Welcome back to the real world

Hello readers,

After almost a year and a bit away from WordPress, one may have gotten the impression that I have either ; a) been to prison,b)gotten married,c) gotten divorced or d) all of the above. Alas nothing so mundane. I have traveled (to Canberra twice), been involved with some arts writing and have observed the world as we know it.

I also lost my WordPress pass word and was too lazy to get it back.

So without further hesitation I will be armed with laptop, tablet and other media devices to bring you the very best writing I can offer, or at least some stuff I’ve dug up from the archives that Overland Magazine found too progressive to publish!

Talk soon

John ūüôā

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Stop making sense: Remembering Flugelman‚Äôs 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. Martin place was once the hub of the Sydney CBD. There was even the urban myth that the construction of the underground railway station at Martin place masked an even more elaborate array of tunnels connecting business with government departments. The banks were there, the politicians were there and for a time so was Bert 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 something, unless that something 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, an ongoing theme echoed later by Sydney Mayor Frank Sartor. 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 visible aspects of¬† city life, but in the context of Martin place’s underground asked you to look under the surface and question how¬† everything was put together. 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 and the Bert Flugelman sculpture was moved on. It now sits on a traffic island in the shadows of a nearby street. Not a good end to a story. Upon hearing about Bert Flugelman’s death earlier this year I revisited his work. Icon of the 70‚Äôs?¬† Perhaps not. Take a look again, it made sense then, it makes more sense now.

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Painting a nation does what it says

Yesterday I had the pleasure of visiting¬†America:Painting a nation¬†at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. It’s 200 years of American art history compiled from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts,Houston,the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Terra Foundation for American Art. For American art novices such as myself it was a revelation. The narrative conveys a message of “America” the works evoke the boldness and industry stereotypical of the American psyche. There are also moments of the less conspicuous self reflection that the American archetype provokes.Less crowded and therefore more physically accessible than its predecessor Sydney Moderns, the audience has time to wind around the exhibition without the fear of information overload. A blend of white ¬†and deep grey blue¬†painted walls evokes the sense of grand civil war mansion evolving into a penthouse apartment. So to is the feeling of the art. Whereas other countries ¬†spread their art ¬†market across society, the American art selection here seems to have one consistent theme “the rich”. This is art created by all walks of life, from all walks of life but it’s destination is predictable.One would question it’s appearance in a gallery space if not for kindly benefactors. The works are beautiful enough, but some how I feel like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel belongs more to me as an audience member. Another point, in an exhibition full of works that are big in nature,theme or scope we are treated to two of the smallest works ever made by Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. These artists are neat summaries of the “bigness” of America and American art. The “detail” of Pollock’s No 22 in the pamphlet advertising the exhibition is not shy off the actual size of the work itself. I would have gladly traded the insurance and freight of both the Rothko and Pollock examples if the National gallery could have lent Pollock’s Blue Poles for a weekend or two. Now that would have been the jaw dropping conclusion for this otherwise fine display.

Wonderful: Smiley Smile the Beach Boys real lost gem.

Is the Beach Boys Smile album, the greatest unreleased album of all time? Perhaps. The best Brian Wilson solo album and a successful box set for the Beach Boys, it needs little introduction. So much mythology exists about the project that it has displaced history for fact (it’s more interesting). Normally rational minds have danced away in the spirit of an American Gothic trip trying to explain what may or may not have caused the album’s demise. None with a finite conclusion. I love the album and have collected variations on its theme since I first heard about it in the liner notes of a Pet Sounds cd circa Christmas 1990. But ¬†since hearing the 2012 re-release of its younger brother Smiley Smile I’ve moved my thinking on a bit. The musical focus has always unfairly ¬†been on Smile, an album incomplete for forty years as opposed to Smiley Smile the album that actually appeared. Greeted by icy indifference when it was released in 1967, Smiley Smile must have sounded like a demonstration record when compared to Good Vibrations or the Beatles Sgt Pepper. It’s raw bare bones approach has little resemblance to the lush Smile sounds heard in the 21st century.Yet, truth be told Smiley Smile exerts its own worthy charm. It also disputes the myth of Wilson losing his sanity, as Smiley Smile is a carefully constructed record which prefigures emerging musical trends of minimalism later appropriated by Dylan and the Beatles. Smiley Smile was the legitimate 60’s album for all its pomp and glory, its older brother Smile could not be.

