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Tag Archives: Brunswick

Factivism @ Counihan Gallery

Liz Walker’s Still Life is based on the flower arrangement at the wake for murder victim, Jill Meagher at the Brunswick Green. It is a mix of beauty and danger, violent and domestic elements. It is all made from found and recycled materials. The sharp shards of the broken beer bottles are open like lilies, the stamen are knitting needles and bullet casings, the leaves are knives painted green. It is referencing the Royal Commission into Family Violence.

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Liz Walker, Still Life, glass, recycled and found objects, 2016

The facts:

On the first Thursday night of the month there is an exhibition opening at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick. It is the final exhibition for the year, the public end of year for the gallery, the Moreland Summer Show, an exhibition of artists connected to the City of Moreland. This year there are forty artists producing work on the theme of “factivism”.

Counihan gallery’s curator, Victor Griss said that he wanted a word to be “diagonal counter” to slacktivism, the superficial show of online support for a cause. To have a theme that has both infinite possibilities and limits.

There were almost two hundred people, wine, nibbles, the obligatory speeches, from the Mayor of Moreland who won’t be Mayor in a week or so, the curator, Victor Griss and former curator, Edwina Bartlem. It is an inclusive community; for the first time there was an Auslan interpreter to translate the speeches into sign language.

Edwina Bartlem is a former curator of the Counihan and a local resident, who is now the Exhibitions Manager at the state Library of Victoria. Edwina recognised the community aspect of the exhibition opening suggesting that everyone talk to someone they hadn’t met. I already had, I had to compliment the recycling cyclist on his amazing waistcoat pinned with objects.

Lots of people to say hello to. It is a community that I have been writing about in this blog for many years. I have seen some artists develop from early attempts to their current work. I have written whole blog posts about some them: Wendy Black, Julian Di Martino and Alister Karl.

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Train Lines and Graffiti

I was intrigued when I saw a couple of these notes from the train, travelling past them at speed I couldn’t be sure of what I read. I knew that there were probably more and so I rode my bicycle along the Upfield bike track to photograph as many as I could find in Brunswick.

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The more of these messages that I saw the less interested I became. Soon it wasn’t as interesting as some of the graffiti and street art that I was seeing.

What is it? Why is it there? It wasn’t graffiti because there was no tag and the stencilled letters had no calligraphic quality. It had no obvious appeal or charm so it wasn’t street art. Therefore it had to be contemporary art, or, maybe post-graffiti, if there is a difference.

Why it was there became obvious when I saw the MoreArt 2016 program. Train Lines is the creation of interdisciplinary artist writer and director, Marcia Ferguson is the artistic director of the Big West Festival. Ferguson intended Train Lines to be a poem based in interviews about the use of the Upfield line as mortuary transport to Fawkner Cemetery. Again you would have to have read the MoreArt’s program to know any of that.

It reminds me that in all its years MoreArts has never come to terms with exhibiting in the same areas as graffiti and street art. Existing in their own conceptual bubbles, each competes for attention without acknowledging the existence of the other. There are so many groups competing to use areas along the Upfield train line, see my blog post from earlier this year.

Ferguson’s Train Lines has the quality of what Alison Young what calls “streetness”: “a quality whose importance derives partly from the fact that the street does not provide passers-by with details of authorship that we take for granted in a gallery.” (Young, Street Art World, 2016 p.35) However, Train Lines is not street art.

Many histories of street art and graffiti ignore that contemporary art also exists outside of the art gallery and often in the street alongside street art and graffiti. From land art to happenings contemporary artists were creating art outside of the gallery.

An early example is Christo blocking a small street in Paris with oil drums, Wall of Oil Barrels – Iron Curtain on June 27, 1962. It was a protest against the Berlin Wall that had been built the year before. If you look carefully at Jean-Dominique Lajoux photograph of Iron Curtain you can see that the street that Christo and Jeanne-Claude used has graffiti on its walls.

“Streetness” or urban locations for contemporary art is it a difference of competing ideas and intentions rather than one of style?


