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Monthly Archives: April 2019

Melbourne Street Art Past and Future

In Centre Place there are a couple of relics of an earlier era of Melbourne’s street art. Both the City Lights and Heart Lock are now covered in layers of paint and stickers. Centre Place was once a prime location for graffiti and street art, now after a new building it is now too small for more than one or two pieces.

The heart lock is still there but has lost its heart and I think that it has been moved from its original location. I guess that Melbourne walking tour guides no longer tell the love story about Paula Birch’s Sacred Heart of Centre Place (See Demet Divaroren’s Blog for the legend). Andy Mac’s City Lights Project were photo light boxes; you can still see the now redundant cables for the power. There were two sets installed in Centre Place and Hosier Lane back in the 1996. (For more see my blog post from 2009.)

Appearing to go further back in time; I spotted these initials carved into the bluestones along the bank of the Yarra. At first I thought that they might have been stonemason’s marks. However, if they were stonemason’s marks I would have expected them more widespread amongst the stone embankment rather than concentrated in one place. If they were stonemasons would also expect greater quality in the carving of the initial. So I suspect that they are mid-century modern tags but they could be earlier.

I photographed some more stencils around the city; not surprised that this time they are in the laneway leading to the new location for Blender Studios. Melbourne’s street art and graffiti appears to have entered a holding pattern. Instead of any developments or new directions there is an almost steady state where we can expect more repetition. No new developments, just new walls with the same kind of stuff on them. There are so few innovators currently on the scene that I’m not even aware of any disruptors, like Lush. In another old street art location, Presgrave Place, there are new works by Tinky, Phoenix and Calm.

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The sculptor and the swan

Like many sculptors in twentieth century Melbourne Raymond Boultwood “Ray” Ewers (20 August 1917 – 5 June 1998) made a lot of memorials in his life. And along with a memorials to President John F. Kennedy in 1965 and the fascist Sir Thomas Blamey in 1960 Ewers made a small memorial to a black swan.

The black swan named Cookie frequented the Alexandra Gardens until it was killed in an accident in 1973. The memorial drinking fountain that Ewers made is located at the end of Boathouse Drive beside the footpath by the Yarra River. The bluestone rectangular fountain still works; I drank from it on the weekend. (I hate bottled water! There is no need to carry water around in Melbourne as there are many drinking fountains.) There is a small bronze plaque on the fountain with a bas-relief image of a swan. The inscription reads: ‘In memory of Cookie the black swan, who lived in these gardens from 1967–1973’. 

Drinking fountains were a popular form for memorials in Melbourne combining a sculptural form with a practical purpose (for more about Melbourne’s drinking fountains). There was some debate about the memorial as the City of Melbourne records (Outdoor Artworks, October 2009, PDF) indicate that there was a suggestion to make a domed marble and granite drinking fountain (c.1936) in Queen Victoria Gardens Cookie’s memorial. Searching Trove did not provided any further information, there were no newspaper reports about the accident that ended Cookie’s life or the decision making process that led up to the drinking fountain.

Although the memorials indicate that someone wanted to pay a sculptor to make a permanent image, they tells you almost nothing about the sculptor. I see the same facts repeated about Ray Ewers; born in the northern Riverina, an RMIT graduate, and assistant to William Leslie Bowles. I’m not writing this because I think he was an important sculptor or created beautiful things; I don’t even like his sculptures. I know nothing about Ewers as an individual and he is as much of an alien mystery to me as Cookie the black swan.

Ewers worked at a time when there were many lacunas in Melbourne’s public art, the empty years with few commissions. Absent sculptural commissions are difficult to see because they aren’t there but they are there. There are many of these absent commissions. The decade long gap in the wake of the Vault (aka The Yellow Peril) controversy. The empty plinth, now used for Plinth Projects, in Edinburgh Gardens. The lone bronze statues of colonials on Swanston Walk or in St Kilda that were intended to have companions.

Cookie, the black swan memorial drinking fountain

In the 1930s Melbourne’s public sculptures were neglected and ignored. In The Argus (Thursday 1 Dec 1938 p.3)  “Staring at Statues, The Figures of the Great” Gordon Williams looked at Melbourne’s public sculpture; not that there was much to look at. “I believe that a poor statue about the place is better than no statue at all.” Leslie Bowles was quoted; a sculptor who would say something like in the hope of another commission. For decades many local city councils in Melbourne took Bowles advice and installed many poor sculptures.


Reservoir’s rejected art

Art is considered valuable and worthy of preservation but what happens when it is not. A postman friend has been photographing and critiquing the art deposited on the nature strip outside the homes in an outer northern suburb. It was a series of Facebook posts starting Sept 23 2018 and is reproduced here with permission.

