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Tag Archives: Nauru

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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Nauru, Art and Refugees

As a teenager I briefly landed on Nauru as the single aircraft in Air Nauru was the cheapest way to fly to Japan from Australia. I was in the cockpit as we landed, sitting behind the captain; it was common practice back then for the captain to invite children into the cockpit, although being in the cockpit during a landing was unusual however there were so few passengers on the flight that my brother and I were the only non-adults.

The island is tiny, the runway being the largest feature of the island seen from the air. There was a policeman manning a boom gate that stopped the cars crossing the runway as the plane landed. It looked like the dullest place in the world; it was dull for me and yet there were fat, bored locals sitting at the airport just to watch the plane arrive, probably the most exciting thing to happen all week on the tiny island.

This was at the time when Nauru’s sovereign wealth fund made it, per capita one of the richest countries in the world. It was during this period of prosperity that Melbourne was given a “gift of the people and government of Nauru” the sculpture “Three Businessmen Who Brought Their Own Lunch: Batman, Swanston and Hoddle” (aka “the metal men”) 1993 by Alison Weaver and Paul Quinn.

Now that the phosphate mines on Nauru and it administer sovereign wealth fund has been exploited and mismanaged Nauru has once again become, in all but name, a colony of Australia that uses it as a concentration camp for refugees. There are currently more refugees on Nauru than citizens.

I was reminded of this when I saw Kelvin Skewes, What was taken and what was given an exhibition of photograph at the Counihan Gallery. Skewes photographs of Nauru’s destruction shows the mix between the tropical island and the industrial wasteland, the jagged limestone exposed by the phosphate mining and the new industry of abusing refugee’s human rights.

This not the first time that landscape of Nauru has been the subject of art. In 2010 “The Nauru Elegies: a portrait in sound and hypsographic architecture” by architect Annie K Kwon and musician Paul D Miller, aka DJ Spooky. (See my post.)

Also at the Counihan Gallery is local artist Liz Walker’s The Wave, that also refers to the Australian regime’s criminal treatment of refugees. In the middle of the gallery Walker’s impressive post-minimalist boat made of 37,697 sticks (one stick for every refugee who has travelled by boat to Australia from 1976-2012). One wall of the gallery is covered in old suitcases, Memorial to the beginning of an unknown end, each of the open suitcases contains an assemblage, like Joseph Cornell’s boxes, with a reference to refugees coming to Australia. Walker’s use of worn and aged found materials combines both the poetic and the polemic. (For more on Liz Walker’s art do a search using the search box at the top of the right bar, put quotation marks around her name – there are about ten posts.)


Looking Gift Sculptures in the mouth

Public sculptures are often gifts exchanged between governments. It is an ancient tradition; Emperor Hadrian gave a statue of himself to the Greek cities, like Corinth that he visited (like the reverse of tourist photo leaving his own image in locations he visited). There are some great statue gifts but like all gifts there are some that make you question the taste of the giver and wonder what you will do with the gift. In the City of Melbourne’s storage depot there are shelves of small object d’art that it has been given as official gifts.

Alison Weaver & Paul Quinn, “Three businessmen who brought their own lunch; Batman Swanston and Hoddle”

Alison Weaver & Paul Quinn, “Three businessmen who brought their own lunch; Batman Swanston and Hoddle”

Melbourne does not have an international gift equivalent to NYC’s Statue of Liberty, a gift to the USA from the Republic of France. The Three Businessmenwho brought their own lunch; Batman, Swanston and Hoddle is a gift from the small island nation of Nauru. It was presented as gift celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the City of Melbourne unveiled on 20 April 1994 by his Excellency, the President of Nauru Hon. Bernard Dowiyogo M.P. How exactly this statue became a gift and why was it made by two Melbourne sculptors, Alison Weaver and Paul Quinn, remains one of the secrets of international diplomacy.

