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Monthly Archives: October 2013

An Expensive Identity

The Australian government is spending $140m-plus for the WWI centenary, compared to the British government spending £55m ($94m) Paul Daley reported in The Guardian (15/10/2013).

A Boer War Memorial in South Melbourne

A Boer War Memorial in South Melbourne

War memorials are a very important part of constructing a national identity for Australia. They stand as demonstrations of loyalty to the Empire, the British or the American empires. Australia defined its national identity by the wars where Australian troops served and were identified as Australians. The first war that Australian colonial soldiers fought and died in was the Boer War and there are many monuments in Melbourne to the Boer War, or as the Brunswick memorial refers to it as the “South African War”. The first war memorial constructed in Melbourne was the monument to the 5th Victorian Contingent in 1903, a gothic revival style shrine by architects George de Lacy Evans and sculptor Joseph Hamilton.

Initially the construction of these memorials is understandable. As the Australian troops who fought in the Boer War and First World War were buried where they died their immediate families in Australia had nowhere to grieve. There are many war memorials scattered around Melbourne and its suburbs frequently with a statue of a soldier on top of them. There are so many local war memorials that a law was passed in 1916 to control their numbers.

Shrine of Rememberance, Melbourne

Shrine of Rememberance, Melbourne

Canada's WWI Memorial, Ottawa

Canada’s WWI Memorial, Ottawa

Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance is huge. It is far larger than other British colony’s war memorials, except for the later constructed Australian War Memorial in Canberra that combines a shrine, a museum, and an extensive archive. The Shrine of Remembrance dwarfs the Canadian war memorial in Ottawa. The Shrine was built between 1927-1934; paid for largely with public donations, although the Victorian and Commonwealth government did make some contributions. General Monash was the driving force behind the Shrine and its status; his background in civic engineering finding expression in this enormous quasi-religious area of the city that has become dedicated to memorials to Australian soldiers and campaigns.

WWI created a rupture in funerary conventions in Europe and America with the accumulating memorials overwhelmed people. “Whereas around the turn of the century full-length figures were far the most popular, after 1914, and in line with growing nerves about statuemania, busts assume the lead.” [Penelope Curtis, Sculpture 1900-1945 (Oxford University Press, 1999, Oxford) p.43] But it did not slow the production of statues in Australia. Charles Marsh Web (Nash) Gilbert (1867-1925) made a total of 9 WWI memorials, more than any other Australian sculptor.

The present fervour for war memorials and ‘Anzackery’ is because there is almost nothing that unites Australia. It is populated by disposed aboriginal tribes, exiled convicts, British colonists and post WWII immigrants from around the world. Australia it is not united by race, language, religion or any ideals. There is no Australian dreaming.

There has always been very limited social cohesion in Australia (in WWII fearing invasion by the Japanese separate trenches were dug in Swan Hill by the Catholic and Protestants that faced each other). Australia is simply an artificial construct of British law that exists as a client state for the benefit of the Anglo-American empires, so the sacrifice of Australia young men for these foreign causes is very important to Australia’s national identity. This limited social cohesion is reflected in Melbourne’s public sculptures (see my post Heroes of Every Nation).

This explains the investment in making these wars and battles a central element of Australian identity. And as uncertainty grows about what these memorials mean to the collective consciousness of Melbourne more didactic plaques and visitor centres has been added. A recent addition to the art deco Boer War Memorial by Irwin and Stevenson is a large bronze plaque with low relief figures and text to explain Australian involvement in this colonial war in South Africa. The addition of this didactic plaque demonstrates the uncertainty of this monument’s meaning in the 21st century.

Lest we forget the conscientious objectors, the pacifists and the traumatized soldiers who were shot for cowardice by the British Army, those dying in the most brutal of wars so that British imperial forces to murder civilians around the world, Kurds, Indians, Irish, so that Bertrand Russel could be jailed by the British for writing that American army was very good at breaking strikes. Of course none of this will be remembered in Australia’s orgy of commemorations of the centennial of WWI. What is the cost of this national identity?

