Archive for the ‘art’ Tag

And now….. Melbourne Now

This weekend sees the opening of Melbourne Now at the National Gallery of Victoria, perhaps one of the most significant initiatives by an Australian museum in many years, in that it showcases hundreds of works made by artists associated with Melbourne (living here, working here, born here, or representing some idea of Melbourne in their work…). Here’s the website:

The show is significant for its scale: hundreds of works selected by thirty curators, situated in over 8000 square metres of exhibition space spread across the two sites of the NGV and with a number of off-site locations in the city. It’s significant also for its broad-ranging interpretation of ‘creative Melbourne’, bringing in to the gallery spaces an impressive range of art practitioners. By this I mean not just a diversity of artists (sculptors, print-makers, video artists and many more), but also architects, designers and performers (the exhibition includes elements such as dance – perhaps a first in any Australian museum).

The exhibition also continues the NGV’s refreshing willingness to categorise street art as a valid and interesting art form. In July of this year, the NGV hosted ‘Suburban’, a solo show of new work by Ian Strange, also known as graffiti writer Kid Zoom, and has also temporarily exhibited work by Melbourne contemporary artist Miso, known for her many years of working in the street as well as in galleries. Such initiatives have been impressively open-minded for a major museum, but it would have been easy for the gallery to have left street art out of Melbourne Now. Instead, the exhibition includes two artists well-known for their work in public space. Ash Keating, who came to public attention in 2004 when he painted the hoarding over the Mockridge Fountain in City Square using a paint-filled fire extinguisher, is represented through two works: one is the stunning video work, ‘West Park Proposition’ which shows, on three screens, his transformation of a blank concrete wall into an artwork that blends harmoniously with its outer Melbourne setting. The other will be located on a billboard hung on the outer wall of the NGV itself, and Ash will paint the billboard on Friday 22 November, prior to the exhibition’s opening on 23 November. So the gallery makes itself into a wall that can be draped with artwork being created before the eyes of the public – a gesture that seems to represent in a really positive way some of the fundamental ideas underlying street art.


Some more of those ideas can be found in the work of Lush, the other ‘urban artist'(to use the gallery’s term) included in the show. Lush has created an installation that fills half of a small room, and comes with its own dumpster and piles of litter:

'Graffiti doesn't belong in a gallery?' by Lush

‘Graffiti doesn’t belong in a gallery?’ by Lush

It’s worth spending time reading the dozens of stickers and sheets of paper that cover the surfaces of the installation, with shout-outs to Peezr, Sofles and Jetso included as well. If you follow the blog Vandalog, you will have come across contributions by Lush, and you can find many more in the NGV’s installation:

Detail. 'Graffiti doesn't belong in a gallery?'

Detail. ‘Graffiti doesn’t belong in a gallery?’

I walk down Brunswick Street every few days, since I live nearby, and there’s a shopfront and doorway entirely covered with Lush stickers. I love it that this installation is almost the same as that shopfront in the streetscape. Both Lush’s installation and the exhibition curators are thus posing a question to us: ‘graffiti doesn’t belong in a gallery?’. There’s no right answer to that question, but it’s worth thinking through….

Finally, the other way in which the NGV is building its reputation for supporting street art, is through its endorsement of All Your Walls, a community-organised re-paint of Hosier Lane, and Rutledge Lane, located opposite one of the NGV sites. The exhibition catalogue for Melbourne Now lists Hosier Lane as one of the locations for the exhibition beyond the main gallery sites. A decade ago – or even five years ago – it would not have been possible to have imagined a major museum associating its name with a site known for illicit art. (And although some museums, such as the National Gallery of Australia and the Tate Modern among others have had exhibitions showcasing street art and graffiti, this is a little different. First of all, Ash Keating and Lush are included within the line-up of exhibiting artists on the same terms as any sculptor, fine artist, architect or designer. Their art practices are =regarded as being just as valid as any of the more conventionally respectable ones. And in sponsoring All Your Walls, the gallery is acknowledging that Melbourne’s art exists within the cityscape as much as in the galleries and studios of the city. It’s a gesture that says clearly that street art is part of Melbourne – part of Melbourne now.

