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Category Archives: Culture Notes

Marcel Duchamp’s Christmas

How to display and decorate your Christmas tree in the style of Marcel Duchamp: he did do this one Christmas at Teeny’s house. First, hang the Christmas tree upside down from the ceiling. There a strategic advantage to this way of displaying a Christmas tree, as Duchamp pointed out – there is more room for presents underneath it. On the subject of presents, in keeping with theme of Dadaist readymades, they should be wrapped à la Man Ray.

Marcel Duchamp enjoyed Christmas. In 1907 he held a two day Christmas party that was so wild that he was evicted from his apartment at 65 rue Caulaincourt in Paris. He was twenty years old and had done very little that year but hang around in Paris and go to the seaside in the summer. The menu for this riotous party survives, exhibiting some early Duchamp word play and a drawing of a naked woman sitting in a giant champagne glass drinking from a bottle. Note the English “Plump Pudding”: “Rebellion Menu / Ituitus / Hors d’ouavres / Divedi truffée / Salood / Pâtés / Plump Pudding / Desserts / Vino / Liquors / Champagne / M.D. 24 Dis. 1907” 

There is a further art historical connection between this infamous Christmas party and Duchamp’s later art; leiris202 claims that photo of Duchamp’s draftsman’s stool used as a stand for a Christmas tree 1907. The stool looks similar to the one used, five years later, for Bicycle Wheel, the first of Duchamp’s ‘readymades’ but even if it isn’t the idea of a Christmas tree is good way to introduce the idea of ‘readymades’. 

The common claim of not to be able to understand Duchamp’s ‘readymades’ is odd because people annually make Christmas trees which are by definition an assisted (decorated) readymade. The Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme defines the readymade as “an everyday object elevated to the more dignified level of an artistic object at the mere whim of the artist”. Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme (1938; Rennes, 1969) Ordinary objects regularly transcend the commonplace in religion, as well as, art.

The tree decorated with its lights is connecting with the ancient Roman rituals and the god Mithras. Mithras is a god who was also man, born on December 25th; his birth also announced by a star and witnessed by shepherds. Art, like religion and culture, is the recombination, reuse and reinterpretation of pre-existing ‘readymade’ parts.

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Cultural Diet Advice

It would appear to be a reasonable proposition that an art critic aught to be able to tell good art from bad and therefore would be able to advice on an appropriate cultural diet. What to see and what to avoid. Such advice is often obvious when someone is deprived of culture or has a very poor cultural diet, in the same way that it is obvious that a starving person needs food. As in recent reports of Canadian doctors prescribing a visit to an art gallery.

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Less obvious, perhaps better aesthetic taste provides a benefit, such as the benefits of a better cultural diet. As yet there is no evidence for this and as so many people have been so very wrong in describing some art as ‘junk food,’ ‘rotten’ or ‘poisonous’ I am loathe to follow their example. If there was equally clear evidence for poor aesthetic taste having detrimental effects it would as likely be around by now, given millennia of bad taste. The idea that someone knows the right kind of culture to consume is to avoided like a fad diet.

Much of our critical vocabulary is based on food: sweet, sour, light, vapid, rotten… all summed up in one word, ‘taste’. With this jumbo serving of misplaced synesthesia is hard not to imagine that we are in some ways ingesting culture. However food and diet are a poor analogy for cultural consumption and demonstrate why such a common analogies works so badly. We hardly know what the nutritional value of aspects of culture. To call something ‘cultural junk food’ maybe as misinformed as medieval dietary advice on balancing the four humors.

If culture is at all like food, or exercise, then the best advice is to consume a variety in moderation. Advice that I try to follow in this blog with posts on a variety of types of art and associated cultural matters but that I follow more in my everyday life as I don’t generally write about the music, dance and other aspects of my cultural diet in this blog (maybe I should).


Carrot Man

I saw Carrot Man! I had heard the legend of a man who walks inner city Melbourne holding a giant papier-mâché carrot with green plastic leaves. I assumed that I would not see him for reasons of time and space; most report had him in Fitzroy. Then on Friday I was in Flinders Lane buying sushi when I saw him walking past the window. So I grabbed my sushi, the woman behind the counter ran after me with my change.

