Desperate to see some new art, I have searched the laneways of Brunswick and Coburg for graffiti. These northern inner-city Melbourne suburbs are old enough to have a network of granite paved laneways that make for excellent and discreet locations for painting.
I have this paint-spotting addiction that can’t be satisfied by seeing photos on the internet. I want to do two contradictory things: to get up close to the wall to see the technique and to look around at the whole location.
Often very suburban locations: the sides of garages, parks and garden walls. For, although there still are factories and warehouse in Brunswick and Coburg, they are being demolished to be replaced by high-density housing. I hoped to be able to see more graffiti revealed by demolition. However, I couldn’t many places where I could photograph anything.
There are some fantastic pieces of wildstyle graffiti overflowing with style and energy. A few old-school pieces along with bombs and tags. Love the bomb from Nong, a tag with a nod to old Australian slang for ‘stupid’.
I was intrigued by this wall in suburban Coburg that had a mix of techniques and styles. There was everything from old-school bubble letters to experiments that mix street art techniques, like stencil with aerosol graffiti. It made me think of the new possibilities.
During the lockdown I was walking different paths to the popular locations for street art and graffiti. There are walls in Coburg that are well worth a second glance, to admire the elegant form and clean technique of the writer. Many of these lanes are so narrow that it hard to get a good photo of the billboard sized pieces.
I will write it again because it bares repeating. What I admire about graffiti is that young men are talking about calligraphy and colours rather than, what I all too often had to listen to in my youth — football, cars, and Hitler. This is why I think that painting walls is a good thing and if someone does an inferno of a piece; so much the better for everyone.
When I did return to look at Hosier Lane and AC/DC Lane the street art and graffiti were still there. But they were so empty. The only reason why there was anyone besides myself in Hosier Lane was that meals for the homeless were being distributed. Still, there was some evidence that artists had been active in the area. Osno is a French artist from Dunkirk who has become stranded in Australia during the pandemic lockdown. Mr Dimples and others have sprayed some stencils (see my post on Mr Dimples). Yes, the street artist are returning to Melbourne’s lanes (not that they ever really left) but not the tourists.
Did the lockdown inspire people to create much street art? (Aside from children drawing in chalk on the sidewalks.) Some feared that there would an explosion of yarn bombing from people knitting during the lockdown but I’ve yet to see any indication of that. I came across an unfinished piece by an obviously trained artist, it had a grid of pencil lines for scaling up the image.
During my walks in Coburg I’ve photographed many street signs that have witty messages written in grease pencil on them. I’ve been informed that they are across the northern inner suburbs and from comparing the handwriting it appears to be the same person.
In order to avoid the threat of democracy no city in Victoria was designed with a square. Now that democracy is no longer a threat squares are being retrofitted into city plans. I’ve visited two new squares in Melbourne: Prahran Square and the smaller Maddern Square in Footscray. Both are multifunction spaces made from converting carparks.
Prahran Square is on the site of the old Cato Street car park in Prahran with the carpark now beneath the site. It is a very large space like a amphitheatre with steep sides. Facing in on itself it ignores the borrowed scenery of the old buildings around it. The central elements of the square are all created by the architects. Taken from the same set generic contemporary elements that architects around the world currently use, including the fountain with jets of water flush with the pavement. The green playground equipment is more central and sculptural than any of the actual sculpture.
Indigenous artist Fiona Foley’s work, murnalong, is literally on the periphery of the square. ‘Murnalong’ means ‘bee’ in the local Boon Wurrung language, a subtle reference to the location. Attractive as these cast aluminum bees are, they fail to identify the place; firstly because they can hardly be seen and secondly because there already is a building in Melbourne with several large gold bees on it – Richard Stringer’s Queen Bee on the Eureka Tower. So that identifying the place in conversation; “You know the place with the bees?” could be confusing.
Not much of the arts budget was spent on Jamie North Ringform 1 and 2. There is minimalism and then there is North’s basic forms; a couple of zeroes scores well for being garden sculpture.
The only public art that is allowed to work in the square are The Pipes 2019, a site-specific visual and audio installation co-designed by light artist Bruce Ramus and sound designer Material Thinking, because they were designed in collaboration with Lyons Architects. The visual and audio can be seen and heard almost everywhere in the square.
When I visited, none of the shops were occupied and there was also two temporary black wooden cubes with street art painted on them; the standard city council move to use street art as an urban social-aesthetic solution.
The Foley’s bees is the only part of the square that refers remotely to the location. Otherwise, it could almost anywhere in the world and I expect to see it or its underground carpark in a movie that is not set in Prahran. There is much about Prahran Square that is forced, contrived and strained; it was controversial and the two year build doing nothing to assist local traders. The arts do not account for a single percent of the $64 million budget.
Contrast this to Maddern Square in Footscray in Melbourne’s west. It is smaller in many ways, less money was spent on the space and the public art is all aerosol. It has a drinking fountain, shady trees, seating and a shipping container being the only facilities that the square needs. The architectural elements in the square are the same set of contemporary elements that are used everywhere but at least you know where you are because it uses the backs of buildings: “Keep Footscray Crazy”.
