Author Archives: Mark Holsworth

About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne.

Go Crazy

It is always a mystery about the identity of graffiti writers and street artists. I walked around a street corner in Coburg; there was Anime Flower at work with pastel crayons. Anime Flower has been writing things like “be kind” around the neighbourhood in colourfully decorated block letters. All I should say is that the writer was not from the usual demographic of taggers, graff writers and other artistic miscreants found on the streets. I didn’t want them to feel intimidated by my presence, so I didn’t stop. I just said, “Hello,” all friendly-like behind my mask and sunglasses and kept walking.

The great rock critics Lester Bangs and Nick Kent were proponents of the proposition that rock’n’roll was for losers. That it was a great failure gesture. At its best, rock’n’roll was a bunch of losers who managed to create great art and, at its worst, was commercial sabotage of all that is human and decent. Likewise, street art and graffiti are for losers. Like playing in a band, doing some street art will probably be amongst the best things that they do for themselves.

During the lockdowns, I have become more familiar with the work of many local graff writers, including the local UBM/WWW crew. I love the WWW crew, the self-proclaimed World’s Worst Writers – who will take that jester’s crown away from them? Calypso is so friendly, with a smiley face along with the tag.

Bootleg Comics and Cale Jay Labbe collaborating on some intensely crazy black and white paste-ups. Bootleg Comics is a Melbourne visual artist known for using pop culture iconography. Savage reflections of images and tropes: horoscopes making as much sense as an anti-vaxer but with way more insight.

“You know there ain’t no devil, just god when he’s drunk”, crones Tom Waits. God© may be drunk. I’ve seen a lot of God©’s work around Coburg. There is plenty of bad craziness (like anti-vax slogans, Lush mural upskirting Marilyn Munroe, any mural by Lush… fuck him) along with good craziness evident on the streets. Bad craziness and good craziness, like bad taste and good taste; do I want to be Polonius and distinguish between different kinds of madmen? Here Lester Bangs distinguishes between the alternatives of: “working to enlighten others as to their own possibilities rather than merely sprawling in the muck yodelling about what a drag everything is.” (Bangs “The Clash” Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, 1987, p226) So I’m glad that Anime Flower, the WWW and God© are out there on the streets of Coburg. And to quote Prince’s eulogy “for this thing called life. Let’s go crazy!”


Going postal with Mail Art

Is Mail Art still a thing? With the decline in snail mail, I would have thought that Mail Art was redundant. However, last year in ArtNet News, Taylor Dafoe wrote that Mail Art enjoyed a renaissance with all the COVID-19 lockdowns. I don’t know; I haven’t received any recently but New York bookstore Printed Matter is still receiving them and has an exhibition of mail art in their window.

I last remember receiving some mail art in the 1980s, mainly from an undergraduate fine arts student and friend Paul Leech. So I messaged him and asked him how he heard of mail art. Unfortunately, he couldn’t remember and guessed that it was reading about Dada or Fluxus? Even then, it felt like the long tail of an art movement that started over twenty years earlier when Ray Johnson founded the New York Correspondence School of Mail Art.

The decorated envelope and postcards are almost as old as postal systems. And the post was an essential feature of art movements from Dada to Fluxus. What made mail art different was is that Mail Art is not about simply receiving art by post like the Art Box Club.  Mail Art is art that is consciously about the postal system. If art is a form of communication, then Mail Art is communication about a communication system.

Mail Art isn’t mentioned in any of the standard art history texts about art in the twentieth century. Even though, according to Stewart Homes (The Assault on Culture – Utopian currents from Lettrisme to Class War, 1988), it is the second-largest art movement of the twentieth century in terms of participation.

Mail Art exists along with the zines as an anti-elitist, democratic art form at the intersection of folk art and fine art. It is not art for art collectors to spend a lot of money on. It is not art for display in institutional art galleries where the aesthetics of awe are employed.

Leech was doing both zines and mail art; later, he made Phredpost artistamps a form within mail art developed by Anna Banana. Mail Art, zines and artistamps are very accessible in terms of techniques and materials inviting greater participation. The democratic nature of the art form, along with the inexpensive and accessible materials, means that anyone can participate.