The walls of Irene Warehouse

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Irene Warehouse in Brunswick is a former two-storey lingerie factory that is now an artist-run, not-for profit, studio space and venue. It has been doing it for almost two decades and it is still going. It doesn’t say when it started on its website but I can remember going out there to meet with visiting members of the Indonesian art collective Taring Padi in 2002.

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It was also at Irene Warehouse in the early years of the twenty-first century that several artists, like HaHa and Civil, who would be important to Melbourne’s stencil art street art movement, had their studios.

On its walls science fiction mixed with politics and Norman Guston rubbed shoulders with William Burroughs in the stencils by Civil, HaHa, Ben Howe, and even Stanley. Stanley did stencils before he teamed up with Bonz and became a notorious tagger.

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Like the walls on the street the walls of Irene warehouse had their own anarchic discourse that ranged from the situationalist politics of Civil to the chem trail conspiracy theories of HaHa.


Upfield Bike Path Graffiti

The Upfield bike path goes through Brunswick and Coburg before running out at the northern end of Fawkner Crematorium and Memorial Park. There has been graffiti along the bike path for decades. It is interesting to observe the urban real politics of competing uses of this stretch of land that is maintained by Moreland City Council.

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The city council built the bicycle track on land that is bounded between the train line controlled by VicTrack and the backs of private property.

Private property owners with walls backing on the bike path have been upgrading their property; the old corrugated iron sheds are being replaced with walls of concrete. This has created more and better walls for the graffiti writers extending further north. (See my post on The Commons Graffiti.)

The areas around the tracks controlled by VicTrack are the most neglected. This is not entirely due to utilitarian considerations and derelict railway buildings are allowed to decay without allowing them to be used as surfaces for graffiti.

The graffiti writers were there first, making use of the walls beside the train tracks. Their work has been slowly accumulating until it covers about six kilometres of walls on both sides of the tracks. Sometimes the same graffers will paint the same walls years later.

Then came the bike path and the cyclists and in the last couple of years the guerrilla gardeners.

If you want a way to prevent graffiti, the solution is to plant trees and vegetation in front of the wall. This has worked at Brunswick Station where all the graffiti is more than two years old now due to extensive planting by the “Friends of the Upfield Linear Park”, who have more extensive ideas for the whole area on their website.

Further north along the bike path the graffiti and the guerrilla gardening create a beautiful combination, growing simultaneously along the Upfield bicycle track just north of Moreland Station. Here a back laneway has blossomed, the colour of flowers mixing with the paints. Further enhancing this area is the solar powered lighting built into the fence separating the bike track from the railway. At this point there appears to be a balance between the competing interests but the situation is dynamic.

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Understanding Graffiti

Some graffiti writers have some strange ideas about who can understand, speak/write, or even properly appreciate the work. The claim that it is anathema for the uninitiated to ‘understand’; that is not only are their explanations wrong but damaging. Street art tours conducted by graffiti or street artists; would you expect all art gallery tours to be conducted by contemporary artists?

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R.A.D Grant points out “to claim that a belief can be ‘understood’ only by its believers is to use the term ‘understanding’ somewhat oddly, since understanding is normally thought to follow upon explanation rather than to be precluded or destroyed by it.” (A Companion to Aesthetics, ed. David Cooper, Blackwell, 1992 p.103).

However, the English word ‘understand’ means both to comprehend and to be sympathetic. Can only the empathetic comprehend? For it is empathy and not sympathy that is expected. It is about the magic of initiation and spirit. Part of this is a need to maintain control of what is considered ‘understanding’ in order to maintain their power.

‘Understanding’ is connected to notions the person being ‘true to the spirit’ as Philip Brophy explains in “What is this thing called ‘Disco’” (Art & Text 3, Spring 1981, p.64)

“To perform jazz, blues, rockabilly, soul, power pop, Middle-of-the-Road , etc., is to evoke a specific type of consciousness related to a specific set of meanings inherent to the act of performing the particular music style. There, a notion of ‘truthful’ performers and ‘false’ performers exists, establishing a productive difference between ‘artists’ and ‘charlatans’ – and, it is interesting to note that in the realm of popular culture, the institutions that we call the recording industry can profit from both the ‘artist’ and the ‘charlatan’.”

