Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Future of Street Art

Will in the future street art have that church fete moment? When the artist discovers their own work amongst some tatty lamps and ornaments. All the magic has been sucked out, the art reduced to an outdated fashion object for sale at a discount price. This is also the point when collectors start rummage through garage sales looking for treasures from the past.

Will street art become just another viral meme on the Internet? The image of day – something that you look at for a few seconds, “like” or “share” on Facebook and then forgot. Instant classics like instant coffee are lacking so many qualities. This is also the point where street art becomes democratic and the institutions of the art curators, collectors and academic critics are overturned.

Will street art become another step in the career path of artists on their way to major galleries or corporate sponsorship? Major art galleries around the world competed to show the first, major street art exhibitions. In the future Melbourne could have a street art gallery where the crowds exit through the gift shop to buy the t-shirt, posters and other souvenirs. This is also the point that street art becomes an art movement recognized in books on the history of art.

Adnate & Slicer "Nothing Lasts Forever" Brunswick Station

Adnate & Slicer “Nothing Lasts Forever” Brunswick Station

Or will street art remain a kind of design/craft? Street art has always been so close to a craft as design, illustration and craft are major features of street art. Street art is the folk art of the 21st Century. Folk aren’t making corn dollies anymore or whittling wood – we are urban folk now and we use of modern technology: spray cans, Photoshop colour separation, modern printing technology for and modern materials for vinyl stickers and photocopy enlargements.

Design/craft are both a strength and weakness for street art. Often there isn’t much more to street art than craft and daring. Take that away and you are left with things like Ghostpatrol illustrations on limited edition ceramic plates. Sure there are exhibitions of basket weaving and patchwork quilts at major art galleries and I’m not disputing the quality and craftsmanship of William Morris wallpaper, nor the relevance of exhibiting a sample of his wallpaper in an art gallery but it is great design/craft and not great art.

Popular culture theories applied to street art shows the usual trends. There is the conservative theory of mass society where moral and aesthetic degradation accompanies a loss of authority. There is the left wing/structural theory of culture industry where the culture industry adopts and capitalizing on street art in the same way those other groups, the punks and the hippies were adopted. And there is the whiggish theory of progressive evolution leading to more democratic participation and more authentic opportunities for personal expression. All of these theories can be supported with some choice examples from street art – the question is which of these theories street artists are going to apply to their own work.

These popular culture theories are could be portrayed as class based. The institutional elites are conservative because it protects their control of culture. The institutional theory appears Marxist in considering the culture industries as just another way of making a living by manufacturing widgets – art/design/craft makes no difference. And the whiggish, internet-idealist progressive theory can quickly degenerate into a Facebook ‘Like’. The issue of street artists “selling out” and making money only applies in the progressive theory.

Maybe it was seeing Banksy’s film “Exit Through the Gift Shop” and Thierry Guetta’s mass-produced, copyright violations, massively hyped art that put the fear into me. This is the way that street art ends, not with a bang, not with a whimper but with something crass and stupid.

Dface, spray cans, 2011

Dface, spray cans, 2011

Public Sculpture & the collective consciousness

Why do I write about Melbourne’s sculpture? Most art critics and art historians are not interested in a collection of bad to mediocre art but I am because public sculpture shows the collective consciousness of the city. Love it or hate it public sculpture says something about the identity of the city. The taste of homogenous consensus maybe bland, even ugly, but to those in power it is acceptable. Public sculpture is concerned with the perpetration and manipulation of memory and space in collaboration between artists and city councils.

The idea of a collective consciousness was invented by French sociologist Émile Durkheim to refer to the public expression of shared beliefs and moral attitudes that operate as a unifying force within society. A collective consciousness is like a public superego exhibiting the ideals that the public aspire to. It tries to tell the official history or represent the shared values and aspirations of a culture. It is different from a ‘zeitgeist’ because it is intentionally expressed.

Bertram Mackennal, George VII Memorial, 1920

Bertram Mackennal, George VII Memorial, 1920

Public sculptures because of their durability are excellent representations of the collective consciousness. Public sculpture is the collective consciousness of a city exposed in something like an archaeological cross section with all the layers clearly defined by the commission and installation dates. From the 19th through to the 21st century, from Melbourne’s first public sculpture, Charles Summers’s River God Fountain to the very latest Laneway Commissions.