The city-as-light

Over the years that I have been writing about street art, I’ve come across the work of many different artists. Out of all of these, the work of Miso is always there among my very favourites. (Full disclosure: along with Ghostpatrol and Timba Smits, Miso and I co-wrote a book about street art in Melbourne.) As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve written about Miso’s work a number of times here, and her recent show, Les Lumières, demonstrates that she continues to be one of the most interesting artists in Melbourne (and indeed on the international scene).

Miso is well known for her beautifully placed, delicately drawn paste-ups on city walls, such as this:

But both Les Lumières and a previous solo show, Tschusse!, are evidence of her increasing interest in engaging with the shape and form of the city itself, by raising questions about how we experience it, about who owns it, and about how cities look and feel and are developed.

Les Lumières transformed the gallery space of No Vacancy at Federation Square into a vision of an urban space inflected by pockets of calm, of a city lit by white neon light, and composed of spaces oscillating between the functional and the beautiful. Gorgeously drawn works were present, of course, but also doorways, pieces of wood, and a range of objects, implements and plants that evoke the city and some of the possible things we do in urban space (such as move through it, make gardens in it, go out drinking in it, live in it…). It was a show that seemed influenced by travel (in that Miso has in the last couple of years been to the Ukraine, Japan, London and New York) but also by a lot of reading and thinking: the result was a show that invited us as spectators to look, think, and perhaps even to read…

The show finished several weeks ago, so apologies in that you are not able to go and have a look. But Miso’s website has some photos of the works, here, and if you are interested in reading about new ways thinking city spaces, have a look at the website of This Is Not A Gateway, which promotes ‘knowledge and agitation from emerging urbanists’.

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.

Ho ho ho….

Headed into the centre of Melbourne today to try to do the minimal amount of xmas shopping that I am involved in. Since I was on Bourke Street, I came across the massive queue of people that was waiting to see the Myer windows.

For those readers who are not from Melbourne, let me explain that Myer is a large department store (a bit like Macys in New York City, or Selfridges in London). Every year, its windows are the location for a display of elaborate mechanised puppetry and kitschery, with some kind of seasonal theme (this year it’s The Nutcracker; in previous years it has been things like a staging of Mem Fox’s novel Wombat Divine, or one of the Olivia stories).

The Myer christmas windows are particularly kitsch, like a pantomime staged in the middle of a city street. They exist ostensibly to entertain children and are supposed to be part of the ‘magic of christmas’ and viewing the windows has become part of the run-up to christmas for many people. (The fact that viewing the windows brings people to a department store where, after looking at the windows, they might well wander inside and spend some money, is both taken for granted and also repressed within the acceptance of the Myer windows as part of ‘the magic of christmas’ in Melbourne.)

The Myer windows have hosted some other displays which have been less kitsch and more challenging. Over a decade ago, the Urban Dream Capsule lived in the Myer windows for some weeks: eating, sleeping, dancing, clowning, and passing the time, all the while on display to the passers by. I went down to Bourke Street on several occasions and watched the Dream Capsule’s members, and the whole event was, variously, highly entertaining and humorously staged, while also being quite moving and affecting at times (occasionally, the participants would feel the strain of their lengthy performance, and would attempt to find moments and spaces of privacy within the extreme visibility of the windows: at those times, as an audience member, you would suddenly become aware of the nature of the gaze and the relationship between performer and audience in a completely new way).

So the Urban Dream Capsule was a nice antidote to the commercialism of the christmas windows. But now there’s another way to think critically about window displays, commerce and art, thanks to Nick Ilton and Bados Earthling, who will be putting on their own version of the Myer christmas windows on Saturday 18th December in Union Lane and Hosier lanes.

Bados has done some larger panels which will be temporarily put up in the lanes, and he’ll do his performance graffiti in front of them; Nick has made triptychs depicting Mary and Joseph as outer suburbanites:

Sounds like a great reason to come into the city next Saturday.

Banksy at the movies: Part II (Banksy’s hands)

Since the previous post, about expectations of what Exit Through the Gift Shop is about, turned out to be a long one, I thought I’d write a separate one dealing with what it’s not about.

