Category Archives: Culture Notes

Future of Arts in Melbourne

Imagining that Melbourne would become the centre for the arts and literature in the late 1970s could only be done with assistance of copious amounts of alcohol or other drugs. The post-industrial future of Melbourne was not secure and sections of Australia society was still openly hostile to any arts. The arts were considered a foreign, effeminate, waste of time and money compared to the macho occupation of exploiting natural resources by farming or mining. At the time Australia was suffering from ‘the cultural cringe’ that rejected any local cultural achievement as automatically inferior, the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ that strived for a mediocre undistinguished population and, consequently, a brain and creative exodus. It is amazing that Melbourne got this far, after all it could have become like Detroit.

Eleni Arbus at The future of arts in Melbourne forum

Eleni Arbus at The future of arts in Melbourne forum

The “Future of Art in Melbourne” was public forum on Thursday 13 August held on the upper floor of Melbourne Town Hall. There were about two hundred people were there but for anyone who missed the event the City of Melbourne has put three videos of it on YouTube.

Keynote by Councillor Rohan Leppert

Panel One: Ben Eltham, Eleni Arbus and Tony Yap (facilitated by Nelly Thomas)

Panel Two: Fiona Tuomy, Lynda Roberts and Christian Thompson (facilitated by Nelly Thomas)

Not that you missed much. Ben Eltham pointed out the eternal fault line between the underground and mainstream culture in Australia but then Luke McManus at the forum representing graffiti and street art, so it is not a major fault line.

The plan for the future of the arts in Melbourne does not address the megacity that Melbourne has become, it is just a plan for the City of Melbourne. What is needed if for the multiple local councils, at least in the inner city (is there life north of Bell Street?), to have a united plan for the arts. Actually the City of Melbourne’s plan addresses only a small part of the City of Melbourne; most of the focus of planning is on Melbourne’s cultural precinct. Even with a percent for public arts from the developments at Docklands the area has been written off as a cultural wasteland, well, what could you expect from Yuppies?

The biggest mistake of the forum was to think that future of arts in Melbourne is about art; it is not, it is about culture, life and everything else. It is not just the millions of cultural tourist attending major events in the city, the arts in Melbourne effect the shopping and hospitality sector and real estate prices. Although underground artists are very familiar with their impact on real estate prices, as they are slowly price them out of the areas that they first colonised, it appears from Eleni Arbus’s talk that some real estate developers remain ignorant.

A Hipster Conversion for lease in Brunswick

A Hipster Conversion for lease in Brunswick

At the risk of all that interstate rivalry bullshit, Melbourne is in competition in the culture stakes with all the other capitol cities in Australia, except for Perth. At first only Melbourne and Sydney were really in the race although Adelaide has the long established Arts Festival. Canberra has the national central position but lacks the history. Queensland has recently started with major exhibitions at GOMA. Hobart is also in with a running with MONA.


The Suburbs in Melbourne’s Art

In Melbourne’s suburbs we still live in houses with bullnose verandahs, wooden fretwork and other Victorian architectural ornamentation built on a network of roads laid out in nineteenth century. The dream of domestic bliss was transported to the Australia, much like rabbits, foxes and other introduced species. Now the British home, like the other introduced species has gone feral creating sprawling suburbs around Melbourne and Sydney.

Adrian Doyle, Never Forget to Remember' 2015 (photo courtesy of the artist)

Adrian Doyle, Never Forget to Remember’ 2015 (photo courtesy of the artist)

Mass suburban living was a nineteenth century invention. It’s inventors, the local councils and property developers, had very little experience of suburban life; they might have grown up in a suburb but it was very unlikely that their parents had, and highly improbably that their grandparents had. Without experience, or any other evidence, many assumptions were made about suburban life. One popular assumption about the suburbs are that they are devoid of culture and yet this is where the majority of artists now live.

Just as modernists painters strived to depict the new urban environments of the modern city, the post-modernists strive to depict the suburbs. Generations of artists have grown up in Melbourne’s suburbs and some are now countering the romantic myths of locations of creativity by depicting the suburbs in their art. How to depict the suburbs is an important question for contemporary artists. What is important in a depiction of the suburbs?

