Monthly Archives: January 2021

Pygmalion’s Nightmare

What would happen if, like in the story of Pygmalion, Melbourne’s public sculptures were to come to life? It is a story from Yell Olé, a Melbourne underground comic from the mid-90s, by Bernard Caleo and Brendan Tolley.

J.E. Boehm, St George and the dragon, 1876

The statues are resentful for their spirits having been “locked in city buildings for reasons generations old.” The figure from the art deco Manchester Unity Building is the first to rampage through the city. Later he is chased down by the two warriors on horseback from outside of the State Library, the unlikely combination of St George and Joan of Arc.

I won’t tell you about the story’s outcome but point out that Will Self conjures a similar scene for London’s in his novel, The Book of Dave (2006). This is not an accusation of plagiarism but an example of convergent evolution out of similar urban environments. Probably there are more stories set in different cities have been told by other people. For this is a psychogeographical exercise of imagination animating statues by their totemic spirits through comic-book metaphysics.

My current version of this scenario in Melbourne is no picnic in the park. There are more sculptures. The atmosphere is more partisan and far more brutal spurred on by the animosity of the culture wars. Callum Morton’s Hotel would be booked out by dolls, miniatures, and teddy bears in town to watch the fight. Yellow angular shards would grow at various angles around the city, like alien mineral deposits from the planet DCM.

On one side a strange assortment of creatures; amongst them the Cowardly Lion of Fitzroy (Eicholtz’s Courage) and the big black rabbit (Floyd’s Signature Work) from the Docklands. Their best defence is the dogs of this war, FIDO and Larry LaTrobe; FIDO is huge. Although Larry is far smaller, as his studded collar would suggest, he is far more vicious.

On the other side is a cavalry unit of equestrian statues, metal men with suitcases staggering down Burke Street Mall like zombies. World War One servicemen, the many golems in the service of the imaginal throne of the eternal empire rampage through Melbourne as if it were Cairo. Bronze explorers unable to navigate the cities streets get lost in the suburbs randomly claiming properties on behalf of the King. Intoxicated statues of former State Premiers punching it out in Treasury Gardens after drinking with Robbie Burns and General Gordon’s statues.

And just when you thought the fight was over Bunjil, along with the Genie from Queen Victoria Gardens, fly in to save the day.

Bruce Armstrong, Eagle, 2002, Docklands

The Anna Schwartz Gallery book

Present Tense is a big beige book thick as a house brick but not as heavy. The subtitle, Anna Schwartz Gallery and thirty-five years of contemporary art describe the contents, text and photographs, accurately. Anna Schwartz Gallery is amongst Melbourne’s most influential commercial art galleries. Since 1986 it has represented some of Melbourne’s best contemporary artists, including Mike Parr, Emily Floyd, Callum Morton and Shaun Gladwell, and visiting international artists. The author, Doug Hall, is the former director of Queensland Art Gallery and now a Melbourne resident.

The beige cover suggests the excitement level of the long, rambling story that the author has bleached of colour. Even some theory and art-speak would be a welcome relief from the narrative, but Hall avoids both. It seems like Hall had almost a deliberate strategy to hide anything that might attract your interest in the middle of chapters. I could not get into it; the writing was that dull. All it got from me was skim reading, dipping into it, reading for research and not pleasure.

At first, I was hoping to find details that I could use in blog posts about some of the artists that Anna Schwartz Gallery represents. Unfortunately, I found nothing in it worth citing. Even the chapter on public sculpture was remarkably unedifying. Apart from a single photograph of Emily Floyd’s Public Art Strategy, the reader is told nothing about the artists that Anna Schwartz represents doing public art. Instead of information, the reader is treated to Hall’s opinions on why it is better not to be involved in public art commissions.

This is not the first time that I’ve read a rambling book about an Australian art dealer. Adrian Newstead’s The Dealer is the Devil – an insider’s history of the Aboriginal Art trade, (Brandl and Schlesinger, 2014) is almost as long and nearly as dull. Still, at least, Newstead can tell stories.

As I persevered through its pages, I wondered if this book was ever intended to be read and I considered the other reason to have a book. Books have a symbolic value both as objects on shelves and as unread ideas, documented in various lists. Many books are not intended to be read all the way through coffee table books, books as art objects, along with phone books and other reference books.

