At the start of March, I was at a packed exhibition opening at Beinart Art Gallery in Brunswick. At the time COVID-19 was in the news but not in Australia. There were so many people at the exhibition it was like rush hour on a Sydney Road tram. I thought that the crowd was such a potential vector for all kinds of diseases and that this art party would be over.
Along with the weeks of bushfires, and months of lockdown, among the many things that I didn’t expect from the year:
… I didn’t expect that in the whole year I’ve seen about a dozen exhibitions, plus one art fair – Can’t Do Tomorrow. In other years I might see a dozen exhibitions in a single fortnight.
… I didn’t expect to be writing obituaries for Melbourne artists, Janet Beckhouse and Adrian Mauriks. I realised that they needed to be written as the newspapers wouldn’t be covering it.
… I didn’t expect that people would be so interested in public art this year. Part of this was due to people walking more as exercise during lockdowns and consequently seeing more public sculpture. It was also due to a post-colonial interest in public statues became a mainstream political issue this year, and I am so glad that it did. Statues that celebrate colonialists and other racists were removed in Belgium, Canada, NZ, South Africa, UK, US, Martinique, Cameroon, as well as, in other places. No statues or memorials have been removed in Australia. It is one of the many disgraceful and disgusting features of Australia and symptomatic of this conservative country’s many deep-rooted problems. (See my post on the Statue Wars 2020.)
And amongst everything that I didn’t expect, the least surprising events of the year was that the arts and tertiary education in Australia were being abandoned in the COVID-19 crisis. Gambling and Pascal’s wager (religions) are more important, for they were given more support and exemptions during lockdown; a position contrary to all medical evidence. And the state premier, Daniel Andrews cutting down more trees, including one of the Djab Wurrung Trees, in an egregious act of cultural vandalism. Giving less reason for optimism than a Leonard Cohen song.
Now that I almost at the end of the year I have no plans to write any more blog posts until the new year. So, finally here are a few photos to sum up the year.
The Jane Goodall Institute Australia asked local artist Lisa Roet to create David Greybeard for their sixtieth anniversary. David Greybeard is one of the chimpanzees studied by Jane Goodall at Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania.
I can’t think of a more appropriate artist; Roet has been making figurative sculptures about non-human, great apes for decades. Her art reminds us that we are great apes, along with chimpanzees, orangutang and gorillas.
I have only seen photos of the sculpture of David Greybeard in front of the Arts Centre Melbourne. When I was last in the city, high winds were predicted for later in the day, and the sculpture was deflated and tied down.
He is sitting with one hand, reaching down towards the pedestrians below. The architecture of the recent edition to the Arts Centre lends itself to becoming a plinth.
The sculpture raises several questions. Is an inflatable silver plastic a respectful media given its association with balloons, advertising, and bouncy castles? What would it look like with an inflatable form of a middle-aged human? How environmentally sound is the media; are we destroying a forest to remind ourselves about its inhabitants? I do know one thing about this inflatable; it has to be deflated and tied down in high winds.
How would David Greybeard feel about his inflated image? Maybe he would only care about its size and popularity.
I prefer other works by Roet in more traditional media — am I really such a media snob? Rather I like the detail that bronze and marble afford. At RMIT there are two great wrinkled hands cast in bronze, but not human hands. They are the hands of chimpanzees, our closest relative in the great apes. The two big hands are slightly raised from their bench level base (studded with skate-stoppers); one is vertical, the other horizontal.
The single finger, in marble at the Bendigo Art Gallery, is both familiar and alien. Like her sculpture at RMIT, these are not gestures, only hands or a finger. What is startling is that my relatives’ hands are not more familiar, like the back of my own hand. Roet’s sculptures remind the viewer how focused art is on the human figure as if we were the only species on earth.
Last Saturday I went into the city to see the latest work by Melbourne-based sculptor Lisa Roet. The nine-metre-tall inflated sculpture of David Greybeard had been deflated and wrapped up in anticipation of the high winds later that day. I had long to wanted to write about Roet’s work and had hoped that this temporary sculpture would provide a photograph and other inspiration for a blog post. Instead, I was left with a reminder that public art has to be prepared for harsh weather conditions.
With my plans deflated I navigated the construction site blocking Fed Square to the new pedestrian crossing to Hosier Lane. Words cannot express the joy my body feels at having this new crossing and not having to cross two streets to get from the square to the lane.
Doyle was also waiting at the crossing and eager to tell me that there was a painting event happening in Hosier Lane. Melbourne City Council had brought Doyle in to organise the re-painting. What appears to be a free-for-all paint is actually a combination of curated work and the chaos of the city.
On Saturday about forty twenty local street artists were going to be re-painting the lane. Artists who hadn’t seen each other since the lockdown were arriving with music, ladders and crates of paint. The reader should not assume that these artists were all young males; Melbourne street artists are a diverse group that includes middle-aged women.
The famous laneway did need yet another layer of paint. It was not up to it usual standard when I had seen it just after lockdown, although there are a few things that I’d like to survive longer. Remembering that before the first lockdown, it had been thoroughly sprayed.