Art brut, au Reservoir: outsider art exhibited outside.
A new exhibit of outsider art for the Reservoir nature strip gallery, framed in glorious ironing board. Or is it merely fan art homage to Ariel Pink?
Art brut salon, Reservoir nature strip gallery.
Art le plus brut, sur un socle de boîte aux lettres, correspondance esthétique du jour, Reservoir. (Translation: The Most Raw Art, on a base of mailbox, aesthetic correspondence of the day, Reservoir.)
Design on serviette, discovered in a driveway, Reservoir. Calculating to graduate beyond the curb and up to street art.
 “In the wake of the death of God, only the death of desire can save us. The task of art is to abolish desire rather than re-educate it. If it once held out a promise of communal redemption, it is now a form of spiritual self-extinction. The self is not to be realised but annihilated, and the aesthetic is one place where, like Keats before the nightingale, it can be allowed to dissolve ecstatically away.” _Terry Eagleton (summarising Schopenhauer), Culture and the Death of God (2014).
A symbolic objection to global warming? I spotted this tasteful example of Mandarin calligraphy yesterday, junked among other rejects in a Reservoir front yard. Today it had migrated to the footpath, found leaning against the neighbour’s fence. I’ve had to rotate the image 90° to correctly orient the character. The red stamp below says “four seasons.” My guess is this was part of a set, the others being characters for the rest of the year. The word seen here is Summer. Someone’s over it.
Art outside, drifting liberated from a spontaneous tip on the nature strip.
The most recent raw art, the gallery on the nature band, in Reservoir.
The art brut colours of Reservoir: diptych on nature strip.

Heroines Petticoats @ Dirty Dozen

A dozen surreal installations tell a history of Australian women. “Heroines in Petticoats” by Kelly Sullivan, Kirsti Lenthall (Empire of Stuff), Gigi Gordes and Liz Sonntag (Tinky) is an engaging and accessible exhibition that has a coherent and relevant theme.

The height and depth of the dozen vitrines in the pink tiled Campbell Arcade, the Degraves Street underpass to Flinders Street Station has been used to great effect. Too often the Dirty Dozen has been occupied by art students who have alienated the general public, forgetting or ignoring that this space is very public at Melbourne’s central metropolitan railway station. There were several people paying close attention to it when I saw it around midday on Thursday.

The vitrines create a timeline of the lives of Australian women from the colonial era to the present. The heroines of this timeline are not specific women, heroines to represent an era but women in a general non-specific way. This absence of specificity meant that the artists tended to represent white suburban women.

As well as, the timeline there were specific causes associated with specific eras from the anti-conscription movement of the 1910s to the domestic murder rate of today. There was no mention of the temperance movement, as it was a women powered movement, but it is not longer seen as righteous.

Although each of the cases is labelled as the work of specific artists there is a coherent look to the whole exhibition. There are differences Kelly Sullivan’s collage, Kirsti Lenthall’s ceramic decals on plates and impressively on quartz rocks, or Gigi Gordes’s disembodied body parts; hands typing, the eyes on the glasses, mouth on the mug, mouth on the phone (I don’t know why the objects are covered in crochet) and, a few cabinets later, the hands on a glass of wine.

It was Tinky’s work that drew my attention to the exhibition as I know Gigi and Tinky’s art from the street. However, Tinky’s puns were the weakest elements of the exhibition. Written on paper and the little titles didn’t match the style of the rest. Unfortunately her puns give meaning to her tableaus and without them they would just be some odd HO scale model train figures.


True Colours and Blender Studios

On Friday evening there was the opening of Casey Jenkins’s “True Colours” at Dark Horse Experiment. Described as a “mind altering, body modification, transformative, durational performance artwork” it is basically about if Jenkins develop synaesthesia through training. Jenkins is planning to train her brain for five hours a day for two weeks followed by a second MRI to see if anything has actually changed in her brain. In this respect it seems more like a comment on how boring jobs alter your brain than an examination of if colour perception is biological or cultural.

Which of the traditions of performance art was Jenkins following with this work? The self-harm of Marina Abramović and Chris Burden or the simply the boredom of Duchamp’s Monte Carlo roulette system? It was definitely not in the entertaining tradition of performance art, nor as confronting as Jenkin’s earlier pieces. It was rather like talking about your science project at a cool party.

The thing about contemporary art, that is not explained often enough, is that it is one big party: booze, finger food and gossip. Someone should write a social column about the gossip. And I have to admit that I was there more for the social scene than the art; when I really want to look at the art I don’t go to the exhibition opening. I hadn’t seen Drew Funk in years, he is back from KL and I could hardly recognise him without his dreadlock.

Except for Ha-Ha, the intellectual featherweights that I was hanging out with did not engage with the exhibition’s theme. I did learn that Ha-Ha’s perception is far more focused on numbers than mine; counting the number of cuts that he makes in a stencil, seeing numbers in shapes. I didn’t want to say much because it felt like revision of all the philosophy papers that I have read about colour perception.

I was also there to see the new location for Blender Studios and Dark Horse Experiment. The last time that I saw it, they were in the Docklands and now they are in West Melbourne. It is more like the original Blender Studios; an old factory with exposed struts supporting the roof. Entry is down an alley, its flagstones covered in aerosol paint from the children’s spray painting classes that they run. And it still has that blend between street and contemporary art.


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