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Tag Archives: art installation

Why Look At Dead Animals?

A young male polar bear balances on top of a fridge floating like an industrial iceberg, a male lion free from its collar and chain rolls on a king sized bed, two Magellanic penguins have made a nest of plastic soldiers. This is the stunning, impressive and thought-provoking taxidermy art of Rod McRae in the setting of the National Trust’s historic Tasma Terrace.

Rod McRae, Born Free, 2013

Rod McRae, Born Free, 2013

Often, it is taxidermy about taxidermy: The Dome of Doom, one of McRae’s smaller installations, refers to the nineteenth century displays of birds or butterflies in glass domes. The headless animals reminding the viewer that they were shot for their heads as hunting trophies, the cost of shooting a zebra… It is also about what humans are doing to other animals and their habitats.

It might seem an odd idea to use stuffed animals as art about conservation but all McRae’s animals have been ethically sourced. What does “ethically sourced taxidermied animals” mean? In the case of the polar bear it was shot by Inuit hunters and the skin sold to support their community.

For centuries humans have been looking at dead animals, mostly as a source of food and also, for information about the animal. Natural history museums are full of display cases of dead animals, there are many more preserved in storage for species identification. Displays of hunting trophies along with still life paintings that include dead animals amongst the food depicted made an art of looking at dead animals. Toulouse-Lautrec’s father would regularly sketch and then eat what he hunted. With the increase in human population this aesthetic interest in dead animals was unsustainable and most people now avoid looking or, even, thinking about dead animals.

Along with the environmental ethics there is a religious tone to the exhibition, the lion lying down with the lambs, makes it obvious and McRae has twice been a finalist in the Blake Prize for religious art. Not that this is uncritical belief with McRae noting Christian hunting organisations on the zebra’s crate. (See Derek Beres ‘The Cult of Christian Hunting and America’s Gun Problem’.)

Rod McRae started as a children’s book illustrator and there are still some elements of that in his art with clear visual communication in the illustration of idea. Five years ago he started creating taxidermy installations to illustrate ideas about animal conservation.

Rod McRae, Serengeti, 2013

Rod McRae, Serengeti, 2013

The original occupants of Tasma Terrace in East Melbourne, or Easthill as it was once known, would have had their own collections of taxidermy animals. The Victorian interest in exploring the natural world and collecting has come full circle with contemporary art reflecting the on its legacy.

Tasma Terrace was built in 1879 by George Nipper who two years after Tasma Terrace was completed he build the majestic Windsor Hotel and then went bankrupt. Tasma Terrace was saved from demolition in 1969 by the public and National Trust. The conservation of this piece of built environment creates itself parallel theme to the exhibition’s theme of natural conservation.

For more on taxidermy and contemporary art see my blog post or just enter ‘taxidermy’ in the search box in my sidebar. It is surprising just how many contemporary artists are working taxidermyfrom the gothic, bejewelled work of Melbourne-based Julia Devilla to New York-based Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang who had an exhibition of faux-taxidermy at GOMA in 2014. There are so many that there is a book Taxidermy Art by Robert Maybury that covers many of the notable taxidermy artists that includes Maybury, himself, along with Rod McRae and Julia Deville.

Rod McRae and the National Trust presents Wunderkammer at Tasma Terrace, 6 Parliament Place in East Melbourne. ‘Wunderkammer’ has to be the most overused title for an exhibition in the last two years.

Rod McRae, The Case of the Laughing Hyena, 2012

Rod McRae, The Case of the Laughing Hyena, 2012

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Paul Yore Trial Day One

Today opposite the Melbourne Magistrates Court, there was a demonstration out the front of the County Court drawing attention to the first day of the Melbourne hearings into Royal Commission into the Institutional Response to Allegations of Child Sexual Abuse. In court room 20 of the Magistrates Court, in front of Magistrate Amanda Chambers, there was the first day of an anticipated three day trial of Paul Yore.

The court decided that the best place to start was by viewing a video of Paul Yore’s installation, Everything is Fucked. This was the defence video because the police admitted that it was better than the one that they made. Alleged child pornography being shown in a public court, the magistrate felt that some kind of warning had to be made before the video was shown to the public, no one left. For about six minutes the magistrate attentively watched the psychedelic rainbows of colour, the ultra violet lighting, the collage of objects and images. The court also heard a pod-cast interview with Paul Yore describing the sickly sweet surface with more symbolic ideas beneath the surface of the spectacle of mass consumerism.

