VERY happy to be back in my stomping ground of Melbourne.
Just love the energy of the city and the schizophrenic nature of the place over the New Year Period.
In the city's central business district, there''s a great building known as the Nicholas building. It's full of artist studios, speciality and bespoke stores, and wandering around it over these last few days spotted these remarkable pins!
When I work out who actually made them, you'll be the first to know.
Melbourne's NGV is gearing up for its next blockbuster exhibition. One which will see the pairing of current artistic cause celebre, Ai Weiwei with perennial art world favourite Andy Warhol.
You've already been given the heads up on this exhibit due to all the fuss that has been created in the last week or so. For those who have been hiding away from the web, let me help bring you up to speed.
Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei is being billed as a major show which will bring together over 300 works by Warhol and more than 120 by Ai Weiwei, with the aim of exploring their practices side by side. Weiwei, no longer passport less, but ever a parriah in the eyes of the Chinese government, had pitched the idea of creating an installation made of Lego at the space. He said the work would make reference to "Australian activists, advocates and champions of human rights, freedom of expression, freedom of information and the Internet." Presumably, by using a commercially produced object that we immediately associate with childhood and innocence, the symbolism wouldn't be lost on viewers.
Problem is that we don't live in a world where freedom of expression is as straightforward as it seems, especially in the commercial realms. There are always bigger factors at play when you're playing in the big leagues.
The story has it that Ai Weiwei put in an order to Lego headquarters for Lego pieces, with which he planned to create the installation. Lego, declined to fulfill the order, indicating that they were an organisation that steers clear of having their products used for political purposes. A few days later, the organisation announced that they would be opening one of their flagships in Shanghai. Coincidence? Anyone smell a rat?
It seems that Lego toys don't actually build anything despite the old copy lines. There are limits to expression, and not just in using squarish shapes that you have to batter into control with a mallet. Or in quashing expression in general.
But this is an age where people mobilize through social media, and picking up on the unpleasant whiffs that the story was offering, and capitalizing on the attention at the same time, Weiwei attracted a lot of support and sympathy. There were stories circulating of how people were sending him their own Lego pieces to use, and his studio in Beijing became an official collection point.
Well now the NGV, Melbourne's historic art gallery, has waded in. They've announced that as of today, visitors can pop by and donate lego pieces, by dropping them into the sunroof of a convertible which will be parked in their sculpture garden. Melbournians need to celebrate this. Why? Because it's a way of sidestepping the politics or counteracting them? No. Because it's Springtime in Melbourne, and being able to drop off your Lego pieces at the NGV is a fabbo way to get some more spring cleaning done - and to help a brother out. Just imagine it... you'll be able to go around saying that you have some artwork in the NGV!
In the end, Lego's refusal to fulfill the artist's order seems to be a win win. It will render whatever installation Ai Weiwei can fashion from the donated pieces more potent than the simple commercial exchange could ever have done.
And, NGV's support of the initiative will go someway in helping them in their quest to be seen as a contemporary venue, and not the stuffy, historical house that they were traditionally seen as.
I plan on popping by to inspect the end results when I pop over to Melbourne over the new year.
NGV press release here.
A long, long time ago, I posted about moves to protect the public mural in Melbourne by Keith Haring. That was back in 2010. Today, I happened to be doing some flicking around the net, and I came across this update in a Melbourne GLBT mag as well as a friend of mine in the society pages (again. He is always in there!).
It seems at least that Arts Victoria and Heritage Victoria are onboard and that surrounding redevelopment of the site is being done in a way in which the dignity of Keith's artwork is at least being maintained. Apparently there's a plan in the works people to help protect a bit of old skool street art.
Back in 2003, Banksy made his way to Melbourne, arguably around the time that the stencil scene there was beginning to organically peak before it developed into a mini cottage industry.
Banksy's trip to Melbourne occured at a time when Melbournians still viewed stencil art as a pesky disadvantage of their climate and of city life, long before its value was appreciated by a wider audience. Banksy has since been recognised as a bit of a genius, and where years ago people used to get up in arms about stencil art in public spaces, today people are getting up in arms because not enough is being done to protect the more infamous and better executed works. If you trawl the internets then undoubtedly you would have come across the mini media storm that a plumber generated by drilling into one of Banksy's rats. Does it count as a case of veternary science?
Melbourne has made the mistake before both intentionally and unintentionally.
Part of the problem is that we still equate value with the economics of street art. Street art is not as Melbourne City Council and the like believe, about maintaining an outdoor museum to perpetuate the big names of the scene and to capitalize on tourism; thats a happy byproduct; its about encouraging and protecting a different form of social engagement. which is often witty and visually stimulating. As with everything in the public domain, there are issues to overcome, including issues about property rights, but, its not rocket science. The latest incident is a case that could have been easily avoided, and instead it turned into an embarrassment for all involved, and a great loss to the community, because those rats enrinched their environment. They weren't merely scavengers.
Now that the weather is finally on the up in Rome, I'm starting to wake from my winter slumber and slowly getting out again and rediscovering the city.
The thing that I am finding interesting is that now that I have woken from my winter slumber, the places that are more enticing to me are places that seem to be screaming mid twentieth century; 1950s-1970s.
Rome's deeply layered evolution is well known, but we tend to focus on its Roman era or simply limit ourselves to the centro storico which never ceases to amaze.
But to me, part of Rome's charm is that its strata includes places that are only a few decades old; intact, unrefurbished.
Once upon a time the idea of wood panelling would give me the creeps. And true, I never want to see them in my apartment, but, in order to successfully capture the progressive development of design and the ambience of a city, its important that even the unappreciated design elements are left standing.
This is something that is a bit of a taboo area, particularly in my home country of Australia, where we for years, have been consumed with the idea of continual renewal, refurbishment and redesign. The unfortunate side effect of this is that it seems to wipe out entire decades that we consider unfashionable from the cities that we live in, leaving something of a gap and creating something artificial instead.
Throughout Italy's cities, big and small, establishments that have never been redecorated stand proudly and are frequented based on reputation, on familiarity, on the quality of the products they offer. When I think of a city like Melbourne, which has a relatively short history in comparison, ''hokiness'', that is the idea of something a little outdated and unfashionable sometimes is appreciated in this sense. Think of the fab Vietnamese restaurants on Victoria Street and how after refurbishment and gentrification how they lose something of their charm. Then apply that idea large scale to a city of four million and you get the idea of how charm and heritage are endangered species, that are as succeptable to extinction as any every entity in the natural world.
A few years ago I lived in Kyoto, a city which remains firmly entrenched in my heart. For most Westerners Kyoto is the picturesque Japanese city of dreams, rich in history, steeped in tradition, the home to much of the soul of Japanese culture. When I first visited Kyoto, the city centre struck me as incredibly dated, like something out of the 1960s, full of brass and chrome and windows tinted brown. I didn't initially appreciate it, but once I moved there I did, and I came to love the city as much for its Heian heritage as I did its more challenging legacies.
So now, in Rome and Italy in general, I am back on the appreciation bandwagon. I'm digging places that I will never find in Wallpaper or Architectural Digest, partly because I feel like I am being let in on a secret past, and partly because these are still functional places that pull people in and don't leave any doubts or gaps in my understanding of how the city might have looked thirty or forty years ago, classical and historical buildings not withstanding.
So next time you look for a new place to champion, look beyond the usual deck outs and seek out something a bit more real. You might find a new level of appreciation and perhaps encourage others to make do, rather than encourage them to rip the heart and soul out of their spaces in an attempt to stay relevant.
I'm writing a novel at the moment. It's taking forever to finish. The basics are that it's a story set against popular culture from the 80's through to the present. One of the problems I have, aside from the millions of things and people that are distracting me here in Rome, is that I often get lost in revisiting and researching the past trends and crazes that we communally have been swept up in during the last thirty years.
Being born and raised in Oz, the prism through which I understood and accessed music was to a large extent dominated by what reached the far shores of Australia. And then, there was a second border control in that the media; particularly radio, ensured that only the most devout music lover could truly stay abreast of what was happening outside of Australia.
Australia's musical past was dominated almost entirely by men. By rock music, by what we affectionately call Pub Rock. Right through to the nineties, the airwaves were controlled by rock acts, and acts from the old FM guard. Even at the height of acts like Culture Club and Wham! (whose visits to Australia sparked pandemonium), and later the sacred trinity of Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna, it was near impossible to find them on radio dials. Instead you had the choice of iconic Aussie acts like Cold Chisel, Midnight Oil, maybe even a bit of AC/DC or hoary old rockers from the 70s to listen to or see live.
But the interesting thing that happened in the mid eighties, was centred around the generational change that was being ushered in. Back then, Central Station, a Melbourne record store in Flinders St opened its doors, and it was one of the few places where you could find imported 7" and 12" records. It's arrival marked the first real alternative movement; the electronic one. Hard to imagine today, but back then, not only was dance music limited to a couple of locations in the CBDs of Australia's bigger cities; particularly in Melbourne, and Sydney. In Melbourne, King St was once the nexus of dance music and the club scene, alongside a handful of locales in Prahran.
With the imports and newly emerging DJ culture growing, the first of what would go on to become a slew of Electronic pop-funk groups arrived on the scene. The kids loved them- bands like Wa Wa Nee, Pseudo Echo and Eurogliders quickly amassed strong followings, even when traditional live audiences often greeted them with the odd beer bottle and 'Poofta' insults.
Most of these bands never got their dues on radio, but they were part of that new breed of artists that knew that by harnessing visual imagery; distinct looks, music videos and progressive cover art they probably stood a good chance of an appearance on Countdown which would basically offer them a bypass straight to the top of the charts.
These groups, often introduced phenomenal songwriting talents, or talented vocalists who would go on to carve out significant and versatile careers. Melbourne based I'm Talking, introduced Kate Ceberano, a precocious teenager, a buxom and then exotic beauty who had the voice to match. They had a handful of hits over a three or four year period before they imploded, but somehow, despite, or perhaps as a result of a number of counter intuitive genre swings (jazz, pop, house and funk) she managed to carve out some kind of longeivity for herself. And in doing so, became one of the few acts from that early electronic revolution to mostly remain afloat long after.
Before taking on an international persona of their own, the works of Keith Haring were once indelibly linked with the evolving graf inspired street culture of early eighties NYC.
Often bright, sparse and almost childlike in their urgency, there was something about their appeal which seemed to transcend the limitations of their basic line structures. Eventually, they would go on to enjoy mass universal appeal, on the basis of the accessible way in which the images seemed to reduce the major stages of life down into decodable and distinctly Haring shapes, such as the Radiant baby. Haring's characters were affectionate and powerful drawings that appealed to the eye whilst also addressing major life themes of love and sex, birth and death, and to a lesser extent, social warfare.
Haring, to my mind, was one of the first public faces of the AIDS epidemic that seemed to otherwise haunt the atmosphere of popular culture in the eighties and nineties. Diagnosed in 1988, he never shied away from the opportunity to raise awareness and to educate the fear out of the younger generations, despite being in the front line of one of modern life's most horrific syndromes. He founded the Keith Haring Foundation only in 1989, but by the time of his untimely death in 1990 from complications arising from AIDS, his imagery was already becoming synonymous with AIDS and HIV related charities due to the work of his foundation.
His artwork also graced record covers, including the 1987 compilation 'A Very Special Christmas' which benefitted the Special Olympics, on which we saw the Madonna and child in trademark Haring style. His imagery was also licensed to the Red Hot organisation, who used Haring's images on their 'Red Hot and Dance' compilation of 1992, featuring George Michael and Madonna.
His journey towards fame and success seemed to coincide with that of Madonna's, a friend for whom he sometimes produced work, and who in turn dedicated a fund raising show to him during the NYC leg of her Blond Ambition tour in 1990, subsequently documented in her Truth Or Dare/In Bed With Madonna movie of 1991.
