Monthly Archives: February 2012


Melbourne is becoming like Disneyland; years ago John Birmingham pointed this out in his book Dopeland. The spectacle of gas flares outside the casino, buskers, sidewalk artists and sculptures every 500m. I walk along it often; I like pedestrian spaces. I’ve enjoyed meals in the restaurants along it and taken visiting Canadian relatives to this attraction. I’ve also often thought about Birmingham’s “Disneyland” remark.

Following a design trend that has worked for many other cities, Melbourne has been rehabilitating its river and docklands areas. The banks of the Yarra River are a designer public space from Birrung Mar down to the Docklands. The designer city came to Melbourne with the arrival of the Casino and the transformation of Southbank. Melbourne’s rehabilitation through designed environments has extended further including the north bank of the river.

The rehabilitation of the Yarra River’s city foreshore has included a large number of public sculptures. What are these sculptures supposed to do in this designed urban environment? Architecturally the sculptures seem to function only as a way of breaking up the pedestrian spaces. Some sculptures became lost amongst the commercial frenzy of Southbank cafes (see by blog post: Ophelia will return).

Sometimes it is hard to determine in this designed environment what is a sculpture and what are sculptural architectural elements or a marketing design concept like the jocular three fins projecting from the river water or the fake half sunk ship outside of the Melbourne Aquarium. Or something else, entirely like the lighting design.

Some of the sculptures along the Yarra try to recreate a sense of history in a post-modern way while others are just sculptures in a modern sense, independent of history or reason. There is no consistency in taste or style for the sculpture; novelty is preferred in this environment.

Two of these sculptures, “The Travellers” and “Constellation” are about the variety people who have immigrated to Melbourne. “The Travellers” by Lebanese artist, Nadim Karan (on Sandridge Bridge across the Yarra River) and “Constellation” by Bruce Armstrong and Geoffrey Bartlett (between the King and Queen Street bridges). “Constellation” is five large figureheads reflect upon the ethnic and cultural diversity of Melbourne’s settlement. Not that most people would see this in the sculptures; they would merge into the overall design of the area.

Nadim Karan, “The Travellers”

Bruce Armstrong and Geoffrey Bartlett, “Constellation”

The shopping mall mentality of urban planning has created a spectacle that although it attempts some signs of authenticity, like the antiques on the wall of chain Irish pubs, only adds to the feeling of hyperreality. Even when the art attempts to connect to the past they only add to the feeling of hyperreality. Like the old anchors along the foreshore or the giant knot work anchor suspended over a plaza in outside the Docklands Stadium.

I like these many of the sculptures along the Yarra but is this Disneyland the right environment for them?

Fun to Funky @ Brunswick Arts

Brunswick Arts – Launch ’12 – Exhibition Opening

The exhibition is the best of all the arts graduate shows from the end of last year. I didn’t get to all of the arts graduate shows last year but Carmen Reid and Max Piantoni did and Launch ’12 at Brunswick Arts is their selection. (I can’t believe that I didn’t speak to Carmen Reid, I’ve enjoyed her art for years and I still haven’t met her – see Carmen Reid at Brunswick Arts. I ended up talking to Max Piantoni because he was talking with Alister Karl instead. It must have been the spectacle of the exhibition disorientating me.)

I arrived at Brunswick Arts just as the toffee was about to touch the floor from Skye Kelly’s “Suspended Cubes”. The beautiful tendril of toffee stretched at a speed slightly slower than human vision but every time that I looked back it had changed. Four giant blocks of black toffee were suspended from the ceiling with cotton cords. One of the black cubes had lost its rigid geometry; it was melting faster than the others and was slowly dripping to the floor. The shiny texture of the toffee with a golden crust on top produced a beautiful two tones. Kelly must have timed the toffee melting for this moment. The suspended cubes of toffee make great sculptural forms and I hope to see more toffee sculpture from Skye Kelly. I saw Kelly’s “Creep”, 2011 with more of her toffee work last year at First Site.

It was an impressive beginning to an exhibition that ranged from fun to funky. There are very funky gibbons of Jemila MacEwan, made from recycled clothing, and the equally funky “Phantom Limb” by Emily Bour. The art is fun; none of the artists seemed to be taking it too seriously. It is also fun for the visitors, interacting with Isabelle Rudolph’s “Double Vanity”. This play tent/circus tent allows two visitors to interact in private, wearing masks, sitting back to back and taking photographs on a camera Rudoph provided.

