Monthly Archives: October 2021

Halloween in Australia

The common denial that Halloween is not Australian is incorrect. Although there clearly was a time in the late 20th century when Halloween festivities didn’t happen for a couple of decades in some parts of Australia. However, the reality is that Halloween has been celebrated in Australia since the colonial era.

In 1858 the Mount Alexander Mail advertised a “Select Scottish Ball on the Anniversary of Halloween” at the Red Hill Hotel, Forest Creek (p.8). Colonial Australian newspapers also reported on Queen Victoria celebrating Halloween at Balmoral. Few people now remember Robert Burn poem “Halloween”, but it was often quoted in Australian newspapers in October and on Burn’s birthday in January. For about a decade in the 1860s a ballet based on Burn’s poem touring Australia. And echoing Burns in a manner that not even William McGonagall could muster, a poem titled, “An Australian Halloween” by an ‘Ossian MacPhearson’ was published in the Hamilton Spectator and Grange District Advertiser, Saturday 12 November 1864, (p. 3). So the idea that Halloween is alien to Australia is absurd.

Halloween celebrations continued to be enjoyed in Australia after federation often organised by the local Caledonian Society. But by the 1970s Halloween was not just a Scottish event. In 1970, the Australian Jewish Times wrote about plans for a “halloween party” in “Briefly on youth” p.17. Halloween in Australia was changing from parties for adults to a day for children to dress up. And in 1974, the Canberra Times reported on children in the suburb of Hughes playing trick or treat.

Australia has borrowed most of its holidays from the northern hemisphere and most of its culture that isn’t British, from America. So neither explanations of climate nor anti-Americanism feel satisfactory; otherwise, Easter, Christmas, along with Mother’s Day would also be failing in Australia. Holidays come and go; Guy Fawkes night is no longer celebrated in Australia primarily due to safety restrictions on the sale of fireworks but also because Australian culture is no longer that closely tied to England.

According to market research, Halloween is currently Australia’s least favourite festival. I can’t believe it is less popular than St. Patrick’s Day and the horse racing holiday. One contributing factor for this might be the decline in people identifying as Scottish Australian as there was a corresponding decline in membership of Caledonian Societies, and the Royal Caledonian Society of Melbourne ceased to operate on 21 April 2016. 

Culture is not static but constantly evolving, so claims that Halloween is not Australian are not definitive. Indeed claims that Halloween is not Australian are a recent development in the history of Halloween in Australia.

I proudly bear some responsibility for the introduction of Halloween trick or treating in Coburg. As a bit of a goth with fond memories of a Canadian childhood, Halloween is a celebration I enjoy. It has been enthusiastically taken up by a multi-cultural neighbourhood for unlike any other annual event because it is not religious and is not about the family. I am interested in Halloween because it encourages children to explore memes and their physical neighbourhood. There are problems with Halloween that I would like to change, the amount of plastic, the sugar and the commercialism.

Halloween decorations in a garden in Coburg

The same

In Melbourne, he is called Junky Projects. In Montreal, he is called Junko. Different people, different cities, same street art. The same spirit of the times inspires these artists to make art from junk found on the street and return it to the street.

I saw some of Junko’s work in Toronto in 2016. His work is slightly different to Junky Projects. Junko does animal forms, and Junky Projects does human faces. I’m not sure who the earlier of the two is. Junky Projects work is currently rusting on power poles, fences posts and other supports all over Melbourne.

This is not a case of influence or copying; this is convergent evolution resulting from similar environmental/social/psychological factors. In the natural world, the body plan of dolphins and ichthyosaurs, both adapted for ocean swimming, has many similarities without any close relation between the two.

Self portrait John McCarthy
Fintan Magee, detail of Two Figures Behind Mottled Glass

Another example from the art world of convergent evolution are paintings showing people through thick bevelled textured glass. Both Fintan Magee in Australia and the British artist John McCarthy (not the American abstract expressionist artist John McCarthy) paint very similar images. The resemblance between the two is striking because there is nothing but the optical idea of the image distorted by the glass. Without any other content or meaning to the paintings by either artist, the only variation is the choice of models. There are probably more artists who have painted this same effect that I haven’t seen. 

This time, out of the two artists, I know who was doing the seen through bevelled glass paintings first. I saw an exhibition of McCarthy work at the Eleanor Ettinger Gallery in NY in 2013. And Magee has only been doing paintings in this style since 2020.

Again this is not to suggest that one artist is copying or plagiarising the other, but that originality is not possible, especially when you have very simple ideas. Maybe Adrian Doyle is right: “You are all the same.” Sometimes I reply to his slogan pointing out that I am not all the same and that my feet are very different from my head. However, perhaps in a broader sense, he is correct and that our idea of unique individualism is false, as demonstrated by the similarity amongst artists.


David Smith in Melbourne

The great American modern art critic Clement Greenberg grandly described David Smith simply as “the best sculptor anywhere”. Although David Smith never came to Australia, his influence on Melbourne’s sculpture can be seen in several public sculptures. There are works by Dan Wollmering, Anthony Pryor and Geoffrey Bartlett that are clearly influenced by Smith.