It has been years since the first reported sightings of Carrot Man but it was obviously the same man. I tried to catch up with him but he was walking quickly up Manchester Lane towards the tram stop on Collins Street.

For more about Carrot Man see a newspaper article on Reddit. I love Tuesdays has a blog post about him. There is The Carrot Man Hunt @carrotmanhunt on Twitter. And an interview with him on YouTube.

In all these reports and interviews he never once does he use the ‘Art’ word; his stated intention is simply to make people smile. (I think that the stories about him carrying a squid are a red herring.)


Windsor Place Studio

The sculptor William Eicholtz and mixed media minimalist artist Louise Rippert have been working in the same studio in Windsor for twenty-five years. They currently shares the studio with ceramic artist Janet Beckhouse, fine artist and jewellery Rose Agnew, painter Karen Salter, and ceramics artist Caroline Gibbes. They have the lease for another four years but the construction is closing in around them as inner city Melbourne grows in height.

Looking at William Eicholtz's studio

More than their art artists love their studios. Their art will hopefully be sold and go but the studio remains a constant muse. Most artist studios that I visit are in former factories or shops, partitioned into smaller individual studios. Aside from home studios I have rarely seen an artist studio who wasn’t sharing with other artists.

Alex Taylor Perils of the Studio (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2007) is history of Melbourne art told from the perspective of the artist studio,Taylor shows that artist’s studios at the turn of the 20th Century demonstrated a range of ideas about what it is to be an artist: as an aesthete, as feminine, as a collector, as a scholar and as a bohemian.

Artists studios are considerably smaller and messier than a century ago, as described by Taylor. They are more workshops than lounge rooms. One reason for this is because artists are no longer working from models and are no longer selling art out of their studios.

There are less partitions than usual at the Windsor Place studio. Most of the artists can look up and see each other at work from across the studio. There is some cross pollination of ideas between the artists. Beckhouse has had a subtle influence on William Eicholtz and Caroline Gibbes who are both working in ceramics. They are unusually convivial studio in other ways; they go out together to exhibitions and events. The last time I ran into them at “Spring 1883” when they invited me to visit the studio. On the day I visited both Janet and Louise were wearing jewellery by Rose Agnew.

The day prior to my visit about thirty members of the NGV Women’s Association had visited the Windsor Place studio. This meant that the studio was unusually tidy and there was still left-over, but still delicious, cakes made by Rose. I know my place in the pecking order of the art world is somewhere below that of the ladies who lunch (I find it odd to imagine that such an organisation, as the NGV Women’s Association, still exists).

After morning tea the artist get back to work and I went around the studio seeing their space. I hadn’t met Karen Salter and Caroline Gibbes before so I took the opportunity of chatting with them and finding out more about their art. Salter paints the purity of forms of modernist architecture in 60s postcard colours.

Karen Salter dolls house

Karen Salter was considering if a miniature version of one of her paintings would work in a modernist dolls house.

Louise Rippert in her studio

Louise Rippert preparing the support for her new work.

Rose Agnew diorama

Rose Agnew was using this diorama as a model for a setting for her paintings of a hookah smoking caterpillar.

I will let the artists in Windsor get back to work. What other work place has so many visitors?


The Australian amorality

In Penny Byrne I heart Nauru (2017) one of Byrne’s repurposed porcelain figure the wistful girl seated on a rock has sewn her lips together and has slashed her legs and arms, self-harming in despair. Byrne is also a ceramics conservator and uses the same conservation techniques to alter mass produced kitsch ceramics. She gives them a new political meaning with the judicious application of enamel paint.

Penny Byrne I heart Nauru (2017) in the background Angela Brennan Redacted then said (2018)

Penny Byrne I heart Nauru (2017) in the background Angela Brennan Redacted then said (2018)

I feel that I have failed as a critic this year because I did not write about “All we can’t see – Illustrating the Nauru Files” at Forty-Five Downstairs in August. Byrne’s figure was just one of the exhibiting artists in that exhibition. I wanted to address the deep systemic problems in Australia that have lead to this, however at the time I felt the pain depicted in the art too much and lacked the energy to write.

