Enjoying the absence of Batman

In the light of the removal of the statue of James Cook in Cooktown earlier this year and the Hobart City Council’s decision to remove the statue of the racist head-hunter and state premier William Crowther earlier this month, I look at the absence of two others. And find out what happens when statues of the city’s founders are removed.

At 433 Collins Street, on a block bounded by Collins, William and Market Streets, and Flinders Lane, amidst Melbourne’s cathedrals of commerce, the gothic revival banks, with their carved stone and stained glass windows, there once stood an icon of modernism. Built in 1964, the National Mutual Building had 20 floors of office space, a retail area and a rooftop restaurant.

In front of it, the modernist architecture continued with a wide forecourt, with steps, concrete paver, and planters. Symbolic of the capitalism of the area, the Melbourne pub-rock band, Painters and Dockers, played “Die Yuppie! Die!” in the plaza. Also in the plaza, symbolic of implicit greed, were two statues celebrating the colonial establishment of Melbourne. The two figures were distanced, for neither were friends: John Batman and William Fawkner.

Gary Foley was decades ahead of the Black Lives Matter when he put the statue of Batman on trial in 1991. Foley and fellow activist Robbie Thorpe put the figure of Batman on trial for his genocide against the Indigenous population of Tasmania, rape, theft and trespass. Of course,  Batman was found guilty, anyone who looks at the evidence would know that, but there was a desperate Australian nationalism that wanted to ignore it.

Its end came in 2012 when a slab smashed onto the forecourt. The ‘experimental’ architecture attaching the skin to the building was failing. The building sat empty, waiting for demolition. The statue of Batman by Stanley Hammond was removed without any bullshit by the site’s developers. The two statues are currently in storage, there are no plans for them, and it is unlikely they will ever return to public view. And for those concerned, Melbourne still has more than enough Batman memorials.

What has been put in place of Batman and Fawkner is more engaging. The seventies were severe, hard-edge geometric. You could sit around the raised garden beds and statues, but it wouldn’t be comfortable. Around the new building, there is a native, drought-resistant garden flowing down the hill. Instead of a bronze figure, there is a bronze fountain in the shape of a Banksia seed pod. A water feature that uses very little water. It wanders playfully between rocks and can be opened and closed with a sluice gate. Nearby a water wall flows down the side of the building.

There has been no evidence of any loss of knowledge of history nor any sanitisation of history. Nor was there any other disaster predictions made about removing statues in recent years because they were uninformed brainfarts from conservative commentators. Instead, it appears that people are enjoying the absence of Batman.


Religious violence against art

Following the stabbing of Salman Rushdie, do we need reminding that declaring that art is blasphemous directly incites violence? Blasphemy is not a metaphor and has never meant something must be tolerated within the bounds of secular law. No, declarations of blasphemy always encourage violence.

The two sixth-century Buddhas carved into the high sandstone cliffs of Bamiyan of Afghanistan were spectacular survivors from a civilisation that at long passed. They were the tallest standing Buddhas in the world; the first was 55 m, and the second was only an awesome 37 m high.

In March 2001, the Taliban government declared that they were idols, even though they had not been any Buddhists in the area for centuries. They had a plan, a budget and nothing more important to do. When rocket launchers, tank and artillery shells failed to destroy them, they had to do it the hard way, scaling the sculptures and attaching explosives. It took 25 days of work, planting explosives to demolish the statues. Anti-tank mines were laid around the feet to increase the damage the falling stone did.

Mullah Mohammed Omar stated, “Muslims should be proud of smashing idols. It has given praise to Allah that we have destroyed them.”

George Pell (aka Cardinal Pell Pot), Jean-Pierre Cattenoz (aka Archbishop of Vaucluse) and others encouraged the destruction of Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ by declaring it blasphemous. But Pell is not the only senior member of the Vatican to have encouraged the destruction of art by calling it blasphemous. Jorge Mario Bergoglio (aka Pope Francis) also used the word when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires. 

