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Category Archives: Culture Notes

Thanks for the cocktails, Cheers

What am I doing at the Whitehart Bar, in Whitehart Lane, Melbourne? I am ‘doing things your way’ doing things my way with a hashtag Wild Turkey Kentucky Firebird smoke infused cocktail and hoping to win a work of art. Yes, there will be alcohol sponsored promotions in this post. My excuse, and I will stick to it  even under cross examination, is that I was there as an art critic observing the work of the guest artists: Gareth Stehr, Klara, Adrian Doyle. Will Coles, Bertie Blackman and Nikolaus Dolman were part of the publicity up in Sydney.

The Whitehart Bar is at the end of dark lane, separated by a chain link fence topped with barbed wire. Constructed out of iron girders and shipping containers in an old parking lot, the numbers are still visible on its old bluestone walls.

It is the perfect setting for a hard-bitten, true art crime writer. I need a break from working on my art crime book and writing about the art forgery convictions being quashed for The Daily Review. I haven’t had time to write anything for this blog in weeks.

Were you not there simply for the free Wild Turkey cocktails?

Not entirely, I was there to observe the synergies between artists and marketing event. I looked at the three paintings and I photographed Gareth Stehr’s jacket. I saw a lot of retro elements, I thought that circular paintings went out with painted tambourines. Stehr piece had a poker work skull, burnt into the wooden support with a hot poker; I thought that poker work went out with sailing ships but I’ve seen several pieces already this year. Hot Potato Band were a lot of fun but again lots of retro elements; I thought that Sousaphones went out with that expression but once again I was wrong.

The smoke filled glasses are spectacular of “Wild Turkey Kentucky Firebird” and the citrus notes cuts the sweetness. I am probably amongst the first million people in the world to taste the cocktail. I had to sample this smoke infused cocktail twice for accuracy along with a couple of other bourbon based cocktails. Burgers By Josh were launching a menu and I sucked in about three of their smoked “spicy turkey wingettes” with peach and bourbon BBQ sauce. The food bloggers on the guest list talking about “the biggest burger that I ever ate”.

Cheers.

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Teaching art in prison

In 1977 Chris Dyson was playing guitar with Paul Kelly in High Rise Bombers. However instead or pursuing music Dyson went on studying painting at Victorian College of the Arts and later Masters from Monash University. Dyson studied at the VCA 82-84 and then taught there until 1998. In the early 80s Chris Dyson saw an exhibition of aboriginal prison art at the VCA gallery school. He remembers a painting titled; “The park across the road from the bank I robbed.” A few years later Dyson was teaching art at Pentridge.

Pentridge Prison

Pentridge Prison, Coburg

In 1986 Dyson gave art classes at the psych unit, G Division. Dyson felt that what he was doing was art therapy than art classes. That it was a chance for the prisoners to take pride in something. A chance for the prisoners to think about something else. A chance for them to talk about things that they wouldn’t normally talk about. Maybe that’s why the guards hated it so much.

Many of the prisoners were so heavily medicated they were like zombies for most of the month. Dyson regarded most of the prisoners in G Division as people who couldn’t deal with the outside world. They painted dicks or marijuana leaves in acrylics. No oil paint was allowed due to fears from the guards at what other uses the prisoners could make of them. There was no music therapy after Gary Web David swallowed the metal guitar strings.

He wasn’t there for long somewhere between a year and eighteen months on shitty pay. He felt intimidated; the memo about the body search option, the missing art materials and general harassment from the guards. One day they wouldn’t let him go in with his cigarette and a prisoner ends up giving him a White Ox cigarette. Then the guards question him about what he is going to give the prisoner in return for the cigarette. He considered teaching jobs elsewhere in the Pentridge and later in other private prisons but corruption and lack of support from the guards weighed against that.

Dyson felt that the guards were worse than the prisoners. He only remembers seeing the guards body building with the gym equipment, never the prisoners who were all over weight from the stogy prison food and the side effects of psychiatric medication.

Using his old connections Dyson did get Paul Kelly to perform at Pentridge. He remembers the afternoon as a great performance followed by a BBQ.

This is some of my research for a chapter on prison art for my book about art and crime. The book is planned to be published later in the year, so I have been working on that and neglecting this blog. I don’t think that much this will end up in the book except as background because that chapter is taking a different direction, so I thought that it would make a good blog post.


New Sounds on the Street

The conversation at the BBQ turned to complaining about various buskers: love them or hate them, the bagpipes at Flinders Street Station or the Chinese fiddle player at the NGV. Melbourne has a good culture of buskers from living sculptures and sidewalk performers to musicians. There is an international feel to Melbourne’s buskers, reflecting the multi-cultural nature of the city. There are amateur musicians with just their instrument and its case open for coins to professional buskers with CD for sale and so much equipment that they need a roadie or at least a handcart to move it.

India Bati and friend

India Bharti and friend

I always like to see different instruments played on the street, not the usual busker with a guitar. This is about the stranger instruments, the unique inventions that I’ve seen played on Melbourne’s streets. New musical instruments are a combination of invention, engineering, make-do and art.

The variety and quantity of buskers in Melbourne is impressive. From the bagpipe player who used to play on the on the steps of Flinders St. Station to a guy doing beat boxing . The human beat box was doing bass and drums with just a microphone and an amp. He was excellent, impressive as the vocalisations — covers of ‘Stand By Me’ and ‘Another One Bites The Dust’. The human beat box was also expressing his artistic desperation in between songs: “I don’t want to be busking for the rest of my life.”

One day I saw a guy playing a “dagpipe” player on the corner of Elizabeth and Bourke. The “dagpipe” were his inventions, or maybe not, another guy playing one called it a “gagpipe” — either way it is a very Australian alternative to a bagpipe. It used a foot pump for an air mattress to inflate the plastic bag from a 4-litre cask of wine that supplies air to the single pipe.

Dagpipes

Man playing “dagpipes”

Another day I saw another very Australian improvised instruments being played by a busker — tuned beer bottles hung on a wooden rack.

In the late 1980s there was Jerome and Soul Desire who were street performers using improvised percussion instruments. And now there is Victor Lancaster aka Mr Mention who plays the improvised drum kit made of plastic buckets.

India Bharti is my favourite busker because of his unique collection of instruments. He is a Shivaism, a Shiva devotee with long wild hair, trident and other accoutrements and his lyrics reflect this interest. He performs with several unique handmade stringed instruments; the largest being a long piece of natural wood with many strings attached. All of these stringed instruments are augmented with many guitar effects peddles. The sound that it produces is somewhere between an electric guitar and a tempura (the Indian instrument that provides the continuous tonic drones that backs the soloists). He has released CDs and I even saw a video clip on Rage many years ago (he now has many videos on YouTube).


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.


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.


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