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Monthly Archives: July 2012

Sculptures in Storage

The maquettes for familiar public sculptures were on a couple of shelves, there were racks of paintings and even a couple of street art pieces (recent acquisitions from the Andy Mac collection auction) in the storage at the City of Melbourne Art and Heritage Collection. I was looking around on a tour with Melbourne Open House 2012 – the only opportunity that a member of the public has to see this archive of the city’s history.

Maquettes for Fiona Clarke and Ken McKean’s Eel Trap and Pamela Irving’s Larry Latrobe

“Where are the sculptures?” I asked at the end of the tour. I had expected to see a couple of old marble sculpture in bad repair, as Melbourne’s gardens were reportedly full of copies of classical sculpture.

“We don’t have any in storage.”

Further interrogation followed as I had read a report in the Melbourne Weekly Times about the two busts of Dante and Marconi that are in storage. They are going to the new Italian Culture Museum. There were bits of another sculpture but apart from that there was nothing in storage, it was all out on public display.

The sculptures that are no longer visible in the city are owned and stored by organizations other than the City of Melbourne. I assume that Docklands has a separate storage where they are keeping the recently dismantled “Shoal Fly By” by Melbourne-based architect/artist partnership, Cat Macleod and Michael Bellemo that was located on
Harbour Esplanade. The dock footing where the sculpture stood was unsafe and the sculpture was removed earlier this year.

Michael Meszaros sculpture “Distant Conversations” 1992 (also known as “the Telstra figures”) is no longer in the Telstra building. “In October 2009, Telstra decided after 17 years they were going to dismantle Michael Meszaros’ ‘Distant Conversations’ in order to install a Telstra shop. Needless to say the artist was distraught. Mr Meszaros sort legal advise and with the help of lawyer Dr. Mark Williams was able to save his work under the recognition of artists’ moral rights legislation. After negotiating with Telstra for a reasonable outcome Mr Meszaros was eventually able to secure a buyer for the artwork who agreed to remove, store and eventually relocate the work which is valued at over $1million.” (Public Art Around the World)

What ever happened to the de Kooning sculpture that used to stand in front of the Art Centre? What sculptures in Melbourne do you remember that aren’t there any more?

 

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Graffiti & Architecture

If graffiti is a major design movement, the contemporary equivalent to art deco, a total style from graphics to fashion to architecture. When I first wrote about street art and architecture in 2009 there was very little to write about apart from bigger walls. Now there are whole buildings.

Reka on building in East Richmond

Painting whole wall or whole building is becoming more common in Melbourne with works by Reka, Ears, Ghostpatrol and others. Most pieces use a section of wall as simply a support for the paint without consideration about the size of piece in relationship to the size of the wall. Going around the corner, looking at the whole wall or painting a whole building is something else.

But it is still just another façade.

Hive Graffiti Apartments in Carlton

In 2011 ITN Architects built Hive Graffiti Apartments. Located in the inner city suburb of Carlton. The project is the architect’s home; I went along to see it when it was open to the public as part of Open House Melbourne 2012. It is a joint development by the architect Zvi Belling and Melbourne old school graff artist ‘Prowla’, both of whom reside in the building. For more images and a floor plan of Hive see DeZeen Magazine.

‘Prowla’ was a member of the Rock Da City graffiti crew (1987 – 2009) – his dog was calmly watching all the people waiting in the garage from the stairs to his apartment.

On one side of the building large concrete letters and windows spelled “Hive” along with a couple of arrows on the upper floor and some dynamic old school design. But what apart from the façade was graffiti about the apartments? It is hard to know as this may well be the first graffiti style building in the world. The Hive is the first in a promised series of Hip Hop buildings designed by ITN Architects maybe when we see some more it will be easier to say. Perhaps, it is the collaboration in the design, or, incorporating existing urban elements – from the original street face of the old tailor’s shop, the old brick walls and the laneway entrance. The house is like a fresh new piece in an old laneway. Inside the lines are crisp, it is compact and the angles flow with a cool direction.

The street art collection hanging in the house was familiar – I’d seen some of it at a Melbourne Stencil Festival exhibition many years ago. The house was also familiar in a way, there was no feeling of being unable to imaging living there; it is like a typical flat only cooler.


High culture & Popular culture

I haven’t really thought about high culture and popular culture for decades but it has come up recently in comments and conversations. It always felt like a slippery concept and boring as it was involved with finance and connections with European royalty. I do know that ancient Rome had two types of art: the high classical art and the popular style which can be seen on Hadrian’s column (high) and Trajan’s column (popular). I thought that the distinction wasn’t relevant in a post-modern world where high culture mixed with popular culture. The destruction of the boundaries between high and pop art was blurred by everyone from Robert Venturi considering the architecture of Las Vegas to PILtd doing a dub remix of Swan Lake. My view of culture is larger, multi-cultural and post-colonial idea.

