MODERN TIMES  : Then and now

Chaplin’s legacy to the future

If there is one danger to being a comedian , it isn’t failing to make people laugh but rather  failing to make people listen. Charlie Chaplin is rightly considered a comic genius. Whilst others use his template for laughs, he frequently used it to make us better humans. Beret wearer’s love Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and good for them. Metropolis is a very disturbing film, Modern Times is disturbing and funny a feat not easy to do. Long after the icing sugar of it’s pratfall’s wear out there is a sense of cognitive dissonance that isn’t as easy to shake off. Humour is a hard balancing act, too pious and you become schmaltz, too many guffaws  and you make a lot of money. I understand why others go that route. Not Chaplin, not modern times.

Modern  Times  challenges  the  audience  to  reassess  their  position  in life. A world of machines within machines.  Those that do not fit the stereotype like the Gamin are left at the fringe of society to etch out an existence. Perhaps they are already beaten, but in this isolation they still assert an enviable sense of freedom when compared to those  shepherded  into the mainstream. The  Gamin  is her  own woman,  in  possession  of  a  creative  mind  that  helps her  to  provide  food  to  the  rest  of  her family.  After  her  father  dies  the  Gamin  experiences  modern  city  life. In  this  world identity  is  lost  within  the  mechanics  of  bureaucracy. Modernity can provide an infrastructure for a way of living but  in the end it is only one way.

Technology  is  the  model for  the  way  life  should  be. Unlike the ramshackled homes of the Tramp and Gamin it is an ordered existence.  The  factory demonstrates  how  technology  provides  stability  and  security  for  its  workers. The implication is that by working within these structures humans will be alright. But as the Tramp shows, there is an inherent nature within everyone to “buck the system” no matter how hard we wish to be integrated into it. Sometimes the results of rebellion against the machine are benign, others are dire. The  Tramp  falls  into  the  mechanics of the factory  and  is  carried  back  out  again unharmed.  The  Gamin  falls  into  the  mechanics  of  the  modern  city  and  is  lucky  to  escape.  This is not happenstance as the factory itself is merely just a tool and not implicitly the villain. It’s the attitude of the world in which technology resides that  is the true evil. The production  line  deals  with  metal  components,  modern  life  is  manipulating  flesh  and  blood.

The  construction  of  Modern Times  echoes  the  film’s  themes.   But  unlike  the  world  of  Modern  Times ,  Chaplin  is not  attempting  to  satisfy  the  audiences fantasies.  Chaplin  does  not  want  to  be  consumed  like  the  Tramp  in  the  early  part  of  the  movie,  he  wants  his  audience  to  take  a  step back  and  observe  the  inner workings  of  the  film, he  wants the  audience  to  engage  with  the  subject .   By  jumping  from  soundtrack  to  silence, the  audience  becomes aware  of  the  technology  of  the  cinema. Alarm  sounds  draw  your  attention and instrumental  passages highlight  the  action  sequences.  The  highly  anticipated  scene  of Chaplin speaking  for  the  first  time  is  controlled  totally   by  Chaplin.   Rather  than  being  coerced  into  a  momentous  speech  about  the   perils  of  modernity ,  this  visual  comic  brings  the importance  back  to  his physical  abilities.  By  singing  a  non sense  tune  Chaplin  has  rendered the technological  importance of this new sound system  obsolete.  The audience must   search  like  the  characters  for  what  is  important in  the  life  of  the  film, rather than  merely  follow  along  like sheep. In  Modern  Times    Chaplin  stands  in  the  midst  of  technology  and  places  human  individuality  throughout it.

In much the same way as the Gamin and  Tramp  are  the  symbolic  children  of their time so are we evocative of the early 21st century. Like a true visionary Chaplin’s tale is the same seen through the eyes of  Henry Ford mass production or Face Book style social media. We are  still human beings  and our needs remain unchanged. But a universal dream of a comfortable life will always come at a cost, and that comes at the price of who we are. The  Tramp  leaves  the  security  of the  production  line  and begins  to  fashion  his  own  identity  in  modernity,  he  loses  the  overalls  of  the  factory  worker  and  adopts  the  bowler  hat  and  cane  of  the  tramp.  In a world fashioned and filtered more and more frequently by what a computer thinks we will like there is an increasing sense of generic opinion. It’s harder to have rough edges as these cut down who your audience might be. There is rarely a sense of ambiguity or “Trampism”. Chaplin’s Tramp is unfazed by his prison stays. It is frequently easier to by confined by a world gone globally acceptable, than to live aside from it.

