MONA: the gift of art*

In 1999, the National Gallery of Australia cancelled the exhibition of Sir Charles Saatchi’s Sensation exhibition, on the grounds of the possible offensiveness of many of the works. Several of those exhibits and artists are now on display in MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art, recently opened in Hobart, Tasmania. Where the National Gallery quailed at the idea of exhibiting work by Damien Hirst, Chris Ofili, and the Chapman brothers, MONA has no such qualms. Their works feature alongside 400 other pieces from the private collection of David Walsh, a Tasmanian millionaire gambler, art collector, and creator of MONA, an extraordinary gallery space, designed by Melbourne architect Nonda Katsalidis.

MONA/ Leigh Carmichael

MONA primarily exists underground, its three levels excavated deep into a rocky cliff overlooking the Derwent River. You can travel to the museum on the MONA ferry, which sails from the centre of Hobart to MONA in about 30 minutes. Visitors climb a steep slope to the museum entrance, in the shell of a heritage-listed building. A staircase spirals tightly downwards into the depths of the museum.

MONA/ Leigh Carmichael

This is no white cube; rooms are deliberately dark and works are starkly spotlit. Visitors move between levels along criss-crossing narrow passageways or up and down rusted metal stairs. On one side, there is a void, with the gallery floors receding from a huge sandstone wall from the upper to the lowest level. Julius Popp’s Bit.fall is installed next to this void, the water seeming to form itself into words against the sandstone backdrop.

Some rooms are massive, so that they might showcase works that would otherwise overwhelm, such as Snake, by Australian artist Sidney Nolan, 45 metres long and made up of hundreds of individual images combined into a glorious curving reptile. Another large room is given over to Loop System Quintet by Conrad Shawcross, its five machines endlessly whirling light around the darkness.

Conrad Shawcross, 'Loop System Quintet'. Photo credit: MONA/ Sean Fennessy

Other spaces are made small by partitions: Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary sits as if in a small side chapel, its colours and mosaic-like composition shown to their best by the spotlighting.

Chris Ofili, 'The Holy Virgin Mary'. Photo credit: MONA/ Peter Whyte

Some of the displayed works seem gimmicky, notably Cloaca Professional (Wim Delvoye), a machine consisting of five large glass bottles connected by tubes. Food from the gallery’s restaurant and café is fed daily into the machine; at 3pm sharp it excretes faeces onto a plate. Crowds show up each day to watch the machine’s excretion process, proving that, years after Manzoni and Serrano, the fascination with abject art persists.

A work which comes close to gimmickry is My Beautiful Chair, by Greg Taylor and Dr Philip Nitschke, which installs Nitschke’s euthanasia machine on a side table next to a leather armchair and a standard lamp.

Greg Taylor & Dr Philip Nitschke, 'My Beautiful Chair'. Photo: MONA/ Leigh Carmichael

Designed as an interactive work, it invites the spectator to proceed through the computer program that will ensure the delivery of a lethal dose of drugs to the terminally ill. It sounds more hokey than it actually is; instead, its incorporation of the viewer into the process of its display and the inescapable intensity of its subject matter mean that it manages to be both cheesy and provocative.

But in addition to headline-grabbers such as Cloaca Professional and My Beautiful Chair, a staggering breadth of artworks can be seen at MONA. The opening exhibit, Monanism, is loosely thematised around sex and death, and, as implied by its name, the museum displays both contemporary art and artefacts from the ancient world. Monanism features about a quarter of David Walsh’s private collection, and works have been purchased according to his personal taste; as such there is a gap of several millennia between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ art. But this is not a gap which translates into the works’ display: mummified creatures, cuneiform crosses, coins and sarcophagi are exhibited next to contemporary works of art and as works of art in their own right rather than as archaeological treasures.

Head of a Mummified Cat. Photo credit: MONA/ Peter Whyte

The juxtapositions are sometimes enormously fruitful, such as the Mummy and Coffin of Pausiris (100BC) displayed in a small dark room next to Serrano’s The Morgue (Blood Transfusion Resulting in AIDS).

The collection’s breadth also derives from its impressive range of artists. In addition to internationally celebrated names such as Sidney Nolan, Anselm Kiefer, Jenny Holzer, Arthur Boyd, Damien Hirst, Paul McCarthy, Callum Morton and Jean-Michel Basquiat, the visitor can see work by a number of emerging Australian artists and international artists such as Wang Qingsong (China), Berlinde de Bruyckere (Belgium), and Jonathan Delachaux (Switzerland).

