I was going to write a review of online exhibitions during the lockdown. Most had a note on their website saying that they were closed — “indefinitely’/temporary/for installation” due to COVID-19 virus. I had a little play with at the NGV’s online version of their Keith Haring/Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition but that was like driving around an area using Google street view.
So I thought about it some more. The larger problem for art galleries is that contemporary visual art is still all about objects in a space. And not just any objects and not just any space; art objects in art spaces. It is a problem that they have brought on themselves by emphasising both the object and the space. If only they had considered more non-objective art outside of art space.
The commercial art galleries business model is to sell objects. So I blame, because they can change, the non-commercial galleries for not being progressive enough and following the art model sold by the commercial galleries.
What happens when art leaves the physical space? What is the difference between the cultic object and the display? (see Walter Benjamin The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction section 5) What is the difference between loosing an object, like the Mona Lisa, in outer-space or at the bottom of the ocean, and not being able to remove an image of you posing naked with grandfather clock from the internet? Street artists and graffiti writers know something about the online social media display value of their art as distinct from the physical object.
And why are we still thinking about the arts? We should be more concerned with culture and not the arts, for culture is a larger set that includes the arts. Likewise, ‘culture worker’ is a broader category than ‘artist’ and ‘poet’ and all those other self-indulgent terms.
For culture is about people’s lives — Indigenous readers know what I’m talking about. Culture provides more of a sense of identity than a job, culture is what makes your life and work meaningful. Culture is not an industry and the value of culture can never be assessed in purely economic terms. While the arts industry can be seen as self-serving and little different from the adult entertainment industry; culture cannot. There are items of culture that are worth more than money, that should not be sold or does Uluru have a sales price? And after admitting that there are culturally significant objects that are outside of capitalist market forces, funding culture outside of a capitalist market is logical.
However, the small-minded, greedy, conservative people who run Australia cannot understand anything other dollars and bullets so currently there is no Minister for Culture in Australia and the arts is part of the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications (no Oxford comma in the Ministry).
Now we have the time to change our minds and think about the bigger picture of culture.
A creature with wings cast from a dead bird, a drink-can and a cotton reel and ointment tube as peg-legs. These are the ghosts that haunt the urban landscape, hungry ghosts made from what we throw away. When I first saw Discarded’s low relief sculptures on the street I thought of the frottage work by my favourite Surrealist artist, Max Ernst, for like Ernst surreal creatures, Discarded’s creations are at once absurd, etherial and poetic. Urban textures and debris transformed into treasures.
Street art sculpture is uncommon, even in Melbourne there are less than half a dozen people practicing the art at any one time. Like Junky Projects, the Melbourne-based street-artist who assembles street art sculptures from rubbish found in the street, Discarded assembles her figures from discarded items that she picks up in the street. To this Discarded adds another step, casting and making ceramic copies that she glazes and returns to the street. The ceramic replicas are combined into figures and glued on poles, concrete edges and other pieces of urban infrastructure that are unusable to the muralists and graffiti writers.
Discarded is a professional ceramics artist working in Melbourne; not surprising given the obvious skill her works exhibits in multiple areas of ceramics from casting to painting. Her own street art is inspired by the work of many other streets artists. “They put in their time and money and give it up for other people to see.”
Discarded’s figures don’t have an obvious meaning, they is open to interoperation. Discarded told me: “I’ve had many instances of my work being very misconstrued. The most alarming was a project I did a couple of years ago on telegraph poles which people thought was signals for people to steal their dogs for illegal dogfighting. So I try to make it a playful/serious, comment on our relationship with the earth.”
Discarded explains: “I sort of have a love/hate relationship with the art world, so it often really inspires me to go to see exhibitions and galleries (best ever experience was going to see the Biennale at Arsenale and being in Athens where street art is wall to wall). But I hate the way art is currently situated in our culture, where generally only what makes it to the gallery is valued. I think we have to remember that the current situation of our art culture is not a set thing, it’s constantly evolving and street art plays a big part in changing the way we view art and also how we can imagine it to be.” And I can only applaud this attitude.