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Jericho to Jerusalem

There is always an exhibition of classical antiquities on the first floor of the Ian Potter Museum of Art and it forms a significant part of the museum’s character. The current exhibition, “Jericho to Jerusalem” is of Bronze and Iron Age pottery from excavations by Kathleen Kenyon (1906-1978) in Jericho and Jerusalem. The artefacts are all from the Melbourne University’s Classics and Archaeology Department’s collection that is used for hands on teaching and research.

Biblical archaeology has a bad reputation connected with the religious mania of evangelical Christians and political justification of Zionism but the work of Kathleen Kenyon is not of that kind of archaeologist. Kenyon, one of the most influential archaeologists of the 20th Century, is notable for refining archaeological techniques, in particular her stratigraphy of the Middle East. Her stratigraphy has subsequently been largely backed up by radiocarbon dating. You might have heard of Jericho and Jerusalem from the Bible but there are no Biblical references in this exhibition.

This is an exhibition of ordinary domestic pottery from the Bronze and Iron Age. There are no masterpieces, the antiquity of the exhibits are the main attraction. Although this is just plain pottery I was particularly taken by a small gypsum (alabaster) juglet from Bronze Age Jericho 2200-1750 BCE and three jar handles from Iron Age Jerusalem 100-586 BCE stamped with the maker’s flying eagle stamp on them. The maker’s eagle stamp is a trademark that any modern company would be proud to have as their logo.

The didactic panels accompanying the exhibits are clear, informative without being too technical or over burdening the visitor with excessive information. A reproduction of Kathleen Kenyon’s hand drawn stratigraphy from one of her Jericho trenches makes a great backdrop to one of the display cases.

The archaeological interest of the pottery is in shapes, surface treatments, attachments and evidence of use, for example the carbon burn marks on the lamps. The existence of ceramics indicates social aspects: established settlement, specialized skills and trade.

I normally don’t write about ceramics or ancient art so I was pleased that I went to the exhibition opening by my old friend and archaeologist, Geoff Irvin who gave me a great deal of background on Kenyon’s work and the archaeology of the Middle East.


Capon needs a Spanking

“The Art of Australia” is a three-part series television documentary by ABC presented by Edmund Capon. Part one, “Strangers In A Strange Land”, was a disappointing start presenting the same old story of 19th Century Australian colonial art. The couple of references to some contemporary art in an attempt to freshen this stale history didn’t help or hinder. There was too much about landscape art emphasizing the traditional view of Australian art as all about the landscape. Capon’s narrative is full of too much hyperbole, clichéd metaphors (describing Australia as “coming of age” as if a country is a person with a body, heart and head) and contradictions.

Australia can’t be defined as Capon tries as “a unique and diverse culture” because one (unique) cannot be many (diverse). The assumption of the documentary is that Australia has an Australia art, when in the 19th Century the British and Australian art world was basically the same. Capon only examines the art of Melbourne, Sydney and Tasmania as if the history of the SE corner of Australia is representative of the rest of Australia. How art and artists helped to shape Australia’s national identity is assumed rather than demonstrated; if art in anyway shaped Australia’s national identity it played a very minor role.

Capon avoids saying anything negative; he avoids the using the word ‘genocide’ to describe the attempted extermination of Tasmanian aboriginals and he avoids the mentioning the Australian banking crisis of 1893.

To describe the Heidelberg School as painting “Australia as it was” ignores the fact that Tom Roberts painted the romanticism of the manual shearing technology in 1890 when mechanical shearing had already been superseded in 1888 with the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine. Although Roberts rebelled against Eugene Von Guérard at the National Gallery Art School he apparently absorbed romanticism from his former teacher. Capon’s description of Robert’s Shearing the Rams as an “icon” is made apparently oblivious to the religious meaning of the word.

Edmund Capon was Director of the Art Gallery of NSW and his expertise is in Chinese art. Capon needs a spanking as an embarrassing punishment for his sloppy thinking in this glib and very ordinary history of art in Australia.

Two and a half stars.


The Flâneur’s Surface Archaeology

Public sculptures, old buildings and ghost-signs are the surface archaeology of the city. Surface archaeology is established archaeological practice for providing data on settlements. The urban archaeologist conducts a pedestrian survey of the surface features, digital camera on my belt to collecting samples. By looking and researching the history you can see distinct layers in the psychology of Melbourne through its history.

