Author Archives: Mark Holsworth

About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne.

Van Rudd at Work

“I wanted to be a conservative painter but something…” Van Rudd pauses, searching for the best way to explain his life and the world. Van Rudd, the nephew of former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, is a politically engaged socialist artist who installs provocative street art sculptures, exhibits the stolen forks of the ultra-rich and parts of exploded vehicles from Afghanistan.

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I wondered what he had been up to since he ran for parliament against Julia Gillard in 2010. As it turns out he is painting a mural the Trades Hall carpark.

It is hard to believe that Van was ever a conservative painter but he was shows me some photos of his early paintings, they are very good but conservative in style. In his late-teens he was painting plein air Impressionist paintings of Brisbane. He then shows me some cool paintings that he did of exploding figures in stylish lounge rooms; paintings that looked like a mix between Geoffrey Smart, James Gleeson and Brett Whitely. He tried the fine art and contemporary art audience and he didn’t get the response was looking for, so he went in search of a different audience.

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Now his audience is not into contemporary art or street art. Now his audience is the union member who has no interest or time for following artists on Instagram or buying art in galleries. It is the person in the street or someone looking at the news. Van sees himself as a propagandist, even though he freely admits that the power of art is minimal compared to economic power. His art is there to support and illustrate the message.

Considering Van’s diverse art practice, from illustrating a children’s book to street art installations, I wanted to know what he did with most of your time as an artist? Did he work in a studio? He doesn’t really have one. When he is not an artist his hobby is indoor football. He also goes to a lot of left wing meetings because he finds that is a condensed way of doing research and getting information.

The carpark walls at Trades Hall are covered in graffiti and Van has had to buff back two large concrete sections. The graffiti in the carpark is a mix of the most basic tagging, by writers like Pork and Nost, along with political slogans: “Unions are part of the detention industry.”

The large mural that he is painting in Trades Hall carpark is just at its outline stage. Van says wants to revive the tradition of political mural painting in Melbourne that happened with Geoff Hogg in the 1970s.

Work progresses slowly, especially with me asking questions. Van with a paintbrush is not as fast as the street artists with their spray cans. He is critical of what he calls the “proletarianisation” and the “hyper-exploitation of street art.” The artist as sole trader has no protection, from exploitation and hazardous conditions especially the street artists working at heights. He tells me that has recently got his CFMEU white card for working on elevated work platforms; scissor-lifts, booms lifts, etc. Not that he is going to be working at height with this mural. He puts on a fume mask to protect against both the paint and car exhaust fumes and gets back to painting.

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10 things I have learnt from my years of blogging

I am now into my tenth year of writing a blog about Melbourne’s visual arts. My first blog post on Black Mark, Melbourne Art and Culture Critic was on February 16, 2008. It was “Faster Faster Pussycat” about Phibs, Debs and other street artists painting a wall in Fitzroy. Now over a 1000 blog posts later this is what I have I learnt about blogging.

