Category Archives: Culture Notes

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.


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.


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 Whitely paintings. I learnt a lot about courtroom procedures and how Brett Whitely’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:

  • Knew the painter Elliot Bull
  • Has any information about Phillip Richmond O’Loughlin of Sydney from around 1946
  • Has any information about John Allen Haywood of Victoria from around 1997
  • Knew Ivan and Pamela Liberto, 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
  • Was a victims of art theft or forgery
  • Has been arrested and/or convicted of any crime due to their art practice
  • 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?

Art and Social Security

At a party in the early 1980s I heard some guy answer the question “What do you do?” with “I’m on a government arts grant.”

As I was young and ernest about my career in the arts I asked. “How did you get that?”

“I’m unemployed.” He replied.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, many aspiring artists and musicians in Australia were on the dole. Nick Cave was handing in his fortnightly unemployment form along with many other artists, musicians and writers. At the time unemployment benefits were easy to obtain with the minimum of bureaucratic hoops to jump through and even the meagre unemployment benefits meant time to paint, write or play music. This self-initiated low grade arts funding was a very productive time for the arts in Australia, especially Australian music. Unemployment benefits provided a very wide funding base for the arts, it was non-elitist and possibly not as economically reckless as it sounds.

The downside was that it did lead to the arts being undervalued in the wider community, artists, bands, photographers were all expected to work for very little or free because everyone knew that they had the social security safety net to fall back on.  And artists and bands were repeatedly ask to work for free to raise funds for one cause or charity.

The question back in the 1980s was how to survive and make long term unemployment part of a bohemian artist’s career path. Justin Heazlewood, aka The Bedroom Philosopher, discusses being ‘funemployed’ and how it really isn’t that much fun. It requires financial risks on a very low budget and no stability, with a society that assumes that because you have achieved a modicum of fame that you must be rich.

Arts funding needs to be completely re-examined and changes need to be made at the most basic level. This is still an issue and tougher requirements for unemployment are not going to make it any better. What is needed is a living wage for artists; for more about this read David Pledger’s “Social security for artists” NAVA June 27 2016.

The first fact that must be remembered is that it takes time to get an arts career going; decades often and during those decades the starving aspiring artists needs food and shelter, training, materials, equipment, time to experiment, to learn, to develop. It is not going happen overnight, if ever. Fortunately for any government that is serious about funding that arts, art education and students are inexpensive investment that return money directly to the economy and in the long run they can make big returns.

“When I was last unemployed in Newcastle in the mid 90s there was 47% unemployment, so I literally didn’t know anyone with a job. There was a big economic transition and a lot of people with time on their hands. I think of all the people that I know – some of who have gone on to be quiet successful artists – and we all got good at what we were doing because we had the time to do it.” Marcus Westbury (Interview by Rose Vickers Das Super Paper #20, August 2011)

Lost Wax Workshop @ Meridian

Although I have written a book about public sculpture I have never done any sculpting. Last weekend I went to Melbourne’s oldest sculpture foundry, Meridian for one of their workshops in the lost wax technique.


When the sculptor Peter Corlett first took me to see Meridian I was amazed that there was a sculpture foundry just off Johnston Street in Fitzroy. Looking around the foundry there are sculptures in progress and moulds for sculptures by notable sculptors including Peter Corlett, Robert Kippel, Lisa Roet, and Andrew Rogers.

The foundry has been located in a two story nineteenth century brick warehouse, since it was established in 1973 by Peter Morely. It is now in its second generation with Peter Morely’s son, Gareth working at the foundry.

Peter Morely still works part-time often doing his favourite job applying the surface colouring effect to the bronze, the patination on the sculptures. This ranges from traditional black and brown through to green, white or polished.

So Fitzroy hasn’t been completely gentrified, there is still some industry in the suburb. People are still melting down bronze in furnaces and pouring the molten metal into moulds to make sculptures, using techniques that have been developed over the last five millennia.

Although the lost wax casting has been around for millennia techniques in bronze casting have not stopped developing. New synthetic materials are being used from building industry rubber to 3D printing using potato starch. Anything that will cleanly burn away like wax leaving an empty space, the mould into which the bronze will be poured.

Even the traditional bees wax has also been replaced by a synthetic wax with a dark green pigment added. The wax as media is very forgiving because it can be both additive modelled and subtractive carved; so if you make a mistake you can easily stick something back on or cut it off.

I thought that I knew about lost wax technique before the workshop however there is so many steps in the process that you don’t realise until you start. One thing I did know it is a process where you don’t do it all yourself; that part of the job of a sculpture foundry is providing assistance and advice to the sculptor.

Darien Pullen conducted the workshop for three people and myself which allowed for plenty of one on one advice and assistance. Darien is a sculptor who has worked at Meridian since 1984 mostly making moulds and preparing waxes for casting; last year his winged victory statue was unveiled outside the Marrickville Town Hall. He also teaches in life drawing and that helped with my sculpture.

I thought that a small cat sculpture would be a good idea because I had a lot of sketches and photographs of my cats. Cats, like sculpture, are all about volume, the thin creature beneath the hair is a very different creature. Furthermore, I consoled myself, as many people like cats, so any cat sculpture however poor will have some admirers.

At the end of Sunday afternoon I took the wax model home; nobody is expected to complete a model in six hours. I plan to do some more work on it and sandpaper smooth out some of its curves. Eventually each of the workshop participants will have their wax model cast in bronze and a patina applied. None of the workshop participants will be involved in pouring the bronze as there are too many health and safety issues involved to even begin to list.

Black Mark did the workshop courtesy of Meridian.