In 2004, Bergoglio demanded a retrospective exhibition of the work of the contemporary Argentinian artist Leon Ferrari, close to end what he called a ‘blasphemous affront’. Bergoglio declared it was blasphemous because of Ferrari’s sculptures of the Virgin Mary in a blender, Jesus crucified on an American bomber, saints in frying pans and other images. Ferrari had long been critical of the Catholic church conniving with the murderous Argentina junta. 

Like Pell, Bergoglio also objected to public money being used for the exhibition in a public art gallery. Bergoglio was a tiny bit more successful than Pell. Unlike Pell, he initially got a judge to agree with him and obtained an order for the exhibition to close. However, this was overturned on appeal, and the exhibition was reopened. A mob of the faithful then destroyed several works of art at the exhibition, shouting: “Long live Christ the King!” The artist forgave Bergoglio because he got great free publicity; it is unknown if Bergoglio has forgiven Ferrari.

Forgiveness aside, the question remains should we tolerate religious organisations that call things blasphemous? My long answer is only if they tolerate the arbitrary use of violence against them. So, the short answer is no.


From Counihan to Camp

Three exhibitions with very different objectives at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick. Modern and contemporary art, with aesthetics ranging from realist to camp, and goals as diverse as to activate, educate and entertain. (So, watch me do the critical equivalent of a high dive with triple summersault to tie this review up.)

When the Counihan Gallery was established in 1999, it was named after the artist Noel Counihan (1913-1986). The inspiration came from the proximity of Counihan’s anti-fascist protest/performance, his ironic free speech in a cage on a busy Sydney Road, Friday evening, 19 May 1933. Remembering that Victoria Police was run by fascists in 1933 and it is doubtful that they have ever relinquished control of the force that “upholds the right.” 

The Counihan Gallery has acquired a collection of Noel Counihan’s paintings, drawings, lithographs, linocuts and other prints, primarily through donations. “Counihan Collection – Noel Counihan works from the Moreland Art Collection” is the first time exhibition from this collection. This is possibly the first retrospective exhibition of his work since the one at the NGV in 1973.

Counihan’s art was intended as political consciousness-raising when it wasn’t a portrait or the head of an attractive woman. Amongst the heads, I am caught by the mad stare, the simple graphic eye that Counihan gives to both Jesus and the Collingwood supporter in The Barracker.

The next exhibition, “Leftovers of a Ghost”, is a science experiment of an exhibition by Melbourne-based artists Emme Orbach and Noah Spivak. Chemical reactions as visual arts, part of National Science Week 2022. Spectacular crystal growths of monoammonium phosphate and huge blue copper sulphate crystals (British artist Roger Hiorns used copper sulphate with stunning effect in Seizure, 2011). The chance and natural forms suggest that they could be the work of anyone, with only the elegance and formal qualities of Orbach’s and Spivak’s work saying otherwise. I only wish there was about how the images were made, but that could have made the exhibition more didactic than artistic. Spivak has a background in photography, an art that relied on chemistry until it was replaced by digital technology.

In the third gallery, there is work by Mark Smith, an Arts Project Australia artist who works in ceramics, video and soft sculpture. His exhibition “Malleability” has a camp aesthetic of inverted commas (ref. Susan Sontag “notes on camp”). Smith’s soft letters, wall-works and ceramic words have the quality of ironic inverted commas. His graffiti bubble letters had odd, naive calligraphy with letters acquiring a base rather than simply sides. Soft sculpture has been around since Oldenburg only with Smith, the material used is over-the-top. “Choice” in stripy fur with green sides, but given society (Counihan), chemistry ( Orbach and Spivak), and disability (Smith), what choice do we have?


Light and public art

On Thursday night, there was a panel discussion, “Light: Between Art, Architecture and Public Spaces”, at Mars Gallery in Windsor. On my way, I passed a piece of public art in the forecourt above Windsor Station, an antique electric pole with conductors lit like a Xmas tree. Light and shadow as part of public art, as elements themselves or covering architecture with a skin of colours or projections. Due to cool LED lights and powerful digital projectors light in public art is an every night occurrence. There is so much light art around currently (as I write this, a friend is tweeting her photos of Lightscape @royalbotanicgardensvic).

