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Author Archives: Mark Holsworth

About Mark Holsworth

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

Croft Alley Culture

As I entered Paynes Place I could hear women’s voices and the familiar sound of an aerosol spray-can being shaken. Paynes Place off Little Bourke Street in Chinatown is opposite an empty lot with a massive mural. You turn a corner and at the end Paynes Place is Croft Alley. The laneway off is an attractive and discreet location, covered in graffiti and street art with a bar at the far end.

Around the corner in Paynes Place there were about five young Moslem women sitting around on the ground smoking cigarettes (one was lucky enough to have a milk crate to sit on).

Around the next corner, into Croft Alley, there was a thirty-something Asian guy with half a dozen cans of quality aerosol paint sitting beside his backpack. He had just started spraying a couple of lines of an outline for his piece. (I am commenting on people’s age, ethnicity and religion because I want to emphasise the diversity.)

“Keep on painting.” I said as I passed him in the narrow lane.

I looked around at the work in the lane, looking at the mix of old and new work. The area was comprehensively painted in the Croft Alley Project in 2009. (See my original post.) High up on the walls there is a layer of old work from 2009 but the rest is all fresh and new. There are more paste-ups by Mr Dimples, recently I’ve been seeing his cute monster paste-ups in many places around the city.

As I was making my way back past the graff writer with the can. A red and blond haired “working family” (as Kevin Rudd use to endlessly repeat) from the outer suburbs came around the corner into the lane. Cool parents to know about Croft Alley and show their kids some quality graffiti. 

I write about the graffiti and street art because it is remarkable to have a mass visual art movement. It is a cultural shift for so many people to be involved in a locally produced cultural activity, that doesn’t involve gambling and that isn’t advertised. It is a cultural shift for kids to be interested in an adult visual culture that (unlike cinema and tv) is local, progressive and they can participate in.

It is the way that it creates a place that people want to visit out of a service lane;  “placemaking” as the architects and urban planners call it. And the anarchic, egotistic altruism of this unauthorised placemaking; the individual empowerment to make their mark on the urban environment, both in collaboration and in competition with others.

It is this cultural vibrancy that interests me far more than the popularity of any of its artists and writers, how much some rich fool might pay for the work of some popular artist, or even, the aesthetics or meaning of any of the work in the lane.

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Maree Clarke Culture Worker

Maree Clarke has been an important culture worker in Melbourne for decades. She is from the Mutti Mutti, Yorta Yorta Wamba Wamba and Boon Wurrung. I’ve been looking for the right word to describe what Clarke does and I think that ‘culture worker’ says it all.

Maree Clarke, Ancestral Memory

Some people might think that ‘culture worker’ sounds clinical and neutral, without the romance that the word ‘art’ brings with it. Culture is a broader word, a wider set that includes art and a lot more. It doesn’t restrict, as a narrow definition of ‘art’ would, what kind of objects or actions should be included.

Clarke calls herself a cultural ‘revivifier’. Working to resuscitate and revive a culture is a heroic effort given that it had been on the brink of cultural genocide. Bring a culture back to life is not a terminal goal, it is an act of cultivation and growth as Clarke reclaims, re-thinks, re-imagines and re-interprets this culture.

I first encountered her work in public art in the city and Footscray (she was one of the artists in both Scar by the Yarra and Wominjeka Tarnuk Yooroom in Footscray). More recently I saw Clarke’s “Ancestral Memory” exhibition at University of Melbourne Old Quad.

In this exhibition Clarke explores the waterways of the Kulin Nation. The exhibition directly referencing the waterways of the university and the eels that still traverse them; next to the quad used to be a small lake and a creek. It is a contrast the sandstone 1856 building in its gothic revival style with cloisters around the quadrangle to create the impression of medieval England.

Two sets of elements hang over a large circular mirror each with their wall of interpretive information; evidence of ownership of land and a welcome to country. There is a huge glass sculpture in the form of a segmented eel trap at one end. At the other woven eel traps and necklaces of feathers and river reeds. The materials for the necklaces are local; the feathers from road kill and the reeds from the Maribanong river. The eel traps represent the aquaculture and ownership of the Kulin Nation, necklaces a welcome to country and the mirrors the reflective still water.

In 2018 I saw a lot of necklaces by her but I still don’t think of Clarke as a jeweller. I saw her necklaces at Craft Galleries, at Deakin Uni Campus in Docklands, and a whole display of her work in “Blak Design Matters” exhibition at the Koorie Heritage Trust. These long powerful necklaces that would be worth paying attention to for their cultural significance alone. Clarke has been studying the necklaces in the Melbourne Museum’s collection and creating her own versions. Thung-ung Coorang (Kangaroo teeth necklace) in 3D-printed form. (For more on Clarke see The Design Files.)

The scale of the eel traps and the length necklaces in “Ancestral Memory” is both an aspect of contemporary art and acts to emphasise the continued presence of Indigenous people.