Qingsong Wang, 'Dream of Migrants'. Photo: MONA/ Peter Whyte

Berlinde de Bruyckere, 'P XIII'. Photo: MONA/ Leigh Carmichael

And what details about the work or the artist are provided for the visitor? The walls are bare of curatorial information; instead, visitors are given an iPod with GPS to locate where one stands in the museum, providing information about each artwork. Different buttons offer various kinds of detail: audio commentary can be listened to; ‘gonzo’ gives access to David Walsh’s musings about the work; ‘artwank’ provides, well, art criticism. Different iPods offer different information; and viewers can press buttons marked ‘love’ or ‘hate’ to register their reactions to a work. The iPod also saves a record of one’s visit online.

The interactive iPods have been much criticized by journalists in the weeks since MONA opened in late January, and I confess that I approached mine with trepidation since I am not a fan of the ‘audio-tour’. But this little gizmo turned out to be a crucial part of the pleasures I found in MONA. Instead of half-reading the all-too-familiar critic-speak in a catalogue or a poster on a wall, the iPod prompted me to look longer at each artwork than usual. It produced a mode of viewing radically different to the half-anesthetized stupor that many of us slide into when visiting conventional cathedrals of art, and it invoked a sense of pleasurable autonomy familiar to any member of the Twitter generation. It meant that I learned a lot about the art I was looking at, felt hugely stimulated by the space instead of exhausted by its scale, and spent much longer there than expected (the entire visit, including a return ferry ride, lunch, and a glass of wine and antipasto in the wine bar afterwards, lasted 8 hours).

MONA has been mocked by some in the Australian mainstream media for its mix of ancient and contemporary and, in a sad demonstration that ‘tall poppy syndrome’ is alive and kicking, David Walsh has been derided as laughably eccentric, self-indulgent and uninformed (as an example, see the recent Artscape program about Walsh and MONA). All of which ressentiment ignores the fact that MONA puts on display an extraordinary collection of art in a breathtaking building. And it asks nothing in return except that we visit it: entry to MONA, despite the project costing Walsh over $100m AUD, is free – an amazing gift from one individual to the rest of us.

* This entry is an extended version of an article published by me on Hyperallergic.

The League of Resonance

Every city has areas that have acquired the reputation for being a ‘trouble spot’. Sometimes this comes about through an increase in the numbers of crimes occurring, or perhaps it’s the result of bad road design so that an intersection becomes an accident black spot. Sometimes it’s because an area isn’t terribly lovely to look at: perhaps the architecture is uninspiring or dull, or perhaps the area gets filled with unlovely things like litter, debris, waste bins, and the like. Perhaps it’s an area that people tend to walk through without seeming to engage with the space – most cities have area which lead into major transport hubs, with crowds flowing in and out of train stations, around tram or bus stops, down major roads, and so on.

And sometimes you get an area that combines all of the above. When that happens, the site is often seen as a real ‘problem’ area.

One of these problem sites exists in the centre of Melbourne: an area covering a couple of blocks around the intersection of Flinders Street and Elizabeth Street. The City of Melbourne is canvassing opinion about the area, from residents, traders, commuters and so on, and one might expect that a council would simply carry out a letter box survey and then have a few committee meetings with relevant stakeholders to work out what should be done.

Well, all of that may well be going on, but what’s exciting is that the City of Melbourne has also chosen to make one of its Arts and Participation Programs engage with this area. The result is an urban intervention that certainly has the potential to generate interesting information for the council’s deliberations, but which also constitutes urban art in itself.

The City of Melbourne commissioned a group of artists, led by Jason Maling, Sarah Rodigari and Jess Olivieri, in order to find ‘an alternative method for Council to engage with the city night experience and explore diverse experiences and views. The artistic outcomes aim to provide a counterpoint to late night culture, and is designed to activate the space with positivity, romance and humour and to create a softer alternative to an area that is quickly gaining a reputation for the inverse’. The result is an arts project called the League of Resonance.

The League describes its activities as follows:

[We] seek out the intangible and barely perceptible. We detect vibrations that form the backdrop to the mythical narrative of daily life. We situate ourselves in places of intrigue, we listen, we talk, we connect and we hum. In collecting and combining the resonance of individuals: their stories, perceptions and rituals, we unravel the backdrop to this myth. Together we create a new sound. This sound is The League of Resonance.

