Category Archives: Culture Notes

The Birdcage: suburban garden sculptures

Rarely does the sculptural elements of inner-city, suburban front gardens rise above the found object, the cast concrete, or an art student’s effort. I have been looking for examples for many years. After over a decade of looking, I have found a fantastic domestic garden sculpture. (I know nothing about the people who live at this house and I am trying not to intrude on their privacy while commenting on their front garden.)

Like their near relatives, the corporate sculptures in front of office blocks, domestic front garden sculptures are a kind of public sculpture. For while they are privately owned, they are on public display. And like all outdoor sculpture, they must survive the weather which limits the choice of media.

Most garden sculptures are either the corny or kitsch. The kitsch: represented by garden gnomes and other lawn ornaments, commercial sculptures cast in concrete or welded metal creations. And the corny represented by swans made from car tires,  ‘spoonvilles’ and recycled things turned into flower pots. There are also pseudo-sculptural elements of industrial readymade objects, railway sleepers are popular at the moment in Melbourne. Occasionally you will see the relics of what looks like a fine arts student’s sculpture, or that of a brave amateur, retired to the garden; however, these are rarely substantial enough to fill the space.

The importance of sculpture for suburbanites is dubious, for as it is not structural but aesthetic, it is not worthy of investment. Unlike the corporate version, privately owned sculpture on public display has no practical use for a sculpture in a suburban garden, place-making, way-finding, or even seating. Being only decorative is demanding a lot from a sculpture. 

Then there is the big metaphysical birdcage in a front garden of an ordinary house in the inner-city suburb. Like a Magritte painting come to life in a suburban garden, the giant birdcage is different from other domestic garden sculpture. It transforms anyone who sits inside the cage (which has a lockable door), into part of the art. The surreal, infinite regression of birdcages comments on the whole birdcage of suburban existence and existential angst.

It is a remarkable garden sculpture because it provides a private experience that wouldn’t work in a public garden. And, unlike other garden sculptures, the birdcage is almost too large for the small garden space.


Over 2020

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.

Unknown local artist, 2020

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.


Once there were poets

Once there were poets, not there aren’t poets now, but now it hardly matters. The decline of poetry is remarkable, in the ancient past, everything was written in verse from religious teachings to philosophical tracts. Zurich Dada was one of the points in history when you can see the shift from poetry to music and art. Another place where you can see this shift is in China; Ai Wei Wei’s father was a poet whereas his son is an artist.

Once there were great poets whose poems changed the world. The last poets who made poetry that changed the world were The Last Poets. That was back in the early 1970s – The Last Poets were the progenitors of hip-hop. Where would Leonard Cohen be today if he had remained a poet rather than a songwriter?

This is not about what is hot and what is not, nor about the qualities of poetry compared to visual arts but rather the way that a society makes a particular art form powerful. Changes in culture are not random; new cultural forms emerge as others will wither due to a multitude of influences from the technology used to the psychosocial environment. For a poetry renaissance to occur, there would have to be profound changes in the social structures.

Some people want a revival of poetry, a return to Homeric epic poetry that could be recited by heart by every educated person. Some people want a resurrection of the circus, and sure, every now and then something comes along with something that looks like it might be the next wave in poetry or circuses. However these dreams are futile optimism because of the social structures, the forces of human social dynamics (economics, transportation, architecture, communication recording technology, etc.) that gave them power are no longer in place.

The desire to preserve art forms creates anachronisms. History re-enactors are not confined to those people who dress up in Civil War or Napoleonic uniforms. Whole sections of the arts are basically re-enactors with varying degrees of authenticity. Consider the repertoire of many orchestras, ballet and opera companies. Re-enactors desperate to detach from the contemporary to devoting their time to a period of the past. In Australia, massive state subsidies preserve opera, ballet and classical music at the cost of funding to other arts.

Old cultural forms decline because they no longer fit the world. Young women today would not tolerate the cloistered conditions that the corp de ballet in the Ballet Russe or the prostitution that came before it.

New cultural forms survive because they are better adapted to the social conditions. Even under stress, like slander or censorship, some newly evolved cultural forms still manages to thrive and out-compete an older, established rival because they are a better fit for the environment.

Rather than living in denial about the passing of art forms, or providing them with artificial life support with history re-enactors. I am advocating that it would be better to examine why there are declines and revivals of art forms. There is too much faith that the art forms are eternal and too little examination of the social forces that give them power.

Once there were rock musicians; it was all over in the 1990s with the rise of the DJ and cover bands. Once there were art critics… so many of these art forms have very long tails, and there are still plenty of woodcarvers.


The John Batman Memorial

It is obscene to have a memorial to a genocidal colonial. I wouldn’t want to honour a person who committed genocide, but the City of Melbourne, along with many Australians, isn’t that concerned. The John Batman memorial at Queen Victoria Market should be removed because: it honours a genocidal colonial, engages in  historical negationism, has little historic value, less aesthetic value and is not in its original context.

