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Monthly Archives: May 2012

Melbourne Skull

I’ve been out headhunting and over the years I’ve brought back lots of skulls from Melbourne’s streets. Pirates, danger, old master paintings reminding the viewer that they are also mortal – you aren’t a real artist until you have painted a skull. Andy Warhol did skulls, Damien Hirst did skulls, and Vincent Van Gogh painted a skull with a smoking cigarette held in its teeth.

Rone, Fitzroy, c.2009

If you want to see Melbourne’s the largest collection of undead street art then go to Zombie Dance Lane in Brunswick (somewhere near Victoria and Lygon streets) . The zombie dance party paste-up have gone you but there still are enough undead art to keep the visitor amused and the street sign is still there (a bit of guerrilla geography).

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Docklands 1% Sculpture

There is an abundance of public sculpture in Melbourne’s Docklands precinct because the Melbourne City Council required the developers to commit 1% of its capital works program to art. The sculptures in the Docklands include some work by notable Australian sculptors but this post is not about all the sculpture, although I will mention some of them. This is about the commissioning process for these sculptures.

There are endless complaints about the Docklands, from almost everyone who speaks or writes about it. Except in Waterfront Spectacular – creating Melbourne Docklands – the people’s waterfront ed. John Keeney (Design Masters Press, 2005). This huge coffee table book is a puff piece of colour photography, hopelessly compromised with an editorial board that includes representatives from VicUrban and various state government departments. It has very little about the sculpture but lots of photographs of them. However, in one chapter, “State of the art”, Sue Neales gives details about the commissions and funding for the sculptures at Docklands.

There was a 1% contribution to public art from all construction. Of that 1% half would be spent within the public space of the developer’s building, 30% for artwork located outside of developers building and the remaining 20% went to fund commissions of large-scale sculptures and artwork for public spaces across the whole of Docklands. The art spend by the developers had to “involve the direct commissioning of an artist to design and construct a specific artwork”. A variety of commissioning processes were used in the Docklands from direct to open competitions.

Virginia King’s “Reed Vessel” 2004 is a stainless steel and aluminium sculpture above reflective pool with a path through the middle of the A frame support for the boat structure. Virginia King’s “Reed Vessel” on Navigation Drive was a result of a limited competition. Six selected artists were invited to submit designs and maquettes (models of the proposed sculpture) for a competition with three winners selected to create artworks along Harbour Esplanade. New Zealand artist, Virginia King’s proposal was chosen. This work clearly fits with the Dockland’s themes.

The selection criteria for the sculpture included meeting Dockland themes of indigenous history, maritime, water, industrial history and urban interface. The themes are a way of the city council manipulating the memory of the area exploiting a desire for the authentic amid the completely constructed landscape.

Obviously not all of the sculptures do meet these themes. Emily Floyd “Signature Work (Rabbit)”, 2004 a large black painted aluminium toy rabbit on Waterview Walk and John Kelly’s “Cow Up a Tree” 1999 on Grand Plaza have little do with any of the themes in the selection criteria (except for, maybe “urban interface” what ever that means). Kelly’s “Cow Up a Tree” sculpture toured the France, Ireland and the Netherlands, making it completely non-site specific.

The art needed to be made for durable materials not prone to corrosion, able to withstand vandalism, with no small parts that could be stolen, “and be safe for people to touch and move around without any public liability issues” (p.118) For years temporary fencing has surrounded “Shoal Fly By” by Melbourne-based architect/artist partnership, Cat Macleod and Michael Bellemo on the
Harbour Esplanade. And now the sculpture has gone. Maybe there is a health and safety issue with the sculpture?

There are lots of new public sculptures in the Docklands development but I’ve been finding it hard to get around all of the industrial scale development. I ended up looking at Virginia King’s “Reed Vessel” on Google maps.

Has the 1% for the arts improved Docklands?


Views of May Exhibitions

On Thursday I was looking galleries in Fitzroy and attended the opening of two exhibitions at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick.

