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Monthly Archives: June 2019

Graff Notes

– green buff – a new style? – pastels?!

I am trying to promote a new term: ‘green buff’. To ‘green buff’ is to plant in a way that a wall is no longer usable for graffiti. Brunswick Station is a good example of green buffing. It used to be a prime location for graffiti. Adnate and the AWOL crew found their style on the walls around the station. It also used to be surrounded by fly tip of a wasteland. Apart from maintaining the path to the station Moreland Council and the multi railway authorities took no care of the area. Then locals took action and guerrilla gardeners turned it into a garden. Now there is only a couple of walls left around Brunswick Station, the rest of them have been green buffed with trees blocking the view. Green buffing is the best way to prevent graffiti because graffiti is a response to neglected areas, to ugly blank walls.

Graffiti writers, those extreme urban decorators of the urban wasteland are still inventive and looking at the beauty of aesthetics in of letters. I keep seeing a development of fresh material in graffiti and in the last couple of years but I hesitate to call it a new style. Saem and Rashe’s work looks like a fresh take on modern artists, like Léger’s cubism or the Russian Suprematist. It is a contrast to all the painted air, the illusionistic space around the letters, blown by the aerosol, that has been the standard for many years. These works are so flat there is no air in it;  they are super-flat like Takashi Murakami. It was so startling that I had to stop my bike and check it out.

After more than a decade of looking at graffiti and street art it I feel some burnout; a bit like “I have seen this all before, so many times.” CDH asked me when I last got excited by street art or graffiti. I replied: “Astral Nadir.” I forgot that I put the breaks on my bike for Saem and Discarded; willing to lose the momentum had been hard won with muscle power to look at their work.

So what if I’ve become a bit jaded over the years – I’m still thinking, looking, and exploring the city. Part of my routine over the last decade, aside from wearing down a groove in the bluestone blocks of certain laneways, is visiting art galleries, sometimes the two align but I didn’t expect them to at a high-end commercial gallery like, Flinders Lane Gallery.

At Flinders Lane Gallery (now on the first floor of Nicholas Building) Amber-Rose Hulme’s exhibition — “Context” is a series of photorealist pastel drawings of Melbourne’s walls. The photorealist quality is startling. There was a shock of recognition of same familiar laneways, tags and walls. Unlike the photographers who exploit the popularity of graffiti Hulme has her own vision of these location. It is one of a nostalgic urban wabi-sabi, the acceptance of ephemeral and the decay. Drawing the cracked paint, the splatters and drips with a mix of dedication and patience the graffiti is seen in its context of walls and bluestone laneways.

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Modernism and Refugees

On world refugee day March 20, the Metropolitan Museum in New York shrouded paintings by refugees. “What would the Met’s walls look like if there were no refugees?” (No Max Beckmann, Marc Chagall, Ibrahim El-Salahi, Max Ernst, Piet Mondrian, Sopheap Pich, Mark Rothko) If that had been done at the opening of RMIT’s exhibition, “Melbourne Modern: European art & design at RMIT since 1945”,  there would have been many shrouded works.

Vincas Jomantas, Landing Object, 1971

In his opening remarks Philip Goad pointed out the contribution of the European modernists to RMIT. Without the post-war refugees RMIT and Australia’s culture (art, design, food, life) would be boiled, bland and ugly. It is clearly visible in the high tide mark of modern art, architecture, jewellery, fashion and other designs in this extensive exhibition at RMIT Gallery.

It is especially evident in the sculpture. The central sculptures in the main gallery are by Teisutis Zikaras, Inge King and Vincas Jomantas; all were displaced by WWII and were essentially refugees.

Teisutis Zikaras, Mother and Child c.1956-9

Teisutis Zikaras was the first of five émigré sculptors to teach at RMIT. His geometric mother and child in the exhibition are a homage to cubism and European modernism.