  1. Motivation The first thing I learnt was that writing a blog was motivation to do more in life; I was already going to many art exhibitions but now there was more motivative to go to places, meet people and do other fun things. Soon I started to get invitations to do more things and meet more people. Blogging changed my life; although it wasn’t actually the writing, nor the taking endless photos, or the posting online that really made the change.
  2. No Money You are not going to make money from advertising on your blog but there are a variety of other ways that you can use a blog professionally from promotion to networking. My friend, who I met through blogging, Prof. Alison Young used her blog Images to Live By, to introduce herself. Middle aged academics are not a typical part of the street art/graffiti scene but now Alison is “Banksy favourite criminologist”.
  3. Friends I have made many new friends through writing the blog and that has improved the quality of my life. One reason why I have made so many friends blogging is that I mostly write about what other people are doing.
  4. Enemies I learnt how to deal with hostile comments, trolls and other idiots. You can’t predict what will get people to write hostile comments it could be pigeons in Coburg but I never shied away from controversy, writing posts about the persecution of Bill Henson and Paul Yore. When I have hostile comments I always remember that the person writing them will forget about it after a day or two and, if they don’t, that I can always block them from making comments, but I’ve only had to do this once in ten years. Comments are no indication of anything, no comment does not mean a bad post. Out of 1,077 post I have only had 2,099 comments, half the comments are my own because I generally reply to all comments but I avoid feeding trolls.
  5. Focus My blog is focused on Melbourne’s visual arts but I do post about other things on it. Having a clear focus for a blog is important but it is a balance between a very narrow focus and ranging too far. With thirteen categories on my blog I’m not sure that I’ve got it right on my blog but it is a lesson I’ve learnt.
  6. People watching Vox pops can make a good local blog post. These don’t have to be direct quotes, but observations on how people are reacting. I like to watch how small children react at art exhibitions; are they engaged or bored? “Why does a tree need a sweater?” is an example of how one observation of an angry man made a successful blog post about yarn bombing.  Another local bloggers is the writer Jane Routley who writes about her day job in Station Stories, life as a Station Assistant.
  7. Book published You can get a book published from a writing a blog. In 2015 my first book, Sculpture of Melbourne, was published by Melbourne Books. I started writing and researching the book on my blog, before I started my blog I couldn’t have imagined writing a history of Melbourne’s public sculpture. I am now working on my second book about true art crimes in Melbourne.
  8. Stats I learnt from watching my stats the there was an interest in Melbourne’s public sculpture. What the public wants to read about art is different to what many arts writers want to write about. There are a lot of different kinds of feedback that you can get on blogs from comments to stats. Lots of stats, numbers of subscribers, views, repeat views… stats can be addictive. Here a few more stats in ten years I’ve had approximately 537,000 views from 155 countries around the world (still no views from Greenland, Cuba, Iran, South Sudan and various central African countries, you get the idea).
  9. Blogs can be works of art. My blog isn’t but the artist, Peter Tyndall’s blog was exhibited at the NGV in Melbourne Now exhibition in 2013 and there are other less notable examples.
  10. It is hard work On the plus side you are your own boss, your own editor and you make your own deadlines. Ignore the advice about blogging that you have to post regularly. Writing a blog may not be for everyone but it has worked for me and I will continue.

An Average Week’s Exhibitions

There is nothing essentially wrong with two or three star art, for such passable art is the benchmark by which quality is measured.Sometimes the art has limited ambitions, content, or scope, a little idea or more of the same but well presented. Other times the art is ambitious but limited by the talent, funding, space needed in order to carry the idea. I am always hoping to see something exceptional but it is inaccurate to only write about the exceptional. For most of the time I see exhibitions that are average, slightly below average or slightly above average. Take for example the exhibitions that I saw this week in Brunswick.

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TextaQueen, Muse, 2016

TextaQueen’s “Eve of Incarnation” is a solo exhibition at Blak Dot Gallery of colour nude photographs of herself on a beach. They could be from a nude calendar for like such calendars they are so carefully contrived that in 16 photographs not a single nipple or public hair is showing. However, TextaQueen does not depict herself a weak or vulnerable, but rather strong, wild and powerful. This is emphasised in the titles: ‘Agitator,’ ‘Summoner,’ ‘Harnesser’. I don’t know if the titles are enough but TextaQueen is an established artist who has worked with nudes and between low-brow and high brow art. So although this exhibition is not in her primary media is not far from her core interests of gender, race and Australia.

Hilary Dodd’s solo exhibition “Anomalous” at Tinning Street Presents is unfortunately not anomalous but all too familiar. So many artists have painted nearly monochrome paintings with an emphasis on the texture of the paint and anomalous tones or colours.

“Unhidden” curated by Kali Michailidis at the Counihan Gallery was not revealing. At its best it was clever but obvious like Kouichi Okamoto’s “Liquid taper cutter work”, 2013 where the ends of strips of tape that have been used to paint a wall black look like paint drips. At its worst it remained obscure.