John Batman Memorial (thanks to Linda Ely for the photo)

For years the City of Melbourne had the opportunity to be on the right side of history with the John Batman Memorial. The current plan is considering the memorial in the redevelopment of the market rather than removing it. To allow change for redevelopment rather than an ethical decision shows a lack of any moral character. For if the John Batman Memorial is removed, it will be done, not out of any introspection or empathy or reflection on history, but as a business decision in the redevelopment of the market’s car park. The current market redevelopment is officially called a ‘renewal’, and the memorial to the racist criminal is still there. Similarly, the statue of John Batman that once stood in National Mutual Plaza on Collins St was removed in 2016 for reasons of redevelopment rather than as an ethical decision.

Putting profits before ethics is part of a pattern of behaviour for the site; for profit is the only thing that is sacred in Australia. For before it was a market, it was the site of the city’s first cemetery.

John Batman was buried in an unmarked grave, an accident of history that is appropriate for a person who committed genocide. The memorial was erected over forty years after Batman’s death. When the cemetery was moved, Batman’s body was disinterred along with the rest from the old Melbourne cemetery and reburied in Fawkner cemetery, named after his contemporary rival in land theft, William Fawkner. The cairn moved with the cemetery but was never considered as a marker for Batman’s grave. In 1922 it was moved back to the city to the north bank of the Yarra at Swan Street Bridge. It was moved again to its current site when the City of Melbourne wanted to develop  the north bank of Yarra.  

The bluestone obelisk is the work of J. W. Brown, a stonemason working in Carlton, and is about as attractive as your average gravestone. Not surprisingly the memorial has not transitioned from memorial to monument to marker: people don’t say that they will meet at the Batman memorial. It has not even been allowed to decay naturally and fade into insignificance. It is maintained at public expense, including the taxes paid by the descendants of Batman’s victims, which is like asking victims of the Cambodian killing fields to pay to maintain a memorial to a member of the Khmer Rouge.

If anyone thinks that the memorial could be rectified with the addition of an explanative plaque should consider the one that is already there:  

“The City of Melbourne acknowledges that the historical events and perceptions referred to by this memorial are inaccurate. An apology is made to Indigenous people and to the traditional owners of this land for the wrong beliefs of the past and the personal upset caused.” 

Detail of the John Batman Memorial (thanks to Geoff Irvin for the photo)

The difference in font size and the quality between the broken (badly weathered or vandalised) black print and the memorials gilded letters is obvious. The vague weasel words “inaccurate” rather than what it is, genocide denialism, is referring to “then unoccupied,” (although the date of Batman’s birth is out by a year). There is no mention of genocide and no apology for the theft of land. The politics of the claim of unoccupied, “terra nullius” was historical negation even then, of a sort that would later be Holocaust denial. And Holocaust denial statements are not “inaccurate” they are wrong.

While statues celebrating racists have been removed this year, toppled or officially taken down, in many countries including Belgium, Columbia, Canada, NZ, South Africa, UK and US, no statues or memorial have been removed in Australia. (Although there was a guerrilla action to rewrite and replace plaques in Perth.) Australian politicians (ALP or LNP, whatever your preference) are too conservative to honestly look at the genocidal racist history of Australia. Many of these same politicians are more concerned with finding ways to stop the Black Lives Matter protests than implementing the findings of the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody.


Lockdown Psychogeography in Coburg

Reports of various psychogeographical walks around my neighbourhood in Coburg. I don’t know how many times I’ve been around these streets during this lockdown or even what day it is. Of course, I saw some fresh street art, some other stuff and cogitated on the conundrums of Coburg’s street design. I don’t know if it is valid psychogeographical if you aren’t drunk or stoned, but I could write a book about what I don’t know.

The streets of Coburg, laid out in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, are a grab bag of experiments in suburban road design. Wide nature-strips, no nature strips, broad central road division with a park area dividing a street. There is a single road with the backs of houses on one side and the fronts of houses on another. There is no uniformity to even the width of the streets, one even suddenly narrowing by about half a metre at one point.

Spotted the first COVID-19 street art, a sticker, a virus grenade, I’ve seen. And more of the work of the UBM Crew; the UBM crew includes Luna who alternates between graffiti and street art. (I should write a blog post about the artists who do both street art and graffiti because there are a few; Stanley is another example. I like artists who change style because it shows that they are developing.)

In case anyone was wondering graffiti artists do paint their own fences when they can.  One aspect that is worth mentioning about street art is that it is incredibly satisfying for the amateur part-time participants. Unlike other art forms where amateurs and professionals have different venues, audiences and public awareness, they meet on the street like masked pedestrians. There are many successful, amateur, part-time artists in street art; no doubt more than any other area of visual arts. Perhaps a subject for another post.