So what does this all mean? I met two of the League’s founder members, Jason and Jess, and went on a ‘date’ with them to discover the work of the League and to share stories with them about this particular segment of urban space.

We met outside the photo booth at Flinders Street station, on the south side of the intersection of Flinders and Elizabeth Streets. Jason and Less explained how the project aimed to take seriously the idea of an area having a ‘bad vibe’ and their desire to investigate all the components of this area’s vibe, to discover where its current vibrations come from. These investigations have been historical, aesthetic, architectural, sociological and ethnographic: they have uncovered information about the precinct’s origins, the buildings that used to be there and have been demolished. They have walked and walked around the area, in different weathers and at different times of the day, trying to pay attention to everything. They have documented the businesses in the area, and have spoken with commuters, residents, the local council, Victoria Police, employees and employers, punters, and students. They have photographed the area and its buildings, and have created a dossier of information about individuals who meet with them and agree to join the League. (League members also receive membership cards.) They produce an occasional newsletter setting out tiny snippets of information and ideas about the area, and have developed a program of ‘good works’, from suggestions by interviewees as to what actions would help people in the area. These have included holding the hand of very drunk people, and assisting people to cross the road at this traffic accident black spot.

Much of these activities and ideas are inspired by the conversations generated when League founders meet with individuals on a ‘date’: which means having a cup of tea or coffee in one of the precinct’s cafés, and walking around the streets and laneways of the area, sharing stories. On my ‘date’ with Jason and Jess, I learned about the tram stop that is being used as an informal shoe exchange (people seem to leave unwanted pairs of shoes in the tram stop which are then used by the homeless) and the embankment that overflows with rats at night.

On a walk that involved many moments of delight, there were two highlights for me. The first involved a panorama. Several floors up, we gazed at what initially looked like a spread of unremarkable modern office buildings. But as Jess and Jason pointed out details of the buildings and told stories about each, the buildings revealed themselves in their singularity: a tall narrow building topped by a private swimming pool, an opulent bank, a backpackers’ hostel, a building used as a depository for pornographic magazines and books. Knowing even these small details about the buildings started to attach histories and emotion to these spaces, making me realise that even the most bland and anonymous buildings are always the products of specific desires and functions, some of which conflict with each other, and all of which participate in the resonance of a neighbourhood.

The other moment of great pleasure involved not a panorama, with its necessary sweep and grandeur, but two tiny details, easy to overlook. As we sheltered in a laneway while it rained, I noticed cigarette butts – not that unusual, since office workers regularly use laneways for smoke breaks. But here’s what struck me:

Two butts are inserted into a tiny space in the wall; others are carefully lined up on a narrow shelf. Granted, they are cigarette butts and thus not terribly lovely to look at, and of course they are environmentally problematic in many ways: they are litter, and you could say that they should be in a bin. But something about their placement arrested me: they hadn’t just been dropped and stamped out on the ground. Instead, they had been inserted or balanced in unexpected places, almost in ways that responded aesthetically to their surroundings.

A few minutes after seeing these butts, the League took me to see another unexpected moment of ad hoc art. In another laneway, this one heavily used by smokers from two nearby office buildings, there is a lot of construction work going on, with hoardings tacked on to the laneway walls. Smokers stand, wreathed in a grey cloud, in gloomy silence between these hoardings. Cigarette butts abound here, of course, and many are just dropped on the ground as one would predict. But take a look at this (apologies for the dodgy quality of these images; they were taken in haste in the rain):

It is a line of chewing gum wads, placed along a ledge on one of the wooden hoardings. It is litter too, of course, just as the carefully placed cigarette butts are. But, like them, its placement indicates something in addition to standard littering. The gradually increasing line of variously coloured balls of gum has become a visual punctuation against the bland beige wood of the hoarding. It may not be sanitary, it may not be complicated; maybe the gum wads should indeed be in a bin. But I couldn’t help taking pleasure in the fact that someone (or several people) made the small aesthetic judgment to line them up rather than drop them randomly on the ground. It’s a small instance of aesthetic intervention in urban space, but a valuable one. And I’m grateful to the League of Resonance for sharing it with me on a date that made me pay attention to the intricacies of an area that could easily be dismissed as valueless, and for dedicating their time and energies over these several weeks to the project of understanding what makes a neighbourhood resonate, vibrate and hum.