Although “Ancestral Memory” is curated and created by Clarke it is acknowledged that it is a work in collaboration with cultural advisor Jefa Greenaway, several weavers and numerous glass workers. Culture work is always a group project.


A Scandal in Bohemia

In 1930 a young woman walking home late at night was killed in an laneway in Elwood. The death of Mollie Dean is an unsolved, murder mystery with artistic connections in Melbourne’s literary, music and visual arts.

Although the crime has all the elements of a lurid true crime story, the murder of a young woman with a violently possessive mother and salacious artistic companions. Haigh’s book is much more than that, focusing on the life and career of Dean rather than her brutal death.

Haigh is well known for his books on cricket and his skill in describing one of the world’s most boring sports lends itself well to explaining Melbourne’s cultural scene in 1920s. Especially when he writes about the self-obsessed group of painters known as the Meldrumites including the founder of the artist colony of Montsalvat, Justus Jorgensen. Although Mollie Dean’s lover was the painter, Colin Colahan was never considered a suspect the artists thought the murder was all about them and their reputations.

Haigh doesn’t have any new conclusions or evidence about the crime his research in finding and putting together the details of a young woman’s life is amazing. The difficult search for her few published stories and poems in small Australian publications is heroic.

It is these sidetracks in the story, the background of Melbourne’s history that make for a great true crime story. I was disappointed that there was nothing more on the lead detective Percy Lambell who investigated Melbourne’s first art theft a few years earlier; as there is probably a book yet to be written about him.

Unfortunately there are so many fictional versions of the crime at the end of the book that the true crime is overshadowed. The fictional versions of the murder of Mollie Dean distort the facts with fiction. One of the fact that this type of crime is all too common for women to be killed as they walk home. Although Haigh does look at the difference in opportunities and reputations between the sexes in Melbourne at the time but male violence against women remains unexamined.

Gideon Haigh A Scandal in Bohemia, the life and death of Mollie Dean (Hamish Hamilton, 2018)


Coz you’re a bore

When I saw the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao in 2000 I should have been paying more attention to “The Art of the Motorcycle”. The exhibition in the main hall was an exhibition of motorcycles, not modified or customised, just a showroom display. I thought that I was seeing the triumph of corporate design culture over art. Rather this is not about a capitulation of institutional gallery’s reputation that exposes their lack of any educational, aesthetic and moral integrity. The exhibition summed up the attitude of the institution; anything to get the corporate sponsorship, anything to get people through the door.

Different art galleries will tend to exhibit different types of art depending on their objective (see my post on types of art galleries). Some of the crypto-objective of the NGV are now more obvious from its choice of exhibitions — it is all about marketing.

The NGV exists as a high end venue, to sell fashion, market cars (it is the ultimate car showroom in Melbourne), and, most importantly, to be a tourist attraction for the city. The infotainment in a spectacular location to be rented out for corporate and wedding receptions. As such it is little different from the MCG or Flemington Race Course.

The visual arts, like music, is a vast field of styles, techniques and purposes in which there is everything from advertising jingles to some of best things made by humans. There are works that are very popular and make large amounts of money. There are works that can help sell products or make someone look majestic or simply display wealth. High end art can be a manufactured product, the twenty-first century equivalent to handmade lace, very expensive and serving no purpose other than decoration and status. And without political and critical thought the artist remains a decorator for plutocrats.

Granted that there are decorators for plutocrats but that doesn’t mean that they should be exhibited at the NGV or that I should bother to write about them. Selling a lot of product for a lot of money should not be the entry qualification.

I don’t write about art because it is popular or expensive but because there is something worth writing about. So I won’t be writing about any of David Bromley’s, Ken Done’s or KAWS exhibitions. There are a lot of artists whose exhibitions I won’t bother to even attend because the content, aesthetics, style and meaning of their art is so obvious that it bores me. I understand that it doesn’t bore everyone and that some people might want it. However, just because there are is a lot of fans or a lot of money doesn’t make the art any more interesting.


More than a kick

I couldn’t miss the Terrance Plowright sculpture, More than a kick, in Federation Square. Larger than life, high-kicking the bronze statue is sculptural version of Michael Willson’s photograph of Carlton AFLW player Tayla Harris.

Terrance Plowright, More than a kick

The sculptor, Plowright is from NSW and has made a large number of figurative public sculptures for places in that state but this is his first for Melbourne.

Federation Square will not be the permanent location for the statute — it will be there for a few weeks before being permanently installed (plonked, that’s a technical term for putting a sculpture somewhere that it wasn’t specifically made for) probably out the front of some football ground. Someone who knows more about football (most of Melbourne) will have more of an idea of which football ground.

There are several reasons why it is unlikely to be the MCG. Plowright is not one of the sculptors who are regularly commissioned to sculpt the larger than life statues of sporting heroes at the MCG, Louis Laumen and Julie Squires. His style is realistic, rougher than the highly polished figures around the MCG. Nor is the sculpture’s sponsor (NAB) the usual sponsor (Telstra) for the sports statues at the MCG.