It was the English critic, Matthew Arnold who invented the terms “high culture” and “popular” culture. It wasn’t a good theory from Matthew Arnold in 1869 and it remained Euro-centric and poorly defined. Was the term “high” an indicator of quality or class? It was not as if Arnold had a high regard for the any class; he described the upper class as “barbarians” and the middle class as “philistines”. However, Arnold’s readers were enmeshed in 19th Century class distinctions and if he didn’t consider popular culture as working class his readers did. Arnold’s terms then become class distinctions rather than a qualitative term. The “populus” was Arnold’s term for working class and seemed to indicate that popular culture was be working class but if Arnold’s intended this then he would have used ‘barbarian culture’ or ‘philistine culture’ instead of the term “high culture”. Bringing class into the discussion simply confuses the simple point that Arnold was making that the popularity of art does not equal its quality.

Arnold believed that culture would eventually destroy class by replacing it. Arnold might have meant by high culture something that worked for the improvement of humanity. In this version of high culture and popular culture The Wire is high culture and Big Brother is just popular culture. The quality of The Wire can be measured in many ways whereas the quality of Big Brother can only be measured in the ratings. However, by the time The Wire and Big Brother came along the terms high culture and popular culture had developed to mean something very different. High culture means the cannon of art, literature, music etc. taught at university and not a way of distinguishing between different types of TV shows.

Arnold’s theory barely lasted a century before it collapsed. Maybe we need a new terminology to distinguish between work with blue chip enduring quality and the junk bond equivalent in art or a cultural nutritional utilitarian value of the ingredients. Maybe the terms are already there, ordinary words like: quality and trash.


Fashion & Dictators

Art and fashion follow the money but are the taste of the powerful and wealthy as dubious as their ethics? When French Elle magazine vote the wife of the Syrian leader, Asma al-Assad, “the most stylish woman in world politics”, they not only displayed political naiveté but a serious lack of taste. French Elle was not alone Paris Match and American Vogue also lavished praise on the dictator’s wife. (For more see Angelique Chrisafis “The first ladies of oppression” The Guardian.) Don’t these people remember Naomi Campbell’s testimony in 2010 about receiving diamonds from convicted war criminal Robert Taylor? Don’t these people remember that Imelda Marcos had 15 mink coats, 508 gowns, 1,000 handbags and 1,000 – 3,000 pairs of shoes?

The high end of couture fashion is dependent on selling products to people, many of whom have obviously acquired their wealth dishonestly, at prices that no honest person could afford. Yet these labels are never held in anyway responsible – sure a few portrait painters might fall with a dictator – no fashion house suffers. The high fashion labels keep on racking in the money from the corrupt without any implications on their character or taste.

Entertain the thought that fashion is not superficial, that it is actually the most deep and important of all cultural signifiers. We identify ourselves through our fashion, and now more than ever, it is now not just a sign of class, profession and status but of identity. This is more than just about the money – it is a question about taste. The taste for high-end fashion and for corruption and blood are obviously linked but almost never discussed. Who wants to dress like the wife of a dictator, or like a dictator? Why are their politics but not their taste in clothes questioned?

It is horrible to think of Bashar al-Assad dancing around to “I’m too sexy for my shirt” by Right Said Fred (leaked information reveals that he downloaded it from Itunes this year). He must be ignorant of how camp the song is, simply a vain and brutal criminal in an expensive shirt.


Painted Trains, Trams & Cars

Graffiti painted trains was the classic format of 1980s and 90s but are there any connection to the Russian painted Agitprop train of 1919? The Agitprop train (“agitprop” a portmanteau word combining agitation and propaganda) was sent out to announce the revolution across Russia; its painted carriages were a demonstration of what the future would be like. (There is a 1919 film about the Agitprop trains on YouTube.)

Flinders Street with painted train

I know that some hardcore aerosol graffiti writers would like to see a connection between this but I’m not sure. It is not as if graffiti writers have the patent on painting trains. The intention of all these officially decorated modes of trains is to enhance its prestige and attraction whereas the graffiti writers are painting for their own reasons.

In the age of railway, trains were often decorated, most frequently in patriotic flags, or specially painted. The Americans had a “Freedom Train” in 1947 painted red, white and blue. France’s president, Charles De Gaulle’ had a private gold and silver decorated train. As well as politicians, circus animal also travelled in brightly painted and decorated railway cars; the brightly painted cages were as part of the attraction.

I am reliably informed that trains are still being painted in Melbourne but I haven’t seen that many in the past years but then I’m not spending a lot of time hanging out on railway platforms where multiple train lines are visible. The war between the railways and the graff writers continues – like all wars the results are often ugly and a peaceful resolution appears impossible.

Melbourne had 40 painted trams in service from 1978 until 1993. It was called “The Transporting Art project” and begun by the Ministry of the Arts under then Premier Rupert Hamer. The artists who painted trams the include: Howard Arkley, Mike Brown, Michael Leunig, Mirka Mora, John Nixon, Clifton Pugh, David Larwill and Lin Onus. (St. Kilda Historical Society has an essay by Joan Auld on Mirka Mora’s tram.) Melbourne needs to revive this art project instead of selling the trams bodies for advertising space.