The  Gamin  and  the  Tramp  meet  at  a  cross roads  of  their  lives,  both  are  developing  in  the modern city.  They  dream  of  a  life  like  everyone  else,  a  good  house  and  a  cow  at  their  door.  The  concept  of  an  easy  life  is  fantasy to  them. The Tramp  finds  the  idea  amusing  but  takes  it  more  seriously  when  he  realises  what  the  dream  means  to  the  Gamin. The world has never stopped being hard to live in, however in the 21st century we’ve made it that much easier to edit out the bad bits. Whilst  the  Tramp  has  begun  to  forge  his  own  identity,  the  former  free  spirit  of  the  Gamin  dims. She  experiences  soft  beds,  nice  clothes  and  fresh foods.  The  Gamin  believes  that  by gaining employment in a nightclub   she has found a way  to live in modernity. Work  will  provide  her  with  an  opportunity  to  be  like  everyone  else. The Tramp realises otherwise.

By the end of Modern Times Chaplin  has his couple  ’spat’ from  modern  life .  It is the petulant side of Modernity that is never publicised. It’s the update you don’t take up,  or the contact detail you leave blank. Had the film been released today both the Tramp and the Gamin would have probably been rundown by a steamroller.  A suitably nihilistic ending contrived via an online focus group of like’s and dislikes. We demand control over our world and believe we have it via technology. Keep that thought in mind next time you get caught in a thunderstorm. Chaplin’s ending  is no less happy go lucky.   The pair walk off into the distance, “Smile” is played and we are left to our own conclusions. For all intents and purposes their relationship probably breaks down with the Gamin heading back to the city to work as an escort. We don’t know, but Chaplin’s reiteration that humanity is flawed and far from certain is a win anyway.

 

 

 

 

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Museums in the age of Lego

To engage or not to engage…..

If you can find a person who doesn’t have a smirk on their face at whilst building something out of Lego, chances are that person doesn’t have a face. It is the king of toys, and has provided generations with their first glimpses of science, art and architecture. So as a museum attraction it has to be obviously a “no brainer” . Perhaps, but also perhaps not. Increasingly used  by museums as a way to engage broader audiences and increase their relevance factor amongst “the kids” it is a highly seductive tool. It’s a known commodity amongst parents in a way that perhaps “steam engine” or “mineral collection” no longer is. A guarantee that travelling 45 minutes by train and forking out a fortune for lunch at a buffet meant for unsuspecting tourists is a worthwhile event.

For museums too, it is a way to provide an accountable revenue stream against varying audience flows of Probus and foreign language groups. So everything is great on that front as well. But for me a museum fan, it is a worrying sign that many institutions have given up on their mission statements and collections. For a start it screams apology “sorry folks we are really boring, but look we have Lego “. Secondly it is a lazy curatorial tool. Why make your current content engaging when every six months you can have a Lego exhibit and tie it loosley to your theme.

A key selling point of these exhibitions is the influx of new audiences into institutions. But what is the point, if adjacent exhibits don’t meet the entertainment demands for these audiences. Essentially what the institution is doing is creating a seasonal interest that may or may not carry forward into the future. There is little in the way to educate fresh museum audiences about the museum environment. Instead, counter intuitively audiences transfer external expectations onto a museum that it is no different from a children’s creche.

As a museum our core role is to educate. It doesn’t have to be strict or formal, but we owe it to the public  to regard the arts as special. Heaven help a staff member if they try and ask a parent to politely refrain from using that Nubian sculpture as a piece of kiddie gym equipment. My love of  museums stemmed from my early family experiences, interaction with parents and friends within the context of the exhibits. I wasn’t left to my own devices as my father used the experience to check his mobile phone every five minutes. It’s not that museums cannot be enjoyed, but the exact opposite. Museums are multifaceted and should be for everyone. A visit to a museum these days as single person is to confront screaming masses of parentless kids , who believe that because they bought the family pass it’s open season on everything.