Pressing buttons

Some years ago, Marc Augé, a French anthropologist, wrote a book called Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. A ‘non-place’ is somewhere that seems to lack the characteristics that define a place (design, décor, architecture, and so on); instead, a non-place may seem to exist for purely functional reasons that don’t acknowledge a need for places to provide a sense of experience, aesthetics, or sensibility for those who inhabit or pass through them. Non-places famously include motel rooms, waiting-rooms, airport departure lounges, motorway service stations and many more.

I’ve been wondering if we could also say that there exists a ‘non-experience’ as well as a non-place. I’ve been thinking about this since receiving a message from two artists from Barcelona, Pauer and Octopus, who are currently based in Ljubljana, Slovenia. They have created a nice art project called Press the Button: the artists have made stickers which are affixed on to the boxes at pedestrian crossings, next to the button that you push when you want to stop traffic so that you can cross the road. (This project, although different in technique and medium, follows in the traditions established by artists such as Roadsworth, and on crosswalk art more generally see this post on Web Urbanist.)

Everyone knows what it feels like: the moment when you push the button at a pedestrian crossing, and then stand there, waiting, waiting, waiting for the lights to change so that you can cross the street. It seems to me that this might be a quintessential non-experience; while waiting for the crossing to activate, the pedestrian really is quite suspended, doing nothing. A similar one might be sitting in your car in gridlocked traffic, unable to move forward or back, suspended within the car. Some of Augé’s non-places are also perfect for having a non-experience: waiting rooms, airport departure lounges, motel rooms… In fact, perhaps waiting really is the main characteristic of a non-experience: in an activity-driven, hyper-substantive world, being compelled, even briefly, to do nothing, can feel excruciating to individuals. Just think of those moments waiting for the crossing to activate: don’t those moments seem to take a long, long time to pass?

So I think it is great that Pauer and Octopus’s intervention has turned a non-experience into something which might involve amusement or puzzlement or pleasure… There is a range of stickers, each offering the pedestrian different outcomes: ‘press the button to end all wars’ reads one, while another says ‘press the button to fall in love’. You can see a short video about the project here:

Perhaps one of the great things about street art is its capacity to turn a non-experience into something else: a boring commute (by foot or in a car or on a train) can be transformed into an opportunity to view art, to be surprised, to smile, to feel frustration, laugh. Press the button to feel something; press the button to think.

Swoon at Metro Gallery

Last night was the official opening of Swoon’s show, Thekla, at Metro Gallery in Melbourne.

It would be an understatement to say that this event drew the crowds.

The gallery was packed. It was actually quite hard to view the artworks properly under those conditions, and so I’ll be returning another day for a better look.

The show uses every inch of the gallery’s available floor space, and in addition re-shapes the gallery rooms (by adding painted and graffiti-ed steps here and there) and transforms its textures, by cladding its white walls with paper and cardboard. The artworks are sometimes affixed to these transformed walls; at other times they stand upright on the floor, angling out from the walls so that the exhibition has a pleasingly multi-dimensional feel. Apparently it took the best part of two weeks to install this show, and the efforts were well worth it – the space looks incredible.

Some of the works I had seen before, on the streets or in other galleries. Even so, they are given a freshness by virtue of their inclusion here in a coherent large-scale show, which allows all of Swoon’s great strengths as an artist to be displayed: the sense of storytelling, the vividness of the characterisation of her subjects, the many different skills used in making the artworks, and the way that a gallery space is taken over by the artworks and converted, temporarily, into something else – some other space.

Photo by Sean Irving, Metro Gallery

The works are so incredibly detailed:

Photo by Sean Irving, Metro Gallery

It’s worth mentioning that Metro Gallery is based in Armadale, an area of Melbourne which is – you could say – not well known for its street art. Certainly, the crowd last night contained a large percentage of the very well-heeled and very well-off. And no doubt many of those present would have been well pleased by the speech given by the guest invited to launch the show, the Victorian Premier, Ted Baillieu.

Baillieu’s speech seemed to have been written by someone who knew nothing about (a) street art (b) Swoon and (c) Swoon’s art. You would think that at some point yesterday afternoon when the speechwriter sat down with a piece of paper to sketch out a few talking points for Baillieu it might have been noticed that they were woefully under-informed. Apparently not. Baillieu talked at length, managing to embarass himself and much of the audience, who were cringing as he said incoherent things like ‘You’re Swoon, I’m swim, this is swell’. The best you can say about it is that after a time, the speech ended. Shockingly bad.