The police case consisted of Exhibit #10, seven pieces of cardboard, paper and tin foil that Detective Senior Constable Samantha Johnson of St. Kilda Police Station had cut out with a Stanley knife from Paul Yore’s installation. These bits were described as photos of children’s heads with or without Pokemon stickers over them, stuck onto the naked bodies of adults, again with or without Pokemon stickers on them.

There was a large members of the bar in court, not just Yore’s defence team but separate representation for members of the staff and board of directors of the Linden Centre who had all been called as prosecution witnesses. They were conceded about exposure to allegations of procession of child pornography arising from their testimony and were given certificate from the court that their evidence would not be used against them.

One of the crucial pieces of the defence argument came in the Linden’s Gallery Director, Melinda Martin’s testimony where it emerged that the documentation in the application to the Australian Classification Board consisted of images of Paul Yore’s installation before the police removed any images. Although the application did lack detail it appears that one of the parts removed by the police may be seen in the application for classification. The Australian Classification Board classified Yore’s work Classification 1, Restricted, suitable for people over the age of 18.

Yore’s defence team of Neil Clelland and Rowena Orr was focused on the statutory definition of child pornography. They were not contesting the police time line of events nor any of the police evidence. They wanted to know how the concept of production of child pornography was being proven.

The defence case consisted of expert witnesses, or “witnesses with specialist knowledge” in the current legal speak. Jason Smith, director of the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Antonia Syme, the director of the Australian Tapestry Workshop, and Max Delany, senior curator at the NGV. The defence of artistic merit was clearly made to which the prosecution was trying various arguments, the best of which the magistrate returned to putting the questions directly to Antonia Syme; what if Leonardo da Vinci made child porn does it follow that because he is an artist the work has artistic merit? To which Ms Syme replied: “Putti. Leonardo did lots of naked children.” Max Delany will give his evidence tomorrow morning.


Meditation on Songlines

“Songlines” is an installation by visual artist Kallie Turner and composer Joel Ritchie at Tinning Street Presents. It is both simple and elegant. In the middle of the gallery sits a very large cone of iron oxide red powder with a woven bag suspended above it.

It is like Anish Kapoor meets aboriginal culture; the title, “songlines” refers to the Australian aboriginal tradition of mapping routes in songs. Perhaps the powder is red ochre, an earth pigment that is widely used by Australian aborigines in a variety of traditional practices including painting and decoration.

The cone of red powder is well lite in the blacked out gallery, the shadows of the cone and bag are projected onto the gallery wall. The colour and texture of the powder stands out in sharp contrast to the darkness.

Ritchie’s powerful soundtrack of rolling deep brass lines and taping sticks makes this installation a total sensory experience; all that was lacking was a smell. The soundtrack also invited the visitors to stay longer and meditate on the cone of ochre.

Kallie Turner is a local artist; I’ve seen her work before in MoreArts 2011 (see my blog post) and, like this time, it was an impressive work.

Impressive but nothing really new for contemporary art and the documentation describing it as “a meditation on the process of renewal, transition, and illusion of life, along with a poem on the room sheet instead of the usual documentation for an exhibition is a little overblown and over directed. The artists need to be more confident that their work can communicate more than words and the mystical is often ineffable.


True Beauty @ First Site

Last Friday night at a party the printmaker Joel Gailer was stamping “THE TRUTH IS A COPY” on people – I got one stamped on my arm. I love the anti-Socratic statement as Socrates held that reality was but a copy of the true form. However, if the truth is not a good copy of reality than it not true.

The three current exhibitions at 1st Site Gallery at RMIT combine to further complicate any ideas you might have about truth, beauty, copies and reality.

“Render Complete” by Spencer Lai, Matthew Berka and Hamish Storrie, reflects on ideal beauty in “a society that is obsessed with the act of imaging itself and the spaces in which we inhabit.” It is like a digital Han Belmar doll with an Ikea catalogue. The digital simulacra are an ideal dream as the computerized narrator keeps on confessing in the video.

“Trashland” by Lucie McIntosh is about an enhanced reality, a better than real party. Naked Barbie dolls in glitter gimp masks, the repeated photographs of a head with all the details sprayed over except for the glitter lips, real glitter lips stuck on to the photographs. At one end of the space three television sets form “a shrine to instants passed by, trash punk, wasters and party people”. The only problem with “Trashland” is that there is not enough of it – the space is too empty to convince me that the exhibition really is over the top.

