Monthly Archives: September 2012

Repeatable Unrepeatable

What if everyone did that? What if everyone painted like Picasso or Pollock? What if everyone painted like Jenny Holtzer or photographed like Bill Henson? What if everyone made readymades like Duchamp? What if everyone spray-painted on walls in the city? Repeatability, reproducibility of results, is an important issue for science and ethics but what about art?

The history of art, unlike the history of science, is a cumulative narrative, where every work of art adds to what has come before. There have never been revolutions in art as there are in science; there has been nothing equivalent to the Copernican revolution (although Duchamp’s contribution might be the equivalent of quantum physics). The mistake was made when modern artists started to use the language of science in the first place in talking about ‘experiments’. Contemporary artists have avoided this word, using the more professional word ‘practice’.

There are different kinds of repeatability in the visual arts to the performing arts. The American choreographer, Merce Cunningham when on tour in India asked by Indian academic: “Do Americans like your kind of dance?” And after some confusion the question was clarified…for after dinner dancing?” Merce Cunningham’s choreography is repeatable for a trained dancer but not repeatable in a popular fashion. Democratic repeatability, that is repeatable by ordinary people, is different to repeatable by a trained elite.

Although the original is identical to the cliché except for its position in the sequence. Artistic creativity is held to be idiosyncratic, in the sense that it is isolated to an individual. This has helped sustain the idea and value of an artist’s individual signature style that grew from 17th Century artists, when artists first started to market their own work rather than rely on commissions.

Currently in the visual arts the results are regarded as irreproducible. Unlike in ethics or science the same events do not create the same results. The great results of visual art are not universalizable and can never be replicated. If someone else made portraits like Warhol they would be simply a derivative initiator (you can now get a Warhol effect on canvas at most commercial photo printers).

Obviously it has not always been this way; originally students would learn by imitating their master to the point of exactly reproduction. In the past if you could paint or sculpt like an established master then you did and would be praised for it. Following previous great art as an example is a very different issue for modern and contemporary visual art. We need to ask the question why are we not intended to follow the example of great contemporary artists? What part of their art is repeatable? Should we use great modern art as examples in art education? What if everyone behaved like Damien Hirst?


CCTV or not CCTV (Act 2)

The issue of proposed CCTV in Melbourne’s heart of street art, Hosier and Rutledge Lanes has been resolved. After deferring the decision to install CCTV cameras in Rutledge Lane and Hosier Lane the Melbourne City Council has decided not to install them. (See the Melbourne Leader 26/9/12 and Act 1 of CCTV or not CCTV)

Through out these two acts, there has not been a lot of drama because there has been a lot of respect shown. I hope that nothing I have said or written has shown any disrespect because nothing but respect has been shown to me. Even the Melbourne Leader had to try to dramatise events using the words “back down” as if there was some primitive dominance struggle. Life don’t need to be a soap opera when no-one is watching.

The residents of the lanes and the street artists, Fletch of Invurt especially, have been working hard, liasing with all the stakeholders, going to meetings, writing emails and trying to create a neighbourhood based on respect in these laneways. Everyone has acted reasonably and rationally. I am pleasantly surprised, almost shocked, at how reasonably and rational the process has been. The most telling example of this is that the city engineer, Gordon Harrison recommended to the council not to proceed with the installation of CCTV cameras.

Andy Mac’s cowboy hat will be filled by a committee of residents and artists. There is need for a contact person for the art in the lane and it is hoped/expected that person will be Adrian Doyle, who has an interest in the quality of the art from Pia and his street art tour business.  If anyone can keep his finger on the pulse of the lane then Doyle can. It would be good to have a committee, of residents and artists, to back up this position so that the same situation following Andy Mac’s egress doesn’t develop again.

There is such a sense of community about these lanes. Creating an inner neighbourhood is hard in Melbourne and Hosier Lane is not easy, you have to admire the effort that people are putting in here. For more information about Hosier Lane and to take part in online discussions about the future of the area (for anyone who works, lives or plays in the lanes) see Hosier Rutledge Neighbourhood Online.

Hosier Lane stands in contrast to what happened with Centre Place. Six years ago I used to enjoy going there now I can hardly look at Centre Place anymore. It has been going down hill for years. Now it is just a mess and it is getting worse, there is no respect shown for any of the art.

Now that the CCTV or not CCTV has been resolved we can get back to enjoying the art in those great laneways – respects to all everyone using the laneways.

Various artists, Hosier Lane

Shida in Hosier Lane

Will Coles mask in Rutledge Lane


Is there art without politics?

Ai Weiwei comments (The Guardian Weekly 21/09/12 p.37) on “Art of Change: New Directions from China” at the Hayward Gallery, London and he asks: “How can you have contemporary art that doesn’t address a single one of the country’s most pressing issues?”

