Kai Melbourne…

Over the years, I’ve corresponded with people in Aotearoa / New Zealand. Almost all of them, including both Pākeha and Māori, have responded with the salutation, “Kia Ora…” By contrast, my generic response, “Dear…” or “Hi…” seemed lacking in culture. I’ve tried to counter that by including the latest weather forecast in my signature, at least to make evident that this message in the cloud comes from somewhere on earth. But that’s not a shared ritual.

Occasionally, I will start an email correspondence with “Cooee…” which does have Australasian roots and at least acknowledges my settler background. But “Cooee…” is more an initial greeting and doesn’t work for an ongoing email conversation. Occasionally I use “G’day…” which is more familiar, but it feels too closely aligned the tourist promotions featuring the happy Ocker. It’s not a term that reflects our growing diversity.

This situation has come to a head recently as I’ve been corresponding with those involved in the upcoming Moana issue of Garland. From different Pacific voices, I get a wide variety of salutations, including “Sio’otofa…” (Tonga), “Bona Marum…” (Tolai, PNG) and “Drau bula vinaka…” (Fiji).

It grates on me to reply with a pallid “Dear…” Is there an alternative? One response might be, “Well too bad, your settler heritage is all about the flattening of ritual and tradition. Suck it up!” But I’ve tried to live by the maxim of the great Southern thinker Paulin Hountondji that “culture is a project”, which balances the debts we’ve inherited from the past with a responsibility towards the future. One of the projects we have in Australia is to lessen our colonial attachments and more fully live where we are in the world. How we talk to each other seems a part of that project.

A few years ago, I started a quest to find a name for settlers like me that might correspond to Pākeha in Aotearoa / New Zealand. I discovered that there was no common name for “whitefella”, but instead quite a dizzying diversity of terms reflecting different ways in which the European intruders were greeted. The most prominent term seemed to be “Balanda”, used by the Yolŋu from a word they were given by the Macassan fisherman to describe the Dutch colonists (“Hollander”). I kept a blog Being Balanda to document this, in response to Michael King’s book Being Pākeha. But the question of salutation goes beyond individual identity to how we speak to each other.

At an exhibition opening recently, I found myself talking with Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin. I presented my dilemma to her and asked if there was a term she I could use that reflected the culture of the Wurundjeri as traditional owners of Narrm (Melbourne). She encouraged me to use the word “Kai” as an email greeting. A word can be a very special gift. Should accept it?

We’ve now adopted the custom of acknowledging traditional owners at public events. Might those of us living in Melbourne begin also to adopt the Wurundjeri salutation? The history of our settlement is marked by Wurundjeri place names, like Toorak, Dandenong, Tullamarine and Yarra. Should we consider this a continuing process? Should we eventually re-name Melbourne to Narrm? Are there other local customary practices that would be more widely adopted?

It is not up to any individual—particularly a settler descendent—to determine these standards. But it seems important that we keep the question open, so that we can move to a better future together.

So kai, what do you think?

Image of Dandenong is taken from Victoria Places

Bodies aren’t forever

I shouldn’t be writing this essay. The body as a theme in contemporary jewellery is essentially a feminist issue. All the artists and the curator of this exhibition are women. The patriarchal position of the writer is one that seeks to explain the work, rending its unnerving and rogue elements in rational form. In a feminist context, this is an obvious expression of phallocentrism, therefore to be resisted.

But the alternative seems worse. I could attempt my own kind of feminist discourse, employing a corporeal language à la Julia Kristeva. But no. This would be an exotic primitivist gesture that disavows my inevitable gender position.

I can only proceed. My concession is to say that I am not demanding of you that my text be read as an explanation of the works in this exhibition. My text is more like the otherwise neutral architecture of the gallery in which the exhibition takes place. These words attempt to shelter the artists from the business of the world outside while allowing some traffic of ideas inside and out. What happens inside is out of my hands.

So let’s do the historical stuff.

