A few Australian groups have acted or threatened to take action outside of the law to achieve artistic and cultural objectives. Most are right-wing conservatives — so much for the so-called ‘cancel culture’ of the left.
In 2003 the Revolutionary Council for the Removal of Bad Art in Public Places threatened to destroy a number of pieces of public art. That the “spokesman, Dave Jarvoo, told The Australian newspaper” about the threat speaks to the conservative taste of this so-called Revolutionary Council. The fact is that they were all talk and no action, and the spuriously named, Dave Jarvoo appears to be the only member of this organisation.
Their targets were modern sculptures Fairfield Industrial Dog Object and in Sydney; Ken Unsworth’s Stones Against the Sky ‘poo sticks’ in Kings Cross and Brett Whiteley’s Almost Once giant matches behind the Art Gallery of NSW. David Fickling for The Guardian came up with several more deserving targets in Sydney (see his article), and I could do the same for Melbourne (perhaps in another post). (Thanks to Vetti Live in Northcote for drawing my attention to the Revolutionary Council for the Removal of Bad Art in Public Places.)
The Australian Cultural Terrorists (aka A.C.T.) stole Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the NGV, held it to ransom and then returned it undamaged. They seem to have twice as many members as Dave Jarvoo’s Revolutionary Council; at least one man and, maybe, one woman. They were more successful than the Revolutionary Council but, perhaps, no more radical given their demands for more art prizes for local artists. They had no follow up aside from stories that the following year they also wrote some libellous letters about people in Australia’s art world. The A.C.T. wrote lots of jeering, satirical letters, several of them attacking state Arts Minister, Race Mathews.
To this list, we could add the Catholic Church for their attack on Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ in the NGV. Graffiti writers, like Pork, that cap and tag as a form of conquest and censorship. And BUGA-UP, graffiti to stop tobacco advertising, vigilantes with a specific type of art, selling a particular message in mind, not exactly the artistic kind but still ‘art’ in the advertising copy sense.
Public statues are about honouring the person portrayed, especially when they are larger than life-sized. There are no public portrait statues created of people who it was not intended to honour. This is because the tradition of portrait sculpture started with the depiction of Ancient Greek gods, demigods and heroes.
The campaign, “Wentworth Must Fall”, at Sydney University to remove the statue of William Charles Wentworth from the Great Hall and rename the Wentworth building is based on the Oxford University “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign and other campaigns for statue removal that are known collectively as the Statue Wars (see my post Statue Wars 2017).
Removing a sculpture or burning of an effigy is not revising history — it is a symbol of regime change. It is about moving from colonial to post-colonial. The changes in public statues, place names and other symbols is part of post-colonialism. And the question that Sydney University students are asking their university in this campaign is what are they doing to decolonize. Leaving a public portrait statue of a person who is no longer honoured distorts the historical record by implying that the person is still honoured.
It is traditional to burn the effigies of hated figures and remove statues of them. Often when a statue is removed it is destroyed because the people removing it hate the person it represents. This doesn’t have to the case and the statue can be stored, archived, and exhibited in contexts that do not honour the person portrayed (for example in an exhibition of the work of the sculptor who made it).
The statue of Wentworth was made by Pietro Tenerani, a sculptor based in Rome and a student of the Danish neo-classical sculptor Thorvaldsen. During his career Tenerani produced work to order for the Catholic church and nationalists around the world — from a statue of Simon Bolivar for Bogota to a statue of Ferdinand II of Naples for Messina. His portrayal of Wentworth as an orator is more creative than accurate. When the statue was made Wentworth was in his sixties but is portrayed as a younger man. Wentworth himself was not a supporter of the statue. He believed that the funds could have been better spent.
Regardless of the details of Wentworth’s life his statue was and always will be a colonial symbol. The inauguration of the Wentworth statue was an imperial event (as reported in Empire p.5 24 June 1862). Before its unveiling the statue was covered with a flag and the band playing God Save the King several times. Australian nationalists are keen to cement their claims with statues of colonial heroes and post-colonialism is heavily resisted. The current government worships Captain Cook as a demigod of imperial colonisation, worthy of a multi-million dollar memorial.
