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Monthly Archives: March 2013

Person of Interest – Salvador Dali

When I was a student at Bendigo High School I found a copy of The Secret Life of Salvador Dali (1942) in the library. Reading it made my life in Bendigo bearable for two more years. I was aware of Dali’s paintings from earlier art classes, when we had briefly looked at Surrealism, but the reading his book was a great experience at that time in my life. “’Do not commit suicide, for surrealism has been born’, might well be the phrase cried in the night to a desperate civilisation.” This quote from James Gleeson explains my situation in Bendigo as alienated 16 year old yearning to escape from the small rural city. As a solution to adolescent angst Salvador Dali was better than Bowie.

Dali in aerosol in the Collingwood Underground

Dali in aerosol in the Collingwood Underground

Dali’s creation of a surreal self was one of the archetypal images of the 20th Century. Subsequent pop stars, like Bowie, would follow the process of egotistical autobiographical creation, the cultivated image and eccentricities that was Dali. However, Dali is a complex character and not just a superficial attention-seeking artist; I understood this when I read his essay on art nouveau, it was the most intelligent and concise analysis of the style that I had read. His interest and understanding of both science and mythology are far from superficial.

Dali’s technical mastery of painting and drawing is amazing and is this technique that accounts for much of Dali’s mass popularity. Later I read his book 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship (Dial Press, 1948) it was useful to me as a painter but like a book of arcane knowledge you have to be wise enough to see the nonsense scattered amongst true information. But there is more to Dali than artistic technique; he co-wrote with Luis Buñuel, the landmark Surrealist film Un Chien Andalou.

Travelling in Spain I took the opportunity to see Dali’s hometown of Figeros and the museum that he created there in his last years. From my travel journal: “ 27/4/2000 I don’t believe it but I made the 7:50am Figeros express and I’m on my to Dali territory. It just shows how easy it is to get around in Barcelona. The weather is a bit overcast and clouds shroud the mountains. I’m still having very strange dreams and waking up a couple of times a night…jetlag? … I was very glad that I visited the Barcelona Museum of Modern Art to understand Dali’s early influences and references… Museum Dali-Gala is full of moving sculptures, coin operated sculptures and optical viewers (25 pestas), peepholes and cues of people waiting for a particular view… Fortunately there is a garden to relax in because the crowds are worse than the Uffizi or the Vatican Museum.” It was the most fun museums that I ever visited, if Dali knew how many visitors would come he would have installed a fair-ground cars like a ghost-train.

I really do think that Dali believed that art was equal to spiritual salvation. As Gainsborough said on his death bed: “We are all going to heaven and Vandyke is of the company.” Painted on the ceiling (1100 x 575cm) of one of the rooms the Museum Dali-Gala is a vision of the apotheosis of Gala and Dali, the huge feet on their foreshortened bodies is most of what that we mortals can see as they ascend to a Dali heaven. The painting might appear egotistical, grotesque and even kitsch but what of its message: if prodigious artistic talent doesn’t make you immortal then what does?

Over my life I have sometimes tired of all images of Dali that are commonly repeated, the commercial industry built around his art, sometimes he has been too much, but there are so many aspects of Dali that I keep on returning to him as a person of interest.

This is part of a monthly series about artists, writers and thinkers who have had an impact on me at some time in my life and have continued to have an impact.

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Architecture & Fashion

I saw a few exhibitions this week that united art, architecture and fashion: “Transitions” at No Vacancy and the combination of Denise Wray’s “Compartments” and Jake Preval’s “Costumes for the Ark” at the George Paton Gallery. This seems an odd remark because I rarely see exhibitions that unite art, architecture and fashion and yet what is the difference between them?

“Transitions” by Make Shift Concepts: Armando Chant, Donna Sgro and Oliver Solente is part of the L’Oreal Melbourne Fashion Festival’s cultural program. “At first glance it will look like just a video and some sculptures.” Oliver Solente (from the exhibition paper.) It did look like that but the suspended dresses and video of the dress worn on the catwalk reminded me that this was a fashion exhibition. The suspended dresses were not hung to suggest a human form but hung to show potentials in their architectural form, much like the angular architectural forms of the sculptures.

It was these angular architectural forms that reminded me of the structure of the masks in Jake Preval’s “Costumes for the Ark”. Preveal’s exhibition isn’t in the fashion festival’s cultural program but it should be, it is like the queer alternative. The exhibition is basically a series of photographs of queer couples wearing only black underpants and Preveal’s cardboard masks. The architecture of the couple’s bodies as they posed together is what made the photographs. Love the scattered black underwear around the room, suggesting that the couples from the photographs had stripped off their costumes and left the ark.

