Tag Archives: human rights

In the Public Interest

“Benway’s first act was to abolish concentration camps, mass arrest and, except under limited and special circumstances, the use of torture. ‘I deplore brutality,’ he said. “It’s not efficient. On the other hand, prolonged mistreatment, short of physical violence gives rise, when skilfully applied, to anxiety and a feeling of special guilt.” (Wm. Burroughs, Naked Lunch p. 31).

The Counihan Gallery had some excellent exhibitions this year with pertinent political themes like the intervention in the Northern Territory (see my review) and the people smuggling (see my review) but “In the Public Interest” is not one of them. “In the Public Interest” is too vague and stupid; in “celebrating activism, public protest and free speech” the exhibition is pandering to political delusions that Australia is a liberal democracy with free speech and that the government tolerates political dissent and protest.

At the entrance to the Counihan Gallery there is a banner stating that the Moreland City Council welcomes “refugees and asylum seekers”. What is the word for people who want to distract attention from the malefactions through rhetoric and tokenism rather than disassociate themselves from the criminal organization abusing the human rights of refugees? Hypocrites, charlatans and frauds are too weak a collection of words to describe such despicable behaviour.

Simon Perry, 1994, Brunswick

Simon Perry, 1994, Brunswick

Across the road from the Counihan Gallery outside of the Mechanics Institute on the corner of Sydney Road and Glenlyon is a 1994 sculpture by Simon Perry. A plaque provides a strange explanation for the sculpture that appears to be a cage being veiled by a dove. The plaque reads (in part): “…to commemorate the free speech campaign of the 1930s…” Consider the definition of the verb commemorate:

1.            to honor the memory of somebody or something in a ceremony

2.            to serve as a memorial to something

Noel Counihan’s free speech campaign did not accomplished or changed anything – he didn’t have free speech, he was in a fucking cage! The sculpture honours the memory of his failed campaign for the fundamental human right of free speech. For the pedants out there who might point to a High Court decision recognizing freedom of political speech in Australia, I would reply: how has this protected the speech of Albert Langer, the editors of Rabelais (La Trobe student newspaper), Bill Henson, Paul Yore or anyone else? For freedom of speech to be effective in Australia it would have to protect the rights of people other than those in the major political parties who form government.

I want to make it clear that I regard the so-called Australian government as a criminal organization without any moral, political or legal legitimacy what so ever.

Australia is full of bigots with no regard for the human rights of the indigenous population, refugees…. basically any minority that these popularist politicians want to attack. When confronted with these facts Australian bigots will scream that others have committed more crimes than they have. They will point to China, Russia, France and the Spanish Inquisition and say: “look at them, don’t accuse us”; as if someone else committing crimes makes these shit-heads less guilty of the horrendous crimes that they are committing. In this exhibition, this exceedingly stupid attitude is represented in works by Wendy Black, Penny Byrne, Nick Devilin and William Kelly (and the curators Leon Van De Graaff and Victor Griss who choose to include those works).

The worst work in the exhibition goes to George Matoulas who has created a shallow and unpoetic painting, the visually vacuous equivalent of a poem by Rick from the Young Ones – BOMB.

There is some good art in this exhibition, both aesthetically and conceptually but given the confused and stupid politics of the exhibition’s theme I preferred seeing that art when it was in other exhibitions.


Compassion etc. @ Collingwood Gallery

Australia is the only western democracy not to have constitutional or legislative bill of rights. Currently the racial discrimination act has been suspended in part of the country, so that the Australian federal government can discriminated against the aboriginal population. The abuse of the rights of refugees is currently a fundamental cornerstone of Australian mainstream political debate and both major political parties vie to be the cruellest and least humane towards refugees. Basically the state of human rights, even awareness of human rights, in Australia is appalling.

Against this background there are two alternatives: to be loudly critical or quietly submissive. The exhibition, “Compassion and Commitment: Starting from Home” at the Collingwood Gallery, part of the 2010 Human Rights Arts & Film Festival. has chosen the later alternative. The curators, Louisa Marks and Kelly Madigan have referred to human rights in their curatorial statement as often as Australian governments have legislated to protect them – zero. Instead they have decided, with all the good will in the world but little of the intellect, that humanism and other vague positive statements are a satisfactory alternative.

“Recognising the inspiration and awareness which stems from creative expression, the objective of this exhibition is to highlight the active collaboration and communication between artists and community groups.” (Curatorial statement) They could have, with this kind of statement, recognized “the inspiration and awareness” stemming from the artists who design logos and propaganda for fascist groups. Many totalitarian regimes, like Stalinist Russia, encourage “active collaboration and communication between artists and community groups.” It is all very vague; perhaps it would have helped if the curators had developed some understanding of human rights rather than trying to shoehorn their interests into a human rights festival.

In a further demonstration of how much value Australia has for human rights the exhibition is at the Collingwood Gallery, a small shop front rental gallery space. In 2007 I saw the “Apropos” exhibition at Bus Art Space, part of the first Human Rights Arts & Film Festival, and my disappointment with the exhibition was that the art on exhibition wasn’t reaching a wider audience.

