Painted in February 1961 by an inmate of Pentridge Prison who signed his name J. G. Cust. Earlier this year, I was sent these photographs by a man whose father had been a warden at Pentridge in the 1960s. We know nothing else but hope to find out more. Please comment if you have any information.
I live close to the stone walls of the former Pentridge prison. I was living there when it was still operational. So my interest in this area is partly due to proximity (the rehabilitation of this former 19th-century prison is another story). I’m interested in art outside of the mainstream, from alternate exhibition spaces to graffiti.
The politics of prison art has three parts. Firstly, who is incarcerated? In Australia, Indigenous people are disproportionately incarcerated. What is the purpose of incarceration, and what is the purpose of art? Is it therapy, education, recreation, job training, or culture? These definitions are political and, in a prison, become structural and institutional.
Finally, there is the issue of who should profit from the art or literature created by prisoners. This final question only worries shallow vengeful politicians (of which there are many in Australia) who cannot separate the crime from the incarcerated person.
In this state, the Torch provides art training and the opportunity for sales to Indigenous people who are incarcerated and post-incarceration. I have been writing about their annual Confined exhibitions and other exhibitions organised by the Torch.
Here are all my posts on the art of the incarcerated (I must try to keep this up dated).
The sad trophy of a great white hunter sits on a porch of the Edwardian bungalow propped up on an old armchair — a sad artifact from another continent and another era. The Cape Buffalo, syncerus caffer caffer for all the zoologists, is the least endangered of the big five game hunting animals. It reminded me that both of us spent time in Africa before we ended up in the vast suburbia of Melbourne.
I avoided writing an end of year blog post for a couple of years, but 2021 needs one because it was a very unusual year. I saw few exhibitions; it seemed like I was always seeing one the night before the city would go into another lockdown, with some of these exhibitions being about art created in the previous lockdown. So I’m not even going to try to name a favourite. Melbourne endured the longest lockdown in the world, which has left deep scars psychic on the city.
For me, it was an enforced period of hyperlocal psychogeography, not the psychogeography of Iain Sinclair, based on literature and history, nor the long-distance walking and speculative psychogeography of Will Self, nor the esoteric psychogeography of ley lines and occult architecture. There could be no grand projects circling the city, only a limited circumference of kilometres from your home. It was the basic dérive that Debord wrote about, drifting through suburban streets — wandering to escape the confines of your home. To lose yourself on the walk, the complete opposite of those English celebrity goes somewhere shows. Who was that masked man?
“All space is occupied by the enemy. We are living under a permanent curfew. Not just the cops — the geometry.” Raoul Vaneigem words are pertinent to Melbourne’s experience; the Belgium writer would have been familiar with the curfews based on zero medical evidence, the cops and the occupied space, the shuttered spaces, closed shops and quiet streets. Last year I wrote a post about walking around in lockdown, and this year I wrote one about COVID related street art or graffiti but I didn’t really want to think about it during the lockdown.
It was hard to form memories without events to distinguish them when even the deaths of friends went unobserved — walking, eating and sleeping, day after day like the seemingly endless streets of Melbourne suburbia. Past police investigation, a forensics team digging up and examining the tarmac under a burnt-out car. Past suburban emergencies, a ruptured gas main. Past garden and architectural nightmares; houses with twenty-eight gables, kitsch concrete garden sculpture grottoes, or last-capitalist hordes of wrecked cars.
Should I organise a Melbourne Psychogeographical Association? (Please get in touch with me if anyone is interested in such an association or regular walks). I don’t know if anyone will be willing to engage in psychogeography for a long time. Or have the anti-vaxers, and Qanon conspiracy theorists discovered a kind of mass psychogeography in their repeated meandering protests around the city? Has it become worn out as a revolutionary strategy? The glass taxidermy eyes of the buffalo only give the look of seeing and don’t register images.
“Gatekeepers are useless; they will either let your enemies in for or lockout your allies. Their only loyalty is to the power that you have given to them for your protection.” To quote a passage that Machiavelli might have written for The Prince.
Some art critics consider themselves to be gatekeepers on a border, quarantining art from being infected or sullied or something. Or to Biblically sort the sheep from the goats as an art world livestock judge. I don’t think that the role of the art critic is to be a defender of a walled-off definition or value judgements. Definitions and values change because art and language are not definitive but arbitrary.