Contemporary jewellery as a modernist venture sought to define what distinguished itself from other art forms, such as sculpture and painting. A common response was to identify the body as the essential and unique element in jewellery. While most art worlds are created to occupy walls, floors or plinths, jewellery is designed primarily to fit on the body. Essentially, it should not be read in isolation as a small sculpture, but instead be evaluated in relation to this vertical tree of flesh clothed in skin. As the canvas of jewellery, the body then becomes a site of experimentation. In the 1980s, this involved an enlargement of jewellery to cover the whole body, such as the English David Poston’s life-size performance props and the Australian Rowena Gough’s Reptilia wearable paper sculpture.

The focus on the body opened up the discovery of new sites on which jewellery could be located. Beyond the wrist, finger, neck, ear and crown, artists could explore new spaces for ornament, such as teeth (Susan Cohn’s ornamented dental braces). These works raise the question of the relation between adornment and the body.

Now the theory…

The relationship between metal and flesh is a powerful dialectic. Skin is sensuous and responsive, compared to the cold inert elements such as gold, silver or aluminium. One is human, the other machine. According to this logic, jewellery exists to serve the body – to draw the gaze to it, to frame its features and to honour it as valuable. But in the longer term, the life of metal extends far beyond that of flesh. The wedding ring can exist long after the husband and wife have decomposed. According to this contrary logic, we are simply hosts for jewellery. We exist so that these vain glittering objects might be paraded through social events and admired. And when we die, a lucky few jewels can live on attached to someone else’s body, protected as a keepsake or reincarnated in the crucible to be remade as a new object.

As with any dialectic, zero-sum logic seeks some possibility of synthesis. How can metal and flesh merge? How can the process of corporeal corruption be revealed through the jewellery itself?

Zooming in to the local…

While the ‘body as canvas’ was a driving formal interest in contemporary jewellery, the body also featured strongly as content in feminist engagement. By contrast with the ideology of mateship, Australia was the country that explored most intensely the feminist dimension of contemporary jewellery, in particular the Gray Street Workshop in Adelaide. In the mid-1980s, Anne Brennan made a series of work reflecting the everyday experiences of women such as domestic duties, including necklaces of nappies on a line. Her work for Thoughts in Flesh (1984, JamFactory) referenced the female body, including pieces resembling intrauterine devices. The Ce Mal de L’Infini (1986, Contemporary Art Centre, Adelaide) exhibition included objects to be clenched between teeth that prevented the speech, evoking the violence of silence. Other Gray Street members aestheticise flesh: Catherine Truman carves models of musculature onto work and Leslie Matthews casts pieces inspired by internal organs. Beyond Gray Street, the most striking jewellery encounter with the body has been Tiffany Parbs in Melbourne. Parbs invents new forms working only with the body itself.

Across the Tasman, feminism had a very different orientation. In New Zealand artists explored third-wave feminist concerns such as the domestic. In her Strain, Grate, Whisk, Scrub series (2000) Pauline Bern made ornament out of kitchen utensils as a way to bring jewellery into the back stage world that constitutes the maternal domain. This was parallel to the exploration of a settler aesthetic that never occurred in Australia.

Now comes the zeitgeist…

So what does it mean here in 2013 to re-visit the body as a site of contemporary jewellery? This century has seen the growth of ‘the relational turn’, which involves moving away from issues of individual experience such as the body. This seems an enlightened development beyond the individualist framework and towards a shared understanding of authorship. It’s hard to fathom today a welcoming return to the romance of the lone artist. But maybe there’s occasional need to question the collective, to go against what Nietzsche called our ‘herd nature’.

The exhibition at hand…

Embodied stretches the ‘body as canvas’ in two ways. First, relationally. Suse Scholem’s opening performance seeks to crowd-source a collective experience of jewellery and her Gestaltwerk creates jewellery out of the relation between two bodies, similar to Renee Bevan’s body assemblage photographs in New Zealand. Rachel Timmins walking jewellery performances disrupt the routines of everyday life, causing public to break their journeys and make sense of this jewellery on legs. As relational element, the body offers more anarchic possibilities than the more structure participatory forms of making in common.

