Category Archives: Culture Notes

Whitewashing Pentridge Prison History

I want to see Ronald Bull’s mural for myself, and I’m sure others do too. To physically look up at it, not just look at a photo of it, to be able to appreciate its size and the stone prison walls it’s painted on. Now that Pentridge is no longer a prison and is being developed as a housing estate, I don’t see why I can’t.

I enquired about the heritage-listed Ronald Bull mural in F Division to Pentridge Village, but there was no response. This is because Bull is not mentioned in the “Former HM Prison Pentridge Heritage Interpretation Masterplan” by Sue Hodges Productions. The masterplan makes almost no reference to Indigenous people, with a single reference to “Aboriginal troopers”. 

Ronald Bull is a significant Indigenous artist, and his mural in F Division is his most important work. The mural is on the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Register and protected under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 and the Heritage Act 1995 because it is on the Victorian Heritage Register as part of Pentridge Prison. The Office of Aboriginal Affairs Victoria liaised with the developers and their heritage consultants, Sue Hodges Productions. Box-ticking exercise over consultations ignored (I assume this is how the Indigenous voice to parliament will be treated, please correct me if I’m wrong about this).

Writing out Indigenous people from the Heritage, whitewashing history with the erasure of Indigenous people. The developers have been allowed to exploit the history for their profit. The interior bluestone walls were all cut by prison labour. Not to forget that prison labour is disproportionately Indigenous.

The historical interpretation of the site is inadequate. More than one room with photographs, texts and a few objects is required. Decorative motifs of the panopticon are one of the most grotesque pieces of carceral torture ever invented; solitary confinement combined with continuous observation. If the old bluestone walls, gates, and towers are selling points, then some sensitive historical interpretation is needed.

Sue Hodges Productions were approached to comment on the absence of Bull’s mural and the Indigenous people from their masterplan but hadn’t responded at the time of publication. They are still welcome to comment, just fill in the comment box.

For more about Bull and his mural see my post, the life and art of Ronald Bull.


Ersatz culture

Not that I approve of throwing trash into rivers, but I sympathise with the guys who threw a Gillie and Marc bronze statue of baby Sumatran orangutang into the Yarra last month. For post is about rejecting substitutes filling in for culture rather than sending sculptures to a watery grave. 

It is possible to produce something made from acorns that almost tastes like coffee. Like ersatz coffee, ersatz art provides aesthetics without any stimulating quality. The borrowed German word for a substitute implies a diminished experience rather than an alternative.

Ersatz culture is presented as a substitute for something of superior quality. It is fake, a pretend, simulated or imitation culture that can be used to fill a space that would contain culture. It might appear to be the same as the real thing on a quick pass, but there is no depth. It does not comment on current issues or events. It does not risk failure. It uses sentimentality, nationalism and other affiliations to distract the audience from thinking about what is in front of them.

It occurs when an artist’s or organisation’s ambitions fail to rise above being popular with the public or the ruling elite. When the expedient, cost-effective and safest options are taken. If sincerity is the credit rating of an artist, the insincerity of ersatz culture bankrupts the future. Sure it fills the space and tastes like it, but it does not make for a meaningful life.

I’m not alone in describing statues as ersatz. When the U.S. Postal Service mistakenly featured a half-sized Las Vegas replica of the Statue of Liberty on a new stamp, a “stamp collector noticed the error when he spotted differences in the ersatz statue’s eyes and hair.” (Slate, April 15, 2011) And Melbourne, like Las Vegas and most big cities, is full of substitute culture, from statues by Gillie and Marc (or David Bromley) to reality tv shows.

The problem is culture substitutes fill in the space that culture occupies without providing a sense of identity or recognition of your existence (aside from selling you the t-shirt and other merchandise). Cultural impoverishment results in a lack of meaning in many people’s lives; an empty psychic space filled with addictions, despair and rage.

If hotel room art and other such vacuous stuff is the only part of your cultural diet, then there are problems. Sugar is not a substitute for fruit. It is why I prefer to look at, and even review, exhibitions by amateur artists rather than work by competent artists/designers like Ken Done, David Bromley, or Gillie and Marc. There is something essentially different between art desperately trying to achieve something, even if it fails, then commercially successful stuff.