“Cardboard Cabin” by Harry Hay is an installation with a few paintings leading up to it. The installation is like a physical version of Hay’s paintings, with the same run-down Australian shed aesthetics. The installation of a cabin with furniture, tools and walls all made of painted corrugated cardboard. The photographs hanging on the wall of the shed in cardboard frames are photographs of a cardboard world contributing another level of simulacra. Creating a caricature copy of part of the world out of a different material has a special kind of appeal. (I was just watching the episode of James May’s Toy Story with the plasticine garden last night.)

Getting back to the old philosophical stamping grounds truth, beauty, copies and reality. “Render Complete” proposes that true beauty is an ideal dream that cannot be copied. Whereas, “Trashland” argues that reality can be beautiful but trashy. And “Cardboard Cabin” is an enjoyable copy of an ugly truth. I love the way these exhibitions confute (confutation, to confuse an argument, is less strong than a refutation but tactically can be just as successful as it is less aggressive) ideas of truth and beauty. I think this is one of the reasons that I love art because there is confutation in way that artists explore ideas.

“And let us not forget those auditory hallucinations which, as ‘Socrates’ demon’ have been interpreted in a religious sense.” – Nietzsche


Urban Intervention @ YSG

Urban Intervention: a street sculpture exhibition and art trail opened on Friday night at the Yarra Sculpture Gallery, part of the Sweet Streets festival. (I must declare that I am the festival’s secretary, a volunteer position but it does give me a bias in my reports.)

Opening "Urban Intervention" @ Yarra Sculpture Gallery

People don’t often ask what is the future of street art? Very few people are asking this question because street art is ephemeral and it is perceived as fashionable fad (although the fad has lasted some 30+ years). The whig history of art dismisses street art as a fad because it doesn’t fit with art history’s idea of progress. But there is a lot of progress in street art scene: street sculpture and yarn bombing.  There are other aspects that are not easily packaged like culture jamming and site specific installations.

There are a lot of impressive elements to this exhibition; a whole painted ute was parked in the gallery, a shopping cart covered in knitting and an installation of light, smells and sounds. There was street sculpture from Mic Porter, Nick Ilton, Will Coles and Junky Projects. The Melbourne Light Painters exhibited photographs and the objects that emit light (sparklers, toys swords and other things). Van Rudd exhibited a work protesting Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Phonenix brings Banksy’s “The Little Diver” from Cocker Alley in Melbourne back from its destruction with a paste-up that was recreated and documented in the exhibition.

Nick Ilton's "Suggestion Box" and suggestions

Importantly for a street art exhibition the exhibition is not limited to the gallery there is an associated art trail where the artists from the exhibition have work in context with an online collaborative map. I haven’t walked the trail yet but I have looked at it online – the detail in this Google map is fantastic. It is important for this to exist in both the virtual and actual versions because so much of street art scene exists online, as well as, the streets.

I was disappointed that there wasn’t any guerrilla gardening in the exhibition, maybe I will find some on the art trail. I must do that when the weather improves.

Curated by Anna Briers and Kelly Madigan this is an important exhibition about under-represented trends in street art: “site specific installation, culture jamming, underground light painting, yarn bombing…” It also sets new benchmarks in quality in exhibiting street art.


September 2010 @ Blindside

I’m thinking about how to write art reviews/criticism as I consider how to review the two exhibitions at Blindside: Amanda Airs “Beach Box Blue” and Jacque Drinkall “Weather Underwater”. Should I bother to review bad exhibitions when I could just use my energy to write about the ones that I liked? But if I were to only review one of the two exhibitions at Blindside it would imply that I didn’t like the other without exploring the reasons for this choice.

Karen Thompson, Melbourne Jeweller wrote in her blog: “I find I can be affected by reading other reviews and media before seeing or writing about an exhibition, such that my reaction can sometimes be unconsciously formed a little by what I read. I counter this by usually not reading anything before seeing the show and writing my initial response, to be sure I understand my own opinion, and then find it really interesting how that can change with further reading etc. So, I’ll write my initial response before doing any research into the exhibition, and then write more after doing some more reading.”

I agree with this approach; in doing further reading I will first try to find out what the artist has done before this exhibition. I will further investigate the ideas behind the art, where it fits into the history of art and what it means to a culture. I will then read other critics opinions on the artist. So where does reading the artist’s statement fit into this program?

