Monthly Archives: February 2022

Hanging around Stelarc

Stelarc did a live performance on Saturday, 26 February, of his StickMan / miniStickMan. It was part of the “Future U” exhibition at RMIT Gallery that included Stelarc, Patricia Piccinini and other artists.

StickMan consists of an aluminium spine and limbs, powered by pneumatics electronics, the armature is suspended from the ceiling. Wires, cables and a coiled pneumatic hose are connected to it. Stelarc is strapped into the metal armature, pneumatic pistons pumping the limbs. He holds onto the handles of his StickMan, not to control it, but to hang on. Exploring the possibilities of this interaction with the machine and public, Stelarc pivoted on one leg, trying to remain relaxed while being controlled by the machine and the public.

Given the limited options of miniStickMan is somewhat repetitive except for the human element. The shadows of the man and machine are projected on one wall, a larger than life video of the live event the other. There is an industrial soundscape generated by sensors on the spine of the exoskeleton. It is animated by a background algorithm determined by the three of the limbs of miniStickMan. The public can change the position of miniStickMan.

This is not a dance or a performance with a beginning, middle and end. It is not about personal expression, beauty or taste, aesthetic choices or identity. It is a five-hour-long durational performance art piece about physical endurance and tolerance of the restrictions. I wonder if I should be sketching Stelarc, like a life model as he poses.

Stelarc, along with Chris Burden, was part of the masochistic body art/performance art of the 1970s, where the artist’s body is the medium for art. Stelarc would suspend himself with hooks through his skin. In the 1990s, he started integrating robotics with his body. He is one of the few artists to have his work reviewed by the BMJ (aka British Medical Journal). An earlier project, Stelarc’s Extended Arm 2000, a robot arm is on display in the corridor in a vitrine.

Stelarc is a performance art star of Australian contemporary art; he is like a septuagenarian rock star with a single name. When I ran into a friend and said that I’d just been to see Stelarc’s StickMan, he replied that he preferred Stelarc’s earlier work. Is he expecting a Stelarc’s greatest hits retrospective?


How long does graffiti last?

How long does graffiti and street art last if not deliberately removed, buffed with a fresh coat of paint? Minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, even centuries. A medieval peasant cutting into the painted plaster on the church walls (for more about Medieval Graffiti). An ancient Roman scratching images of gladiators into the stones of the Colosseum.

Short answer: It depends on the medium used and the location.

Spray paint fades over time, especially in the full sun, but it does last for years, decades even. However, the same graffiti writer will paint over their own pieces to keep the paint fresh. Often it is only when a wall becomes inaccessible will they cease updating their piece.

Unlike graffiti, street art is not updated or replaced by the same artist. So the permanence of the media that a street artist uses. Paper and paste are surprisingly durable but will eventually deteriorate in Melbourne’s much-discussed weather. In the harsh and unforgiving outdoor conditions, there are casualties. Parts rust away and fall of pieces of rubbish nailed together by Junky Projects, making them meaningless.

Other media, like stone-carving, concrete casting, like Will Coles or Sandor Matos, or ceramics, lasts longer. You might be surprised at the number of unauthorised mosaics because you would think that there was almost none. Ceramics have been used as a medium for street art for decades, from the tiles mosaics of Space Invader to the work of Far4washere, a Melbourne based mixed media artist. The durability of ceramics to weathering on the street means that they have been used for authorised street mosaics (see my post about mosaics in public art in Melbourne).

The idea that graffiti was a fad contributed to a sense that it was ephemeral. The fact is that graffiti and street art are often on walls that nobody cares about; even legal projects used to bandage over an aesthetic sore spot. The building may be abandoned or scheduled for demolition. For this reason, development and other building work (a plumber putting a pipe through a Banksy) make graffiti and street art ephemeral. In Melbourne, Blender Lane, Centre Place and Lovelands are three street art/graffiti locations that have been significantly affected by developments.


Melbourne Art Fair 2022

Melbourne Art Fair has re-emerged in a new location after an eight-year break. The Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton Garden, the previous art fairs venue, is currently used as a vaccination centre. Now it is in Jeff’s Shed (aka Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre) on the banks of the Yarra. A space paradoxically less cramped than the old location but also somehow smaller. Perhaps because the spaces for the individual galleries was not in long rows. 

I was invited to the press preview on Thursday afternoon just before the fair opened to the paying public. The highlight was artist Sally Smart doing a remarkably concise and coherent explanation of her collage technique and its relationship to the women artists, puppets and dance in Constructivism and Dada. 

The press preview did answer my question about what the Art Fair is doing to decolonise this place. From physical: five Indigenous community arts centres were included in the galleries, a prize-winning work donated to Shepparton Art Museum and three giant necklaces by Maree Clarke. To the symbolic: the location of the galleries is listed with their Indigenous name first and the colonial name second, e.g.  Naarm/Melbourne. (But not as far as being the “Naarm/Melbourne Art Fair”?)

The not-for-profit organisation that runs the Melbourne Art Fair demonstrates that an art fair can be more than just promoting the neo-liberal idea that private ownership of art is the cornerstone of the art world.To disrupt this perception of a trade fair for galleries, the art fair has solo shows and other “works of scale and significance”, where Maree Clarke, Sally Smart and four other artists are involved. Along with a program are events, including the Nicholas Building “Up Late”, an open studio event on Wednesday night, the international video section of the fair, and a book launch for Let’s Go Outside: Art in Public.