Appropriately, the exhibitions at Mars Gallery were all light art. “This Space of Vibration” by Meagan Streader is in the main gallery space on the ground floor. Her wall-mounted and free-standing sculpture used geometric and architectural forms. There are so many different light-influencing materials in her show, different types of frosted glass, coloured frosted and clear acrylic, neon lights, LED neon flex, and COB LEDs.

In the other gallery spaces on Mars’s different levels, there was “Light Show” with four other artists, including Jason Sims working with light. Sims’ work varied from the elegant geometry, optics and infinite space of his reflective glass and mirror pyramid, Nexus (Iridescent). To the cool poetic neon letters on the top of the three-storey concrete gallery, which read: 

bending, as 

tides into rivers

It was odd to hear light artists talking about natural light on a dark Melbourne night. But, the dark is also a natural lighting effect from the earth’s shadow. Jason Sims and Meagan Streader were both on the panel, and Sarah Box, an associate at Rothelowman. The latter represented the architectural side of the discussion. 

British-based light artist Bruce Munro zoomed in on a large computer screen. Munro is best known for his Field of Light installation. Field of Light has been installed in 17 locations from Ularu, which inspired it, to Simbionte Festival, Mexico City. Munro’s art is currently on exhibition both inside and outside at the Heide Museum of Modern Art. 

It was Bruce Munro who made the most salient point of the discussion. That light is the most cost-effective way of changing a space. Changing the way the place makes you feel, the emotional impact of light.

Light is temporary, ephemeral, changing, illusionary, a wave and a particle depending on how you look at it. I have been in the dark about how to approach this subject, and after the panel discussion, I am only a little better off. You would think that a visual art critic would have often written about light. I only have a high school science class understanding of light and optics. Of course, something as familiar as light often goes unnoticed and unexamined until it isn’t there.

Installation view of part of Meagan Streader’s exhibition “This Space of Vibration”

Sime Thornton

I’m sorry to learn that Sime Thornton died earlier this year. A funny guy with humour that didn’t put people down but gave them joy. His cartoons entertained many who saw them on the streets.

He listed his skills on Linkedin as “Taking a pen for a wander. Smashing ideas together like lumps of play-doh. Smashing ideas together like lumps of play-doh. Making innocent bystanders smile. Enlistment officer for Royal Melbourne Flying Monkey Corps.”

I did not have the pleasure of Thornton’s acquaintance, but I was familiar with his insightful and humorous cartoons. A clear and concise line often commented on the street artists around him. Drawn in ink and stuck them up in many of Melbourne’s prime street art locations. Often they are on canvas or wood for greater durability (they will last even longer online). BYST


Fame and Misogyny

The Rolling Stones have much in common with Picasso: the artistic success and failures, longevity, fame, Midas power, merchandise deals, appropriated west African culture, misogyny… Both have their respective position cemented in the history of modern art and rock in the top five. However, like the dinosaurs, these great thunder lizards, although still fascinating, are largely irrelevant to both contemporary art and music.

Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon, originally titled The Brothel of Avignon)

Throughout their lives, both were dedicated followers of the current styles. This dedication led to their initial success and explains the motivation better than any revolutionary desire on their part. Charlie Watts would have preferred to be playing jazz; Picasso might have preferred painting in an impressionist style. We will never know because what he painted and what the Stones played kept on making money. Making lots of money was the artistic vision of both Picasso and the Rolling Stones. They were artists as businessmen (Warhol was a camp parody of Picasso’s commercial success).

Following the current fashion explains Picasso’s surrealist and neo-classical period and the Stone’s expeditions into psychedelic rock, 2000 Light Years from Home, and disco, Emotional Rescue. Looking around, we could even find an equivalent in Picasso’s oeuvre. Works as political as Gimme Shelter, as mediocre as Jagger and Bowie’s cover of Dancing in the Streets (much of Picasso’s ceramics), and as regrettable as Brown Sugar.

