Monthly Archives: September 2011

Paradigm Shift in Public Art

Walking around the city on Thursday I saw parts of the current Laneway Commission and parts of a previous Laneway Commission. And it reminded me of the words of Ruper Myer, the Chair of the National Gallery of Australia, at the opening of the “Space Invaders” exhibition art RMIT, when he said street art was creating “a paradigm shift in public art”.

Heffernan Lane with Evangelos Sakaris,“Word and Way”, 2001

detail of Evangelos Sakaris, “Word and Way”, 2001

The series of signs by artist-poet, Evangelos Sakaris,“Word and Way” is still up in Heffernan Lane from the first Laneway Commission in 2001. I’ve seen some street art blog that mistaken thought that the signs were part of a street art urban intervention, yes, it is street art but it was officially commissioned.

Reko Rennie’s “Neon Natives” 2011

Reko Rennie’s “Neon Natives” installation in Cocker Alley, a favourite location for Laneway Commissions. “Neon Natives” looks like advertising. The neon tubes and yellow and black zigzag background pattern are all familiar urban images. The background pattern made me want to look to see where the entrance to the multi-story carpark might be and then where all the animals might be.

public art project by Nails, Twoone and Al Stark

I also saw the Graffiti Wall, a public art project part of the “Space Invaders” exhibition at RMIT. The wall is by Nails, Twoone and Al Stark – I’m not sure if it is completed or partially complete (the weather has been very wet). It is opposite RMIT Gallery, in a laneway off Little LaTrobe Street.

The Laneways Commissions in the city and the more recent MoreArts Show along the Upfield train line are evidence of the paradigm shift in public art. This paradigm shift requires a shift in understanding what is public along with what is art. Hopefully this will be an improvement on the bronze statues of historic heroes or the modernist public sculptures of big pieces of metal or stone. The new paradigm for public art may have some problems in its transient and ephemeral nature. What will the city be left with when the temporary art has faded from memories? (I’m sure that it will be well documented – unlike some sculptures and some urban interventions in the past). Permanent public art can create an identity for a location whereas temporary public art can only subvert the identity of the place, like the fake road signs of Evangelos Sakaris’s “Word and Way” – although this work has survived a decade. What do you think about this new paradigm?


Vandals or Vanguards?

Who decides what the future will look like is always a political issue. Will it big business, big government or a network of creative individuals on the street?

As part of the “Space Invaders” exhibition at RMIT gallery there was a street art seminar, moderated by Jaklyn Babington, Assistant Curator of International Prints, Drawings and Illustrated Books at the NGA (National Gallery of Australia). It was a panel discussion featuring Luke Sinclair from the Sticky Institute and artists: Nails, Civil and Jumbo.

The discussion looked both back at the exhibition and forward to the future of street art. And from this naturally lead onto the politics of the street and the politics of underground art. All of the speakers emphasised the importance of networking to the scene. Most importantly there is the power of networking through the internet but there is also the networks of collaborating street artists and the networks of zine distributions.

Some hardcore street artists and others might wonder at the inclusion of zines in the exhibition and Luke Sinclair from Sticky Institute on the panel. The NGA sees their collection of “street art as a paper based, alternative print making and drawing”, curator, Jaklyn Babington explained. And zines, like street art, are definitely an alternative tradition in print making and drawing. Zines are part of the same d.i.y. culture as street art. They are an urban sculptural object, a handmade art version of the common magazine that you pick up and hold in your hands.

The exhibition is a retrospective of look at the NGA’s street art collection and any examination of the history will naturally lead on to politics. Civil looked back at the exhibition as street art from the Howard-era when there were mass protests against the Iraq war and the World Economic Forum. Looking back Sydney artist, Jumbo spoke about how he began experimenting on the street beyond the formula of aerosol graffiti. Nails was interested in the legitimisation of street art through the communication between street and art gallery. And the concern expressed by some parts of street art community that something was being taken away through the legitimisation. Luke Sinclair also talked about the politics of underground work, the responses from both the mainstream and the underground to being exhibited or included in a zine book, as in the case of Fanzine, by Thames and Hudson. (For more information than anyone could want about this controversy see the website.)