Dianne Tanzer Gallery has Michael Cook’s “The Mission” a beautiful series of photographs showing the role of the church missions in the genocide of Australian aborigines. The subject, narrative and staging of these photographs reminded me of the work of Tracey Moffat even though Michael Cook, a Bidjara man from southwest Queensland has his own style combining symbolism and antique photography.

In the front gallery and window of Gertrude Contemporary is Anastasia Klose “Can’t Stop Living” with her “Home Video” and suite of drawings of cats. Klose describes this as “everyday love”; the transfiguration of the commonplace into art doesn’t require deliberate eccentricity or challenging content. In the back gallery there is “Bellowing Echoes”, curated by Marcel Cooper and Bronwyn Bailey-Charteris that is part of the 2012 Next Wave Festival. Anna Kristensen’s “Indian Chamber” is an impressive and beautiful 360-degree cycloramic painting of the Jenolan Caves. The installation by the Slow Art Collective has a rich smell as the powdered spices vibrate in speaker cones turning sound into a visual and nasal experience. This is the best smelling art that I’ve ever encountered.

Also part of the Next Wave Festival is George Egerton-Warburton’s show “Living with Living” at the Sutton Gallery Project Space. The video was the best part of the show. The other parts: the tables as readymade chairs and the ugly piece with the saw, photograph, noodles and tar didn’t fit with the other work. “The exhibited works appear as chapters severed from their context” – that’s a nice way of say it is an incoherent exhibition.

I picked up the Next Wave Festival magazine; it is a satisfying and intelligent alternative to the ubiquitous festival program.

The Counihan Gallery has two exhibitions: “A Room for Ordering Memory” by photographer Melanie Jayne Taylor and “First and Last” by the committee from the Brunswick Arts Space, an artist-run-space. The committee from the Brunswick Arts Space regularly has exhibitions of their own work in other galleries. I particularly enjoyed the fun of Max Piantoni “The Descent of the Dodo: Part One”, Carmen Reid’s surreal altered furniture and Alister Karl’s mobile of a series of large drawings. (See my 2009 reviews of Carmen Reid @ Brunswick Arts and Alister Karl’s Drawings.)

Those are my views of these exhibitions – what did you think of them?


Coburg Cemetery

I went to Coburg Cemetery primarily to find the grave of the Melbourne sculptor, Charles Web Gilbert. It was an easier task than I expected because Coburg Cemetery now has a Heritage Walk. And Charles Web Gilbert’s grave was one of the stops on the walk.

The self-guided walk starts at the visitor’s rotunda and takes the visitor around 30 graves in the cemetery. There are the graves of notable people like ornithologist George Arthur Keartland, victims of disasters, sporting heroes and politicians. The grave of gangland enforcer John Daniel (Snowy) Cutmore and the graves of murder victims, like police constable David Edward McGrath or bank manager, Thomas Anketell. And the graves of early Coburg’s Chinese residents and the grave of Said Ahmed Shah, the first Moslem religious leader in Melbourne.

The grave of Said Ahmed Shah

The hillside site for Coburg Cemetery was surveyed and gazetted in 1860 but was not used until 1875. The cemetery is divided into denominational compartments and the style of tombs reflects these religious differences. The cemetery is now an attractive, although muddy old cemetery full of examples of late 19th and 20th century funerary monuments, statues of angels and other ornamental marble carving. Some of the graves are in bad repair and erosion is causing some monuments to tilt and others to collapse.

Back to Charles Marsh Web (Nash) Gilbert (1867-1925); who made a total of 9 WWI memorials, more than any other Australian sculptor. He also made the Mathew Flinders Memorial next to St Paul’s Cathedral on Swanston St.

Charles Web Gilbert, Matthew Flinders Memorial, Melbourne

Charles Web Gilbert learnt sculpture as an apprentice chef modelling icing-sugar decorations. Mostly self-taught as a sculptor his only formal art training was in drawing. His first studio off was Collins Street, he then at 59 Gore Street where he built his own foundry and started experimenting casting in bronze. He regularly exhibited with the Victorian Artists’ and Yarra Sculptors’ societies and in London at the Royal Academy. Late in 1917 Gilbert joined the Australian Imperial Force as a sculptor in the War Records Section. After that the rest of his life was dominated by making memorials. Gilbert made 9 World War I memorials for the Chamber of Manufactures, Melbourne, the Malvern Town Hall, the British (Australian) Medical Association, Parkville, Shepparton, Burnside, Adelaide, and Broken Hill.