I frequently find myself asking this question looking at contemporary art in Melbourne that stands for nothing but superficial gestures and thinking similar thoughts to Ai Weiwei but about Australian art rather than Chinese.

Although Australian art is heavily influenced by contemporary western cultures, it rejects the essential human values that underpin it. The Australian Government claims to the rule of law, respect for international laws and human rights but have so often excepted themselves from any obligations in various circumstances that nobody understands what this means anymore. In Australia you have a right not be discriminated against on the basis of your race except if you are an aborigine living in the Northern Territory. You have the right to claim asylum except if you come by boat. I could go on and on about the exceptions that the Australian Government has granted itself and then another tract about the exceptions that have been granted to allied governments.

Ai Weiwei offers a solution at the end of his comment. “What’s needed is open discussion, a platform for argument. Art needs to stand for something.”

Politics may not be something that an artist chooses but a position that is thrust upon them because their art does stand for something. Bill Henson has become the spokesman for artistic freedom because of the government campaign against him, not because of any overt political content in his work, but the content that government wanted to repress, a discussion that it did not want opened.

Sydney-based artist, Stephen Copland suggested to me that perhaps the political art should be judged from the archaeology of the stratigraphy of exhibitions (and the art exhibited) within the artist’s career rather than individual works of art. In this way the seriousness and depth of the artist’s political interest can best be judged. In a broader survey many artists would mark out the stratigraphy of the burning political issues in the layers of art works.

There are still plenty of largely uncensored platforms in Australia and Australian art is not under as many restrictions as art in China; the ALP did give the Australian Classification Board the power to censor art exhibitions after the Bill Henson furore.  But this freedom counts for nothing if nobody is saying anything or making superficial gestures. So many good artists remaining silent… I see so many exhibitions that are studiously saying nothing.

Sometimes it looks like all that many contemporary artists are trying to achieve is to fill a gallery space and I don’t mean completely fill up a gallery space, like the “New York Earth Room” (1977) by Walter De Maria. I mean just scale up a simple drawing so that it fills a wall or projecting a looping video onto a wall. As if filling up a gallery was an end in itself. Not that this should be taken as a complaint against all contemporary art installations as a whole, it is not about skill or technique or lack of them. There are boring exhibitions of highly competent paintings and the work of skilled crafters. Almost every week I see exhibitions that are a bit of a bore.

And the artist’s comment on this whole empty process appears to be bored and empty. Sometimes it appears that contemporary artists have done post-graduate studies in grant and application writing. This involves the composition of studied art world patois involved in over complication and indulging in obfuscation. “The exhibited works appear as chapters severed from their context” – that’s a nice way of say it is an incoherent exhibition. “Post-planning” – they are making it up as they go along. “Leading artist” – who is being lead? (For more on this art speak see Hyperallergic’s “How to Talk about Art” column.)

Why do we put up with these solipsistic, self-absorbed creations that contribute nothing to the wider cultural discourse of politics or life or anything of than other contemporary art? Who is responsible, who is to blame for this awful boring art? Let me say this first off, it is not all the artist’s fault; they are too obvious and too easy to blame. Nor is it entirely the fault of their teachers, the curators, gallery and arts grants boards. It is also the fault of the critics and art reviewers – it is my fault.

I should have slammed the artist’s work from the moment my fingers touched the keyboard. I should have dismantled their flimsy ideas and dammed their pretentious self-indulgent attempts at art. Perhaps I should have howled at the other critic’s praise for these artists. The fact is there aren’t really that many arts writers, even including bloggers, in Melbourne to complain about. We are living in a time when people in all seriousness praise the arts coverage in MX, the free paper distributed on the trains, over any other newspaper in Melbourne simply because they print more pictures.

I am not expecting that art will change that many minds or that art should be judged by its political efficacy or position. In 2010 Marcus Westbury asks “Does Political Art Work?” with the danger preaching to the choir or the tabloid frenzy the sidetrack issue. I’m not expecting art to work in politics all I’m asking is for the artists to make art that stands for something important. (The artists don’t have stand for political office, like Carl Scrase or Van Rudd.)

I am expecting that “art needs to stand for something.”


“Last Laugh” Recent Acquisition

It is good to see that the National Gallery of Victoria has purchased “Last Laugh” from Juan Ford’s recent exhibition at the Dianne Tanzer Gallery. The NGV has given me several pleasant surprises recently and I am warming to its new director, Tony Ellwood (see: The Trojan Petition).