Civil spoke about the politics of street art as the “broad conversation off different voices” on the streets, of “the handmade gesture in the city”, “markers” and “memorials” in the street. The title of the seminar, “Vandals or Vanguards?” contrasts the ‘vandals’, the way that street artists are portrayed in the mass media, or the ‘vanguard’, the leading front line position. Nails said that the vanguard is frustrated with how slow the mainstream responds, that he has become middle-aged waiting for it to catch up. But like the other speakers Nails is hopeful about the future of street art, comparing it to the punk scene “that died and then became even more interesting.”

Civil, "Freedom" 2010


Ophelia will return

Ophelia hasn’t jumped in the river and drowned she has been removed for a full restoration and will be returning to Southgate in November. Not Hamlet’s Ophelia but Deborah Halpern’s “Ophelia”, 1992, the concrete and ceramic sculpture with the face that was named “the official face of Melbourne” by Tourism Victoria in 1996.

The familiarity of the city landscape comes with a kind of blinkers that limit the number of things that are seen. As we become so familiar with the landscape we forget the past. Change in the city is continuos and there is a kind of social amnesia that most of us suffer from. Most people, including myself, cannot remember/imagine the city without certain public sculptures and so assume that a particular sculpture has been there for far longer than it actually has.

Deborah Halpern, Ophelia, 1992, concrete and ceramic, crowded out by outdoor dinning.

In case you hadn’t noticed Deborah Halpern’s 1992 “Ophelia” has been removed from the Southgate Complex on Melbourne’s Southbank. Bear Brass bar and restaurant has taken over the location with more out door smoker’s sections, it had already crowded the sculpture out when I photographed it over a year ago.

“We have been working extensively with the artist, Deborah Halpern and look forward to welcoming her (Ophelia) back very soon.” Jo Gartner, Southgate’s Events and Marketing Manager told Black Mark. “When Ophelia returns she will be located on the promenade directly opposite our main entrance, creating a natural meeting place for Melburnians on the river, and providing a stronger visual connection with the artist’s other major work Angel in Birrarung Marr.”

This is the second of Halpern’s Melbourne sculptures to have been moved from its original iconic location to a riverside location. Halpern’s “Angel” has been moved from the NGV’s moat to its current location (see my post: More of Melbourne’s Public Sculpture). Halpern’s concrete and ceramic tile sculptures were colourful and popular Melbourne icons of the 1980s and 90s. Have they now fallen from favour as tastes change? Or does their new locations give them new life?

 


Logo Jammers

The “Space Invaders” exhibition brought “adbusting”/ culture jamming back to my attention. I liked Marcsta and Merda’s “Disobey” sticker, which I saw exhibited at “Space Invaders”, as I’m tired of Shepard Fairey’s “Obey” logo being regarded as an example of quality street art. What “Space Invaders” defined “adbusters” is a culture jamming subversive alteration of corporate logos. (Adbusters Media Foundation is a Canadian not-for-profit organization.) There is a good summary of culture jamming and more links to articles about culture jamming from the Center for Communication and Civic Engagement (University of Washington).

Stickers and culture jamming at "Space Invaders" exhibition.

I hadn’t really though about culture jamming recently because I was so close to it. I used to listen to a lot of Negativeland and read about culture jamming organization like the K Foundation, Church of the SubGenius and the Emergency Broadcast Network. Before that I was reading Wm. Burroughs “The Invisible Generation” and other pieces of his writing best summed up in his line: “language is a virus from outer space”. And tracing the history of the “meme” idea of Richard Dawkins (I yearned to read his book, The Selfish Gene for as a child seeing it on my father’s bookshelf with its attractive cover of biomorphic surrealist painting by Desmond Morris); tracing it back to philosophical “spooks” of Max Stirner. Along with regular updates from the local Melbourne news about the culture jamming activities of BugaUp and other group’s billboard vandalism for political objectives.

But by the late 90s there were so many t-shirts with subversive alteration of corporate logos that I began to tire of the tactic. It all seems like a lot of graphic designers were just having fun with parodies to sell products with a cool vibe. It wasn’t anti-consumerist just another product range. There is still a lot of culture jamming stuff around, although, some of it like the Everfresh crew use a subverted version of the Cellarmaster logo is just parody (I’m not sure what the connection is apart from the guys from Everfresh drinking habits). But the lack of serious political intent makes many of these works simply parody and homage rather than culture jamming.

The politics of culture jamming is more difficult and subtle than mainstream politics; both sides are using the same basic psycho-technology propaganda repertoire. Many companies don’t mind the satire, many politicians collect political cartoons of themselves, if culture jamming was effective it might be worth pursing but the results of decades are not promising. Most people can take a joke, only despots who can’t stand satire. Maybe it is time for a return to the politics of the blunt aphoristic quality of the graffiti slogan.

