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Category Archives: Culture Notes

Counihan Politics and Protest

Thursday evening as I am going to the Counihan Gallery on the tram along Sydney Road. I am thinking about the theme of the exhibition: ‘people – politics – protest’ and Noel Counihan in a cage demonstrating the lack of free speech in 1933. Thinking that if I don’t see the police, or ultra-conservative demonstrators then the art isn’t great protest art… and then I saw the sandbag barricade out the front of the Brunswick town hall. Have the battle lines been drawn? Has Moreland seceded from Australia?

Rushdi Anwar

Rushdi Anwar, Art Like Morality, Consists of Drawing a Line Somewhere… is it?

Too good to hope for; the barricade were just an art installation. It wasn’t even part of the inaugural Noel Counihan Commemorative Art Award. It was Kurdish Australian artist Rushdi Anwar’s Art Like Morality, Consists of Drawing a Line Somewhere… is it? and it was part of Morearts 2017, the annual temporary art exhibition. It made me consider the possibility that the best art about people, politics or protest in Moreland was possibly not in the Counihan Gallery’s Moreland Summer Show.

Perhaps, the most best protest art this year in this local came, not from artists but from the Moreland City Council. This year has been a turning point in Australia as sections of society, represented by three inner-city Melbourne councils are officially no longer celebrating Australia Day/Invasion Day. This symbolic act of removal is a clear protest that has not been ignored by the politicians Canberra or by other elements of the far right. Iconoclasm destroying the sacred and creating absence is part of a long tradition in contemporary art as in Marcel Duchamp’s rasée L.H.O.O.Q or Robert Rauschenberg’s work Erased DeKooning. So does the influence of the German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys on organisation and political action as contemporary art.

Noel Counihan would not have understood that kind of post-modern art. Nor do the Moreland City Council consider that their removal of budget items for Australia Day/Invasion Day as a work of art; they weren’t even at the exhibition opening as there were holding a council meeting at the night. However, although they did not intend to be art, it maybe art, just as Noel Counihan’s famous protest locked in a cage may be the best thing he ever did, certainly it what he is most remembered for. It is not a functional thing; it is symbolic, a beautiful and culturally significant creation.

At the opening the artists, their friends and visitors drank wine and had a good time. Compared to what was happening outside the art inside the gallery was summed up with the metaphor of a silent readymade megaphone hung on a white gallery wall. Not that Kate Davis and Hannan Jones Study for the Speaker is that simply, it included an audio and text installation but I didn’t download those elements at the opening.

Looking around the exhibition at the Counihan Gallery at the work of the fifty local artists in a wide variety of media, commenting on a great variety of issues from identity politics to environmental. Amongst these the inaugural Noel Counihan Commemorative Art Award went to Carmel Louise for her work Suicidal Tendencies; a photographic, mixed media collage reflecting on how most people have been watching climate change on TV from the comfort of their lounge. Maybe the media is not the message but a distraction. The judges praised Louise for her dealing with the issue of apathy and her use of contemporary collage. Second guessing the judges is not the role of either the critic or reporter; my role as a critic is to raise larger issues and to point out that rejecting the celebration Australia Day/Invasion Day maybe the most important piece political art in Moreland this year.

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A shadow of a memory

The death of Richard Hambleton, ‘Shadowman’ reminded me that, aside from Keith Haring, Shadowman was the only other street artist that I’d heard about in the 1980s. I knew about Keith Haring because of his tour of Australia.

In the 1980s it was difficult to access information and finding it was often determined more by fortune than strategy. I heard about Shadowman by word of mouth and I don’t think that I saw an image of his work until decades later. At the time I was living in Coburg and studying at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. It was a long way from New York’s East Village where Keith Haring, Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger et. al. were putting up ‘wall-posters’ (paste-ups) and Shadowman was splashing paint around.

In 1985 I heard of him as “Splashman”. A friend, Rod who was doing media studies at Rusden, told me that he had heard about this guy splashing paint to create silhouette figures on walls. It was from a second or third hand report that was probably based on a 1983 profile of the artist in People magazine. My friend told me that Shadowman had painted in Berlin. Given that it was in Berlin and I assumed that it must be on the Berlin Wall because, at the time, that was the best known location for artistic graffiti (the definition of ‘graffiti’ was still fluid at that time).

At the time I didn’t know that Richard Hambleton, was an NYC-based, Canadian artist with long term problems of addiction to heroin and crack. At the time he was a mysterious, unknown person painting on walls at a time when that was very unusual. His art and existence raised many questions and provided few answers. Now only the shadow of a memory remains.

For more and images of Hambleton’s work see: Daniel Maurer “Banksy Precursor Richard Hambleton Dies at 65, Days Before MoMA Show and Shadowman Film”.