Renuka Rajiv’s drawings and zine are very sexy. There is a Matisse influence to her work on paper especially the blue nude. Good erotic art is so rare. C asks me is there a parental advisory warning about these? Not at Brunswick Arts and anyway the half dozen children who are at the opening aren’t interested in Rajiv’s sexy drawings they are fascinated with spotting the strange creatures in the terrarium and the fan blown sytrofoam balls in the project space out the back of the gallery.

“Nothing astounds me more than the taste of the commonalty for dogs, cats, parrots, etc. For my part, a creature interests me only when its reactions become totally alien to me. The leech isn’t too bad, the starfish is quite an improvement. But slugs! Speak to me of slugs!” – Julien Torma (1902 -1933)

Katherine MacIagan’s “Creature Series” consisted of slugs in a terrarium, magnificent slugs worthy of Julien Torma, sparkling “jewellery objects” of copper, enamel paint, silicone, fur and stainless steel, like nudibrake amidst the sticks and dead leaves.

By 7pm a large crowd was filling Brunswick Arts and the warehouse space was really heating up even with the efforts of the two portable air-con units. Outside in Little Breeze Street behind Alaysa’s – there are building sites everywhere, Brunswick Arts is about to be surrounded by 9 story apartment blocks – Winchester, the gallery cat was waiting for people to pat him as they left.

Clocks & Kitsch

Gog and Magog, Melbourne’s floral clock and the giant animated fob watch at Melbourne Central – these clocks, from three different eras, show changes in public taste, however kitsch. All of these kitsch clocks are created as a kind of public sculptures, as local tourist attractions. They range from Anglophile to international to Australiana.

In 1870 the first arcade in Melbourne, the Royal Arcade officially opened. In 1892, two of the Royal Arcade’s most attractive features were erected. Gog and Magog are the bell ringers on Gaunt’s Clock located at the end of the arcade above the Collins Street exit. This extravagant clock was installed in 1892 a year before the Australian banking crisis of 1893 when several of the commercial banks and the Federal Bank collapsed. The figures are modelled on the figures from the Guildhall, London in 1708 that are based on earlier medieval sculptures. The two legendary British giants are depicted with large beards, staring eyes and heavy limbs standing in stiff poses. Carved from pine and painted in multiple bright colours these figures refer to the gothic medieval tradition.

Melbourne’s floral clock is the most boring of the three clocks but they were fashionable for many decades around the world, especially in former parts of the British Empire. The first floral clock was installed in Princes’ Street Gardens in Edinburgh in 1903. The first floral clock that I saw was at Niagara Falls in Canada, built in 1950, so I was never impressed by Melbourne’s floral clock. There is a degree of intercity rivalry with floral clocks – the first and the largest – Sydney installed a floral clock at Taronga Zoo in 1928. Melbourne’s floral clock was donated in 1966 to the City of Melbourne by a group of Swiss watchmakers after it was used at an international trade fair in the Exhibition Building.

The last of these three tourist attraction clocks is the giant fob watch at Melbourne Central. It was installed in 1991, when Japanese company Daimaru opened its department store in Melbourne. This Seiko clock plays Waltzing Matilda on the hour with mechanical Australian parrots and musician figures. The nativism and Australiana was intended to appease Australians to the presence of the foreign store. Although Daimaru has now closed the giant fob watch plays on.

Over a century after Gog and Magog Melbourne shopping arcades still use large animated clocks as marketing attractions. Although such animated clocks have been used in Europe for centuries as civic attractions they were also demonstrations of civic technology, what makes modern giant clocks kitsch is because the technology has become commonplace. In explaining the taste for floral clocks it is worth noting that Michael Jackson had a floral clock at his Neverland Ranch.

Project Melbourne Underground

South Melbourne Street Fair – Graffiti Exhibition at Emerald House

The beautifully painted mini parked out the front was an excellent announcement of the exhibition on 3 floors of the underground carpark of Emerald House in South Melbourne. I mean almost every wall and pillar in the whole carpark – the ventilation ducts were painted to look like different types of trains. It is huge, “covering more than 800 square meters of space” and claiming to be “Australia’s largest private exhibition of graffiti art”. This is what the Medici’s carpark would have looked like in the Renaissance, if they had a carpark and cars.

