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Category Archives: Culture Notes

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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Plaques

Once upon a time, on this very spot there was a … but it is gone now and all that is left is a bronze plaque. Plaques are trying to rivet a superficial history into place, to stop a treasury of trivia from drifting away as busts of men loiter in bas-relief on the building.

As place making, or even, public information curation plaques are at the lower end. I became interested in them because of my interest in public sculpture. And I have found a few interesting items.

on of plaques at Royal Melbourne Hospital

Tell anyone who thinks that plaques are a permanent memorial that they are dreaming. Changes inevitably happen. Remarkably there is a collection of commemorative plaques at Royal Melbourne Hospital, no longer in their original locations due to the almost constant rebuilding of the hospital, these plaques have been brought together in the interest of history.

When I see a plaque with more than just words I try to work out who made it as the creators of these plaques includes some notable local sculptors. There is John Dias by William Leslie Bowles at Trades Hall or Ray Ewers’s Cookie memorial on the banks of the Yarra. On the Melbourne Symphony’s building on Southbank is Julie Edgar’s bronze bas-relief portrait of Hiroyuki Iwaki Chief Conductor and Conductor Laureate. Michael Meszaros has created several plaques with portrait at Melbourne University and the work of the sculptor Stanley Hammond can be seen on three bas-relief busts at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.  

Even though some of the work is signed but even then I have not been able to find out anything about them. Who is the M Mason who did the bas-relief street-scapes on the Scotch College plaques?

The multiple Scotch College plaques in Melbourne and East Melbourne raises the issue of paying for these metal didactic panels. No wonder why the elite private school Scotch College has so many.

On the other side of Australia’s unequal society the Indigenous history of Gertrude Street in Fitzroy is also well documented with a series of plaques.

Although many historical and commemorative plaques are dull; memorials and historical markers are not the only thing that can be done with a plaque. The Wheeler Centre has placed a “discussion marker” in Melbourne. And there are unofficial memorials like Will Coles’s Chopper Read plaques to this notorious stand-over man and artist.

So although most plaques are dull I think I will keep looking at them. I will let you know if I find any more worth commenting on.


Indigenous Culture on the streets

On Friday 5 July I met the NAIDOC Week march as I was walking to Fitzroy. The march was coming the opposite way walking from Fitzroy to Federation Square. I felt inspired by the march – I want a treaty and truth (like South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission). Australia needs a treaty with its Indigenous population; Australia is the only Commonwealth country not to have a treaty with its indigenous people.

I considered my options joining the march or continuing my walk into Fitzroy. I decided to continue on looking at public art, street art and art exhibitions but with a focus on indigenous history. My methodology for these walks is asystematic, random, and often without preconceived objectives. This is because I want to take unfamiliar routes and find new things.

This is No Fantasy, the Dianne Tanzer and Nicola Stien’s gallery on Gertrude Street was showing Vincent Namatjira’s exhibition Coming To America. Vincent is a Western Arrernte man from Ntaria (Hermannsburg) and the grandson of Albert Namatjira.It was Vincent Namatjira’s fifth solo presentation at this prominent Melbourne commercial gallery. Black dots beside the works showed that every painting had sold.

Vincent Namatjira’s crude but effective style has an absurd sense of humour. The exhibition has a series of paintings depicting his trip to America, including his time in Hollywood, the White House and relaxing on beach chair at the Miami Beach Art Basel. On one wall was a grid of black and white portraits of alternating black and white people. Namatjira seems to be saying: why so serious when this is fun?

Gertrude Street was named after the daughter of Captain Brunswick Smythe who acquired the land in 1839 in colonial exploitation; in spite of it colonial origins Gertrude Street has many reminders of Melbourne’s Indigenous history. There are several plaques by the City of Yarra Aboriginal Cultural Signage Reference Group and the Aboriginal Advisory Group: The Koori Club, the Aboriginal Housing Board and the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service. (As well as public art I am now looking at plaques — how dull can I get?).

At the corner of Lt. Napier Street, there is the recent ‘Sovereignty’ mural by Robert Young, Heesco and Makatron. They are all Melbourne-based artists but only Young is a Gunnai/Gunditjmarra/Yorta Yorta/Wiradjuri man – Heesco is from Mongolia and Makatron is probably from outer space, or Adelaide.

A bit further along Gertrude Street, at the corner of Gertrude and George Streets stand three “Delkuk Spirits”, 2002, by Kelly Koumalatsos, a Wergaia/Wamba Wamba woman from the northwest of Victoria.  The yarn bombed dress on one of thin bronze figures has been there for years, it implies that it a woman and makes the group more inclusive.

Kelly Koumalatsos, Delkuk Spirits, 2002, bronze

On the same corner is Maysar, the Melbourne Youth Sport and Recreation Co-Operative with glass design in the windows and glass doors by Mandy Nicholson, a member of the Wurundjeri-willam clan of the Kulin Nation. Nicholson’s work is familiar to me as she designed Gayip, the stainless steal spiral headed figure with wings perched on a rock on the South bank and the petroglyphs at Birrarung Wilam.