Inge King Daruma, Maquette for Garden Sculpture 1978

There are two familiar black steel sculptures by Inge King; many local people would be familiar with King’s sculptures from her public works. Her Daruma are particularly elegant reducing the traditional Japanese doll to two curved planes.

Vincas Jomantas, Birds of Death, 1964-5

Vincas Jomantas is particularly important to the RMIT art department; indeed the curators refer to 1961-1987 as the “Jomantas years” in wall notes. Jomantas may not be a famous artist but his influence on generations of sculptors is a greater legacy.

Jomantas black wooden curved forms in Birds of Death (1964-5) and his white geometric forms of Landing Object II (1971).

Even at modest scale in their sculptures look monumental. Their simple solid forms stand of symbols of modern sense of freedom.

So much of modern culture has been created refugees. Successful and humane countries took them in far greater numbers and far earlier than Australia. Who knows what damage current Australia’s refugee policy is doing to its culture because it takes decades to measure this; Australia definitely lost at least one refugee who is now a Fulbright scholar.

I don’t want any smug ALP supporters reading this and thinking that anyone who doesn’t support the current refugee policy should support the ALP. The ALP started the cruel policy of indefinite detention of refugees under Paul Keating (a creature with less compassion than a snake) and has no plans to end it. I call on my readers to imagine a better world where there is no ALP or LNP and then to do everything that they can to make it a reality.

“Melbourne Modern: European art & design at RMIT since 1945” was curated by Jane Eckett and Harriet Edquist.


Dishonouring the memory

Public statues are about honouring the person portrayed, especially when they are larger than life-sized. There are no public portrait statues created of people who it was not intended to honour. This is because the tradition of portrait sculpture started with the depiction of Ancient Greek gods, demigods and heroes.

The campaign, “Wentworth Must Fall”, at Sydney University to remove the statue of William Charles Wentworth from the Great Hall and rename the Wentworth building is based on the Oxford University “Rhodes Must Fall”
campaign and other campaigns for statue removal that are known collectively as the Statue Wars (see my post Statue Wars 2017).

Removing a sculpture or burning of an effigy is not revising history — it is a symbol of regime change. It is about moving from colonial to post-colonial. The changes in public statues, place names and other symbols is part of post-colonialism. And the question that Sydney University students are asking their university in this campaign is what are they doing to decolonize. Leaving a public portrait statue of a person who is no longer honoured distorts the historical record by implying that the person is still honoured.

It is traditional to burn the effigies of hated figures and remove statues of them. Often when a statue is removed it is destroyed because the people removing it hate the person it represents. This doesn’t have to the case and the statue can be stored, archived, and exhibited in contexts that do not honour the person portrayed (for example in an exhibition of the work of the sculptor who made it).

The statue of Wentworth was made by Pietro Tenerani, a sculptor based in Rome and a student of the Danish neo-classical sculptor Thorvaldsen. During his career Tenerani produced work to order for the Catholic church and nationalists around the world — from a statue of Simon Bolivar for Bogota to a statue of Ferdinand II of Naples for Messina. His portrayal of Wentworth as an orator is more creative than accurate. When the statue was made Wentworth was in his sixties but is portrayed as a younger man. Wentworth himself was not a supporter of the statue. He believed that the funds could have been better spent.

Regardless of the details of Wentworth’s life his statue was and always will be a colonial symbol. The inauguration of the Wentworth statue was an imperial event (as reported in Empire p.5 24 June 1862). Before its unveiling the statue was covered with a flag and the band playing God Save the King several times. Australian nationalists are keen to cement their claims with statues of colonial heroes and post-colonialism is heavily resisted. The current government worships Captain Cook as a demigod of imperial colonisation, worthy of a multi-million dollar memorial.

It is the plinth or pedestal that is the crucial element in the hero worship of these statues. Lying on its side without its plinth statues of Stalin or Felix Dzerzhinsky are inoffensive. If the statue of Wentworth was placed in a pit (maybe with a glass roof so that people could walk over it) it would have a very different meaning.