There is an art to being influential. The symbolic value of this big book, almost regardless of its contents, cannot be under-estimated. For its existence is a kind of proof of the influential reputation of Anna Schwartz Gallery. A book about Anna Schwartz Gallery deserves to be written. It is just the writer and editor that were unfortunate choices.

Doug Hall Present Tense – Anna Schwartz Gallery and thirty-five years of contemporary art (Black Inc.,2019) 


Making Hosier Lane Safe For Tourists

The new outdoor seating for the Hosier Lane restaurants has taken over Rutledge Lane for COVID safe dinning. (At the moment there is mostly intra-city tourism and the crowds of international tourists are absent.) This included repainting the walls with a rather bland, family-friendly theme of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland.

How delightfully boho is it?

Over a decade ago, these much-misinterpreted words were stencilled on 167 Flinders Lane’s rear wall in Rutledge Lane. I will not explain the legally correct interpretation of those words, but the effect of their misinterpretation. Their misinterpretation created a street art zone in Melbourne’s centre and one of the city’s top tourist attractions.

The words spelt out an application for “a retrospective Street Art Permit”. “The City of Melbourne acknowledges that public spaces provide a gallery and stage for artistic expression and approve permits for street art with the building owners permission. Legal street art contributes to a vibrant urban environment and can change continually on a day to day to basis.” The text finally noted, “The artwork may evolve over time.”

Overtime many layers of both authorised and unauthorised paint have been sprayed over those words and whole laneway. It has been painted Empty Nursery Blue and buffed black, in preparation for Melbourne Now. In places, the enamel paint is half a centimetre thick.

Art performs many functions, even paradoxically one function as to be functionless and excessive. Another is to overturn rules and conventions, the lords of misrule with a child’s eyes. That is where the notorious fire extinguisher filled with paint protest performance of February 2020 has to be looked at again.

“Melbourne’s Hosier Lane street art, graffiti, painted over in weekend ‘vandalism’ attack”, ABC News

Making the lane safe for tourism and families includes increased shopping, eating and photo opportunities for tourists. And these presents risks to others using the lane: the artists, the homeless, the homeless artists…

Is Hosier Lane a libertarian paint zone free to exploit for profit? Or is Hosier Lane an anarchic paint zone where freely given play/work contributions of graffiti and street art are welcome? These questions are at the centre of the debate about Hosier Lane’s function. They leave me contemplating two alternatives futures for the lane’s walls. Will it be bland, apolitical murals, celebrating celebrities and seasonal festivities, or the artistic unknown?

Some recent stencil art in Hosier Lane

The Birdcage: suburban garden sculptures

Rarely does the sculptural elements of inner-city, suburban front gardens rise above the found object, the cast concrete, or an art student’s effort. I have been looking for examples for many years. After over a decade of looking, I have found a fantastic domestic garden sculpture. (I know nothing about the people who live at this house and I am trying not to intrude on their privacy while commenting on their front garden.)

Like their near relatives, the corporate sculptures in front of office blocks, domestic front garden sculptures are a kind of public sculpture. For while they are privately owned, they are on public display. And like all outdoor sculpture, they must survive the weather which limits the choice of media.

Most garden sculptures are either the corny or kitsch. The kitsch: represented by garden gnomes and other lawn ornaments, commercial sculptures cast in concrete or welded metal creations. And the corny represented by swans made from car tires,  ‘spoonvilles’ and recycled things turned into flower pots. There are also pseudo-sculptural elements of industrial readymade objects, railway sleepers are popular at the moment in Melbourne. Occasionally you will see the relics of what looks like a fine arts student’s sculpture, or that of a brave amateur, retired to the garden; however, these are rarely substantial enough to fill the space.

The importance of sculpture for suburbanites is dubious, for as it is not structural but aesthetic, it is not worthy of investment. Unlike the corporate version, privately owned sculpture on public display has no practical use for a sculpture in a suburban garden, place-making, way-finding, or even seating. Being only decorative is demanding a lot from a sculpture. 

Then there is the big metaphysical birdcage in a front garden of an ordinary house in the inner-city suburb. Like a Magritte painting come to life in a suburban garden, the giant birdcage is different from other domestic garden sculpture. It transforms anyone who sits inside the cage (which has a lockable door), into part of the art. The surreal, infinite regression of birdcages comments on the whole birdcage of suburban existence and existential angst.

