Monthly Archives: October 2022

Ersatz culture

Not that I approve of throwing trash into rivers, but I sympathise with the guys who threw a Gillie and Marc bronze statue of baby Sumatran orangutang into the Yarra last month. For post is about rejecting substitutes filling in for culture rather than sending sculptures to a watery grave. 

It is possible to produce something made from acorns that almost tastes like coffee. Like ersatz coffee, ersatz art provides aesthetics without any stimulating quality. The borrowed German word for a substitute implies a diminished experience rather than an alternative.

Ersatz culture is presented as a substitute for something of superior quality. It is fake, a pretend, simulated or imitation culture that can be used to fill a space that would contain culture. It might appear to be the same as the real thing on a quick pass, but there is no depth. It does not comment on current issues or events. It does not risk failure. It uses sentimentality, nationalism and other affiliations to distract the audience from thinking about what is in front of them.

It occurs when an artist’s or organisation’s ambitions fail to rise above being popular with the public or the ruling elite. When the expedient, cost-effective and safest options are taken. If sincerity is the credit rating of an artist, the insincerity of ersatz culture bankrupts the future. Sure it fills the space and tastes like it, but it does not make for a meaningful life.

I’m not alone in describing statues as ersatz. When the U.S. Postal Service mistakenly featured a half-sized Las Vegas replica of the Statue of Liberty on a new stamp, a “stamp collector noticed the error when he spotted differences in the ersatz statue’s eyes and hair.” (Slate, April 15, 2011) And Melbourne, like Las Vegas and most big cities, is full of substitute culture, from statues by Gillie and Marc (or David Bromley) to reality tv shows.

The problem is culture substitutes fill in the space that culture occupies without providing a sense of identity or recognition of your existence (aside from selling you the t-shirt and other merchandise). Cultural impoverishment results in a lack of meaning in many people’s lives; an empty psychic space filled with addictions, despair and rage.

If hotel room art and other such vacuous stuff is the only part of your cultural diet, then there are problems. Sugar is not a substitute for fruit. It is why I prefer to look at, and even review, exhibitions by amateur artists rather than work by competent artists/designers like Ken Done, David Bromley, or Gillie and Marc. There is something essentially different between art desperately trying to achieve something, even if it fails, then commercially successful stuff.

Bad art is only a failure, but ersatz art occupies the space that would otherwise be filled with art. Bad art rots and rapidly breaks down, an actor dies on stage, and from that compost heap, new art grows. Ersatz art does not decompose as rapidly; nothing grows from it, as it fails to inspire. It neuters the generative power of art and will generate nothing but superficial sentimentality communicated in easy-to-read images. It has no impact on future arts and culture.

Gillie and Marc’s sculptures have no value other than a selfie feedback loop of ever-diminishing relevance. They tempt city councils and other controllers of property with the offer of free sculpture exhibitions that do nothing but raise the profile of Gillie and Marc. (Read an earlier post about a street artist’s reply to Gillie and Marc’s “Paparazzi Dogs”.)


Word Made Flesh

I was asked at ACCA’s front desk if I wanted earplugs, and a jar with pairs of yellow foam was proffered. I declined; I’m all for ear protection, but I couldn’t hear anything like a band at the Tote. It hardly seemed necessary. The person then warned me about the content of the exhibition. “Yes, I’ve seen his work before.”

Installation view of the Paul Yore, Word Made Flesh

Textile and assemblage artist Paul Yore’s mid-career retrospective, Word Made Flesh at ACCA, has much to look at and examine. The sheer amount of work, labour, of stitches in time is eye-popping and impressive. And being familiar with Yore’s work, I was amazed that there was so much new work.

What is also impressive is Yore doesn’t give a fuck. He has thrown everything at it. Too often, contemporary art is an empty gallery space with a video projection of a vacuum cleaner or something. Yore fills even the five vast spaces of the ACCA to excess. There is even a room that is double-hung because there is so much.