Likewise the graffiti writer is expected to ‘evoke a specific type of consciousness related to a specific set of meanings inherent to the act’ of doing graffiti.

Here is some old graffiti from Brunswick to look at.

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The City As Art

The buildings in the centre of Melbourne are both familiar and unknown, they seem to change around like something out of the movie, Dark City. Exploring the city has to be a regular activity as there are changes occurring all of the time and a once familiar area transforms.

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The city as a creation, as a great co-operative work of architecture, art and engineering stretching over a vast area and reaching into the sky, a larger concept than a medieval cathedral. The creation, curation and alteration of which is a mix of planning, adapting and neglect.

The city draws you along its streets, wanting to see what is coming around the corner. Each street creates a new scene, one block is totally different from the next.

Underneath the city, the ground level is as constructed on foundations. How deep does it go? The labyrinthine network of tunnels, the subway, the subconscious of all cities. There is a mystery beneath all cities, the mystery of  the labyrinth and at its core the Minotaur.

Too much repetition in a city reminds one that it is also a labyrinth where a Minotaur hunts for sacrificial victims. “Bloody tribute!” says Theseus after tagging the wall with an outline of his hand sprayed by mouth in red ochre, or is it bull’s blood?

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Cities are visually dense; signs and symbols compete for our attention. The accretion of images, of advertising and signs. The many shiny surfaces reflect the many lights further confusing the vision. The visual density of the city has presented a challenge to visual artists for the last two centuries.

Graffiti and street art rise to this challenge by imitating the visual intensity of the city, by being part of and by being framed by the infrastructure of the city. Graffiti tries to fit into this environment by becoming a tag, a personal logo in a world full of corporate logos. Both the graffiti writer and the street artist rectifies the urban environment by adding their designs to the layers of images, personalising the alien, impersonal architecture of the city.

The whole of Melbourne could be seen as an un-curated art gallery for graffiti and street art. Except that there are small semi-curated zones, like… roll the credits… Doyle’s Blender Alley and Lovelands, the area of Fitzroy curated by Shaun Hossack of Juddy Roller, Dean Sunshine’s factories in Brunswick. Gordon Harrison, the City of Melbourne engineer should also get some credit of street art in the CBD. I’m sorry if I have missed anyone.

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Three Exhibitions in Brunswick

“Rosencrantz: Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one. A moment. In childhood. When it first occurred to you that you don’t go on forever. Must have been shattering. Stamped into one’s memory. And yet, I can’t remember it.” (Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are Dead)

There are currently two dark exhibitions on at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick: “Exhume” by Clare Humphries and “An Apprehension of Mortality” by Bruce Dickson. ‘Dark’ in both their colours and in the theme of mortality.

There is often an element of memento mori in the genre of still life but Humphries emphasises it by using personal objects of her deceased family members. The hand-burnishing of the linocuts softens the usual hard edges of the print allowing for subtle gradation of light to dark. The objects that Humphries depicts glow against the blackness of the paper.

Anyone complaining that art students don’t know how to draw doesn’t know that there are lecturers like Humphries. Clare Humphries lectures in Drawing and Printmedia at the VCA and the technical skill in these prints is amazing.

Of course, anyone complaining about today’s art students would point at Bruce Dickson’s exhibition at the Counihan. Dickson has more light than dark but it is a slack light, vaguely suggesting something. There are only three works in the exhibition, an “installation/sculpture” called “threshold”, where some paper that had been dipped in pigment hangs in sculptural manner, and two loops of video of some gauze-like material blowing around. Even when I appreciated the existential vibrations, in Dickson’s video loop “towards stillness,” I found the actual video annoying because of the inelegant arrangement of the three pieces of cloth kept distracting me.

Further along Sydney Road at Soma Gallery, a shopfront gallery is “Bush Nighmarez” by Lou Herrod. Demons with gum leaf horns and a “Bogan Dream Cather” hung with VB can and shotgun cartridges. In her bold and brutal paintings the iconic Australian gum leaf bush becomes a place of horror for Herrod. I haven’t seen art that so excoriates the thin skin of the Australian bush dream since an early Paul Yore exhibition, “Monument to the Republic” at Gertrude Contemporary.


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