The great Hosier spray of February 8, 2020, was one of the top five art events to have happened in Hosier Lane (along with Empty Nursery Blue, All Your Walls, Andy Mac’s original light-boxes and something else that someone will have to remind me of). It was performance art, a paint happening, action painting at its best, a collaboration by a crew of anonymous, masked artists. Any art that gets Melbourne talking and writing for a week, there has to be a remarkable quality; for the quality of art is directly proportional to the quality of the conversations that it generates.
Now it was being painted yet again, but I didn’t hang around to watch the paint dry.
Ivan Durrant is not an enfant terrible; he is not even a very naughty boy. Durrant is just another painter; often a photorealist painter, but one of the better ones who are interested in light, optics and death. The stories, the legends of blood, slaughter and a dead cow in the forecourt of the NGV on St. Kilda Road don’t describe the retrospective exhibition currently on at the NGV Australia.
The terrible publicity stunt that Durrant is best remembered for, dumping a dead cow in the forecourt of the NGV, resulted in him being fined $100 for littering, ordered to pay $157 in court costs (worth about $1705 in current value). It is the same penalty that was applied to Arlo Guthrie’s narrator in the song Alice’s Restaurant. So there is Arlo and Ivan sitting on bench W with all kinds of mean, nasty, ugly looking people who may not be moral enough to join the army.
The NGV wasn’t that upset with Durrant’s stunt and bought his Butcher shop three years later. For those who remember Durrant’s butcher shop when it was at the entrance to the NGV’s restaurant, to remind the diners.
Looking at the Butcher Shop and his other sculptural pieces again, I see that although the modelling of the meat is excellent, everything else lacks detail. The label and price on the severed hand package, the lack of signs on the butcher shop door or window, even the carpentry around the window is wrong.
Aside from four sculptural pieces, the rest of the exhibition is about paint and traditional themes for paintings: horse racing, football, the artist’s studio, landscapes, farms and animals. Even his paintings of butchered animals are part of a very traditional theme; from Pieter Aertsen’s Butcher’s Stall with the Flight into Egypt 1551 that features a cows head and other carcasses, Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox1655 showing a butchered carcass to Soutine’s Carcass of Beef, 1925, riffing off Rembrandt.
The exhibition shows Durrant development as a painter from his early naive folk style paintings to his current series in saturated colours. Grouped in a series on the massive walls of the NGV Durant’s paintings show a bigger picture and a mind that is more subtle than shock and awe.
If you want to see art that upsets the established order, visit the Destiny Deacon exhibition on the ground floor.
The NGV was so empty that morning just after the reopening after the COVID-19 lockdown. A person played the cello in the foyer, welcoming the visitors back. Entry was by free timed-entry tickets, and there were hand-sanitiser stations on all levels.
It is obscene to have a memorial to a genocidal colonial. I wouldn’t want to honour a person who committed genocide, but the City of Melbourne, along with many Australians, isn’t that concerned. The John Batman memorial at Queen Victoria Market should be removed because: it honours a genocidal colonial, engages in historical negationism, has little historic value, less aesthetic value and is not in its original context.
For years the City of Melbourne had the opportunity to be on the right side of history with the John Batman Memorial. The current plan is considering the memorial in the redevelopment of the market rather than removing it. To allow change for redevelopment rather than an ethical decision shows a lack of any moral character. For if the John Batman Memorial is removed, it will be done, not out of any introspection or empathy or reflection on history, but as a business decision in the redevelopment of the market’s car park. The current market redevelopment is officially called a ‘renewal’, and the memorial to the racist criminal is still there. Similarly, the statue of John Batman that once stood in National Mutual Plaza on Collins St was removed in 2016 for reasons of redevelopment rather than as an ethical decision.
Putting profits before ethics is part of a pattern of behaviour for the site; for profit is the only thing that is sacred in Australia. For before it was a market, it was the site of the city’s first cemetery.
John Batman was buried in an unmarked grave, an accident of history that is appropriate for a person who committed genocide. The memorial was erected over forty years after Batman’s death. When the cemetery was moved, Batman’s body was disinterred along with the rest from the old Melbourne cemetery and reburied in Fawkner cemetery, named after his contemporary rival in land theft, William Fawkner. The cairn moved with the cemetery but was never considered as a marker for Batman’s grave. In 1922 it was moved back to the city to the north bank of the Yarra at Swan Street Bridge. It was moved again to its current site when the City of Melbourne wanted to develop the north bank of Yarra.
The bluestone obelisk is the work of J. W. Brown, a stonemason working in Carlton, and is about as attractive as your average gravestone. Not surprisingly the memorial has not transitioned from memorial to monument to marker: people don’t say that they will meet at the Batman memorial. It has not even been allowed to decay naturally and fade into insignificance. It is maintained at public expense, including the taxes paid by the descendants of Batman’s victims, which is like asking victims of the Cambodian killing fields to pay to maintain a memorial to a member of the Khmer Rouge.
If anyone thinks that the memorial could be rectified with the addition of an explanative plaque should consider the one that is already there:
“The City of Melbourne acknowledges that the historical events and perceptions referred to by this memorial are inaccurate. An apology is made to Indigenous people and to the traditional owners of this land for the wrong beliefs of the past and the personal upset caused.”
