Monthly Archives: May 2012

Toys Make the Human

Toys are as much cultural artefacts as sculptures, although generally not considered as valuable. As a cultural artefact toys can shows as much about the culture, its values, traditions and beliefs as a small sculpture. Toys show part of the collective consciousness; they are miniature version of the adult world.

Soldiers doing ablutions survive at the Munich Toy Museum

Toys are part of an ephemeral culture and most of them are loved to destruction. Conscious of this history and like many aspects of ephemeral culture, toys have become collectable design objects in themselves. Some toys are now consciously created as collectable design objects, marketed to adults, remain in their original packaging as part of a complete design statement. (More do not touch signs and glass cases.)

I’ve been to toy museums and also the occasional a customized toy exhibition or art exhibition using toys. (I should note that I still have a collection of 25mm lead figures that I painted when I was a teenager and won a prize for some of them at Arcarnacon I.)

Toy museums are always interesting places to visit. I have enjoyed my visits to the Munich Toy Museum (Spielzeugmuseum im Alten Rathausturm) and the Mint Toy Museum in Singapore. Curiously both of these museums are extremely vertical, their exhibits crammed into several small narrow floors. Fortunately their exhibits are all on a small scale. The Mint Toy Museum concentrates on the influence of popular culture with toys associated with the space age, politicians, the Beatles, Disney films etc. It has a great collection of Japanese tin toys especially robots. The Munich Toy Museum specializes in teddy bears but also in the past preserved in miniature with toy vehicles, kitchens and armies. There was a whole history of kitchens, the military or transportation told in those toys.

Doll house kitchen in the Munich Toy Museum

President Nixon’s ping pong diplomacy preserved in toys at the Mint Toy Museum.

A few years ago at Villain I saw one of their “Munny” shows (I’ve seen others since at Villain but this was the best – I wish that I’d had my camera that day). A Munny is a customisable toy figure with a simplified round cartoon form either as a standing figure or in a small car. It is customisable in that all kinds of media can be applied to its plastic surface. They are amongst other brands of customisable toys that are for sale at Villain. Every year or so Villain assembles an awesome collection of modified Munnys for an in store exhibition. That year several of the artists exhibiting in the show from the street art scene: Phibs, Deb, and Junior. Phibs sushi crab version of the Munny car was out standing. There were some amazing and fun modifications of the original toy, some beautiful painting and excellent modelling. Some of the modifications left the original form far behind, like Agnieska Rypinska’s large impressive elephant with howdah. One of the works on display was by Katherine Dretzke, a customer who had brought her, now decorated and winged, Munny back to the store for the exhibition; a genuine interactive consumer experience.

Maybe we should look more deeply at toys; maybe they are more than just artefacts that represent our culture but symbols of what makes us human. Desmond Morris argues in the Naked Ape (1967) that humans retain many juvenile ape features and that this juvenile nature has been turned to an evolutionary advantage. The human ability to remain a juvenile and play allows the human to continue to learn as adults.


Democracy in Art

A century ago Appolinaire wrote about some of Duchamp’s early paintings; “he will reunite art with the people”. The remark was more critical rhetoric by Appolinaire than analysis, as there was no reason to believe the Duchamp’s early cubist paintings was any more or less democratic. Prior to the 20th century art was not democratic it was purely plutocratic, a pursuit for the rich and powerful. Appolinaire was right that art in the 20th century would become more democratic, but I don’t think Duchamp was the artist to do this.

I’ve been thinking about is democracy in art. No, I’m not talking about voting, or people’s choice art prizes. And I’m not thinking about an ideal socialist man who works in a factory in the morning, fishes in the afternoon and writes art criticism in the evening – that will just end in knitting circles. I’ve been thinking about democratic art that is by the people and for the people, as opposed to being by a particular caste/class to another caste/class. Not an abstract “people” that is discussed in political circles, nor people whose public role (be it king or art curator) has diminished their individual taste with organisational responsibility, just individual people.

From the people does not mean that democratic art has to be created by amateur artists in community groups. From the people means that artists do not have to come from a particular group, class or caste. Warhol and Basquiat were both from disadvantaged backgrounds and received their art education at public expense.

