Tag Archives: History

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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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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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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