Denise Wray’s “Compartments” definitely united art, architecture and fashion. If art and architecture is about filling or not filling a space than Wray’s four works did that, with stitched zips, acrylic on canvas, polyester twine and leather strips. It looked like Wray gone mad after reading too much Greenberg and books on Duchamp and had raided a leather garment factory’s bins to make ‘art’. I liked it is ironic in punk deconstructionist way.

I wouldn’t say that I’m a big fashion, design or architecture fan; it is too cool for me. I want passionately engage – this why I’m very interested in sculpture and I enjoy writing about it. It is odd because sculpture and architecture are so similar – it is often difficult to distinguish where one begins and the other ends – visually it is often difficult to distinguish them, they might be indistinguishable. But what is the difference between sculpture and architectural or fashion forms? Function appears to be too simple an explanation as sculptures are also functional (see my post on the Uses of Public Art). Given that I can’t clearly distinguish between sculpture and architecture I don’t know why I feel differently about them.

The difference between sculpture and architectural forms is not an insubstantial issue and can have legal, as well as, aesthetic implications. The Copyright Website reports that in the case of Leicester vs. Warner Bros. the Los Angeles “district court found that the towers (Andrew Leicester’s sculpture Zanja Madre), although containing artistic elements, were actually part of the architectural work of the building.”


Class & Culture

I’ll say it again – I thought that debate was over high culture and popular culture was over. I don’t know why I thought this, maybe it was the way that I was educated steeped in English liberal philosophy that I thought that education and culture to have replaced class. It was Matthew Arnold’s idea that culture can replace class and Arnold was the philosopher who described the various English classes as barbarians (upper), philistines (middle) and populus. Now consider Jean Michael Basquiat’s mother taking him to the public museums and art galleries in New York when he was a child.

Bang bang shooting down the high art cannon has become such a sport of class warfare. To avoid the issue people have been using phrases like ‘highbrow’ or ‘serious culture’? Really? Serious stuff? ‘Serious culture’ as a description is obviously absurd; seriously, are you going to call Dada, Duchamp and Warhol serious? What about R U Sirius? Is he serious? The swap between ‘high’ and ‘serious culture’ is just repackaging ‘creationism’ as ‘intelligent design’.

Consider Juxtapoz – Art & Culture Magazine edited by self-described “lowbrow” artist Robert Williams. The articles range a wide cultural field from skateboard, graffiti and other “lowbrow” art, to Australian aboriginal art, Balinese art, Egon Schiele, and the in between, like John Waters, David Lynch and Pixar animation.

But I’m just raving now, off in a mad tangent.

The first thing to get straight in this discussion is that class is not a culture. There is no ‘working class culture’ as a cultural is the set of all the activities involving the participation of all the people. Currently and historically artists (the cultural producers) often belong to a different class to their patron (the cultural consumers).

Instead of thinking about ways to divide a culture along class lines consider the influence of class on culture. For reasons of court protocol royalty needs art be defined so that the performances are repeatable. Consider the refined and defined actions of the royal drummers of Burundi or classical ballet that developed in the French royal court. Religious courts will also similarly want to define their culture for ritual repetition. Rural folk, although just as inherently conservative as royals, do not require the same degree of repeatability. There is consequently less of a need for the developing the codification necessary for repeatable performances.

Nor should we ignore the street subcultures, the cultural influence from what Marx called “the lumpen proletariat”. Marx despised the lumpen proletariat as parasites but consider how many bohemian and avant-garde artists would fall into that class.

What is called “popular culture” is distinctly different from what is known as “folk culture”. Popular culture is more ephemeral than folk culture because changes in fashion make money.  Popular culture is a recent development and at its most popular classless; it transcends class for it is after all it is after a commercial venture. And old popular culture can end up in the literary, musical or artistic cannon of today; Shakespeare, Mozart and John Everett Millet were all popular artists marketing their art to a mass audience.

But back to the topic at hand – why I thought this high art and pop art thing is so last century? Do I have to remind the reader of breakdown of class and racial divides are a major part of the history of the last two centuries. And that this was increasing expressed in avant-garde art in the 19th and 20th centuries with the breakdown between high art and popular art materials, techniques and themes. And that by the late 20th Century the previously excluded or marginalized ‘others’ were increasingly being recognized in participating in the creation of avant-garde art. And we are back to Jean Michael Basquiat.


Total Liberation in Brunswick

Graffiti and street art keep Brunswick looking dynamic. I’ve been bicycling around Brunswick keeping my eyes open, trying to explore a bit but still finding new interests on familiar paths. Brunswick is full of pieces by the AWOL crew and Lush but I’ve written about them in previous posts. Lush has been everywhere, exploring and painting in all the laneways of Brunswick.