Lego  is a great way to engage young imaginations. But like everything, how it is used within the concept of a museum will influence how an institution is perceived  by the public.Great, “build it and they will come….and perhaps look at our other things too”. Not necessarily.With most museum visits lasting an hour or so, there is precious little time to actually explore the place that provided the Lego. So people walk into the museum, see the Lego and walk back out again. If you quizzed many of the guests leaving about these particular institutions mission or history you will largely draw a blank. The world is sadly full of museums who thought that they were being engaging but actually sold their own collections short. If anything perhaps more curators and administrators should play with Lego to develop their own creativity, and develop fresh ways for institution collections to exist outside the box.

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The other half

Yoko Ono and the modern art audience

Today contemporary art is common fare for everybody from hipsters to grandparents looking for a place for a “nice cup of coffee”. It is so far into the mainstream that whilst it will on occasion stir up controversy, it is generally greeted with applause or at worst a shoulder shrug. It is part of the furniture, but it wasn’t always the case. Indeed up until the 1990’s contemporary art was still seen by many as the prerequisite for pitchforks and burning pyres.

It’s 1969 Television, the audience in the David Frost show has just had an exclusive preview of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s new record Two Virgins (1969). You can hear the blue rinse drying in the studio. Yoko then hands Frost a gift, Box of smiles (1967). Frost tentatively opens the box, only to see his face reflected in a mirror.  Frost laughs and so do some of the audience. A little victory.

It’s way back in 2013 and the Yoko Ono retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney collects dozens of such victories for Ono. This is an Australian psyche changed in part by both Yoko and that other  guy John Lennon. Their notion of democratising the arts may have seemed quaint to both 1960’s art literati and tv hosts but it was a movement that actually worked. I’m here at the MCA, recovering from a broken heart and an attempt to get a free catalogue. It’s an essay of 40 years in a changing art world, its title War is over (if you want it) (1969) is an apt centrepiece. The most familiar of Yoko’s collaborations with her husband John Lennon, “War is Over” is seen in a variety of permutations. On the exhibition catalogue the text is placed against the back drop of clouds and sky.  Crimson toned bill posters illustrate the phrase on some Sydney streets. These new representations amplify the double entendre of the original’s black text on a white back ground. Cast against the motifs of heaven and faded blood, there is a sense of ambiguity. They reflect  both death and peace. Or is it just me emboldened to look a little deeper?  “It didn’t stop the war”, I can hear my old art lecturer sneer. He typified a segment of the arts establishment, who (to paraphrase John Lennon), prefer the intellectual manifestos that nobody actually reads. If Ono and Lennon did not achieve peace in their time, they arguably changed the way contemporary art is approached by audiences in mine.

Art and thinking is a great idea, but with not everyone coming from the same back ground in philosophy, history or metaphysics it can often be to a limited audience. Yoko and Lennon may very well have invented contemporary art education on the David Frost show, empowering people holistically not just to be morally aware, but culturally familiar. Today contemporary art is part of the everyday milieu. Ono’s role in this change has gone largely unrecognised. For despite the lampooning of her work over the years, Ono’s persistence has seen the public develop a way of reading her works that other artists would be envious of. You don’t need to be Lennon to see the link between Spike Milligan’s conceptual comedy of a brick wall driven at speed and Yoko’s Balance piece (1998), a large electromagnet pulling your world to the left. Both show an optimism in the face of adversity often lacking in establishment approved artists. This is not an isolated case. Both Ono and Lennon’s personal lives are better analysed than the history of Australia, yet the piece My mummy is beautiful (2004) is an interactive work that positively reinforces the role of the mother in society for everyone.

Whilst the value of Yoko’s early work fits neatly into the Robert Hughes category of “The Shock of the new”, their true value now rests in their familiarity. Apple (1966)Painting to hammer a nail (1961/1966),the Flux films Fly (1970) and Bottoms (1966-67) have been seen in hundreds of Beatles books and films in vignette form. But here witnessed in full, our knowledge acts as an icebreaker in a larger conversation. With Cut piece(1964) The original notion of who is being unveiled through the cut of scissors still exists, but like War is over (if you want it)(1969) the passage of time feeds the message back on itself. This is heightened with two filmed performances, one of the original in 1964 and a repeat in 2003. It is a dialogue between artist and public. Ono is watching us, watching her, watching us, watching her way back when. Something unimaginable 40 years ago. In 1993 when the Simpsons paid tribute with an Onoesque character ordering the beverage of a “plumb dipped in perfume served in a man’s hat”, Moe the bartender accepted the request as de rigueur.