This impressive exhibition has work from 90 local and international artists. It features many of Melbourne’s well-known aerosol artists, along with some paste-ups from Urban Cake Lady. The only obvious stencils were by Kirpy, Vexta and Stabs, although a lot, like Duel, were using stencils for background patterns. There was also some brushwork from a few artists.

With so many impressive pieces on show it would take me forever to finish this post if I commented on all of them. There was Makatron’s wall of bees – “for all the bee boys and girls”. And Phibs’s style worked so well on the pillars.

The main problem with this exhibition was how they handled the public – everyone wants to re-invent the wheel. The idea of having artists leading tour groups around might sound good but it meant hanging around the entrance for an artist who had no experience in leading a tour group hoping to wing it with impromptu comments and couldn’t answer my first question about who did a piece. Who is the artist who did this wall and another magnificent piece, also with Monster, at Sparta Place in Brunswick? Answer: Werner “Nash” Zwakhalen.

Nash, South Melbourne

Nash, Project Melbourne Underground

Nash, Sparta Place, Brunswick

On my way back home I saw the AWOL crew working on the wall at Brunswick Station. At the time they had a few outlines up and were carefully moving a long strip of masking tape from one part of the wall. The AWOL crew have taken their collaborative approach painting a wall to a whole new level. Isn’t this the dream of all painters to completely fill you field of vision?

AWOL crew, Project Melbourne Underground

Slicer & Adnate (AWOL crew), Brunswick

You can see more and better photos of Project Melbourne Underground at Land of Sunshinepart one and part two. Yes, I know, you just want to look at the pictures.

Phibs, Project Melbourne Underground


The Good, the Bad and the Crafty

Wandering around Brunswick by chance I came across the woodcarving “art of Igmus” by Brett Davis at #314 Victoria Street. There were two fine carvings on display in the front window and inside were some larger elongated figures, heads and two carved log planters in the shape of heads.

Brett Davis, Frog Hand

Woodcarver Brett Davis hadn’t been there for very long, he has set up a pop-up studio/shop for two weeks while the space was vacant. I talked with him about woodcarving, garden sculpture and the lively atmosphere on that stretch of Victoria Street where the shop is located – it used to be one of those little fashion boutiques.

Davis’s sculptures are all carved from ‘recycled’ timbre; fallen timber that he has found or from his arborist friends. The finished carving is often cracked and full of borer’s holes, (wood borers in the black wattle) giving it a weathered look that work well with the surreal tribal-style of Davis’s carvings.

Davis commented about the price of buying a carving from Indonesia compared to buying his work. It made me think about the good, the crafty and the bad of sculptures and other garden decoration. When it comes to suburban garden decorations it can get very bad, ugly and kitsch. We won’t go there; there is so much tasteless, the horrible and pretentious stuff in people’s gardens (The worst is featured in my other blog Who Buys This Stuff?)

In previous posts on this blog I have reviewed a garden sculpture exhibition at 69 Smith Street by Keith Wiltshire and wondered about why people don’t personalize their homes and cars (their most valuable property) and commented on the art in suburban front gardens – Another Kind of Street Art.

On my wanderings  I occasionally see interesting front gardens with sculptural features, mostly it is decorative fences and corny crafty garden sculptures. Corn in a cottage garden looks fine because they are not lawn ornaments if there isn’t a lawn.

Then there is the strange.

What’s in the name – street art?

On the street or hanging framed on a wall I still call it “street art”.

Back in 2009 I wrote about Street Art & Galleries and an interesting debate ensured, that I’ve since revisited several times in conversations, comments on this blog and at Melbourne Stencil Festival meetings. I know that some artists distinguish between their art in galleries and art on the street and even use different names depending on if it is on the street or in a gallery (this is not uncommon in the past, some artists used different names if they were doing Surrealist or non-Surrealist art, and Van Doesberg used a different names when doing Dada art).