Performance artist, Michael Meneghetti told me, “My house looks exactly like a Howard Arkley painting.” Meneghetti lives in Brooklyn, the outer suburb of Melbourne and not the one in NYC. The suburbs with all their ‘featurism’ was the main complaint of Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness. Yet the Howard Arkley celebrates this featurism of the patchwork of patterns.

Jason Waterhouse, Dwelling, Coburg

Jason Waterhouse, Dwelling, Coburg

In Melbourne sculptor, Jason Waterhouse plays with the familiar shape of houses and by distorting the materials of suburban life. Urban intervention artist, James Voller installs photographs of suburban houses on suburban objects. And Adrian Doyle has long used the suburb as the central feature of his art.

There aren’t that many, in Melbourne. I could include Reg Mombassa’s pop-surrealist images mythologise suburban landscapes and Ian Strange’s (aka Kid Zoom) painting, film, photography, sculpture, installation and site-specific interventions involving suburban houses. Many artists must still be in denial about their suburban roots for there is a lot of anxiety and paranoia in the assumptions about suburban life.

In his recent exhibition of paintings and installations, ‘Never Forget to Remember’ at Dark Horse Experiment, Doyle returns to the pitched roof form of the suburban house. Doyle’s ‘Coin House’ consists of a basic house form made of one dollar coins on a marble slab. It is the obvious image for suburbia but does it tell the enough of the story of suburbia? Perhaps, Doyle’s patchwork of images in his paintings are better at depicting the diversity housed in the uniform buildings. His paintings of suburban existence tries to get that mix of ‘sarcastic nostalgia’ in a mix of techniques and paint. Of course, Doyle’s suburbia is a matter of nostalgia, memories and dreams because he has lived in the Melbourne’s inner city for years now.


Paying to Play – Art & Craft Shops

Yesterday, a friend was telling me about auditing all his art material. It was a familiar story, many creative people have more craft and art supplies than they know what to do with or will even have time to use. I have recently inherited all the unused art materials from an aunt of mine, an amateur artist.

Senior Art Supplies

The desire to be a creative individual is a strong drive in contemporary society, the ideas of expressing your identity through art or crafts because you can’t be alienated from what you have made. This desire is easily exploited in the sale of materials to assist your creativity and the marketing of creativity and artistry is just another way of selling more products. It is the compilers in the art world are the only ones who can really make a profit (the publishers, the suppliers, the performance venues, etc.) rather than the creative individuals and art supply shops are compliers of materials. A couple of major chains completely dominate Melbourne’s art supply shops.

When I was in a band I knew of venues where you had to pay to play and maybe if you attracted a large crowd you might make some money. If you are a writer you will know about vanity publishing or a visual artist you will know about rental space galleries (see my post on Rental Spaces). However, there is more to it than the costs in producing and marketing a performance or publication. These are the obvious instances of exploiting the artists but the whole creative industry is exploiting the idea of being an artist, a musician or other creativity individual. A lot of equipment and materials have to be bought before you can exhibit or perform.

This is where the art supply shop comes into the story of art. The artist, or potential artist, is drawn in to the shop by the attraction of chromatic rows of paints, pencils, pastels and coloured papers; the orderly world of brushes, palette knives and prepared canvases; the availability of everything that you could imagine creating with and more.

In his book 50 Techniques of Magic Craftsmanship, Salvador Dali recommends buying something new every time that you visit an art supply store. But before you do ask yourself do you really need all those coloured drawing inks, tubes of paint or sketch books?

Remember, if you are an amateur or professional artist, the most expensive thing that you can spend on art is your time. Instead of buying some new materials only buy what you need to replace. You don’t need to spend money and expensive equipment to be creative. You can buy a HB2-6 pencil and paper in stationary or 2 dollar shops. Porn magazines are cheaper than life models and twice as useful. There is nothing wrong with making your art practice around your income: that is the first step in making it sustainable. Dancing, singing and beat-boxing are free.

