Author Archives: Mark Holsworth

About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher, artist, musician and philosopher. Mark Holsworth writes Black Mark - Melbourne Art and Culture Critic.

Time Warp to Victorian

Sitting upstairs at Coco Black enjoying a cup of hot chocolate and looking out the half-circle, one-way mirrored window out to the Royal Arcade. Watching the shoppers, the group of cub scouts and the tour group. Walking tours are now a common sight in Melbourne, this one is lead by a guide with a stereotypical red umbrella, not that there weren’t walking tours of Melbourne in the nineteenth century.

Royal Arcade

At the base of the display windows in Royal Arcade the shop signs, like that of The Games Shop, are still hand painted in keeping with the late nineteenth century design of the arcade. I think about how many sign painters are still working in Melbourne.

Royal Arcade Games Shop

Time warp back to Marvellous Melbourne, through Royal Arcade and its sister, the Block Arcade, to the invention of shopping as a social experience in the nineteenth century. So much of life as we know it; a home in the suburbs, ‘childhood’, ‘domestic bliss’ and ‘the standard of living’ are nineteenth century inventions.

The Victorian legacy haunts the state of Victoria. Each generation after has created their own version of this time as they live in the houses on networks of roads that were all built in the late nineteenth century. We can’t avoid it, we have inherited a built environment like we have inherited our genes. The Victorian legacy also defines the Australian constitution and other aspects of the nomesphere, the legal construction of geography.

Not only geography but our psychology and taste are still effected by the Victorians. The next generations, the moderns, turned their back’s on their parent’s tastes, even though they had been brought up in a nineteenth century manner. For the baby boomers this meant the joyous rediscovery of all the decorative excess of their grandparent’s generation that were now readily available as heirlooms or filling second hand dealers. Nineteenth century design became part of the psychedelic aesthetic. The spiritualism of the late nineteenth century was also revived as the new age. For the Gen X, with no living connection to their nineteenth century ancestors, they are free to invent their own interpretation, steam-punk. In much the same way, and about as accurately, as the Victorians has re-invented King Arthur, Vikings and the Druids. We continue to try to live with and adapt the legacies of the late nineteenth century.

Also remembering the connections between modern art and modern shopping; Walter Benjamin on shop window displays. Almost every time I go past Aesop I have to remind myself that I’m not passing a contemporary art gallery but an up-market cosmetics shop. Their display is so elegant and minimalist. What is the difference between a shop window display and an art installation? I was not surprised when I read that there was a performance art piece at Aesop during the Melbourne Art Fair 2014.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the legacy of the Victorian era on Melbourne’s culture. There are so many aspects from the architecture and design of Melbourne and my own suburb of Coburg, to the current revival of the popularity of board games. I should think, research and post some more on this subject.

(For more about the Gog and Magog clock in Royal Arcade see my post on Melbourne’s novelty clocks.)


The City and the Spectacle

“It was fantastic; I didn’t see anything but the backs of people’s necks for the whole night.” A friend was telling me about his experience of Melbourne’s White Night in 2014. Many people have told me about their experiences with the crowds at White Nights. Nobody that I know will be going again.

Very early on in White Nights 2013

Very early on in White Nights 2013

I didn’t go in 2014 as the crowds in 2013 were enough for me – I don’t consider queuing for food to part of an enjoyable evening. Instead I retreated to Brunswick where I saw an excellent free gig and had some good food. I know where to find good food and music in Brunswick because I’ve lived in the area for many years. I might have viewed it differently if I was a visitor.

Mega-city Melbourne has a spectacle and events based economy that needs to attract tourists and local visitors to the centre of the city. A spectacle based economy is the post-modern version of the bread and circuses economic model for a city, drawing in the festival crowd.

People might complain about individual events nobody complains about the whole spectacle based city; after all for a post-industrial city Melbourne could have ended up like Detroit. However, as Rio and the rest of Brazil knows after the 2014 World Cup, Melbourne is learning creating a spectacle based economy has costs.

Living in a spectacle driven city where every week there is a festival or major event where a large part of the economy is driven by presenting constant spectacles to attract local, interstate and international visitors might seem great but there is a dark side to the bright lights.

Few question if being presented in a festival format is appropriate. Gina McColl in “Blockbusted” (The Sydney Morning Herald, May 12, 2013) argues that blockbuster exhibitions that: “distorting the wider role and purpose of our state-funded collecting institutions: curating, exhibiting and caring for their own archive, complete with scholarly research and conservation.”