Bad art is only a failure, but ersatz art occupies the space that would otherwise be filled with art. Bad art rots and rapidly breaks down, an actor dies on stage, and from that compost heap, new art grows. Ersatz art does not decompose as rapidly; nothing grows from it, as it fails to inspire. It neuters the generative power of art and will generate nothing but superficial sentimentality communicated in easy-to-read images. It has no impact on future arts and culture.

Gillie and Marc’s sculptures have no value other than a selfie feedback loop of ever-diminishing relevance. They tempt city councils and other controllers of property with the offer of free sculpture exhibitions that do nothing but raise the profile of Gillie and Marc. (Read an earlier post about a street artist’s reply to Gillie and Marc’s “Paparazzi Dogs”.)


Protesting at the NGV

In Extinction Rebellion’s most recent exhibition at the NGV, two activists glued their hands to the bulletproof acrylic covering over a Picasso painting, Massacre in Korea. (See the ABC News report and read Dr Catherine Strong, a spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion on the reasons for the protest.) It is part of a tradition of protests at the gallery that goes back to Ivan Durrant’s Slaughtered cow happening in 1975.

Hijacking a state-owned platform to make an emergency broadcast about the climate catastrophe seems fair. Especially given the number of times the state government has used the NGV to promote its message. Part of the function of a state art gallery is to portray the state as cultured and reasonable even when they are cruel and destructive.

This is not the first time that Extinction Rebellion has used the NGV. In 2019 Extinction Rebellion held a Last Supper, a dinner party as sea levels rise with a table floating in the gallery’s moat.

Here is a timeline of some of the other protests at the NGV this century. (Please let me know of other protests at the NGV that I’ve missed in this short time line.)

In 2005 a young artist, Lucas Maddock, navigated a boat made of salvaged scraps in the NGV’s moat to protest the Australian government’s treatment of refugees for a video work titled Refugee. The video was exhibited in an exhibition of VCA students’ work at the Margaret Lawrence Gallery. (See Art Right Now)

In 2012 street artist CDH’s Trojan Petition was dumped in the forecourt and taken inside the gallery for display. (See my post) 

In 2017 Picasso’s Weeping Woman was covered with a black veil in a protest against Wilson Security. (See ABC News)  Also, in 2017, red dye was added to the water wall and moat in the campaign by artists again in protest against the NGV employing Wilson Security who “violently enforcing the imprisonment of refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia’s offshore immigration detention centres”.

No art was damaged in any of these protests, only the pride of the NGVs security.


Taste & Personality

Have you had key lime pie before?

Yes, but I was a different person then.

Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994)

How does taste define personality? We want it to say something and think it says something about other people. However, we know this isn’t true, even as we try to use it on dating sites, with lists of favourite books, movies, and music.

To what extent does aesthetics influence our lives? From the moment we awake, we are concerned about our appearance, even when we are dead. We live in a world of imagination and visual appearance. We both want our tastes to define us. Wearing the t-shirt and other displays, and yet favourite books, movies, and music says almost nothing about the person. I once met someone who told me their favourite bands were ABBA and Def Leppard. 

We want to use taste displays to indicate our personality, mood and desires. We also have a taste as a personal preference. Statements of favourite books, movies and music are signals. What book would make you instantly walk away if you saw your blind date reading?

Two polarities are operating here, a complex code of interpersonal communication and personal preferences. Dressing for personal aesthetic preference, like little children, differs from dressing as part of a code. You may still have aesthetic preferences within a code, just as a writer prefers one word or phrase over another.

Recorded music that we listen to privately may differ from the music we put on for others to hear. The two polarities of personal preference and coded communication expose the polarities of private and public in art and culture. Aside from book readings, reading is private. The performing arts, before home viewing technology (videotapes, DVD, streaming), were the most public of the arts. Consequently, music changed when private listening (headphones) became standard technology in the early 1970s.

Cultural codes can be used as a language that some consider stylish, elegant, or simply functional. So a person’s fashion sense could be compared to a writer’s style. This is not about personal preferences; it is not about favourites but coded communication. My party music list differs from the music I want at my funeral. These are displays of implied character, identity and perception; dressing like a wanna-be someone else. 

How do your aesthetic choices signal your personality? Your choice of clothes is part of your preferences, but you also have a limited wardrobe. And that wardrobe will indicate much more than personality: cultural background, class, occupation, etc. These aspects of personal identity contribute to the selection process. So there is a difference between what I think is great art, my personal preferences, and my own art collection.

