Category Archives: Culture Notes

Yannae Wirrate Weelam and prison art

At the Melbourne Museum I saw Yannae Wirrate Weelam, The Journey Home in the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre. The exhibition was organised by The Torch, who are very actively exhibiting. In January I saw their exhibition, Confined 8 at the St. Kilda Town Hall Gallery. They also have an exhibition, Dhumbadha Munga (Talking Knowledge) at the Alliance Francaise’s Eildon Gallery that looks at the two-way relationship between the arts workers and the artists they support.

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The exhibition, Yannae Wirrate Weelam, The Journey Home had a very short history about the far too many aboriginal artists in prison along with work by people in the current The Torch program.

All of the artists in the exhibition took such care and time with their art but a few of the artists are outstanding. Robby Knight, of the Wergaia/Wotjobaluk, has so much creative energy and talent when working in both paint and many other materials. And Knight’s work with other materials gets frighteningly awesome and powerful. The paintings by Jeffrey Jackson, of the Mutti Mutti, are so powerful and beautiful. I was also impressed with the pokerwork, burning wood with a hot bit of metal, by Roger Sims, of the Barkindji, proving that you can do a contemporary illustration of a Murray Cod with fantastic detail in that media.

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Jeffrey Jackson, Knowing Country

This was research for my next book which is about true art crimes in Melbourne. For along with art theft, art forgery and art vandalism I also want to write about prison art and other places where art the criminal justice system intersect.

Prison art has not been an easy topic to write about for a number of reasons, chiefly I don’t have much information. I have been able to interview a couple of prison art educators and I expect to interview some more.

To add to the difficultly I want to focus on Aboriginal prison art including the artist Ronald Bull who painted the mural in Pentridge Prison’s “F” Division. In the 1970s Ronald Bull was described in advertisement in The Age: “Hailed by many as the foremost and most versatile landscape painter of the present time. Showing the often unseen beauty of our countryside, an artist with turbulent talent. Capable of becoming Australia’s premier painter.” Yet few people have heard of him today; I don’t want his life and art, along with others like him, to be forgotten so I am writing about it.

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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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The Forgery Trial

Since April 4, 2016 I have been attending the Supreme Court to observe the trial of Peter Gant and Aman Siddique who were accused of forging two Brett Whiteley paintings. Last Friday Justice Croucher finally passed sentence. The jury verdict had been delivered months before, but the sentences had been delayed to hear plea hearings and applications for damages.

The trial of Aman Siddique and Peter Gant was itself is at a trivial crossroads in legal history as it is one of the last cases to be tried in the Supreme Court with the lawyers and judge wearing the traditional wigs. As of May 1, 2016 Supreme Court trials will no longer have the judge and barristers wearing wigs.

For most of the trial Justice Michael Croucher was wearing in his wig and red robes edged with silver. His tipstaff was dressed in the traditional uniform of a long grey coat with black brocade.

The venerable old defence barrister Remey Van De Weil, QC, who was representing Siddique, commented on the loss of wigs in his summing up to the jury. He noted that the wigs going back to the Sun King, Louis XIV of France. Mr Van De Weil used this historical point to emphasise this to the jury. “You are here to apply the principles of law, and that’s why we dress the way in which we do and it’s the only justification for it – believe me; I do not go to bed wearing these clothes, I don’t wear them around the house or certainly don’t wear them walking my dog.” He probably uses the same speech on all the juries.

Remey’s old wig looks like it is made out of horse hair, but the younger wigs in the courtroom are all made of nylon.

All the wigs were off for the sentencing.

On Friday Peter Gant, the art dealer who had sold the forgeries was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment, with a non-parole period of 2.5 years. Aman Siddique, the art restorer who painted the forgeries was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, with an order for ten months to be served and 26 months suspended. There were several reasons for the difference in the sentences including that there was no proof that Siddique had received any money and because if Siddique served twelve months he would be deported from Australia, as he is not an Australian citizen.

The sentences were not a surprise to those watching the trial. The verdict will probably be overturned on appeal because there is evidence from a couple of witnesses that the two paintings in question existed in 1988.

For most of the time I sat with the large blue painting in its gilded frame known as “Blue Lavender Bay” resting on the padded seats just behind me on the press bench. The slightly smaller painting “Orange Lavender Bay” was further along.

