Monthly Archives: March 2013

Uses of Art in Public Space

The Uses of Art in Public Space was a free public research symposium on Tuesday 12th of March hosted by RMIT University’s Design Research Institute and convened by Quentin Stevens. Held in the “Design Hub” (RMIT Building 100); that building on the corner Victoria and Swanston Street covered with round plates of glass.

The conference looked at public art in a broad sense to include commissioned and unofficial artworks, memorials, street art, advertising, and street furniture – all topics that I’ve looked at in this blog. Jane Rendell of University College London in her opening address on “The Use of an Object” spoke via video about the use value of public art as distinct from exchange value of private art. Rendell also noted that to use an object is to relate to it.

This was followed by two talks about the unconventional use of public art and street furniture by parkour and skateboarders. Mirko Guaralda presented a paper by himself and Christopher Rawlinson, QUT on “The Art of Parkour of Art”. And Mat de Koning and Tim Yuen from Perth gave an excellent talk on “Skate Sculpture” (check out their website). Both parkour and skateboards change the normal navigation features of the city; edges become paths and the presence of spectators can change a path to a node.

Anton Hasell, the artist who created Melbourne’s Federation Bells, spoke about “Art in Public Space as Multi-Sensory Sites of Experience”. Hasell is a technological optimist who wants shared creative interactive public spaces.

Karen A. Franck from New Jersey Institute of Technology in her paper “The Life and Death of Public Art Works” gave a basic structure to what can happen to public art: occupation, addition, subtraction, multiplication, (re)moving and destroying. Another paper that gave structure to the issue was Quentin Stevens “The Ergonomics of Public Art”. Stevens looked at the opportunities afforded by public sculpture: a table, a shelter, holding on to, leaning on, a challenge or something to fall off. As opposed to the way that city councils think about how to make areas less useful with anti-seating, anti-climbing, anti-skateboard knobs and skate-stoppers.

Then there were several papers that looked at specific examples of using public art. Shanti Sumartojo from Australian National University spoke about “Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth: creating and contesting national identity”. Julia Lossau of the University of Bremen talked on “Tree Planting: The use of public art in an urban regeneration project in Glasgow”.

Kate MacNeill from the University of Melbourne gave a paper on “The quotidian life of art in public places” looking at the ordinary, unmediated engagement with public art: touch, play, emersion and contemplation with examples from familiar Melbourne public sculptures. And, to complete the variety of public art covered by this symposium, Lachlan MacDowall of the Victorian College of the Arts spoke about “The Uses of Street Art”.

Finally there was a panel discussion that ranged across a variety of topics that had not been covered in the symposium from the relationship between artists and architects to the moral rights of the artist to determine interactions. The symposium presented lots of ways of looking at the use of public art that will influence my thinking on the topic for years to come.


Breaking Bach

On Wednesday afternoon I was backstage at Hamer Hall talking with dancer Gengis Ademoski (aka Lil Ceng) of the Berlin breakdance group Flying Steps about breakdancing to Bach.

Lil Ceng exudes positive and focused energy; he looks it too, like an Olympic gymnast. Lil Ceng has a resting pulse rate of 74 and a pulse rate after power moves of 148 – maybe his pulse rate was going a little faster than his resting rate for the interview. I couldn’t recognize his accent, it turns out he was born in Macedonia and grew up in Germany. My first question was how did he start breakdancing.

“I see a lot of dancers on the TV and I was surprised, I was shocked to see all that they were doing and I wanted to do the same.” As it turned out he was watching Flying Steps on the TV.

Were you dancing on the street?

“Yeah. My cousins bring me to some people who were already doing break-dancing for a long time. I was like 10 years old.”  Then when he was 15 moved to Berlin and Lil Ceng started dancing with Flying Steps.

What about people who say that when breakdancing leaves the streets that it is no longer real?

“No, because in the head we are still the same. We are dancing on the stage, we are dancing on the floor. We don’t care about other people say. When you do what you love it doesn’t matter what other people say.”

How do you feel about dancing to Bach?

“It is different because normally we dance to funk, hip-hop, on beats. On classical music is different.”

I asked how the international tour came about. Melbourne is the second stop in the Flying Steps world tour that takes in Australia, Iceland, Chile, Poland, Belgium, Kazakhstan and Sweden.

“We start in Berlin with 15 shows and we never think about like this world tour. It crazy because, to start from the beginning; we practice for 2 months to make the show. We just think about think about Berlin but afterwards the feedback from people that like it. We are surprised.”

Gengis Ademoski of Germany and the Flying Steps perform during Red Bull Flying Bach at Hamer Hall in Melbourne, March 13th, 2013. Photo courtesy of Red Bull.

