Tag Archives: Melbourne

And they call them vandals

Walking around Melbourne, looking at street art and graffiti and thinking about the value of art, distinguishing between cultural, monetary and aesthetic values. Thinking about the street art being destroyed in the building boom. While ancient petroglyphs on Burrup Peninsula (Murujuga) are being destroyed in an act of industrial iconoclasm. The rock art gallery in the world means nothing to Woodside Petroleum or the WA Labor government (read the ABC news story). Nor does destroying the climate. 

Manda Lane and Kasper in Hosier Lane

I know that so much of the art world is a massive art wash, tax dodge, looted, exploitation move by the rich and powerful, as it’s been for centuries. I am still interested in art, and art-like activities, because they are, more or less, the best contiguous record of human and pre-human existence. Unauthorised street art and graffiti can be seen as an alternative to this plutocratic view. Like traditional art, it is a practice that doesn’t require wealthy patrons to pay, validate and promote the art.

Melbourne’s street art and graffiti boom occurred when the city was dying and decaying in the centre. Street art flourished because there were plenty of walls, lanes where old buildings were still standing, not because they were worth anything but because nobody had an economic reason to tear them down. The marvellous city, which had boomed in the gold rush, continued to offer ever-expanding suburbs, resulting in fewer demolitions at its core.

Melbourne is changing, new buildings changing the local geography, sometimes I no longer recognise the location anymore. The skyline on the west side that I see coming into Southern Cross Station is full of new glass towers.

“At what point do we say no?” writes Cara Waters in The Age. Now that it is being built over, people (Adrian Doyle) talk about its historical value Of course, everybody wants to rewrite history. It is a nice bit of rhetoric, but it will probably be flooded in twenty years, given the rising sea levels and Australia’s response to climate change. We all knew that it was going to be, more or less, ephemeral. Ars langa, vita brevis (art is long, life is short) – Hippocrates

Like art collecting, art destroying is largely the preserve of governments, mining companies and other plutocrats. And they call street artists and graffiti writers vandals?


Flinders Lane Nov 2021

A local cross-disciplinary artist, Amy Hurley, has an installation, A Sorry Semblance, in the Cathedral Cabinet. Cathedral Cabinet is a glass display case at the entrance of Cathedral Arcade on the ground floor of the Nicholas Building (another reason to Save the Nicholas Building). It is across the road from where the Bourke and Wills Monument was previously located in Melbourne’s City Square; now, the site of a massive box covering the excavation for Melbourne’s new underground rail loop.

detail of Amy Hurley, A Sorry Semblance

In her installation, Hurley has deconstructed the sculptural head of Bourke as imagined by the nineteenth-century sculptor Charles Summers, who made the memorial. Looking at the parts separately, I failed to recognise the face, hence the title, A Sorry Semblance.

The parts of Hurley’s installation were all relevant, from the quotes from a translation of Camus’ novel The Plague to the location across the road from the monument. However, the connections between Camus, Summers’ bronze statue of Bourke and the white ceramic tiles were not strong enough and the installation looked unfinished.

I was looking around Melbourne galleries around Flinders Lane on Wednesday when I saw A Sorry Semblance. There wasn’t much on; exhibitions installations were being done at Craft Victoria and Platform while Mailbox Art Space stood empty. It was my first time looking around galleries since Melbourne’s long lockdown. Needing to check-in and prove my double vaccinated status at every gallery was slowing me down.

Upstairs at Flinders Lane Gallery, I had to look closely at Kendal Murray’s pieces because they looked similar to those by Tinky, fortunately without the awful puns. Of course, in the last decade, I’ve seen artists from Daniel Dorall, Tinky, the Little Librarian, to Kendal Murray have used HO scale model railway figures (see my post about artists who are the same).

At fortyfivedownstairs, there was an exhibition and launch of a limited edition book, Tales from the Greek – Myth, Beauty and Brutality by writer John Hughes with art by Melbourne-based Marco Luccio. Inspired by classical Greek mythology, this is a titan of an exhibition of paintings, prints and sculptures created over five years. There is a gallery full of images of Trojan Horses, minotaurs, Sisyphus and sirens. And the strongest were Luccio’s rough warriors and other figures made of welded found metal (better than my poor photo). See my review of one of Luccio’s previous exhibitions.

Summarising my excursion amongst the galleries of Flinders Lane reminded me of several things: the long tail of classical Greek mythology, the similarity of contemporary artists, and the work going on in Melbourne’s smaller alternate exhibition spaces, like Cathedral Cabinets.

Marco Luccio, Tales from the Greek, installation view

Hosier Lane’s two sides

Looking at that famous Melbourne laneway of street art and graffiti now is like a portrait of the city post-lockdown. It has two sides.

On one side of Hosier Lane is Culture Kings, purveyors of designer streetwear and their wall painted by some hired gun aerosol painter. Further down that side of the lane are pieces by artists with @Instagram names painting anything they think will make them popular. Another set of wings to pose in front of for a selfie to bore your friends by El Rolo (aka Carlos Mejia, a graphic designer specialising in “illustration, packaging and commercial art”). El Rolo has been painting more than his fair share of walls in Hosier Lane for over a year, and I try to ignore it. His art is slightly less shallow when he collaborates with another South American artist also based in Melbourne Oskr who does calligraphic work — or what he calls “calligraffiti”.

