of running Artholes as a rental space gallery in Fitzroy Tony Knolls had a radical vision. It was a radical vision best summed up as do the opposite of what every other gallery is doing. He has good reasons to try something different as the current gallery system is failing artists economically and in providing exhibition opportunities. Tony Knolls radical experiment was a one-week group exhibitions with the work sold by silent auction, letting the market establish the price rather than the artist guessing. Opening nights were out; closing nights were to be the event.

Exhibition at "The Yard"

Another experimental gallery space, “The Yard” at 696 was an outdoor gallery that only operates during the summer months. Shows at “The Yard” were only open for one night as most art in galleries sells at the opening.

Neither Artholes nor 696 are still operating in this way – the experiments did not last long. However, it is important that these radical experiments in art galleries are tried because the current system needs improvement.


Street Art in Melbourne 2010

At the end of the decade street art has become mainstream with “Space Invaders”, a major exhibition at the Australian National Gallery Canberra; the exhibition was even featured on ABC Kids TV. This doesn’t mean that street art is over, except for people who were only into it for a snobbish feeling of underground exclusivity; street art will continue, more walls will become available (outside and inside art galleries) and more people will participate. The street will still operate as a temporary autonomous zone for artists who want to show an image to the public.

Kangaroo/Koala augmented soft toy in lane.

Melbourne street art is now moving in some strange directions: street sculpture, yarn bombing and guerrilla gardening are now all in evidence on the streets. This may, in part, be due to a few more women engaging in the once male dominated street art scene. It may also be that people are more aware of street art as an option for exhibiting their own creative ideas.

Hanging garden in lane.

In 2010 the Melbourne Stencil Festival transformed itself into a real street and urban art festival – Sweet Streets. For 6 years the festival was little more than an exhibition with a few other events – this year there were several exhibitions and more events than I can remember. Following this success I decided that it would be my last year on the committee; after being involved with the festival for three years it is time for me to do something different.

Part of the Amnesty Int. wall painted during Sweet Streets

It was a bad year for Banksy stencil rats in Melbourne – Melbourne City Council buffed the one in Hosier Lane and another one was stolen from the South Melbourne home of artist and underwear designer Mitch Dowd. A few of Banksy’s rats do survive in Melbourne, there are a few along Brunswick St. Fitzroy. Brunswick St was a Banksy rat run spray mission. The paint around these stencils is old and faded – the shops have been careful not to paint over these rats. The steady attrition of Banksy’s work in Melbourne is not surprising as he sprayed the stencils in 2003.

A surviving now threatened Banksy rat in Fitzroy


Gathering Intelligence @ Brunswick Arts

“Gathering Intelligence” is a group show at Brunswick Arts “aimed at showcasing the recent works of a selection of emerging artists from around the Brunswick area.” (curator’s website statement) On a warm Friday summer evening I bicycle down to Lt. Breeze St. to attend the exhibition opening and gather intelligence on local artists.

I buy a beer at the gallery bar – the gallery is partially funded by bar sales at openings. There is the usual exhibition crowd of young women, friends of the artists and artist’s parents. I start to make notes on the A4 photocopied “catalogue and pricing” list. The prices are all very reasonable; under $200 for most works that are for sale (a few are NFS – not for sale).

The exhibition is the usual contemporary art mix of video, manipulated photos, painting, and sculpture with some quirky drawings by Serena Susnjar. Susnjar draws deliberately kitsch celebrity portraits with naff titles like: “Arnie is so confident in speeches”. Illustrations like these are a change from all the formal and otherwise empty art, so they are now a regular feature of group exhibitions. I wonder why there is so much use of solarization in the photographs of both Julie Forster and Kalinda Vary (actually Kalinda Vary’s aren’t photographs but drawings – see the comments). I’m not impressed with Polly Stanton and Adele Smith’s videos even though they both reminds me slightly of the work of David Lynch. I think that Rylie J. Thomas painting’s should be larger because they look too timid. Then there is punk work of Chris Smith, a series of photocopied band posters and two framed assemblages of readymades – “Sick Blowfly with Ointment and Gauze” and “Slowly Undressing Razor with Comb”.

After surveying the exhibition I decide to talk to Chris Smith. I find him standing outside with the rest of the smokers. Chris Smith used to play guitar in various little punk bands. Although I didn’t know of any of the bands I had played at some of the same venues – the Punters Club and the Tote. We talk about his art, catharsis, photocopying band posters and the differences between analogue and digital photocopiers. Chris misses the old analogue photocopiers and the cheap analogue tricks you could do with them.

The sound installation was being set up as I was leaving. Brunswick Arts has long had an interest in sound, both art installations and the occasional performance by bands. Breeze St. has all these new apartment blocks – I wonder how many of the new inhabitants will discover this little artist-run gallery in their shadow.


Donate

There is now a donate button on my sidebar. I am asking for donations to my Paypal account. Your donation will help pay the ongoing expense of running this blog. Looking at the costs of transportation, broadband, books and magazines the expense of writing this blog is beginning to add up. If you have enjoyed reading this blog, especially those people who have subscribed, consider donating.

I have decided to try the donate approach to funding the production of original online content. I have tried finding sponsorship for this blog however it would be inappropriate for an art critic to be sponsored by a gallery. What would be appropriate is sponsorship from a business that makes money from art galleries and artists.

Mark Holsworth @ Sweet Streets festival

There are few benefits for being an art critic unlike movie and theatre critics who get free tickets. Sure there have been a few free drinks at openings but the gallery would give them to anyone and I am not a big drinker so all these free drinks aren’t doing that much for me. One of the very few freebees that I have received in writing this blog was a copy of Illegal Fame Winter 08 because I wrote a short review of an old issue of their magazine in this blog. (Big shout out to the guys at Illegal Fame.) This year I have been treated me like the rest of the media, so I have been to a few media previews and received media packs (along with tea and nibbles).

Another option for bloggers to make money is side projects; spin offs from the expertise that has been acquired from writing the blog. Maybe I still want that 2005 blogger’s dream – a book deal. Instead I have been doing a bit of work for people making documentaries about street art.

To subscribe to this blog click the “sign me up!” button near the top of the right hand column on the home page. Subscribers receive notifications of posts by email. I would never sell or pass on my subscriber email lists to anyone else but I am examining what I can do with it. Would subscribers tolerate a monthly email from me with targeted advertising, e.g. for an arts festival or exhibition? I have been considering other offers for subscribers e.g. talks, gallery and street art tours. What do you want as a subscriber? Please leave a comment.


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