In 1993 Qantas went bigger and several aircraft painted by aboriginal artists. When will we see the first aeroplane painted by a notable street artist?

Painted Van in Melbourne

I try to photograph all the painted cars, vans and trucks that I see, there aren’t many on the road. (For more pictures see my blog post about Automotive Graffiti.) The hippy tradition of a painted van that started with Ken Keasey’s psychedelic painted bus, “Further” remains a hippy tradition. As a culture we need to ask why are people in Indian and SE Asia happy to decorate their vehicles when the wealthier Westerners don’t? Is the re-sale value more important than the personalisation?


Big Cat Controversy

A giant 3m bronze cat by Melbourne-based sculptor Dean Bowen at the Wyndham Vale Community Learning Centre has become a petty controversy because of costs.

It is such an easy political beat up for a local councillor to complain about the cost of a recent sculpture. It is the same kind of petty council politics that plagued “Vault” (aka “The Yellow Peril”) and other public sculptures. It is such an easy controversy to run in the media because most people don’t buy sculpture so they have no idea of realistic costs. It is easy because there is never a break down of the costs, just a big lump sum. It is easy because there is no comparison to other budget items. It is so easy that any local councillor who pulls this kind of stunt is the kind of stupid scum of the earth who should be replaced at the next election. And an intelligent journalist should spike such a story or get more facts.

Look at the facts not the lump sum. Wyndham Council has a policy of spending 1% of public building budgets on the arts. It is a policy that is employed by Melbourne’s Docklands and many other organizations. (See my blog post: Docklands 1% Sculpture)

The money for the sculpture is not simply going in the pocket of the sculptor. The costs for a sculpture quickly add up. Foundries can take anywhere from 15 to 60 per cent of an artist’s budget for a sculpture depending on how much casting is involved. Bronze ($5 per kilo for scrap bronze) and a large block of marble for the base are not cheap. Transportation and installation of the heavy statue and the plinth is another cost that the public might not expect.

The use of the foreign labour to sculpt most of the Queen Victoria monument (1907) ruined the reputation of its sculptor, James White (1861-1918). White was in a bind as he depended on the skill of the Italian stone carvers to work the Carrara marble for the multiple figures on the large monument. Now that’s a real political controversy about a sculpture considering how strong both nationalism and the local stonemason’s union was at the time.

When the public can get over the petty politics of cost we can move on to discuss the artistic merit of this quirky cat sculpture.


Little Diver Remembered

Melbourne’s street artists have been recreating it in tributes ever since Banksy’s “Little Diver” in Cocker Alley was destroyed in 2008.

Cocker Alley Banksy Tributes – Sunfigo above, Phoenix below

The first artist to document create a paste-up tribute images was Phoenix. Phoenix created an identically sized Little Diver figure that was revealed by the dripping paint that destroyed it. Phoenix continues to refer to the Banksy’s Little Diver, this time with a cross over reference to Warhol “Famous for 15 minutes comments.” (See “The Resurrection of Banksy’s Little Diver” by John Raptis.)

Earlier this year Sunfigo remembered Banksy’s “Little Diver” in a work that parodied the Melbourne City Council’s Laneway Commissions. Sunfigo is a good multi-layer stencil maker and knows Melbourne street art and graffiti history including references to HaHa, Hugh Dunit, Sync, Phibs, the notorious CCTV, and others, as well as, Banksy.

Melbourne street art performance artist, Bados Earthling has been creating his own tributes to Banksy with performances and songs. When a Banksy rat was destroyed in Prahan in 2012 Bados held a candlelight vigil in Prahran to mourn the loss. Bados Earthling and his band the Wild Audio Society’s have a Banksy tribute songs: ““Be Like Banksy” with the chorus “Where’s the Banksy?” Bados Earthling says “the most comonally asked question I get from the general public is where are all the banksy’s located… They never asked about any Austrtalian street artist.” (You can enjoy Bandos’s performances on YouTube.)

In 2010 another Banksy rat was destroyed in Hosier Lane, local street artists reproduced it and added other work commenting on it. (See my blog post: Street Art Notes July)  Do all of these tributes to Banksy really contribute anything to Melbourne’s street art? Even though the tributes to Banksy by Phoenix, Sunfigo and Bados are all quality and nuanced works of art but repeating the legend of Banksy is not the subject of significant art. Apart from serving as a reminder of the hypocrisy of Melbourne City Council towards street art – and politicians eat hypocrisy for breakfast. There is an element of the cultural cringe in both the council and Melbourne street artist’s continual celebration of a visiting British artist.

Rather than dwelling on the past maybe these artists should think about the future of street art in Melbourne. Street art is ephemeral and has little room for history – maybe it’s time to forget about Banksy.


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