Flash forward not from the 60’s or 90’s, but 2013 into 2017.From then to now I had to buy the catalogue from the MCA, I still have it.As for my heart other things have filled the void. As for Ono she is ironically decried today for not being “cutting edge enough”. Perhaps, but there’s a lot of miserable people in the arts.The contemporary art world owes her a debt for piquing public curiosity. Contemporary art is cool, Ono was one of the figures that made it that way. Get over it art purists. Today a lot more of us will unknowingly be tempted into the mystique, raising visitation figures and filthy lucre at the door.  P.S Don’t forget your box of smiles.

Elements of this article were printed in Artlink magazine in 2014

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Art imitating life

Who actually writes history?

I am always a little wary when the terms “proper” or “scholarly” history are bandied about, usually in tandem with the terms “facts” and “unbiased opinion”.  In January 2014 there was a little political controversy in the UK regarding the use of the Blackadder TV series as a history aid.  It brought into the spotlight the role of the arts in conveying historical meaning. Apparently when it comes to history the arts suffers from being biased and avoiding the “facts”. For me as an outsider it seemed little more than an official distraction. There is a universal trait amongst politicians to raise an emotional issue when they want to take your silverware to the pawnshop. Nevertheless it did raise a heated discussion regarding what we merit as “real” history and what we do not. One academic lampooned Black Adder as being written by people who “weren’t even there”, strange when the same can be said of most history. One notable history TV presenter  expanded by  saying that whilst the British War poets and  Shakespeare were all good and fine in their place as “art” they were not up to the grade as history and should be left out of the equation. That made me mad, which as an arts lover and history fan is not a good thing to do. For me all history is an act of creativity. Unless you are content to stand in a muddied field and point at a piece of pottery, we all develop stories of the past.

Whilst it would dubious for me to state that King Henry the eighth had a superfluous nipple and rode a unicycle to work each morning, much of what we see as “history” is a created impression drawn from an assortment of knowledge. Look at any recent documentary on prehistoric earth and absent is an old man in a grey suit discussing the thigh bone of a T Rex. Instead we are presented with incredible CGI interpretations of the past. Beyond the photo realism is something that is ultimately a piece of somebody’s imagination. Whilst we have some fossil records our knowledge of prehistory is lacking in even the most rudimentary super 8 “Zapruder” style footage. Many of the best prehistoric archaeologists create their narratives by using inferences from contemporary animal behaviour. This is because the prehistoric evidence is unavailable.  Is this somehow bad history? Should we miss out on any insight into the past because it is based on an alternate form of observation other than physical artefacts? History is a created journey. We should treat its narrative as ongoing and use this as an opportunity to explore the past rather than pigeonhole it.

Society likes to treat the past as a hard and fast linear concept engraved in stone and full of “facts”. The power in history is that it defines our present. Start playing with the past and it is easy to have an identity crisis. History is often used as a validation for what we do today. This is ok if it means buying more milk, it is a little more problematic when it comes to global politics. Our perceptions of seemingly unequivocal events are as different as our fingerprints. There is not only “the truth”, but a variety of them.

In Australia during the 1990’s there was a history war between the left and right sides of politics. The cause of the conflict was the notion that Australia was taking a “black arm band” approach to its past and nullifying much of its Eurocentric heritage. Historians from both sides went into battle like wizened knights in old suits. The result? Not much really. History scholars still ply their same individual viewpoints, which at the end of the day are supported or nullified by the same supporting bodies. There are similar ongoing heated debates surrounding the interpretation of history across the world. Into this maelstrom the troubling concept of history being somehow bias or judgement free is re-entering the cultural consciousness.

