Category Archives: Culture Notes

And they call them vandals

Walking around Melbourne, looking at street art and graffiti and thinking about the value of art, distinguishing between cultural, monetary and aesthetic values. Thinking about the street art being destroyed in the building boom. While ancient petroglyphs on Burrup Peninsula (Murujuga) are being destroyed in an act of industrial iconoclasm. The rock art gallery in the world means nothing to Woodside Petroleum or the WA Labor government (read the ABC news story). Nor does destroying the climate. 

Manda Lane and Kasper in Hosier Lane

I know that so much of the art world is a massive art wash, tax dodge, looted, exploitation move by the rich and powerful, as it’s been for centuries. I am still interested in art, and art-like activities, because they are, more or less, the best contiguous record of human and pre-human existence. Unauthorised street art and graffiti can be seen as an alternative to this plutocratic view. Like traditional art, it is a practice that doesn’t require wealthy patrons to pay, validate and promote the art.

Melbourne’s street art and graffiti boom occurred when the city was dying and decaying in the centre. Street art flourished because there were plenty of walls, lanes where old buildings were still standing, not because they were worth anything but because nobody had an economic reason to tear them down. The marvellous city, which had boomed in the gold rush, continued to offer ever-expanding suburbs, resulting in fewer demolitions at its core.

Melbourne is changing, new buildings changing the local geography, sometimes I no longer recognise the location anymore. The skyline on the west side that I see coming into Southern Cross Station is full of new glass towers.

“At what point do we say no?” writes Cara Waters in The Age. Now that it is being built over, people (Adrian Doyle) talk about its historical value Of course, everybody wants to rewrite history. It is a nice bit of rhetoric, but it will probably be flooded in twenty years, given the rising sea levels and Australia’s response to climate change. We all knew that it was going to be, more or less, ephemeral. Ars langa, vita brevis (art is long, life is short) – Hippocrates

Like art collecting, art destroying is largely the preserve of governments, mining companies and other plutocrats. And they call street artists and graffiti writers vandals?


Halloween in Australia

The common denial that Halloween is not Australian is incorrect. Although there clearly was a time in the late 20th century when Halloween festivities didn’t happen for a couple of decades in some parts of Australia. However, the reality is that Halloween has been celebrated in Australia since the colonial era.

In 1858 the Mount Alexander Mail advertised a “Select Scottish Ball on the Anniversary of Halloween” at the Red Hill Hotel, Forest Creek (p.8). Colonial Australian newspapers also reported on Queen Victoria celebrating Halloween at Balmoral. Few people now remember Robert Burn poem “Halloween”, but it was often quoted in Australian newspapers in October and on Burn’s birthday in January. For about a decade in the 1860s a ballet based on Burn’s poem touring Australia. And echoing Burns in a manner that not even William McGonagall could muster, a poem titled, “An Australian Halloween” by an ‘Ossian MacPhearson’ was published in the Hamilton Spectator and Grange District Advertiser, Saturday 12 November 1864, (p. 3). So the idea that Halloween is alien to Australia is absurd.

Halloween celebrations continued to be enjoyed in Australia after federation often organised by the local Caledonian Society. But by the 1970s Halloween was not just a Scottish event. In 1970, the Australian Jewish Times wrote about plans for a “halloween party” in “Briefly on youth” p.17. Halloween in Australia was changing from parties for adults to a day for children to dress up. And in 1974, the Canberra Times reported on children in the suburb of Hughes playing trick or treat.

Australia has borrowed most of its holidays from the northern hemisphere and most of its culture that isn’t British, from America. So neither explanations of climate nor anti-Americanism feel satisfactory; otherwise, Easter, Christmas, along with Mother’s Day would also be failing in Australia. Holidays come and go; Guy Fawkes night is no longer celebrated in Australia primarily due to safety restrictions on the sale of fireworks but also because Australian culture is no longer that closely tied to England.