It is the plinth or pedestal that is the crucial element in the hero worship of these statues. Lying on its side without its plinth statues of Stalin or Felix Dzerzhinsky are inoffensive. If the statue of Wentworth was placed in a pit (maybe with a glass roof so that people could walk over it) it would have a very different meaning.
All that a hopeful artist has to do to win Australia’s most prestigious prize for portrait painting is pay the $50 entry fee and deliver their painting to the loading dock at the rear of the Art Gallery of NSW at a certain date. Each year thousands of paintings are arrive and if a painting makes the final exhibition it is doing well.
The portrait must be of a notable in the fields of arts, science or politics (although judging from the entries this is very flexible). It has to be painted from life, meaning that the artist must have actually met the notable person; the subject has to sign the entry form to confirm this. Mostly it is artists painting other artists, or themselves, in a daisy-chain of insider promotion.
It was a relief to see that there were no portraits of politicians amongst this year’s finalists. No of the finalist artists wanted to be associated with any Australian politician. Although ugly, morally bankrupt thugs have been the subject of Archibald finalists in the past, such as Adam Cullen’s portrait of Chopper Reed, there were no portraits of popular criminals this year.
One positive aspect of both of these trends is that there were a lot more small portraits suitable for domestic display.
As a focus of this blog is the intersection of street and gallery so I should report on the two street artists in the exhibition: ELK and Kirpy. Both portraits are very large, more than one square metre, multi-layered stencils spray-painted in aerosol paint and use acrylic paint to fill in the larger areas and give weight and texture. And both compositions have strong horizontal elements, in a rather rigid and static structure. Kirpy’s painted Dylan Alcott Paralympic gold medallist and founder of the musical festival Ability Fest. And ELK (aka Luke Cornish) did portrait of businesswoman and media commentator Sue Cato, along with her dogs, Callie and Comet. In 2012 ELK was the first street artist in the Archibald Prize finals and the following year first street finalist in Sulman Prize.
For the exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW is not just the Archibald but also the Wynne and Sulman prize.These prizes receive far less attention in the media than the celebrity focus of the Archibald.
The Wynne Prize for landscape painting or figurative sculpture is, not surprisingly, dominated by Indigenous artists this year. Figurative sculpture has become far less significant in Australia’s art world and there were only two pieces amongst the finalists.
The changing significance of types of art reminded me that the Sulman Prize is for subject, genre or mural painting. And given the increased significance of mural painting I don’t know why more street artists and graffiti writers don’t enter that prize. After all Guido van Helten’s Brim silos mural project was the winner for the mural prize in 2016.
I haven’t seen the actual Archibald prize exhibition for many years but as I was in Sydney I can report on it.
“A city is the greatest work of art possible” Lloyd Rees
What I did on my summer holiday. Did you ever write that for school?
I went for a holiday in Sydney. I wanted to have a holiday and get away from my work but when your work involves public art, even walking around the block can involve looking at a sculpture or street art. I did take a few photographs of some sculptures in Sydney.
Lin Li, Golden Water Mouth, 1999
I saw sculptures that I like; I loved the golden tree in Chinatown, Golden Water Mouth by Lin Li. I saw some sculpture that horrified me like the bronze sculpture of Governor Macquarie with its very large feet.
I can’t help explaining the differences between lost wax and sand casting when looking at the Robert Kippel sculpture at Circular Key. The Jason Wing alleyway in Chinatown brought back memories of seeing an exhibition by him in 2009. My wife asked me if I was thinking of writing a book about Sydney’s public sculpture, after my Sculptures of Melbourne.
People keep telling me that Melbourne is somehow special in its relationship to public sculpture and I just don’t buy that intercity rivalry. Admittedly Sydney did not have the year long “Yellow Peril” stupidity but it was just a stupid overblown Melbourne City Council dispute after all and not the end of civilisation. Sydney was less in need of landmark sculptures having both major architectural and physical landmarks.
