Category Archives: Culture Notes

The future of culture

I was going to write a review of online exhibitions during the lockdown. Most had a note on their website saying that they were closed — “indefinitely’/temporary/for installation” due to COVID-19 virus. I had a little play with at the NGV’s online version of their Keith Haring/Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition but that was like driving around an area using Google street view.

So I thought about it some more. The larger problem for art galleries is that contemporary visual art is still all about objects in a space. And not just any objects and not just any space; art objects in art spaces. It is a problem that they have brought on themselves by emphasising both the object and the space. If only they had considered more non-objective art outside of art space.

The commercial art galleries business model is to sell objects. So I blame, because they can change, the non-commercial galleries for not being progressive enough and following the art model sold by the commercial galleries. 

What happens when art leaves the physical space? What is the difference between the cultic object and the display? (see Walter Benjamin The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction section 5) What is the difference between loosing an object, like the Mona Lisa, in outer-space or at the bottom of the ocean, and not being able to remove an image of you posing naked with grandfather clock from the internet? Street artists and graffiti writers know something about the online social media display value of their art as distinct from the physical object.

And why are we still thinking about the arts? We should be more concerned with culture and not the arts, for culture is a larger set that includes the arts. Likewise, ‘culture worker’ is a broader category than ‘artist’ and ‘poet’ and all those other self-indulgent terms.

For culture is about people’s lives — Indigenous readers know what I’m talking about. Culture provides more of a sense of identity than a job, culture is what makes your life and work meaningful. Culture is not an industry and the value of culture can never be assessed in purely economic terms. While the arts industry can be seen as self-serving and little different from the adult entertainment industry; culture cannot. There are items of culture that are worth more than money, that should not be sold or does Uluru have a sales price? And after admitting that there are culturally significant objects that are outside of capitalist market forces, funding culture outside of a capitalist market is logical.

However, the small-minded, greedy, conservative people who run Australia cannot understand anything other dollars and bullets so currently there is no Minister for Culture in Australia and the arts is part of the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications (no Oxford comma in the Ministry).

Now we have the time to change our minds and think about the bigger picture of culture.

Glenn Romanis, Stanley Street project

Walking in the neighbourhood

“First of all, there is the suspensive freedom that comes by walking, even a simple short stroll: throwing off the burden of cares, forgetting business for a time.” Frédéric Gros A Philosophy of Walking

Walking around my neighbourhood — what the fascist, jail-keeper culture at this time, would call ‘exercise’. ‘Exercise’ reduces a complex activity to a physical form just as it reduces a person to a body. For ‘exercise’ is without enjoyment, without culture, without thought and without freedom.

The reality of walking around my neighbourhood in Coburg is different. There are social and cultural aspects that make walking fun. There is the joy of discovery and exploration.

Walking around my block is the opportunity to communicate with neighbours sitting out the front of their house, enjoying the autumn sunshine. “Hello, my friend.” Calls out the old man from his front door. He is in good health but if we didn’t exchange these pleasantries how would I know?

There are my usual psychogeographical games to play while walking. Now add to this list of games the spotting of teddy bears in people’s windows, a recently devised walking game for small children. As well as, inspired by a friend, the photographing and critiquing of discarded art (see his guest post: Reservoirs’s Rejected Art).

I thought him when I saw this empty flat Australian landscape is hand painted and is signed and © 1982. Unfortunately it is now surplus to the owner’s decorating requirements. 

On the subject of the copyright symbol; on my daily walks I have been observing the work of a local tagger: GOD©. GOD© must be an artist, the Jean-Michel Basquiat (aka SAMO©) influence is evident. It is tagging based on the concept rather than the calligraphy. I am not going to defend all of GOD©’s work but some of it is worthwhile. We need more stupid graffiti to give us a laugh and not just spectacular cool stuff.

While GOD© moves in a mysterious way, my own locomotion around my neighbourhood is pedestrian. One foot in front of the other; walking not as an exercise but as a way of life.


COVID-19 and Melbourne’s art world

If you are like me then you are already bored with all the articles, posts, tweets about COVID-19. So please forgive me for this blog post; I am writing it for a future record rather than for you my present unfortunate readers. On the upside, this short blog post contains my most complete report on what is going on in Melbourne’s art galleries but with fewer images.