Attracting international events costs, including bribing the members of the committee that decides where these events can be hosted, paying for the event takes away money that could be spent on the needs of local residents. The spectacular events can be alienating to residents; Melbourne’s Grand Prix attracts crowds while annoying and inconveniencing residents.

While the politicians are busy trying to attract major events they ignore the fact that Melbourne’s public transport infrastructure is insufficient for hosting spectacles. During the Melbourne Commonwealth Games workers were asked to work from home to make room on public transport for people going to the games. The central hub structure of the public transport network concentrates the crowds into a small section of the inner core of the city.

Public Event Ahead

What is the real evidence for the claim about a spectacular based economy? According to a recent an evidence review, zero (Evidence Review Sports and Culture, July 2014). I will repeat that number, in case you missed it, zero. There is no evidence to back up the claims that major sporting and artistic events contribute anything to local economy but there is still faith in Melbourne that the international reputation of the city will have some subtle unmeasured effect. However, evidence counts for little in current political debates.

How do we create diverse city, aware of the dynamic forces at work? What is the tao of urban design? Urban acupuncture projects? How does a mass spectacle benefit the residents? Not just thinking about profits for multinational construction firms but local business. What does it give to the people who use the area every day?


Allegories of the PRB

Allegories of the PRB is an exhibition of sculptures by Daniel Dorall and drawings by Steve Cox that reflects on and refers to the art of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB). The exhibition notes describe the PRB as “a radical and revolutionary 19th Century art movement” but I would disagree with almost every word except “19th Century art”. Extreme and reactionary, this eccentric circle of seven artists was originally thought of itself as a secret society. Not that this excludes them from being worthy of further reflection.

Daniel Dorall’s sculptures are architectural models populated with model railway figures. Normally I would avoid an exhibition of architectural models because mostly they appear to me as lifeless design studies. However, there is a special appeal to something when it overcomes the original dislikes and objections to that category and Dorall’s models are populated and overgrown, suggesting not just life but archeological and psychological depth.

Dorall’s self-contained labyrinthine architecture sums up the psychology of the PRB. In Love Triangle – Ruskin, Effie, Millais, 2009 each person is trapped in their own box that each contains its own hedge maze. The Good Shepherd sums up the PRB’s approach to Christianity. Other works, like Tennyson and Ophelia are more illustrative, creating a homage to the famous paintings by Waterhouse and Millais in H0 scale models.

Steve Cox’s fine drawing in pencil and watercolour on paper, condenses the brotherhood into a series of studies and portraits. They also contain several keys to Dorall’s PRB references, like The Blind, and both parts of this exhibition would be poorer without the other.

Daniel Dorall, The Good Shepherd, 2007-14

Daniel Dorall, The Good Shepherd, 2007-14

The Prosopopoeias by Olivia Pintos-Lopez at first reminded me of a small scale version of Linde Ivimey’s only less grisly without all the bones. There are a few teeth and bones amongst the all the found materials. The figures have a voodoo doll aspect incorporating reused materials, bits of antique lace, embroidery, buttons, beads and kid leather. On a shelf that runs along the gallery wall groups of figures, posed in a variety of ways, stand and sit. Often, in the gestures there is a strong maternal feel that contrasts the sinister, bound, hooded (blinded or blinkered) figures. The rabbit ears of many of the figures adds to both the sinister and the maternal elements as the childhood anthropomorphising of toys turns feral.

Olivia Pintos-Lopez, Untitled, 2015

Olivia Pintos-Lopez, Untitled, 2015

Both of Allegories of the PRB and The Prosopopoeias are currently on at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick.


Meta-Aesthetics

What do we mean when we say something is beautiful? Beauty, or other similar words, describe the attraction of something. However, while there is often similarity in the appreciation of beauty some people find somethings beautiful that other people do not. Any good theory of what beauty is will have to account for both the attraction and differences in taste.

‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ sums up old fashioned subjectivism about aesthetics. Old fashioned subjectivism is the simplest explanation for both attraction and differences in taste. However, old-fashioned subjectivism does not allow for much discussion about differences in taste, they are simply different and discussions end there.