There is a need to be seen somehow as historically “right”, even if there exists more than one viewpoint. Many people write history, but the notion of what history is valid is a closely guarded secret. There is still a perception that good history comes from somebody wearing a Harris Tweed sports coat or at the very least the inner workings of a mystical government department. An official position legitimises the past, somehow making the version we are given more reliable than others. My old WW2 history lecturer once decried a presentation I made as “waffle”. He may have been right but he also argued that whilst there had been a second world war, Germany was not really involved. I wonder what influenced Dr Gunter! The past is as ambiguous as the present. Even with contemporary events it is often hard to recognise that you live in the same city, let alone country or world as the news. What ties us in with the disparate occurrences down the street or across the globe is not the actions in themselves but our human reaction to them.

Artistic license gets a bad name, it is seen as somehow a manipulation of the “facts”, I would suggest that art is a response to them. Perhaps Monty Python voiced the perils of history interpretation best.  The team’s Leonardo da Vinci sketch and his addition of a “few Kangaroo’s” to the last supper has served to validate some historians linear “no fuss” view of the past. Every attempt to explore history creatively apparently interrupts the space time continuum.  What artistic works do allow is a questioning of the “authorative” line of certain versions of history. Like anything they only form part of a balanced diet of the past. Whether it be Blackadder goes forth or Shakespeare we explore between the lines of evidence to the human foibles that create history in the first place. Try and reconstruct what you did yesterday based on a single email or text and you get a very bare bones view of the past. But look into the emotional, human circumstances of that day and suddenly even the most innocuous receipt can suddenly have meaning. History superficially seems like a unique circumstance. Yet to understand historic events, we end up dealing with the often repeated every day life we are all familiar with. Perhaps that is what frustrates the hard cases.

History studies need to be based in reality. There are very good primary and secondary sources to study and explore. But the evidence should be seen from a variety of perspectives, challenged and examined. Whose history is it anyway? We all can claim a stake in the past. The arts provides a useful starting point. Swords rarely just swing in an up and down motion, there is fear or hatred in their intent. There is more thought in the creative process than simply “making it up”.  Creative works provide an alternative analysis to be explored, not the definitive answers. Where the “truths” exist in history is in a broad range of sources, not the outright dismissal of one because we don’t like the authorship or get the jokes.

This originally appeared on the “History vault” website in 2014

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No school like old school

Timeless technology

What’s the same now as it was in 2010? DVD rental is history, My former employer no longer exists and the woman I once loved is now married to another man. Yet I am typing this draft on the original iPad, a device  released in 2010 but relegated to obsolescence  a few years later.  Despite this, it is a device I have belatedly grown to love.

It wasn’t always the case.Like many I jumped on the bandwagon with the beloved iPad 2 in 2012. Even just 2 years after it’s initial release the original iPad seemed old and clunky compared to its more svelte bandmate. Apple must have thought so too and a plethora of new iPad’s would evolve almost yearly, sometime twice yearly from their studious Chinese work shops. Big ones, little ones , faster ones , ones with retina screens and they all had camera’s. The problem with every one of these new pretenders was that they only improved incrementally on the quantum leap of the original. Back in 2010 I owned the iPad’s key competitor , it was a net book. Largely forgotten now net books were smaller versions of laptops, diminished in every way except for the weight of their battery. In those days we convinced ourselves that net books were good, they weren’t . They made personal computing small enough to give you a hernia. They were slow and inconvenient to use, everything in comparison the original iPad wasn’t.

So several years down the track did the original iPad decided to become slower and less functional? In the words of Obi Wan Kenobi “No, but we were made to think they did”. Most naysayers point to schematic diagrams and flow charts on speed. They  might even do a side by side comparison, but that means nothing to me. The iPad I am typing this on can process documents, play music and allow me to watch video’s in a tap. It doesn’t give me the slow wearisome grind of my much younger Windows 8 laptop. For my world back in 2010,Steve Jobs got it all pretty much  right. He created a portable device that  does everything I need, and that’s without a camera!  Whilst newer iPad’s  have loads of features, they inevitably cover up the fact that they still do exactly the same thing. Which is fine, but whilst they have gotten bigger and faster I haven’t. I have no calling for a device that can encrypt itself so deeply that I need to consult an Enigma machine to help me open it. Better screen definition, quadruple multitasking or a keyboard that speaks to me in a sultry feminine voice are great. But they mean little to a man with dodgy hearing, dim eye sight and slow reflexes. True, newer iPad’s offer a stunning aesthetic, but all that glistens is not gold. Many is the tale of woe that befalls an older iPad user upgrading their barely compatible device for the appearance of an new iOS that drains all their performance away. Whilst this is up for conjecture, the original iPad frozen in iOS 5 may be less modern in appearance, but is entirely usable.