Also at the Counihan was “As Above, So Below” works on paper by Charlotte Watson and Shannon Williamson. Above; Williamson’s works on paper look like outer space, like nubuela, spectacular, beautiful, random creations, over-laid with geometric notes in chalk or pastel. Below; a more difficult proposition, Watson stitches thread, like geomancy lines in the dark earth. The works are clearly linked in their mapping elements, as well as, their inspiration from Eleanor Catton’s novel The Luminaries.


Different Art Crowds

In the middle of January, a few galleries were opening again and one of these was BeinArt Gallery. BeinArt specialises in fantasy, pop-surrealist art; the type of art that makes you wonder why there is never really good Freudian psychiatrist around when you need one? If you are into pop surrealism or the macabre art then BeinArt is the place for you.

“Flesh & Bone” was a group exhibition at at BeinArt. The opening reception had turned into one of those Facebook events with 1.6K interested, 460 going and 1.2K invited. In reality a lot less people came than any of those numbers but, as it was a fine summer evening many goths, punks and other yet unspecified kinds of mutants were in attendance.

The Facebook event promised “entertainment from performance artist, Shamita Sivabalan.” I haven’t seen any body painting in decades.

That evening you could smell the crowd inside BeinArt Gallery from the door. It wasn’t a bad smell, it was a warm smell of humanity; it was about five degrees warmer inside with all the people.

It was a distinctly different crowd inside from the wine drinking contemporary art school crowd, or the beer drinking hetro graffiti and street art crowd. I am not simply proposing that different galleries attract different groups of people; that they are dressed differently, drink and eat differently at exhibition openings. Rather that these are distinctly different groups with different aesthetics and different values.

The high end art market and the contemporary art scenes might attempt to dismiss the crowd at BeinArt Gallery or the street art crowds as simply subcultures. That assumes that they themselves are not a subculture and that the dominant mass aesthetic culture in Australia, where the list of visual artists might be: David Bromley, Ken Done, Pro Hart, etc. the kind of artists who are not even exhibited in the state galleries.

I think that there are several totally different art crowds in Melbourne just as there are different music audiences depending on the genre of music. To imagine that there was only one type of music would be an obvious mistake today but not so a few centuries ago. This is more of an issue for a critic discussing these different genre’s than for the audience or artists.

BeinArt Gallery isn’t the only place in Sparta Place selling original art, a couple of doors along is Santa Clara comic book shop with some original art for sale too; art for the nerd and geeks. Faced with the hyperbole of the art in “Flesh & Bone” the depictions of the urban environment in comic book inspired art appeared both more relevant and restrained.

SpartaPlace caters to a wide mix of tastes: the bust of King Leonidas, the contemporary public art pillars by Louise Lavarack, the mass taste of bridal boutiques, the old Spanish Mission revival architecture along with the graffiti and street art in the parking lot.


Sydney Public Sculpture

“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.

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.


We don’t need another memorial

I understand the feeling of shock and trauma about the people who died in Bourke Street but please, think carefully before erecting a permanent memorial. Don’t do the first thing that you think of doing because you are grieving but reflect on the outcome before you decide anything. Repeating secondary trauma may be good for media ratings but it doesn’t actually help anyone.

Melbourne already has a permanent memorial to victims of crime next to Parliament House. Creating duplicate memorials doesn’t improve the quality of the memorial, it weakens it by making it mean less. If there is another memorial to victims of a particular crime, and that is exactly what the people who died in Bourke Street were, that means that the memorial to victims of crime next to Parliament is only a memorial to some of the victims of crime, or that some victims of crime have multiple memorials and others only have one.

Memorials manipulate the historical discourse towards an emotional response and away from a rational discussion, making them essentially a reactionary. There is not going to be a memorial to the victims of inadequate mental health funding in the state because that is not how the government wants to remember the event.

