Monthly Archives: July 2021

Banj Banj/nawnta

Banj Banj/nawnta (meaning “sisters” in Taungurung/palawa kani) is a joyful collection of paintings with bright colours vibrating and lots of birds. Art that is the antidote for a post lockdown brain, the first exhibition that I saw after Victoria’s fifth lockdown. Eyes dulled with repetition pop. The backstory to these paintings is not so joyful.

Thelma Beeton, A Sign from Our Ancestors

Stacey (Taungurung /Boon Wurrung) and Thelma (Palawa) are close enough to be sisters. The two Indigenous women are from the same regional town and met up again when they were incarcerated at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre, Victoria’s maximum-security women’s prison in Deer Park.

Their artistic origin story of these two jailbirds watching and laughing as two galahs flew down to look at them is told in an animated video narrated by the artists. Thelma Beeton records the story in one of her paintings, A Sign from Our Ancestors. She depicts the artists as a couple of emus with big brush stroke feathers behind a bluestone wall.

Beeton’s emus and bees have a cartoon simplicity with their bold outlines and colours. In contrast to Stacey’s meticulous art, a fusion of ancient and contemporary images with the traditional diamond pattern forming a background for her realistic depictions of birds, animals, and insects. There are subtle colour gradations and combinations in these backgrounds that are intensely beautiful.

The two artists works have a different mood and tone that works together in harmony. I wish that there were more collaborative works between these two artists. However, I understand that might be logistically difficult given that Stacey is still in prison.

Stacey and Thelma’s corkboards (installation view)

The two prison corkboards are displayed on a background of bee wallpaper, evoking the decoration that Thelma painted on her cell’s walls. The corkboards are similar to the ones that can be found in every cell at Deer Park. They are self-portraits of each artist, represented who they are personally, socially and culturally in a mixed media of cards, letters and drawings.

The exhibition at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick is organised by The Torch. The Torch works with incarcerated Indigenous people in Victoria, the most incarcerated people on the planet, providing artistic training, materials, exhibitions and opportunities for sales. I would have seen their art before at the Torch’s annual Confined exhibitions. However, there are hundreds of paintings all competing for attention, so I’m not surprised that I don’t remember them. After this exhibition, I won’t forget them.

Stacey My Children Coming Home

Space is the place

Black space, white space

The space between

The distance between the art

The silence between the notes

The space between words; a space that was lacking for centuries. Inancientlatintherewerenospacesbetweenwordsmakingcomprehensionoftextdifficult. No wonder Julius Cesar was regarded as intelligent when he was able to comprehend writing on first reading. Spaces allowed for easier comprehension, just as the kerning between printed letters makes them more readable.

Ten Cubed Gallery

Is space empty, undefined and unwritten, the tabula rasa, or designed, created? Is space simply a frame that excludes an absence or a defined absence to define another presence? There are both aesthetic and practical considerations to space. Space as a traffic management issue, as a place to be temporarily occupied. Space as a traffic management issue, as a place to be temporarily occupied.

“Where’s the edge?/Where does the frame start?” Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt Oblique Strategy

I’ve heard that Brian Eno has a preferred time between music tracks on a record to be included on CDs, but I can’t find a reference. The standard used to be between 3-6 seconds, depending on the record company. It is a space that has been messed around with by DJs and current music technology. The time between events creates daily, weekly, annually rhythms like the time between meals allows for digestion. The space between television episodes can be edited to skip credits and intro. The phrase ‘binge watching’ indicates an unhealthy approach to consuming media.

Exhibitions of paintings started with them displayed tightly packed from floor to ceiling.However, over the last century, the space between works of visual arts has generally increased. Contemporary art is often a single work per gallery space, requiring a corridor or at least a wall to have enough space between it and the subsequent art. This means that there are often enormous art galleries with almost no artworks, a gift to architects who want to design massive buildings containing huge spaces. Part of this requirement for space is because contemporary arts are using the art gallery as a conceptual frame for art while breaking conceptual boundaries like actors breaking the fourth wall. Artists are finding frames outside of the apparent structures and using the space between them. It would be impossible to ‘read’ a room packed with multiple works of contemporary art as one would bleed into the next.  Another reason is the curators values the space almost as highly as the art.

Gallery space is a recurrent subject for my blog posts; lots of words about nothing. In the past I have written about playing with this empty relationship in the great gallery joke, how space is defined and how it defines the art in the art space race, the empty space in art galleries, and the white room.


New public art procurement process

Consider the commissioning process for public art. Artists spend days working on proposals, grinding through hundreds of points, jumping through paper hoops, trying to put their art into words. As well, they have to design an almost complete work that only has to be fabricated. Days, if not weeks …

Installation view of Mikala Dwyer Apparition, 2021 night-time digital projection onto holo-gauze screen. Photo by Darren Tanny Tan

And then they don’t get the commission because of hundreds of reasons. It could have gone to another artist or an architecture firm with a staff member specialising in creating beautiful CAD rendering of designs. Leaving them wondering if all that work was worth it.

It is a process that was designed in another century when the choice was between different statues of the same hero. It was about who could produce the best quote to erect some carved stone or cast bronze. Now public art can be a permanent sculpture to a temporary audio installation; it is comparing apples to underwear. The brief for a commission is about addressing a long list of themes and other obscure planning and budgeting requirements becoming a bureaucratic hunger games.