And enough dwelling on the ignorance of Liberal politics, let’s look at some more images of Swoon’s beautiful works:

Photo by Sean Irving, Metro Gallery

Thekla is on until 5 March. ‘Worth seeing’ is an understatement.

Small acts, amazing effects.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I tend not to do announcements about upcoming shows, figuring that there are plenty of other blogs and sites that do a sterling job in that respect.

But every now and then shows come along which either seem so unmissable or they involve work by artists whom I really respect or admire.

Coming up at Metro gallery in Melbourne is an exhibition that falls into both these categories. Metro is hosting Swoon’s first solo exhibition in Australia.

I’ve written about Swoon’s work before on this blog: you can read that post here. I’ve long been an admirer of her art: it is diverse but coherent, it moves beyond street and gallery with apparently effortless ease, and it has evolved in fascinating ways so that as well as adding artworks to buildings and other parts of the built environment, Swoon has in recent years been creating new built environments herself.

Sometimes these have been elaborate structures designed to float on rivers and seas, such as the rafts which sailed the Adriatic into Venice, to gatecrash the Biennale. At other times, they are specifically designed buildings, intensely site-specific works which also have all the functionality of a building – they are made for particular purposes, such as the Konbit Shelter in Haiti. In relation to this latter project, Swoon has working with architects and urban designers as part of a group seeking to assist in the reconstruction of Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake there. (You can read more about that project here.)

To get more of a sense of Swoon’s work, it’s worth doing a couple of things. First of all, have a look at a recent post on the excellent blog Brooklyn Street Art, which describes a studio visit with Swoon and has lots of great photos of her at work. Then, check out YouTube. Have a look at this:

Only three minutes long, but it gives a great sense of both of Swoon’s art and her energy and enthusiasm…

And then, check this one out:

This is a TED talk given by Swoon in Brooklyn recently, in which she talks at greater length about her work. Totally inspiring and, again, such infectious enthusiasm.

I was fortunate enough to meet Swoon last April in New York, and it really was one of the highlights of my time researching in this area. We spoke at length about the transformative potential of art and about the nature of relationships between people (and art) in public space, in neighbourhoods, in derelict spaces, on water, and in buildings.

in November 2010, Swoon created a site-specific installation for the exhibition Small Acts of Resistance at Black Rat Projects in London. The exhibition was designed around the work of several artists whose work combines ‘the artist’s aesthetic vision and the activist’s world changing ambition’. In Swoon’s work we see this combination at its most effective. The acts of a street artist may be relatively small, but their effects – well, their effects go far beyond the limits of any one paste-up or sculpture. Maybe art like this can change the way you see or the way you think.

Go and see the show. It’s on from today until 5th March 2011, Metro Gallery, 1214 High Street, Armadale.

‘Be free’: but not for long….

I recently posted here about a number of artworks around Fitzroy and Clifton Hill featuring a figure throwing playing cards into the air, accompanied by the text ‘be free’.

As part of that post, I included a photograph of a very fresh looking ‘Be free’ artwork, at the entrance to an underpass in Clifton Hill, and on the day that I photographed it, the council graffiti removal van was parked nearby: I commented that I hoped it was not there to paint over this artwork.

Well, it wasn’t, not that day at least.

‘Be free’ stayed at the entrance to the overpass, and attracted some tagging, which then attracted some commentary of its own:

Photo by Lorraine.

I’m indebted to Lorraine, a reader of this blog, who sent me this photograph, commenting to me in the email, ‘Not erased as you feared but tagged. It somehow works.’

Indeed, the placement of the tag somehow connects with the image, even though it covers over many of those gorgeous playing cards. One passerby felt perhaps that the tag did not work well with ‘Be free’, and wrote bluntly ‘this tag is brainless’ next to it – so that the site became a series of layers of significations.

But not for long. Lorraine emailed me this today, having taken it three days ago. Opening the email and viewing the photograph was a strange experience for me, because I had already walked past the underpass this morning, to find this:

Blankness. Fresh paint, no doubt applied by an assiduous graffiti removal van.

Was it the presence of the tag and the subsequent commentary on the tag that attracted the attention of the graffiti removalists? Or were the artwork’s days numbered, as testified by the presence of the graffiti removal van two weeks ago – perhaps it was just working its way around the locality and was always going to paint over ‘Be free’, no matter whether it was tagged or not.

I can’t help but feel sad for its disappearance. It fitted the site so perfectly. It must have made many people smile – those playing cards! Magnificent composition. I hope that more are being affixed to a wall somewhere very soon.

Clinging to the raft….

Today I went to see ‘The Raft’, a video work by Bill Viola which is on display at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) until 20 February.

I’ve written about Viola’s work on this blog before, when I saw ‘Ocean without a shore’ at the National Gallery of Victoria. That was in February 2009, and Victoria had just experienced its worst ever bushfires, and watching an artwork which displayed the boundary between the living and the dead as a metaphorical wall of water seemed inexpressibly sad and melancholic.

Two years on, and Australia is experiencing floods. As many readers of this blog will be well aware, Queensland has been deluged with rain, with many parts of the state still under water after several weeks. Victoria too has been flooded in its northern, rural reaches; and on Friday night, the tail end of a tropical cyclone in Queensland meant that parts of Melbourne were awash with water. Suddenly, ‘so much water, so close to home’, as the Paul Kelly song would put it.

Some of the floods that occurred in the last few weeks were flash floods: sudden onslaughts of water that appear out of nowhere, sweeping cars, street signs, and even houses with them. In parts of Queensland, people lost their lives, washed away by flash floods.

Just as I couldn’t help but think about the bushfires when I saw Viola’s work ‘Ocean without a shore’ two years ago, today I was unable to watch ‘The Raft’ without thinking about those devastating floods.

‘The Raft’ (2004) echoes the famous work by Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819).

It depicts the after-effects of the sinking of a frigate, the Méduse, which ran aground in 1816. Over 140 people clung to an inexpertly constructed raft; only 15 were still alive when rescue arrived.

The image was later used by the Irish band The Pogues as the cover for their album, ‘Rum, Sodomy and the Lash’, with band members superimposed upon the raft with the survivors:

Viola provides us with a metaphorical raft, rather than any kind of actual vessel adrift on the high seas. Instead, the work, which is a video/sound installation lasting 10.33minutes, begins with a group of people standing in an anonymous space. It is, no doubt, the artist’s studio, but the figures act as if they are waiting for a bus, or a train, and soon that is how we look at them – they are a group of strangers, on the whole, engaged in the business of waiting, going about their everyday lives. Some of the group know each other: a couple here and there, but on the whole these are disconnected strangers. There are around 14 individuals when the work begins; gradually others arrive, and weave their way through the throng, to take up their own position in which to wait. As with all Viola’s work, the film is slowed down considerably, so that movements are heightened and rendered anti-naturalistic. The soundtrack is an indistinct blur of everyday sounds.

Here is an abridged version of the work, which begins around this point, skipping the several minutes beforehand in which the individuals are simply passing time, waiting:

After a few minutes, to the left of the screen, water appears, flowing over the ground. The figures on the left look down and it and around, but suddenly a blast of water explodes forcefully over the figures, not only drenching them but actually bowling some of them over: it is as though a water cannon has been unleashed upon them. At the same time, a similar jet of water begins from the right hand side, so that the figures are buffeted from all sides.

People drop, in painfully slow motion, to their knees, attempting to brace themselves against the force of the water; some lie prone and motionless; others stagger around, blindly, trying to escape the jets. Splayed hands are raised in the vain effort to deflect the spray. On the soundtrack is a deafening roar, industrial, indecipherable. As with all of Viola’s work, the lighting is so cleverly done that each frame resembles a still painting; and in particular, of course, many parts of this work evokes Géricault’s own raft, and the possibilities of survival in the midst of devastation. I found myself sitting with open mouth, astonished at the images, unable to imagine (or perhaps only too able to imagine, thanks to the viscerality of the work) the suffering of the body in the face of so much liquid force.

After several minutes, the force of the water begins to subside, until it gradually ebbs away. Some of the figures seem frozen in shock, their faces contorted and agonised. One woman shakes out her hair, which scatters drops of water in jewelled arcs. Two strangers discover that they are holding each other up. One boy reaches down to assist an elderly woman who has been lying motionless face down on the ground. Their disparateness is gone forever; these disconnected individuals are utterly joined together: the trauma of the event has forged a community.