The difference in font size and the quality between the broken (badly weathered or vandalised) black print and the memorials gilded letters is obvious. The vague weasel words “inaccurate” rather than what it is, genocide denialism, is referring to “then unoccupied,” (although the date of Batman’s birth is out by a year). There is no mention of genocide and no apology for the theft of land. The politics of the claim of unoccupied, “terra nullius” was historical negation even then, of a sort that would later be Holocaust denial. And Holocaust denial statements are not “inaccurate” they are wrong.
While statues celebrating racists have been removed this year, toppled or officially taken down, in many countries including Belgium, Columbia, Canada, NZ, South Africa, UK and US, no statues or memorial have been removed in Australia. (Although there was a guerrilla action to rewrite and replace plaques in Perth.) Australian politicians (ALP or LNP, whatever your preference) are too conservative to honestly look at the genocidal racist history of Australia. Many of these same politicians are more concerned with finding ways to stop the Black Lives Matter protests than implementing the findings of the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody.
Even though Melbourne is still in lockdown due COVID-19, there are art exhibitions on in Melbourne, but most are entirely online. Sarinah Masukor gives an excellent overview of some of the online works in Memo along with the experience of viewing them online.
Although I have seen some online exhibitions and works during Melbourne’s lockdown, including some that Masukor reviews, I’m not interested in reviewing the online art world. Scrolling through webpages instead of strolling through gallery doesn’t motivate me to write in the same way that the physical art world does. And video art independent of installation is yet another video online.
Why not? What is wrong with viewing art on a screen or in books? After all, that is how most people see most art.
It is not that I have a preference for the actual over the conceptual or precious about how the art is reproduced on a screen. It is because there is a physical aspect to art and culture, the walking, standing and physicality of experiencing. For there is always a space around the art; a space between the lines of poetry, between the episodes of a tv show and the art in the space. The place where we experience art. The physical setting that frames the art, that juxtapositions it with other art, the ghost memories of previous exhibitions in that or similar spaces. Art, in particular public sculpture, cannot be experienced online; from smelling the fumes of the freshly painted walls of graffiti to attempting to climb a sculpture.
Art plonked on our screens is different from art in the anaesthetic whiteness of the art gallery walls, or the surprising location of the street. After all, I could write about any of the other things that I see on the screen: movies, music, games…
Furthermore, there is also a social aspect to art and culture that no zoom meeting can replace. Regular readers of this blog would know that I like the eavesdrop on what other people are saying about the art. Contemporary art and street art was the biggest party on the planet, and the party is over. Even when there is no-one else in the gallery, there is the implication of a social aspect.
However, I did encounter what claimed to be “Melbourne’s worst and only art show” on a wall of Culture Club, a coffee shop on Sydney Road in Brunswick. Local Moreland artist and musician, Ben Butcher describes himself as “Australia’s worst artist”. His paintings were bad but they failed reach his own shit standard of a rainbow shitting unicorn impaling a dolphin on its horn. How bad the original hanging of the exhibition was cannot be said, as one of the paintings had already been withdrawn, but it didn’t satisfy my desire to see some good art.
The front of the State Library of Victoria looks like something out of Dungeons and Dragons. A male warrior attacks a dragon and a female paladin advances; Joseph Edgar Boehm’s St. George and the Dragon and Emmanuel Frémiet’s Jeanne D’Arc.
Many people can’t stand European nineteenth-century academic sculpture. Other people think that it was the last stand of a noble aesthetic tradition. I don’t agree with either; for me, it is like Frank Frazetta or the Brothers Hildebrandt’s fantasy illustrations, it is art about make-believe world. It is about men who wanted their statues of colonial explorers, generals, and other leaders like a boy wants superhero figurines. By making these escapist fantasies figurative art, they were trying to make their meaning more tangible.
The messages in some of these fantasy art can be horrible, racist and sexist (this is not a defence or an apology for these statues). Others make their creators look like an obvious client for future Freudian therapy – man’s eternal struggle with monsters of the deep. They can also be intensely sentimental, or overtly sexy.
Not since the Baroque has there been art as theatrical. The theatricality of the academic fantasy art is the same as the CGI imagery of Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings. And it was just as popular, with the painter John Martin showing blockbuster exhibitions in London in the late nineteenth century.
The nineteenth-century academic artist was portraying the world, not as it was, or is, but as they thought it should have been; a bucolic, mythic, existence. They used everything as a symbol, retreating from the world in search for a meaning that would justify their beliefs. For the world and its facts were increasingly at odds with the values and ideals springing from European religion, myths and legends. What Europeans were discovering was that they were just another great ape of a common species found around the world and not the chosen ones.
The high art of today is about reality and not fantasy. Today fantasy is rarely shown in state galleries or installed in front of state buildings but widely available in prints and posters. But there is still plenty of fantasy art available, it is just curated for a different market and the statues of dragons and warriors are made in a 25mm scale.
(Some people might note that what I am calling ‘nineteenth-century academic sculpture’ includes works made in the early twentieth century. This is the difference between dates and styles and that some styles will in places continue for generations after their significant period.)