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Tag Archives: Australia

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.

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Planning a city

“Between the Street and the Sky” describes itself as a “provocation for Melbourne” rather than an exhibition about urban planning. It is at the City Gallery in Melbourne Town Hall. The elegant little display is certainly provocative in putting the gigantic growth of central Melbourne into perspective. More people are living in tall buildings with an ever smaller footprint. However, increases in population have not been met with an equivalent investment by either the city council or businesses.

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“Between the street and the sky”, model by Christopher White/Bates Smart

Planning is currently a hot topic in Melbourne, maybe in the rest of Australia too. This is because the quality of planning in Australia is catastrophic. Consider another example not covered in the “Between the Street and the Sky” exhibition. A major tourist attraction damaged for the benefit of a short term commercial interest. It could be  the impact of the Culture Kings shop on Hosier Lane, it could be the Apple store in Federation Square or Adani coal mine in Queensland potential to destroy the Great Barrier Reef. Take your pick they are all examples of Australia’s lack of planning. It is not just tourism that is threatened but the environment, to culture, to being able to live a good life.

Rather than focusing on one issue I want to know why Australians repeatedly makes these kind of decisions. I will not be blaming one political party for it because that is simply false and the people who do that are part of the problem, as they are trying to get a short term political advantage while damaging Australia in the long term through entrenched partisanship. I am happy acknowledge that this kind of decision making is not unique to Australia if the Australian demanding this will acknowledge that Australia is amongst the best in the world at doing irreparable damage to its own long term interests.

It is a problem of poor planning, avoiding planning and not planning. It is as if many people living in Australia never intended for Australia to be a permanent residence. Even if they never did, most of Australia’s population arrived planning to exploit the natural resources, become rich and return to their home country. This is especially true of the British colonial immigrants who became Australia’s ruling class. Australians often don’t want any other people in the area because this would additional people who will just reduce the amount that they can exploit. This paranoid and greedy reaction to the limited resources drives both Australia’s abuse of refugees and a local defence of the status quo in suburban infrastructure and planning.

Instead of avoiding the difficult issues Australia needs plans.


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.

 

nationalism

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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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)


Future of Arts in Melbourne

Imagining that Melbourne would become the centre for the arts and literature in the late 1970s could only be done with assistance of copious amounts of alcohol or other drugs. The post-industrial future of Melbourne was not secure and sections of Australia society was still openly hostile to any arts. The arts were considered a foreign, effeminate, waste of time and money compared to the macho occupation of exploiting natural resources by farming or mining. At the time Australia was suffering from ‘the cultural cringe’ that rejected any local cultural achievement as automatically inferior, the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ that strived for a mediocre undistinguished population and, consequently, a brain and creative exodus. It is amazing that Melbourne got this far, after all it could have become like Detroit.

Eleni Arbus at The future of arts in Melbourne forum

Eleni Arbus at The future of arts in Melbourne forum

The “Future of Art in Melbourne” was public forum on Thursday 13 August held on the upper floor of Melbourne Town Hall. There were about two hundred people were there but for anyone who missed the event the City of Melbourne has put three videos of it on YouTube.

Keynote by Councillor Rohan Leppert

Panel One: Ben Eltham, Eleni Arbus and Tony Yap (facilitated by Nelly Thomas)

Panel Two: Fiona Tuomy, Lynda Roberts and Christian Thompson (facilitated by Nelly Thomas)

Not that you missed much. Ben Eltham pointed out the eternal fault line between the underground and mainstream culture in Australia but then Luke McManus at the forum representing graffiti and street art, so it is not a major fault line.

The plan for the future of the arts in Melbourne does not address the megacity that Melbourne has become, it is just a plan for the City of Melbourne. What is needed if for the multiple local councils, at least in the inner city (is there life north of Bell Street?), to have a united plan for the arts. Actually the City of Melbourne’s plan addresses only a small part of the City of Melbourne; most of the focus of planning is on Melbourne’s cultural precinct. Even with a percent for public arts from the developments at Docklands the area has been written off as a cultural wasteland, well, what could you expect from Yuppies?

The biggest mistake of the forum was to think that future of arts in Melbourne is about art; it is not, it is about culture, life and everything else. It is not just the millions of cultural tourist attending major events in the city, the arts in Melbourne effect the shopping and hospitality sector and real estate prices. Although underground artists are very familiar with their impact on real estate prices, as they are slowly price them out of the areas that they first colonised, it appears from Eleni Arbus’s talk that some real estate developers remain ignorant.

A Hipster Conversion for lease in Brunswick

A Hipster Conversion for lease in Brunswick

At the risk of all that interstate rivalry bullshit, Melbourne is in competition in the culture stakes with all the other capitol cities in Australia, except for Perth. At first only Melbourne and Sydney were really in the race although Adelaide has the long established Arts Festival. Canberra has the national central position but lacks the history. Queensland has recently started with major exhibitions at GOMA. Hobart is also in with a running with MONA.


Alan Bond and art: a posthumous review

After winning the America’s Cup in 1983 Alan Bond toured the piece of silverware around the country where it was displayed in state and national galleries. Sitting in the middle of a gallery the Art Gallery of NSW in a glass case it was an ugly display of a public institution bowing to corporate power.

Also in 1983 Bond’s family company, Dallhold Investment Ltd. paid US $3.96 million for Edouard Manet’s Le Promenade at Christie’s New York. The painting was previously owned by the American financier, Paul Mellon. This purchase received little attention at the time but later the purchase would became a significant fact in Bond’s trial.

Vincent van Gogh, Irises, 1889

Vincent van Gogh, Irises, 1889

In 1987 Alan Bond got a lot more attention when he purchased Van Gogh’s Irises. The painting was previously owned by John Whitney Payson who had inherited from his mother, Joan Whitney Payson, a business woman and avid collector of Impressionists and Post Impressionists.