So let’s go back to the second response that a lot of people seemed to have after seeing the movie – a feeling of surprise that it’s not ‘about’ Banksy, or at least not as much as they had expected.

It’s worth looking at this closely. Is the film ‘about’ Banksy? Well, the film is made by him, and thus it provides us with a text which tells us something about the artists and his concerns, just as his artworks, books and exhibitions do.

And then again, Banksy is in the movie: we see him in his studio; we see him stencilling; we see him with his crew of helpers creating the famous ‘vandalized telephone box’ in London (which goes on to sell for an extraordinary sum at auction); we see him installing a blow-up doll, hooded, shackled, and wearing an orange jumpsuit, at Disneyland, in a direct juxtaposition of American mass entertainment culture with the torture of detainees at Guantanamo.  (All of these occurrences are filmed by Guetta.)

But of course, while all of these events are taking place, Banksy still withholds himself from any kind of identifying gaze – he wears the hood of his sweatshirt pulled over his head, his face is blanked by pixillation, his voice distorted (and his assistants’ identities are similarly masked).

So Banksy’s certainly in the movie, but he’s simultaneously on display and hidden from our view. But what we do see in plain sight are his stencils and his hands: as Banksy himself states in the film, ‘I told Thierry he could film my hands but only from behind’.

As he says these words in voice-over, the film shows us Banksy at work, cutting stencils (for one of his signature rats, to be put up on a wall in LA). And for me, that was one of the highlights of the film – watching those hands, whether at work on the stencil or gesturing along with the words spoken by Banksy’s distorted voice.

They’re slender hands, with long fingers. They’re the hands of an artist. What does the face matter, or the voice? Watch the film – and watch out for the scene of Banksy cutting stencils, with speed, and with great skill. That moment might not be central to the film, but it’s certainly what street art is all about.

Art and the senses

I’ve been thinking for some time about the ways in which we experience an artwork, whether it’s located in the street or in a gallery. The most conventional way in which to think about this would emphasize vision – after all, we are used to the idea that an artwork is something that we look at.

But this leaves out other sensory dimensions, ones which are not so commonly talked about in relation to art. Is it possible to hear an artwork? Can we taste it?

In some works, image and sound are certainly inextricably combined, so that it’s not really possible to think in terms of simply looking at it or listening to it: Bill Viola’s work is a great example. Some artists entirely ignore the visual in favour of the auditory: in 2008, for example, an artwork called Speed of Sound Nau Interactive Bells was installed in Union Lane in Melbourne (this laneway was mentioned in a previous post, Street art and ‘authority’): the sound of bells, chiming at irregular intervals, played from speakers installed at different heights along the laneway walls, so that the sounds increased and receded according to one’s progress along the laneway.

And I’m also pleased to be able to report that I have had the experience of eating art. Felix Gonzalez-Torres, a Cuban-American artist, created installation pieces in which lollies (or candies, or sweets, depending on which continent you live on) were strewn across a gallery floor or piled in its corners. Spectators were able to dip their hands into the artwork and pull out a handful of sweets to take home or to eat. You can get a sense of what Gonzalez-Torres’s wonderful work looks like if you click here – the tiny golden objects piled against the walls constitute one of his works, Untitled (Placebo – Landscape for Roni). I can still vividly recall how transgressive it felt, to pick up a piece of an artwork and put it in my mouth and taste it (it was lemon-flavoured, in case anyone is interested).

The spectator’s relationship to that particular artwork involved touch as well as taste: touching art is definitely something that is actively prohibited by most museums and galleries as illicit behaviour in relation to art: think of all those signs on the wall, saying ‘Do Not Touch’.

One of the most memorable instances in which I was able to touch an artwork certainly had a sense of the illicit about it. I was visiting a gallery overseas to chat with its director, and was informed by him that he had just received a shipment of works by one artist who would be featured in their next show. The director was hugely enthusiastic about this artist and invited me not just to look at the works but in fact to touch one. As I ran my fingertips over a tiny section of the work’s surface, I felt acutely aware of how forbidden such an act usually is.