According to market research, Halloween is currently Australia’s least favourite festival. I can’t believe it is less popular than St. Patrick’s Day and the horse racing holiday. One contributing factor for this might be the decline in people identifying as Scottish Australian as there was a corresponding decline in membership of Caledonian Societies, and the Royal Caledonian Society of Melbourne ceased to operate on 21 April 2016. 

Culture is not static but constantly evolving, so claims that Halloween is not Australian are not definitive. Indeed claims that Halloween is not Australian are a recent development in the history of Halloween in Australia.

I proudly bear some responsibility for the introduction of Halloween trick or treating in Coburg. As a bit of a goth with fond memories of a Canadian childhood, Halloween is a celebration I enjoy. It has been enthusiastically taken up by a multi-cultural neighbourhood for unlike any other annual event because it is not religious and is not about the family. I am interested in Halloween because it encourages children to explore memes and their physical neighbourhood. There are problems with Halloween that I would like to change, the amount of plastic, the sugar and the commercialism.

Halloween decorations in a garden in Coburg

Going postal with Mail Art

Is Mail Art still a thing? With the decline in snail mail, I would have thought that Mail Art was redundant. However, last year in ArtNet News, Taylor Dafoe wrote that Mail Art enjoyed a renaissance with all the COVID-19 lockdowns. I don’t know; I haven’t received any recently but New York bookstore Printed Matter is still receiving them and has an exhibition of mail art in their window.

I last remember receiving some mail art in the 1980s, mainly from an undergraduate fine arts student and friend Paul Leech. So I messaged him and asked him how he heard of mail art. Unfortunately, he couldn’t remember and guessed that it was reading about Dada or Fluxus? Even then, it felt like the long tail of an art movement that started over twenty years earlier when Ray Johnson founded the New York Correspondence School of Mail Art.

The decorated envelope and postcards are almost as old as postal systems. And the post was an essential feature of art movements from Dada to Fluxus. What made mail art different was is that Mail Art is not about simply receiving art by post like the Art Box Club.  Mail Art is art that is consciously about the postal system. If art is a form of communication, then Mail Art is communication about a communication system.

Mail Art isn’t mentioned in any of the standard art history texts about art in the twentieth century. Even though, according to Stewart Homes (The Assault on Culture – Utopian currents from Lettrisme to Class War, 1988), it is the second-largest art movement of the twentieth century in terms of participation.

Mail Art exists along with the zines as an anti-elitist, democratic art form at the intersection of folk art and fine art. It is not art for art collectors to spend a lot of money on. It is not art for display in institutional art galleries where the aesthetics of awe are employed.

Leech was doing both zines and mail art; later, he made Phredpost artistamps a form within mail art developed by Anna Banana. Mail Art, zines and artistamps are very accessible in terms of techniques and materials inviting greater participation. The democratic nature of the art form, along with the inexpensive and accessible materials, means that anyone can participate.

Unlike commercial gallery art, where gallery directors, collectors, and others act as gatekeepers limiting participation, Mail Art has almost no gatekeepers. The only one that mattered was the post office, an institution that was unmistakably outside of the art world. A couple of artists have told me how good Australia Post is with mail art. Bark, pumpkins and other materials making it through the postal system provided that it had appropriate postage. Leech was pushing the postal system, testing its limits. His attempt to send a stamp addressed on the back of the stamp failed.

Is this still the long tail of mail art or a revival? Will people return to receiving tangible physical objects in their letterboxes instead of speculating on NFT online?

Paul Leech, Postscards with holes, 1984

Imperialist Loot and Stolen Land

Since 2014 National Gallery of Australia (NGA) has returned millions of dollars in stolen antiquities to India. This year they announced that  $13 million of stolen antiquities would be returned. They are still cleaning up after Subhash Kapoor’s massive criminal enterprise exposed the box-ticking exercise that was the NGA’s provenance checking.