The Duke & Duchess of York Memorial Drinking Fountain, 1901, corner of Elizabeth and Victoria St.

The Duke & Duchess of York Memorial Drinking Fountain, 1901, corner of Elizabeth and Victoria St.

The city is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time; there are so many unfamiliar areas and so many changes to familiar routes. There are constant changes, sometime ago I asked Terry the postman, whose route is in the CBD, if there was more building work going on, but he didn’t think so.  So accustomed am I to my various routes that I note the smallest changes.

I take note the ephemera of the city, the layers of posters and graffiti, like a detective gathering evidence on the endless mystery of the human existence that exists, so tightly packed together, in all directions. For this reason I find myself interested in buildings for different reasons other than their architecture; I warm to their history and function. Look at the modifications, alterations and their changing functions. For this reason I like to look at the back of buildings rather than their façade.

This week I’ve continued to wander the city. In my perambulations I saw the Platform exhibitions; I could not resist the opportunity when passing through Flinders Street Station to walk down Degraves Street. Sophie Neate and Sean McKenzie Glass Room was engaging installation about the mystery of the machine made. I particularly enjoyed Chris Rainer’s Topographic Schematic no.24 because of the musical composition. Rainer’s installation suggested the idea of military interception of all communications, symbolized by tape going through the plastic model watchtower and German soldiers.

Blue Elephants on the curb of Rutledge Lane

Blue Elephants on the curb of Rutledge Lane

Equally I could not resist the opportunity when in the city to walk down Hosier Lane. I could get all excited about the Banksy that got painted over last week but I’ve seen it all before, these things happen every couple of years and nobody expected them to last forever. (see the report in The Age).  I’m just taking more photographs of the city before it disappears. My photographs of the city become like a stamp collection and I enjoy looking at the collections of other of Melbourne’s flâneurs. Do utility boxes have to look utilitarian? (See ones painted by notable Melbourne Street artists at Land of Sunshine.)


MoreArt 2013

This is the fourth year of MoreArt 2013 Moreland City Council’s annual public art show. I enjoy the transformation of my regular bike path along the Upfield line. There are installations in Jewell, Brunswick, Anstey, Moreland and Gowrie. The unused ticket booths of these formally manned train stations have been turned into spaces. Phil Soliman uses a locked seating area at Moreland for his The Great Pyramid; a model of the three pyramids at Giza made of fava beans on a commercial prayer mat along with some stones (stone throwing is optional).

Phil Soliman, The Great Pyramind, Moreland Station

Phil Soliman, The Great Pyramind, Moreland Station

The best locations in this exhibition are in some neglected urban spaces between Moreland Road and Tinning Street as they are completely desolate and already surrounded by chain link fences. I talked with artist Liz Walker about the attraction of these vacant spaces at the opening. “You see things in the ordinary that you wouldn’t notice before.” Liz Walker told me.

Liz Walker, Estate, Moreland

Liz Walker, Estate, Moreland

Lots of people were appreciating and using Bush Projects Soft Infrastructure at the Mechanics Institute. The large purple tubes (100% recycled P.E.T. felt, stuffed with straw) surrounded the garden and trees and made comfortable and warm seating for the large crowd of people at the official opening. The idea of soft infrastructure of recycled material for events like the MoreArt show opening.

Bush Projects, Soft Infrastructure, Mechanics Institute, Brunswick

Bush Projects, Soft Infrastructure, Mechanics Institute, Brunswick

It was a typical Moreland Council opening with Red Brigade Band marching in followed by some folk music and a cue at the bar. I was keeping a weather eye open, the grey clouds had been threatening all day and the wind was freezing my ears. Right on cue as the speeches started there was a light drizzle but it didn’t last long.

Red Brigade at the Mechanics Institute

Red Brigade at the Mechanics Institute

Then there was the usual round of speeches from a Wurundjeri elder, the Mayor, curator and judges.

Michael Carolan Hey You Try Me a sound and video installation that really used its location of the old ticket booth won Indoor Award. Phil Soliman received a honourable mention for his installation.