Instead, I think of myself as an explorer of the liminal zones. Not a colonial explorer out there to conquer, rename, loot and pillage like the British in Africa. But as a tourist in an unstable region, a beachcomber of culture walking the tidal zone wondering what will have washed up. For boarders are never perfectly defined. The liminal zones, like tidal zone, are full of varied life in the space between definable borders. Down by the cultural seaside, I explore the tidal pools, look at what has been washed up on the beach and scan the horizon. Horizon scanning is better than gatekeeping because you can see what is coming rather than just assess values in the immediate present.
I wanted to be the kind of art critic that would go anywhere in Melbourne to see art from an industrial park in Burnside. To look at art on the streets, both authorised and unauthorised art. How art works in prison, in courtrooms or in a medical centre. These intersections afford alternate views of art. To enter these places is to engage in a different discourse about art.
Unlike most art critics, I will write about untrained and non-professional artists. Firstly, not everyone engaged in artistic activity has to be a professional artist, especially when they have a street-based practice. And to ignore the bulk of arts or art-related activity is to misrepresent the grassroots of art. It is art not as an item of trade but as a social pursuit, a tonic for mental health and local knowledge. Secondly, the role of an art critic is to provide the public with a context, a perspective to the art. To expand the conversation beyond ‘I like this’. To consider the past and future and not just the present.
I am doing this self-assessment because I wanted to avoid being a zombie art critic, stumbling around mindlessly to the same big name galleries. Or even any commercial galleries. Nor do I want to be a spruiker for national and state galleries, promoting infotainment and cultural imperialism. Instead, I want to cast my eye further afield. Suppose art is like a family tree, as Wittgenstein suggests family resemblance in defining games. In that case, art is likely to have some relatives that aren’t art. Who are art’s in-laws? Who are art’s uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents? Not in an evolutionary family tree sense but like at a birthday party.
At the start of March, I was at a packed exhibition opening at Beinart Art Gallery in Brunswick. At the time COVID-19 was in the news but not in Australia. There were so many people at the exhibition it was like rush hour on a Sydney Road tram. I thought that the crowd was such a potential vector for all kinds of diseases and that this art party would be over.
Along with the weeks of bushfires, and months of lockdown, among the many things that I didn’t expect from the year:
… I didn’t expect that in the whole year I’ve seen about a dozen exhibitions, plus one art fair – Can’t Do Tomorrow. In other years I might see a dozen exhibitions in a single fortnight.
… I didn’t expect to be writing obituaries for Melbourne artists, Janet Beckhouse and Adrian Mauriks. I realised that they needed to be written as the newspapers wouldn’t be covering it.
… I didn’t expect that people would be so interested in public art this year. Part of this was due to people walking more as exercise during lockdowns and consequently seeing more public sculpture. It was also due to a post-colonial interest in public statues became a mainstream political issue this year, and I am so glad that it did. Statues that celebrate colonialists and other racists were removed in Belgium, Canada, NZ, South Africa, UK, US, Martinique, Cameroon, as well as, in other places. No statues or memorials have been removed in Australia. It is one of the many disgraceful and disgusting features of Australia and symptomatic of this conservative country’s many deep-rooted problems. (See my post on the Statue Wars 2020.)
And amongst everything that I didn’t expect, the least surprising events of the year was that the arts and tertiary education in Australia were being abandoned in the COVID-19 crisis. Gambling and Pascal’s wager (religions) are more important, for they were given more support and exemptions during lockdown; a position contrary to all medical evidence. And the state premier, Daniel Andrews cutting down more trees, including one of the Djab Wurrung Trees, in an egregious act of cultural vandalism. Giving less reason for optimism than a Leonard Cohen song.
Now that I almost at the end of the year I have no plans to write any more blog posts until the new year. So, finally here are a few photos to sum up the year.
Usually I would have gone look at some art galleries but instead I stayed at home for another week. With all of Melbourne’s art galleries closed or only open by appointment or holding online exhibitions I feel that many of my subject matter for blog posts has gone. And there are only so many stories that I can write about local public sculpture, graffiti, street art, and walks around Coburg that I haven’t already written. However, I am not about to complain as I am well aware that the flaneur is in a privileged position.
Nick Miller, the Arts Editor for The Age, asked on the Victorian government “when libraries museums and galleries might open?” Their response: ‘We will have more to say about the further cautious easing of restrictions in due course.’
