Considering the use of the so-called ‘elemental forces’ of water, fire, earth and air in public art; with examples from Melbourne’s public and street art.
Although it is the space between, air is the most under used element in public art. Aside from making flags and banners flutter it is used in a couple of sculptures. The 15-metre-high wind-powered sculpture by Duncan Stemler, Blowhole in the Docklands. Elsewhere in the world there are musical sculptures that are played automatically, like Aeolian harps and the common wind chime. On a more subtle level there is scent of gardens, of incense and the burnt eucalyptus leaves of smoking ceremonies carried in the air.
Water was the first one to be used for public art with public drinking fountains and other water features from artificial lakes and waterfalls. There are many fountains and drinking fountains in Melbourne there are also mist sprays on the rocks in Footscray, Wominjeka Tarnuk Yooroom by Maree Clarke and Vicky Couzins. Street artist have also used water, one summer blocks of coloured ice were left to melt in Hosier Lane, the coloured liquid running between the bluestone cobbles. The street artist, CDH used hypochromatic ink for stencil works where the piece that only became visible when wet. Finally there is the unofficial colouring of fountains and moats often in conjunction with protests.
From the eternal flame at the Shrine of Remembrance, candle light vigils, to Indigenous smoke ceremonies fire is used in a variety of public art. Camp fire with Aboriginal story teller at Federation Square. It is not all sacred; there are profane gas flares at the casino and temporary public art events like, fireworks displays. Fortunately there is little use of fire in street art, aside from a rare CDH pyrotechnic painting.
Earth art is the principle form of public art. From its landscaped gardens, the city is an artificial constructed landscape, complete with kitsch floral clocks. The metal and stone used in sculpture is also from the earth but that might be labouring the point. Street art also use earth and plants in guerrilla gardening.
I want to write about the aesthetics of walls; the supports for the advertising, graffiti, street art, decay and accidental marks in the city. Something about the dirty mix of dividers, partitions and supports that we see all the time, that defines the city but we don’t usually focus on.
What brought the city’s walls into focus for me was a copy of a wall on a wall in the CBD. On a brick wall in the city someone had added cast a section of bricks; I guess it was done by an art student who had read some Baudrillard. It had then been reattached to the matched section of the wall. This simulation was an elegant minimal celebration of a plain brick wall for what it is.
Consider some other walls and surfaces, not just for their suitability as a surface for applying aerosol paint, or glue. In Union Lane some paint had come off a wall in a big acrylic sheet about the size of my hand. It revealed the layers of different coloured aerosol paint was almost half a centimetre thick. Some Melbourne walking tour guides will tear off a bit of peeling paint to show visitors the archeology of Melbourne’s graffiti.
Like the accretion of staples, nails and screws on wooden power-poles, all that remains of posters for lost cats, garage sales and other signs.
The advertising posters at Flinders Street Station, torn off because their contracted time is up, compared to the “décollage” of Raymond Hains and Jacques de la Mahé Villeglé in France in 1949. The duo exhibited layers of torn advertising posters that they had ripped from the streets as works of art.
The contested values of buffing and art appreciation where selected street art pieces are painted around. Or where graffiti writers leave space to preserve ghost-signs, the old hand-painted advertisements by professional sign-writers.
They make you wonder what forces are operating on the wall. Are they intentional? Or accidental? Or the inevitable entropy of a plumber putting a pipe through a Banksy rat on a wall in Prahran.
“I like this guy!” One of the three blonde girls declared pointing at a piece by Facter. All of the girls were wearing tiny denim shorts and overall less cloth than next two people in Hosier Lane but I won’t discount their opinion for lack of clothing. I was more amazed that they liked Facter.
Facter is an old hand in Melbourne’s street art scene and amongst the most important people in the scene. He grew up with the tiny Perth graffiti scene in the 1980s (when you couldn’t spellcheck your tags). He is a nice guy and more of a writer than a graff writer; he is the editor in chief of Invurt. He is more significant as an advocate, curator and organiser, then for his painting on the street.