A lot of people love statues of sports heroes but I don’t; it is too archaic a reason for a sculpture. Their active poses ultimately goes no-where, remaining static, on a pedestal, in memoriam.

As a temporary location for statues Federation Square sometimes works and sometime fails. It works because it is central location and a lot of people visit and it often doesn’t work because there is so much else going on there. In another part of the square, some edition of the Fearless Girl stands in front of the entrance to a bar.

One of the few points in favour of both of these statues is that they redresses Melbourne’s statue gender in-balance. (See my blog post Statues of women and women sculptors.)


Five September Exhibitions

On Thursday I went to see five exhibitions in the city and Southbank; all are free and in non-commercial exhibition spaces.

detail from Denise Honan Subterranean

The first exhibitions I saw were in the Degraves Street underpass as I left Flinders Street Station; Denise Honan’s exhibition “Subterranean” and Shanshan Li’s “See the light” at the Dirty Dozen vitrines. Both exhibitions might work for other artist-run-space but had no intention of engaging with the general public, a necessity for successful exhibitions in this very public space.

Lionel Bawden Groundwork

Next a visit to Craft where there is an exhibition about doors — knobs, handles, knockers, lights, matts… Curated by Julie Ewington the exhibition has much more than the mundane theme might imply.

Aunty Lorraine Connelly-Northey Stiletto Heels

In Federation Square at the Koorie Heritage Trust is “They Shield Us” a group exhibition by Indigenous women about how “wearing cultural adornments shape their identities”. The shoes by Aunty Lorraine Connelly-Northey (Waradjari) are the stand-out image from the exhibition but this is not to ignore the necklaces by Maree Clarke (Mutti Mutti/Yorta Yorta/Wamba Wamba /Boon Wurrung). Clarke has been studying the necklaces in the Melbourne Museum’s collection and creating her own versions; Thung-ung Coorang (Kangaroo teeth necklace) in 3D-printed form. (For more on Clarke see The Design Files. )

Diena Georgetti Barbicon

The Margaret Lawrence Gallery at the VCA has “Conscious Intuition”; a fun but sparse exhibition that pairs two artists who emerged in the 1980s, Brisbane based sculptor Eugene Carchesio and Melbourne-based painter Diena Georgetti. There is a lot of humour in their art as they transition for the modern to the post-modern, from styles of abstract art to referencing abstraction, from minimalism to post-minimalism.

Bauhaus Now! installation view

Finally to Buxton Contemporary where ‘Bauhaus Now!’ is a playful look at the long tail of the great modern art and design school a century after it was established. It is very playful with Bauhaus inspired games, toys, musical instruments, weaving, costumes and parades. There is work by contemporary artists responding to the Bauhaus aesthetic and work by Paul Klee and two former Bauhaus students, Gertrude Herzger-Seligmann and Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack who ended up in Australia. Curator Ann Stephen has created a rich visual experience that expanded my understanding of art history.


Relationships

Two visual exhibition that are part of Melbourne 2019 Writers Festival both with accompanying books.

“Museum of Broken Relationships” at No Vacancy is a fascinating exhibition of objects and stories that connect to broken relationships. It is a mix of local items and some from the museum’s permanent collections in Zagreb and Los Angeles.

These totems reveal more than broken hearts. They are about the relationship with an object that symbolises a formerly beloved person. Even after the break up, through the magic of association, a special relationship to the object still exists.

“Museum of Broken Relationships” is curated by Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić and is tied in with this years festival theme — “When We Talk About Love”. I wasn’t at the opening of this exhibition but when I visited at lunchtime on a weekday No Vacancy had about thirty other people looking at it.

I was at the opening of “Duality” at the KSR Bar. Both the gallery and the bar were packed with people for the exhibition opening at 6pm which means that it was the first event in the 2019 Writer’s Festival beating the official opening by an hour. I did enjoy a glass of wine at the opening but it was difficult to see all the work with that many people and even more difficult to say anything about the variety of techniques, styles and artists.

The exhibition is a blind date between twenty-five writers and twenty-five visual artists. They are paired together “to explore the relationship between visual and literary narrative”. All of the artists were working on the same size piece of paper (I’m not sure if all the writers were) that provided a visual unity to the exhibition. I’m not sure what else can be said about the variety of artists and, I assume, writers. Maybe they enjoyed their blind dates but overall the random relationships between creatives didn’t appear to achieve any more than its constituent parts.

Sometimes the visual artist wrote more than the writer, but that is because they are not writers. As Mark Twain reportedly remarked: “It could have been shorter but it would have taken longer to write.”

“Duality” is curated by Shannyn Higgins who also took a series of black and white portrait photographs of all the writers and artists in their studios or desks for the accompanying book and the gallery’s title-page wall.


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