Sometimes a small focused museum can be a wonderful thing, at other times, not. The Melbourne’s Police Museum is a small museum on the mezzanine level of the World Trade Centre on Flinders Street. You probably didn’t know that Melbourne had a police museum and this is possibly intentional as the museum, and the gift shop, are really for members of the force only, except that it open to everyone with a gold coin donation.
Caricature of Sir Thomas Blamey by Leonard Frank Reynolds 1926
Aside from one suit of armour from the Kelly gang, the managed carcass of the car from the Russell Street bombings is the centrepiece of the museum. When I visited there was a temporary exhibition about members of the force who died in World War One which tells more about Australian nationalism than policing. These memorials to dead members of the force gets in the way of any other narratives that the museum could present. There is no display showing the development of handcuffs, uniforms or police radios. Technology, such as bomb disposal is presented in isolation rather than as part of a progression. This is because conservative history and museums are about memorialising the past rather than examining or explaining developments.
The Police Museum acknowledges that its former Chief Commissioner Blamey was a fascist in displaying a caricature of him. However, there is no examination on how that effected the Victoria Police (whose motto of ‘uphold the right’ has to be viewed differently in light of this association).
The purpose of the museum can be summed up by the strangest of all the museum’s exhibits is a vampire killing kit. Vampire killing kits are a thing and this isn’t a great version. They are about as real as religious relics, almost as common and like many religious relics vampire killing kits are confections concocted out of antiques. The kit contributes nothing to anyone’s knowledge of the police. The simple reason that it is on display in the Police Museum is that it is a curiosity that the police posses after confiscating it from a criminal.
The museum is hardly worth visiting but I did as part of my research into Melbourne’s art and crime. I was disappointed because I learnt almost nothing from the my visit, however, in examining my disappointment I have learnt the difference between a conservative and a progressive museum. Conservative museums are about memorials rather than explanation, events rather than developments, and satisfying curiosity rather than gaining knowledge. And the police museum is a very conservative museum.
I take most of the photographs on this blog, so I thought that I’d put together a slide show of some of the best. The photos appeared on the blog from 2009 to 2018.
The virtual world of digital art and the physical world of public art seem very far apart. So Troy Innocent was one of the last artists that I expected to have done public art. Public art in the sense that it is in a public space belonging to a privately owned building in Melbourne’s Docklands.
I remember in 1996 Innocent produced Psy-Harmonics a 50 minute video combining synaesthesia and electronic music. It achieved the pop height of being played on MTV in Europe and Australia. He is now a Senior Lecturer in Games and Interactivity at Swinburne University of Technology. For more on Innocent read my review of a group exhibition, Melbourne Future in 2014.
Innocent uses codes and icons to give unknown meaning to the entrance way of another anodyne office block. In Colony 2008 unknown symbols appear on lights, etched into the concrete walls and as coloured forms on the wall. The symbols even appear on the name plate for the art. How to interpret the symbols in the code is the key to how interpret Innocent’s art. It is all about semantics and the relationship between symbols and meaning.
This is not the first public art that Innocent has done. I have vague memories of a project that he did for Melbourne’s Laneway Commissions. It was an interactive work that built on both Innocent’s digital art and his way-finding “urban codemaking”. And Colony builds on that project in a more permanent form.
I was interrupted in contemplating and photographing the parts of Colony by a security worker. I was asked me to stop photographing. There were no signs saying no photography. I have never been stopped from photographing sculpture on display in building lobby’s before. But discussing the matter with a low-paid security worker was pointless. As I walked through the car park the reason became clear from the signs on the doors of the trucks; the building housed part of Australia’s fascist department, the paranoid psychos of Border Force.
In late April on The Conversation Dr. Flavia Marcello. Associate Professor at Swinburne University’s School of Design, asks “Where has Melbourne’s political graffiti gone?” It is worth asking the question but aside from the yearning for the 70s and the overtly political graffiti of those times there wasn’t much to the article.
The scene on the street is now a more complex system, with greater diversity and more types of graffiti and street art operating. Rest assured Dr Marcello there is still plenty of political graffiti and street art in Melbourne. In all kinds of media from aerosol paint to stickers and even yarn bombing. Some of the best is done by stencil artist like Crisp and paste-up artists like Phoenix.
There is a wide variety of causes being promoted from ending Australia’s abuse of refugees to free West Papua. These causes are now in front of the eyes and cameras of international tourists who throng in their thousands to Melbourne’s graffiti attraction of Hosier Lane. The Free West Papua slogan managed to occupy space in the highly desirable Hosier Lane by using a chainlink fence that the aerosol and paste-up artists didn’t want. Consider the subversive power of a series of paste-ups calling to Free Liu Xiaobo in front of the cameras of Chinese tourists taking selfies in Hosier Lane.
So here is a collection of some of the best political street art and graffiti that I’ve seen in Melbourne in the last year or so. Although I am aware that there are many ways that graffiti and street art can be political, as in, contesting public and private space, I have tried to keep the politics of the collection clear and obvious.
A collector can only span a lifetime but an institution’s collection can span more than one lifetime. A collector has a limited interest but an institutions collection policy can be redirected and renegotiated. RMIT’s 120 years of art collecting reflects a major period in Australian art history.
Chaos & Order : 120 years of collecting at RMIT
This makes RMIT Gallery’s exhibition of the RMIT collection, Chaos & Order, one of the best exhibitions of Australian art history that you will see. The size of the collection, which fills more spaces in the building that I’ve ever seen the gallery use before, means that it can tell Australian art history. And it does this without being too big and overwhelming.
The collection has works from the modern to the post-modern. Often these are not major works by major artist but works on paper and sculpture maquettes.
It is an exhibition to expand your knowledge of an artist, to round out your knowledge of Australian artists and to throw in a few surprises. A work by the Spanish artist Antoni Tapies? What is it doing there? The reasons why a work was added to the collection is one thing missing from the exhibition.
For a reviewer selecting a couple of examples to write about posses more problems than even the curator, Jon Buckingham faced in selecting the exhibition from the collection. I am faced with constructing a narrative order whereas the exhibition fills a building or laid out as a mass in the middle of the gallery. Sculpture nerd that I am I have to take a photograph with the work of Norma Redpath, Inge King and Clement Meadmore in the one shot. Note the conflict of interest in a couple of paintings by my Facebook friends, Juan Ford and Sam Leach.
Listening to the sound art in the basement on a multichannel sound system and trying to think of ways of finding order in the chaos of the collection. There are so many stories to tell in the collection. There is a watercolour by Albert Namatjira and Noel Counihan’s linocut depicting a crucified Namatjira. Should I follow this theme through to Reko Rennie’s neon graff-style slogan: ‘I wear my own crown’? Or, I could trace waves of immigration and its impact on the arts in Australia. Or, changes in artistic media… It is such a rich collection that many stands in the narrative of art history can be easily found in it. Strands that will reach into the future and define yet unimagined art.
Noel Counihan, Albert Namatjira, 1959