Even a decorated car, a typical gallery space filler, is a hearse worked to excess, covered in tiles. Two electric organs on either side of it with keys jammed down emit a grinding discord. There is a media overload with images and sound in the final room. Random water-powered beaters hit bells and xylophones.

Language and wordplay are everywhere. Cut up and rearranged, like the found images that he makes collages and assemblages from. The words themselves become found materials. Language is used not as a representation of the world but as a media that has made the world. His studies in archaeology and anthropology at Monash University have been put to good use. Culture jamming, using icons, symbols and logos for his own purposes.

And it is not just the quantity of material. There are also many ideas: religion, philosophy, capitalism…

However, picking one subject and trying to summarise the exhibition is probably a mistake. There is so much to consider; it bedazzles the eyes and boggles the mind to sum it up. And excess, too, is one of those great subjects for art, for art is a way to use part of the excess in society.

Finally, Yore is doing great Australian art, not the old Australian subjects and macho bullshit but a new perspective. It has been a long-standing theme in Yore’s work. It is important because Australia is seldom a theme of contemporary Australian art, and we need an intelligent view of this subject not only the moronic patriotism of the majority. 


Visiting McClelland Sculpture Park

I remember climbing on the pile of white bubbles with my siblings when we first visited the NGV. Health and safety have changed significantly since then. “Don’t climb” reduces the meaning of Peter Corlett’s Tarax play sculpture 1969. Corlett’s inspiration was from a formal teaching exercise about sculpture, starting with a composition with different-sized balls of clay.

Peter Corlett, Tarax Bubble Sculpture at McClelland Sculpture Park

It is no longer at the NGV but part of a collection of about a hundred sculptures by notable local and international artists at McClelland Sculpture Park. The park is a not-for-profit organisation located on sixteen-hectare property in Langwarrin on the city’s eastern edge. Like Melbourne University’s Parkville campus McClelland is a place where sculptures go to retire from public life. And along with the Bubble Sculpture, Ken Reinhard’s Marland House Sculpture 1970-72, Lenton Parr’s Customs House screen 1966 and Zikaras’ Untitled (GPO) 1964 all had previous lives as public art. Since 2012, the Southern Way McClelland Commissions have been installed along freeways. One moves from the freeway site every two years to McClelland’s sculpture park. However, I didn’t see Gregor Kregars Reflective Lullaby (aka Frankie the chrome gnome) because it was on loan to Frankston Council.

The collection attempts to tell the history of Melbourne’s post-war sculpture from the modern to the contemporary. Zikaras’ Untitled (Eta) 1961-62 is the earliest sculpture in the park. Phil Price’s spectacular, kinetic sculpture Tree of Life 2012 is the most recent.

Many of the sculptors were post-war modernists with optimistic dreams. The Centre Five group of Vincas Jomantas, Julius Kane, Inge King, Clifford Last, Lenton Parr, Norma Redpath, and Teisutis Ziakaras are all represented; an early Inge King recognisable from the bubbling molten and arty edges on the black steel.

Norma Redpath, Paesaggio Cariatide (Landscape Caryatid) 1980-85

There are notes of dissent and critical views. Ken Scarlett’s Monument to a segregationist is amazingly prescient in its critique of monumental colonial sculpture. He could see this in 1966; we are playing catch-up to his critical vision of the history of sculpture. Along with the more recent work by Colin Suggett, National Anxiety Index 2010 with a dragon ripping the rating arrow out of its scale.

Although the gallery had a retrospective of Fiona Foley, no Indigenous artists are in the permanent collection. Still, hopefully, the new board member, Associate Professor Michael-Shawn Fletcher (Wiradjuri), Director of Research Capability at the Indigenous Knowledge Institute and the Associate Dean (Indigenous) in the Faculty of Science at the University of Melbourne, will work to rectify this.

There have been new acquisitions, including two audio works that caught my ears: Terrance Plowright’s Tubular resonance 2012 and David Chesworth’s In The Dark Wood At The Bottom Of The Garden 1996.

