Tag Archives: Barry Humphries

Dada Meme Infects the World

At the beginning of the twentieth century for the first time in history there was enough young people not just to fight a world war and to start to create subcultures. With the Dadaists there was still too few of any of them to bother with classifications. The history of eccentrics leads people to retrospectively classify them in subcultures, those strange attractors in the chaos of society.

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Greil Marcus in his book, Lipstick Traces tries to trace Dada and punk back to the Anabaptists. Others trace them back to Cynics of Ancient Greece. Was Diogenes was a hippy or a punk?

Instead of wondering about future histories or museums, instead of trying to trace an illegitimate ancestry for Dada or punk, look at the attraction. What was the reason for their existence? Why do people around the world identify with them?

Dada and punk gave expression to a status frustration of talented and intelligent youth who had no influence in the direction of art, culture or the world. Dada was the first of many cultural guerrilla resistance forces. Operating in occupied territory, these movements attack and retreat, sometimes melting away into the general population. Their tactics change to take advantage of the local terrain and exploit weakness in psychosocial defences. For such movements survival is the same as success and both Dada and punk did so much more than just survive. They spread rapidly. Perhaps this was because the conditions were right but more likely there were already people who were doing that kind of thing looking for a larger movement to identify with.

The thing about Dada was that it was an art movement not just for the professional, trained artist, but for anyone. Many of those involved in Dada did not continue to be artists because they were medical students who became doctors, students who became teachers. Is it any surprise that Dada didn’t survive long with such an incoherent group of proto- punks, hippies and new agers.

The Cabaret Voltaire and the Dada Gallery in Zurich ended like so many artist run initiatives to come after them. Wednesday 9th April 1919 was the date for the final grand soirée in Zurich. By then Dada had already spread around the world. The debate as to where punk started, USA or England, mirrors the debate about the origins of Dada. The meme of Dada was transported in person by members of the Zurich crowd but it was also spread by mail. The impact of the postal service on Dada and subsequent similar movements cannot be ignored.

In 1917 Richard Huelsenbeck spreads the meme to Berlin where Club Dada was formed. In 1918 Dada spread to Max Ernst and Johannes Baargeld in Cologne via Hans Arp. Marcel Janco took Dada back to Rumania were Contimporanul is formed. In 1918 Kurt Schwitter’s applied to join Club Dada in Berlin but is rejected so he creates his own Merz movement, or magazine, or both.

Dada was already in New York with Francis Picabia acting as the link between the Dadaists in New York and Zurich. He was already doing his own thing, publishing a zine in Spain before he ever heard of Dada. Dada continued to spread in Barcelona with Picabia to a mix of French, English, Italian and Russian.

Tristan Tzara takes Dada to Paris.

In Russia (Krutchony, Terentieff, Zdanevich) Perevoz was DaDa. Ma is the Hungarian version 1918-22 (Lojos Kassak, Sandor Barta). It was Mécano in Holland with Theo Van Doesburg.

There is the big Dada/Surrealism split in Paris in October to December of 1919. But to the east new Dada like groups are still announcing themselves. Tank in Zagreb 1922, The Green Donkey Group in Hungary, 1927 (Odon Palasowki). In Japan it was Mavo.

Dada eventually arrived in Melbourne in 1952 with Barry Humphries, Clifton Pugh and Germaine Greer where it was known as Wobboism. It was so old by then that neo-Dada movements had already started in Japan and the US.

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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.

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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.


Dada 1916

A hundred years ago April 18, 1916 was the first time that Hugo Ball used the word ‘Dada’ in his diary.

“Tzara keeps on worrying about the periodical. My proposal to call it ‘Dada’ is accepted. We could take turns at editing, and a general editorial staff could assign one member the job of election and layout for each issue. Dada is ‘yes, yes’ in Rumanian, ‘rocking horse’ and ‘hobbyhorse’ in French. For Germans it is a sign of foolish naïveté, joy in procreation, and preoccupation with the baby carriage.” (Flight Out of Time, University of California Press, 1996, p.63)

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There is a stupid debate as to exactly who, when, how and where this now quasi-religious word was first uttered. Ball’s diary entry makes no mention of any occult random selection of a word from a dictionary. There is a clear reference to the influenced by the arrival of the four young Romanians, the pretentious teenage poet, Tristan Tzara, the artist Marcel Janco, his brother, and another Romanian, all saying “da da” who arrived earlier that years at the Cabaret Voltaire.