Various publicist’s emails tell a different story; some art galleries will be resuming their exhibition programmes in early to mid July. Boroondara’s Town Hall Gallery will re-open 11 July, Off the Kerb will re-open on the 4th and Mars Gallery is open now. Getting to them by public transport will be another issue.
I don’t often write posts under my category of blogging; generally at the end of the year or other milestones. I thought that I might have to write a few more of them during this lockdown along with some more book reviews or ‘listicals’, like: 10 artists you don’t need to know about. I didn’t imagine that I would be able to keep writing blog posts 10 weeks into Melbourne’s lockdown. How long I can keep writing these blog posts doing this is another question but when I can’t I’ll take a short break.
I have tried to research an article about Marcel Duchamp and Spanish Flu but it did pan out. You might think that having lived through it that he might have made some mention of it in his letters. All I found a letter from Buenos Aires, 10th January 1919 to Louise Arensberg: “Je suis vraiment navré de la mort de Schamberg et je me demande d’où vient cette vague de mort. Appollinaire, j’ai appris de France, est mort de la grippe il y a quelques mois déja.”C’est désolant.” (I am really upset about the death of Schamberg and wonder where this wave of death is coming from. Apollinaire, I heard from France, died of the flu several months ago now. It’s so distressing.) And three days later describing himself as “your immune baby” in English in a letter to Ettie Stettheimer. (Affectionately, Marcel – the selected correspondence of Marcel Duchamp, edited by Francis M. Naumann and Hector Obalk, Ludion Press, 2000 p.74 & 77, see my book review.)
Most Thursday I go into the city, Fitzroy or somewhere else and look at art galleries and street art but today I am staying at home. Most of the galleries in Melbourne, including the NGV, are in an unprecedented shut down due to the COVID-19 virus. So many things have been shut down and cancelled.
I anticipated that this would happen last week in my last blog post and that day in the city was coloured by the feeling that I won’t be doing this again soon. I had hoped to take a photo-booth photo to memorialise the day but the classic black and white photo-booth at Flinders Street Station was being cleaned. (See my post on photo-booths.)
Instead of my usual gallery crawl, today I am staying at home. Working on the eternal tasks of labelling my photographs, going through the unread emails in my inbox and catching up with my reading. With me are my wife who is working from home and an elderly 12-year-old cat, Stella, that we adopted from the Lort Smith Animal Hospital earlier this year. Stella is very comfortable and experienced with staying at home.
So, as I work out what I’m going to do for the next couple of months, here are some photos that I took earlier. South Korean responses to Marcel Duchamp’s readymade Bicycle Wheel from a design exhibition of street sports. I saw them last year at the Dongdaemun History and Culture Park and I enjoyed their play on the idea. However, the best tribute to Bicycle Wheel that I have seen was by Sean Gladwell.
On my way to Yarra Sculpture Gallery this year I saw a ghost sign painted on an empty building. It reminded me of one of the reasons why I write this blog. I want to record something of the galleries in Melbourne today.
“J Miller Art Gallery / Pictures Framers Restorers / Sales Service & Supplies 419 7516”
The old telephone number before the 9 prefix was added to Melbourne telephone numbers in 1995. Miller’s gallery provided a range of services; contemporary art galleries in Melbourne no long do picture framing as part of their business.
The State Library Victoria has a one folded invitation card and one sheet press release for an exhibition at J Miller Art Gallery. The exhibition was by the Polish artist, Grzegorz Morycinski, March 14, [no year, circa late 1980s?]. Morycinski was a contemporary painter who spent four months in Australia in 1987.
I am still working on my book on art and crime as I have decided to expand it from Melbourne’s art crimes to Australian art crimes. I have been posted a couple these stories from my research, and a couple of times I have been rewarded with more information.
I have been fortunate to be born a white heterosexual male in an Anglophone culture and it has been a privilege. The only downside was that I was in generation X, a punk anarchist and there are thousands of guys like me. Writing about Melbourne’s visual arts appears to be a good use of my academic skill set. (Thanks to the Australian tax payers for providing me with the free education. I hope that I am paying it forward with my blog.) However, for much of this year I don’t have been trying to listen, learn and leave room for other voices.
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So goodbye to 2018; this blog will return in 2019.