I ran into the sculptor, Lis Johnson in the Art Gallery of NSW shop who was up in Sydney studying marble carving. She thought that Sydney was becoming more like Melbourne with the street art in the laneways along with small coffeeshops and bars.
There are a lot more public sculptures in Sydney these days. There is a similar historical trajectory as I trace in my book. And I have done the research on some of the sculptors like Akio Makigawa already. The street sculptor, Will Coles lives and works in Sydney; I could add interview with him instead of the one with Junky Projects.
Pipe dreams aside I have no immediate plans to write the companion book to my Sculptures of Melbourne because I don’t live in Sydney. About half of what I have earned from writing the book has come from walking tours and talks. Anyway the City of Sydney has a good website about its public art with walking tours.
Last week Geoff Newton had a small exhibition of Paul Yore’s textile work at his Melbourne gallery, Neon Parc. Yore’s work reminded me of the art of English Turner Prize-winning artist, Chris Ofili for there is the same intensity, insanity and psychedelic intensity of both of their vision complete with sequins and vibrant colours. It was a chance for Melbourne to see it before the work was due to go up to Sydney for the Sydney Contemporary, Sydney’s new international art fair.
Paul Yore, “Fountain of Knowledge”, 2013
Then a few hours before its VIP preview Sydney Contemporary announced that it would not be showing Paul Yore’s work. Sydney Contemporary’s Director Barry Keldoulis made the following statement: “Sydney Contemporary supports artists and their practice, but we respect and work within the laws of the jurisdiction. Our decision with regard to the installation is a about the law of the land and they are on the wrong side of it. When we saw the work we recognised the issues and sought legal advice which confirmed the work offends various relevant provisions in the Crimes Act Legislation in NSW. We regret having had to make the decision but have no doubt it’s in the best interests of all the artists and galleries showing at Sydney Contemporary 13.”
Keldoulis’s statement is overly definite (“no doubt”, “they are on the wrong side of it”) and at the same time vague (“various relevant provisions”). It implies that nobody at Sydney Contemporary had seen Paul Yore’s work before (very unlikely) and that censorship is “in the best interests of all the artists and galleries showing” (again very unlikely). We don’t know what issues Keldoulis “recognized” and why these same issues were not recognized when Paul Yore exhibited the some of the same work at Neon Parc, Ballart Art Gallery or the Melbourne Art Fair.
The Crimes Act in NSW does refer to “blasphemous libel” but that was last successfully prosecuted in 1871. Blasphemy is not in the Crimes Act of Victoria and this might explain why there was no police raid on Neon Parc or the Ballart Art Gallery when one of the works removed from Sydney Contemporary was exhibited there. (Not that the Victoria Police regularly attend art galleries to check – they only do that when prompted by right wing scum.) I’m sure that Paul Yore’s work “Fountain of Knowledge” could be regarded as blasphemous libel (if you wanted to) but that would need to be proven in court. Keldoulis is libellous in claiming that there is “no doubt” that Paul Yore’s art is criminal.
P.S. (20/9/13) Subsequent to publishing this blog post Keldoulis provided some degree of clarification as to what part of Crimes Act he was referring to. NSW has laws about the depiction of children. Arts Law website states: “As at 1 March 2013, genuine artistic purpose is no longer a defence to the offences of production, dissemination, and possession of material that depicts children pornographically.” Under this yet untested law “pornographically” is defined very broadly as “in a sexual context”.
P.S. (29/9/13) Keldoulis and his legal team also removed the work of Queensland artist Tyza Stewart. Do the directors of art fairs normally tour the yet to be opened fair with a barrister to check if the art is legal? Or is Australia or Keldoulis abnormal?
P.S. (2/12/15) To be fair to Keldoulis you can read his response my questions in a blog post: Censorship, Barry Keldoulis and Paul Yore. To be fair to Paul Yore in 2013 the Australian Classification Board classified Yore’s installation, Everything is Fucked as “Classification 1, Restricted, suitable for people over the age of 18” meaning that it is definitely not as Keldoulis maintained illegal.