Category Archives: Culture Notes

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.


Save the Nicholas Building

The Nicholas Building, the art-deco building on Swanston St. and Flinders Lane, is up for sale. This is a crisis for Melbourne’s culture because its tenants include galleries, bespoke bookstores, boutiques, and many studios. For the sake of Melbourne’s culture, I hope that the Nicholas Building can continue to provide affordable and dynamic spaces for art galleries and studios.

“The Nicholas Building Association is campaigning to ensure that whoever buys the building buys it with us,” Nicholas Building Association spokesperson and artist Dario Vacirca explains. “That they too recognise the value of Melbourne’s most unique and diverse creative business community, the city’s only artist- and creative-led cultural offering of this scale. We have support for a business case from the City of Melbourne, and are in discussions with Government and the philanthropic sector. This is an extraordinary – and urgent – opportunity for Melbourne to invest in its future.”

So far, this post is mainly cribbed from the media release of the Nicholas Building Association. Now I want to support their claim that it is “one of Melbourne’s most valuable cultural precincts” by citing my own posts about this building. A search returns pages of blog posts; most are reviews of exhibitions at the multitude of galleries that have operated in the building. Most notably, Blindside, an artist-run-gallery that is basically a junior Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA). From this I have selected three posts and a gallery of photographs:


Rename this place – Guerrilla Geography II

Australia, unlike other countries, has not removed any statues dedicated to racist colonials. Still, Calla Wahlquist’s powerful article “‘The right thing to do’ Drive to rename places exposes a ruthless past” reminded me that changing place names is also important. For names are not trivial, in Australia are racist. “In 2017, Queensland renamed seven places that included the word “nigger”.”

New street signs, new names for places rewrite the old city for its inhabitants. Geography is as much about the way space is remembered, recorded, mapped and navigated as it is about areas on this or other planets. Desire lines are created by people repeatedly wanting to walk from one spot to another, ignoring the paving. Guerrilla geography maps of those paths, giving names to them, making them places. It is creative, as well as investigative. And although officially a place might be called something that is a matter of politics and language rather than how people to it. Anarchic acts can, given time, be officially recognised.

In Melbourne, many of the city’s service lanes have never been named. And new names are embraced as more detail means better directions for emergency vehicles. Thus, Blender Lane has now been officially designated by the City of Melbourne, complete with a street sign. This is years after Adrian Doyle gave it that name because it was the lane next to Blender Studios. How many art punks get to name streets? I suspect there are several now. In Bendigo, Dimples Lane is officially named after the street artist, Mr Dimples, whose work is there.

So, we can all play our part in this project to end colonial place names. Mail art projects from the past tell me that Australia Post will deliver to a street name and number and postcode. After that, you could put Bulleke-bek instead of Brunswick or Ngár-go instead of Fitzroy. (For more, see Ben Tyers in Melbourne List.)

We navigate the city by different means: I see it as a mental map of memories. Others see it on Google as a network of roads, train, tram lines. In the inner city suburbs, people would navigate by the pub on the corner. Others, landlords, bureaucrats, and lawyers, see it as a ‘laws-cape’ of regulations and title deeds. Dogs navigate by smell and sight, possums by the trees, telephone lines and eves of buildings, the pigeons, crows, magpies and seagulls see it from above. (Understanding that others see things differently was one of the most important things that my father, a zoologist, taught me.) But only humans use names to navigate.

Place names like statues are honours but without explanative notes they are malleable. So can DC comics help save the name of Batman Station by changing the image from a villain to a hero?

See my earlier post on Guerrilla Geography.


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