Smith had a massive influence on Australian sculpture, a tidal wave of American mid-century modern rolling across the Pacific Ocean. He helped change sculpture’s format from the vertical portrait to the horizontal landscape; Henry Moore’s abstracted figurative sculptures of mothers were already reclining in that direction. He also changed the basic structure of sculpture from a solid core to an extended form, which he created in space and steel. And the source of inspiration from an external model, illustrating the civic consciousness, to the sculptor’s unconscious, connected to the collective unconscious.

You can see Smith’s influence in Geoffrey Bartlett’s sculpture at RMIT (on the right). It almost quotes Smith’s Hudson River Landscape, 1951 (on the left). It is part of an early series of sculptures and similar to his sculpture that used to be in the NGV’s moat. It is a framed landscape that contains a gravity-defying dynamism. A tension and stored energy in the collection of forms attached to rods that suggest pivot, pitch and spring. I always expect Bartlett’s early sculptures to do something.

Smith wrote clear and concise statements about sculpture. “I start with one part, then a unit of parts, until a whole sculpture appears.” (David Smith “Notes on My Work” Arts, Feb 1960 Special David Smith Issue)

Dan Wollmering Xanthe

This could be the instructions for Dan Wollmering’s Xanthe 1988. It is sited in a garden outside the white neo-classical Glen Eira City Hall (in Caulfield at the corner of Glen Eira and Hawthorn Roads). An energetic 3.5-metre metal sculpture with its curving and angular forms frames the spaces between its metal form. One part responding to next part like a guitar solo.

It is entirely modernist, not only influenced by Smith but the blue edges and white planes colours reference to the Cubist works of Fernand Léger. Xanthe was a brave choice for Caulfield City Council, with the controversy over Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault still hanging over local commissions of modern public sculpture.

Vault is another example of Smith’s influence. Even though it has the metal planes and colourful skin of Anthony Caro’s sculptures. For Smith’s influence din’t just roll west; it spread across the Atlantic too. He influenced British sculptors like Anthony Caro and generations of English (and Australian) artists through him.

Ron Robertson-Swann Vault

If there was an Abstract Expressionist version of the Village People (an ugly, alcoholic version of the disco ensemble), David Smith would be the construction worker (both shared the same moustache). (Jackson Pollock the cowboy, and you can fill out the rest.) For there is the macho energy of Smith’s background as a car and tank fabricator in his welded metal sculptures. And like disco, it is a style from the last century.

Will David Smith continue to be an influence on Melbourne sculpture?


Liminal Zones

“Gatekeepers are useless; they will either let your enemies in for or lockout your allies. Their only loyalty is to the power that you have given to them for your protection.” To quote a passage that Machiavelli might have written for The Prince.

Some art critics consider themselves to be gatekeepers on a border, quarantining art from being infected or sullied or something. Or to Biblically sort the sheep from the goats as an art world livestock judge. I don’t think that the role of the art critic is to be a defender of a walled-off definition or value judgements. Definitions and values change because art and language are not definitive but arbitrary.

Instead, I think of myself as an explorer of the liminal zones. Not a colonial explorer out there to conquer, rename, loot and pillage like the British in Africa. But as a tourist in an unstable region, a beachcomber of culture walking the tidal zone wondering what will have washed up. For boarders are never perfectly defined. The liminal zones, like tidal zone, are full of varied life in the space between definable borders. Down by the cultural seaside, I explore the tidal pools, look at what has been washed up on the beach and scan the horizon. Horizon scanning is better than gatekeeping because you can see what is coming rather than just assess values in the immediate present.

I wanted to be the kind of art critic that would go anywhere in Melbourne to see art from an industrial park in Burnside. To look at art on the streets, both authorised and unauthorised art. How art works in prison, in courtrooms or in a medical centre. These intersections afford alternate views of art. To enter these places is to engage in a different discourse about art.

Unlike most art critics, I will write about untrained and non-professional artists. Firstly, not everyone engaged in artistic activity has to be a professional artist, especially when they have a street-based practice. And to ignore the bulk of arts or art-related activity is to misrepresent the grassroots of art. It is art not as an item of trade but as a social pursuit, a tonic for mental health and local knowledge. Secondly, the role of an art critic is to provide the public with a context, a perspective to the art. To expand the conversation beyond ‘I like this’. To consider the past and future and not just the present.

I am doing this self-assessment because I wanted to avoid being a zombie art critic, stumbling around mindlessly to the same big name galleries. Or even any commercial galleries. Nor do I want to be a spruiker for national and state galleries, promoting infotainment and cultural imperialism. Instead, I want to cast my eye further afield. Suppose art is like a family tree, as Wittgenstein suggests family resemblance in defining games. In that case, art is likely to have some relatives that aren’t art. Who are art’s in-laws? Who are art’s uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents? Not in an evolutionary family tree sense but like at a birthday party.


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