Michael Carolan Hey You Try Me, Jewell Station

Michael Carolan Hey You Try Me, Jewell Station

The Outdoor Award was won by Alica Bryson Haynes The Shape of Things to Come at Coburg Mall for its multi-cultural community engagement.

Alica Bryson Haynes The Shape of Things to Come

Alica Bryson Haynes The Shape of Things to Come

Riza Manalo won the Brunswick Station Gallery Award for an artist to curate a program of art at the stations along the Upfield Line for her work The Visitor.  (No photo available as it is a projection on the Mechanic’s Institute.)

Riza Manalo, The Visitor

Aaron James McGarry, I adopted a Koala, called: third draw down


DADA at MUMA

“Reinventing the Wheel: the Readymade Century” at MUMA (Monash University Museum of Art) pays tribute to Duchamp’s conceptual invention. A century after Marcel Duchamp’s lost Bicycle Wheel, 1913 and Bottle dryer, 1914 it is a difficult challenge to sum up the impact of this seminal work of contemporary art, even if this is only from public and private collections in Australia, but this exhibition has succeeded.

Andrew Liversidge, IN MY MIND I KNOW WHAT I THINK BUT THAT’S ONLY BASED ON MY EXPERIENCE, 2009, 10,000 $1 coins

Andrew Liversidge, IN MY MIND I KNOW WHAT I THINK BUT THAT’S ONLY BASED ON MY EXPERIENCE, 2009, 10,000 $1 coins

There are over forty artists – from internationally renowned artists of art history textbook fame to notable Australian artists. This is an important exhibition for anyone interested in the history of the last century of art. It takes the viewer to some of the most important works of 20th Century artists: Duchamp, John Cage 4’3”, Christo and Jeanne Claude’s Wrapped Coast, Gilbert and George’s The Singing Sculptures and Martin Creed’s Work No.88. The art alternated from the sublime to the ridiculous, the sacred to the profane, from transfigured value to ordinary stuff. I particularly enjoyed seeing Meret Oppenheim Eichhörnchen (Squirrel) 1969 because I hadn’t seen it before, Rosslynd Piggot’s etched glass because I haven’t seen her work for a while and pages of Peter Tyndall’s blog, Blogos/HA HA because I’ve seen it often (there is a link in my blogroll in the right bar of this page).

At the opening of the exhibition, once the noise from the bar and cheese table had subsided, there were a number of speeches including one from Scott Tanner, Chief Executive of the Bank of Melbourne. Tanner commented on the work by Andrew Liversidge IN MY MIND I KNOW WHAT I THINK BUT THAT’S ONLY BASED ON MY EXPERIENCE, 2009. Liversidge consists of 10,000 $1 coins that the Bank of Melbourne had loaned for the exhibition. Tanner talked about the coins or art “going in and out of circulation.” This an important point about readymades because they do not exist at all times, they go in and out of circulation. We take chocolates from Gonzalez-Toress’ Untitled (a corner of Baci) but there is an endless supply as long as the factory keeps manufacturing them. Martin Creed’s Work no.88 A sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball, 1995 exists in an unlimited edition of which this was #625. The readymade art on exhibition does not necessarily exist in W.E. Kennick’s imaginary warehouse as distinguishable objects. (See: Kennick, “Does Traditional Aesthetics Rest on a Mistake?” Mind v.67 1958) It does not necessarily exist in a real studio as Susanna Duchamp demonstrates when she threw out the original Bicycle Wheel and Bottlerack when cleaning out Marcel’s Paris studio.

The idea that a readymade is not be warehoused or the art might return to the circulation of ordinary objects is a not a mistake. As a banker Tanner would know banks do not actually have all the money on paper sitting in a vault. That Liversidge’s art exists, like money, in the documentation and the power of the authenticating signature and the physical instance, when required. That money exists in the same way the Michael Craig-Martin’s An oak tree, 1973 exists in the exchange of the idea represented by the tokens of the exchange.

“We do not so much need the help of friends as the certainty of their help” – Epicurius. This was the message wrapped in the Baci chocolate that was part of Felix Gonzalez-Toress’ corner. Readymades do need the help of friends but not the certainty; they need the galleries, the plinths, the curators and gallery attendants for without them we might trip over them or shovel snow with one of them (a gallery worker really did shovel snow with Marcel Duchamp’s In Advance of the Broken Arm). Once again praise to the curatorial team of Max Delany (former MUMA director), Charlotte Day, Francis E. Parker and Patrice Sharkey.


