Tag Archives: Sydney

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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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 making sense: Remembering Flugelman’s 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’s?  Perhaps not. Take a look again, it made sense then, it makes more sense now.

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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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