So it was good to hear someone other than an artist explain why the procurement model of the commission process is no longer fit for purpose. Instead, the City of Melbourne is trying out an alternative, a governance-led model. This brings the relevant people together at the start of the process, for many people are involved in public art, including city engineers, maintenance…    

The artist for the program is selected not from a long and detailed proposal but a far shorter, job-application-like, based on their previous work. And rather than responding to the commission document, the artist is involved in a collaborative discussion from the start

This new approach has been tested with a temporary work, Apparition, by Mikala Dwyer. Her holographic possum can be seen at University Square in Carlton intermittently for the next six months. And this new approach is planned to next be used to acquire new permanent works. 

Amy Barclay, the Public Art Project Lead for the City of Melbourne, didn’t have much time to explain all the details of the city’s new approach at a forum on public art hosted by Mars Gallery but the image comparing the size of the applications was dramatic.

The forum, Public Art Now, creating new public art from commissioning to fabrication. From the people like Lisa Dunlop, Manager for Urban Design and Urban Planning at the Level Crossing Removal Project, who are commissioning art, to the consultants like Andy Dinan of Mars Gallery who advise and facilitate, the artists, represented that night by Lisa Roet, who create the art (see my post on her sculpture), and the fabricator Jason Waterhouse, makes it.

That Fundrêre Foundry, a traditional bronze casting enterprise, now has an art fabricator indicates an ongoing change in the materials used for public art. However, aside from the environmental mitigation consideration by the artist and the fabricator, there have been few other changes in creating public art. So the City of Melbourne’s new approach tried in their ‘Test Sites’ commissions represents an improvement not in the art but in the process of making it.


Street art notes July 2021

On the eve of Melbourne’s fifth lockdown, I decided that I had better look at some of the best of Melbourne’s street art and graffiti while I still had the chance. So I mask-up, jump on a tram and walk around the city on Thursday afternoon. Now, as I write this I am confined to my house and can only travel 5km around it for exercise, shopping … you know the drill.

A wall in Lovelands

Although I regularly reflect on what has been put up in Hosier Lane, AC/DC Lane, Croft Alley and Presgrave Place, there are many lanes that I haven’t seen in years. It was not just a lockdown that was limiting my chances, whole laneways full of art on the cusp of being demolished, art disappearing into construction projects.

I was photographing work down a familiar lane off Franklin Street, near the Queen Victoria Market and the Mercat. I have fond memories of both meals and gigs at the Mercat, which closed in January 2017. Now a massive multi-storey construction looms over it all.

A builder wearing fluro noticed my interest: “There is even better stuff further down,” he informs me. I knew that there was. The building site hadn’t swallowed up the network of lanes known as Lovelands, but it looked like it soon would.

Blender Alley is now one of the entrances to the massive construction site. Although Blender Studios have moved to a new location there is still some historic stencil art from HaHa and Psalm and quality new work on its walls. 

People always wondered how long street art and graffiti was all going to last. I remember Ghost Patrol saying that it was over in 2008. They should have been concerned not that it was a fad or how long the pigments in the paint will last but how fast the walls in the city are rebuilt. Melbourne’s street art fame has as much to do with the design of the city and these service lanes as the artistic talent.

I will pause for some lunch before examining some of the deeply held assumptions about art and the influence of the philosopher and historian David Hume. Hume came up with the idea of fads and fashions when he started to record English social history after the English Civil War. Now I’m more inclined to believe in structural influences, even the built environment, rather than the whim of a population.

However, walking around the city on Thursday afternoon I just feel negligent that I haven’t seen these years. I walk these laneways in search of the latest instantiation of the zeitgeist. There are hundreds of these service lanes, and the latest, freshest work could be hiding up any one of them. Jazzy capping Ash Keating in Chinatown, Sunfigo keeping social media real, more black and white stencil pieces by Night Krawler, paste-ups by Suki, Phoenix, and collaborative pieces by Manda Lane and Viki Murray (read my earlier post on Murray’s skateboard riders).


Maree Clarke’s Ancestral Memories

My main reason to go to the NGV was to see Maree Clarke solo retrospective, “Ancestral Memories”, but I saw another exhibition before – “We Change the World”. After all the world needs to change. However, this is a tracksuit of an exhibition theme, comfortable, shapeless, and accommodating almost anything. The work is from the NGV collection, a random selection including Julian Opie, David Hockney, Guerrilla Girls, and Maree Clarke… (Why Clarke when there is her solo exhibition in the next gallery?)

Maree Clarke, Maree Clarke 2012, inkjet print (image courtesy of NGV)

“Ancestral Memories” is the subtitle of the Maree Clarke exhibition; it was also the title of her exhibition at the University of Melbourne Old Quad in 2019. For ancestral memories are the material that Clarke works with. (Please read my blog post reviewing that exhibition, Clarke’s role as a culture worker, and why she is an important local artist.)

This Yorta Yorta / Wamba Wamba / Mutti Mutti / Boonwurrung woman has been reclaiming and revived many south-east Australian Aboriginal art and cultural practices, including possum skin cloaks to kangaroo tooth necklaces. At the NGV her work is display alongside historical material from Museum Victoria, clearly illustrating how she is reviving her culture. Before Clarke, there were less than a dozen possum skin cloaks in existence, all from the nineteenth century. After Clarke, the number of possum skin cloaks is increasing because she, along with other collaborators, brought the practice back to life.

It is a sombre exhibition with black painted walls. Much of the exhibition is about mourning, another form of ancestral memory. One of the slightly lighter notes is the series of photographic holograms of still life, including native flowers and kitsch Aboriginal Australiana. As Clarke looks from the ancestral memories to a future, including new technology and materials along the way.

This exhibition follows on from the NGV’s retrospective for Bindi Cole; more retrospectives for Indigenous woman artists are a welcome trend.


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