Various artists, McCullach Lane

In the past discussions I think that I was getting too caught up in a type and token distinction about art in the street and in the gallery. Rather than addressing the need to have a name for this movement that I refer to as street art, not just when it appears in the street but when it is elsewhere, in art galleries and people’s homes. To further complicate type and token discussion consider that most “street art” exists as digital photos on a computer screen. (I love to confute discussions, to add further complexities to confuse anyone who thinks that it is a simple matter.)

The discussion about where a piece of art is located aside, back to what to what to call the art movement. A phrase like “artists with a street based practice” could be used but I would only recommend using in technical academic or bureaucratic texts. Try saying “artists with a street based practice” a hundred times to random people on the street and see what a wanker you sound like.

First lets examine how art movements are named. Art movements get their names in a variety of ways; newspapers name some (Impressionists), some name themselves (Dada) and others are named after they are over by art historians (Baroque, Classical). Street art is too large a movement for all the participants to agree on a single name – for one, they don’t all speak the same language. Nor can street art police a definition of street as Breton tried to police the use of “surrealism”. “Street art” is a name that it is common use – try entering it in Google, there is little ambiguity, apart from “street art wheels” for custom cars.

The philosophical complexity of what is a name is a lifetime’s study and so would how classifications are made. There is no necessary connection between a signifier (the name) and the signified (the object) but it is necessary to have a name in order to talk about a subject without confusion. The name needs to have a broad appeal – try selling “rape seed oil” even though it is the same as “canola oil”. There is a need to name art movements (for exhibitions, festivals, webpages and books) in an appealing way rather than an absolutely accurate way and to use a name that is commonly understood.

So I don’t think about ‘street art’ too literally or narrowly, names are in part poetry. The metaphorical significance of ‘the street’ is akin to the real world. ‘Street art’ is, for the finicky pedant, essentially a contraction of the phrase “artists with a street based art practice.”


Street art is anti-modernist – consider it from this angle.

I & the Other(s), paper cut, Flinders Lane, 2012

Street art is a significant post-modern art movement. It rejects the art gallery defined art object, exemplified by Duchamp’s readymades, for art that is identifiable amongst the bins in a back alley. It is site-specific. It is follows other post-modern, contemporary art trends but often take this further than the gallery art.

Modernism rejected humanizing decorative elements in architecture and street art decorates those bare concrete walls. In architectural terms (not that street art should be reduced to an architectural art form regardless of the number of walls involved) street art cannot be reduced to eclecticism, kitsch or “featurism”. These terms are meaningless outside of a modernist context, where theoretically a style can be debased. There was no kitsch in the Renaissance and, likewise, the term “kitsch” is meaningless in street art. Tattoo style and comic book art are part of the street art mix not in appropriation or when converted to art but as an equal part. Other contemporary post-modern artist have also rejected the modernist high culture and popular art distinctions and tried to create synthesis.

Melina M., Hosier Lane, 2012

Street art rejects the modernist (fascist) hierarchy of styles; the hierarchy is based on the same faulty reasoning that lead to the fascist hierarchy of races. There is no pure art, no more than racial purity. For street art is practiced without economic or political stimulus that places the patrons at the top of any hierarchy; it is often practiced in defiance of the plutocrats.

In rejecting the traditional system of patronage, street art subverted the modernist aesthetically sterile gallery and the creation high-end commodity art objects in favour of free art often in multiple editions. Instant fame on the street subverted the traditional media filters.

Street art rejects the modern art education system, many street artists are self-taught coming from various backgrounds. If they do have an arts eduction a street artist is more likely to have studied design rather than fine art. On the street artists have created a master and apprentice system and crews operate a quasi-guild system.

Detail of Napier Faces, various artists, 2009

Many street artists collaborate on large projects and this is a change to the modern artist’s identity as a unique creative genius. Collaborative work has a significant presence in post-modern art with artists like Gilbert and George, Brown and Green, Warhol and Basquiat. Collaborative art uses the merging of ideas and identity rather the modernist unique creator, the heroic artist. Street art has a different kind of hero artist, the trickster and prankster, who defies the authorities with a spray of his can.

Street art is a rebellion and not another modern revolution. Rebels seek to alter something in the present; a revolution wants to change everything in the future.

Unknown paste-up, Geelong, 2012

%d bloggers like this: