Monthly Archives: January 2022

Statues of Cook

It is always the Cook Memorial in St Kilda that is covered in paint. There are others; there several public statues of Cook in this state alone. How many does the country need?

Marc Clark’s Captain Cook

Out the back of the hyperreality of the Captain Cook cottage, a building he never lived in, transported to Fitzroy Gardens in Melbourne. Marc Clark’s statue of Cook there was initially commissioned by a real estate agent for the entrance of a subdivision, the most typically Australian of origin stories.

Another by John Walker stands at the front of St. Paul’s Church in Bendigo. Why is there even a Cook statue in Bendigo? Cook never visited the gold mining city near the coast that didn’t exist in his lifetime. Cook stands like a saint on a pillar in front of the red brick, gothic revival “cathedral” bringing the British Empire to Australia. This location exposes the role this icon is meant to perform. The site only makes sense in a religious way. Cook has become an icon complete with a martyrdom, to people who identify as white English speaking monarchist Christians.

All of these statues are as far removed from the historic Captain Cook as Mel Gibson was from William Wallace. The statues depict a cosplayer, a model dressed up in a costume posing for a sculptor. The colonial Captain was reinvented for the late British Empire and then repurposed for the Australian neo-colonial empire, merging iconography of Empire and Church. Invented to stand defiantly against the tide of historical studies and hold onto the idea of the exceptionalism of English/Australians.

Australia has been assigned to Cook in the same way that Christian saints are patron saints of something. The connection may be tenuous but miraculously confirmed by the faithful. It is this mythical figure that is being worshipped in conservative Australia. Religions may be practised without acknowledgement, acts creating a pattern of uninformed worship.

So why is the Cook Memorial in St Kilda the focus for iconoclastic actions against this unofficial saint? The edition of John Tweed’s statue was relocated in 1988 to its current location for the Bicentennial of some colonial history that Australia was celebrating. It is a typically Australian space, a bare, empty patch of ground in the middle of some roads. It does allow for good photographs of paint pours without the distracting elements in the image.

In 2017 on January 26th pink paint was poured over the head of the bronze Cook Memorial in the Melbourne beachside suburb of St Kilda. In 2019 on the anniversary of Captain Cook’s death in Hawaii, the statue in St Kilda was yet again covered in paint. This time red paint on his hands and face, a streak of yellow down his trouser leg and ‘Good Riddance’ sprayed in black on the plinth, the colours of the Aboriginal flag. In 2022 on January 26th, it was covered in a massive pour of red paint that coats both the figure and the entire front of the plinth.

For several years the local city council has employed security guards to protect the statue with mixed success. The legality of these actions would depend entirely on whose country you were in at the time. This ongoing statue war is expected to continue as no peace or cease-fire talks have been arranged.


Street Art City – January 2022

Where does psychogeography diverge from long term urban observation? When there is no urban exploration and no wandering from the predetermined path. I regularly look at the same areas, keeping record of observations of select parts of the city. I have walked along many of the lanes so often that I can’t remember my first visit. How many hundreds of times have I walked the aerosol covered Hosier Lane in the last decade? The accrual of memories of a place, of the unauthorised, anarchic street art and graffiti.

And within this area, there is always something new to see. Melbourne City Council has filled otherwise empty shops with artistic concepts to activate Melbourne’s centre. I visited “This is not a toy store” and looked at the art toys, some are parodies of all the Star Wars toys, others are just collectable toys and still others are too strange to classify. (See my post for more on Melbourne’s art toy scene.)

There is some overlap between the art toy scene and street art with both artists and subject matter. Facter’s new dragon on their back door, a rare piece of freehand aerosol work amongst the street art of Presgrave Place. Presgrave Place is another location that I’ve been looking at for decades. And amongst the frames, paste-ups and stickers are some large numbered paste-ups by another veteran, M.P. Fikaris (aka Braddock). Fikaris’s paste-ups of his iconic robot man are part of Fast Forward, another of the city councils’ activation programs.

Sunfigo’s work continues to surprise, not just because of the prolific output. In Platypus Alley off Lt. Bourke Street, Sunfigo has introduced a meta-element with a paste-up of a photograph of the same wall. The photo records the missing pieces that people have ripped off. All that is left of these pieces on the wall is their outline in liquid nails.

Other areas are not doing so well. The refitting of Centre Way marks the continued bland decline of an area that used to be an excellent location for graffiti and street art. Still, it lost that status years ago. There have been too many unsympathetic alterations, first to Centre Place and now to the mall. Now only the fire extinguisher reel and pipe record the many stickers slapped around here.

And then, just when I think that I’ve been along every lane in the city, I come across a stub lane with a hodonym that doesn’t fit with the familiar nomenclature of Melbourne street names. “CL 0034,” off Hardware Lane, the letters and numbers could be from another city but for the City of Melbourne sign and the familiar street artists. I search for it without success on Google maps or old copies of Melways. Just when I thought that I was no longer doing urban exploring.


Les Kossatz counting sheep

Les Kossatz uses sheep in the same way Magritte uses men in bowler hats, not representationally but metaphysically. For Kossatz, sheep are a way of representing the Australian “squattocracy”, the colonists who made fortunes by occupying and claiming ownership of land that wasn’t theirs. In his sculptures, sheep become symbols for many things from interchangeable integers of colonial Australia; fun without being trivial or ludic.

Les Kossatz, Coming and Going, 1982

Les Kossatz (1943–2011) was a Melbourne-based artist who was at the height of his fame in the late 70s and early 80s. Kossatz’s first significant commission was for stain glass at Monash University Chapel. However, although I was at Monash University for four years, I’ve never had any reason to step inside the chapel and only saw the large lumps of coloured glass from the outside. Like most people, I became familiar with Kossatz’s art through his sculptures of sheep.

Kossatz has public sculptures of sheep in Melbourne, Sydney, Tasmania and the ACT. The sheep in these sculptures are bronze, unlike Kossatz’s sculptures of sheep made for interiors. The sheep made for interiors were constructed from cast metal components and an actual fleece, tanned but not degreased, wrapped around a steel armature. The combination of cast feet and horns and real wool made these sculptures somewhat hyperreal.

Ainslie’s Sheep (aka the Civic Sheep) is a landmark in the centre of the suburb of, Civic. For more on the Civic Sheep, read  Victoria Perin’s “A lesson in Canberra Art History: The Fucking Civic Sheep”.  In Sydney Kossatz’s sculpture Curtain Call of four bronze rams and a shearer’s ramp has been put into storage after redevelopment and hasn’t been reinstalled because it is now considered a climbing hazard.

And in Melbourne, there is Coming and Going at the back of the Arts Centre. The sheep in Coming and Going have a comic energy, like one of those scenes in a farce with an absurd number of exits and entrances. Five sheep, two ewes and three rams, awkwardly emerging or descending through trap doors, half there and half not there. The lawn location is not a hostile installation (see my post on Melbourne’s most hostile sculpture installation). However, few people enjoy the sculpture because of the site. After forty years, Coming and Going still has energy and a sense of fun.


A look back at Flash Forward

If Melbourne was to be represented with a big thing, it would be a big spray can. So I applaud the big spray can by Ling in Wills Street because it acknowledges the graffiti in the city. It fits the location; its spray painted surface is vandalism resistant, and the west of the city needs more public art. It fits in with the street tree and the benches and really makes the location. And Ling has been spraying walls in Melbourne for longer than I’ve been writing this blog.

Ling’s big spray can is part of Flash Forward, a COVID safe cultural public art in central Melbourne’s lanes. Forty visual artists teamed with musicians in some inexplicable combination. And how could I resist a walk to see some artworks responding to the laneway?

There isn’t a path to follow for Flash Forward and I ran into other trails. Lanes that have long been a fixture in Melbourne’s graffiti and street art scene. So I was somewhat confused to run into Ling’s work again at Finlay Alley, given that there is no shortage of graffiti writers who also do murals in Melbourne.

Finlay Alley is an established location for graffiti. So established that there is one of the old “City of Melbourne street art permit stencils” at the entrance. And there are plenty of pieces by Sofles and others in the dark of the covered alleyway.

For years, if not decades, I have complained that public art events in Melbourne ignore the street art and graffiti that is all around them. Ignoring paintings the size of an elephant while promoting the work of some contemporary art-school trained artist. Pretending that they aren’t competing with the street art and graffiti.

Now when Flash Forward integrates them, I will be critical of its efforts because that is what I do. I appreciate Ling’s piece in Finlay Alley with its interlocked letter style and subtle fade from candy pink to purple. The problem with the big spray can and his mural is that it is obvious and bland. It is giant fantasy art.

Walking on. I’m only going to see a very small portion of Flash Forward.

At the end of Platypus Alley, high up on a building, an LED display counts forward, Yandell Walton’s End Passage. This is not the first time this very short alley has been activated with art. Sunfigo had his No Face exhibition in Platypus Alley in 2008.