In addition to the simple transgressive pleasure that came from touching a painting, I also felt a strong sense of how much my relation to the image was altered by the act of touching it: instead of standing facing it, as it would hang on a wall with me looking directly at it, it was brought towards me and held close to me, lying at an angle, slightly tilted from the horizontal, the light slanting off its surface, my gaze directed downwards, and my hand drawn towards it. Much later, I realized that part of the extraordinary charge that arose for me in this moment derived from the experience of relating, momentarily, to the artwork as if I was in the position of the artist. I don’t mean that I experienced a sense of acquiring any of the artist’s skills or abilities, but rather simply some of the privileges that come with the position of the work’s creator: the ability to touch it, the ability to stand close to it (rather than behind a white line in a museum), the ability to look at it from different angles.

(Of course, anyone who buys an artwork acquires the rights and power to do all these things too, but it’s interesting that it is the artist that was evoked by my altered position in relation to this work, not someone with sufficient financial resources to purchase it.)

What about smell? Does art have an aroma, an odour? Artists themselves are usually well acquainted with the olfactory dimensions of their work (from spray paint, oils, acetone, lacquer, glue, and many other substances) but it’s something that isn’t often discussed when we think about spectatorship. And yet those smells can have a powerful affective impact on the viewing of an artwork. When I went to see an exhibition by the wonderful Jose Parla at Elms Lesters Painting Rooms in London last October, many of the works on display were recently painted: as a result, the gallery rooms were filled with a perfume of oil and varnish, which made me, as a spectator, feel extremely conscious of the works as things which had been brought into being through the artist’s exertions with canvas, and paper, and paint.

It was on the same visit to London that I had the good fortune to meet the charming Nick Walker (you can see more about Nick here). As we finished our conversation about his work, in a small room at Black Rat Press, Nick indicated a neat pile of prints sitting on a trestle table, awaiting his signature before sale. He removed the protective cardboard from the pile, so that I could see the image below. But when the cardboard was lifted, an amazing smell drifted from the pile of prints: it was an intense, concentrated smell of paper, and it was strangely beautiful. I’ll never forget standing next to that table, under a low-hanging spotlight, gazing at these prints and inhaling their smell – a potent reminder that artworks are utterly material, not ethereal images floating free of the world of things.

Much of what I’ve been describing relates to the phenomenon of gallery or museum display, in which the smell or feel of an artwork is rarely encountered. When an artwork exists in urban space, the commonplace prohibitions of gallery spectatorship usually don’t apply – if you can reach it, you are perfectly free to run your hands over a paste-up, or, if you wanted to, there’s even nothing to stop you having a good sniff of a stencil.

That freedom is definitely an important part of how we look at street art and the sense of democratic spectatorship that often attaches to it. But this freedom of access comes with a downside, of course, as the artists belonging to the AMF crew from Sydney discovered, when they were arrested painting trains in London last year. The six guys have been given prison sentences ranging from 8 to 16 months (click here for more details about the case). How did they get caught? Police officers said they were alerted to the artists’ presence by hearing the rattle of spray cans and smelling aerosol paint. When it comes to art, our senses may lead us to an encounter with the sublime, but they can also be the means through which the force of law comes to be exercised.

Street art and ‘authority’

Once again, it’s been a long time between posts. The main reason for this is that I contracted whooping cough just before Easter: it turns out that whooping cough is a highly nasty illness and there’s good reason why we vaccinate kids against it. Anyway, while convalescent, I spent a lot of time online: reading blogs, browsing through some great street art websites, and, of course, spending a bit of time on Facebook. Amidst the productive procrastination of all those mad quizzes, recently there’s been some fascinating reading provided by the responses to questions being asked on Facebook by the Wooster Collective (questions which range from ‘what’s your favourite hangover cure’ to ‘what is the best city for street art’). One recent question asked respondents to say what impact they thought it would have if street art were legal. Reading the comments (most of which indicated that something would be lost if street art were legalized) started me thinking about street art and its relation to authority and to the various government bodies and organizations that we might call the ‘authorities’.