Melbourne is of a similar age to many cities and what has happened with Melbourne’s public sculpture is representative of many former British colonial cities around the world, including in the USA. Melbourne’s sculpture initially was part of the English art tradition. In the 19th century the English and Australian establishment were essentially the same; Australian sculptors trained at the Royal Academy or the Royal College of Arts. The sculptor Bertram Mackennal was born in Australia and lived in England, India and Australia.

Public sculpture reflects the way that the city is understood. It is an image for the city, an expression of civic pride and the idea of civic good. Originally a public sculpture was intended records a triumph, to memorialise ownership, to preserve and glorify the memory of a king, queen, general or hero. The height of plinths was an indication of the glory of the heroic sculpture. During Melbourne’s history plinths, the architectural support for the sculpture, have become smaller or disappeared completely.

Melbourne has changed as dramatically from the small settlement founded in 1835 that used horses as transportation to a large modern metropolis. During that time there have been many changes to the way that people use public space, the way that people think about Melbourne, their values and aspirations. There has been major political changes, Australia changed from a British colony to a separate country. Given these dramatic changes in the city and its infrastructure it would be surprising if public sculpture hadn’t changed equally dramatically.

Steaphan Paton, Urban Doolagahl, Melbourne City Council Laneways Commissions 2011

Steaphan Paton, Urban Doolagahl, Melbourne City Council Laneways Commissions 2011

There is another cross section of the work of sculptors in the foyer of the NGV at Federation Square with a selection of busts by local sculptors over the 20th Century. Many of the sculptors were familiar to me because of their public sculptures in Melbourne – Paul Montford, Bertram Mackennal and Web Gilbert. The busts are not arranged chronologically but the layers of different styles are still clear. It is like looking at a series of stone tools from an archaeological dig; there are same basic forms with modifications and changes in techniques and materials.

Contemporary Indonesian Art @ NGV

“Rally: Contemporary Indonesian Art” at the NGV International was limited to two artists Jompet Kuswidananto and Eko Nugroho both from Yogyakarta. The title is wrong. “Rally” does not have exciting connotations in Melbourne just more of the usual politics. And this is not an exhibition about contemporary Indonesia and these two artists do not represent Indonesian and their art is about more than location or nationality.


Jompet Kuswidananto’s installation, The Commoners, 2012 is a ghostly march of day labours in the foyer. Only their boots, tools, megaphones, drums and t-shirts tied around their heads and flags fluttering in the wind of leaf blowers were visible. Only the sound of their drums and street sounds were audible. (See my video on YouTube.)

The Commoners were attracting the crowds of young and old visitors but fewer were venturing down the corridor to see the exhibition. Most were off to see the Post-Impressionists or the rest of the NGV. I had seen works by Jompet Kuswidananto before, in 2009 at Bus Gallery and I wanted to see more – I wanted to see more of contemporary Indonesian art in general because there is so much going on in the Indonesia art scene.

Jompet Kuswidananto creates sculptures that make the figure disappear, only the accoutrements, the drumming and noise remains. These ghostly statues question the person in the military, the day labourers, the person made invisible by their occupation or nationality. The carnival of life is made up of so many ghosts in costume. These are not exclusively Javanese ghosts, the ghosts of our own history and culture haunt us.

The installation of the exhibition was fantastic, opening you up to the world of the two artists in a single room. Two sentinel figures sit at the entrance of the gallery by Eko Nugroho. Inside some of the walls have been painted in a pattern, corrugated iron lines another wall. The room instantly takes you to another world there is so much to look at.

Eko Nugroho’s work has all the intensity of street art. His street art background is clearly evident with images embroided on velour on the painted wall and his stickers, embroided badges, t-shirts, hoodies, tot bags, comic books and other merchandise at the gift shop. While at the NGV Nugroho painted the water wall; I only saw Nugroho painting on NGV’s water wall from the outside before one of the windows cracked and the whole thing was taken down (similar to Keith Haring’s experience with the water wall). As well as, painting a wall in Hosier Lane with his sci-fi inspired images with faces staring out of machines.

Eko Nugroho in Hosier Lane, 2012

Eko Nugroho in Hosier Lane, 2012

Eko Nugroho’s fantastic costumes are something else. Unlike Kuswidananto’s figures they are visible, like mad ravers or cultists from the future.

I wanted to read more about the artists. Aclaim Magazine has an interview with Jompet Kuswidananto and Eko Nugroho. Art Guide Australia has a review of “Rally”. And Art Asia has an interview with Jompet Kuswidananto from last year.

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