Unlike commercial gallery art, where gallery directors, collectors, and others act as gatekeepers limiting participation, Mail Art has almost no gatekeepers. The only one that mattered was the post office, an institution that was unmistakably outside of the art world. A couple of artists have told me how good Australia Post is with mail art. Bark, pumpkins and other materials making it through the postal system provided that it had appropriate postage. Leech was pushing the postal system, testing its limits. His attempt to send a stamp addressed on the back of the stamp failed.

Is this still the long tail of mail art or a revival? Will people return to receiving tangible physical objects in their letterboxes instead of speculating on NFT online?

Paul Leech, Postscards with holes, 1984

The Nest in Darebin Parklands

“Look, a sculpture!” A cyclist says to her companions as they roll by following the curve of the cycle trail through Darebin Parklands.

David Michael Bell and Gary Tippett, The Nest, 2012

The Nest by David Michael Bell and Gary Tippett is obvious. A brown sphere positioned halfway up a hill, half surrounded by a pond. Large enough to be a minor landmark in the park. The round form fits with the undulating landscape.

Although it can be seen from the cycle trail, access to the sculpture is via a circuitous route. You can’t walk directly to it because there is a pond is packed with rushes and reeds, providing a home for waterfowl in front of it. You have to walk through natural a parkland of indigenous flora and fauna to reach sculpture.

The simple round form of The Nest, made from recycled wood, becomes more complex on closer inspection. The pieces of wood making the form creating patterns. Their brown painted hand chiselled surface. You can look at an easy to navigate 3D sketch of The Nest and even see inside it.

David Bell, Raising the Rattler Pole

Its sculptors have an unusual career path. Bell moved from being a theatre stage manager to a prop maker to public sculpture. “Five years ago, I did my first public artwork with Gary Tippett, a film industry colleague, in Wodonga’s main street. Since then, public art has been my full-time passion and interest.” What’s On Blog’s interview with Bell. Bell’s up-ended tram on the corner of Spencer and Flinders Street Raising the Rattler Pole – The Last of the Connies. (Bell and Tippett are not alone in moving from theatre to public sculpture; there is also William Eicholtz.)

Bell and Tippett know how to make a dramatic statement dressing the urban stage. The main problem with their sculptures is that they are set dressing, meaningless decorations that get looks but say nothing. The best that can be said for them is that they fit in their location. They are passable but not great; the cyclists don’t stop for a second look as they pass by.


Imperialist Loot and Stolen Land

Since 2014 National Gallery of Australia (NGA) has returned millions of dollars in stolen antiquities to India. This year they announced that  $13 million of stolen antiquities would be returned. They are still cleaning up after Subhash Kapoor’s massive criminal enterprise exposed the box-ticking exercise that was the NGA’s provenance checking.

The Sri Puranthan Nataraja

The Nataraja from the village of Sri Puranthan in Tamil Nadu brought to light the quantity of stolen Indian antiquities in Australian public galleries. Kapoor had organised its theft, smuggling, restoration, and sale. However, in his career as director of the Gallery of South Australia and then the NGA, Ron Radford purchased not just one but two stolen Natarajas, antique bronze idols of Shiva as Lord of the Dance. As the old saying goes: fool me once shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.

After the extraordinary amount of stolen goods found in the NGA’s collection, it claims to have reformed its approach to provenance. Its website now contains the following statement: “Provenance decision-making at the National Gallery is determined by an evidence-based approach evaluated on the balance of probabilities, anchored in robust legal and ethical decision-making principles and considerations.” However, this new position on provenance decision-making does not include the land that the NGA is on. Even as the NGA acknowledges, in the footer of the webpage that explains their new ethical provenance standards, “the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional custodians of the Canberra region, and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country”. 

Based on robust legal and ethical decision-making principles, they would conclude that the land does not belong to Australia. The provenance for the land’s ownership is not “based on documents” as the Australian government has no treaty with Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, nor any other Indigenous people. And documents of ownership from the British Empire have as much veracity as the provenance documents issued by Kapoor’s gallery Art of the Past.

Empires pillage, destroy and steal items from other cultures, pillaging and destroying sacred places.  Consider the stolen Hindu gods and other parts of temples along with the local Indigenous sacred sites that Australian governments allow to be destroyed for mines, dams and roads. They part of the same process and reflect the same set of values.