Around the same time that the Wooster Collective were asking this question, I received an email from Russell Howze, stencil artist and author of Stencil Nation (it’s also well worth checking out both his blog and Stencil Archive, his fabulous resource on stencil art). In the email, he described the Anti-Graffiti Super Huddle (website here), a recent initiative in San Francisco designed to reduce, contain and eliminate graffiti in the city. Russell’s concerns were that the anti-graffiti strategies seemed to be coming thick and fast, and he asked whether any arts organizations were participating in these debates (to provide a counter-voice) and whether any politicians might want to develop initiatives that recognized the positive value street art could have for a city.

So here we have a great example of how the encounter between street art and authority is usually configured (the Anti-Graffiti Super Huddle with its objectives of zero tolerance and graffiti prevention) and we can also see how difficult it is to imagine ways in which that encounter might be transformed – an enterprise which would certainly be challenging but which could have many benefits for artists (perhaps reducing the chances of being fined or prosecuted) and for inhabitants of urban spaces (in allowing street art to flourish rather than struggle in the periods in between massive buffing exercises).

Certainly of relevance to the possibility of transforming the encounter between street art and authority is the news that recently the Wooster Collective were invited to the White House. Earlier in May, Marc and Sara, along with around 60 representatives from grassroots arts organizations, attended a briefing session with aides from the Obama administration and participated in workshops focusing on a range of key issues to do with the arts. As they say in the post on their website recounting the event, the issue they wanted to raise was ‘the need to better understand the issues around public and private space’ (for the full post, look here and scroll down to the entry for 13 May 2009).

In some ways, it’s no surprise that the Obama administration would invite individuals interested in street art to such a meeting. The Obama campaign demonstrated that it understood the positive capacities of street art – particularly so in relation to the widespread appearance in public space of the image of Obama created by Shepard Fairey. (You can read about this image and its role in the campaign here.) Fairey talks about his creation of the image in this video:

But in other ways, of course, it’s nothing short of mind-boggling that a government would engage in this sort of outreach towards individuals who have championed artwork that is oftentimes illicit. After reading about the Wooster Collective’s visit to the White House, I tried to imagine the equivalent in other countries – Gordon Brown including Banksy in a round table on the future of the arts in the UK, say, or Kevin Rudd inviting the Everfresh boys to Canberra for a discussion about arts funding.

The comparison isn’t quite an exact one, however: the Wooster Collective are not artists themselves; they are enormously supportive of street art in general and have promoted the work of a wide range of artists in many countries, and have generally raised awareness about street art in the community on an incredible scale. But they are not themselves known for engaging in the production of illicit images, and I’m guessing that this distinction is still important for those in authority, when they issue invitations to participate in such debate.

I am only speculating here – I don’t know who else was invited to the White House: there may have been a street artist there as well (but I’m guessing that Marc and Sara would have said if there had been). But once we get over the surprise and delight that such a meeting took place, what are the outcomes that we might hope for when street art, like Mr Smith, ‘goes to Washington’?

It’s an interesting question – partly because I’m still unsure of what this could lead to. I can see that there are a lot of things that can be gained in terms of the symbolic support it gives to street art(ists) and the potential for parlaying this kind of recognition into all sorts of consciousness-raising efforts. It’s hard to think of concrete outcomes partly because we really haven’t seen an encounter like this, at this level of power, and with so much potential. But I’m also pretty sure that there are some risks too, and this is because there are so many instances of the encounter between street art and authority at lower levels of government making things harder for street artists or leading to some pretty strange results.

Here’s one example: in Melbourne, a few yeas back, the City of Melbourne agreed to support a project whereby artists would be permitted to paint the walls in Union Lane, in the city centre. Union Lane is a narrow lane that connects one of the major retail thoroughfares (Bourke Street) with another shopping street running parallel to it, Little Collins Street. Many of Melbourne’s laneways possess great charm and character; Union Lane does not – it was a forbidding, gloomy stretch of laneway, its unrelieved concrete walls were plain grey on one side and on the other had been painted with an uninspired, bland mural which pictorialized various civic virtues (and which had been heavily tagged).