The Three Businessmen… on Swanston Street broke the drought of sculptures in the city brought on by the controversy over Vault (aka “the Yellow Peril”). And heralded changes to Swanston Street as the pedestrian areas were expanded, traffic reduced and more sculptures were added. Three Businessmen… is arguably the most significant public gift sculpture in Melbourne and is a firm favourite amongst locals and visitors.

A lion in Tianjin Gardens

A lion in Tianjin Gardens

Less significant but certainly still greatly appreciated is Tianjin Gardens, the Chinese garden above Parliament Station. “Presented as a gift by the Municipal Government of Tianjin People’s Republic of China 1999”. With its traditional Chinese lion sculptures gardening the entrance and a wonderfully weathered rock standing in the middle of a pool it creates a serene urban garden. The essential feature to this garden’s popularity is that it has plenty of places to sit.

All that I have been able to find out about the reciprocal gifts that Melbourne has given other cities is that The City of Melbourne did give a tapestry by Adam Pyett to the City of Tianjin. (If anyone knows anything more please comment).

Other cities in the Melbourne’s greater metropolitan area that have acquired some sculptures as official gifts include:

Antonio Masini "Man of the Valley"

Antonio Masini “Man of the Valley”

Antonio Masini’s Man of the Valley from Italian cities of Viggiano and Grumento is at Coburg Lake Reserve (see my post).

Petros Georgariou - King Leonidas 2009

Petros Georgariou – King Leonidas 2009

Petros Georgariou’s King Leonaidas from the Greek city of Sparta is in the mall at Sparta Place in Brunswick (see my post).

The oldest of these diplomatic sculptural gifts are the two busts that were given to Melbourne for the 1956 Olympics. The marble bust of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri was a gift from the Dante Alighieri Society of Italy. The Italian government also give an unlikely companion for Dante, a statue of Italian radio pioneer Marconi. Both these busts are now at the Museo Italiano in Carlton.


The Nauru Elegies

I remember landing at the Nauru International Airport in the early 1980s. Looking out the window the Air Nauru jet I could see a boom gate and a policeman stopping a couple of cars where the road crossed the runway. Air Nauru was an airline rented from Qantas; it was a cheap way to fly to Japan where my grandparents lived but it flew via Nauru. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nauru The plane only stopped on Nauru for an hour to refuel but all the passengers had to disembark and go through Nauru customs and immigrations. The airport was a small building full of locals who had come just to see the plane arrive and depart. Looking out the plane window on take-off I saw the mined-out island, a field of white limestone spikes, like an alien planet.

I was reminded of my brief visit to that alien planet when I saw “The Nauru Elegies: a portrait in sound and hypsographic architecture” by architect Annie K Kwon and musician Paul D Miller, aka DJ Spooky. It is a project of Experimenta Utopia Now: International Biennial of Media Art; later in the week DJ Spooky will be performing the Nauru Elegies live at Shed 4 in Docklands.

Nature never made that – it’s a work of art! Not to get too enthusiastic about the natural beauty of a Pacific island that has been turned into bleak and denuded rock. Art, which once depicted nature, imitated nature and responded to nature, is now reporting on its absence, it disappearance and its destruction. New media and technology makes this reporting beautiful and artistic but it doesn’t distract from the impact of this ruin. And Nauru is one of the worst examples of human exploitation and environmental destruction.

At Blindside Gallery the white walls have been painted grey to match the sober mood of this elegy for the tiny nation state.

Central to the exhibition is the video projection by DJ Spooky, with a minimalist soundtrack featuring a string quartet and electronic sounds in several movements. Like the soundtrack but not slavishly responding to it, the video uses shots of Nauru are interspaced with geometric computer graphics. The camera is handheld, slow tracking shots looking out the window of a car as it bumps along the island roads, past the white limestone spikes where all the soil has been mined out, past derelict factories and derelict docks falling into the sea.

Architect, Annie K Kwon has layered more elements into this exhibition. Her lazar cut sculptures, each etched with the crest of Nauru, refer to Nauru’s now mined-out topography. Another, this time completely digital projection, also followed Nauru’s topography, or rather hypsography, the study of the distribution of elevations on the surface of the planet. And there are QR codes on the wall readable by mobile phones providing more information on Nauru.