Democratic art is promoted peer to peer rather than by academic or royal approval. In the past popular arts had a bad rap from critics and it was probably justified if you consider a life limited to listening to the top ten songs. In the past the limit of the media and this limited audience forced popular arts into a lowest common denominator position, with the occasional rare exception. The limited numbers available for an audience in all but the largest of ancient cities meant that all popular art forms had to cater to the lowest common denominator otherwise they wouldn’t get an audience. Now 1% of a population can be a huge audience. This has changed the arts from what most people would like or should like, to a world where individual preferences are tolerated.

Being able to tolerate your neighbour’s terrible taste is another part of democratic art. In a democracy just as you tolerate right of others to express their stupid political opinions, their blasphemous religious beliefs (or lack of religious beliefs) and, along with this their taste. Taste, although apparently superficial, is part of politics, religion and culture.

The democratisation of art in the 20th century followed the triumph of the bourgeois in the 19th century. It required both changes in technology and the distribution of art. Technology has been responsible for the democratisation of art – it is no longer mob rule. Shakespeare had to keep both the groundlings and the lords happy. Not anymore. From a room of ones own to headphones; the changes to technology that have lead to a horizontal market for taste, instead of a vertical, hierarchical determination. The vertical market sells exclusively to the hierarchy of institutions and collections. The horizontal democratic model sells to anyone who wants to buy at a price that they can afford. This requires cultural products that come in multiple editions to be sold in large numbers.

Democratic art is not completely level, some people have more money to buy art and some people have more time to post images and comments on the internet. Appreciation of art will always remain an elite activity; the refinement of taste will be a pursuit that not all will choose. But there can be many elites; the elites of speed metal, of classical ballet, of contemporary art or graffiti. The diversity in contemporary art is a feature of its democratisation. Now being an elite is open to everyone but it is a pursuit that only a few will have the time, will and inclination to do. What mean by this democratic elite is a meritocracy the 1% of people who put the time in to contribute seriously to a culture, who aren’t prepared to simply swell a scene in the chorus or to be a spectator.


Amac Auction Action

Sunday was a big day in Melbourne’s street art calendar and yet there was no aerosol in the air – it had been replaced by the smell of money. I’ve been following in blog posts the progress of street art moving from the street, into the gallery and now into the auction house. Not that this is the first street art auction in Melbourne but the Andy Mac Collection is an important event and Leonard Joel is a major art auction house.

For over a decade Andy Mac (aka Amac) has been involvement with Melbourne’s street art. He established City Lights (in Centre Place 1996 and in Hosier Lane in 1998) and then Until Never gallery in 2005. He is the first person for a media or documentary interview on Melbourne’s street art. He has also been a serious collector, not just of street art but also skateboards, ceramics and rock band posters for a quarter of a century.

The auction is a serious operation with a full colour newsprint catalogue, receptionists, and a floor talk by Andy Mac on the Saturday before the auction. Viewing of the Andy Mac Collection – “street and fine art from Citylights Project 1992-2012” had been open all week at Leonard Joel auction house in South Yarra. And the publicity for the auction had been going since March (my father sent me a clipping from The Australian 3/4/12 about the auction – that’s what people did before the advent of the online world). There is a lot of money at stake in this auction, an expected $350,000. Andy Mac will get his superannuation retirement investment. And Leonard Joel will get the 22% buyers premium along with a percentage of the auction price. And some artists may have a game changing moment in their career.

The viewing room was a major exhibition of street art itself, complete with catalogue. Three walls at one end of Leonard Joel’s converted old schoolrooms were covered in wall panels of stencils from 2004, the Freeze Muthastika. This collaborative work was painted at the Big Day Out in 2004 and consists of 72 panels (measuring over 30 metres in length, or 60 sq metres approx). Two sets of these panels were sold for $28,000 and the other two were passed in passed in.

Scattered amongst the stencil art there is a signature David Waters sculpture made from foam ($350), beautiful Marcos Davidson rings and one his spectacular assemblages (unsold). It seemed like everything was up for sale, including the perpex tables from Until Never gallery. The “very rare 1957 Featherston Series 21 chair” signed Amac, Rubin, Braddock, Terror and Sync might be bought for the chair or the signatures (sold for $1500 ). Industrial double sided step ladder, Lot 419 “Blue fiberglass construction helmet” estimated at $100 – $200 (Tell them they’re dreaming!) (unsold)

On Sunday the auction room was packed; they even had to bring out more chairs to put another row down the back although numbers thinned after an hour. Along one side of the room there was a table of telephones and laptops attended by assistants dealt with the phone and online bidding. Lots were displayed digitally on two screens and there were over 500 lots to get through (so I did not stay to report on all the details).