The art galleries have closed in Melbourne. Art Almanac has a list of gallery closures and event cancellations but the short version is everything is cancelled or postponed. So instead of my regular wander to view exhibitions and street art this Thursday I will once again be staying at home, as I have since mid-March.

A few commercial galleries like, Charles Nodrum Gallery, continued with their exhibition program during March, without the usual opening drinks, and remained open by appointment, asking patrons to call ahead to arrange a suitable time to view the exhibition.

Some street artists and graffiti writers, normally nocturnal creatures, are still venturing outside to practice their art but they won’t have many actual viewers even in the best locations. The famous Hosier Lane is empty, as it often was a decade ago when the art in it was better. I infer this from what I have seen in recent posts and photos for I have seen little more than a few blocks from my home.

Many artists are working from home or alone in their studio as they have always done. What they produce and what is the cultural impact of this pandemic maybe a topic for future blog posts when the art galleries are open again.


Sky Rail Destruction

Changes to place in Brunswick and Coburg due to Sky Rail replacing the Upfield train line. Along with the changes to the infrastructure there has been destruction of public gardens and Sky Rail will effect the street art, graffiti, free libraries, guerrilla gardens, and other anarchic guerrilla place-makers along the line. MoreArts, the annual Moreland City Council outdoor art exhibition, which uses spaces along this transportation corridor has been suspended.

Yarn Corner Uncle Dickey’s Library Install

The destruction of parks in Coburg including the chopping down 100+ of mature trees enjoyed by native birds and possums during a climate emergency. The destruction of these parks is the destruction of places. You can’t instantly make a place, it requires people with memories of the place and that takes time, like a tree, to grow; it will take decades to make an impact.

Jacinta Allan, the minister responsible for this destruction is doing it to save some car drivers a few seconds off their commute. It is doing nothing for rail commuters and bicycle riders. Sky Rail construction is destroying many places with nothing better than optical community consultation (something that has the optics of a community consultation).

Locals defended Gandolfo Gardens. They worked through all the processes, attended meetings, wrote letters, signed petitions to no avail and were eventually dragged away by the police. The garden at Moreland Station was created by locals a hundred years ago. A place full of trees and memories. It had a memorial to an ancient scar tree that had previously been removed from the site.

The sad fact is that just across the road from Gandolfo Gardens was one of the most neglected blocks that could have been used instead. Nothing more than a parking lot and abandoned silos.

Now that the walls are no longer in eyesight of the commuters in the train their value to graffiti writers will decline. Access to most of the walls, along with the bike path, has been sealed in February.

I have written many blog posts about the street art and graffiti along this path. Here are a couple about things that have already or will soon be effected by the construction. Although neither was intended to be permanent the art and place-making along the line is a loss for all who enjoyed it.

The little red free library contacted Yarn Corner about moving their installation to the libraries new location at Robinson Reserve in advance of the construction. Great to see world’s best practice in public art being carried out by guerrilla place-makers.

The now fading linear text work along the bike path, A Narrow Road to the Deep North by Illimine, will be destroyed or cut up like the end of a novel by William Burroughs.

I suspect that this will be an on going subject for my blog.


Conservation of Street Art

The desire to preserve the Keith Haring mural in Collingwood was a combination of community concerns and heritage values. Horizon scanning it is clear that the conservation of street art will be an increasing issue. Although some street art is ephemeral other murals are considered permanent and people would grieve their loss.

Haring mural in Collingwood

“Conservation of Wall Paintings, Murals and Street Art – an international perspective” was presented by Australian ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) at the University of Melbourne on 18 February 2020. It consisted of two talks by Will Shank and Antonio Rava; the two conservators who worked on the Keith Haring mural in Collingwood.

Antonio Rava presented “Comparative Studies of Outdoor Contemporary Mural Conservation”. And Will Shank, “The Conservation of Contemporary Murals: How is it different?” Both spoke about the ethics and techniques of conservation of murals and street art and their work on the Keith Haring mural.