It is all very disappointing and depressing. I have reviewed some of the artists exhibiting in this exhibition before; there is nothing wrong with their art, some of which I’ve seen before, but I don’t think that their work has anything to do with human rights. I don’t think that these artists are fooling themselves that their art has anything to do with human rights either – it is just another exhibition opportunity. A few of the artists like, William Kelly, Ben McKeowan, Stephanie Karavasilis and Sonja Hornung do address current and local human rights issues in their art but in the context of this exhibition they were effectively muted.

I don’t know what the rest of 2010 Human Rights Arts & Film Festival is like but I hope that it has more guts and relevance than the exhibition at Collingwood Gallery.

Where is the political art?

Perhaps I was being unfair to Gordon Hookey in my review, repeating Wm. Burroughs remark about the Dadaists anti-Nazi propaganda: “like charging a regiment of tanks with a defective sanitary device from 1920.” Maybe the propaganda is the act of charging the regiment of tanks with what ever you have or just standing in their way like that man in Beijing, just before the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

I don’t think that there are enough artists making art about the critical issues in Melbourne. Some people, like the curators of the 2009 Istanbul Biennial, believe that the last 20 years of international contemporary art have been to hedonistic and frivolous. When I look at an exhibition or a work of art I ask myself: “how relevant is it?” Often there is no answer to that question or when there is it is as glib as press release.

Sure there are some Melbourne artists, Ash Keating for example, who are really doing something but I haven’t seen many great works of art about critical issues. Critical issues like human rights, the greenhouse effect and war are ignored by most of Melbourne’s art world; Bus Gallery’s “Apropos” exhibition in 2007 being one exception – I’m sure there are others. Melbourne’s art world plays at being relevant by supporting popular, dramatic and superficial charities like the Victorian bushfire appeal or kids with cancer. (There are now more charities for kids with cancer in Australia than kids with cancer.)

In writing about political art and critical issues I have to note that WorkSafe Victoria in 2009 has managed to use art to push an important message. It does take commissions (and other involvement with the arts) in order to produce good art about critical issues. Along with the frightening mainstream adverting campaign Worksafe Victoria has also been using graphic artists and street artists to get their message across. The Big Mouth campaign targeted a younger audience, the audience that is most likely to be injured at work. How effective this is might be is debatable but the images produced have been desirable. The artist is Jonathon Zawada and the image is a skull with a red bandana and a zipper mouth. Who wouldn’t want that? I picked it up for the stickers. I’ve also noticed that there are a lot of searches for ‘big mouth’ on my stats page. The image has become a rhetorical device to inspire people to do find out about the campaign for themselves.

The street is still the best place to see artistic images about critical issues. Political graffiti is still alive and topical. Even a big multicoloured piece of aerosol art has a ‘no war’ comment. The stencil art has anarcho-syndicalists and situationist influences and politics; appropriating and altering (detouring) slogans and cartoons. “Unmindfully the anti-capitalists joined those demanding that we must earn our living.” Reads one stencil, along with Tom, the cartoon cat, lazing around. Elsewhere a stencil of a little TV with arms and legs that shows us lies. This situationist propaganda is still, almost fifty years later, a potent alternative on the street to the current political morass. Street art does have advantages in that it is about timing and placement of the image; it is also as ephemeral as the current issue.

However, neither the WorkSafe big mouth advertising campaign nor the scattered political street art are great works of art and this still leaves me asking where are the great, significant, powerful works of art about critical issues?

Lex Injusta II

“The premise that “illegal graffiti is a serious problem” is used to justify the reversal of the onus of proof, with the example of the offense of “going equipped for stealing etc”. This raises the question does the Minister consider that illegal graffiti is as serious a problem as burglary? How does this compare to the serious problem of politicians who vote twice in elections? Here also there has been problems in “demonstrating the requisite intent” resulting no convictions ever being recorded for the offense.”

I sent this email to Victorian Department of Justice following up their reply to my entry “Lex Injusta”.  And I have received a reply citing an estimated cost of graffiti of $300 million a year (Graffiti and Disorder Conference, 2003). This is a weak argument as graffiti policy, unlike many other crimes, determines the cost of graffiti removal. Further in comparison, burglary costs an estimated $2,430 million a year (Australian Institute of Criminology).

The identification of graffiti as ‘a problem’ by 26% of households in an ABS 2005 survey on crime was also cited by the Victorian Department of Justice in their reply. However, according to the same ABS 2005 survey “the most common household crime in all survey years was house break-in.” And the percentage of people who believed that house break-in was a problem was 33%. And 30% of respondents believed that there was “no problems in their neighbourhood.” We can go on all day about statistics, remembering Mark Twain’s remark that there are lies, damned lies and statistics.

Statistics and public opinion can be manipulated to show support (or not) for the recent draconian anti-graffiti ‘laws’. Although Victoria has something called human rights legislation it is not worth the paper that it is printed on as it can be overturned with a few words from the right person. The main effect of the human rights legislation appears to be getting people, like the Minister, to write excuses as to why they are violating human rights. It would be better if Victorian politicians set a good example to the next generations by respecting human rights and principles of justice rather than finding excuses to ignore them.

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