The Union Lane project was a fantastic idea, in many ways, and it was brought into being through the hard work of a lot of people. Several well-known, highly respected artists and experienced artists were commissioned to paint in the massive work that was to cover both walls for the entire length of the laneway (which is pretty long – a city block). These artists also mentored younger artists on the project. Visiting street artists joined in. The result was a collage of styles and images produced by dozens of individuals. Passers-by took photographs; tourists visited the site; many talked with the artists and learned something about street art as they watched it being carried out. You can see the lane as it was before, and the process of developing and painting the laneway in this video:

It sounds brilliant, and in many ways it was. Surely this would be an example of the encounter between street art and authority working at its best? Well, a few unexpected problems arose. Although the presence of a high quality piece on a wall usually inspires respect from other writers or artists (that is, they don’t go over the work), the Union Lane paintings have quickly been tagged. Some people have speculated that the stencilled words ‘Street art permit: City of Melbourne’ might imply to some that the site is one where anyone can and should put up, rather than a site to be looked at.

It’s also my suspicion that the initiative demonstrates how easy it is for there to be a clash between the expectations of those in ‘authority’ and the norms and practices of street art culture. The City of Melbourne put time, effort and money into the project, and as such, wanted to protect their investment and preserve the result. Graffiti writers and street artists, however, did not necessarily view the site or the project as one which deserved permanence and preservation (two things which are not really high on the list of priorities for many graffiti writers anyway) beyond the recognition of the skills of various artists who contributed to the project.

And so, as time has passed, Union Lane is gradually becoming shabbier. Because of this, there’s a risk that it will be held up some day as an example of why such initiatives fail to achieve any positive results. Could this have been avoided? Well, one possible strategy would have been to have recognized at the outset that permanence isn’t highly valued in street art and graffiti cultures and that a range of temporary surfaces (such as hoardings) could be attached to the walls of Union Lane for artists to paint and re-work over time, with the hoardings being removed and replaced periodically.

Such an approach would no doubt bring with it its own particular issues and potential problems, but at least it would demonstrate that those in ‘authority’ are not just dispensing largesse (which can be revoked) but are actively trying to understand how street art and graffiti work.

So I guess my main point is this: in any encounter with authority, street art and street artists need to expect that all will not go according to plan, and that any plan needs to incorporate contingencies as to what might happen down the track, when the expectations of those in authority are not met.

And I think, at the moment, this will always happen, because there’s such an asymmetry between the positions of those with power (councils, the Obama administration) and those without it (graffiti writers, arts organizations, street artists). (And it would be great if the Wooster Collective’s encounter with authority could lead to a discussion as to how street artists might work to render that relationship less asymmetrical.)

I don’t mean to be pessimistic, but over the years I have seen many instances of street artists or graffiti writers trying to engage positively with ‘authority’, and I have had some experience of trying to do so myself. If someone loses out, it’s usually the artist. (And I would love to hear from anyone who has had experience of trying to work with ‘authority’ – whether successful or unsuccessful.)

So when street art ‘goes to Washington’, it’s going to be essential to have a clear idea of what street art can gain from the encounter, what ‘authority’ can offer street art, and what risks might lie ahead, even with an administration that has shown remarkable understanding and appreciation of all that street art can offer the community.

The art of the space

Once again, it has been a long time between posts, and, once again, apologies for the delay. Same excuse: I’m (still) finishing a book, and am spending every minute I can trying to fix up references, check quotations, and, yes, write bits of chapters. Almost done: hopefully by the end of April, after which normal blogging will be resumed!

But even though I’m not posting as much as I should be here, I’m still looking at art, still living by certain images. In the last few months I’ve seen a lot of works around Melbourne by the same artist, and I have taken photographs of some of them. I keep coming across more: I spotted some more last night, and am hoping to go and photograph them soon.

Here’s one I kept seeing, in the hot days of the summer, since it’s in a laneway off a street that I drive past most days:


And if I don’t drive down that one (Elgin Street), I’m driving down Grattan Street, where I kept seeing this:


I also discovered one not far from the Law School at Melbourne University:


What really appeals to me about these images is not just their graphic, characterful humour and style, it’s the fact that the images work so well in the spaces they have been placed in. Whether it’s the boxy shape of the switching box on the corner opposite the Law School or the narrow space between a billboard and the corner of the wall on Grattan Street, the artist had made images which respond to the spaces they inhabit. The space enhances the image, and the image gives the space a buzz. Look closer, and from a different angle, at the one on the switching box near the Law School:


Here you can see how the artist is working with three-dimensional space, not just placing an image on a flat surface, but making the most of the possibilities offered by the box, extending the image around the corner and onto a second side, to make an image which works from different angles and which draws our attention not just to itself but to the space it occupies. Really satisfying to look at…

And if anyone knows who the artist is…..let me know!