Drive Time Sculpture & Architecture

The international style of freeway design makes all the roads in the world look the same but Melbourne’s freeways no longer look like Jeffrey Smart’s modern and utilitarian Cahill Expressway. There are sculptures that can really only be seen from a car in Melbourne – EastLink Freeway has a $5.5 million public art collection.

Driving through Melbourne there is DCM’s City Gateway in Flemington with its a reference to the Vault. The big yellow beam at the start of the freeway is better known by other nicknames – “the cheese stick”. DCM is a Melbourne firm specializing in architecture and urban design and their work can be seen all over Melbourne from the new visitors centre at the Shrine of Remembrance to the Web Bridge in Docklands.

Noise reduction walls along the freeways have become works of architectural design. Wood Marsh, with Pels Innes and Nielson Kosloff, designed the noise reduction walls along the Eastern Freeway Extension in 1997. Other noise reduction walls designed by architects are the Geelong Road Noise Walls and the Bypass Soundwalls.

There is also the Craigieburn Bypass a giant rust-red corten steel arc sweeps across the freeway to create a grand visual gateway into northern Melbourne. This freeway sculpture consists of three long sculptural sound walls punctuated by a pedestrian bridge. Architects Tonkin Zulaikha Greer in collaboration with landscape architecture firm Taylor Cullity Lethlean and artist Robert Owen designed the Craigieburn Bypass.

The speed at which the view passes the sculpture was assumed to be walking pace but the modern viewer in a car travels much faster, so the sculptures have to be huge, engaging but not too distracting. I don’t drive a car, I ride a bicycle and the only sculpture that I see from that is Simon Perry’s Rolled Path or the MoreArts exhibition and generally I stop my bike, so I see sculptures at walking pace. Consequently I haven’t actually seen the sculpture along EastLink (can I do it with Google Maps?).

Lisa Young, Island Wave, 2003, Melbourne

Lisa Young, Island Wave, 2003, Melbourne

A traffic sculpture that I have seen is in the round about at the corner of Franklin and Queen streets – Island Wave (2003) by Lisa Young. It is a repeating series of white painted steel shapes following the perimeter of the round about. Each of the steel shapes repeats the form of a stylised cross section of a wave about to break. The steel sculpture on concrete footing was fabricated by Gilbro Engineering and installed by Famous Constructions.

The linear sculpture parks along  EastLink in Melbourne’s outer Eastern suburbs. It features four major works by notable Australian artists. In addition to these major artworks, ConnectEast also funded a collection of smaller scale pieces located along the EastLink Trail for the enjoyment of cyclists and walkers, like me.

Elipsoidal Freeway Sculpture by James Angus is between Wellington Rd and Corhanwarrabul Creek. 24 green, blue and white coloured modular ellipsoids of varying sizes cover a distance of 36 metres.

Public Art Strategy by Emily Floyd is a giant painted steel blackbird overlooking a yellow worm. It is located between Cheltenham Road and the Dandenong Bypass. The giant children’s toy image is typical of Floyd’s work as an artist, Emily Floyd Signature Work (Rabbit), 2004 a large black painted aluminium toy rabbit on Waterview Walk in the Docklands. At 13 metres high, 19 metres long hers is the smallest of sculptures along the EastLink Trail.

Hotel by Callum Morton is between Greens Road and Bangholme road. Callum Morton, an RMIT alumnus, represented Australia at the 2007 Venice Biennale and his art is about architecture (“how space is experienced in built environments”). Hotel is a large-scale model of a bland high-rise modern hotel and some of its windows are lit at night with solar power.

Resembling a fallen tree or tower of galvanized steel plate along the side of the motorway. Desiring Machine by Simeon Nelson is next to EastLink south of Thompson Road, near Boundary-Colman’s Road. This is not Nelson’s only sculpture designed for a roadside there is his The M4 Freeway Commission, Sydney 2000.

(See The Age from 2007 on the Eastlink sculptures.)


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