I turned left onto to Smith Street, named after Melbourne’s Mayor Smith 1855-64 a publican turned politician. At first there was much less reminders of Indigenous history on Smith Street, just on plaque for the Victorian Aboriginal Co-operative Limited at 108 Smith Street, one guy in an Aboriginal flag t-shirt getting lunch and a small flag painted on a house in one of the streets off Smith.

That was until I reached the corner of Stanley and Smith Street where the Glenn Romanis has designed the combination of a micro-park, seating, public art and a map. Glenn Romanis is from the Wurundjeri/woi wurrung and Boonwerrung people of the Kulin Nation, and like Nicholson, Romanis’s public work was familiar from his carving at Birrarung Wilam. The sites are mapped in fossilised wood with granite streets cutting across the sedimentary rock that flows like rivers. Carved in the rock “Wominjeka Wurundjeri Bik” (Welcome to Wurundjeri Country). It was a good place to continue an exploration of Melbourne’s indigenous culture.


Exploring Victorian Melbourne

Here are a couple of Victorian (in every sense) places that can be seen if you are wandering around Melbourne.

The dome inside 333 Collins Street

333 Collins Street is one of the best example of preserving the old architecture is the fantastic dome inside a multi-storey building at 333 Collins Street. You can go into the foyer and look up and see the old dome. Through the dome’s windows you can see, instead of seeing the sky, the inside of a new building. It is unfortunate that the architect didn’t plan public access to the roof of the dome so that the surreal sight of an old roof inside a new building is not available. You can easily imagine this site if you look at the architectural model of the new building that stands in the foyer. It is a fine example of the greed and exploitation that is quintessential to Australia. Once the dome was part of Melbourne’s banking’s “cathedrals of commerce”, yes in the 19th century Australia really did build temples to Mammon.

Another of these temples to Mammon is at 380 Collins Street. Like a cathedral there are stain glass windows, carved wood screens and stone guardians in the gothic revival style. Labelled as the ‘ANZ Banking Museum’ with an impressive brass plaque – all I saw of that were two very small display cases on the floor bank. Instead of Biblical scenes one of the stain glass windows there is a series of the motifs from the Victoria Memorial in London. It is also very modern; cast iron pillars support the roof space that includes a large skylight.

The Block Arcade of Marvellous Melbourne has becoming a home to middle-brow tourist art and ersatz culture like the Dr Suess Gallery but it still has a great mosaic floor. A neo-classical Victorian design by Craven Dunnell Pty Ltd. of the United Kingdom made from Italian tiles. (For more on Melbourne’s many mosaic’s see my post Time and Tiles.) George Sala, the man who coined the phrase ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ spent a lot of time in the arcade. Sala needed to coin phrases about Melbourne as he was the special correspondent for the Daily Telegraphy. In 1880s he wrote of Melbourne’s arcades:

“Indeed, but for the fact that prohibitions on smoking are conspicuously placarded about in the Royal, the Victoria, and the Eastern arcades, you might, without any very violent stretch of the imagination, fancy on a fine night that Bourke Street was one of the Paris boulevards instead of being a highway hewn not fifty years ago out of the trackless Bush, and that you were a flâneur from the Café du Helder who had just strolled into the nearest passage to saunter from shop to shop, the contents of which you may have seen five hundred times before, and to rub shoulders with a throng whose faces from long acquaintance should be perfectly familiar to you.” (from The Birth of Melbourne ed. Tim Flannery, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2002, Australia, p.328)

When the Block Arcade’s opening in 1892 there were 15 milliners, three lace shops, a photographer and the Hopetoun Tea Rooms. Only the Hopetoun Tea Rooms survives. The prohibition on smoking in the Royal Arcade remains.

For more of my thoughts about Victorian Melbourne read my posts: Time Warp to Victoria and Melbourne’s Gothic Revival.


Melbourne Psychogeography Regrets

Like the flâneurs (Sigmund Freud in Vienna, Charles Dickens in London and Gerard Nerval in Paris) psychogeography is pretty much the exclusive purview of a privileged minority of men. Psychogeography (along with the associated activities of urban exploration, surface archeology, ghost-signs, and paint-spotting) is unfairly dominated by white, middle-class, middle-aged men — including myself. From Will Self to the conservative politician Micheal Portillo’s tv program Abandoned Buildings or Tony Robinson walking somewhere else — at the professional level there are no women.

The activity of walking around the city unfairly excludes both women and other people (especially the original owners of the land) simply because they are not always as safe as I am. This is not a desirable situation. I don’t wish to exclude anyone and I would be happy if there was a much greater diversity of psychogeographers. Hence this statement of regret, that I’ve written on behalf of all Melbourne psychogeographers.

I want to write: women reclaim the night and explore the city… Indigenous people tell your own stories of it because it this always was and is your land… but that might not be wise… Indeed (if memory serves me correctly, because I am searching for the source) in the original phase of psychogeography the North African members of the Situationalists who were not legally allowed to explore Paris at night because of a curfew.