Furthermore we expect some consistency in taste: if you like this piece of pineapple does it imply that you like most pineapples? If taste were simply a matter of subjective it would not be surprising if someone like Abba, Motley Crew and The Beatles; I once meet a man who told me that these were his favourite bands but he was a sailor working along coast of Borneo. We also observe consistency in the tastes of others, for if taste was subjective it would make it impossible for artists, designers, chefs, cosmetologists and other professionals to work.

Old-fashioned subjectivism doesn’t really explain taste any better than it explains moral perception. Better subjectivist positions on beauty require defining competent observers.

The first alternative to consider is some kind of objectivism. After all it seems natural to assume that others will agree with what think is beautiful and it is much easier to expect consistency from objectivism. It certainly appears that there are objective qualities to beauty that could be explained by biological/genetic driven tastes.

Given that the idea of beauty may also be a product of the environment and experiences with differences in age, background and other factors explaining differences in taste. This could explain some variations in the apparent objective qualities of beauty and this is occasionally tried in the area of evolutionary aesthetics. However, what if we aren’t attracted by what is objectively determined to be beautiful, what if we finds it repulsive, at this point objectivism completely fails.

Any attempt to find a biological basis for beauty ignores that ‘beauty’ is a word from a particular culture. It is like expecting to find a genetic difference between dogs and wolves because there are different words for them.

Beauty is also a recommendation that is often presented as prescriptive; my friend Geoff is always telling me that I must watch this TV series. Also in a prescriptive is the 1001 books etc. that you must read before you die meme. Cannons are prescription, the required reading for future critical discussion. What is it to recommend art? My friend, Geoff was trying to encourage another friend, David to watch the HBO series, Deadwood. “You must see it.” David didn’t think that it was necessary and a moral or existential imperative to movie watching is very difficult point to argue. So Geoff changed his argument to “It is very worth while because of the plot, attention to historical details, etc.” David replied that there were better things to do besides watch a TV series, like looking after his young children. Do we really mean by ‘beautiful’ simply a recommendation of its aesthetic quality? Was this what Geoff was really trying to say about Deadwood?

Does the beautiful require that we are cheer squad for it? To some extent this is true; encouraging others to experience something beautiful is a natural response to eating beautiful food or hearing beautiful music. However, the idea that beauty is only a combination of endorsements, recommendations and prescriptions creates a kind of conspiracy of definition. The emperor’s new clothes, and, although this may sometimes be the case, it lacks the objective quality that we associate with beauty.

So how can beauty be both variable between people and apparently objective and consistent? How it can be both a description and a recommendation?

This is the subject of meta-aesthetics.

So how can beauty be both variable between people and apparently objective and consistent? How it can be both a description and a recommendation?

This is the subject of meta-aesthetics.


Collingwood, HaHa and the Street

I went to see Regan Tamanui’s (aka HaHa) ‘Residency’ at the House of Bricks in Collingwood. HaHa is amongst the best stencil artists in the world and House of Bricks is one of the funky converted warehouse gallery spaces focused on the street art scene. Why a ‘residency’ was my first question? He explained that was offered the space due to a cancelled exhibition.

HaHa cutting stencils with both hands.

HaHa cutting stencils with both hands.

It is an informal way of working in public. Set up a studio, just a couple of tables and chairs, at the House of Bricks. With the roller doors of the House of Bricks open, Regan is practically working in the street and in public.

On the white wall he was taping up his work for sale at the very affordable price of $60 a piece, so I bought one. He is also offering to do stencil portraits for $100.

Regan is happy to explain and demonstrate his multi-stencil technique or just chat with the people who come in. He said that he has been attracting a fair number of local identities and eccentrics. He told me the best advice was not make eye contact with them otherwise they would talk forever.

There were small stencil studies for future work inspired by recent trips to Singapore, the Northern Territories and Papua New Guinea: orchids, crimson sunbirds, kookaburras, the Devil’s Marbles in the Northern Territories, along with portraits of dogs and people.

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After that I wandered around the area. Regan told me about a large concrete cast spray can in an empty lot behind a chainlink fence a block away. I’m sure that is by Dface when he visited Melbourne in 2011. At the back of the lot against a concrete wall there was also a fake tomb stone, presumably also by Dface, that reads ‘Cheat Death’ (too far away for the zoom on my little camera).

Dface

On my walk I saw Tom Civil’s wooden cut out versions of his figures decorating the wall of the community garden on the corner of Cecil and Gore streets. It is not a big garden just a few planter boxes and benches but it makes a big impact on the street.