The British Princes are going to put up a memorial statute to their mother, Princess Diana, who already has a memorial fountain and a memorial children’s playground in London. In less than a century the statue will be as meaningless as the Albert Memorial. “That’s the princess who died in the car crash” people will say and their children will ask: “What went wrong with the car’s computer?”

Melbourne has three memorials to the Boer War and one to General Gordon and although I credit my readers with knowing history, I doubt that many care about these events today.

If you want to know how badly a permanent memorial can fail, visit a cemetery and look at the crumbling, neglected memorials that have been erected there.

Finally, “permanent” memorials create problems in the future, for unlike other public art, there is resistance to them being moved because they are meant to be permanent. So they become a burden for future generations of city planners.

Please, Melbourne City Council think before you agree to another memorial.


The Great Australian Lie

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unknown, stencil, Brunswick

“Australian history does not read like history, but the most beautiful lies.” Mark Twain wrote and he knew how to stretch the truth.

There are so many lies; Australians aren’t racist but yet have managed to commit genocide and have racism in it constitution. The bullshit piles up so fast you’d be buried alive if you only listened to Australians.

Remembering that the The Commonwealth of Australia exists as nothing but words. The country that calls itself The Commonwealth of Australia is built on the lie of terra nullius; everyone knows that the Aboriginals were the true owners of the land. The only things that is definitely Australian is the word ‘Australian’; everything else is disputed territory.

“Indeed, what we think of as Australia is a species of fiction – as, in essence, is any nation. Hoaxes lie at the foundation of the European discovery and settlement of the Australian continent and familiar myths like that of the Anzacs, Bodyline and the Kelly Gang all have a substantial, if often overlooked, hoax component.” (Simon Caterson Hoax Nation (Arcade Publishing, 2009, Melbourne, p.15)

Australia does have not much history, instead it has lots of ‘legends’; sporting legends like Phar Lap, folk legends like Ned Kelly, ANZAC diggers, lots of legends. The word ‘legend’ is widely used in Aussie slang to denote a superlative. No truth implied in the use of the word ‘legend’; the story is better than the facts, better than history. Nobody expects a legend to spawn imitators, who could expect to repeat to legendary achievements? A legend quarantines the subject whereas history has effects that are felt today.

“I said at the time, if only half of what is written about Australia is true, it must be lovely there; but all these reports are lies and deception. My advice is: stay at home and provide for yourself in an honourable way.” Carl Traugott Hoehne, 1851 (The Birth of Melbourne ed. Tim Flannery, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2002, Australia)

When I first arrived in Australia I’d never encountered so many people so keen to lie to a stranger before in all my travels around the world, I had already lived in three other countries and had visited half a dozen more. I remember thinking how stupid all these Australians liars must be to think that I’ll believe this stuff. And I am not the only one Rudyard Kipling was amused the quantity of lies that he was told on his visit to Australia. (The Birth of Melbourne p.358)

Australians enjoy lying to foreigners but more numerous were the lies told by new arrivals to Australia about their own pasts. Coming to a new country is a process of re-inventing the self and the self is just a story that we tell ourselves. The great Australian lie that masks the deep Australian insecurity. The great Australian lie fosters anti-intellectualism and other aggressive responses to feelings of inadequacy.

Too often art is supporting this fiction but there are artists producing great art that attacks the Australian fiction. “Fictional beauty & beautiful lies” by Gemma Weston (Art & Australia v49 no1 2011) discusses the art of Tarryn Gill and Pilar Mata Dupont. Tarryn Gill and Pilar Mata Dupont’s video Gymnasium, that won the Basil Seller’s Art Prize in 2010, beautifully and knowingly recreates an example of the fascist lies of white Australia (see my blog post). There needs to be more art exposing, exploring and explaining the dishonesty of the Australian fiction. There is also a need for art to tell a better story.

 

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Graffiti dialogue in Brunswick

I have accepted the call from Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance for #7DaysOfResistance, Jan 20th-27th in the lead up to #InvasionDay. This post is part of the resistance.

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