It is a remarkable garden sculpture because it provides a private experience that wouldn’t work in a public garden. And, unlike other garden sculptures, the birdcage is almost too large for the small garden space.


Viki Murray’s Skateboard Riders

You wouldn’t imagine that there are many skateboard riders rolling around Lightning Ridge, but Walgett Shire boasts a skatepark. Lightning Ridge, in north-western New South Wales, is better known for opal mining. So I was surprised to find out that Viki Murray, the artists who spray-painted stencil images of board riders surfing the gnarly curves of the aerosol paint on Melbourne walls, lives in Lightning Ridge.

Skateboard culture is like hip-hop’s brother-in-law from the outer suburbs; it is married to graffiti even if it is not related. It is a stable relationship that has lasted decades which Viki Murray’s skateboarders only emphasis.

Murray’s multilayer stencilled or paste-up images are painted in a subdued palette of grey tones. I like their small size and the way that they blend into the graffiti. They don’t fill a wall like so much of current street art. They are not obvious from 100 metres, or even 10 metres away. They’re cool, like the skateboarders, who find an empty space to use.

Street art has often looked at placement but rarely have they rode the dynamic lines of aerosol graffiti. Murray’s riders inhabit the illusionary space of the paint. Cruising the clouds of colour found in these readymade psychedelic landscapes.

Even the random marker writer in a psychotic frenzy of scribomania in Hosier Lane respected Murray’s work adding “King Dude” and a crown. 

It is a long way between Melbourne and Lightning Ridge, days of driving but Viki Murray and her husband John ‘Mort’ Murray, who paints murals and has a gallery in Lightning Ridge, have done it several times. Unless there is someone else who has been adding skateboard riders to graffiti, Murray’s riders have been surfing the graffiti lines in Melbourne for many years. And I hope that their wheels will rumble as their roll on the paint for many more.


Uptown along Bourke Street

Uptown is an outdoor exhibition of 26 contemporary artists along the top end of Bourke Street. It is not alienating, obscure art but accessible work ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous that uses street artists’ tactics to respond to the locations. Occupying hoards, walls, and the empty shops’ windows; this is not plonk art, nor is it obsessively site-specific.

Bill Henson’s floating girl looks like a colour photography version of a Baby Guerilla, who has pasted up many floating figures on Melbourne’s walls. A girl floats above a bicycle, in the distance, there are lights of the city at night. Is she sleeping, or has she been thrown from the bike?

The image, printed on a billboard-sized tarpaulin, covers the construction hoarding at the old Metro nightclub/Palace Theatre at 30 Burke Street. Now being rebuilt as a hotel, only the famous, heritage-listed facade will be preserved. Melbourne’s facades remain, a century of old faces, masks made from the victims’ skin, adorn a building that has been a theatre, cinema, music venue, Pentecostal church, and a nightclub.

Destiny Deacon has a paste-up photograph on the wall of a lane; and if you want to see more of her cheeky and deadly insightful, post-colonial art you can at the NGV where she has a major retrospective. Kenny Pittock illustrates a couple of funny points in a lane. And Constanze Zikos brings Vault back into the picture of Melbourne’s public art. It was good to see Kent Morris, who is best known for his work with The Torch, showing his own photomontage work on a billboard above the car park entrance on Mcilwraith Place.

In the window of the former Job Warehouse, that old fabric store, which once displayed bolts of cloth packed to the ceiling, Elizabeth Newman hangs “Enemy of the State”. Those words in blocks of letters are the pattern the dress’s material. The dress hangs in plastic wrap in the window with a row of coloured lights to complete the installation.

There are several empty shops at this end of town, including the Job Warehouse, whose empty carcass still haunts the city. Built in 1848, it is the third oldest building still standing in Melbourne, transforming multiple times. Job Warehouse was operated by Jacob Zeimer, a gruff man who that he had no time for people browsing, buy or get out.  His business closed in 2012 and parts of the building have remained without tenants since. Its restoration is a slow process managed by Heritage Victoria.

Uptown along Bourke Street zests up an area that is well worth walking around and giving another look. The exhibition draws attention to the area and plays well with street art. Perhaps the word that I’m looking for is, ‘complementary’, as in colours, geometry and serving to complete. In this, its curators, Fiona Scanlan and Robert Buckingham, have gone above what would be expected from this kind of exhibition with the installation of the art and the artists chosen.


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