The iPad series also marked an evolution in design and job opportunities for third party repairers. Whilst Apple can rightly boast the feather like weight of it’s new devices, this has come at a cost. Let me introduce the law of workplace physics, portable devices hit the ground at varying speeds all the time. Bags are stood on, tempers flare, generally anywhere outside a science lab a tech device will get into trouble. The original iPad was masterpiece of Apple over engineering, housed within a spacious aluminium case.  It is heavy like a book not a brick and I will happily challenge any iPad pro user to a duel with our units. The iPad I am writing this on was bought on eBay and looks as though it was dropped from a moving car that may have been  on fire. Put a cover on and it could have come straight out of the box.Take a tumble on the bus or at a train station and see how it works out for your device.

The only negatives to owning an original iPad is it’s lack of processing memory and that you do have to be mildly savvy about what apps are available for your device. In my case I have a good archive of apps from my iPhone 4 days that work well. For the time being Apple also still has it’s core productivity apps available as legacy downloads. Funny how a version of Pages from 2012 does word processing which is ironically the same thing newer versions do.The on board iTunes still works great for organising music and video content. Web browsing is not too good due to memory constraints but for most other issues you can usually find an easy work around.  Not bad when considering you can usually pick up a 32gb cellular model for a sixth of the price of a contemporary incarnation. I am not trying to dissuade you from buying a new iPad, just suggest that there is room in the market place for the original, or a new version of the classic!  If you want technology that doesn’t talk back the original iPad is for you too. It chugs along, just touch it and go.

 

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Stop making sense (redux)

Remembering Flugelmans Dobell Memorial

I am not an art critic. I am not an art academic. I have not, cannot and will never wear a black beret in public. I am just a passer-by.

From my childhood in the early 1980’s to my young adulthood in the early 1990’s, I passed by Bert Flugelman’s Dobell memorial sculpture in Martin place, Sydney. Arguably created by public works architect supremo James Barnett’s GPO building, Martin place was once the hub of the Sydney CBD. The banks were there, the politicians were there and for a time so was  Flugelman’s sculpture.

Formerly a thorough fare for cars, buses and ANZAC day marches the area was redeveloped into a three sectioned mall during the 1970’s. Like fondue parties, malls were very popular back then. So too was public sculpture, the more abstract the better. For Bert Flugelman, it must have seemed like a match made in heaven. Winning the contract to devise a sculpture for the Dobell Memorial in Martin place in 1979, Flugelman’s work immediately drew controversy. For many Sydneysiders the work involved a fair amount of head scratching. It is a structure, made of metal cubes rising several metres tall.  You cannot squint your eyes and hope to recognise anything, unless that anything is an elongated reflection of you and your bicycle in the polished metal. But like the Harbour Bridge, and Opera House before it, what the public don’t understand immediately they simply rename. The “Silver Shish Kebab” was born.

Slightly less accommodating were those “in the know”. Lloyd Rees critiqued its choice of location as cluttering up the mall space,  Sydney Lord Mayor Frank Sartor wasn’t exactly thrilled about it either. But Martin place was the very spot where this work needed to be.  It slowed life down. Like a crest of an iceberg its  multiple levels of polished metal cubes reflected not only the city but inferred a life underneath. Pertinent when considering beneath your feet was Sydney’s underground railway.  A mirror of life that didn’t only suggest the obvious but rather how Sydney life was put together in a mixture of commuters, beggars and thieves. Not a a bad tribute to Lloyd Rees when you think about it. This self-reflexivity represents the good part of the 1970’s, the spiritual quest part so often blurred by legends of hedonism, Barry Manilow and fondue parties. From the 1980’s onward the world got a lot faster, Martin place changed too. The banks merged and the politicians moved away. Clothing stores and coffee shops moved in.

There wasn’t time in the city for people to reflect on anything anymore, we had to move forward with the Olympics. By 2000 the Bert Flugelman sculpture was moved on. For a while it lay proudly in a council maintenance yard covered by a tarpaulin. It now sits on a traffic island in the shadows of a nearby street. No longer reflecting upon life, it observes it from metres away.

Upon hearing about Bert Flugelman’s death a few years ago, I revisited his work. Icon of the 70’s?  Perhaps not. “Silver shish kebab” it’s not that either. The Lloyd Rees memorial is something more resonant. It is the ultimate art folly. The fractured fading mirror that we can’t bear to look at anymore, but can’t get rid of.  Take a look again, it is worth the price.

*Since posting this article I have also become aware that Bert also did the NSW Coat of Arms sculptures, in the old NSW State Office Block,Sydney. Built in the 1960’s demolished in the 1990’s. I wonder where they are today, probably lost….. Typical when it comes to Bert’s art.

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Stop laughing, this is serious

Humour and the art of the taboo

 I think we need a reality check from the mind police. From Ned Kelly’s famous “such is life” one liner to the drunken skunk at the bar making blonde jokes because he can’t get laid, humour will always vary from the pointed to the pathetic. To guard against what should or should not be laughed at doesn’t make society a more moral or just place, it denies what we find difficult to accept. Regardless of whether you laugh or cringe it is the community that imbues the joke with its meaning.

Is there anything we can’t laugh at? Sure. Please excuse me as I burn my Charlie Chaplin collection. Chaplin may be quaint and inoffensive in all his jittery black and white glory to me, but if you look at his work through the market segmented lense of the 21st century b/s he could also be considered racist, sexist, heightist and inconsiderate to men with erectile dysfunction. There will always be those who can find something distressing in humour if not for themselves then at least on the educated behalf of someone who hasn’t had the chance to form their own opinion. Let me get my flame thrower out and the pyre building commence.

British humorist and game changer Spike Milligan lamented that in the 1990’s they were making comedy with no jokes at all. Milligan was never afraid to highlight in his work that “this is a joke”, fully aware of the intellect patrol. Humour is the double edged sword. It is meant to offend, but in balance not purely for the sake of offence. In an era of political correctness we tend to forget that comedy is a lot more than a procedure to induce laughter. It allows us to explore our position on a range of issues that we would otherwise consider taboo. I am not saying we should always laugh at sensitive issues, but I’d also like to be able to make the choice. Some will see this as the gateway to more sinister leanings. Making a joke immediately demeans the seriousness of real issues leading directly towards racism, sexism and the downfall of moderate society. This is a valid point and would be true if you were a mindless idiot. For those of us in possession of opposable thumbs a good joke makes us question ourselves and a bad joke the other person.

There used to be an intellectual skill in dissecting comedy. Study one of Shakespeare’s plays and you will usually devote half a university semester to how the jokes were constructed. True this does tend to ruin the comedic effect of Macbeth and makes it a bad date night event. The sharp wit of Peter Cook in any of his guises would be lost on many today. We no longer have the courage to unpack serious comedy and instead rely on a plethora of unambiguous fart jokes because they offend fewer people. Bill Hicks must be relieved at times to be dead, the comic that once questioned a waffle waitress’s negative opinion of reading probably wouldn’t be too surprised that since his death even fewer people want to look at the world as complex and problematic.

The 21st Century is preoccupied with being flawless.  Apparently everyone is special in their own way and we live in a boundless utopia of folk songs, hand holding, and vegan cookbooks. There is no longer the notion of the next door neighbour, but rather our Facebook friends. Sorry dreamers, real life exists outside your door not on a streaming internet channel. Check out the early Billy Connolly during his 1970’s “Glasgow Messiah” phase. Far removed from his fetish with prostate exams Billy candidly joked about the brutality of growing up in 50’s Glasgow. Back then he was met with roars of laughter from audiences that shared a similarly harsh background. It is arguable if Connolly could do the same set list today without offending a wealth of academic’s using it for their post graduate thesis. Today we can pick and choose our pet peeves and irritants. We don’t like humour that appears to be from a foreign world, disturbing and offensive. Probably because it reminds us of reality too much, and that’s our problem.

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