Conservation is about saving the life of a work of art. The scientific application of techniques to preserve, arrest and reverse deterioration.

Murals need protection from the sun, rain and, even the airborne pollutants of the city. There can be problems with plaster delaminating from the surface of the building or suffusing through the layer of paint. Rain washes out the soluble material and acrylic spray paints contain water soluble material. Black lines get hotter in the summer and cracking the surface of the paint. So do not have murals, in southern hemisphere, on north facing walls because the damage to the paint by the sun.

The ethics of art conservation are based on not doing anything that the artist does not approve or would not have approved. There are also, in some cases of street art, the moral rights of architects not to have their work altered, in which case Antonio Rava advocates “let it fade”.

Between 2010-2012 there was a debate about how best to treat Haring’s Collingwood wall. Public sculpture is considered to have a renewable surface, holes in them are patched and repainted regularly, but to what extent is the surface of public murals renewable? Could it simply be repainted?

Rava outlined problems with repainting Haring murals loosing the quality of Haring’s hand movement. For it is the line that is the most important part of Haring’s work. And on the mural Haring’s red lines were particularly faded; a transparent glaze over them meant that you can still see the original brush strokes.

The conservators also faced the problem of how to clean a large rough surface. In the end artist’s gum pencil erasers were used to remove a material on the wall that had built up over the paint.

What is being done to preserve the community murals of Melbourne from the 1970s and 80s? Will Shank, who had worked on walls from the community murals movement of San Francisco, reminded the audience that are no community murals in Chicago from the 1960s.

I am unaware of any other murals in Melbourne that are being conserved like the Haring nor of any plans. Most of Melbourne’s murals, street art and graffiti are only being preserved in digital photographs. What Melbourne’s street art murals would you mourn if they disappeared? And what plans should be made to conserve them?


Cosplay in Keitaknen Garden

Seeing a cosplay photography session in Keitakuen Garden in Osaka was super-kawaii. What I saw was a collaborative cultural practice between the cosplayers, photographers, and gardeners as the garden provided the final collaborative element in this cultural practice. I have long wanted to write about cosplay and other para-artistic cultural practices but until recently I didn’t have the right opportunity (or my own photographs which essential for a blog post).

Cosplay in Keitaknen Garden

When I visited Keitakuen Garden on a Sunday, the first day of December, it was a warm sunny day and there were about twenty people in costume. There were a few older people, enjoying in the scenery of the garden and the presence of cosplayers, but the cosplayers and their photographers were majority of people using the garden. In the garden’s pavilion an older man sketching of the view in brush and ink.

The garden, designed by Jihei Ogawa, was part the Sumitomo main residence and is a designated important cultural property. It is a man-made landscape, a circular garden with central pond that provided many varied backdrops for the photographers and cosplayers.

The cosplayers had fantastic costumes, along with wigs, props, make-up and stacks of bags for all this stuff. Their poses were static, frozen positions for even in action poses, as if posing for a drawing and not a photography.

Many of the female cosplayers were portraying male characters, complete with foam or latex male chest parts, but this was more Takarazuka Revue (which, like cosplay, is manga influenced) than a drag-king.

Almost all the cosplayers were women; there was one man in costume who was also a photographer. The gender of the photographers was more varied, as was there standard of equipment. Some were also participants using cell phones but there were also photographers with a very professional set-ups with tripods and light reflectors.

I didn’t recognise any of the characters but then I know very little about Japanese manga. Was the woman in the dark kimono a cosplayer?

It raises the question, are all people that I saw in kimonos (or hanboks in Korea), engaged in a kind of cosplay? And, consequently, are all people in tradition clothing/wedding costumes also engaged a collaborative culture practice that closely resembles cosplay? These questions present new angles on old questions. Does cosplay empower or exploit those involved? Does it expand the possibilities of life or narrow them?

Cosplayer and photographer at Boso-no-Mura farmhouse gate

I saw some more cosplayers a week later at the Chiba Prefectural Open-Air Museum Boso-no-Mura. There was even a “Cosplay Center” there, although I’m not sure what they were providing besides renting out kimonos and ninja suits.


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.


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