Art collector Andrew King started the bidding on the first lot up for auction and over the course of auction added many works to his extensive street art collection. (For more about Andrew King and Sandra Powell’s collection see CDH’s interview with them on Invurt). King was not alone in the bidding and there was sometimes stiff competition for particular works. J.D. Mittman, the former gallery director of Famous When Dead was also bidding, seated at the back of the room with the artist, Adi. There weren’t many artists in attendance; Adi, Miso and Seldom were the only artists that I recognized.

The auction house estimates were on the optimistic side and it was rare for a lot to go above that price. A few lots went unsold, most of those due to the bidding falling just shy of the reserve price. Some lots achieved different prices depending on the colour of paint sprayed through same stencil by an unknown artist: 84. brown (unsold), 85. red (unsold), 86. purple (sold $200) 87. black (sold $260). Other lots achieved different prices depending on the subject of the art. You can see the auction results for yourself at Leonard Joel’s website (all prices quoted exclude the 22% buyers premium).


Not the Usual Places

I’ve been keeping my eyes open on the look out for Melbourne’s street art. And I’ve been seeing street art everywhere. I’ve been looking in the usual places in the city and seeing it some unusual places.

Hawksburn burner by ??

I’ve been out to Leonard Joel auction house in “the impressive heritage listed former Hawksburn Primary School in the heart of South Yarra” to look at the Andy Mac Collection – “street and fine art from Citylights Project 1992-2012”. I will write more about that in a future blog post after attending the auction this Sunday. (Hi Lorraine from Melbourne Street Art.)

I saw some incidental tags and a Junky Projects in the photographs of Jesse Marlow on exhibition at Anna Pappas Gallery. Not that these tags are the focus of Marlow’s photographs but it would be hard to photograph the streets of Melbourne and not include some tags or a Junky Projects tin can face. “Don’t Just Tell Them, Show Them (Part 3)” by Jesse Marlow is a photographic exhibition that looks at the strange beauty found in urban details. Marlow’s photographs are beautifully composed images but she can’t control every detail of what she finds in the street.

Flinders Street with painted carriage

The first painted train carriage in Melbourne that I’ve seen in ages pulled into Flinders Street Station on Wednesday. I hurriedly pulled out my camera. It is not that unusual according to my contact in Metro. They must have been desperate for train carriages to fill the timetable. A contributing reason to why the carriage was run with graffiti might have been that the pieces didn’t cover up too much of the train’s windows.

Continuing with my theme of unusual places to see street art in Melbourne. Street artists have now been hired to decorate part of Melbourne Central (Vetti reports on Melbourne Central) or the Myer Basement (ArtGraffarti reports Myer). And today Keith Haring made the Google home page in celebration of his birthday. If only he hadn’t died in 1990 and had lived to see the street art of Melbourne today. (See my post about Keith Haring in Melbourne.)


Street Art Sculpture III

I love street art sculpture; this is my third post about it (see Street Art Sculpture and More Street Art Sculpture). Not all of the street sculptures that I’ve written about are still there; some have weathered well, some have been painted over and others have been removed. Such is the nature of all street art. But there are some new ones around, especially the rainbows by GT who saved the best one for Hosier Lane.

 

GT spectrum sculpture, 2012, Hosier Lane

This is an amazing time in the history of Melbourne’s sculpture. 40 years ago the old sculpture that Melbourne would accept were figures of people or horses made of bronze or stone and placed in a park or out the front of a prominent building. Now there is the joy of discovering a Will Cole cast squashed can or a Junky Projects hidden in the streets. It is another reason not to sleep walk through the city but to explore it.

Will Coles, can, 2011, Corner Elizabeth & Burke

Junky Projects, 2012, Brunswick

Van Rudd, Protest Sign, 2010, Collingwood

unknown, pig face, 2011, Hosier Lane

Malfunction, Leopards, 2011, Brunswick

It is hard to find space for a sculpture in the narrow laneways and crowded streets of Melbourne so some of the best current artists work on a small scale. Not everyone can pull off something as large as Crateman collective or CDH’s Atlas intervention. But more of Melbourne’s street artists like Be Free and Phoenix are thinking in 3 dimensions. Not that all street art sculpture will be successful, some of it just make me cringe.

unknown, kangola australiana, Flannigan Lane, 2011

If anyone with more information about any of the pieces or any other street art sculpture please leave your thoughts.


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