The myth makers will have you believe that Wilson voluntarily gave up on Smile, but Smiley Smile is an admission that Smile could not work in 1966. An era of limitless possibilities had reached its apogee with the creation of Good Vibrations. Analogue tape whilst brilliant in sound was troublesome to be creative with. It stretched, broke and wore out over time. Just the characteristics you don’t need if like Wilson you are creating a modular work requiring intensive editing and reediting. Wilson wasn’t the only one of his peers bitten by the limitations of the 1960’s recording studio. The Beatles faced similar problems during the sessions for Sgt Pepper when they tried to tackle George Harrison’s Only a northern song. Attempting to sync multiple tape recorders together to create more recording possibilities Beatles engineers at Abbey road ran into trouble when the machines ran eschew during mixing. Whilst the Beatles always continued to push the recording envelope it is arguable whether or not they pushed as hard at the same part of the envelope again. What Wilson achieved in two weeks creating Smiley Smile, is nothing short of remarkable. Salvaging songs, creating new arrangements and developing a coherent innovative album. Albeit, not Smile.

Smiley Smile is full of “in tape” innovation. Edits draw full attention to themselves, but on an album containing both Heroes and Villains and Good Vibrations it is to be almost expected. The device works well as a form of juxtaposition. For the most part it is the Beach Boys harmonies around skeletal instrumentation that take centre stage. Even in this format, Smiley Smile works as the druggy companion piece to the Beach Boys Party album, recorded quickly under similar circumstances during a delay in the recording of Pet Sounds. If Pet Sounds was about the rise and fall of a love affair, Smiley Smile is the confused montage of memory we all experience when who we love goes south.¬†In 1967 still years before alcohol, cigarettes and old age had diminished their tone, the Beach Boys voices are still world beaters. Smile songs are carefully measured out, no crafted Cabin Essence or Surfs up, instead Smile out takes and vocal sections are carefully compiled to fill in the blanks. Despite, all the Brian Wilson “genius” hype,¬† his actions with the aforementioned Party album also highlights a sense of commercial realism often denied by the myth makers. Smiley Smile is Brian making Smile work.¬† This is not the conceptual journey planned by Wilson and Van Dyke Parks but by this time annotated paths were already wearing thin.¬† Closer to Dylan‚Äôs John Wesley Harding and the Beatles White album. It is ahead of the moment, if only someone told us to listen.

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The medium is still worth three hundred words

You don’t get many rights as you get older. But with age comes great responsibility. It is the responsibility to tell some art aficionado’s that they are full of ….you know what I mean. It seems at times as though humanity is losing the emotional battle of artist versus medium, and trading it for the lesser more unconscious one of which artist has the biggest marketing tag line. Contemporary art is seemingly becoming less about a reaction to the contemporary world and more about artists saying “hey, look at me, I’ve discovered 3d printing”. Artists are not entirely at fault here, in a world now run by marketing departments it is tempting for¬† to jump to new media at the expense of the old. 3d printing sounds so much sexier in print than oil painting ,water colour or even sculpture. In an effort to encourage and educate the public to the joy of art through many avenues, promoting new mediums seems like ¬†a good way to capture public attention.

I am a firm believer in art for the people. I am not arguing for a return to the renaissance or the banning of photography post 1992. Art needs to be accessible to inspire us all to be more creative. This can include the use of contemporary mediums. However, it seems that arts‚Äô marketing is run more by marketers than art lovers. The focus on the trend level of a medium as opposed to its artistic merit. Doesn’t the artistic battle for the “new” in traditional mediums provide a valid promotional point for the public? ¬†Yes, it does. But tradition is harder to sell to audiences. In an era in which nobody seems to have time for anything except for themselves, old mediums are time intense. They take time to create, consume and market. Meanwhile, the arts is increasingly becoming a numbers game. ¬†But there is a method to my marketing madness. Art changes the world not only through its content but via the way it is constructed. Good art can be found in digital formats, but so can much of our everyday lives. It is the medium that challenges our mindset to focus beyond the distortion. Old mediums take us out of our comfortable interpretation zone .They are no longer the status quo, they relate better to mercury and velum than binary and hi definition. In doing so audiences are forced to actively converse with a work, rather than passively nod in acceptance.

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Dont let me down : The Beatles Bootleg Recordings 1963 debacle.

****DISCLAIMER THIS IS MY OPINION PLEASE MAKE UP YOUR OWN MIND******

Public relations nightmare, cynical marketing and generally a really bad move. I am considering all these things on Christmas Day 2013. This has traditionally been A) time for me to think of a baby in a stable ¬†and ¬†B) to open presents related to the Beatles . At the moment it’s two Beatle shirts and a book of John Lennon letters, later on it should be The Beatles at the BBC volume two.But in the midst of all this joy I am angered by the ridiculous release on ITunes of The Beatles Bootleg Recordings 1963. This has been made even worse with the rumour that Universal (The Beatles current record label) are intending to release in January a collection of The Beatles US Albums.