West St. Brunswick

West St. Brunswick

Anarchist graffiti in Brunswick

Anarchist graffiti in Brunswick

The anarchists are the only people who bother to scale Safeway’s barbwire topped fence to write their messages on its pristine walls. Felicity Ryder is an Australian anarchist currently on the run in Mexico; Ryder was previously involved with the anarchist bookshop Barricade Books in Brunswick so I guess she still has some friends in the area. The words “Total Liberation” appears to be a reference to the Mexican anarchist website Liberacion Total where Ryder’s statements have appeared.

Fish scale pattern on concrete, Ilham Lane

Fish scale pattern on concrete, Ilham Lane

As I step outside of Tinning Street Presents and look down at the concrete on Ilham Lane; to my surprise someone has proved me wrong – street art using wet cement – I didn’t think that I’d see that because writing in wet cement is opportunistic but I wasn’t that surprised given the area where there are plenty of creative people.

Here some other little bits of street art that I liked seeing in Brunswick.

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The painted chimneys on this old house; the old house is now surrounded by new developments.

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The ceramic unofficial tile street-sign for Ovens Street, I like ceramic tiles as street decoration and Ovens Street is always worth riding down because of the great graff along its south end. It is these small anarchic touches that make bohemian Brunswick.


Colour Figures

Curiously, I don’t think that I’ve seen an exhibition of figure drawings for a few years until today; it was once a prominent feature of art exhibitions. “Swallow Flex and Wither” is a series of figure drawings by Emma Michaelis at Tinning Street Presents. Emma was gallery sitting when I visited so I took the opportunity to ask her a few questions about her drawings. Emma Michaelis is based in Melbourne and a recent graduate of the Australian Academy of Design.

Emma Michaelis @ Tinning Street Presents...

Emma Michaelis @ Tinning Street Presents…

All her drawings in the exhibition are done with coloured pencils. The most obvious thing about this series of drawings is the different colour of each of the drawings. There is a series within this series of self-portraits exploring the different colours; three primary colour heads (the yellow is almost invisible), secondary colour feet and hands, and finally tertiary colour drawings of less significant parts of the body, like the backs of legs.

There are three beautiful, blue female nudes, sitting, standing and lying, drawn on vast sheets of paper. There are no backgrounds in any of Michaelis’ drawings; the place where the drapery or bathtub would has been left blank, keeping the focus on the flesh of the figures.

Two orange “golden” mirror image male nude figures with prominent foot stretched out to the viewer. There are a lot of drawings of feet in this exhibition, lots of small drawings of feet that Emma Michaelis jokingly calls it her “hoof and claw” series. Her drawings are technically very good; the mood of her drawings is calm, almost romantic with the focus slightly softened.

Tinning Street Presents is part of an interesting area of Brunswick. The light industrial area by the closed railway crossing around Tinning Street and Ilham Lane has become a creative hub with street art, artist’s studios and other creative enterprises.


White Night with kids

We ventured into the inaugural White Night in Melbourne with 4 young people, two sixteen year-old girls and two ten year-old boys, each of our kids had brought a friend.

Because we had kids with us we did that nerdy thing of arriving right on time, in fact slightly before the official start – and really – arriving early for an event that was supposed to go all night was, predictably a little disappointing. When a show is all about the lights, its only ever going to be good after dark.

Walking down to Federation Square from a meal in Chinatown, we could see some settling up just off Russell St, but we had strung out during the walk and dawdlers had to keep up and not duck down side streets and get lost.

The teenagers had been shopping in town and were keen for a sit down, so we headed to St Paul’s Cathedral which was listed as a venue. I had never been into St Paul’s, so that was worth it just for the stickybeak- such beautiful woodwork on the ceiling – majestic. 7pm ticked up, the cathedral filling – and ticked past – that was when it occurred to us that any laser show would be better after dark, which was still more than an hour away. So, shoppers rested, we decided to check out the National Gallery.

Working our way across a not yet too crowded Federation Square where some zumba dancers were trying, with not a lot of luck, to engage the crowd, we hit our first success for the night. “Red Centre” by Konstanin Dimopoulos, not part of the White Night event, but it drew the boys like moths to a flame, because people were playing it like a tall, bright red percussion instrument, reaching grasping, rattling, banging. It sounded great, clunks, bangs, resonate thrums.

Heading on down St Kilda Rd we passed by the Arts Centre and let the boys join in the clambering on “Forward Surge” by Inge King while we watched the passing parade.

Continuing on the the National Gallery Victoria, “The Commoners” by Jompet Kuswidananto caught the teenagers attention, the missing bodies, the potential for noise (it wasn’t active when we went in). “How does it work?” What is it meant to do?”

Further on in the Great Hall, “Bouquet Final 2” by Michal Blazy beckoned.