Juan Ford, Last Laugh, 2012 (oil on linen, 107 x 92 cm)

“Last Laugh” is a realist painting about painting, a painting of paint – modernists do not have a monopoly on uniting materials and subject. The red painted paint is marking and smothering the plant as the man-made smothers the planet. It not easy to paint something that comments on the slow destruction of the planet but this painting comes close. This is not exactly Henry Lawson’s “blood on the wattle” as it is paint and not blood, and the botanical specimen is a eucalypt not a wattle; there are twists and turns in the narrative of all of Ford’s paintings. It is not a joyous image even though the sky is still bright blue for Juan Ford is an intelligent man and understands what sciences forecasts. The last laugh is the longest but also bitter and twisted.

Juan Ford’s “Last Laugh” is representative of many of Ford’s recent paintings as it is part of a series of similar paintings in his current exhibition and is similar to several paintings featuring Australian plants in his last exhibition. And there is no doubt, after a long string of awards, grants, commissions and group institutional exhibitions that Juan Ford is an artist that should be included in the NGV’s collection

The oil painting will fit into NGV’s collection in several ways and continue its narrative into contemporary painting. The question of genre is raised by these paintings, are they still life or landscapes or portraits of the nation through its flora emblems? Genre is one of those great post-modern subjects and genre mixes are a feature of post-modern art. “Last Laugh” is so much of this time and yet it obviously has many lasting qualities that will serve the NGV’s collection well in future.

As a long time fan of Ford’s work I wish, like all fans do, that he did more like his early work with engrave anamorphic images. His ability to paint that once was great has improved so much since then. (See my earlier post on Juan Ford.) But I can see why the NGV decided to acquire this strange and beautiful painting.

See also “In the Studio with Juan Ford” on Vimeo. http://vimeo.com/46172316


Geoffrey Bartlett’s Public Sculpture

Remember Geoffrey Bartlett’s “Messenger” 1983 that stood in the NGV ‘s moat? It is now located at the back of the NGV in their sculpture garden’s moat. Geoffrey Bartlett should be better known as a sculptor in Melbourne. “Messenger” was from a time when Bartlett was influenced by the American sculptor, David Smith. It looked like a kind of Rube Goldberg device; I kept wishing that it would move to release some of the tension in it. There is an obvious reference in “Messenger” to Smith’s “The Letter” 1950.

Geoffrey Bartlett, “Messenger”, 1983, steel

Melbourne based sculptor Geoffrey Bartlett first solo exhibition in 1976 at the Ewing Gallery, University of Melbourne, seven years later his sculpture stood in front of the NGV. Artists emerged quickly in those days. Back in the 1980s the sculptors Geoffrey Bartlett, Augustine Dall’Ava and Anthony Pryor shared a studio on Gertrude Street.

Personally I prefer Bartlett’s later sculptures, after he was influenced by Henry Moore and added more volume and mass to his sculptures, and there are plenty around Melbourne. These later sculptures have fusion of elements organic and metallic with the individual parts united into a whole complex form. There is a biomorphic appeal of his sculptures, like “Nautilus, Study with 2 Legs” 2010, 24 George Street, East Melbourne. There is also the appeal that his sculptures show their construction process, you can see the bolts and rivets that hold his stainless-steel sculptures together.

“Bartlett intends to disclose, rather than hide the construction process, believing in providing the viewer with an honest impression of the nature of the structure.” [Caroline  Field, “Geoffery Bartlett: The Art of Refinement” Geoffrey Bartlett – Silver Cloud (Deakin University, 2001, Toorak) p.9]

Geoffrey Bartlett, “Orion”, 2008, stainless steel

Geoffrey Bartlett is inspired by astronomy – there is his “Orion” 2008 at the Lucient Building, 430 St. Kilda Road (or his “Orion, Study 2,” 2011, 20 Straun Street, Toorak), “Aurora”, 2006, named after the Greek goddess of dawn on the corner of Harbour Esplanade and Bourke Street in the Docklands and, in collaboration with Bruce Armstrong, “Constellation”, 1997 along the boardwalk at the Yarra Turning Basin.

Geoffery Bartlett & Bruce Armstrong “Constellation”, 1997, wood and steel, detail

“Constellation” sees the return of maritime themes in Bartlett’s work but  in other ways a departure from Bartlett’s usual style. Seashells, like that of the Nautilus, have long inspired Bartlett. In 1988 Bartlett created “Mariner” for New Zealand’s Trans-Tasman Shipping.

Other sculptures by Geoffrey Bartlett in Melbourne include: “Landscape at Moyston”, Price Waterhouse Coopers, 215 Spring Street, 1996, and “Obelisk” for the City of Melbourne, Focal Building also on Spring Street. There are also public sculptures by Bartlett in Auckland, and Newcastle, NSW.

Geoffery Barlett “Aura”, 2006, stainless steel, Docklands


O No

I think about the parts of art that other critics don’t look at; the parts around art that goes to explain art and the most obvious of these (aside from art gallery itself) are the didactic panels. Didactic panels are those bits of text beside pictures in major institutional art galleries and museums; they are didactic not just because they are educational and informative but also because they give instruction even when it is not welcome or needed. They are footnotes of an art museum.