I was not alone on the press bench. The other regulars observing the trial included, Bill Luke and the former arts reporter for The Age, Gabriella Coslovich were also both writing books. We were very occasionally joined by various journalists, generally, Pia Akerman for The Australian.

I have never observed a Supreme Court trial before but I have some experience with court reporting. (Read my blog post Are You Experienced?)

I have not been able to write about most of the trial because my blog allows comments and reporting on a jury trial with online comments risks contempt of court. I was not there for my blog but to work on my book about art and crime. I did find one exception and that was to write about the tagging on the press bench.


Homeless @ Hosier Lane

The aerosol painted walls of Melbourne’s Hosier Lane did not occur by accident. Nor are they entirely there by design, at least, not in the way that Flinders Street Station is painted yellow by design. For Hosier Lane exists in a strange symbiotic relationship with the city council, building owners, artists and many other people.

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US artist Mows putting out the welcome mat in Hosier Lane.

It is a delicate urban ecosystem frequently about to tip into catastrophe. It is maybe a delicate urban ecosystem but, unlike an art gallery or a theme park, it is not an enclosed system, real world problems effect it. Looking at street art and graffiti keeps raising a wide variety of real issues; issues like private and public property, freedom of speech and currently, homelessness.

It is used by a strange mix of people: from artists, international tourists to local homeless, residents, office workers, delivery drivers and now construction workers. The lane is used as access to Rutledge Lane and from between Flinders Lane and Flinders Street. As well as graffiti and street art the laneway itself is used for wedding photos, advertising shots, school groups, graffiti tours and the homeless.

Melbourne’s homeless generally have a positive attitude towards street art and graffiti.  And the street artists and graffiti writers are generally supportive towards the homeless. There are enterprises in Hosier Lane supporting disadvantaged people, like the Youth Services, the coffee shop and the occasional, shoe shine stall.

In August there were reports in the media (Herald Sun, Channel 10, 3AW) of drug use in the lane, mostly smoking marijuana. This is basically it what many Australians do in their own houses but when you are homeless you are doing it in the street… in front of international tourists.

Problems for the homeless in Hosier Lane increased when demolition work commenced on the old Russell Street Theatre that backs onto the lane. Part of this involved boarding up the alcoves on the Russell Street side of the lane. The hip-hop group, Combat Wombat, took direct action cutting through the boarded up alcoves so that the homeless could use them again; see their video.

As if there is a specific solution for Hosier Lane. Specific solutions ignor the fact that the problems are symptomatic of a far larger planning and social issue. Melbourne’s Mayor Robert Doyle is talking about CCTV for the lane again, as if there is any evidence to suggest that will be a solution, because he doesn’t have much of an imagination.

The Hosier Inc are looking at every option, from CCTV to buffing the whole lane and moving the street art and tourists on to another location in the city.

Every year there seems to be an 2017 the existential crisis to threatening the existence of Hosier Lane. This year it is homelessness which being real makes a change from last year’s invented crisis for the media.

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John Jones in Hosier Lane


True Crime and Art

I am working on my next book about true crime and visual arts in Australia. (My first book  Sculptures of Melbourne of Melbourne was published last year.) This has involved sitting in court, searching archives as well as, my usual activities, looking at art and talking to artists.

Melbourne, like all metropolises has artists, public art galleries, private art galleries, art collectors, art dealers and criminals, everything that is needed for art thefts. Everything that is needed for a lot of other crimes involving art and art involved in crimes.

There are many true stories about the intersection between the worlds of art and crime. I will be writing about the theft of Picasso’s Weeping Woman, of course and also other stories involving art thefts, vandalism of art, vandalism that is art and criminals who do art.

Earlier this year I spent days sitting in the Supreme Court watching the trial of Peter Gant and Aman Siddique for the forging of Brett Whiteley paintings. I learnt a lot about courtroom procedures and how Brett Whiteley’s paintings are framed.

Both Gant and Siddique have been found guilty by the jury but the judgement for that trial has still not been given, so I can’t finish that chapter just yet. Coincidentally it was one of the last trials to be conducted with a judge in a wig.

A couple of weeks ago I was looking at original documents in the State Library’s Heritage Collection Reading Room. I had heard that they had the sketch book of the bushranger and sculptor, William Stanford. When I investigated I found that there were two books. They were waiting for me on the desk with the pillow on it. The pillow was to cradle the spin of the delicate old books, its cover half falling off, pages coming out. I was surprised that I was not required to wear white gloves to handle them but there was enough grim on the pages already from when Stanford was in Pentridge.