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What a hit! It has foam! What’s not to love? We spent awhile there. It was enchanting.

It was quite mesmerising as the billows of foam grew before your eyes, and yet at the same time imperceptibly. It was so hard to catch it actually growing. There was so much of it, huge walls of growing bubbles, and I don’t think they grew at a constant rate either. I suspect the pumps were variable.

The boys had a ball. It was all the fun a giant bubble-machine should be. You were allowed to play with any bits that had fallen off, and a lot did.

We had a few goes of foam volleyball, where you had to blow and keep the foam in the air.

They boys were sticky with it by the end.

From there we headed back to the Yarra and Birrarung Marr, where there were a large number of things to interact with, from creepy blow-up purple clowns to “From the Deep” laser show another highlight of the night.

I asked the 10year old to dictate something about what he thought of White Night.

The White Night was OK. I particularly like the laser show on the river, because of the way that they incorporated water and light to make the shapes and the colours.

I also really liked the foam thing in the gallery. It was really fun to play with, the bits that fell off, they were so foamy and bubbly.

How would you describe it?

Really really Awesome. And bubbly and foamy.

How would you rate it?

Seven out of 10.


Dada Didn’t Happen

Dada was nothing. Dada didn’t happen. Dada never really happened – it was a non-event. Marcel Duchamp’s original Bicycle Wheel was left behind in Paris when he moved to the US and his “Fountain”, the most famous of the Dada anti-art, was never exhibited – it was hidden behind a screen. The Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich closed due to small audience numbers. So much of Dada was abandoned, thrown away, lost, the original artwork replaced with replicas created for museums decades after the event.

Outside the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich

Black Mark outside the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich

Of course, this is just outrageous; Dada is there in the art history books. There are all those magazines, books and autobiographies that the Dadaists wrote. There is even a plaque on the side of 1 Spiegelgasse in Zurich commemorating the location of the Cabaret Voltaire. There are relics of Dada art works lodged in museums around the world. So what I am writing cannot be true.

I am not accusing the Dadaists, art historians, curators and collectors of a conspiracy inventing Dada (although the existence of Julian Torma is debatable). What I am saying is that Dada was not ‘a happening thing’, not in the way that Warhol’s Factory was happening in late 1960s New York. Dada was only happened for a very small number of people, just as the Situationist International was only happened for a very small number of people, whereas WWI and the 1968 riots in Paris happened for a very large number of people. Art history has over emphasised both the Dada and the Situationist International due to their subsequent influence.

The non-existence of Dada suggests an error theory of history, that history is not what people think is history, or that there are different levels reality in the ontology of history. Much of history is based on what people say and write: the continent of Australia being declared part of the British Empire was done with some words and a performance involving a flag and some hats. The actual occupation of Australia was evidence of the British fidelity to the spoken words. Like Australia, Dada exists because what people said and wrote (as well as, a performance with extravagant costumes).

That much of history is something done with words means that we should consider the British philosopher J. L. Austin’s seminal paper “How to do Things with Words”. Austin notes that you have to be the right person to say these things like declaring the existence of a new country, a marriage or war. Were the Dadaists were the right people to declare the existence of a new art movement? They were university students, teenagers, refugees, artists, lumpen literati and free thinkers. What they said was nonsense but that was the point in saying it.

The activities of Dada were an anti-history. If history had lead Europe into a war then history could not be progressive or optimistic. Dada was the anti-history opposed to the official history was the Great War. One of the causes of the war was people believing in the declaration war as something more than words. And the Dadaists wanted to attack the idea that words could do things but making their new word do everything. The Dadaists were a limited company for the exploitation of a limited vocabulary. The Dadaists used the declaration of things as a way to attack logic, history and the war.

The classic claim is that word Dada was chosen at random. Exactly when this miraculous discovery happened and who it happened to be there is a matter of claim and counter-claim in the biographies of various Dadaists. “Dada” was the equivalent of writing “Jedi” under religion on your census form. Does this mean that Dada was just a parody? The demands of the Dadaist revolutionary council, Berlin group, certainly read like a parody of conventional politics. Or does the point where parody expands to include the whole of life, when there is no off-stage acknowledgement of the comedy, when the exception becomes the rule – does this transform parody into something else – an open rebellion?

Dada only really happened for about a couple of people, in the way that small bands and small artist-run-spaces happen (or don’t happen). Dada in Zurich was just a bunch of young refugees having fun in a bar and setting up a small upstairs art gallery that folded just as quickly as the cabaret. There was another group of anti-war artists in Zurich at the same time as Dada who regarded the Dadaists as silly; Richard Huelsenbeck was a member of both groups. If Dada didn’t happen I still find it very likeable.


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