Thanks to William and Matt for showing me these squares.
Unauthorised sculpture or urban-art installations in public places are the opposite of the monumental official place-making sculptures. These are sculptures that you have to looking for to find. They are small rather than giant, they are discreet rather than obvious. They don’t reflect the official government position like this small version of Greenpeace’s melting tennis ball to remind people that must we are living in a #ClimateCrisis. (A large 1.5 metre version of this was temporarily installed in Federation Square during the Australian Open in 2019.)
The fake brick wall, crystal cave in a brick or the clock on grill is all about placement. The surprise of discovery that something that could only be described as art is part of an old brick wall in the city or has been installed on the grill of a bricked up window.
Up on a wall in Presgrave Place is a cast version of Jayeff’s eye with a smile. It is simply a bit of fun that is close to being a high-end version of a tag. The tiny work of Tinky and Gigi are more likely to be seen in exhibition or at a festival but a couple have been seen on the streets. Presgrave Place is the place to go if you do want to see some street art sculpture.
Will Coles, Discarded and others are still glueing their cast works around the city, Junkie Projects is still nailing them up but it were these cast faces by an anonymous artist in Hosier Lane that were the best street sculpture that I’ve seen in a long time. While other cast objects can survive a layer or ten of aerosol paint the cast faces incorporated that eventuality into their image (see my blog post).
In the city I saw another one of Drasko’s mock classical low relief works that add modern tech.
For more about street art sculptures see my earlier posts:
A creature with wings cast from a dead bird, a drink-can and a cotton reel and ointment tube as peg-legs. These are the ghosts that haunt the urban landscape, hungry ghosts made from what we throw away. When I first saw Discarded’s low relief sculptures on the street I thought of the frottage work by my favourite Surrealist artist, Max Ernst, for like Ernst surreal creatures, Discarded’s creations are at once absurd, etherial and poetic. Urban textures and debris transformed into treasures.
Street art sculpture is uncommon, even in Melbourne there are less than half a dozen people practicing the art at any one time. Like Junky Projects, the Melbourne-based street-artist who assembles street art sculptures from rubbish found in the street, Discarded assembles her figures from discarded items that she picks up in the street. To this Discarded adds another step, casting and making ceramic copies that she glazes and returns to the street. The ceramic replicas are combined into figures and glued on poles, concrete edges and other pieces of urban infrastructure that are unusable to the muralists and graffiti writers.
Discarded is a professional ceramics artist working in Melbourne; not surprising given the obvious skill her works exhibits in multiple areas of ceramics from casting to painting. Her own street art is inspired by the work of many other streets artists. “They put in their time and money and give it up for other people to see.”
Discarded’s figures don’t have an obvious meaning, they is open to interoperation. Discarded told me: “I’ve had many instances of my work being very misconstrued. The most alarming was a project I did a couple of years ago on telegraph poles which people thought was signals for people to steal their dogs for illegal dogfighting. So I try to make it a playful/serious, comment on our relationship with the earth.”
Discarded explains: “I sort of have a love/hate relationship with the art world, so it often really inspires me to go to see exhibitions and galleries (best ever experience was going to see the Biennale at Arsenale and being in Athens where street art is wall to wall). But I hate the way art is currently situated in our culture, where generally only what makes it to the gallery is valued. I think we have to remember that the current situation of our art culture is not a set thing, it’s constantly evolving and street art plays a big part in changing the way we view art and also how we can imagine it to be.” And I can only applaud this attitude.
Persistence is an important quality of a street artist: how long does their work last in the urban environment and how many years do they persist in putting things up in the street. Discarded’s work persist even under layers of aerosol paint. As an artist she has persisted more than most, five years so far, and although not prolific she keeps on assembling her creations.
Another important quality for any graffiti writer or street artist is exposure, how far across the city their work can be found. In this respect Discarded is limited and I have only seen her work in the city and along the Upfield train line. It is not as easy for a female street artist to work as it is for a male. So, just be glad that Discarded is still installing her art on Melbourne’s walls and keep your eyes open for her latest creations.
(Thanks Discarded for the interview at a distance.)
“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?
If you are like me then you are already bored with all the articles, posts, tweets about COVID-19. So please forgive me for this blog post; I am writing it for a future record rather than for you my present unfortunate readers. On the upside, this short blog post contains my most complete report on what is going on in Melbourne’s art galleries but with fewer images.
A few commercial galleries like, Charles Nodrum Gallery, continued with their exhibition program during March, without the usual opening drinks, and remained open by appointment, asking patrons to call ahead to arrange a suitable time to view the exhibition.
Some street artists and graffiti writers, normally nocturnal creatures, are still venturing outside to practice their art but they won’t have many actual viewers even in the best locations. The famous Hosier Lane is empty, as it often was a decade ago when the art in it was better. I infer this from what I have seen in recent posts and photos for I have seen little more than a few blocks from my home.
Many artists are working from home or alone in their studio as they have always done. What they produce and what is the cultural impact of this pandemic maybe a topic for future blog posts when the art galleries are open again.