Facter’s pieces are robotic segmented creatures that exist somewhere between street art and aerosol graffiti; the letter form of graffiti replaced by the outline of the creature but most of the traditional aerosol elements of a piece are still there. There is a childish joy in the bright colours in his pieces and shapes. Facter also makes designer toys in this style.
That day I was exploring the Melbourne grid and although I have been doing that for years there are still parts that I haven’t seen. Hoping that just down this lane will find something beautiful or surprising. Sometimes I do but more often it will be more construction, workers smoking out or a van being unloaded. I didn’t find anything that day; last week I found Baptist Place and the work of the Night Krawler but I can’t expect to do that every time so I went back to some of the major street art locations.
That day I had already seen a couple of pieces by Facter; there were two in Croft Alley in Chinatown. Croft Alley still has plenty of fresh graffiti pieces in it, only it is so narrow that there are only a couple of walls that are easily photographed.
In Hosier Lane there was more political pieces reflecting the current political issues: the students strike against climate change inaction and the conviction of Cardinal George Pell. It is so political that Van Rudd has a prominent section of wall for his brush painted mural. I’ve forgotten who said that street art had lost its political edge.
“From Bark to Neon: Indigenous Art from the NGV Collection” at the NGV in Federation Square includes works by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Rover Thomas, Emily Kam Kngwarray in the collection. But I want to focus on two local artists in the exhibition who both have street backgrounds: Reko Rennie and Trevor Turbo Brown.
Part of their street background both embraced one of the four elements of hip hop; for Reko it was writing graffiti and for Turbo, breakdancing.
Reko Rennie has a neon crown in his Regalia 2013; as in crown that a top graffiti writer would put a crown above their tag. I first saw his work at the Melbourne Stencil Festival in 2008, a magnificent multi-layer stencil of a red kangaroo. Later I saw the same stencil sprayed on a wall in Hosier Lane alongside Blek Le Rat and Stormie Mills. I didn’t know that he was Kamilaroi all I knew is that he was amongst the best street artists in Melbourne. Many street artists were later represented by commercial art galleries but Reko Rennie navigated this transition better than most. In a few years he had work in the NGV’s collection was making public art. Rennie’s public art includes his Neon Natives, 2011 in Cocker Alley for the City of Melbourne’s Laneway Commissions and his Murri Totems, 2012 outside of the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science building.
The late Trevor Turbo Brown was a Latje Latje man from Mildura and the winner of the 2012 Victorian Deadly Art Award. Turbo was a self-taught, outsider artist who had multiple disadvantages amongst them homelessness and an intellectual disability. Turbo had a clear relationship to the street. He got his nickname, ‘Turbo’ breakdancing on the streets in the 1980s and 90s. One day I ran into him Brunswick trying to sell his art. The NGV has three new acquisitions of Turbo’s paintings on exhibition; they acquired some of the best Turbo paintings that I’ve seen, there is a genuine sense of humour his dingos smiling and photobombing for the tourists. Dingos were very significant to Turbo for many reasons.
Hip hop and the street are now part of the greater cultural mix that influences urban Indigenous art in Melbourne.
It did require a conscious decision on my part not to change my habits and walk a different way through the city. It required minimal effort but surprising results because it led me to Baptist Place and the stencils of the Night Krawler.
I can’t believe that I haven’t been to Baptist Place before but it seems I haven’t. Baptist Place runs off Little Collins Street.
There are little lanes that I’ve never been in, right in the centre of Melbourne. I am almost three years behind the times, so don’t look to me for recent information. I can date this because I have only learnt about the Night Krawler, a stencil artist who has been working around the inner city since late 2016. At least according to the knowledgable Toby of ‘all those shapes’. (Cheers, Matthew W for your help.)
I had seen Night Krawler’s cat stencils before, but these were different. “Contra toda autoridad excepto mi mama” (against all authority, except for my mum). The headless hoodie kid with his halo of razor wire was almost buffed away, so that only a ghostly image remained under the paint.