I could write a blog post about all ideas I’ve had to write blog posts. You will know that I am getting desperate when I write one about the murals of Coburg. There is this terrible painting of Marilyn Monroe, with her skirt blowing up of course, on the side of some restaurant that I never want to see again.

Aside from street art and graffiti, what else have I seen on the suburban streets of Coburg? A few pleasant front gardens, a strange sculpture and a lot of tasteless, late-capitalist stuff. (Who was that masked man?)


Adrian Mauriks 1942 – 2020

Even if his name is not, Adrian Mauriks’s public sculptures will be familiar to many Australians. As they are in every major Australian cities — in Melbourne, there are sculptures in the Docklands, in Laverton, and Richmond.

From multimedia installations to spiky, monumental forms and then curving smooth white biomorphic creations; Mauriks was a prolific artist who kept on developing his art rather than reproducing the more of the same kind of works.

Influenced by Arp Mauriks’s white curving sculptures with their organic forms were surrealist without being pretentious, for this was not surrealism of hyperreal dreams but the poetic totems. Landscapes of surreal white gardens with gateways and organic growths. Maurik’s Silence, 2001, commissioned by MAB Corp for Docklands, New Quay precinct, Melbourne is part of this later body of work.

A teenage Adrian Mauriks arrived in Australia in 1957 from Holland. He went on to get undergraduate and post-graduate degrees at the Victorian College of the Arts. Through his teaching at various tertiary institutes, including the University of Melbourne and Ballarat University he influenced many young artists. But it will be his many sculptures that will be his longest lasting legacy, a legacy that is not for an exclusive few but everyone, for people like me have never met him, but who enjoy his art.

Adrian Mauriks “Opus 15”, 1995, steel

Stendhal Syndrome

My head was spinning, my heart was pounding. I was worried about hitting the stone pavers on the gallery floor if I fainted. I took a deep breath and walked slowly and carefully to the next one of the large paintings. It was my first experience with Stendhal Syndrome, but it would not be my last.

It was disorientating and confusing, but there is also the attraction of the art to consider. In this way, it was different from the pain of a panic attack where there is a powerful motivation to escape the experience.

It was in 1994 sometime between 9 September to the 3 October, and the exhibition was James Gleeson, Paintings from the Past Decade at the National Gallery of Victoria. I hadn’t planned to see it and had just wandered in. The sudden shock of this powerful aesthetic experience caused a physiological reaction.

Gleeson’s paintings had subtle references to the history of art, and I was aware that there was something that I couldn’t  place. It was like the moment just before you get a joke or recognise a face but extended into minutes.

I had no idea what was happening. Thankfully, it did not last long and was over after an hour. I would go on to have experience Stendhal Syndrome on a few other times and read other first-hand accounts of it.

Although Stendhal wrote about his experiences in 1817. Stendhal Syndrome only made medical literature when Italian psychiatrist, Graziella Magherini wrote about it in 1989. It is also referred to as Florence Syndrome and “hyperkulturemia”. Alternately it could be diagnosed as mild ecstatic epilepsy.

It wasn’t long before it made popular culture. Wm Burroughs wrote, “My ambition is to evoke Stendhal Syndrome!” He wanted to have people carried out of his art exhibition on stretchers (Painting and Guns, 1992). Later Cerise Howard showed me the 1996 Italian film Stendhal Syndrome (La Sindrome di Stendhal) by Dario Argento.

Music and dance performances have provoked powerful effects on me. These have been extremely cerebral, closer to a mystical experience, where I felt as if I was floating and had no bodily sensations. I wonder if standing and walking when viewing visual arts as opposed to sitting comfortably account for different experiences? Risk factors for Stendhal Syndrome, such as inadequate hydration and nourishment, would indicate a physiological factor.

However, first-hand accounts are the lowest form of evidence. How could I even be sure that experiences, which occur years apart, are the same? What, if any, was the medical or psychological explanation for what I had experienced? There is little medical literature on the topic, and it is clear that more research is required.

Here are some free articles for further reading (thanks to Catherine Voutier for finding these): 

Palacios-Sánchez L, Botero-Meneses JS, Pachón RP, Hernández LBP, Triana-Melo JDP, Ramírez-Rodríguez S. Stendhal syndrome: a clinical and historical overview. Arq Neuropsiquiatr. 2018;76(2):120-123. doi:10.1590/0004-282X20170189

Nicholson TR, Pariante C, McLoughlin D. Stendhal syndrome: a case of cultural overload. BMJ Case Rep. 2009;2009:bcr06.2008.0317. doi:10.1136/bcr.06.2008.0317

Arias M. Neurology of ecstatic religious and similar experiences: Ecstatic, orgasmic, and musicogenic seizures. Stendhal syndrome and autoscopic phenomena. Neurologia. 2019;34(1):55-61. doi:10.1016/j.nrl.2016.04.010


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