The Australian concentration camps are not the responsibility of one political party but are symptomatic of a deep lack of morality. There are so many examples of institutional child abuse, war crimes, genocidal activity in Australia’s recent history that all the apologies in the world cannot disguise the fact the country is amoral.

The cause of this Australian amorality is that either the majority of Australians or basic the structure of Australian politics is or both. At the foundation of this structure is the Australian constitution; a document without any protection of civil or human rights, a document that permits voting laws to be made on the basis of race. However the Australian constitution cannot be entirely to blame, it is merely facilitates a system without a conscience.

Nationalists consider that it a good thing for the subject of Australia’s criminality never to be raised. Denial, distraction and ‘no comment’ are the national character of a criminal state. You cannot have a civil debate when one side does not want to have one. Criminals charges must be brought against all those who participated in these crimes; only following orders, only doing your job, even only obeying the law are not excuses for crimes against humanity. And the Australian constitution completely rewritten so that these crimes can never happen again.


We Protest!

Benny Zable’s Greedozer costume, the full face gas-mask with the red radioactive sign on the end of the filter canister, was a regular feature at many demonstrations in the 1980s. He was a living sculpture with a message.

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Zable’s gas-mask along with other the ephemera of mass protest demonstrations has been curated at the City Gallery in the Melbourne Town Hall in an exhibition curated by Malcolm McKinnon. The small exhibition traces the history of protests in Melbourne from 1962 Women’s Day marches through to recent anti-fascist protests. There is a “wreck the draft poster” from the Students for a Democratic Society printed on National Service Registration forms. And an improvised cardboard sign from the taxi driver protests that block Flinders Street in 2008.

John Ellis, Challenging Captain Cook, 1976

There is no denying the cultural importance of these events and images; protests are part of the spectacle of a democratic society. A photograph of a young Aboriginal protester from the 1976 in front of the Captain Cook Cottage still resonates with the current statue wars. Along with photographs and posters, there are protest signs in the exhibition but no banners; there wasn’t enough space in the small gallery and, maybe all the good old trade union banners are at the Potter Museum of Art’s exhibition State of the Union (I don’t know I haven’t seen it yet). The photographs of banners makes me wonder if protest marches are reconfigured religious processions, mass displays of passionate faith.

The exhibition attempts to give a balance between the government/police and other views. But can there ever be a balanced when the police using batons against peaceful protestors or driving over them with a police car at the S11 protests? The pretence that there is a tolerance of protests is one of the foundations of the illusion of a liberal democracy.


Peak Books, Free Libraries and Art

We live at a time of peak stuff and consequently it is also the time of peak books. What once was rare and valued is now a glut. Collecting printed matter used to be a virtue and now it is the vice of a hoarder. Perhaps, we can only understand everything about books is when there is an excess of books.

Nicolas Jones, Holman Hunt book

My own book shelves are overflowing, packed two deep with books. More books are stacked in various strategic positions. Are they simply trophies of previous reads? How many of them will I ever read again or repeatedly consult?

Now, e-books might be an alternative to having physical books. I have read only one e-book, Medieval Graffiti, but I no longer have a dictionary or thesaurus or an encyclopaedia takin up space on my shelves. I no longer keep newspaper clipping or photocopy of articles as they are available online or in PDF files.

Peak books is a disturbing concept to bibliophiles and bookshop workers especially second-hand bookshops because peak books means more free libraries. I have been taking some of my excess books to the free libraries. There are free libraries at Coburg and Moreland stations, more around the streets and even one at Barkley Square shopping centre. I first noticed a free library in my neighbourhood in 2014 but the recent growth in them is a sure indicator of peak books.

Peak books means that there will be art made from the excess books, as art is made from excesses in a society. Art from books has been happening since before I started this blog and is on the increase. There are Melbourne based artists who used books as their primary media, for example Nicolas Jones. In Collected Odysseys, 2018, by Malcolm Angelucci, Chris Caines and Majella Thomas, a two metre cairn of books blackened with ink in the middle of the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick.


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