Adding natural synergies to Peter Blizzard’s jazzy constructions of stone and steel. The bush setting worked for some of the works. However, nature is irrepressible; birds nest in Louis Paramor’s sculptures, and spiders spin webs in David Wilson’s.

Dean Colls Rex Australis, the king is dead long live the king 2012

It is not an easy walk around the grounds, especially in wet weather where the paths can be slippery or the low parts of lawns sodden. Dirt paths lead to some sculptures; some can only be seen from a distance on islands in ponds. A small boy in gum boots enjoys the puddles, and a visiting dog looked like it was having its best day seeing Dean Colls’ Rex Australis.

I enjoyed seeing works by familiar sculptures by local artists. Even more was the encounter with the unfamiliar sculptures Gary Diermenjian, a surreal sight, evoking urban infrastructure and the remains of a failed civilisation.

The elegant minimalist breeze block gallery, gift shop and cafe building, designed by architects Munro and Sargents in 1971, is another modernist statement reminiscent of Heide I by David McGlashan in 1963.

Gary Diermenjian, Flake 2010

Protesting at the NGV

In Extinction Rebellion’s most recent exhibition at the NGV, two activists glued their hands to the bulletproof acrylic covering over a Picasso painting, Massacre in Korea. (See the ABC News report and read Dr Catherine Strong, a spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion on the reasons for the protest.) It is part of a tradition of protests at the gallery that goes back to Ivan Durrant’s Slaughtered cow happening in 1975.

Hijacking a state-owned platform to make an emergency broadcast about the climate catastrophe seems fair. Especially given the number of times the state government has used the NGV to promote its message. Part of the function of a state art gallery is to portray the state as cultured and reasonable even when they are cruel and destructive.

This is not the first time that Extinction Rebellion has used the NGV. In 2019 Extinction Rebellion held a Last Supper, a dinner party as sea levels rise with a table floating in the gallery’s moat.

Here is a timeline of some of the other protests at the NGV this century. (Please let me know of other protests at the NGV that I’ve missed in this short time line.)

In 2005 a young artist, Lucas Maddock, navigated a boat made of salvaged scraps in the NGV’s moat to protest the Australian government’s treatment of refugees for a video work titled Refugee. The video was exhibited in an exhibition of VCA students’ work at the Margaret Lawrence Gallery. (See Art Right Now)

In 2012 street artist CDH’s Trojan Petition was dumped in the forecourt and taken inside the gallery for display. (See my post) 

In 2017 Picasso’s Weeping Woman was covered with a black veil in a protest against Wilson Security. (See ABC News)  Also, in 2017, red dye was added to the water wall and moat in the campaign by artists again in protest against the NGV employing Wilson Security who “violently enforcing the imprisonment of refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia’s offshore immigration detention centres”.

No art was damaged in any of these protests, only the pride of the NGVs security.


Look: graffiti reduction

A look at an effective graffiti reduction strategy used around Brunswick Station. I bet you didn’t expect to read a longitudinal study on how to prevent graffiti on this blog.

In the past there were many pieces quality graffiti and street art on the block next to the station. This includes some of the area’s first legal walls, which is still in use, although the fishing tackle shop wall has now faded. I remember Banksy stencil of a chimp and Reka a purple monster on the station (or was that was at Jewell) — both removed to the disappointment of travellers young and old. The AWOL crew regularly painted several of the walls, Slicer, Adnate, etc., developing their mature styles from old-school graffiti (read my AWOL Evolution).  

It wasn’t the graffiti was terrible; it was the area that was ugly. The street artists and graffiti writers were trying their best to improve the aesthetics of a neglected section of land behind factories – dirt, rocks and fly tipping. The barren area was a no-mans land between the petty fiefdoms of the local council and the railway. So another anarchic community group, Upfield Urban Forest moved in and started to plant trees and cultivate a garden — fine community-minded people with as much planning permission as a graffiti writer. (Read more about Upfield Urban Forest in Brunswick Voice.) Now that the trees have grown, the walls are no longer visible, making them no longer desirable for graffiti writers and street artists.