Walton’s clock is kind of sterile compared to the dialogue that Sunfigo’s stencil of a digital watch reading “NOW has provoked. As I look at the lanes after Platypus Alley, Warburton and Rankins Lane, where street art by Night Krawler, Mandy Lane and others abound.

There are other outdoor exhibitions in Melbourne besides Flash Forward and the unauthorised street art and graffiti exhibitions. MONA’s corner has a photograph, James Capper’s “Prototypes of Speculative Engineering, Hydra Step” 2014. It is somewhere between art and advertising, the distinction is porous, and art percolates through the border. And in the inner city suburbs, there has been a noticeable increase in shop window art galleries Even The Age’s art critic Robert Nelson is looking beyond the four walls of a gallery, but only as far as gardens or their online presence.


Going Underground

There are many children’s stories of subterranean life with the Wombles, Fantastic Mr Fox or The Borrowers that have inspired the “Going Underground”. This is an exhibition at the Dirty Dozen, the display cabinets in the Degraves Street underpass.

Anna Walker, detail from “Marvelous things will happen”

“Going Underground” is the perfect location, underground in the underpass to Flinders Street Station. It is a perfect school-holiday time for a child-friendly exhibition, even though the height of the display cabinets may not be friendly to the shorter viewers.

It is worth looking at if you have ten or fifteen minutes before catching your train home. Many of the vitrines have been transformed into fantastic underground worlds of imagination with keyhole and cross-section views to magical worlds. These wainscot worlds occupy the unseen parts of our world, like the Borrowers living behind the wainscoting. They have a parallel existence to ours instead of being separate, alternate universes.

Anna Walker imagines charming and humous scenes beneath the garden. Tai Snaith creates a floating home for polar bears inside an iceberg. Twee scenes of a miniature world of Mole Creek created by Cat Rabbit. Other artists have ceramics or textiles with images and designs inspired by these underground dwellers.

Curator Meg Rennie has created something extraordinary, bringing together local artists: Evie Barrow, Pey Chi, Maddison Haywood, Tegan Iversen, Isobel Knowles, Yan Yan Candy Ng, Beci Orpin, Min Pin, Cat Rabbit, Meg Rennie, Tai Snaith and Anna Walker. These designers, ceramists, illustrators, and sculptors embraced the theme. And the quality of the work is outstanding, making good use of the depth of these display cases.


Framed reviewed

One of the most mysterious art crimes is the theft and ransom of Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the NGV in Melbourne. Not a lot is known about it apart from some ransom notes sent by the thieves. The painting was returned undamaged after being held by the Australian Cultural Terrorists. So SBS’s four-part documentary was always going to be a stretch.

The various commentators on Framed tell us many contradictory things. That the NGV was amongst the best art galleries in the world and then that it had aircon and security problems at the time. That staff loved that NGV Director, Patrick McCaughey, and that the docents went on strike after he took away their chairs. That Arts and Police Minister, Race Matthews, was good for the arts and that he was pompous. And many guesses at who did the crime while explaining how damaging this was to the people implicated. 

Framed frames people from perennial favourites to secret cabals of art insiders and other wild theories. It then looks at the damage that wild accusations cause. The program presented about five, including Ashley Crawford’s pure speculation, McCaughey’s biography and the anonymous letter sent to Virginia Trioli. And why do all these wild theories assume that it was a man who stole the painting? Why not a woman? If they wanted to go wild, they could have asked Trioli if she stole it; after all, she has written about being involved in stealing the bronze dog, Larry La Trobe.

Part of the mystery of the theft of the Weeping Woman is that it is a very different kind of crime. And it has become a genre of stories, very creative non-fiction in autobiographies and speculations from authoritative sources. As everybody wants to solve the mystery themselves.

Framed doesn’t frame the cubist painting regarding the politics in Australia’s historical relationship to modern art. What it symbolised to the NGV and a “philistine country” (to use McCaughey’s own words). TV is good at setting the scene, and the program includes lots of shots of Melbourne in the early 1980s and McCaughey in different coloured bow ties. Unfortunately, there is not the same background about the painting or Picasso.

Instead of presenting unprovable speculations, the program could have shown more details and context about art crimes. Although it briefly examines art forgery, it doesn’t look at art theft in any great detail and even less about art theft for ransom.

Would someone steal art to get better security for the gallery? Were there art thieves in Australia who could smuggle stolen paintings out of the country? What happens in other art for ransom theft in Australia? And why did the police drain the NGV’s moat in their search? I answer these questions that Framed doesn’t in my yet unpublished book on Australian art crimes. 

Incidentally, presenter Marc Fennell asked the questions when I was a contestant on Mastermind.

Picasso, The Weeping Woman

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