Mac pills

"men never commit evil so fully and joyfully..."

iBong


Pentridge Rehabilitated

Pentridge Prison has been rehabilitated. Pentridge Prison was built in 1850 to cope with the over crowded Melbourne Gaol and the prison hulks in Port Phillip Bay. The prison closed on the 1st May 1997; wreaking historian Richard Broome’s 1987 prediction that the “it is likely to last another 136 years.” Richard Broome, Coburg – between two creeks, (Lothian, 1987)

Penal history is a major feature of Australian colonial history and Pentridge Prison is the gravesite of Australia’s most famous folk hero/outlaw, Ned Kelly. Although some Australians take pride in a convict past the residents of Coburg didn’t and repeatedly called for the removal of the prison. Pentridge Prison haunted the upwardly mobile aspirations of the homeowners and residents of Coburg for generations. The city changed its name attempting to disassociate the city from the prison. Now Coburg won’t be forgetting Pentridge with parts of the prison now being classified for its heritage value and other parts being replaced by a slowing growing housing estate. The rehabilitation of the former Pentridge Prison into Pentridge Village has slowly progressing for several years.

I am not interested in spruiking the real estate; I am interested in the cultural issues of this urban redevelopment. I am interested in the mix of historic, residential and retail that the transformation includes. At least Pentridge Village is not another anonymous housing estate or apartment block; there is plenty of the prison’s character preserved and the new residents won’t forget the history of the place. This is not to suggest that the architecture of a 19th Century prison does not have its charm or that the new flats and apartments look like a prison. The better bluestone construction has been preserved; the granite “bluestone” was mostly quarried, cut and built by prison labour (except for the external walls for obvious reasons). Barred windows, old signs and other features are being preserved as the prison is being rehabilitated. Some streets have been named after part of the prison like “Warden’s Walk” but others are just bizarre property development words.

Pentridge Village does feature some new innovations; Warden’s Walk utilizes permeable paving to capture of storm-water runoff.  The storm-water harvesting and reuse (I saw some enormous water tanks) is used, in part, to water the extensive rose bush planting as a symbolic reference to the past (the prisoners maintained a rose garden within the prison as well as poetic reference). Some of Pentridge is still a building site and wasteland and in other parts residents have been living there for years. The spaces for shops and businesses are still vacant except for one restaurant. Although the heritage space has been used for fashion shows and old cells transformed in to boutique wine cellars according to Style Melbourne.

Having lived in Coburg for decades I can remember the prison in operation, closed the location being slowly rehabilitated. I can still remember hearing the howls that came from Pentridge at midnight on New Year’s Eve in 1991 when I was living very close to the prison walls. I also saw and photographed parts of the prison shortly after it closed. The escape proof Jika Jika Unit that looked like Space Station Despair has been demolished; although the architects could build on the nostalgic ambiance of the 19th Century parts of the prison, the modern penal architecture of the Jika Jika Unit could never be reformed.

Pentridge Prison, Coburg

The historic entrance and other parts of the historic precinct of the old Pentridge Prison are yet to be rehabilitated. The front of the prison still stands looking abandoned with heritage issues yet to be resolved. There are no statues yet in this redevelopment and the front of the prison definitely needs a suitable statue that is sensitive to the history without being mawkish. (For information on the art of prisoners see my post about Prison Art @ Pentridge)

Perhaps saying that Pentridge Prison has been rehabilitated is going too far; it scrubs up well and has taken significant steps to reform its character but it is still a work in progress.


Pop of Pop

Richard Hamilton, the pop of Pop Art, lived a great life reaching back to the Dada of Marcel Duchamp and looking forward to fun future for art. This is not an obituary – there is an excellent one in The Guardian. Considering the life of Richard Hamilton lead me to thinking about Pop Art and, in particular the impact of Pop Art in Australia.

Maybe Pop Art first came to Australia with Martin Sharp. Maybe it was here already with Barry Humphries 1968 screenprint of the infinite regression of Willie Wheaties on a cereal package (but Barry thought it was Dada when he did it). In the 1990s Howard Arkley’s celebrated the images of Melbourne suburbia with spray paint. And there are still many artists in Australia doing Pop Art including David Bromley, HaHa Maria Kozic, Christopher Langton, Dennis Roper and David Wadelton. Melbourne even has a Pop Art sculpture, “The Public Purse” by Simon Perry in the Burke St. Mall. The sculpture is based on Claes Oldenberg’s idea making giant sculpture versions of everyday objects.