MONA’s “O” Device is not the future of didactic panels in art galleries. There are problems with didactic panels but the “O” is not the solution, it is just another part of the problem.

I don’t think that there should be no didactic panels but there should be a lot less. Do we really need panels in art museums to explain every painting in the collection? Do we even need so many of them? All these panels of text clutter up the walls of the exhibition.

After all how much does “Madonna and child, 14th Century, Master of somewhere”, or, “Portrait of a Man”, tell the visitor. There are panels that give titles to a painting that originally had none, like Rembrandt’s “The Jewish Bride”. There is a painting in the Louvre titled “John the Baptist or Bacchus” not because the artist gave it this title but because the artist’s iconography is unclear. This is simply misleading even if it is the current fashion for all painting to have names rather than descriptions. Titles are essential to some works of art and this is why Duchamp wrote many of them on actual readymades but this doesn’t mean that they are necessary for all art.

Then there are didactic panels that use words like ‘gouache’, presuming that they are talking to an informed public. The general public would know ‘gouache’ as ‘poster paints’. It is rather like only using Latin names for animals rather than their common names.

Curators expressing their opinions on these panels are, in my opinion, unnecessary but they are simply wrong to tell me how I should think or feel about the art. Another trend is to have panels written by people other than curators, children, philosophers, anything for more panels. And along with all these didactic panels are the artist statements. If an artist’s work doesn’t speak for itself then it won’t help the artist explaining it. And artists are not, as a rule, experts in writing explanations, so artist’s statements are often very annoying to read and can alone inspire a bad review.

“Never believe what an artists says; only what he does.” Walter Sickett

The MONA’s “O” is a hand held device; basically it is an electronic room-sheet for sections of the MONA’s collection and you have to find a tiny picture of art to get the information on it. The device would have been easier to use if there were some signs to indicate what case number or what part of a gallery I was looking in but there are no signs at MONA. The electronics don’t work very well; I had to swap my device three times because this was the solution that the gallery attendant could think of to solve the problems with picking up the right room.

The electronic record of my visit on MONA’s website is the best part of the “O” but an online catalogue would be almost just as useful. The “like” or “hate” button on the “O” is as stupid and shallow as Facebook. The “O” just has more didactic text and not less which reducing my conversation with my companion and interfering with my enjoyment of the visit to MONA.

And as I wear reading glasses using the “O” was further complicated. I can still read print at arms length and I do carry my glasses in my pocket at galleries in case I want to read something, write notes or look at detail but I don’t want to walk around wearing my reading glasses because isn’t comfortable. And this added to the irritating quality of using the “O” at MONA and after half and hour of using it I just wanted to throw it away or crush it underfoot.


Hamer Hall – architecture & garden

The Melbourne firm of architects, Ashton Raggatt McDougall (ARM), designed the new Hamer Hall. ARM also designed RMIT’s Storey Hall, the Melbourne Recital Centre and other notable projects in Australia. ARM have the art of architectural redevelopment down with earlier project including redeveloping Melbourne Central Shopping Centre and adding a Visitor Centre to the Shrine of Remembrance where the character of original building is not lost but simply and subtly improved.

Hamer Hall

The new riverside front of Hamer Hall with its dynamic curves and cut away windows reminded me of Hive, graffiti architecture, only on a larger scale. (See my post: Graffiti & Architecture.) The contrast with the old, mossy stone of Princes Bridge designed by the architect John Grainger (1854-1917), the father of the composer, Percy Grainger.

Kaeru, a garden of recycled materials on the upper lawn terrace of the new Hamer Hall is a temporary, environmental art project. Created by Japanese installation artist, Hiroshi Fuji in collaboration with Melbourne’s Slow Art Collective and the people of Victoria. The Slow Art Collective is Tony Adams, Chaco Kato, and Dylan Martorell; they have impressed me in the past with their installations especially the audio aspect. I have seen works by their members before at Gertrude Contemporary, the Counihan and Lamington Drive (See my 2009 post: Dylan Martorell @ Lamington Drive.)

Kaeru Garden, Melbourne, 2012

Hiroshi Fuji has done a number of installations using found plastic. There is so much plastic in the world that it will pollute the world for a thousand years, so you might as well reuse and enjoy what is already around. Kaeru demonstrates that this is possible.

Kaeru all looks like a giant spider web made by a psychedelic spider. There were some great seats where I sat and watched the Yarra River run by in the early spring sunshine and enjoyed the audio elements of this garden. Gardens are not silent – only the dead are silent and even an unnatural garden like this needs sounds. There is the rattle of pinwheels, the occasional clang of metal from wind chimes and hanging speakers attached to glass balls emitting ambient sounds.

Seating in Kaeru


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