The Stones no longer perform this racist song that revels in the rape of a teenage slave. Still, it does point to the misogyny and colonial appropriation of Africa by both the Stones and Picasso. As Dorian Lynsky, in his Guardian article “Rock’s fake rebels”, noted: “The Stones’ unpleasantness was integral to their uncanny power. In an era when many young people saw rock stars as potential heroes of the revolution, the Rolling Stones appealed to less altruistic desires: sex and money.”

Collectors like art about money and power because it reflects their fantasy of identity. In turn, their money empowers the abuse of women. Or worse, R Kelly, who was convicted for sex trafficking women and girls. Although we can separate the art from the artist’s misogyny, Shannon Lee, in Artspace, argues that we shouldn’t. We must recognise that mistaking the combination of talent and fortunate circumstances for a unique genius creates and empowers misogynistic assholes. And it is the machismo desire to dominate that drives both that most need to be re-examined.

Creativity and imagination might appear fun and attractive. Still, they are no good unless used towards creating a better world for everyone. Art can be liberating, but only when it empowers all people. However, talent and creativity can be used to oppress, terrorise and humiliate. It has been used to exploit and create hierarchies where there are none.

If there was a Picasso century, as the current NGV blockbuster exhibition title implies, it was followed by a Stones century. (Even though the two were contemporary for eleven years, Stones formed in 1962 and Picasso died in 1973.) The question is, do we want another century of artists like Picasso or the Rolling Stones? And what can we change to stop it from happening again? How do we create a world where success is not measured by macho domination?


The Michael Gudinski statue

With one finger, the statue of Michael Gudinski outside the Rod Laver Arena points to the sky. A strange gesture – reminiscent of da Vinci’s John the Baptist. However, unlike da Vinci’s Baptist, Gudinski is not recommending the heavens but looking at the stars; he has promoted many music stars.

The Mushroom Group (aka Mushroom Records) founder Gudinski emphasises the ‘Entertainment’ part of the precinct. The mushrooms on the base signify the Mushroom Group that Gudinski founded. Over the years, many of the bands that he represented played in the arena.

The distinction between “Arts” and “Entertainment” is part of the collective consciousness, divided by the Yarra River and built into the city’s fabric. Like the arts precinct on the Southbank, Both have extensive parklands, trains, and trams. Melbourne’s entertainment district is the sports stadiums, which are regularly used for large stadium concerts, on the north bank of the Yarra River.

When I looked, some real dry stems were amidst the bronze mushrooms. The remains of some flowers. Gudinski is still being mourned a little over a year after his death on 2 March 2021. But what will it mean in a couple of decades? Who will recognise him then? Curiously, Gudinski’s name is in stone and, on a bronze plaque on the back of the plinth that gives more details about his life and words “Forever #1”.  As if there was already some uncertainty of him being recognised.

Why does Melbourne need another statue? Celebrating music in bronze appears pointless. The three-dimensional representations of an abstract experience of organised sound seem to contradict Hegelian aesthetics. Rock now shares the money and influence with high-end culture for some odd memorials. That more of Melbourne’s music heroes are celebrated in bronze statues should be no surprise. In my review of the Mushroom Records exhibition at RMIT Gallery in 2014, I wrote, “rock music always wanted to be part of the establishment.”  

It must have been a tight schedule for the Meridian Sculpture Foundry in Fitzroy team to complete the statue, remembering that making a bronze statue is a team effort. The figure was made by Darien Pullen, Meridian’s senior mould maker and wax technician. The casting and coloured patination on the surface of the bronze statue is the work of others. Peter Morley, the founder of Meridian, has created different patinas to make Gudinski’s overcoat darker than his body. This is achieved by gently blow-torching a cocktail of chemicals sprayed onto the sculpture’s surface.

After Louis Laumen’s sculpture of Molly Meldrum, I’d heard that the next music star in the line for the memorial sculpture was Micheal Hutchins. Laumen’s staid portrait of Meldrum in his cowboy hat holding one of his dogs and his other hand with a thumbs up is the least rocking of Melbourne’s rock tributes. There are also laneway tributes to Bon Scott of AC/DC and Chrissy Amphlett of The Divinyls and a shrine to Elvis in the Melbourne General Cemetery.  

Darien Pullen, Michael Gudinski, 2022

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