Charles Web Gilbert had always done everything for himself, including his own foundry work. He wore himself out carrying clay for a huge full size model and died suddenly on 3 October 1925. Web Gilbert’s grave in Church of England section of cemetery is very plain with out any memorial sculpture or even a headstone.


Graffiti – not just for the graffers

“I was always aware that the photos would last longer than the piece and I shot in the spirit of historic preservation.” Martha Cooper in Cedar Lewison Street Art – The Graffiti Revolution (Tate Publishing, London, 2008) p.37

Some old school graffers think that they are just doing their thing for themselves and other graf writers. Just like some tribe that thinks that they are just making feather headdresses for their ceremonies until some anthropologist comes along to trade for them, photograph them, record their songs and dances. The anthropologist will attempt to learn the culture of the tribe but that will always be analysing this as an outsider. The outsider always has a different view and different objectives in their records, as well as, different systems of classification but that doesn’t automatically make this view wrong.

There are lots of people, like myself, who are collecting digital photos of street art, the urban equivalent of bird watching in many ways. Some of them are very diligent in their work, like New York photographer Martha Cooper, who documented the graffiti on subway cars, the visual equivalent of the field recordings of ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. We are attempting to preserve an ephemeral cultural event that may disappear entirely or change beyond recognition.

Some people resent being recorded at all, or only want to be recorded on their terms, by themselves or a minion/collaborator. If you feel so protective of your work then don’t put it in a public place for others to look at. The fact that graffiti is in a public view means that it is open to anyone to interpret and appreciate or deprecate (one reason for the graffers to be anxious about outside interpretation).

Cedar Lewison argues that graffiti is distinctly different from street art in that graffiti intended for a small group. “Graffiti writers are communicating with themselves and a closed community, they have little interest in being understood by the wider world.” (p.23) Lewison notes that graffiti writers have little interest in the reputation of graffiti or being considered artists. He points to the almost illegible calligraphy of wildstyle pieces as a means of excluding the public. Of course, the general public, if they are determined, can learn to read wildstyle letters as well as the next graff writer. There are articles like “How to read Graffiti” by Jason Dax Woodward (13/6/99) or books like Claudia Walde Street Fonts – graffiti alphabets from around the world (Thames & Hudson).

Lewison’s argument ignores the intentionalist fallacy; that is, the graffiti and the writer’s intentions are two different things and lack of knowledge of one does not preclude understanding the other. For example, no one knows what Homer’s intentions were in composing The Iliad but that doesn’t hamper understanding the ancient epic poem. Likewise although graff writers may not intended to communicate with the public their work on the street is open to anyone to interpret and appreciate.


True Beauty @ First Site

Last Friday night at a party the printmaker Joel Gailer was stamping “THE TRUTH IS A COPY” on people – I got one stamped on my arm. I love the anti-Socratic statement as Socrates held that reality was but a copy of the true form. However, if the truth is not a good copy of reality than it not true.

The three current exhibitions at 1st Site Gallery at RMIT combine to further complicate any ideas you might have about truth, beauty, copies and reality.

“Render Complete” by Spencer Lai, Matthew Berka and Hamish Storrie, reflects on ideal beauty in “a society that is obsessed with the act of imaging itself and the spaces in which we inhabit.” It is like a digital Han Belmar doll with an Ikea catalogue. The digital simulacra are an ideal dream as the computerized narrator keeps on confessing in the video.

“Trashland” by Lucie McIntosh is about an enhanced reality, a better than real party. Naked Barbie dolls in glitter gimp masks, the repeated photographs of a head with all the details sprayed over except for the glitter lips, real glitter lips stuck on to the photographs. At one end of the space three television sets form “a shrine to instants passed by, trash punk, wasters and party people”. The only problem with “Trashland” is that there is not enough of it – the space is too empty to convince me that the exhibition really is over the top.