Bond had paid a record amount for the painting, US $53.9 million, making it still one of the most expensive paintings ever sold, but most of the money was a loan from Sotheby’s. The timing of the purchase was suspicious, just a few weeks after the Wall Street crash of Oct. 19, 1987 and it made headlines around the world. Had Bond and Sotherby’s Inc. colluded to create an artificially high benchmark for a painting and create confidence in the art market? It was enough for rival auction house Christies to make a complaint to the financial regulator about the deal. But who was manipulating who?

Alan Bond did not have control of Irises for long but he made the most of it parading it from the media. It was displayed in his Perth penthouse office for seven months. It then toured five Australian cities just like Bond’s prized America’s Cup. In his speech at the National Galley of Australia Alan Bond had the audacity to compared himself to Van Gogh as “free spirits ahead of their time”.

Sotheby’s then put Irises into storage in mid-September 1988. In 1989 in response to allegations in the British press that Sotheby’s was about to foreclose on the sale, Sotheby’s Financial Services Inc. claimed that Bond was meeting all of his repayments on Irises. In November that year, to help pay Alan Bond’s debt Sotheby’s auctioned Manet’s Le Promenade for US $17 million. There was just small problem, Alan Bond didn’t own the Manet as had been purchased by his family company, Dallhold Investment Ltd.

A few months later, in 1990 Sotheby’s sold Irises to the J Paul Getty Museum for an undisclosed sum and in 1992 Bond was declared bankrupt. In 1996 Bond was jailed for three years for fraud, part of this fraud involved the sale Manet’s Le Promenade.

However, these well known deals was not all of dodgy deals involving art that Alan Bond was involved in. When his business empire collapsed Bond arranged for 13 paintings and sculptures moved from Perth to London to avoid the liquidators as Colin James reports in the Adelaide Advertiser.

Alan Bond cannot be described as an art collector as he saw art as another market to play, high commodities to be traded. Art was something that he could by that would bring him many things that he lacked: attention, respectability and class. His corrupt and self-serving involvement in art and culture was of no significance except to the art market, who if Alan Bond hadn’t come along would have found another mug putter/dodgy businessman to help inflate the market price.


The Australian Ugliness

Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness was first published in 1960. It is mostly a complaint about Australian suburban taste and its insecurities. It is an angry rave against ‘featurism’; Boyd’s word of complaint about the myopic focus on features without an overall aesthetic consideration or design. Basically is a rejection of the previous generation’s love of decoration and patterns, as well as, a rejection of the superficial modernism that Boyd identified as American.

Victorian Artists Society - Romanesque Revival building

Victorian Artists Society – Romanesque Revival building

Parts of the book are still, unfortunately, a very accurate description of Australia, even prescient in spite of being written fifty-five years ago. Boyd’s critical view of Australian culture is accurate and psychologically astute from arborphobia to insecurity, however he appears psychologically inept, telling an insecure population that they are unable to produce good design because they are too insecure. But then, much of late modernism was appears totally psychologically inept imaging that everyone would adopt their utopian vision.

Some of what Boyd was writing about has been, in part, rectified particularly with the planting of trees in the suburbs and better urban design. Although not by his snobbish dislike for American culture that has perniciously grown in Australia. Australian arborphobia has some practical reasons with many eucalypts shedding not just leaves and bark but whole branches making many Australian trees unsuitable for a city.

Cherry picking evidence to support his claims Boyd fails to mention the first ‘garden suburb’ was built in Australia. In 1901 the Garden Suburb Movement established  Haberfield in Sydney. It was Australia’s first planned model suburb with no lanes, no pubs and Edwardian homes with height limits. (See Art and Architecture.)

Many architects and designers, along with Boyd have dreamed of a unified aesthetic but he stumbles at the first hurdle. How to adapt, rather than simply replace, the entire history of European architecture in Australia. Boyd is a modernist hoping that “…gradually, the family itself would become the designers of its own pattern of standardised units, as suggested by Walter Gropius.” (p.137) However, he is practical enough to realise that know that there are not enough designers and architects to complete his vision.

Boyd and other architects who write about aesthetics are like astrophysicists writing metaphysics, both are only playing at philosophy. Playing in that they have no training or experience, imagining that it is as easy as they think. Boyd has an underlying belief in “universal” objective aesthetics of design. When he finally gets around to trying to define ugliness (p.235) we quickly find that featurism doesn’t fit his definition, announcing on that “if beauty were all there is to architecture, Featurism would be enough.” (p.239)

Boyd’s ugliness is not what I think of Australian ugliness? In contemporary architectural design the pastiche of patterns and textures has returned to feature in both suburban homes and urban tower blocks. Some of Boyd’s ugliness is simply a difference in taste. For me the Australian ugliness is the empty, run down waste-land, a pattern of aboriginal genocide, detention camps and environmental destruction on an industrial scale that leaves the land denuded of any natural features, exploited and abandoned like the mullock heaps of the former goldfields.

Although Boyd believes that aesthetics and good design is independent of culture, politics, and the beliefs of the population because he believes that it is objectively good. It is Australian politics that planned and created the vast suburbs that Boyd dislikes, it is the politics of inequality, the exploitation and destruction of the natural environment that created the Australian love of features.

The Australian ugliness is more than just skin deep as Robin Boyd claimed, it goes, if I can continue anthropomorphising the amorphous entity known as Australia, to its heart and soul. Boyd knew this, his contempt for the White Australia policy and the treatment of Aborigines is clear throughout his book.

All quotes from Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness (Text Publishing, 2010 Melbourne)


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