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In Easey Street there were these decorated power poles by Webb+, an architecture and design firm. I didn’t think much of them, they looked a bit ugly, not surprising given the Christmas theme of some of them.

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Also on Easey Street is the graffiti influenced architecture of the End To End building with the three train carriages on its roof. (For more see my post on Graffiti and Architecture.)

End to End building


Dada Against WWI

Hugo Ball wrote in his diary: 1915 New Year.

“On the balcony belonging to Marinetti’s translator we demonstrate in our own way against the war. We shout ‘Down with war!’ into the silent night of big-city balconies and telegraph wires. Some passers-by stop. A few lighted windows are opened. ‘Here’s to the New Year!’ someone shouts. The merciless Moloch Berlin raises its concrete head.” (Flight Out of Time, a Dada Diary by Hugo Ball, edited by John Elderfield)

Hugo Ball

Hugo Ball

What was the twenty-eight year old, writer and dramaturg Hugo Ball doing protesting the war on New Year’s Eve in Berlin? It might not be surprising to people now, as Hugo Ball went on to be one of the founders of the anti-war anti-art movement, Dada. However, only a few months earlier in 1914 Ball had been an enthusiastic supporter of the war. He had volunteered three time for war service but had been refused on medical grounds. What had turned an idealistic patriot into an anti-war protester?

In late August 1914, shortly after the Germans had taken the Liége forts Ball was still an enthusiastic civilian who had boarding a German troop train as it crossed into Belgium. He was taken off the train and arrested by the German military as a spy in Liége but released when the authorities realised that he was only an idealist.

It certainly wasn’t an uninformed change of mind as Hugo Ball appears to have been a bit of an early battle field tourists. He wasn’t arrested as a spy again, perhaps had some kind of press credentials from the Berlin paper Zeit im Bild.

There are many reasons and influences that might explain Hugo Ball’s reversal of opinion on the ‘Great War’. Was it in September seeing soldiers graves in Dieuze, the headquarters for the German 6th Army? Finding a copy of Rabelias in the rubble Fort Manonvillers, one of the permanent fortifications of the “Verdun Fortified Region”? Or, reading lots of philosophy, the first couple of pages of his diary are full of notes on who is reading? Or, was it the influence of his girlfriend, Emmy Hennings?

If there needed to be a single cause for Ball’s reversal of opinion then it was the death of his friend, Hans Leybold who was, with Ball, the co-publisher of the journal, Revolution. The last issue of Revolution appeared in September 1914, after that Leybold was drafted into the German army and was killed shortly after in Belgium. For Leybold the war was all over by Christmas.

John Elderfield speculates that it was Leybold’s military decorations that Ball dumped into Lake Zurich on 20th of October, 1915. However, the list of medals that Ball gives, “the Black Order of the German Eagle, the Medal of Bravery, the Cross of Merit First, Second and Third Class” appear to be more imaginary rather than actual. The Order of the Black Eagle was the highest order of chivalry in the Kingdom of Prussia and, although Prussia did have a Military Merit Cross, there was no “Medal of Bravery”.

On 26/6/1915 Ball wrote: “The war is based on a crass error. Men have been mistaken for machines. Machines, not men, should be decimated. At some future date when only the machines march, things will be better. Then everyone will be right to rejoice when they demolish each other.”

(See my post: Dada and the start of WWI)


Hosier Lane January 2015

Walking up Hosier Lane in Melbourne’s for the first time in 2015 I notice that amongst the many pilgrims to this Mecca for street art and graffiti there new work of several visiting artists. Factor has been back in town.

Factor

That Will Coles has also paid a visit from Sydney and his current casts are finer and more elaborate than has old lost objects. There now must be a Will Coles piece in every niche in Hosier Lane, many now covered with layers of spray paint.

Will Coles

That Amorphic has put up some paste-ups while she was over from South Australia. She informs me that she put up some more around the Barkley Square Shopping Centre in Brunswick, off Monarch Lane in St Kilda, and on a door in Union Lane.

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It is good to see Dolus bringing stencils back into the mix. Stencils were over used by street artists a decade ago and many people have been avoided using them ever since.

Dolus

However the main reason that I wanted to take a look at Hosier Lane was to see how Melbourne’s street artists have reacted to recent events, namely the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Melbourne’s street artists are always quick to follow a political meme and to contribute their part in the discourse.

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