That said the creative industry is not as bad as the exercise and sports industry. Walking is free, no equipment required and amongst the best exercises that you can do.


Logic and Art

Given: the waterfall and the illuminating gas

We assume that there is a logic to beauty and art. If x is art and y is equal to x then y must also be art. If you think that x#1 is beautiful then it would be reasonable to assume that you would agree that x#2 is beautiful. If not; then why not?

Artist painting at Flinders Street

Artists propose these questions all the time. If one Elvis is desirable then why not have more than one concluded Andy Warhol. If puppy dogs and flowers are beautiful therefore a giant puppy made of flowers must be beautiful concluded Jeff Koons.

The word art is used as both a category and a quality and this duality confuses many discourses about the nature of art.

If art is a quality with a certain cut off point, a bench mark of quality, then there is no such thing as bad or poor art. Are we talking about what qualifies to be entered into the category or about the quality? The idea that art is a category or a quality has led some people think that there is a rule book for art (sent down by God at the same time as the 10 Commandments) and become disillusioned when they discover that artists aren’t playing by this imaginary rule book. That the image wasn’t drawn freehand, that other people worked on it, that it was done to make money…

The distinction between the category and the quality of art is often raised in discussions about the defence of work accused of obscenity or pornography people will bemoan that they wish that it was a great work of art, as if, only great works of art are worth defending.

If art is a category is that there should therefore be parameters that define the category. However, any attempts to find such parameters will be proved incorrect with counter-examples and excluding all counter-examples to the category of things that are called ‘art’ but aren’t becomes a curmudgeonly position because art is part of a continuing culture and not part of a narrowing category.

The idea of a category of art has emerged after many of its contents were created as ‘art’, whatever it is, is an idea that has been made up by people as they went along and there are several different versions of ‘art’ in the last five hundred years.

However, art is not a category that can be empirically defined, such as a particular wave length of light. It is not a football code, there is no rule book that defines art. The more stringent the code that is thought to define it, ersatz art and the ossification of the art. The more that the logic of a rule book is applied to art the more that it becomes a tired, stale version of its former incarnations.

Art is sequential and each work is part of a very long series, a series that we keep on adding prequels as well as sequels too. The items in the series have a family resemblance because they are members of the series rather than that they can be a defined category because of particular qualities. Examining the items out of sequence makes no sense and nor is it possible to predict through logic too far ahead in the sequence.

Since Duchamp other artists have humourlessly followed the same logic that he successfully employed but as they have a different position in the sequence their desire is different; not to collapse the boarders of art but to extend them.


Wilson Avenue Urban Bouldering

The construction has been going on for months but the small new park off Sydney Road has opened in time for the school holidays. There is still work going on, a bit more paving and a wall for Makatron, Itch and Otis to finish painting but lots of people are already using it. I enjoyed the temporary pop-up park in Wilson Avenue February and March 2014 and I was keen to see the finished park. From a simple intersection, a more complex area has been created and at the centre of the complexity is a physical puzzle, an urban bouldering form.

Wilson Avenue Park

The plan for the small 700 square metre park won the Planning Institute of Australia (Victorian Division) Best Planning Ideas – Small Projects 2014 award. The initial public reaction has been just as enthusiastic. I spent almost an hour there just sitting in the sun, talking with people, watching how they used the space.

When I arrived a couple of little girls had found that the springy surface around the urban bouldering form was perfect for turning cartwheels. They were a bit too small to really climb the boulder but they had found their own use for the area. I talked to a skateboarder who hoped that they were not going to be put in skate stoppers as the moulded concrete seats and benches as they have excellent skating potential. Adding complexity to an area means that more people will different find uses for it.

Sam, a bouldering enthusiast explained the concept to me. “Bouldering is rock climbing for people, like me, who are scared of heights.” The short routes are close to the ground (under 3m.) so ropes are not required. The boulder terrain is suitable for novice to advanced climbers, with different trails of coloured holds. Sam told me that he normally climbs informal urban bouldering walls, like the one that used to be under the Burnley Bridge, and was unsure about “doing it in public”.