Gengis Ademoski of the Flying Steps perform during Red Bull Flying Bach at Hamer Hall in Melbourne, March 13th, 2013. Photo courtesy of Red Bull.

After seeing the show I wasn’t surprised at the reaction of the Berlin audience; Flying Bach is one of the best dance productions that I’ve ever seen. From the first steps the Flying Steps made you believe that Bach was meant to be breakdanced. The mix of elements in the performance was so beautifully balanced: the contemporary dance and breakdance and the mixed versions of Bach, the live and video elements, and the live music on the piano and the harpicord.

We talked about the diverse audience that the show attracts from little kids to older people and it was the most diverse audience that I’ve ever seen at Hamer Hall. Lil Ceng really wanted to speak to the older people: “they can see it is not just dance of the gangster, of young people with nothing to do. They say: ‘look that the young generation, they do something, it is like sport arts or ballet, they have to practice!’”

I asked if he’d met any Australian breakdancers.

“On Monday we did a workshop, lot of people, b-boys, b-girls. To see how they dance, everybody has a different style. It’s nice.”

The dancing itself was explosively good, incredible headspins and other power moves beyond anything that I’d ever seen breakdancers do before. I could see the inspiration that Lil Ceng says that he gets from Jackie Chan in his first solo where he was manipulating his backpack with his legs. There was a bit of a narrative holding the performance together that the dancers delivered with conviction.

I interviewed Lil Ceng and received tickets courtesy of Red Bull. The performance is actually titled “Red Bull Flying Bach”. Some of dancers, like Lil Ceng in the performance, were wearing Red Bull t-shirts or caps but it was not in your face given how often regular street clothes endorse products. I have to comment on the sponsorship because Red Bull are interesting sponsors; they have been sponsoring Flying Steps now for a decade. I was talking with Terry, the postman about it and he mentioned had seen the Red Bull F1 driver breakdancing along with members of Flying Steps. Red Bull had tied in their sponsorship of both events. Terry told me about their long-term sponsorship commitment to various extreme sports. I don’t know about extreme sports but “Red Bull Flying Bach” is an excellent example sponsorship producing great art.

Street Culture Centre for Melbourne

I have heard various people talking about establishing a street art museum or a street culture centre in Melbourne. Last year I woke up from a dream such a place so vivid that still felt like calling someone to raise money for it. CDH’s post on Street Art Salvage presumes that eventually some institution will be interested in the material collected. So I am writing this post to start a public discussion about the possibility of a street culture centre.

There are no other street art centres in the world – there is a proposal for a Museum of International Street Art (MISA) in Los Angeles, but it hasn’t got very far. I think that a “culture centre” is probably better description than “museum” and “street culture” rather than “street art” because it is a broader description. Street culture is an actively evolving and changing range of culture practices from aerosol art to zines. It would be good not to limit the place by defining its purpose only in terms of our current taste and understanding. And it does need to be a place that supports current street culture and not just preserve the past. The past must not be isolated from current forms of street culture.

The fact that street culture is largely ephemeral doesn’t mean that the past should not be preserved but that conditions mean that it is unlikely to survive. To repeat George Santayana “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And there is a lot of repetition in street culture – it is frequently repeating the past. A subculture requires not only a present and a future but also a past. And in preserving the past a street culture centre would facilitate and support future street culture.

Ideally what would such a place be like? It needs to be large, very, very large space, a former factory or warehouse that already has a history of graffiti. I would like to see a hybrid venue something between an art gallery, a skate park and a band venue. It would need to have some very large spaces for a permanent collection and temporary exhibition space. It needs to have walls that are part of the centre and not a barrier. And a car park and loading dock that are multi-functional. MISA’s design ideas are something close to what I am trying to envision. There also need to be a library (including a digital archive), indoor and outdoor space for classes, storage space for the part the collection not on exhibition and, yes a gift shop and café.

The centre would need to be in an area that has adequate infrastructure (public transport and cafes). It would also need to be located in an area that was sympathetic to the additional street art around the space, a tolerance zone like Hosier and Rutledge Lane.

Street art is worth preserving for future generations, this is not a radical statement, in 2004 the National Trust in Victoria’s graffiti policy statement acknowledges that some street art had should be recorded and protected. No matter how things change on the streets people will be interested in seeing examples of this decade of street art. And they will want to experience the street art from this era for real for themselves and not just in books, digital photographs and documentary films. The need to preserve the collective memory must be balanced with the understanding that these works were originally on the street and were intended as ephemeral gestures.

There are many issues with preservation but preserving something appears to be sanctioning it something the anti-graffiti state government appears loathe to do. The 2010 study into the heritage value of significant street art in Melbourne by Heritage Victoria that the then Minister of Planning, Justin Madden asked for, has not been made public. Politically such a street art centre will be difficult and it would need government support. It also needs the support of those active in street culture, something that, from my experience with the Melbourne Stencil Festival/Sweet Streets, is equally politically charged.