 


Where is Tintin?

Where is Tintin? Where is that brave boy reporter from Belgium who uncovers international conspiracies and corrupt corporations? Tintin was a model reporter who  thoroughly and boldly investigated his story. He is there on the spot investigating through coups, international crime and scientific expeditions.

Brussels wall 3 Tintin

Now the world needs Tintin more than ever. Now, when daily newspapers in major cities are closing down, or in Melbourne’s case now only in a tabloid format. Now, when sports, business and entertainment reporting is being automated. Now, we need the voice of the young boy reporter.

Who didn’t dream of being Tintin and what are you doing about it now? Now, anyone can be a reporter and there are a million stories in your city waiting for you to write them. You might not be able to bring down dictatorial regimes like Tintin – but the opportunity is there.

Even if you are not bringing down governments there are the usual journalistic thrills of finding a story, of being the first to report on a story, of finding that your story’s Google ranking is just below the Wikipedia entry on the topic.

The need for real reporters, or citizen journalists, is greater than ever. The world needs more people to act like Tintin and examine the actions of the state and corporations. To report first hand rather than to rely on media releases and media managed events. We need a greater diversity of voices and we need to cover a greater diversity of subjects.

Bloggers are accused of doing thing that the media does it just as often: lack of fact checking, lack of copyediting, copy and paste… It is said that we live in a copy and paste culture, where content is endless compiled from media releases. These accusations and common faults are evidence of the desperation of reporters/bloggers in these times.

And where is Tintin? Well, what do you think happened after he didn’t get paid for all those stories? On the expedition in The Shooting Star, Tintin is described as “the young reporter who will represent the press” (p.14) but we never see him writing a story, even in the final radio news report there is nothing about his story on the Sãn Rico financier that attempted to sabotage the expedition. It is never clear if he a freelance writer or is he on the staff of a newspaper or magazine. You never see Tintin sending invoices or going to editorial meetings. You never see the sponsorship that Tintin needs to pay for his expeditions.

Neither bloggers nor the mainstream media have developed a functional business model for their online versions and most print newspapers have rapidly diminishing revenue streams. When I get together with other bloggers the discussion always turns to how to monetise our blog: donation buttons, sponsorship, advertising…

The actual cartoon Tintin is a different matter, it is still very profitable and in 2015 there was a court case over image rights.


The Nicholas Building Open Studios

The antique elevators have been replaced and their fabulous lift operators, Joan McQueen and Dimitri Bradas, have long gone. The letter drop system near the elevators on each floor no longer works; the system that allowed people on each floor to post letters to be collected somewhere on the ground floor or basement. The tiles are coming off the walls. Threatened with redevelopment. But the Nicholas Building on the corner of Swanston Walk and Flinders Lane continues to be a centre for art and design in the centre of the city.

DSC02265It is a very interesting building just to look at an office building from the 1920s. From the lead-lighting of Cathedral Arcade on the ground floor to the ghost signs on the old office doors. Hand painted gold lettering from another era from businesses that no longer exist: Miss V Synan, Alexander Lau Pty Ltd and others.

The Nicholas Building had an open studio evening on last Thursday 22 of June. It has one every couple of years and although I am familiar with the building, its galleries and some of the studios I had not been to one of its open studios before. There were a few performances, exhibitions and other events were happening that night in the building.

I was pleased to see the studio of book sculptor Nicholas Jones. I had seen his work for many years but it was great to put meet the person behind the work and his studio.

Blindside and Stephen McLaughlan Gallery are the long term survivors in a building that has seen many exhibition spaces. Pigment gallery was followed by Edmund Pearce Gallery a contemporary art space dedicated to photography and now Kimono House a shop selling Japanese textiles and craft occupies the same space.

Open studios are like looking inside people’s homes or at least their offices. The studios of artists, architects, cartoonist, clothes designers, cobblers, jewellers, milliner,  toy makers, writers along with the office of the Bob Brown Foundation were open to the public for the night.

There is a growing sense of history about the building. The late, eccentric and artist Vali Meyers once had her studio on the 8th floor of the building. There is now a small engraved brass plaque on the door frame of her former studio.

I have been writing about the Nicholas Building since I started blogging. The Nicholas Building might be worth a chapter, if someone was going to write about contemporary artists studios in Melbourne as Alex Taylor has done with his book, Perils of the Studio (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2007, North Melbourne).  Perils of the Studio is about artists studios in Melbourne in the 1890 and early 20th Century. It is a very interesting, well researched and perfectly illustrated book (I know from experience how difficult doing a first book as an illustrated text can be so I am even more impressed by what Taylor has done).


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.


Teaching art in prison

In 1977 Chris Dyson was playing guitar with Paul Kelly in High Rise Bombers. However instead of 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).


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