Starting out as a tagger, even from the earliest periods of his career he never let mediums constrain him, working on small and large scales and in both 2D and 3D media.
The fun, irreverency and urgency of Haring's images seemed to change significance over time, more and more coming to represent modern day images of compassion, especially after the passing of his life.
Even before his death he was considered a significant contemporary artist, and to some of us, was as important to contemporary art as Warhol had been to the pop art movement.
His significance led to him being commissioned to produce public art pieces in various parts of the world as Italy and Australia. In Australia, a visit in the mid 1980s resulted in a mural being produced for the now former Collingwood Technical College building in Melbourne, an image of which is located here: (http://images.smh.com.au/2010/01/14/1038843/wbTOTEwall-600x400.jpg).
Unfortunately, the momentum which led to Haring's production of the mural with the aid of Collingwood Tech students was lost soon after, and the mural has been left to deteriorate since being produced in 1984.
Now, a growing movement (for which a Facebook page has been created: (http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=117064188315110&v=wall&ref=ss#!/group.php?gid=117064188315110&v=info&ref=ss) is seeking to redress this, raising questions along the way as to the best way in which to conserve the mural for future generations, in addition to seeking public and financial support to facilitate any conservation work.
The mural in its current state is in such a state that it needs restoration, an idea which some supporters find disturbing. To my mind, leaving and merely preserving the mural in its currently faded state is disrespectful to the legacy of Keith Haring, and also speaks of a problem that many countries have in maintaining their public art.
In Australia it seems, little is done in the way of preserving public art works for future generations. That the Keith Haring Foundation is on hand to offer guidance in addition to the technical skill set available in Melbourne seems like a no-brainer to me, however it doesn't seem that straightforward in Melbourne at the moment (http://www.abc.net.au/local/photos/2010/04/28/2884980.htm), where support is still being garnered and media coverage of the issue still sparse.
Its amazing to consider that an artwork produced for the public by an artist of Haring's calibre, in a country as unpopulated as Australia would have been left to deteriorate in the way it has been, particularly with its location in the nexus of Melbourne's artworld. Even more distubring still, is the debate as to how and if to proceed in its restoration. But, in many ways, Melbourne has a hit and miss, and occasionally, disgraceful track record with public art, which is surprising given how much cultural capital contributes to the city's identity (not to say its economy). There have been too many instances recorded where public pieces have been collected and left to deteriorate in council storage yards, occassionally re-sold to other municipalities, but mostly left to weather outdoors.
Perhaps, my being in central Italy these days, with its abundance of public buildings, artworks and areas, most of which have been well restored and maintained, has made me cynical towards the reasons behind the travesty of this situation that has befallen Haring's Melbourne mural.
In recent days, I've seen the Sistine Chapel (restored in the face of great controversy in the 1990s), the now-UNESCO listed medieval city of Siena, the Colosseum (which potentially will be partially obscured by scaffolding this year in its upteenth clean up) and lesser known structures and artworks such as that in the attached image, located in Rome, near my work, which is currently undergoing repair and restoration.
The reason I name check all of these places is not to brag at how fortunate I am to be in proximity to these things, and in the position to visit them at my leisure, but instead to point out that even if the original paint pigments are no longer always visible; even if the original structural material is now augmented by modern day techniques and matters, the spirit of the originals is still most definitely present, and leaves the viewer not with a wistful sadness as to not having been able to truly witness the original, but instead a feeling of wonderment that in the most powerful pieces of art, the divine and the physical are right there for our taking.
In turn, this continues the cycle of an artwork or monument which, was theoretically, once wanted because it had been commissioned, and is still loved because it has been diligently cared for. Keeping art alive is the responsibility of everyone, and in the case of Haring's mural, his trademark vibrancy, and lively approach to line need to be resurrected for the longterm, not merely mismanaged until there is no point of return.
Dave Di Vito
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Dave Di Vito is a writer, teacher and former curator.He's also the author of the Vinyl Tiger series and Replace The Sky.
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