But what a fantastic monster this place would be. It would be a unique international tourist attraction for Melbourne.

Concrete Stuff

Will Coles “I Fucking <3 Melbourne” at Dark Horse Experiment; Coles is being ironic with the title of the exhibition – he is based in Sydney. And Coles’s exhibition has a cement mixer sized load of irony.

I have to declare a conflict of interests in writing about Coles’s exhibition because Catherine and I bought two of his small works at the exhibition. Coles cast concrete objects made me laugh (really), it made me cry (not really, but there was some sentimentality in some of the works) and it made want to buy. It made a lot of people want to buy; there was a queue of buyers at the desk. Will Coles was also giving away 40 prints to the early birds along with 1 trillion dollar bills with a portrait of him smoking a cigar, so lots of people at the exhibition were going home with some of his art.

Will Coles "Might Is Right" and small works

Will Coles “Might Is Right” and small works

As this was Will Coles’s first exhibition in Melbourne it was a bit of a mini retrospective with a sample of his well known works from the crushed cans to the TV sets. The small work, the cans, phones, remote controls, etc. were grouped around “Might is Right”, a large gold Buddha holding a gold Kalashnikov. The “Memorial to the Unknown Armchair General”, an armchair and pouffe cast in concrete, provided another focal point. His gallery editions are cast various colours of resin and cement. I hadn’t seen Coles culture jamming prints before but although competent and ironically funny, they aren’t as good as his sculpture.

Memorial to the Unknown Armchair General

Memorial to the Unknown Armchair General

You can read my article about Will Coles in Trouble magazine about Coles work in relation to Jasper Johns and the history of sculpture. For more images see Land of SunshineWill Coles Hits Melbourne”. And there are still more of Coles works to find on the streets of the Melbourne.

Will Coles Crushed Can on Melbourne street.

Will Coles Crushed Can on Melbourne street.

Will Coles mask in Rutledge Lane

Will Coles mask in Rutledge Lane

Two Stars

Platform, Blindside & Mailbox 141

I saw some exhibitions in the city that I would give on average two stars. The problem of writing a three star review that I mentioned in my last post has come back minus one star. Two stars would indicates that it is less than average, that I am not recommending it to anyone and that I didn’t like it. But unlike films, music, and restaurants visual arts reviewers generally don’t use stars or any other comparative rating measurement. It is hard on the art and the artists to be summed up in a couple of symbols; a few nuanced words might be kinder to the artists but I’m not writing this for the artists but for their potential audience.

I know that I recently praised “raw, brutal and rough” art in my review of Brunswick Arts February exhibition but I didn’t like what I saw in the vitrines at Platform. Perhaps because it was just more of the same or that there was so much of it. “House me within a geometric quality” a group exhibition curated by Patrice Sharkey was a crude but systematic exploration of ways to fill the vitrines, either by covering the glass or putting objects inside. There are lots of plates of glass with interesting textures along with other lumpy things in the cabinets. (I can’t remember the exhibition of the same title from 2011 also at Platform and also curated by Patrice Sharkey but Dead Hare has a review of it.)

In Blindside’s Gallery One Jon Hewitt’s “Feel The Confidence” was just boring, the same photo of the top of Hewitt’s balding head over and over again along with repetitious name-dropping of contemporary artists. If it has any quality it probably went over most heads.

Sarah Bunting’s “Incessant Ruthlessness” in Blindside’s Gallery Two are a series of bad painting, not awful but not working either. Buntings painting are ugly crude and lumpy but they do have an unsettling sci-fi dystopian atmosphere. There is hope I’ve seen artists who painted as badly but after years of practice are now painting well and are successful.

Sue-Ching Lascelles @ Mailbox 141

Sue-Ching Lascelles @ Mailbox 141

A passing woman summed up Brisbane-based artist Sue-Ching Lascelles exhibition at Mailbox 141 with one word: “cute” but I can’t sum up an exhibition in a single word, I have to explain myself. Mailbox 141 is a difficult space to fill; the fifteen small glass fronted former mailboxes in the tiled foyer of 141 Flinders Lane are not easy for artists. Sue-Ching Lascelles filled each of the mailboxes with a cute animal, bird and fish painted heads on bodies of un-worked rock crystals. The exhibition was titled: “Cabinet of Cities. Invisible Curiosities” and I could see that there were two problems with the title.

