Tag Archives: Singapore

Street Art’s Institutional Phase

On some walls layers of graffiti and street art have been building up for decades. They are like layers of archeology they could be divided up into phases of work on the street. They are not perfect layers of paint, paper and glue. There are plenty of overlap, early isolated examples and the long tails of previous phases mix with subsequent phases. This leaves plenty of room for argument over when one phase started and finished, so all the dates in the next paragraph are vague.

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Hosier Lane, Meeting of Styles 2016

A short history of Melbourne’s graffiti/street art would consist of the following phases, each with their own distinct group of artists and media. Starting with the white paint and brushes of the old message, the text based graffiti and sgraffito where the art was in the literary aphorism. Followed by, and concurrent with, the muralists of the 1960s and 70s, a left wing political tradition of public art making. Then came the old school, hip hop aerosol graffiti of the 1980s from bubble letter to wild style. Then street art with peaks of stencils, and subsequent peaks in other media: paste-ups, installations and yarn bombing.

In case you hadn’t noticed, and confirmed by Dr Lachlan MacDonald, street art is now the institutional phase, the “mainstreaming of street art”. In the institutional phase there are established career path for artists, established curators, collectors, major exhibitions and civic interest in street art murals. The very fact that Dr MacDonald, Head of Centre for Cultural Partnerships, Faculty of the VCA and MCM, was talking about this at a Street Art Round Table on the 22/4/16 at Melbourne University is evidence of the institutional phase.

Not that this institutional phase is necessarily bad for the ecology of street art. The archeology of this phase will reveal a layers of better quality paint with more durable pigments as spray paint is now being manufactured to suit the needs of aerosol art. In this phase the wild street art and graffiti is not being buffed to extinction but at times, facilitated or conserved. And unlike any of the other phases, the institutional phase understands the place of street art and graffiti in the urban ecology.

The Street Art Round Table was a one day forum present by Asialink attended by students, academics, street artists, curators, collectors, creative directors, arts managers and civic administrators. It was a series of short talks about a variety of aspects about street art, including a talk about street art’s hipster brother the resurgence of sign writing. I was particularly interested in hearing about street art in Singapore presented by Jasmine Choe from Singapore Youth Arts (see my earlier posts about street art the city state of Singapore). Further proof, if it was needed, of the institutional phase of street art.

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Unknown, paste-up cans, Hosier Lane, 2016


Evolving Scene 2015

Hosier Lane continues to subtly change, even though the major development has been stopped by the new government, and the smell of aerosol paint still lingers in the air. Hosier Lane was once part of Melbourne’s garment district and Melbourne’s Communist Party Headquarters was at 3 Hosier Lane from 1936 to 1939. Old school graffiti writers and old lefties, like Jeff Sparrow bemoan the changes but I enjoy the vitality of the lane.

Hosier Lane

Now the sound of a busker is now common in the lane, not surprising given the amount of foot traffic in the area.

You can get a take-away coffee in the lane from Good to Go, a social enterprise cafe providing barista experience to long term unemployed, definitely a good improvement.

Guerrilla gardening has started in the lane; the sticker suggests that it is a project by Signal.

Guerrilla Garden, Hosier Lane

Looking at the art in lane is now like seeing an exhibition opening. It is hard to see the art for all the people, mostly taking photographs.

Hosier Lane must now be the most photographed place in Melbourne, there are so many people with all kinds of cameras taking photographs every day. You can hardly move without stepping in front of someone’s shot. Wedding photographs, selfies, tourist snap shots, videos, creating a hyperreal digital version of the lane for Facebook, Instagram and other social media. Street art is now influence on commercial photography.

Camera stencil

It is not surprising, the lane is spectacular and centrally located and other municipalities in Melbourne are starting to realise the potential for street art as a tourist attraction. This week the City of Yarra is calling for street art tours of the area. The City of Yarra has had this potential for years, I went on a short tour given by Makatron a couple of years ago and back in 2007 the Melbourne Stencil Festival was running booked out tours of Collingwood and Fitzroy.

Makatron Fitzroy

Melbourne’s street art is now part of Australia’s foreign policy. Most recently with notable street artists Adnate, Civil, HaHa, Vexta, Makatron and others painting murals in Singapore for the Australian government to celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations with Singapore.

All of this is what could be called an organic development; it has not been directed or controlled, it has even and continues to be resisted on some levels. Back in 2008 I would hear street art insiders saying that the scene had peaked years before; what ever they meant by ‘peaked’ maybe just when they and their mates did their best stuff. Melbourne’s street art and graffiti scene continues to change and evolve (I don’t want to write for the better or worse) to take advantage of new walls, spaces, ideas and opportunities.


Prohibited Signs

Signs prohibiting things from around the world.

No photo Greece II 065

Photography prohibted sign

Various No - Canterbury

No Durians

No's - Munich

No Golfing

No Graffiti - Brugge

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No baby carriagesJPG

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Smoking of any substance


Prolegomena to Australian Culture

The terrible “Australian” identity debate continues to stumbles around like a drunken bogan. I feel forced to comment because of the subtitle of this blog (the “cultural critic” part) and because of the pathetic nationalist culture statement made by the imbeciles and criminals based in Canberra.

I don’t want to dignify anything that they have said by even commenting on it. Instead this will be a partial prolegomena (I don’t believe the spell checker knew that word – “you know, prolegomena, the clarification of the ground in preparation for further discussion, as in Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics” – thanks to Richard Meltzer’s Aesthetics of Rock for clarifying that). So before anyone says anything more there are a few things that need to be clarified.

Recently the word “culture” has been applied to many things from the “work culture of Systems Administrators” to “deaf culture”. Discussion of “Australian culture” assumes that culture is a singular noun and this may be a grammatical error. The word “culture” may be a collective noun like “water”, “wool” or “dust” so that you have “some culture” or a “lots of culture” and not “a culture” anymore than “a water”, or “a wool”. A quantitative examination is a better foundation for discussion of culture rather than an examination identifying a unit.

Culture is more than the arts; it includes language, education, science, ethics, etc. It is the way that people behave in business, in medicine, in government etc. The limited understanding in Australian major political parties culture policy reduces culture to the arts. This is a narrow, limited understanding of culture and it is typical of the lack of depth to most Australian politicians understanding. Artists are culture workers, that is people working directly on their culture and not as a by-product of a culture.

A culture has material expressions, e.g. fashion, food, figures of speech, activities that identifies and defines the culture to both it members and others. That is cultures have identifiable clothes, food, dance, customs and practices. Vague claims about “mateship” or “ANZAC spirit” are not evidence of a culture. Furthermore, while I am stating the obvious, neither are national constitution (flag, etc.) nor geography evidence of a culture.

A language, in and of itself, does not constitute a culture. There are many languages that have no culture: trade languages do not belong to any one culture but facilitates communication across cultures. Likewise computer languages facilitate operations and communication without belonging to a culture. English is a language that has become free, in the processes of attempting to global dominance, of its original culture. As a language, English, does not necessarily signify any culture but particular expressions can identify the culture of the speaker. Slang, in itself, is not evidence of a culture; a person speaking Singlish is no more authentically Singaporean than a person speaking standard English.

There is so much that could and should be noted: Why have a culture? How do cultures develop? Are all cultures equal? This will have to be part one of this prolegomena.


Worst of Public Sculpture Around the World

Here are some worst public sculptures that I have photographed. My examples may not the worst of the worst but they are, each in there own way, bad. There are some terrible public sculptures around the world, monstrosities imposed on the public by mad dictators and inept city councils but I haven’t seen them, except in photographs. These sculptures are not just bad art, but they have also been badly conceived, installed or located.

Bear fishing Ottawa

Bear Fishing in Ottawa, the sculpture isn’t that bad and nor is its location but the plinth is rubbish. It really is rubbish, a collection of rocks and broken concrete held together with some more concrete.

Dali in Singapore

I had to laugh at the statue of Dali in Singapore, this sculpture and its strange assortment of companions trying to add class to an up market apartment complex are a series of bland realist sculptures of an unlikely collection of heroes.

Bronze gold nugget Brunswick 1

Sure, it is fun to laugh at foreigners but Melbourne has some of the worst public sculptures. Top of the list is the “gold nugget” in Melbourne, this sculpture is both badly conceived and located. Didn’t anyone in the process of making this memorial that a gold nugget modelled in bronze would look like a lump of bronze? The next problem is that it is stuck on a bit of curb on the edge of a parking lot along Sydney Road.

Robert Delandere, Statue of Meditation, 1933

Robert Delandere white marble, Statue of Meditation, 1933 outside the conservatory in Fitzroy Gardens is at least in a pleasant location. It was declared by a contemporary sculptor, Paul Montford as one of the worst sculptures in Melbourne. The smooth sentimentality of Delandere’s sculpture is bad and was out of date even when it was made. Imported from France to memorialise the father of Madam Gaston-Sant in the town of Rheola in Victoria’s gold fields. Why it ended up in Fitzroy gardens remains a mystery as does much about the sculptor Robert Delandere. Delandere is the one known sculptor in this list of bad sculpture. We know so little about the truly bad artists, it is a great hole in art history.

June Arnold, Dolphin Fountain, 1982

Sentimental is one problem but June Arnold, Dolphin Fountain, 1982 in Fitzroy Gardens is complete kitsch, with dolphins,  starfish and other marine creatures.


Singapore Renaissance

Since the 1990s, the government of Singapore has been striving to promote Singapore as a centre for arts and culture. The Singapore Renaissance sounded like a great idea based on a sound economic imperative that Singapore could not keep growing based on imports and exports. For more about this there is a very interesting interview on the long term planning for the Singapore Renaissance with Singapore National Arts Council’s Senior Director of Arts Cluster Development and director of the Singapore Arts Festival, Ms. Goh Ching Lee.

It always sounds great in plans for a country to join the “creative economy”. Australia’s Prime Minister, Paul Keating declared that Australia would become the creative country. The idea that society is so malleable to government plans and that training, infrastructure and government support is all that is needed to have a “creative economy”. However, these plans ignore the underlying tensions in creativity acting as if creativity was entirely free from other psycho-social-cultural influences.

I’m interested in the dynamics that make a city a centre for the arts and the history of cities that rise and fall as artistic centers. Countries are too large and diverse to make any study of their creative strengths and weaknesses. Singapore, as a city-state makes an excellent test subject.

There is no obvious reason why Singapore shouldn’t be a centre for arts and culture, just as it is a trade and travel hub. There is money to be made in arts tourism and the arts as Hobart has recently discovered with MONA. It is not exactly about politics, China has made great progress in contemporary art in the same decade. It is not about population Melbourne in comparison has a similar population to Singapore but more artists and more artists tourism. Instead Yogyakarta is the arts capital of South East Asia.

However, Singapore is not a centre for the arts. Is the reason specific to contemporary Singaporean culture? Are Singaporeans too comfortable to deal with the occasional disturbance that contemporary arts can bring? There is less political “harmony” in the streets of Yogyakarta than Singapore.

In part it is about gallery space, as well as space for street artists, as Singapore is a very small island city-state. However, as I have written in Temples without Gods, there is more gallery space in Singapore than art to exhibit in it.

Singapore has not produced many notable artists. Wikipedia only lists two Singaporean artists: Chua Ek Kay and Han Sai Por. Chua’s abstract Chinese ink paintings inspired by Australian aboriginal cave paintings that he saw when studying fine arts at the University of Tasmania and the University of Western Sydney.

Han Sai Por Singaporean sculptor, Han’s carved organic sculptural forms can be seen throughout Singapore especially at the Singapore airport or the Singapore National Museum. I wasn’t that impressed with her sculpture even though she was often working on an impressive scale.

Singapore still seems to be the most unlikely street art location in the world, even after visiting it and seeing the street art for myself. The controversy of the Sticker Lady in 2012 showed that there is still life in Singapore’s street art scene.


Toys Make the Human

Toys are as much cultural artefacts as sculptures, although generally not considered as valuable. As a cultural artefact toys can shows as much about the culture, its values, traditions and beliefs as a small sculpture. Toys show part of the collective consciousness; they are miniature version of the adult world.

Soldiers doing ablutions survive at the Munich Toy Museum

Toys are part of an ephemeral culture and most of them are loved to destruction. Conscious of this history and like many aspects of ephemeral culture, toys have become collectable design objects in themselves. Some toys are now consciously created as collectable design objects, marketed to adults, remain in their original packaging as part of a complete design statement. (More do not touch signs and glass cases.)

I’ve been to toy museums and also the occasional a customized toy exhibition or art exhibition using toys. (I should note that I still have a collection of 25mm lead figures that I painted when I was a teenager and won a prize for some of them at Arcarnacon I.)

Toy museums are always interesting places to visit. I have enjoyed my visits to the Munich Toy Museum (Spielzeugmuseum im Alten Rathausturm) and the Mint Toy Museum in Singapore. Curiously both of these museums are extremely vertical, their exhibits crammed into several small narrow floors. Fortunately their exhibits are all on a small scale. The Mint Toy Museum concentrates on the influence of popular culture with toys associated with the space age, politicians, the Beatles, Disney films etc. It has a great collection of Japanese tin toys especially robots. The Munich Toy Museum specializes in teddy bears but also in the past preserved in miniature with toy vehicles, kitchens and armies. There was a whole history of kitchens, the military or transportation told in those toys.

Doll house kitchen in the Munich Toy Museum

President Nixon’s ping pong diplomacy preserved in toys at the Mint Toy Museum.

A few years ago at Villain I saw one of their “Munny” shows (I’ve seen others since at Villain but this was the best – I wish that I’d had my camera that day). A Munny is a customisable toy figure with a simplified round cartoon form either as a standing figure or in a small car. It is customisable in that all kinds of media can be applied to its plastic surface. They are amongst other brands of customisable toys that are for sale at Villain. Every year or so Villain assembles an awesome collection of modified Munnys for an in store exhibition. That year several of the artists exhibiting in the show from the street art scene: Phibs, Deb, and Junior. Phibs sushi crab version of the Munny car was out standing. There were some amazing and fun modifications of the original toy, some beautiful painting and excellent modelling. Some of the modifications left the original form far behind, like Agnieska Rypinska’s large impressive elephant with howdah. One of the works on display was by Katherine Dretzke, a customer who had brought her, now decorated and winged, Munny back to the store for the exhibition; a genuine interactive consumer experience.

Maybe we should look more deeply at toys; maybe they are more than just artefacts that represent our culture but symbols of what makes us human. Desmond Morris argues in the Naked Ape (1967) that humans retain many juvenile ape features and that this juvenile nature has been turned to an evolutionary advantage. The human ability to remain a juvenile and play allows the human to continue to learn as adults.


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