The war had started two years earlier so why did it take until 1916 for the word Dada to be used?

In May 1915 Hugo Ball had left Germany for neutral Switzerland, he had been an idealistic German patriot before he saw the horror war for himself. (For more about Hugo Ball see my earlier post Dada Against WWI.) In Zurich the pacifist journalist and shorthand prodigy, Ferdinand Hardekopf introduced Ball to Hans Richter. The future avant-garde film maker, Richter had already been discharged from the German Army after being seriously wounded at Vilnius in 1914. Germany occupied Vilnius and the rest of Lithuania from 1915 until 1918 but for Richter the war was over.

The following year, on 2 February 1916, in Zurich Ball and his future wife, Emmy Hennings established the Cabaret Voltaire. The Cabaret Voltaire that would morph into Dada as more young men avoiding the war joined in.

It was a critical mass, a youth culture idea that would spread around the world. Dada spread from city to city, like a youth culture, inspired by the stories of the others activities and outrages. From Zurich to New York to Berlin to Cologne to Paris and on. It spread like a viral idea, a meme. In 1923 Tokyo Dada was ‘Mavo’.

Dada finally reached Melbourne in 1958-59; Australia was so conservative that the long delay meant this was at the same time that there was a neo-Dada revival in New York and Tokyo. In Melbourne the tiny band of Dadaists held in exhibition in 1958 which featured art by Clifton Pugh (under a psdonym), Germaine Greer and Barry Humphries. They called it “Wobboism”, allegedly after a Mr. Wobbo a local rubbish collector.

But back to 1916 why were there three Romanians saying ‘da da’ in Zurich?

Romania had been neutral at the start of the war arguing that its treaty obligations to Austria-Hungry were only if it were attacked and as it had started the war there was no obligation. Eventually in August 1916 in a desperate dream to get support for its territorial claims over Transylvania Romania joined the war on the Allied side. Romania’s army was crushed by Central Powers. In a war full of stupid decisions superlatives are insufficient to describe Romania’s involvement. The young Romanian draft dodgers at the Cabaret Voltaire had carefully avoided becoming patriotic dead heroes.


Julian Di Martino @ 69 Smith

Yellow toy workmen inside a perplex vacuum cleaner – nature should abhor that. But it is also a metaphor for working life.

Come Here and See That by Julian Di Martino at 69 Smith St. is a fun exhibition. So much fun it should be in the Comedy Festival; there are lots of sculpture making visual puns and other word play with a sardonic tone. Providing salt to rub into life’s wounds.

Following in the tradition of Barry Humphries’s Wobboist (Dada) objects, like “Pus in Boots” (1953). These are assemblages with humor, like the tower of 73 caulking nozzles stolen from Bunnings hardware. Rectified readymades are constructed from found or everyday supermarket materials like tomato sauce squeeze bottles. The plastic tomato sauce bottles become birds. Julian is also plays with the symbolism of primary colors used in these objects, a reminder that Julian is a visual artist and not a prop comic. Although describing the objects and their titles feels like explaining a joke. (The objects are not given high art prices $40 – $900)

Julian Di Martino transforms the supermarket ordinary world into a series of jokes. You don’t get a lot of loud laughs in an art gallery. It was hard to take it all in at the crowded opening on Saturday but you could tell from the way that people looked in at Julian’s objects from the front window of 69 Smith that they were enjoying it.

I’ve known Julian Di Martino for years; we are old drinking buddies. Julian when he is not at home studio in his converted shop in North Coburg can often be found gallery sitting at 69 Smith St. Julian is one of the founding members of 69 Smith St. Come Here and See That is a return to the style of object making from Julian’s first exhibition at Yuma Ya Gallery in Collingwood (Yuma Ya Gallery then developed into 69 Smith Street).


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