Tips on preventing graffiti are often vacuous recommendations written by local councils providing less than helpful advice. Regular removal, anti-graffiti coatings, improved lighting, and uneven surfaces are expensive and environmentally unsound options. Painting walls dark colours to discourage graffiti; black is a favourite colour of graffiti writers to buff/undercoat a wall with because it makes colours pop. Another recommended simply growing creepers on the wall, forgetting that creepers like ivy with do more damage to the wall than a coat of acrylic paint.

Graffiti can appear overnight, a mural or legal wall can take a little longer, and a substantial improvement will not happen overnight. It takes years to grow a tree. It took about a decade of work around Brunswick Station and Premier Daniel Andrews “sky-rail” project will destroy it.

All of the artists mentioned in this post have gone on to paint bigger and better walls.

Brunswick Station 2022

The Edge-cation of Joel Gailer

A short history of the edge of paintings on canvas. For most of history, they were covered by frames; then, sometime last century, the frames came off. In 1942 the art collector Peggy Guggenheim took the frames off the surrealist paintings in her Art of This Century gallery. What paint was on the edge of the stretched canvas was accidental. Some artists started to paint the edges. Then in 1958, Lucio Fontana used a knife to slash a linen painting, blurring the lines between painting, sculpture and conceptual art. The influence of Argentine/Italian painter, sculptor and theorist was a bit thing in Melbourne because the NGV had a single painting Concetto spaziale (1964-1965) of his. The gold metallic paint on the canvas stabbed with multiple holes incised in the gold metallic paint is “Luciano Fontana”.

Paintings in Joel Gailer’s studio

In his current paintings, Joel Gailer takes this further, filling the slashes cuts in the canvas with slivers, gobbets and nubbles of bright pigments. Wads of colour patch holes in the canvas. Sculptural blobs, clods, knobs and gobs of paint stuck to the sides of the stretched canvas. Cross sections rolled into cones, clots of eye-melting bright orange and fluorescent pinks, and globules of metallic paint adorn the edges, extending the edge of the art beyond the empty raw canvas.

I spoke to Gailer about these recent works at his Cozens Street studio. He was still on a high after a successful time at Sydney Contemporary with an Artbox stall and getting represented by Sketch & Co Gallery in Sydney.

His approach to these paintings is systematic and formal. The variations on the theme accumulate. There is a wall of them as he works through variations, finding new edges to explore or challenging conventions. “I prefer small canvases”, he repeatedly tells me.

For Gailer, the picture plane has been explored; it was an arbitrary choice of surface. The edge is beyond the picture plane; no longer a two-dimensional painting but a three-dimensional sculpture. Conventions are abstract choices that have been codified, which he points out in his work. It is not all about the edge; there are other conventions that he is considering. Like, should the canvas hang vertically, horizontally or on the diagonal? Or why don’t we use paint for its adhesive quality to stick down the raw canvas or glue two canvases together?

All these conventions about art provide an entrance, and this entrance could be a familiar first step or a medium to transfer concepts. Gailer wants to approach this in a conceptual rather than a formal modernist way. There are different ways to approach an edge: going over the edge, following the border, printing from a bite, and sticking paint to the edge. The side of the canvas is a different kind of edgy, not over the edge but edge-aware. (Gailer is not an Edgelord.)

I knew that we would have to get around to talking about side hustles, for Gailer’s attention to the side of canvases is another aspect of his many side hustles. Art Box, Cozens Street studios, Red Betty bar in Houdini Lane, his extreme printmaking (see my post on his Performprint). The side of things is part of his life, surfing and skateboard riding. Surfers, skateboard riders, and printers know about edges. Skateboarders, like Joel, use the city’s edges to their advantage, grinding their decks on curbs and rails. Surfing, riding the wave, balancing on the edge of a system just before the wave breaks, and becomes completely chaotic.

Black Mark and Joel Gailer reflected in Gailer’s Intermedia Machen IV

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