Oskr & El Rolo

On the other side of Hosier Lane is The Living Room providing aid for the homeless and the homeless in their genuine streetwear. The walls on this side are painted in a mixture of styles and techniques. On this side of the lane, the art is wild and free. On the wall opposite Culture Kings, there is a painted protest with placards calling for “free weed,” “dry socks,” and simply “change”. This seated man is a reference to Melbourne stencil artist Meek’s Begging for change 2004, an image of a seated man with a placard that reads “keep your coins, I want change.” Further down, another artist has preserved a paste-up by Barak, bringing it into the literally hand-painted and hand-printed landscape. 

Trying to decipher this gestalt graphic of the two sides of this laneway, illustrating the contrast between those that see the city as a place, like home, and those who see it as a commercial opportunity. In several places a stencil of “IF” in large Times Roman font has been sprayed.

Meanwhile, AC/DC Lane, just a few lanes up from Hosier, remains the place for quality street art.


Halloween in Australia

The common denial that Halloween is not Australian is incorrect. Although there clearly was a time in the late 20th century when Halloween festivities didn’t happen for a couple of decades in some parts of Australia. However, the reality is that Halloween has been celebrated in Australia since the colonial era.

In 1858 the Mount Alexander Mail advertised a “Select Scottish Ball on the Anniversary of Halloween” at the Red Hill Hotel, Forest Creek (p.8). Colonial Australian newspapers also reported on Queen Victoria celebrating Halloween at Balmoral. Few people now remember Robert Burn poem “Halloween”, but it was often quoted in Australian newspapers in October and on Burn’s birthday in January. For about a decade in the 1860s a ballet based on Burn’s poem touring Australia. And echoing Burns in a manner that not even William McGonagall could muster, a poem titled, “An Australian Halloween” by an ‘Ossian MacPhearson’ was published in the Hamilton Spectator and Grange District Advertiser, Saturday 12 November 1864, (p. 3). So the idea that Halloween is alien to Australia is absurd.

Halloween celebrations continued to be enjoyed in Australia after federation often organised by the local Caledonian Society. But by the 1970s Halloween was not just a Scottish event. In 1970, the Australian Jewish Times wrote about plans for a “halloween party” in “Briefly on youth” p.17. Halloween in Australia was changing from parties for adults to a day for children to dress up. And in 1974, the Canberra Times reported on children in the suburb of Hughes playing trick or treat.

Australia has borrowed most of its holidays from the northern hemisphere and most of its culture that isn’t British, from America. So neither explanations of climate nor anti-Americanism feel satisfactory; otherwise, Easter, Christmas, along with Mother’s Day would also be failing in Australia. Holidays come and go; Guy Fawkes night is no longer celebrated in Australia primarily due to safety restrictions on the sale of fireworks but also because Australian culture is no longer that closely tied to England.

According to market research, Halloween is currently Australia’s least favourite festival. I can’t believe it is less popular than St. Patrick’s Day and the horse racing holiday. One contributing factor for this might be the decline in people identifying as Scottish Australian as there was a corresponding decline in membership of Caledonian Societies, and the Royal Caledonian Society of Melbourne ceased to operate on 21 April 2016. 

Culture is not static but constantly evolving, so claims that Halloween is not Australian are not definitive. Indeed claims that Halloween is not Australian are a recent development in the history of Halloween in Australia.

I proudly bear some responsibility for the introduction of Halloween trick or treating in Coburg. As a bit of a goth with fond memories of a Canadian childhood, Halloween is a celebration I enjoy. It has been enthusiastically taken up by a multi-cultural neighbourhood for unlike any other annual event because it is not religious and is not about the family. I am interested in Halloween because it encourages children to explore memes and their physical neighbourhood. There are problems with Halloween that I would like to change, the amount of plastic, the sugar and the commercialism.

Halloween decorations in a garden in Coburg

The Nest in Darebin Parklands

“Look, a sculpture!” A cyclist says to her companions as they roll by following the curve of the cycle trail through Darebin Parklands.

David Michael Bell and Gary Tippett, The Nest, 2012

The Nest by David Michael Bell and Gary Tippett is obvious. A brown sphere positioned halfway up a hill, half surrounded by a pond. Large enough to be a minor landmark in the park. The round form fits with the undulating landscape.

Although it can be seen from the cycle trail, access to the sculpture is via a circuitous route. You can’t walk directly to it because there is a pond is packed with rushes and reeds, providing a home for waterfowl in front of it. You have to walk through natural a parkland of indigenous flora and fauna to reach sculpture.

The simple round form of The Nest, made from recycled wood, becomes more complex on closer inspection. The pieces of wood making the form creating patterns. Their brown painted hand chiselled surface. You can look at an easy to navigate 3D sketch of The Nest and even see inside it.