Blindside has been providing single A4 sheet folded catalogues with all of their exhibitions this year. Along with a couple of colour images of the work and exhibition details there is always a statement by the artist in these catalogues.

Jacque Drinkall’s artist statement for “Weather Underwater” is pointless nonsense, as opposed to nonsense with a point, like satire, parody, Dada or Surrealist nonsense. It is mental diarrhea – incoherent and messy. Like her exhibition the initial attraction of the photographs, videos and sculptural objects quickly breaks down on realizing that there is little connections between them. It appears irrelevant, so why bother trying to read Jacque Drinkall’s mind when all indications suggest that it is scrabbled?

“The culture and aesthetics of telepathy and psychic life permeates the ‘everyday’. My art works creatively with telepathy to better understand and change the world.” – Jacque Drinkall (“Weather Underwater”, catalogue)

Amanda Airs exhibition statement for “Beach Box Blue” was both coherent and expanded on what was already visible in her exhibition. She has located her work within the history of art (Bridget Riley and op art), she has explained her technique (spatial distortion through colour and the illusion of movement “through the use of contrasting colour and repetition of line and angle”) and, finally, she has added her personal experience of optical effects.

“Beach Box Blue” is a post-minimal installation of colored threads creating optical effects. I have seen other artists in Melbourne using thread to divide up spaces but “Beach Box Blue” is the most intense and optically satisfying of these works due to Amanda Airs choice of colors and painting the gallery wall to emphasize the contrasting colors.

I don’t think that artist’s statement should be included as a matter of course for all the art exhibited. My advice to most artists is not to write artists statements. Artists are often not the best people to write about their own art – how many media do you expect them to master?


Sunny Saturday

The sunny weather on the weekend inspired me to ride by bicycle down the Upfield bike path from Coburg to Brunswick. I had pulled over to the side to photograph a new piece of aerosol art when two cyclists announced: “Two cycles passing”. When I caught up with them at the Moreland Road lights one of the cyclists asked if the piece was one of mine. “No, I just photograph them.” I explained. “There are plenty of good new pieces further on.” They replied, the lights changed and they rode on. I was rode more slowly enjoying the sunshine and keeping my eyes open for new pieces.

I stopped in at Brunswick Art on Little Breese St, out the back of Alasysa Restaurant where I could smell the Turkish bread baking. A guillotine stood ready in the white gallery space; black guillotines are especially theatrical. The guillotine was garlanded with dead and unnatural flowers sparkling with red glitter. There was a pillar toppled by iconoclastic revolt and a new obscured hero on a reinforced plinth; both were painted black with more black garlands. Along with these objects there are two wall paintings, line drawings in black paint. This is “Revolt” by Benjamin Webb. Benjamin Webb told me that it started with the line drawing of the horn of cornucopia that he saw repeatedly in his work at the NGV indexing etchings and lithographs from the 17th Century. The horn of cornucopia spewing out foliage, the spontaneity riotous of growth and life is the inspiration for “Revolt”.

“Revolt” is an image of an expression of the body politics vomiting out new growth. It is a more symbolic exhibition than Webb’s usual materialistic approach to sculpture. I’m not sure that “Revolt” is as well constructed conceptually as it is physically but it was fun and dramatic to look at it.

While I was at Brunswick Arts talking with Benjamin Webb, Michael Scorge dropped in to promote bands and BBQ that afternoon at his Shop31 in Coburg.

This will be Benjamin Webb’s last solo exhibition in Melbourne for a while as he is relocating to Germany. So, I said “bon voyage” to Ben and continued to cycle around Brunswick and photograph more street art. I could have gone on to look at the Counihan Gallery or Ocular Labs but I was curious about Shop31.

I stopped at 696 Ink where Karl Persson was exhibiting more of his macabre and sadistic paintings (see my review of his last exhibition). His current exhibition lacks the quirky details of his earlier paintings; his version of one of Francis Bacon’s “Three studies for figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” looses some art but the sadistic image remains.

Shop31, at 31 Sydney Rd. Coburg, has a bit of everything from local CD, t-shirts, second hand LPs and punk-style stencil art. I had seen the stencil art in the window of the shop when I had passed by before but this was the first time that I had seen it open.

That was a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours in the afternoon around my neighbourhood on probably the last warm weekend that Melbourne will have until the end of winter.


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