Taste is more about background, experiences and education than character. Yet people with the same background may very different tastes. And people with very similar character traits may have very different tastes. Even extremes, like musical anhedonia, where people get no pleasure from listening to music, don’t reveal anything about the person.

Yet taste defines personality because we, or others, want it to. The human right and desire for identity are transferred into our tastes as it is onto other aspects of our life.


Gertrude Street Cool

What do I think about Time Out naming Gertrude Street as “the second coolest street in the world”? Time Out’s opinion was based on the combination of food, fun, culture and community. I will focus on one of them — the culture.  

The magnolias were blooming as I examined the street’s current cool state. It is pleasant to walk along, although the car sewer in the middle makes crossing dangerous. However, it is absurd to say, as Time Out Melbourne editor Eliza Campbell suggests, that it hasn’t been “gentrified” like Brunswick and Smith Streets. Don’t tell me that the street hasn’t been gentrified. All those boutiques and fancy cafes are gentrification defined. The Foodworks supermarket is still there, the one ordinary shop left on the street. A new apartment block has been built where the paint and hardware shop once stood. The barbershop has closed… How when barbershops open all over Melbourne?

If you like street art and graffiti, then the lanes off Gertrude Street are well worth looking at. That hasn’t changed; it has, if anything, improved in both quality and quantity. My first blog post on this blog (back in 2008) was about Debs, Phibs and others painting one wall. 

I’ve been up and down this street many times in my life. Amongst the first was going to an opening at Max Joffe’s gallery, Melbourne Contemporary Arts Gallery (MCA), in the mid-80s. Later Joffe would be jailed for stealing paintings from Albert Tucker. It was next recommended as the best place to avoid the uncool 1988 bicentennial of the continent’s colonisation. The old post office, then the Aboriginal Health Centre, was painted with the Aboriginal flag’s red, black and yellow. In the 1990s, it was the centre of Melbourne’s heroin dealing.

Oigåll Projects

Once seven art galleries were on Gertrude Street, there are now four: Art & Collectors, Australian Printer Workshop, Oigåll Projects, and This Is No Fantasy + Dianne Tanzer Gallery.

Art & Collectors is a recently opened art dealer in upstairs rooms. Whereas the Australian Printer Workshop was established in 1981. It was showing the works by the 2020-2022 APW George Collie Memorial Award exhibition for contributions to the field of Australian Printmaking recipients Barbara Hanrahan, Deborah Klein, Hertha Kluge-Pott, and Ann Newmarch.

Oigåll Projects has a photography exhibition by Annika Kafcaloudis, “Family History”, that spilled onto the street with a large paste-up. Oigåll Projects describes itself as a “gallery and conceptual testing ground”, as well as “a love letter to her (Gertrude Street)”.

This Is No Fantasy + Dianne Tanzer had Michael Cook’s new series, “Enculturation”, a parody reversal of the stolen generation. This Is No Fantasy shows how much commercial gallery practice has changed over the decades it has been on the street, exemplified by its name and the table with chairs in its front window.

There have been many art galleries on Gertrude Street. Still, amongst all of them, 200 Gertrude Street (later Gertrude Contemporary) stood out. It was Melbourne’s first contemporary art space. Gertrude Contemporary has moved to Preston South, and Gertrude Glasshouse is a project space of Gertrude Contemporary in Collingwood; both retain the connection to the street in their name.

Maybe it is the coolest street in Melbourne (but not the coolest lane).


Religious violence against art

Following the stabbing of Salman Rushdie, do we need reminding that declaring that art is blasphemous directly incites violence? Blasphemy is not a metaphor and has never meant something must be tolerated within the bounds of secular law. No, declarations of blasphemy always encourage violence.

The two sixth-century Buddhas carved into the high sandstone cliffs of Bamiyan of Afghanistan were spectacular survivors from a civilisation that at long passed. They were the tallest standing Buddhas in the world; the first was 55 m, and the second was only an awesome 37 m high.

In March 2001, the Taliban government declared that they were idols, even though they had not been any Buddhists in the area for centuries. They had a plan, a budget and nothing more important to do. When rocket launchers, tank and artillery shells failed to destroy them, they had to do it the hard way, scaling the sculptures and attaching explosives. It took 25 days of work, planting explosives to demolish the statues. Anti-tank mines were laid around the feet to increase the damage the falling stone did.