David Bell, Raising the Rattler Pole

Its sculptors have an unusual career path. Bell moved from being a theatre stage manager to a prop maker to public sculpture. “Five years ago, I did my first public artwork with Gary Tippett, a film industry colleague, in Wodonga’s main street. Since then, public art has been my full-time passion and interest.” What’s On Blog’s interview with Bell. Bell’s up-ended tram on the corner of Spencer and Flinders Street Raising the Rattler Pole – The Last of the Connies. (Bell and Tippett are not alone in moving from theatre to public sculpture; there is also William Eicholtz.)

Bell and Tippett know how to make a dramatic statement dressing the urban stage. The main problem with their sculptures is that they are set dressing, meaningless decorations that get looks but say nothing. The best that can be said for them is that they fit in their location. They are passable but not great; the cyclists don’t stop for a second look as they pass by.


Street art notes July 2021

On the eve of Melbourne’s fifth lockdown, I decided that I had better look at some of the best of Melbourne’s street art and graffiti while I still had the chance. So I mask-up, jump on a tram and walk around the city on Thursday afternoon. Now, as I write this I am confined to my house and can only travel 5km around it for exercise, shopping … you know the drill.

A wall in Lovelands

Although I regularly reflect on what has been put up in Hosier Lane, AC/DC Lane, Croft Alley and Presgrave Place, there are many lanes that I haven’t seen in years. It was not just a lockdown that was limiting my chances, whole laneways full of art on the cusp of being demolished, art disappearing into construction projects.

I was photographing work down a familiar lane off Franklin Street, near the Queen Victoria Market and the Mercat. I have fond memories of both meals and gigs at the Mercat, which closed in January 2017. Now a massive multi-storey construction looms over it all.

A builder wearing fluro noticed my interest: “There is even better stuff further down,” he informs me. I knew that there was. The building site hadn’t swallowed up the network of lanes known as Lovelands, but it looked like it soon would.

Blender Alley is now one of the entrances to the massive construction site. Although Blender Studios have moved to a new location there is still some historic stencil art from HaHa and Psalm and quality new work on its walls. 

People always wondered how long street art and graffiti was all going to last. I remember Ghost Patrol saying that it was over in 2008. They should have been concerned not that it was a fad or how long the pigments in the paint will last but how fast the walls in the city are rebuilt. Melbourne’s street art fame has as much to do with the design of the city and these service lanes as the artistic talent.

I will pause for some lunch before examining some of the deeply held assumptions about art and the influence of the philosopher and historian David Hume. Hume came up with the idea of fads and fashions when he started to record English social history after the English Civil War. Now I’m more inclined to believe in structural influences, even the built environment, rather than the whim of a population.

However, walking around the city on Thursday afternoon I just feel negligent that I haven’t seen these years. I walk these laneways in search of the latest instantiation of the zeitgeist. There are hundreds of these service lanes, and the latest, freshest work could be hiding up any one of them. Jazzy capping Ash Keating in Chinatown, Sunfigo keeping social media real, more black and white stencil pieces by Night Krawler, paste-ups by Suki, Phoenix, and collaborative pieces by Manda Lane and Viki Murray (read my earlier post on Murray’s skateboard riders).


Maree Clarke’s Ancestral Memories

My main reason to go to the NGV was to see Maree Clarke solo retrospective, “Ancestral Memories”, but I saw another exhibition before – “We Change the World”. After all the world needs to change. However, this is a tracksuit of an exhibition theme, comfortable, shapeless, and accommodating almost anything. The work is from the NGV collection, a random selection including Julian Opie, David Hockney, Guerrilla Girls, and Maree Clarke… (Why Clarke when there is her solo exhibition in the next gallery?)

Maree Clarke, Maree Clarke 2012, inkjet print (image courtesy of NGV)

“Ancestral Memories” is the subtitle of the Maree Clarke exhibition; it was also the title of her exhibition at the University of Melbourne Old Quad in 2019. For ancestral memories are the material that Clarke works with. (Please read my blog post reviewing that exhibition, Clarke’s role as a culture worker, and why she is an important local artist.)

This Yorta Yorta / Wamba Wamba / Mutti Mutti / Boonwurrung woman has been reclaiming and revived many south-east Australian Aboriginal art and cultural practices, including possum skin cloaks to kangaroo tooth necklaces. At the NGV her work is display alongside historical material from Museum Victoria, clearly illustrating how she is reviving her culture. Before Clarke, there were less than a dozen possum skin cloaks in existence, all from the nineteenth century. After Clarke, the number of possum skin cloaks is increasing because she, along with other collaborators, brought the practice back to life.

It is a sombre exhibition with black painted walls. Much of the exhibition is about mourning, another form of ancestral memory. One of the slightly lighter notes is the series of photographic holograms of still life, including native flowers and kitsch Aboriginal Australiana. As Clarke looks from the ancestral memories to a future, including new technology and materials along the way.

This exhibition follows on from the NGV’s retrospective for Bindi Cole; more retrospectives for Indigenous woman artists are a welcome trend.


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