Other works were spaced down the walls of Baptist Place with a sense of narrative, like panels in a comic about a Latin-American magical-realism with cats.
Stencils were once a major feature of Melbourne’s street art. They were the talk of the streets for the first decade of this century. Max GPS, Night Krawler, N20, Sunfigo, Drasko and others are keeping the technique going on the streets. The internationally infamous, Max GPS had done a large piece in Union Lane, off the Bourke Street Mall.
It is hard to credit all the stencil artists because they often don’t tag their work. I can understand why Night Krawler deserves credit but who would want to be held responsible for some of these atrocious puns?
There are two exhibitions at Fortyfive Downstairs by Marco Luccio: “New York Postcards” in the main gallery and “Immaginario” in the small gallery. It is difficult for one artist to fill the enormous space at Fortyfive Downstairs (I don’t think that I’ve seen a single artist do that before) with work of a consistent quality. This is especially impressive given that most the art in these two exhibition are small works that would each look good by themselves in a someone’s home.
Marco Luccio uses a variety of printing techniques. In “Immaginario” he uses monotypes to create fantastic miniature landscapes, very much in the tradition of Max Ernst’s Surrealist decalcomania landscapes. In his “New York Postcards” Luccio mixes rubber stamps and etching with other mixed media using antique postcards both as a support and an “impedimento”.
However, this “impedimento” on the post-cards, the printing, stamps, postmarks, and ink handwriting is largely ignored. The function of the postcard has been removed by making them art. Likewise the connection between NYC postcards, Luccio’s the neo-classical drawing style with the heavy lines, horses, and bodies appears arbitrary.
In an artist’s statement in video form Luccio refers to the postcards as “artefacts”; as they were antiques I wanted to know the source of the postcard, how were they acquired. Three vitirines offered clues about their construction; filled with materials and old albums of postcards they showed some of the process of their creation.
Although Luccio knows art history, he shows photographs of himself sketching in the Metropolitan Museum, he appears to be unaware of the mail art movement. One of the largest (by number of participants) art movements of the twentieth century, mail art, also known as the “New York Correspondence School”. It used the postal system both to distribute art and play with, as in Ben Vautier’s postcard The Postman’s Choice (1965) with a place for a stamp and address on both sides.
I was intrigued by the poster advertising for this exhibition because it reached Coburg.
I have been reporting on Melbourne’s street art and graffiti in this blog for over a decade. What has changed? And what did I get completely wrong? The largest and most obvious change is that the walls have got larger until they were the size of grain silos.
It has been a decade of adjusting tensions between local city councils and the people who create art on their streets. There are now a lot more legal walls, in 2009 they were not as common as there are now. Businesses were far ahead of local councils in this regard because they didn’t have to negotiate with people with an ideological commitment to be against graffiti they just looked at their triple bottom line.
In 2009 as graffiti and street art grew in popularity anti-graffiti legislation was a draconian punitive response; instead of fines, jail terms. Consequently many graffiti and street art events, like the Croft Alley Project, had a specific political agenda.
Melbourne still doesn’t have a street art centre and specialist street art galleries have not survived. I was completely wrong about this, While some people imagined a centre at Docklands, many people objected to having any institution, even a festival like the Melbourne Stencil Festival in 2009. In other cities street art centres have been created without the dire consequences that the nay sayer predicted.
Street art was always welcome by art galleries and a mainstream art career was always a clear path a decade ago as it is now. I don’t know why I thought that a parallel gallery system might emerge.
A decade ago there was more of a need to place street art within a historic context (or was that just me?) to prove that it was connected with art history and a continuing tradition of graffiti. As it turned out this was irrelevant.
Although no-one is talking about doing street art with living moss anymore much has stayed the same. Many of the same artists are still putting work up in the street. In 2009 I saw my one of the first Junky Projects on a side street in Fitzroy.