Now let us talk of minor artists

I’ve heard about an AI program that worked with some basic logic routines and lots of facts. The AI program would make conclusions based on the facts that it was given and the programmers would try to add more facts so that it would arrive at correct conclusions. One of the incorrect conclusions that the program made was that most people are famous. So the programmers had to give it telephone directories of people who were not famous until it didn’t come to that conclusion. It is not just an AI program that makes this error, so I’m writing about the artists who aren’t famous, who aren’t the great artists – the minor artists.

What do I mean by a minor artist? This is not a reflection on the quality of their work. We all know who the major artists are – their names are so familiar, but aren’t we over the great man theory of history. There are major artists of a particular country, century, decade, style etc. Then there are the secondary artists who for reasons of fate rather than talent, or vice versa, never became as famous as the major artists. And then there are the artists who are neither as prodigiously talented nor as fortunate as the first two groups but who still produce good art, sometimes even, important art. They are the minor artists.

These artists may not be familiar names but they do the bulk of the work in the art world, not just creating the most of the art but working in art supply shops, teaching art, hanging exhibitions, etc. These are the artists who make up the numbers, who drink all the wine at the exhibition openings.

Fate, or luck plays a major part in part in the lives of all artists. The major artists were lucky to be born at the right time in the right place to the right people. The fortunate few great major artists are not good samples as they are the exceptions. Consequently they are poor examples to teach or expect other artists to follow.

Dada is an interesting art movement to learn about minor artists. Even with two major artists, like Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, and a few secondary artists, there are enough minor artists are necessary to the story of the landmark movement for a balanced picture to appear. Johannes Baader, Richard Huelsenbeck, Hannah Höch and Beatrice Wood all spring to mind.

What can we learn from minor artists that we can’t learn from major artists? That making art is not necessarily a career, that it may not be your primary profession, that making art can be a hobby, or something that you do for a few years or return to in retirement. We can learn what it is like to be an ordinary artist and what an ordinary artists does.

I went to a talk recently on how to be a critic given by Claire Armitstead, The Guardian’s literary editor and one of the many things that she commented on was the difficulty of writing 3 star reviews. It is necessary to have 3 star reviews because the majority of anything will be average. The average review is a similar problem to writing about all the minor artists necessary to balance the story of art. So I am writing this blog post about all the artists who are not famous and their significance in the story of art.

Not Dancing on the Ceiling

Sound and Vision @ Counihan Gallery – One + Two = 12 @ Black Dot

Sound and Vision by Sarah Duyshart, Emma Lashmar and Ross Manning, is an exhibition of visions of sound. Curated by Lauren Simmonds the vision of this exhibition was impressive. The gallery was divided into three sections, so each of the works occupied the entirety of their section, as is the want of contemporary art.

The first space had a number of suspended droplet columns of glass balls and fishing line hanging from the ceiling. It is Emma Lahmar’s “Field Theory-/-Bodies” 2013. The glass balls are open at the top and partially filled with water. The fishing line pierces the glass balls; sometimes there are also tubes of glass running through the water. They looked like drops of dew on spider webs. Solenoids activated by microphones responding to ambient sounds would vibrate the lines; it looked like it should produce sound but it was very quiet. Vibrations were a major theme of the exhibition (and things hanging from the ceiling).

Sarah Dyshart’s vibrating sieve (hanging from the ceiling) “Sift” 2013 vibrated in response to a soundtrack of local field recordings sending showers of bakers flour and leaving a deposit on the black sheet beneath. It looked particularly impressive with the small sprinkle of flour following each sound of a ticking clock.

Ross Manning’s “Binary Star” 2013 is a simple but highly effective light show occupies the third space. Coloured dots randomly appear on the wall based on a rotating loop of perforated paper hanging (from the ceiling) in front of a digital projector set on a test pattern.

The exhibition left me wanting to see and hear more art about sound.

At Black Dot Gallery there is, One + Two = 12 an exhibition of paintings by four artists from South America. The exhibition was meant to be about “on questioning long-held Latin American stereotypes”; I don’t know what South American stereotypes the exhibition hoped to challenge. I didn’t have any expectations; South America is one of the two continents that I’ve never been.

The four artists exhibiting did not have much in common apart from being from South American. Their art ranged from digital deconstruction to street art, sentimentalism to surrealism. Isidoro Adatto Mandowsky’s two large paintings deconstruct the digital image, breaking it down as a subject to paint. Ignacio Rojas, worked with a variety of stencil techniques including strip stencil and dot stencils; I could see why he was a finalist in the Australian Stencil Art Prize 2012. (I wish that I was seeing his work on Melbourne’s streets – maybe I have but didn’t know it.) The colour bars over paintings of children from war zones by Julian Clavijo were well done but too sentimental for my taste. And María Esther Peña three paintings are surreal landscapes populated with what Peña calls, “bodies in transit”, faceless figures who have lost their identity.

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