“Cardboard Cabin” by Harry Hay is an installation with a few paintings leading up to it. The installation is like a physical version of Hay’s paintings, with the same run-down Australian shed aesthetics. The installation of a cabin with furniture, tools and walls all made of painted corrugated cardboard. The photographs hanging on the wall of the shed in cardboard frames are photographs of a cardboard world contributing another level of simulacra. Creating a caricature copy of part of the world out of a different material has a special kind of appeal. (I was just watching the episode of James May’s Toy Story with the plasticine garden last night.)

Getting back to the old philosophical stamping grounds truth, beauty, copies and reality. “Render Complete” proposes that true beauty is an ideal dream that cannot be copied. Whereas, “Trashland” argues that reality can be beautiful but trashy. And “Cardboard Cabin” is an enjoyable copy of an ugly truth. I love the way these exhibitions confute (confutation, to confuse an argument, is less strong than a refutation but tactically can be just as successful as it is less aggressive) ideas of truth and beauty. I think this is one of the reasons that I love art because there is confutation in way that artists explore ideas.

“And let us not forget those auditory hallucinations which, as ‘Socrates’ demon’ have been interpreted in a religious sense.” – Nietzsche


Casting Sculpture in Melbourne

A foundry is needed to cast bronze sculpture. The industrial side of casting and erecting monuments should be considered on an equal importance to the sculptor. On the base of the Francis Ormond memorial there are words “cast by Robison Bros. Ltd.” on one side), and the sculptor’s name, Percival Ball on the other.

Robison Bros. had every reason to be proud of their work the statue as was the first full-scale figure cast in bronze in Melbourne. Prior to this all bronze statues had to be imported, although they might be assembled and finished locally, as in the case of Judge Redman Barry that was started by James Gilbert in England finished locally by Percival Ball.

Two Scottish brothers, James and Thomas Robison from Leith along with a third Scot, Henry Dodds, founded Robison Bros & Co. in 1854. They started as plumbers and coppersmiths but the firm soon expanded to became Melbourne’s most important engineering firm. Along with industrial manufacture and engineering the foundry workers at company were involved with casting the Burke and Wills Monument. Robison Bros & Co. finally closed in1973.

The first casting of a bronze statue in Melbourne did not mark the end of bronze sculptures for Melbourne being cast in Europe. Casting Australian sculptures in Europe continued well into the 20th Century, even with the time it took to ship the part back and forth between Australia and Europe – in some cases this added years to completing the sculpture. Over a decade in the case of memorial to Sir John Monash: in 1937 William Bowles won the competition to create a memorial and the bronze statue was cast in Italy prior to the outbreak of WWII but only finally completed and installed in 1950.

Bronze casting uses the lost wax technique, or more correctly lost-wax casting, for it is the wax that is lost and not a lost technique which is in continual use for centuries. Often for a life size or larger figure the clay model is divided into six or eight pieces and after casting the pieces are welded back together. At each stage in the process of casting and reassembling there is a degree of remodelling of the sculpture.

“Foundries can take anywhere from 15 to 60 per cent of sculptures budget, depending on how much casting is involved.” Louise Bellamy “Sculptors and a cast of thousands” (The Age 3/9/2005)

There are currently three foundries specializing in sculpture in Melbourne: Meridian Sculpture Founders, Coates & Wood Sculpture Foundry and Perrin Sculpture Foundry.

In Fitzroy there is Meridian Sculpture Founders. Peter Morely started Meridan in 1973, the same year that Robinson Brothers shut down. (Was Meridian named after the Meridian Bronze Company in England?) Notably artists that Meridian casts for includes Louis Laumen, Peter Corlett, Peter Schipperheyn, Lisa Roet, Ron Robertson-Swann and Maria Kuczynska.

In Northcote Coates & Wood Sculpture Foundry casts for partner Ewen Coates, Inge King, Adrian Mauriks, Pauline Clayton, Peter Blizzard, William Eicholtz and others.

Perrin Sculpture Foundry in Cheltenham casts for Rick Amor and Sister Gail O’Leary, a Melbourne-based religious sculptor.

The Francis Ormond memorial at RMIT is Melbourne’s first locally cast bronze statue.


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