Bill Viola: ‘Ocean without a shore’.

These last few weeks in Victoria have been all about heat, fire and drought, and so there’s a certain aptness in writing about an artist whose works often make use of water. Bill Viola is an American artist whose work, Ocean without a shore, has recently been purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria. It has been installed for a number of weeks, and I finally managed to get to see it. As with the other times I have seen Viola’s work, I was completely awestruck by it.

The work was originally made for the Venice Biennale, where it was installed in a small chapel. Each of its three screens took the place of altar pieces within the chapel, and the setting must have generated an amazing atmosphere in which to view this work. Here’s  a short film about the installation of the work in Venice:

The NGV installation retains a sense of the work’s engagement with the sacred and the uncanny by placing it within a very small, darkened room. The spectator sits on a low bench just inside the room, a low bench reminiscent of a church pew. Each screen is placed on one of the three walls, in a manner very similar to the Venice installation. Unlike a standard chapel altar piece, however, the images within the screens are moving.

Each screen shows the same scenario, performed by a different person. A blurry figure stands at a distance from ‘us’, or, from the ‘front’ of the image, if the screen constitutes some imaginary ‘front’. These images strongly evoke depth of field – the figures start in the distance, walk forwards, halt, look around, turn, then walk away. When they have each returned to their starting point, each one is succeeded by a new figure (although this moment of succession is never possible to see on screen – I found myself always either distracted by the other screens or simply unable to make out the exact moment of transition due to the fuzziness of the figure once it has receded into the depth of the screen).

The figures do not move in synch with each other; they come and go in series, sometimes in the same order (left panel, then centre panel, then right panel), sometimes not (left panel, then right panel, oh, then left panel again, then centre panel, then right panel… and so on). The speed of the figures is slow: they are in fact shown in slow-motion, which makes their movements seem both ponderous and tentative, and which adds to the ominous tone of the piece.

And what else is happening as each figure makes this slow walk forward and back? There is, as with all Viola’s work, a great deal more going on, consisting mainly in the thick texture of the artwork itself. As each figure draws near to ‘us’, they pass through a wall of water. Digital effects mean that we do not see the water, except as after-effects – droplets, spray, sprinkles – after each figure passes through it. But what we really are being invited to look at is the transformative capacity of the water: the individuals are of course drenched by the water, so that previously frizzy hair lies flat, or a light coloured shirt is soaked dark.

But more than this, passing through the water wall plunges the figures into rich, deep colour and sharp focus. No longer grey and blurry, they seem fully present as they stand and look around, sometimes seeming even to gaze directly at the viewer. They exhibit no pleasure or joy, however; their moments are still solemn and hesitant, and after a short time, each figure turns and walks back through the invisible water (which we still see only in its after-drops) and back into black and white indistinction.

While this takes place, we hear a dull continuous, almost industrial thrumming sound, which crescendos to a cascade of noise whenever a figure approaches and moves through the water wall. Here’s a short clip which gives a sense of what this looks and sounds like:

Viola is, as many of his other works will confirm, fascinated by the anunciatory and transfiguring power of water. A number of years ago, I had the experience of seeing one of his works, Five Angels for the Millenium, at the Tate Modern in London. Here’s a video clip  which gives an idea of what this work is like – you have to persist till the end for the extraordinary pleasure of the last few seconds:

That work was installed in an enormous, extremely dark room; five gigantic screens were installed on the walls, each showing a single figure plunging into and out of water in extremely slow motion. For the viewer the experience was utterly disorienting: I found my gaze compelled by the screens, and the surrounding darkness meant that I often did not see other spectators on the periphery of my visual field, so that I would bump into people while moving around to view the screens. Thus, just as the figures in the work were plunged into dark water, so the spectator was temporarily immersed in darkness: ‘all at sea’, as if moving through an unlit ocean.