The Wilson Avenue urban boulder will be the first public art piece designed for bouldering. The boulder was designed Stuart Beekmeyer of Bouldergeist and fabricated by Big Fish.

Knowing that I was interested in micro-parks Stuart Beekmeyer started sending me emails and photographs from his Brunswick studio. Beekmeyer wrote, “I think people will be fascinated by the movement on the sculpture. It is a beautiful activity to watch.” And, after watching the people climb the sculpture today I agree with him.

Stuart Beekmeyer

Looking at one of the photos of the top of the boulder with the sunlight shining through making it glow golden it was easy to see the connection between it’s angular planes and a well known Melbourne sculpture, Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault. At the time I received the email with the photo I was looking at photographs of Emily Floyd’s Public Art Strategy on EastLink. At the park the drains and forms are yellow, as are the native flowers. (Are these more references to Vault? Denton Corker and Marshall would love it.)

Stuart Beekmeyer has more ideas for the urban bouldering installations. “I really like the idea if getting artists to sculpt climbing holds in the  future so its sculpture on sculpture.” What would be better if Beekmeyer got artists to choose the colours for the hand holds because the selection of candy colours looks like hundreds-and-thousands.

There is a small mound of grass, a few small trees and a lot of complex paving in the park, a mix of concrete, asphalt, cobbles, wooden decking and the spongy surface around the boulder. The sculptural aesthetics of the boulder, in its central position, surrounded by seating determines the look of the small urban park and the way that people move around it. The new park at Wilson Avenue appears to be very successful and fun.


Sewers and the City

Capitalising on fear of the bubonic plague in 1901 the suburb of Haberfield was built in Sydney. Australia’s first planned model suburb had limited height, there were no pubs and no back lanes. The back lanes were used for the ‘night-soil cart’; you can still see the low doors in the brick fences in some of the lanes in Fitzroy. We can assume from the absence of lanes that houses in Haberfield was connected to main sewers. (For more on Haberfield read Art and Architecture for more on bubonic plague and its effects on Sydney see the digital records of NSW.)

A lane in Brunswick

                  A lane in Brunswick

In his book The Australian Ugliness, Robin Boyd was appalled at the tangle of overhead wires but he doesn’t get beneath the surface ugliness to notice that although these suburban homes that were now connected to telephone and electricity had not yet been connected to the sewers. That Melbourne had a telephone system before a sewerage system is a striking fact. In 1880 a telephone exchange opened in Collins Street and seven years later, in 1887 the first Melbourne homes to be connected to sewers. Some homes in the suburb of Frankston were only connected to the sewerage in 1991.

Bootscraper in Carlton

Bootscraper in Carlton

The architectural evidence for nineteenth century Smellbourne’s muddy, shit covered streets and open sewers is still evident, not just with network of back lanes, but in the iron boot scrapers, a necessary architectural feature, built into the entrances of its older buildings.

My own suburb of Coburg, in Melbourne’s inner north, contains many examples of nineteenth and early twentieth century suburban development, most with back lanes but a few without. Lincoln Street and the adjoining street have a single house block, instead of the usual double blocks with a laneway down the middle. In “Lascelles Park” development there only a lane between the houses on Jamieson and Lascelles streets and two very short lanes behind the four larger lots at the Reynard Gosling Road ends.

Over last century suburban planners were turning against lanes as more suburbs were connected to sewers. In the nineteen-eighties and nineties the Moreland City Council was sell off several of the lanes in Coburg as they were no longer used except for fly-tipping and discreet access for burglars. The bluestone cobbles are expensive to repair and make traversing the lanes uncomfortable, difficult or even impossible especially for people with disabilities, cyclist and even ordinary pedestrians.