Melbourne’s Public Sculpture

Copenhagen has the Little Mermaid statue, Brussels has the Manikin Pis but what public sculpture symbolizes Melbourne? These statues become the mascot of the city and have been the focus of tourist’s attentions long before cameras. Many like the owl of Dijon have been rubbed smooth and featureless by human hands. Melbourne does not have such a sculpture because there have been so few public sculptures in the CBD. In 2006 The Age reported about a revival of public sculpture in the city 25 years after the controversy over Ron Robertson-Swann’s “Vault” in the city square. It appears that Melbourne City Council’s fear of the controversy has retarded the development of the city’s image.

Alison Weaver & Paul Quinn, “Three businessmen who brought their own lunch; Batman Swanston and Hoddle”

Alison Weaver & Paul Quinn, “Three businessmen who brought their own lunch; Batman Swanston and Hoddle”

The most likely current candidate for the statue mascot of Melbourne is the “Three businessmen who brought their own lunch; Batman Swanston and Hoddle”. It is one of Melbourne’s most popular sculptures and most photographed statue. It is on the corner of the Burke St. mall and Swanston walk. It was unveiled in 1994 as a “gift of the people and government of Nauru.” There is no mention on the plaque as to who the artist are; it was made by Melbourne sculptors, Alison Weaver and Paul Quinn. The public enjoy interacting with these thin, life-sized figures. The figures free hands are polished as the public hold hands with them. The public frequently augments the 3rd figure, “Hoddle” with a cigarette added to his pursed lips. (Perhaps Alison Weaver was thinking about this augmentation when she made a later sculpture “I’m Always Worried” out of cigarette butts.)

Pam Irving, “Larry Latrobe”

Pam Irving, “Larry Latrobe”

Another popular potential mascot statue is Pam Irving’s bronze dog, “Larry Latrobe”, in City Square. Like the Little Mermaid or the Manikin Pis these statues have a popular and sentimental appeal, they are frequently augmented by the public, but are not admired for their artistry. Although these statues become, through their popularity, symbols of the city they are not representative or symbolic of the city, not like Armstrong’s 25-metre-high “Eagle” in Wurundjeri Way that represents the demiurge creator from the stories of the Wurundjeri, the local aboriginal people.

Armstrong, "Eagle"

Armstrong, “Eagle”

Susan Hewitt & Penelope Lee "Great Petition”

Susan Hewitt & Penelope Lee “Great Petition”

One of Melbourne’s most recent public sculptures is on Buston Reserve. Susan Hewitt and Penelope Lee’s “Great Petition” 2008 is a great white furl of a dynamic ribbon representing and commemorating the 1891 Women’s suffrage petition. The sculpture is intersected with a path; allowing the public to move through the sculpture. Along with the sculpture there is a didactic panel by Prof. Marilyn Lake to explain the history of women’s suffrage in Victoria. As political art this is hardly a controversial subject, it is long overdue recognition. As a sculpture it will never be popular but it is beautiful.

There are still a few 19th Century bronze sculptures around Parliament. I think that the public would prefer a figure on a plinth over a modern sculpture but there could no agreement now about who. The “Great Petition” is a democratic image rather than an idol and like democracy will not be as popular as the image of a demagogue.

Paul Blizzard “Fossil Stones”

Paul Blizzard “Fossil Stones”

For me, the strangely positioned statute in the city is Paul Blizzard’s “Fossil Stones” 1998 outside the Dept. of Justice, the commission was supported by the Emerging Sculptors Trust. The bronze faux fossils are set into local volcanic rocks are geologically inaccurate, as fossils are found in sedimentary rocks. It is also an odd choice of sculpture for the front of the Dept. of Justice – are they really a bunch of old fossils?

 "Fossil Stones" detail

“Fossil Stones” detail


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