We need less cars and more people out on the streets, or even, at the front of their homes would be an improvement. Instead in home renovation after home renovation we have the architectural retreat to the backyard in the suburbs. We need more active witnesses, or ‘neighbours’ as they used to be called, and not passive recording on CCTV (see my blog post on CCTV).

In considering all the practicalities of walking around (insert a quote from Will Self here, something on his gore-tex underwear), the historical research, the documentation and photographs …. We have been forgetting to re-imagine the city. Renaming buildings and inventing readymade sculptures were amongst my first psychogeographical activities; there was the Dalek Headquarters in South Melbourne with its blue panopticon eye surveilling the city, the Cylons in Box Hill … Exercising the imagination is the start of the process.

We have to imagine a city where all people are equally safe, a place where being in public is safer than being in private, because only then can we make such a place a reality.


Reservoir’s rejected art

Art is considered valuable and worthy of preservation but what happens when it is not. A postman friend has been photographing and critiquing the art deposited on the nature strip outside the homes in an outer northern suburb. It was a series of Facebook posts starting Sept 23 2018 and is reproduced here with permission.

Art brut, au Reservoir: outsider art exhibited outside.
A new exhibit of outsider art for the Reservoir nature strip gallery, framed in glorious ironing board. Or is it merely fan art homage to Ariel Pink?
Art brut salon, Reservoir nature strip gallery.
Art le plus brut, sur un socle de boîte aux lettres, correspondance esthétique du jour, Reservoir. (Translation: The Most Raw Art, on a base of mailbox, aesthetic correspondence of the day, Reservoir.)
Design on serviette, discovered in a driveway, Reservoir. Calculating to graduate beyond the curb and up to street art.
 “In the wake of the death of God, only the death of desire can save us. The task of art is to abolish desire rather than re-educate it. If it once held out a promise of communal redemption, it is now a form of spiritual self-extinction. The self is not to be realised but annihilated, and the aesthetic is one place where, like Keats before the nightingale, it can be allowed to dissolve ecstatically away.” _Terry Eagleton (summarising Schopenhauer), Culture and the Death of God (2014).
A symbolic objection to global warming? I spotted this tasteful example of Mandarin calligraphy yesterday, junked among other rejects in a Reservoir front yard. Today it had migrated to the footpath, found leaning against the neighbour’s fence. I’ve had to rotate the image 90° to correctly orient the character. The red stamp below says “four seasons.” My guess is this was part of a set, the others being characters for the rest of the year. The word seen here is Summer. Someone’s over it.
Art outside, drifting liberated from a spontaneous tip on the nature strip.
The most recent raw art, the gallery on the nature band, in Reservoir.
The art brut colours of Reservoir: diptych on nature strip.

Post-Art

What is the difference between artists and poets? What does the nuances, the trace elements, of these two different words mean for the way that culture workers understand their work? I’m not sure and I have lived in shared houses with both. I have called myself an artist and a philosopher but I draw the line at being called a ‘poet’.

Will Coles, Pussy Riot mask, Hosier Lane

A century ago I would have still been talking about poetry with the Dadaists in Berlin but by 1919 Hugo Ball had already distance himself from Dada.

“Conclusion: that the political action in Switzerland no longer makes sense, and that it is childish to insist on morality in the face of these activities. I am thoroughly cured of politics too, having already given up aestheticism. It is necessary to have a closer and more exclusive recourse on the individual basis: to live only on one’s own integrity, and to renounce completely every corporate activity.” Hugo Ball 24/5/1919

Avant-garde art, poetry, political action or social practice; the emptiness of Dadaist nihilism is such that each interpreter’s transfers their own desires and expectations on to it. From Johannes Baader, the Berlin Dadaist who in 1919 showered the inauguration of the first German Republic with his home-printed leaflets, Das grün Pferd (The Green Horse), to Pussy Riot’s ‘Punk prayer’ performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in 2012, many people have taken a creative approach to politics.

However, I have growing doubts about this whole art thing. Why would anyone want to be an artist? I admire the people who quite art: Marcel Duchamp and that minor Renaissance painter, I forget his name, who tired of all the talk about perspective gave up art to become an innkeeper. (I’d like to drink to him.)

Why should artist be regarded as some kind of panicle of human achievement? The romantic middle class self-indulgent masturbation fantasy believing that they are expressing some vital essence for the good of humanity.

Art, the great appropriator comes into the room, and tells you that your stuff is part of its grandiose definition. It is the kind of blatant theft that it would make Jeff Koons and Richard Price blush with shame that they had been so modest. It is so colonial; items of cultural and religious significance are appropriated. From prehistoric cave paintings to religious material; every artefact becomes art. Anything that fits the current idea of art becomes the property of the Republic of Art; for “Art” like “God” is eternal, universal and vaguely defined. At the very least the word ‘art’ is over extended and is a poor model for culture workers.


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