In spite of all of this the inhabitants of Moreland now want to preserve the lanes. After a 2,400-signature petition was presented to Moreland City Council in September 2013 the Council resolved to maintain Moreland’s bluestone laneways and there is now a plan to preserve these lanes. The Council explains on it web page devoted to bluestone lanes that “Moreland values the network of bluestone laneways as a community asset which is an important part of Moreland’s heritage and urban character.”

Unlike the lanes in the inner city Melbourne that are famous for their street art, little bars and boutiques these back lanes are amongst the least attractive features of the suburb, generally backing onto old rusted corrugated iron fences and old sheds. Maybe someone is hoping that their historic ambience of Coburg and Brunswick before sewers will add to their property value.

Coburg lane painted

                   Coburg lane painted


Memories of David Bowie

I remember that David Bowie Is… a touring exhibition from the Victoria and Albert Museum that will be at ACMI in Melbourne from 16th July and 1 November. Not that I’ve seen the exhibition, I remember seeing the exhibition in the film. My brain felt like a warehouse… the lyrics sheets of familiar songs, the photographs, models of stage sets, over 50 costumes, memorabilia and lots of videos.

Installation Shot courtesy David Bowie Archive (c) V&A London

Installation Shot courtesy David Bowie Archive (c) V&A London

Russell Briggs, Head of Exhibitions & Collections at ACMI described the media preview as “a Russian doll, a film of an exhibition of a biography…” There are a lot of Russian doll aspects to anything about Bowie, the actor playing an alien rock star, as you unpack one doll it is revealed to contain another and another. And David Bowie is hyperreal, he is more real in simulacra than actually.

During the film I remember thinking that blockbuster exhibitions and stadium rock have a lot in common and even with the audience for the exhibition capped at 200 visitors per hour the experience will be similar. Do I want another experience like Bowie’s Serious Moonlight concert in a packed (40,000+) at VFL Park, the Waverley Football stadium? From my position in the stands I saw most of it on the big screen, so maybe it would have been just as good to have watched it on TV. Andrew Peacock, the then Liberal opposition leader was also in the audience and Bowie was going through a 50s retro phase. Even though they are on the cutting edge there is something conservative about successful trend spotters, like Bowie.

Original photography for the Earthling album cover, 1997. Photograph by Frank W Ockenfels 3, © Frank W Ockenfels

Original photography for the Earthling album cover, 1997. Photograph by Frank W Ockenfels 3, © Frank W Ockenfels

The exhibition does over hype Bowie and it would like you to forget that Bowie with Mick Jagger ever sung a cover of “Dancing in the Streets”. I’d like to forget that too but having seen it I can’t. After watching David Bowie Is… (the movie) and during the writing of this post I avoided listening to any classic Bowie hits and restricted myself to an aural diet of his soundtrack for Labyrinth, the Laughing Gnome and Rubber Band. I started to wonder if Bowie hadn’t changed the whole history of the novelty song; taking it from a statistical minority of pop songs to the majority.

But remember that with all this novelty Bowie demonstrates the art/politics of constructed identities. The constructed identity is opposed to both the idea of a given or a natural identity and this is a very important contribution that liberated many people. The diversity of Bowie’s artist practice, from actor to visual artist defies assumptions about work and identity, but also a celebrity art practice in the role of producer/director and collaborator. But does this qualify as genius?

The discourse on this subject and the greater discourse around Bowie is another layer of Bowie’s much vaunted collaborations. The absence of Bowie is significant, the long periods between albums, the points where his only presence is in the public discourse about his career. Along with the exhibition there will be a two day symposium on The Stardom and Celebrity of David Bowie, presented in partnership with The University of Melbourne and Deakin University with the support of the Naomi Milgrom Foundation.

David Bowie Is… would like to define how David Bowie will be remembered, a creation of art and design. I expect that in 2050 a scholarly book on the history of a century of rock music will be published but how many references to David Bowie will there be in the index? It depends on the way that author tells the history. If the book is about popularity, the mass effect of rock music or icons of rock then there may be a many references to Bowie. If the book is about the development of rock then there may less; there is only one reference to Bowie in the index of Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces.


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