In the case of the “Bootleg” recordings¬†some critics have unfairly attacked the material. If you are a fan of Anthology One, you will enjoy ¬†the historic nature of the outtakes, radio recordings and rare demos. You probably won’t enjoy the price. ¬†Both UK and Australian fans have been slammed with charges close to circa $70 Australian. In an era of digital technology , with no liner notes and poor cover art this is akin to highway robbery. To put this into perspective I paid around $50 Australian for the original Anthology Two in 1996. Anthology Two was¬† the best of the anthology series featuring rare live performances and the development of Sgt Pepper. In that instance it was an old style double jewel case with liner notes and two CD’s, and I have the photographs to prove it!

Whilst I have always wanted a legitimate copy of Bad to Me, and outtakes are always fun. Not for this price. True, fans will pay high prices for real bootlegs. But this is from a legitimate source, not a dodgy geezer¬† wearing a plastic mac in a deserted car park on a rainy night. With a retail price markedly higher than any other single Beatles release (Including the comparable Anthology series) , the men in the mac’s or the dudes with downloads won’t go out of business just yet.¬†Whilst the release of this material to ensure it can still be legally owned by the Beatles is¬† a fair case, both Dylan and the Beach Boys have arguably handled recent issues from this era with more sensitivity. Looking at the upcoming box set release of the US albums is also deceptive. ¬†Already attempted using the original US masters in 2004/2006 by EMI but mysteriously left incomplete. This sounds really good, the package to even include the famous “butcher” cover ¬†and Hey Jude album. However, unlike the EMI issue which remastered the original (controversial) US mixes , rumours suggest that the newer box set will be more sonic recreation from the 2009 remasters than historically accurate. If not to make money, what is the point of these releases? As a Beatles fan, I will buy good product at ridiculous prices. But not this time. If Universal continues to market The Beatles in this way, they risk seriously damaging the brand. Perhaps I’ll put ¬†Dylan and the Beach Boys on my Christmas list next year instead.

 

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Opinion Piece 3: Almost a Christmas Carol

Finishing work early on my way to the Christmas break, I decided to give myself a treat and visit the Australian Museum. ¬†For the last few years this institution has been given a bad rap, albeit largely by me. I can’t help it, I’ve grown up with this museum and seen it go through more misguided renovations, reinterpretations and politically correct mumbo jumbo phases than I care to remember. I’m an angry middle aged man, who tends to remember when museums were less linguistically complex , but definitely more exciting places to be. You see, the Australian Museum was once a master story teller in simple narratives. This was before somebody had the idea that simply explaining our growth from primeval swamps was passe. Up until the 1980’s the museum still had many of their classic diorama’s and worked wonders in their “halls of life” ¬†using darkened rooms , stunningly beautiful glass (yes) reproductions of ancient marine creatures and the odd skeleton of an Irish elke . It was simple, elegant and could have evolved into including touch screen simulations, but this was not to be. Over the years ¬†galleries were replaced ¬†and re documented with complex narratives. Someone forgot why people go to museums, ¬†which is to get out of the elements and into their dreams. True, audiences need to be aware of how what they see fits into their world but for a while there it seemed that somebody took the pleasure factor out and put the lecture factor in. Whenever, I went to the museum I raced to what was left of the older exhibits. Sometimes, you just need time to stare at a stuffed emu or try to pronounce a mineral with more vowels than is legal. If I want detailed geopolitics, I’ll buy an Ebook. ¬†It can be fairly argued that contemporary museums run the risk of becoming amusement arcades. However, amusement to me is not the same as enjoyment. Enjoyment of a museum, does mean the generation of ideas but ¬†not everyone wants to engage in the same way during every visit.

It was therefore with a certain sense of trepidation that I paid a visit to Tyrannosaurs:Meet the family. ¬†After ¬†getting burnt by the hype of last years Alexander the great exhibition, and finding myself amongst a mass of fantastic objects lost by narration which appeared to be someone’s PhD, I was pleasantly surprised. Tyrannosaurs, ain’t ¬†no droll thesis. And that’s a really good thing. The exhibition tells the story that there is more to the family of Tyrannosaur, than T. Rex alone. It is a fantastic mix of artefacts, interactivity and reinventions on the diorama (yes!!!!). The simplicity of the storyline allows the artefacts ¬†to speak , providing tangents of enquiry. This notion had escaped the museum for some time, with artefacts playing a secondary role in some curators quests ¬†for greatness. There is an open level of engagement. I just browsed, but ¬†could have utlised touch screens or read more wall text if I had of required it. For the first time in a long while, I actually saw a range of demographics enjoying the exhibition. For the first time, in a long while I enjoyed the museum. Not because of flashing lights. Not because it was “critically important”. Simply because, the museum allowed me to dream again.

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