Mullah Mohammed Omar stated, “Muslims should be proud of smashing idols. It has given praise to Allah that we have destroyed them.”

George Pell (aka Cardinal Pell Pot), Jean-Pierre Cattenoz (aka Archbishop of Vaucluse) and others encouraged the destruction of Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ by declaring it blasphemous. But Pell is not the only senior member of the Vatican to have encouraged the destruction of art by calling it blasphemous. Jorge Mario Bergoglio (aka Pope Francis) also used the word when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires. 

In 2004, Bergoglio demanded a retrospective exhibition of the work of the contemporary Argentinian artist Leon Ferrari, close to end what he called a ‘blasphemous affront’. Bergoglio declared it was blasphemous because of Ferrari’s sculptures of the Virgin Mary in a blender, Jesus crucified on an American bomber, saints in frying pans and other images. Ferrari had long been critical of the Catholic church conniving with the murderous Argentina junta. 

Like Pell, Bergoglio also objected to public money being used for the exhibition in a public art gallery. Bergoglio was a tiny bit more successful than Pell. Unlike Pell, he initially got a judge to agree with him and obtained an order for the exhibition to close. However, this was overturned on appeal, and the exhibition was reopened. A mob of the faithful then destroyed several works of art at the exhibition, shouting: “Long live Christ the King!” The artist forgave Bergoglio because he got great free publicity; it is unknown if Bergoglio has forgiven Ferrari.

Forgiveness aside, the question remains should we tolerate religious organisations that call things blasphemous? My long answer is only if they tolerate the arbitrary use of violence against them. So, the short answer is no.


Fame and Misogyny

The Rolling Stones have much in common with Picasso: the artistic success and failures, longevity, fame, Midas power, merchandise deals, appropriated west African culture, misogyny… Both have their respective position cemented in the history of modern art and rock in the top five. However, like the dinosaurs, these great thunder lizards, although still fascinating, are largely irrelevant to both contemporary art and music.

Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon, originally titled The Brothel of Avignon)

Throughout their lives, both were dedicated followers of the current styles. This dedication led to their initial success and explains the motivation better than any revolutionary desire on their part. Charlie Watts would have preferred to be playing jazz; Picasso might have preferred painting in an impressionist style. We will never know because what he painted and what the Stones played kept on making money. Making lots of money was the artistic vision of both Picasso and the Rolling Stones. They were artists as businessmen (Warhol was a camp parody of Picasso’s commercial success).

Following the current fashion explains Picasso’s surrealist and neo-classical period and the Stone’s expeditions into psychedelic rock, 2000 Light Years from Home, and disco, Emotional Rescue. Looking around, we could even find an equivalent in Picasso’s oeuvre. Works as political as Gimme Shelter, as mediocre as Jagger and Bowie’s cover of Dancing in the Streets (much of Picasso’s ceramics), and as regrettable as Brown Sugar.

The Stones no longer perform this racist song that revels in the rape of a teenage slave. Still, it does point to the misogyny and colonial appropriation of Africa by both the Stones and Picasso. As Dorian Lynsky, in his Guardian article “Rock’s fake rebels”, noted: “The Stones’ unpleasantness was integral to their uncanny power. In an era when many young people saw rock stars as potential heroes of the revolution, the Rolling Stones appealed to less altruistic desires: sex and money.”

Collectors like art about money and power because it reflects their fantasy of identity. In turn, their money empowers the abuse of women. Or worse, R Kelly, who was convicted for sex trafficking women and girls. Although we can separate the art from the artist’s misogyny, Shannon Lee, in Artspace, argues that we shouldn’t. We must recognise that mistaking the combination of talent and fortunate circumstances for a unique genius creates and empowers misogynistic assholes. And it is the machismo desire to dominate that drives both that most need to be re-examined.

Creativity and imagination might appear fun and attractive. Still, they are no good unless used towards creating a better world for everyone. Art can be liberating, but only when it empowers all people. However, talent and creativity can be used to oppress, terrorise and humiliate. It has been used to exploit and create hierarchies where there are none.

If there was a Picasso century, as the current NGV blockbuster exhibition title implies, it was followed by a Stones century. (Even though the two were contemporary for eleven years, Stones formed in 1962 and Picasso died in 1973.) The question is, do we want another century of artists like Picasso or the Rolling Stones? And what can we change to stop it from happening again? How do we create a world where success is not measured by macho domination?


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