On the other hand, the art fair has to be financially successful for the sixty-three participating commercial galleries. The proposed art fair of 2016 never happened because of the withdrawal of several Melbourne galleries as it was not economically viable for them. I didn’t notice or hear about any damage to Melbourne’s visual arts in the years without the art fair, but I’m not looking at art galleries’ books. 

Back to the business of the art fair, bottles of Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte, the Fair’s official “champagne partner”, are on the desk of every gallery. And at the Glenfiddich Bar, the fashionable designer Jordan Gogos and Ross Blainey, Glenfiddich Brand Ambassador, discuss “the collaboration and the power of artistic experimentation while enjoying bespoke cocktails.”

Gertrude Contemporary had art for sale that parodied the relationship between art and money including the blocks of melted dollar coins by Andrew Liversidge. Ironic take or just another exclusive commodity? Take your pick, but I just walk away when someone mentions NFTs. (I should have asked about the fair’s carbon footprint.)


Art in the age of digital reproduction

Most of the art I consumes, music, movies, text, and images, comes in a digital format. A virtually unlimited digital feast for the mind and senses. And with this, the aura of exclusive access to the original that once gave cultic status to art has disappeared.

Recently I’ve been re-reading Walter Benjamin The Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. This short book by an eclectic Berlin philosopher written in 1935 continues to resonate. Benjamin examines how the aura of originality is devalued with photographic reproduction. Some his arguments still work even as we debate his conclusions.

At the start of Section V, Benjamin distinguishes between polarities of the “cultic”, the unseen value of an image and its “display”, value to the perceiver. Having a precious item in a vault is cultic value, part of a cult of exchange value. This is very different from “display value”, which is simply what you most enjoy looking at? These are a different set of values to what art costs to buy or to make: “display value” is the aesthetic separated from the economic.

Benjamin didn’t live long enough to witness the results of digital reproduction on the arts. Where the repetition becomes meaningless and, even torturous, producing overdose reactions (for example, a Barry Manilow song on repeat).

With repeat viewing, everyone can become an expert and a critic.

When there is no original, as the digital is the original, there can only be variations: the director’s cut, the extended version, the remix, the extended dance mix, the unofficial release… the t-shirt, the movie, the game … Market segmentation to sell more. Benjamin expected an increase in commodification. However, in the long term, the only ones who have made massive profits from the arts in the age of digital reproduction have been the warehouse owners and distributors.

As the aura of originality becomes more nebulous in the digital age. The record collections of Baby Boomers gather dust, and their libraries of books are given away. Now creating unique works of art is a political statement; the intention is for them to remain private, or at least constricted and restricted, drawcard attractions for blockbuster exhibitions.

Now the aura of cultic value is an area for grifters to exploit as once priests preyed on their flocks offering unseen values. NFT sellers offer ownership of digital properties, like buying seating in heaven. Will the fetichism of owning something unique become just another kink of appreciation?

Ownership is irrelevant to Owels piece, display value is everything

Something about public space

I went to see two exhibitions. “Who’s Afraid of Public Space?” at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) and “Re-locate” at Assembly Point.

Mariana del Castillo Re-locate (photo courtesy of the artist)

Assembly Point is almost across the street from ACCA, a series of large display classes in a pedestrian way between two buildings and Sturt and Moore Streets in Southbank. Damien Vicks, Moment 2013 the red geometric flower highlights the building. There are several theatre-related offices and studios on the ground floor of Guild Apartments on Sturt Street in Southbank. A class of drama students were enjoying the fresh air, sitting half inside and half outside NIDA’s Melbourne studios. A place in between public and private space.

Mariana del Castillo is a Canberra-based artist with experience re-locating from her Ecuadorian birthplace. Re-locate creates the feeling of migration, travelling headless, carrying part of their home with them insulated in wool. The glass cases with her Arte Povera influenced tableaux progress to an unknown destination. The contradiction between the private life of an immigrant where your life is alien and public because you are the observed newcomer. Covered in a layer of wool for protection from the emotional toll of moving to another country, details stitched into this second skin.

Detail from “Gathering Space: Ngargee Djeembana” at ACCA

I am very into outdoor exhibitions in public space at the moment, for many reasons, including avoiding COVID but also my long term interest in public space. This brings me to “Who’s Afraid of Public Space?” at ACCA. Riffing on Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? The exhibition has as much to do with the theatre as Albee’s play with Virginia Wolfe.

Public space is an important topic. If the exhibition is to succeed in its objective of raising issues for discussion then different questions needed to be asked. Who owns public space? What are the public allowed to do in public space? Who benefits from public space?

Starting with “The Education Space: Creating Art in Public”, which looked back to the modernism of Clement Meadmore and Ron Robertson-Swann and forward to a speculative future with an exhibition of maquettes by younger visitors. Next came “Reading Space: The Common Room”, with a collection of books and magazines on public space. (Nicola Cortese, Lauren Crockett and Stephanie Pahnis did not include my book on public sculpture, so it wasn’t brilliant.) “Project Space: The Hoarding” brought together elements from an exhibition that spilled out into many public places. Finally, or to begin with, depending on which way you entered, there was “Gathering Space: Ngargee Djeembana” in the largest space. It looked impressive with the minimalist repetition of cubes of material, but raised questions unaddressed questions about how the material was gathered, who gave permission and how this fitted with the rest of the exhibition.

Then a walk to the river and lunch. A pleasant day until it came time to go home. Who’s afraid of public transport? I am with good reason. The ticket machine took my $50 bill from me without putting anything on my card; I spent another 20 minutes making the complaint because of the “high volume of calls” they were receiving. They might put the money on my card in 10 working days time. The public transport system has not let me down; it is consistently poor. Public transport is a public space.


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