Then there are works that transgress the boundary between jewellery and body. Tassia Ioannides sticker performances and works directly adorn the body. Selina Woulfe’s performances erase the distance between jewellery and the body. Like the Dutch jeweller Vera Siemund’s chalk necklace, Woulfe’s Delmira rubs off on the body. While Siemund’s is designed to stain clothes, Woulfe’s lipstick directly affects the skin. Silvergraft points us towards body piercing. But this is an extension of ear piercing, while Woulfe’s work evolves out of the brooch, which is conventionally attached to clothing. Its radical nature seems to be in circumventing this layer, evoking a nakedness more bare than nudity.

And the final authoritative judgement…

Embodied seems to move in two directions – outward in the collision of other bodies and inward in the inexorable isolation of personal body. The exhibition revives the ‘body as canvas’ only to break through to the other side. Rather than consign the body a singular modernist phase in contemporary jewellery, Embodied offers up the body as a cyclical reinvigoration of adornment, exposing new directions.

You may now view the exhibition.

Essay for the exhibition Embodied curated by Suse Scholem, 24 September 2014

Who stole the Southern Cross? A cautionary tale for public art

Howard Freeman mural at end of Southern Cross station shopping mall

The best way to appreciate Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station is to close your eyes. Echoing calls for ‘Traralgon’, ‘Mildura’ and ‘Warrnambool’ conjure the image of a monumental rail hub in the southern capital of a great southern land. But open your eyes and you are in a very different world. In this ubiquitous brand-scape, every conceivable surface is covered by advertising clamouring for attention—hanging from the ceiling, around pillars, carpeting the floor, moving up escalator rails… How could this happen? And what future does it beckon for art in the public domain?

There were high hopes. In announcing the new name for the old Spencer Street Station in 2001, Premier Steve Bracks invoked the Southern Cross as a symbol for many shared stories—not only multiculturalism and federation, but also ‘democracy and freedom because it flew over the Eureka Stockade’. But there is not a Southern Cross to be seen in finally emerged. Despite being a public transport facility, the government has little control over the look of the station. Instead, the station follows the interests of a Private Public Partnership, involving the superannuation body Industry Funds Management, under the management of a private company, Southern Cross Pty Ltd.

There actually had been funds set aside for public art, but these were taken up by the relocation of the mural originally commissioned from the ‘state artist’ Harold Freedman in 1978. The mural depicts the history of transport in the first 100 years of Victoria and is now visible at the end of the extensive shopping mall, far away from the actual station. There are no plans for any public art reflecting the station’s new identity.

So what? The public has a better transport facility, and a bright new shopping mall as a bonus. Yet the story of public transport in Melbourne this century has been dominated by dysfunction, particularly violence against vulnerable minorities. The ultimate message of developments like Southern Cross is that the world is constituted by individual desires, rather than common interest.

It’s easy to forget that things could be otherwise. In 1978, the Victorian Government initiated the Transporting Art project, which commissioned 40 painted trams from artists over 15 years. City streets were adorned with mobile works by artists including Howard Arkley, Trevor Nichols, Gareth Sampson, Alex Danko, John Nixon and Les Kossatz. The program was initiated in the renaissance of public art under Rupert Hamer, which also saw the establishment of the Victorian Arts Centre, ACCA, Sculpture Triennial and Meat Market Craft Centre.

This ambitious period of cultural programming and infrastructure culminated in Federation Square. By 2001, Victoria’s public transport had been privatised, but the energies awakened by the painted trams resurfaced in a campaign of resistance by sacked conductors. Through performances like the Full Monty outside the GPO, conductors turned cultural activists argued for a restoration of human contact in public life.

Allied with this campaign, the Tramjatra project, led by Mick Douglas, established a solidarity between Calcutta’s endangered tram system and Melbourne’s transport resistance. For Douglas, Tramjatra was an expression of ‘globalisation from below’: the tram was a site of popular culture to counter homogenisation of urban life produced through advertising. Its most visible manifestation was a garish loud Karachi tram that trundled Melbourne’s city circle during the 2006 Commonwealth Games.