Persistence is an important quality of a street artist: how long does their work last in the urban environment and how many years do they persist in putting things up in the street. Discarded’s work persist even under layers of aerosol paint. As an artist she has persisted more than most, five years so far, and although not prolific she keeps on assembling her creations.
Another important quality for any graffiti writer or street artist is exposure, how far across the city their work can be found. In this respect Discarded is limited and I have only seen her work in the city and along the Upfield train line. It is not as easy for a female street artist to work as it is for a male. So, just be glad that Discarded is still installing her art on Melbourne’s walls and keep your eyes open for her latest creations.
(Thanks Discarded for the interview at a distance.)
“First of all, there is the suspensive freedom that comes by walking, even a simple short stroll: throwing off the burden of cares, forgetting business for a time.” Frédéric Gros A Philosophy of Walking
Walking around my neighbourhood — what the fascist, jail-keeper culture at this time, would call ‘exercise’. ‘Exercise’ reduces a complex activity to a physical form just as it reduces a person to a body. For ‘exercise’ is without enjoyment, without culture, without thought and without freedom.
The reality of walking around my neighbourhood in Coburg is different. There are social and cultural aspects that make walking fun. There is the joy of discovery and exploration.
Walking around my block is the opportunity to communicate with neighbours sitting out the front of their house, enjoying the autumn sunshine. “Hello, my friend.” Calls out the old man from his front door. He is in good health but if we didn’t exchange these pleasantries how would I know?
A hostile installation is where a public sculpture is installed in a very unsympathetic way, like John Kelly’s Cow Up A Tree which has been located behind a ‘temporary’ coffee shop in Docklands for years. There are a few hostile installations of public sculpture in Melbourne and then there is hatred directed at Marc Clark’s Portal, 1973.
The hostility directed at this sculpture is exhibited in both neglect, storing a sign next to it, and blocking views of the sculpture with a corrugated iron ticket booth. Clark’s Portal as its name indicates is meant to be a gateway, standing at one of the entrances to Myer Music Bowl. Instead there is a rectangular booth stuck directly front of it. What is wrong with the Myer Music Bowl? The Myer Music Bowl is run by the Melbourne Arts Centre, who should know how to take care of a sculpture.
Sculptor and educator Marc Clark did nothing to invite this. This is Australian passive aggressive indifference; all antipathy with no responsibility. Both Clark and his sculpture are victims of the hostile attitude; they just happen to be in the way of philistine forces from some staff at the Myer Music Bowl.
A versatile sculptor Clarke created the formal abstracts, like Portal, and representational sculptures, like his Captain Cook statue at the Captain Cook Cottage in Fitzroy Gardens or his bust of botanist and explorer, Baron Ferdinand Von Mueller in the Botanic Gardens.
Sculptures need to be maintained and do not magically remain in perfect condition. Fortunately they are more easily repairable than other public art (see my post on the conservation of street art). There are sculptures that are regularly repainted like Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault. Public sculptures are sometimes damaged in accidents, like when a truck hit Peter Corlett’s Mr Poetry and broke its leg. Portal needs to have rust and moss removed and it’s surface repaired and repainted.
A new location has to be found for the ticket booth or Portal, so that both can function as they should.
If you are like me then you are already bored with all the articles, posts, tweets about COVID-19. So please forgive me for this blog post; I am writing it for a future record rather than for you my present unfortunate readers. On the upside, this short blog post contains my most complete report on what is going on in Melbourne’s art galleries but with fewer images.
A few commercial galleries like, Charles Nodrum Gallery, continued with their exhibition program during March, without the usual opening drinks, and remained open by appointment, asking patrons to call ahead to arrange a suitable time to view the exhibition.
Some street artists and graffiti writers, normally nocturnal creatures, are still venturing outside to practice their art but they won’t have many actual viewers even in the best locations. The famous Hosier Lane is empty, as it often was a decade ago when the art in it was better. I infer this from what I have seen in recent posts and photos for I have seen little more than a few blocks from my home.
Many artists are working from home or alone in their studio as they have always done. What they produce and what is the cultural impact of this pandemic maybe a topic for future blog posts when the art galleries are open again.