Melbourne Tea

I am currently drinking a special blend of tea that is intended to represent Melbourne. Most people in Melbourne are into coffee but I prefer tea but if Melbourne was a tea blend what would it taste like? Aside from the synesthesia implied in the question and ignoring the obvious Melbourne coffee connection.


Philippa Thacker explaining the ingredients for the Melbourne tea blend as Stephen Twining watches.

At a media call at Little Mule Cafe, in Somerset Place, Melbourne to promote a new tea blend created for Australian palates to be launched next year. In attendance is Stephen Twining of Twinings Tea, a descendant from the company founder, Thomas Twining who established a tea and coffee shop in London in 1717, almost 300 years ago. And master tea blender, Philippa Thacker who is blending some tea that she thinks will suit Melbourne. There are no plans to market the Melbourne blend of tea, and the team from Twinings will be repeating this event, creating a blend for Sydney, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane.

How to represent Melbourne? Obviously, it has to be a black tea.

There has been some debate about the colour of Melbourne; not the football colours of a particular sporting team, but the symbolic colour of the city. Is it yellow or is it black? Yellow is the colour of Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault, that is repeated in the architecture of Denton Corker and Marshall and the 2013 Melbourne Now exhibition. Black is the colour of Inge King’s sculptures and the fashion of many of Melbourne’s inhabitants, including myself. Perhaps it is both, yellow and black, nature’s warning sign for a venomous animal, a warning that this city is poisonous to some extent.

In the 1980s Barry Humphries proposed that Melbourne be called “the big Orange” like New York is called the ‘the big Apple’. To be fair to Humphries orange was all the rage at the time, Melbourne’s trams were painted orange, and Humphries did have a taste for the kitsch elements of Australian culture. And there is some orange in the tea as “orange pekeo” is a term that refers to the highest grade of tea leaf.

Back at the Little Mule Cafe, Philippa Thacker is gentling blending the various teas together, for the tea leaf can break down easily. In the mix there is a Darjeeling, the champagne of teas with its muscatel, floral notes and two different Ceylon teas. One is of the Ceylon teas is gown at low at low altitude and has a thick liquor whereas the high grown has a dry taste with citrus notes. Added to this is added rose petals and strawberry pieces, a fruity note to compliment the Darjeeling, like strawberries and champagne at the Australia Open.

I’m not sure if Melbourne can or should be summed up with tennis but the result is an enjoyable tea. The floral and fruity notes from the rose petals and strawberry pieces are hardly noticeable but do create a full and wide flavour. “Refreshment” is a key word, identified through some arcane market research. Beer is also refreshing; but it does suggest the psychological question why does Melbourne need to become fresh again? Do we feel regularly feel stale, wilted and faded?

The tea blend is not the same as Twinings Australian Afternoon with an orange and brown outback design complete with a kangaroo on the box. Australian Afternoon is a stronger flavoured tea than English Breakfast but not dramatically different. Outside, in Sommerset Place it is grey and raining with no kangaroos or sweeping plains in sight. The dead end laneway, off Lt Burke Street has a bit of street art, along with new bollards and squares of concrete seating and gardens is typically Melbourne and a hostile environment for any kangaroo.

Medieval Graffiti

Matthew Champion, Medieval Graffiti – The Lost Voices of England’s Churches (Ebury Press, 2015)


The justification for the study not just medieval of graffiti, but all graffiti, is the same. The need to understand the ordinary people through their mark making culture and not just the official version created by the church or civil authorities. In the medieval world this includes marks by merchants, marks by stone masons, and marks by women. Although there was graffiti on all kinds of medieval buildings it is in churches where most of the medieval graffiti can still be found, there are over 5,000 inscription in Norwich Cathedral.

The book shows that the study of graffiti started in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as various antiquarians started to study the marks on the walls of their local churches. The problem with an antiquarian examination and speculation about graffiti in their local church is there isn’t enough evidence to understand the marks, or the church itself might just be an odd example. This book is based on a very broad geographic survey, conducted by teams of volunteers, of medieval graffiti in churches around England.

Medieval graffiti in churches exists in limbo, clearly tolerated, as it was not painted over, but not official. The graffiti was cut into the paint that once covered all the interior walls of pre-Reformation English churches and would have stood out as pale lines on a coloured surface. It now survives as scratches on the stone.

Predictably for there are chapters on heraldic graffiti, pictures of knights and plagues but the medieval world is a very strange place. Along with graffiti in churches medieval Christianity had strange beliefs about demons in churches, curses, witch marks and pentangles (yes, all you neo-pagans it is a Christian symbol).

Champion doesn’t think that we can understand the medieval minds that created the graffiti and is cautious about all interpretations. With chapter headings that include “Swastika and the Virgin Mary” to entice you, the cautious approach of the author is warranted. The evidence is carefully considered. Interpretations are never certain and explanation after explanation is debunked often until none are left. Even with this approach it is still a lively read, and even as Champion debunks another theory, it expands my understanding, not just of medieval graffiti, but of the rest of medieval world.

The final chapter goes from the Reformation through to the end of graffiti in churches in the late 19th Century. It is here where something familiar to contemporary graffiti writers emerges in the form of tags and RIP pieces.

The book includes a list of “Selected Sites to Visit”, giving details on the best churches in England to see medieval graffiti.

I read this as an ebook on a Kindle, it was the first time that I have read a whole book in that format. I’m not so sure how helpful having an appendix of terms is in that format.

For more on this book see Jessica Hope “Medieval graffiti: the lost voices of England’s churches in the Middle Ages”.

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