Apart from these renegade projects, the privatisation of Victoria’s public transport has undermined possibilities for public art. As profit-based companies, the new operators have capitalised on their exposure to the city’s mobile population with saturation advertising campaigns. This is exacerbated by the Adshel structures through Australia that offer shelter in exchange for product promotion. In Melbourne, there have been some proposals to commission artists to adorn the new tram ‘superstops’, but the problems associated with introduction of electronic ticketing have meant the government is reluctant to be seen diverting its energies on non-essential activities.

There have been some private and local initiatives. For 20 years, Melbourne’s first Artists Run Initiative, Platform continues its program for commuters passing by through Degraves Street subway coming and going from Flinders Street Station. In 2005, the Committee for Melbourne initiated Moving Galleries, modelled on projects in London and New York, which features work by poets and artists in train carriages. In 2007 they produced 1440 posters to travel on 40 trains. This is better than nothing, but it is a relatively minor presence.

There is more activity beyond the CBD. Under VicUrban’s public art strategy, Dandenong City has introduced a broad program that seeks to connect its varied populations. The Sleeper Project with curated by Ian Haig features work by RMIT Media Department alumni. Video are displayed on LCD screens on station platforms, including redundant ticket booths. This include scenes of a indigenous plans (Dominic Redfern), banality of train experience (Tawale Solote), fortune telling (Martine Corompt), a budgie-human hybrid (Zoe Scoglio) and conversations between strangers (Cassandra Tyler).

Pedestrian arteries such as under and overpasses are now adorned with eye-kidnapping images. Anu Patel, an Indian artist now living in England, produced a design for the Noble Park underpass that offers a metaphoric connection between people with a flamboyant river design. Viachroma by Rowena Martinich covers the glass overpass at Dandenong Station with splashes of iridescent paint that illuminate with different angles of the light during the day.

But such developments face a particular challenge now that public imagery now has to swim in a sea infested by predatory messages. How to break through? One particularly incisive project from Dandenong entailed turning a defunct bus depot into a series of discrete works of art. Robbie Rowlands’ contribution was to make a series of cuts through the floor to peel back its surface. The effect is similar to the sculptural work by Nicholas Jones who wields a scalpel to expose the inner tissue of books. These seeming destructive acts open up a dimension of materiality beyond the spectacle.

So how can we cut through the advertising? Given the capital at stake, it may seem hard to imagine state and local governments holding back the tide of advertising. But elsewhere under the Southern Cross, one city has radically reversed the trend. In 2006, São Paulo adopted the ‘Clean City Law’ which prohibited all outdoor advertising. Suddenly, the biggest city in the southern hemisphere removed more than 8,000 billboard sites, stripped the buses and discovered the reality behind the glossy image.

The law against outdoor advertising was enacted by a conservative mayor in order to combat the rampant expansion of illegal hoardings. As you might imagine, the legislation was denounced by the advertising industry. Some raise the spectre of old communist East Berlin as an example of how drab life can be without advertising in the streets. But the ‘clean city’ has proved a hit with Paulistas. The city’s retailers have adopted alternative strategies, including colour-coding that add to the environment, rather than distract from it. The vacuum has been quickly filled by a vibrant new street art. The distinctive ‘straight tag’ calligraphy of pichação (dirty scrawl) has recently been recognised in an exhibition at the Cartier Foundation in Paris. As local design writer Adelia Borges says, ‘For São Paulo it is a wonderful thing. The city can speak!’

We urgently need to weave a fabric on which strangers can relate together. It may be a new medium, like screens that accept text messages from passengers. Or even something, old—a state artist for the 21st century who can lend their skill and creativity to craft an enduring image of the many cultures that come to form a city. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, ‘If you board the wrong train, it’s no use running along the corridor in the other direction.’ It’s time to change trains.

Kevin Murray is Adjunct Professor at RMIT University and an independent writer and curator (www.kitezh.com). This article was originally published in Artlink issue Art in the Public Arena Vol 30 no 3.