The Sri Puranthan Nataraja

The Nataraja from the village of Sri Puranthan in Tamil Nadu brought to light the quantity of stolen Indian antiquities in Australian public galleries. Kapoor had organised its theft, smuggling, restoration, and sale. However, in his career as director of the Gallery of South Australia and then the NGA, Ron Radford purchased not just one but two stolen Natarajas, antique bronze idols of Shiva as Lord of the Dance. As the old saying goes: fool me once shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.

After the extraordinary amount of stolen goods found in the NGA’s collection, it claims to have reformed its approach to provenance. Its website now contains the following statement: “Provenance decision-making at the National Gallery is determined by an evidence-based approach evaluated on the balance of probabilities, anchored in robust legal and ethical decision-making principles and considerations.” However, this new position on provenance decision-making does not include the land that the NGA is on. Even as the NGA acknowledges, in the footer of the webpage that explains their new ethical provenance standards, “the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional custodians of the Canberra region, and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country”. 

Based on robust legal and ethical decision-making principles, they would conclude that the land does not belong to Australia. The provenance for the land’s ownership is not “based on documents” as the Australian government has no treaty with Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, nor any other Indigenous people. And documents of ownership from the British Empire have as much veracity as the provenance documents issued by Kapoor’s gallery Art of the Past.

Empires pillage, destroy and steal items from other cultures, pillaging and destroying sacred places.  Consider the stolen Hindu gods and other parts of temples along with the local Indigenous sacred sites that Australian governments allow to be destroyed for mines, dams and roads. They part of the same process and reflect the same set of values.

Australian imperialism is a mutant strain of British imperialism that has become endemic in some Pacific and Indian Oceans islands. For there is an Australian Empire, however, few the islands (Australia, Christmas Island, Cocos Islands, Norfolk Island, and some uninhabited islands) that it currently consists of. This is not forgetting that until 1975 it included Papua New Guinea and Nauru from 1920-1968.

As an empire’s national gallery, the NGA needs to be an encyclopaedic museum, like the British Museum. Encyclopaedic museums have permanent collections of art from many parts of the world and periods of history. And like the British Museum with the Benin Bronzes and Parthenon marbles, the NGA acquired many items with dubious provenance for its collection. However, unlike the British Museum, the NGA has been forced to return some stolen items in its collection.

Why does provenance decision making at the NGA only apply to the objects in its collection and not the land it is on? How can you have an “Australian National Gallery” in Ngunnawal and Ngambri country? And how can the NGA, and the other Australian state galleries, resolve this contradiction between their provenance policies and the stolen land they occupy?


Skateboards and art

(All photos Mark Holsworth 1. Melbourne Stencil Festival exhibition installation, 2. Sunfigo decorated deck, 3. *scape park, Singapore, 4. Trev on skateboard 1977, 5. Claudia Moondoonuthi, 36 flip on country, 6. Hyunjun Koo decks, Seoul, 7. unpainted decks in art supply shop 8. Jud Wimhurst Van Gogh and Francis Bacon, 9. Viki Murray and Mandy Lane street art, Melbourne 10. Viki Murray street art, 11. Viki Murray and others, 12. skateboards and rollerblades prohibited sign, Melb. 13. Joel Gailer printing skateboard wheels, 14. 15. 16. Performprint skateboarders)

The symbiotic relationship between graffiti and skateboards making each one is stronger from the relationship. The painted concrete of skateparks, the boards, the streets… (I don’t have the photos for this one.)

Two examples of this interaction is Viki Murray stencils of skateboard riders (see my post about her), and Joel Gailer’s Performprint printing using skateboard wheels to print (see my post about Performprint). 


Art and Waiting

I have done a lot of waiting at train stations, airports, and hospital waiting rooms. While waiting, nothing changes. It is horrible; time seems to slow down as you wait. That is the difference between the liner astronomical time and the perceived experience of durations. So if you think that time is dragging through the lockdown, the answer is yes; it is due to a lack of sensory stimulation. But what if art installations could alter perceived time?

(image courtesy Swiss National Research Foundation)

“Public art and public space – Waiting stress and waiting pleasure” by Harald Klingemann et al. (Time & Society, July 2015) is a study of changing time perception in waiting rooms through the use of art. Two different types of waiting rooms, a clinical and an administrative, were assessed with a control sample and two artistic interventions.