If Pop Art is about the art of ironically sampling the visual clutter of the modern world then it is definitely still here and bigger than before. The cultural influences celebrated by Pop Art; rock music, celebrities, advertising and pop media images, have continued and even expanded in our society. Pop Art ended the division between high arts and popular arts; it looked at the Mona Lisa and Mickey Mouse as equally recognizable images. Artists like Jeff Koons were clearly continuing the techniques and imagery associated with Pop Art in the 1980s and 90s. Pop Art might now be so big that we might not be able to see it anymore because it almost completely fills our vision. Is street art, especially Bansky and all the other stencil artists, another part of Pop Art?

Was Pop Art just another one of the modern art’s “isms”? Has the style bubble burst with a snap, crackle and pop. Is Pop Art a dead, historical art movement? Or has it continued as major movement in the contemporary world? In a narrow sense Pop Art, Neo-Realism, Capitalist Realism, whatever you want to call it, is a defined movement in art history from the 1950s and 60s. But the style continues – the art history books that we grew up with got it wrong. When a future history of 20th – 21st art is written where will Pop Art be located? There are precursors to Pop Art in Dada and clear decedents still making Pop Art today.

But this might just part of the long tail of Pop Art, like the long tail of Impressionism, where the style became more commercialised and the domain of amateur landscape artists. Pop Art is incredibly popular; that isn’t tautological, Pop Art could be unpopular. Pop Art is popular because it is fun and recognizable, it doesn’t threaten, it isn’t seen as ugly. And this popularity has made features of Pop Art into a kind of folk art and a design style.

However Pop Art is a significant art style not just for art history; it also caused major thinking of the philosophy. Pop Art provoked responses by philosophers on both sides of the Atlantic: Arthur Danto and Jean Baudrillard. Both philosophers were deeply impressed by Andy Warhol’s art. For Danto Pop Art raised issues about what art is and for Baudrillard about reality and simulacra.

Pop Art half a century later and still wow.


North Melbourne Galleries

Gallery Smith and Purgatory Artspace occupy the same old brick warehouse on Abbotsford St. in North Melbourne. Gallery Smith is a large commercial gallery with two exhibition spaces and “the lounge” with a selection from their stock room. Upstairs in the loft the “project space’ of Purgatory Artspace is more Spartan affair, a minimal white cube space. While I was in North Melbourne I also stopped by No No Gallery but it was closed before an exhibition opening that night.

At Gallery Smith the British-born Brisbane-based artist, Ian Friend was exhibiting a series of oil paintings in the main Gallery 1. I sat on the comfortable white lounge in the gallery enjoying the calm ambience of the paintings. Friend’s cool, pale paintings are inspired by the poetry of English poet Edward Thomas (1878-1917) and the English landscape of the Southern chalk downs. Yellow, blue and grey dots float on a background of pale bands. One of the paintings, “Here love ends” provided a counterpoint to the series with a darker background, slightly rougher brush strokes and red tones. In Gallery 2 Valerie Sparks has a series of color photographs of taxidermy birds: “Little Bird, Big History”. The stuffed birds looked old but not as old as they actually were: they had been collected in the mid 18th century. The Yellow Tail Black Cockatoo was collected on Matthew Flinders’s second voyage to Australia. There were also some Eric Brigeman’s photographs stacked near the entrance of Gallery Smith; I recognized his work from last year’s Basil Sellers Art Prize exhibition.

Upstairs at Purgatory Artspace there was a remarkable exhibition of 3D painting by another Brisbane-based artist, Kathryn Brimblecombe-Fox’s “Paradise”. I have never viewed a whole exhibition of paintings through polarized glasses. The paintings are not some purely technical exercise in creating 3D effects – the artist only discovered that her paintings worked this way by accident rather than design. The 3D effects are not mind blowing but very effective in their own right as parts of the paintings appear to float a centimeter above the background. Were it not for the 3D effects the mystical cosmic subjects of these paintings would have been a bit ordinary and superficial.

There aren’t many galleries in North Melbourne but there are more than there were only 5 years ago. I predict that there will be more in the near future as there are plenty of warehouses to convert in the area.


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