It’s all too easy to see this as a ready parable for the aftermath of disaster, and for the strength of community evidenced in flood-affected areas, and I’m slightly hesitant to give in to that reading. I would rather read the work as being about randomness. The individuals are simply going about their lives when the water arrives. (‘Water’ could be any disaster: fire, illness, crime, terrorism, bereavement…) There is no reason for it; it simply comes. There is no rationality to their reactions; once the water has arrived, they simply move about as they must. And once it has gone, there is no explanation for how or why they end up in the positions they do. They are just there. Such is the nature of disaster. It comes without warning; it has no reasons. Survival is random, as is death.

All of Viola’s individuals are still alive after the water recedes: the raft saves them. The shipwrecked crew of the Méduse were not so lucky: over 130 of them died on their raft. The mere presence of a raft is no guarantee; the mere fact of survivorship does not generate community. And if communities are to be built, I would like us not to have to depend on disaster as the foundation for them.

‘Be free’…

Last year, when I wasnot long returned from travelling overseas for 3 months and was taking our cat to the vet to be weighed (yes, she is on a weight reduction diet, the poor, chunky thing), I came across this artwork:

It’s a nicey composed work, a combination of stencil work for the figure and the text (which reads ‘Be Free’), with playing cards glued to the wall as though the little girl is scattering them to the winds.

I really liked its positioning and execution, and thought that it was one of the most interesting works that had appeared around Melbourne while I had been away. But I also assumed it was a single work.

Yesterday, on an evening when it was too hot to cook, we headed out to eat at a local cafe. On the way, I was delighted to discover another ‘Be Free’, freshly applied to a wall at the corner of Victoria Street and Brunswick Street:

Again, nicely positioned; again, the combination of stencil work with the playing cards to add texture and dimension.

And then this morning, in another suburb, I saw this work:

A different positioned figure this time (and an adult rather than a child), and the composition seems altered to fit the different dimensions of this space, which is at the entrance to a rather drab underpass leading away from a MacDonalds and a brothel – exactly the sort of location that to me needs an exhortation to ‘be free’.

As I came out of the underpass on the other side, I saw the local council ‘Graffiti Clean-Up’ van approaching. I hope that this beautiful work is still there tomorrow…

New discoveries…

I’ve seen a paste-up of a delicate and evocative drawing several times around Fitzroy recently:

I didn’t know who the artist was, although it seemed from the drawing that it might be signed ‘Kaff-eine’ (inscribed on the little fox).

Last week, I received one of those emails from WordPress telling me that someone had subscribed to this blog (always nice to hear). The subscriber had a URL, which I clicked on. It turns out that the susbcriber is none other than Kaff-eine, and the link took me to this site, on which you can see lots of examples of Kaff-eine’s work.

So, thanks, Kaff-eine, for subscribing, and thanks also for making such fantastic drawings and paste-ups, which bring the atmosphere of a fairytale or fable into the spaces of the city….

Textile textures….

I was out walking with friends the other evening, and on Gertrude Street in Fitzroy I came across two beautiful interventions in public space – really two of the most delightful and pleasurable pieces of work I have seen in a long time.

I’ve found it hard to put a name to what kind of work they are: I suppose the name that would most obviously be given to them would be ‘yarn-bombing’, but seeing these works made me realise how little I like that term and how inadequate I think it is for the grace and delicacy involved in these works, in which knitted woollen shapes are fastened around a grey metal pole, and white lace is fitted closely to the narrow trunks of nearby trees. As you can see, part of the visual pleasure in the works is how they make the man-made pole and the natural tree trunks somehow akin to each other, linked by their verticality and their new roles as part of the street sculpture.

‘Yarn-bombing’ draws an analogy with tagging, whereby a writer puts up their tag so often that a city or a suburb is ‘bombed’ by the tag. Somehow that just doesn’t seem right with these sorts of works, and I think a new name needs to be found: textile sculptures? fabric sculptures? The works use a textile, such as wool or cotton, to make shapes in public space, but they also work with the shapes already present: in these images they are wrapped around the trees and around the pole supporting a street sign. To that extent the work is dependent on transforming something into part of the sculpture, so that a pole is no longer just a pole, and a group of trees becomes part of a delicate network of lace.

Encountering these works really was a delight: we all exclaimed out loud and stood and admired them for several minutes. It is an incomparable example of the potential for street art to intercede in public space in a manner that brings sheer joy to the spectator. Maybe others might walk past feeling simply puzzled as to their presence or thinking dismissive thoughts about the purpose of the activity. For me, it demonstrates the care and effort that can be involved in street art. How long did it take to make these works? How did the artist(s) select the site? And it demonstrates that street art still has the capacity to create moments of delight in the midst of the city.