The experiment went beyond the standard waiting room decoration of hanging pictures on the wall and playing music. They produced “two different, but comparable artistic interventions”, one action-oriented and the other observation-oriented, for two waiting areas. The observation-oriented installation included olfactory and tactile design elements along with screens of natural scenes and textile hangings. The action-oriented had interactive digital art on iPads and a bubble column. (See the page of photos of the two waiting rooms.) “Michel Winterberg as media artist providing essential technical support with his interactive installation ‘waiting shadows’”. One interesting aspect of the experiment was that “the installations do not have any labels that would suggest an obligation to use them.”

The results were measured with hundreds of interviews and observers counting almost two thousand people’s waiting room activity: interactions with the art and stress indicators. The results are not that impressive, a few minutes difference between the actual and the perceived along with less observable indications of stress. Not surprisingly playing with interactive art proved the best at reducing perceived waiting time and stress.

In some respects this research is obvious, that the results did not surprise the authors. Still, given the millions of people in waiting rooms worldwide whose stress and perceived waiting time could be reduced I’m glad that it was funded by the Swiss National Research Foundation. At least now there is some more data and assuming that the art was average, making me wonder how better art could improve the results. There are wide-reaching implications to this research, which could be applied to many public places where people wait. Public art is often thought of as placemaking but not so often as abating the impacts of places on people.

Unlike Klingemann et al., my own research on waiting room art is not systemic but, unfortunately, accidental and unplanned. Random research has its own value as it can establish connections and communicate ideas in ways that are impossible for the systematic. It is only by chance that I even saw this article.

For more on art and clinical environments see my post about art at the Monash Medical Centre.


Space is the place

Black space, white space

The space between

The distance between the art

The silence between the notes

The space between words; a space that was lacking for centuries. Inancientlatintherewerenospacesbetweenwordsmakingcomprehensionoftextdifficult. No wonder Julius Cesar was regarded as intelligent when he was able to comprehend writing on first reading. Spaces allowed for easier comprehension, just as the kerning between printed letters makes them more readable.

Ten Cubed Gallery

Is space empty, undefined and unwritten, the tabula rasa, or designed, created? Is space simply a frame that excludes an absence or a defined absence to define another presence? There are both aesthetic and practical considerations to space. Space as a traffic management issue, as a place to be temporarily occupied. Space as a traffic management issue, as a place to be temporarily occupied.

“Where’s the edge?/Where does the frame start?” Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt Oblique Strategy

I’ve heard that Brian Eno has a preferred time between music tracks on a record to be included on CDs, but I can’t find a reference. The standard used to be between 3-6 seconds, depending on the record company. It is a space that has been messed around with by DJs and current music technology. The time between events creates daily, weekly, annually rhythms like the time between meals allows for digestion. The space between television episodes can be edited to skip credits and intro. The phrase ‘binge watching’ indicates an unhealthy approach to consuming media.

Exhibitions of paintings started with them displayed tightly packed from floor to ceiling.However, over the last century, the space between works of visual arts has generally increased. Contemporary art is often a single work per gallery space, requiring a corridor or at least a wall to have enough space between it and the subsequent art. This means that there are often enormous art galleries with almost no artworks, a gift to architects who want to design massive buildings containing huge spaces. Part of this requirement for space is because contemporary arts are using the art gallery as a conceptual frame for art while breaking conceptual boundaries like actors breaking the fourth wall. Artists are finding frames outside of the apparent structures and using the space between them. It would be impossible to ‘read’ a room packed with multiple works of contemporary art as one would bleed into the next.  Another reason is the curators values the space almost as highly as the art.

Gallery space is a recurrent subject for my blog posts; lots of words about nothing. In the past I have written about playing with this empty relationship in the great gallery joke, how space is defined and how it defines the art in the art space race, the empty space in art galleries, and the white room.


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