In the NGV piece, although water plays a large part (as you can tell, both from my description and from the title of the work), we are not being invited to feel any such consonance or connection with the figures depicted, or to measure our experience in comparison with theirs.

On the contrary, the invisible wall of water marks a threshold – between the worlds of the living and the dead. For Viola, the figures in each panel are ghosts. The work makes literal the archaic term for a ghost: shade. Faintly visible in blurry grey tones they come towards us – the living – and attempt to press themselves into our world, but are always, after each brief return, forced to withdraw, to fade once more into the shadows where they belong.

The triangulation of the three screens, with each successive apparition gazing at the spectator, provides a melancholic sense of a threshold that cannot be surpassed, of the limits of life for us all, and of the irrevocable rupture that death brings about. It’s an artwork of immense power, and, in the immediate aftermath of the devastation brought by bushfires in Victoria, it’s an artwork that seems made for this sad time.

2008 – the best and worst….

Newspapers are full of these ‘best of…’ and ‘worst of…’ lists right now, and reading some of them got me thinking about some of the great (and not so great) moments in art and cinema this year. What follows is a really incomplete – and really subjective – list of images that I’ve been happy to live by in 2008. In no particular order (and apologies for repeating some topics already written about, but they still deserve to be mentioned as some of the great moments of 2008):

•    Jose Parla’s work. I saw his show at Elms Lesters Painting Rooms in London, and I think his images are gorgeous. You can read more about Jose’s work here.

•    Miso and Ghostpatrol’s show, ‘Nesting and Dying’, at metro5 Gallery in Melbourne. Beautiful works, beautifully installed in the space.

•    Seeing Brad Downey’s presentation of a series of short films about his ‘street sculptures’, at the Tate in London.

•    The Kill Pixie show at Until Never Gallery in Melbourne.

•    C215’s work, all over London in July. Some of it is still around, like this:


•    The JR show at Lazarides. Haunting.

•    Being shown some new works by Elbow Toe, freshly unpacked and ready to hang, at Stolen Space in London.

•    Meeting the artist who paints these cats all over Amsterdam:


•    Walking around San Francisco with Russell Howze.

•    Regan Tamanui’s portrait of my daughter. Love it!

•    Spotting new Invader works around Melbourne several times during this year. How many did he put up? Fantastic!

•    Watching the Mikosa mural evolve.

•    The Cans Festival in the Leake Street tunnel. Awesome. Both times.

•    Meggs’s show at Dont Come gallery in Melbourne.

•    Seeing Hunger, by Steve McQueen.

•    Seeing the Peak Hours sticker being put up on the London Underground. I would still love to know whose work that is… Thanks to everyone who contacted me about the sticker.

•    Seeing Gilbert (of Gilbert & George) walk past on Brick Lane.

•    The Sidney Nolan show at the NGV. I’m not an Australian, so I don’t have the attachment to the Ned Kelly iconography that an Aussie does, but I still thought Nolan’s images were breath-taking.

•    Meeting Laser 3.14.

•    Logan Hicks’s show at Stolen Space in July. No space could have suited his works more.


Every year has to have some of these. Again in no particular order:

•    Too many great shows missed, one way or another. MuTate Britain in London, the Poesia Urbana show at Famous When Dead Gallery, Acorn’s solo show in Melbourne, Locust Jones at Until Never. And many more. What can you do?

•    Not photographing the ‘little diver’ stencil by Banksy in Cocker Alley before it had silver paint poured over it. I walked past it so many times, always thinking, ‘yeah, I’ll take a picture some other day’. Strange how something becomes part of the cityscape and then – gone.

•    The Victorian State Government’s new anti-graffiti laws. Perhaps 2009 will bring some greater appreciation of street art in Victoria – but I will not be holding my breath.

•    The Bill Henson debacle. So many people should be ashamed of their roles in this business. And its aftermath continues, with new, incredibly strict, rules governing the production of images of children.

•    All those times I didn’t have my camera with me when I came upon some amazing image on the wall.

This is the last post for 2008. Back in a few weeks.