Category Archives: Culture Notes

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


Statue Wars 2020

The statues are falling so fast. In response to the Black Lives Matter movement statues to racists, slavers and corrupt cops have been removed around the world. It reminds me of the end of the Soviet Union. Statues are being painted, vandalised, removed or pulled down around the world. In the USA it is Christopher Columbus and Confederate generals, in Belgium Leopold II, in England Edward Colston… the list goes on.

Sir John Tweed, Captain Cook, 1914

However, in Australia, no statue has been removed. Not that there aren’t plenty of memorials to racist colonials around. In October 1991 Gary Foley and Robbie Thorpe put the statue of John Batman in Melbourne on trial (developers have since removed that statue so the area could be redeveloped). In 2017 I wrote about the Statue Wars, in 2019 I wrote about the campaign to remove the statue of William Wentworth from Sydney University. Still, I never expected that there would be so much interest in public sculpture.

Public art has always been part of a culture war. So it is not surprising that public art continues to be a cultural battlefield. Before the twentieth century, the purpose of public art was to support the authorities. Defacement was an official practice in the Roman Empire before it came into common, popular use, faces were officially removed from monuments when they fell out of Imperial favour.

I’m reminded of the destruction of the Vendôme column, a monument to Napoleon, that was pulled down in 1871 during the Paris Commune. And that the French Realist artist, Gustave Courbet maintained, in his defence, that he had only called for it to be dismantled and displayed for educational value.

The statue wars have been going on in Australia for a long time, a symbolic battlefield for displaying Australia’s cultural divides. And conservatives are not above vandalising and removing statues and other public sculptures. In the 1980s, people saw the internationalism abstract public art as a cultural battlefield. Consider the year-long controversy over Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault which was known at the time by the racist phrase: “the Yellow Peril”. And there are also Australia’s most vandalised sculptures: Yagan and Liz and Phil by the Lake

Now the cultural battle has switched to the removal of figurative public art representing and glorifying colonialism and other racism. A change in attitude towards public monuments is sweeping the world. A change of symbols of the collective consciousness is an indication of a shift in consciousness. The fall of statues is both a symbolic and real change in the way that public space is seen.

It raises many questions for me. Why should the public space be some triumphal version of colonial history excused with the dubious claim that it is educational? Why do past generations get to dictate what the future will look like by erecting statues? And when will Australia start to change? Is conservative Australia is too powerful, and too deeply in denial, to allow even a symbolic gesture?


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.


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