I was not allowed to take photographs of Stanford’s notebooks, nor was I allowed to photograph the tags on Supreme court’s press bench where the crime reporter have cut their names. Not that I am worried as my next book is going to be an unusual book about art, one without many pictures.

Mostly my historical research has involved searching old newspapers scanned on Trove. You would not believe the number of paint brushes stolen in Victoria in the nineteenth century but before mass production made them inexpensive. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that anyone actually stole a painting.

Readers maybe able to help me if they:

  • Any serving or retired member of Victoria Police who has investigated any art theft, fraud involving art, vandalism of art or is interested in art crimes.
  • Knew the painter Ronald Bull
  • Has any information about Phillip Richmond O’Loughlin of Sydney from around 1946
  • Knows Timur Grin or Anthony D’Souza
  • Has any information about John Allen Haywood of Mount Druitt
  • Knew Ivan and Pamela Liberto in Toorak. Ivan worked as a mechanic in Diamond Creek
  • Taught visual arts at any prison in Victoria
  • Studied visual arts in prison in Victoria
  • Has a criminal conviction for graffiti in Melbourne
  • Was a victims of art theft or forgery in Melbourne
  • Has been arrested and/or convicted of any crime due to their art practice in Melbourne
  • Was a member of the Australian Cultural Terrorists (ACT)

If you want to contact me about this or any other information about art involving crimes or crimes involving art in Australia I can keep your identity confidential.


What ever happened to the avant-garde?

I remember the idea of the avant-garde artist and a time when there still were avant-garde artists but it is a distant memory of the nineteen seventies. Even then the time between being an avant-garde artist and an establishment artist was getting shorter and shorter.

Eventually all that remained of the avant-garde was the shock, not the shock of the new, but just shock art. Mark Kostabi and Jeff Koons were not avant-garde they were just shocking. Then there was nothing avant-garde, everything that was new was old. Australian aboriginal art was fresh on the art market in the 1980s but thousands of years old. There were the kids out in the street doing their graffiti but that wasn’t avant-garde.

Was the avant-garde simply a feature of modernism? If not, would it be correct to describe any artist from the 17th Century as ‘avant-garde’?

Although there may no longer be an avant-garde there is the underground and independents.

Independent started in the late 1960s, a vague, nebulous idea of not being controlled by a large corporate institution. It was more of an economic than an artistic progressive model.

The underground would never become mainstream, it wasn’t so much an avant-garde as resistance movement deep behind enemy lines.

The avant-garde is different from simply being opposed to the status quo. Being opposed to the status quo may also be an indication of conservative and reactionary thinking. Likewise being different is not necessarily avant-garde, it could merely be eccentric, or again, deeply conservative.

The military model of the avant-garde art would be that of the advance guard, the forward flank that is the first to engage with the enemy. It also provides a clear indication that progress has been made would be if the rear guard moves to occupy the area formerly occupied by the avant-garde, such as in the case of impressionist painters or jazz.

The military model does raise the question of what is the enemy of art?

This academic model of the ‘avant-garde’, or at least of innovation, presumes that in to develop art it is necessary to be conscious, in the Hegelian sense, of the history and theory of art. It is an understanding that only those in an academic environment have the training and research opportunities to accomplish. The audience for this art must be educated, lectured to and continually challenged to see if they are keeping up with the progress of contemporary art. However a studied approach to a new conclusion is insufficient for the avant-garde needs to be seriously relevant and not merely the product of ‘serious culture’.

“In jazz, as in classical music, the avant-garde is less of a site of innovation than an academic branch of an art-form.” Michael Jarrett, Sound Tracks – A Musical ABC, (Temple University Press, p.174)

The popular arts has its own model for innovation in the arts that proved powerfully sometime between Toulouse LaTrec’s poster and Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground. The use of electronic instruments on the Dr Who theme was indicative of the shape of future contemporary music.

Robert Maycock in Glass, a Portrait (Sanctuary, 2002) argues that the popular arts provided an economic way to bypass the moribund institutional system. The numerous film scores of Phillip Glass and also other composers like, Michael Nyman shows how the economics of popular art now provides more autonomy for the artists than the old institutional art system. The popular arts also provides a motivation for the progress and a means to entrench the progress in the system.

What is the avant-garde today? What would it mean to be an avant-garde artist or musician? Is the value of the avant-garde practice based on its historic achievements and not on any present necessity?


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