Australian imperialism is a mutant strain of British imperialism that has become endemic in some Pacific and Indian Oceans islands. For there is an Australian Empire, however, few the islands (Australia, Christmas Island, Cocos Islands, Norfolk Island, and some uninhabited islands) that it currently consists of. This is not forgetting that until 1975 it included Papua New Guinea and Nauru from 1920-1968.

As an empire’s national gallery, the NGA needs to be an encyclopaedic museum, like the British Museum. Encyclopaedic museums have permanent collections of art from many parts of the world and periods of history. And like the British Museum with the Benin Bronzes and Parthenon marbles, the NGA acquired many items with dubious provenance for its collection. However, unlike the British Museum, the NGA has been forced to return some stolen items in its collection.

Why does provenance decision making at the NGA only apply to the objects in its collection and not the land it is on? How can you have an “Australian National Gallery” in Ngunnawal and Ngambri country? And how can the NGA, and the other Australian state galleries, resolve this contradiction between their provenance policies and the stolen land they occupy?


Skateboards and art

(All photos Mark Holsworth 1. Melbourne Stencil Festival exhibition installation, 2. Sunfigo decorated deck, 3. *scape park, Singapore, 4. Trev on skateboard 1977, 5. Claudia Moondoonuthi, 36 flip on country, 6. Hyunjun Koo decks, Seoul, 7. unpainted decks in art supply shop 8. Jud Wimhurst Van Gogh and Francis Bacon, 9. Viki Murray and Mandy Lane street art, Melbourne 10. Viki Murray street art, 11. Viki Murray and others, 12. skateboards and rollerblades prohibited sign, Melb. 13. Joel Gailer printing skateboard wheels, 14. 15. 16. Performprint skateboarders)

The symbiotic relationship between graffiti and skateboards making each one is stronger from the relationship. The painted concrete of skateparks, the boards, the streets… (I don’t have the photos for this one.)

Two examples of this interaction is Viki Murray stencils of skateboard riders (see my post about her), and Joel Gailer’s Performprint printing using skateboard wheels to print (see my post about Performprint). 


Art and Waiting

I have done a lot of waiting at train stations, airports, and hospital waiting rooms. While waiting, nothing changes. It is horrible; time seems to slow down as you wait. That is the difference between the liner astronomical time and the perceived experience of durations. So if you think that time is dragging through the lockdown, the answer is yes; it is due to a lack of sensory stimulation. But what if art installations could alter perceived time?

(image courtesy Swiss National Research Foundation)

“Public art and public space – Waiting stress and waiting pleasure” by Harald Klingemann et al. (Time & Society, July 2015) is a study of changing time perception in waiting rooms through the use of art. Two different types of waiting rooms, a clinical and an administrative, were assessed with a control sample and two artistic interventions.

The experiment went beyond the standard waiting room decoration of hanging pictures on the wall and playing music. They produced “two different, but comparable artistic interventions”, one action-oriented and the other observation-oriented, for two waiting areas. The observation-oriented installation included olfactory and tactile design elements along with screens of natural scenes and textile hangings. The action-oriented had interactive digital art on iPads and a bubble column. (See the page of photos of the two waiting rooms.) “Michel Winterberg as media artist providing essential technical support with his interactive installation ‘waiting shadows’”. One interesting aspect of the experiment was that “the installations do not have any labels that would suggest an obligation to use them.”

The results were measured with hundreds of interviews and observers counting almost two thousand people’s waiting room activity: interactions with the art and stress indicators. The results are not that impressive, a few minutes difference between the actual and the perceived along with less observable indications of stress. Not surprisingly playing with interactive art proved the best at reducing perceived waiting time and stress.

In some respects this research is obvious, that the results did not surprise the authors. Still, given the millions of people in waiting rooms worldwide whose stress and perceived waiting time could be reduced I’m glad that it was funded by the Swiss National Research Foundation. At least now there is some more data and assuming that the art was average, making me wonder how better art could improve the results. There are wide-reaching implications to this research, which could be applied to many public places where people wait. Public art is often thought of as placemaking but not so often as abating the impacts of places on people.

Unlike Klingemann et al., my own research on waiting room art is not systemic but, unfortunately, accidental and unplanned. Random research has its own value as it can establish connections and communicate ideas in ways that are impossible for the systematic. It is only by chance that I even saw this article.

For more on art and clinical environments see my post about art at the Monash Medical Centre.


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

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