Fantastic Worlds

Art in children’s picture books is how most of us first experienced art and the current exhibition at the Counihan Gallery could be some children’s first experience of an art gallery. “Fantastic Worlds” is an exhibition of children’s book illustrations that has been specifically curated for children (aged 2 to 10 years old).

Ann Walker, Mr Huff soft sculpture, 2015

It is not just the subject of the exhibition that is designed for children. Low plinths allows easier viewing for children. Cushions and beanbags offer a place for children to relax. There is also an interactive work, Story-go-round by Cat Rabbit and Isobel Knowles, that was commissioned especially for the exhibition. And there are story-times, workshops and other events that are part of the exhibition.

Even if you are no longer a child there is plenty of appeal in this exhibition; emphasis on the word ‘plenty’, for unlike the minimalism of many contemporary art exhibitions with ten illustrators there is plenty to look at. Shaun Tan’s paintings and sculptures have their own power as art; the rough surface of the paint and the solidity of these imaginary places. Elise Hurst fantastic pen and ink illustration from Imagine a City (2014). Graeme Base’s intensely detailed watercolour and ink illustrations from Animalia (1986), The Sign of the Seahorse (1992) and Uno’s Garden (2006) — and much more.

Shaun Tan paintings installation view

What I didn’t expect was so much collage. Alison Lester’s figures are cut out and collaged onto a background; they stand out fresh and lively in the original (although it might not be as obvious in the print version). Tai Snaith does more obvious collage mixing cut paper and stoneware clay to create very three dimensional images for Slow Down World (2017). And then there is the digital collage and gothic cyberpunk styling of Lance Balchin’s mechanical insects, from his book Mechanica: a beginner’s field guide (2016).

“Fantastic Worlds” at Counihan Gallery in Brunswick was curated by Edwina Bartlem.

detail from Tai Snaith’s A cool shady place

Melbourne Psychogeography Regrets

Like the flâneurs (Sigmund Freud in Vienna, Charles Dickens in London and Gerard Nerval in Paris) psychogeography is pretty much the exclusive purview of a privileged minority of men. Psychogeography (along with the associated activities of urban exploration, surface archeology, ghost-signs, and paint-spotting) is unfairly dominated by white, middle-class, middle-aged men — including myself. From Will Self to the conservative politician Micheal Portillo’s tv program Abandoned Buildings or Tony Robinson walking somewhere else — at the professional level there are no women.

The activity of walking around the city unfairly excludes both women and other people (especially the original owners of the land) simply because they are not always as safe as I am. This is not a desirable situation. I don’t wish to exclude anyone and I would be happy if there was a much greater diversity of psychogeographers. Hence this statement of regret, that I’ve written on behalf of all Melbourne psychogeographers.

I want to write: women reclaim the night and explore the city… Indigenous people tell your own stories of it because it this always was and is your land… but that might not be wise… Indeed (if memory serves me correctly, because I am searching for the source) in the original phase of psychogeography the North African members of the Situationalists who were not legally allowed to explore Paris at night because of a curfew.

We need less cars and more people out on the streets, or even, at the front of their homes would be an improvement. Instead in home renovation after home renovation we have the architectural retreat to the backyard in the suburbs. We need more active witnesses, or ‘neighbours’ as they used to be called, and not passive recording on CCTV (see my blog post on CCTV).

In considering all the practicalities of walking around (insert a quote from Will Self here, something on his gore-tex underwear), the historical research, the documentation and photographs …. We have been forgetting to re-imagine the city. Renaming buildings and inventing readymade sculptures were amongst my first psychogeographical activities; there was the Dalek Headquarters in South Melbourne with its blue panopticon eye surveilling the city, the Cylons in Box Hill … Exercising the imagination is the start of the process.

We have to imagine a city where all people are equally safe, a place where being in public is safer than being in private, because only then can we make such a place a reality.


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