The Canberra Bus Stop Exhibition
In 2012, the cream curved walls of bus shelters or concrete bunkers as they are colloquially known, become the gallery for my paste-ups in what I called my Canberra Bus Stop exhibition.
In all artists lies the need to be appreciated. We don’t create in a vacuum, so to not have an audience to bounce off and give feed-back, makes the creative process rather maddening. After all, is not recognition the measure of success? Or at least that is what we are led to believe. I find success an elusive concept as well as attribute. Something the young are primed with, that wry “when I’m famous” sentiment, that can be laughed away. Now that I’m older, and seemingly no closer to any kind of measurable success, it just isn’t funny anymore. I have bills to pay and mouths to feed and I spend all this time creating art works only for them to accumulate in my studio/garage. I am guilty of not networking, of not making the most of my opportunities when they arrive and so the pattern is perpetuated and self doubt swamps self belief. I kid myself that there is some nobility in being a failed artist, but it is the sting of rejection that represents the ultimate road block. Street art has emerged in recent decades as a significant force in contemporary art expression. A movement defined by its embrace of hybridism rather than by its adherence to prescribed boundaries. The urban environment then becomes integrated in the conception, purpose and display of the art works – it becomes the new canvas. Museum and gallery art has become largely about preservation of the art object and adoration of the anointed ones. Street art attacks this idea, born of a need for artists to engage with the emotions of the audience in a direct and powerful way, uncluttered by art theory and esoteric conceptual frameworks and wearisome middlemen. It is this desire for accessibility that drives its conception. While street art is identified as being ephemeral with scant consideration for the durability and longevity of the piece, it still relies on the artefact to carry its message.
When I first came to Canberra in 2005, the bus shelters with their unique circular design were one of the signature features of the place – one of the things that helped distinguish the city from others I had lived in, Melbourne and Brisbane. I was told to expect manicured lawns, white picket fences and lots of round-abouts, apparently indicative of the political machinations in our seat of power. The thing that struck me was how small the city is. I remember passing a five-story apartment block and thinking “wow, that’s the tallest building in Canberra! Of course there is Black Mountain Tower, another land mark and veritable light house for those of us who are directionally challenged. It was quite a relief really to think that I could navigate from one side to the other in 45 minutes, half the time it took me to make it home from work in a Brisbane evening amongst the traffic crawl on Gympie road at peak hour. As for the picket fences, well there weren’t too many of those, but with a shortage of housing came rows and rows of identical display homes huddled together in new estates slowly eroding the nature reserves and remnant farm land. Every place you live in gets under your skin eventually, if only through association with significant events in life, and I’ve had four of those since residing here – four beautiful children. I guess they are genuine Canberra kids, despite my feeling of misplacement.
3am and street lights are powerful, belying the time of day. I anticipate traffic, but everything’s quiet, and in my ignorance I packed a torch and a spray adhesive. ‘Young Tree Green’ slips straight off the wall. I am feeling rather ill and am tempted to abort the expedition. I decide to return to my studio, remembering a tub of Boncrete that sits on top of a bookshelf I retrieved from a nature strip close to home. The click of the door seems louder than usual and I trip on one of the kids bikes making a hasty getaway. It takes considerably effort not to curse the bloody thing. Back at my bus stop I coat the wall, but the edges won’t stick down and the paper crinkles. A shadow catches my eye, a pedestrian – at this hour! The man’s silhouette pauses, not a hundred metres away on the other side of the road. I hide behind the circular wall of the shelter and the stand-off lasts 10 minutes, eyes straining through the gloom, playing tricks, all the time composing an explanation. Throughout the silence I became indifferent to the cold air, the diminished circulation in my legs, the shadows leaping off the bitumen following distant headlights. I look again and the figure has continued on his way, seeing things after all. Just 5 hours later I returned to the bus stop to find ‘young tree green’ missing a third of its picture surface. It felt a little like a bad review, or over heard comment in the negative at the opening, but I prefer to see it as audience participation. It is this act of destruction that is the subject here, making a point about the nature of perceived value.
Muted atmospheric evening, stars barely distinguishable from security lights and windows – the night confetti of insomniac googler’s. The blackness of billowing shrubberies on the road side loom and encroach the curb, and every second car is ferrying after a booze up. The target is unexpected, on the flat after a significant intersection – a place I drive by often. It has been a few weeks now since my last expedition, time to concentrate on developing my stencil/spray technique. Like any new medium, it’s all about taming the shrew and making it dance to your tune – bearing in mind the need for speed and accuracy. This street art business is no easy ride! Like flowers that gain an advantage by blooming at night, these pictures unfurl, with glue and sticky fingers ducking and weaving every so often to avoid scrutiny. Then in semi squat position, I here a click – there goes the buckle end on my expensive belt. Now my pants are falling down, threatening to reach my ankles every time both hands are required. I’m certain there isn’t a chapter covering this predicament in the “how to” book of street art for beginner! Now I’m a deer in the head lights…with no pants on!
It has been a dark brooding night, street glistening with passed showers and pressed flowers bearing tyre marks, lolly wrappers and bottle tops. In the sky I could barely detect clouds, crushed up toasted marsh mellows. Trees hanging down as if their leaves were made of lead, everything watered in dark treacle, rich river indigo blue and magenta mixed with black. My own contribution still wet on the wall and heading for home, a sound grabbed me and took me away from this absurd folly. It happened swiftly, the gradual approach of a vehicle on the far side of the double lane way. Noise travels inexplicable distances this time of night without the bustle to soak them up. A short sharp squeal followed by an ominous thud. I could just make out the shadowy figure behind the wheel – unharmed in any physical sense, just a dint in the number plate and to confidence. As for the Kangaroo, a mere inconvenience. It landed on the nature strip, not ten metres from a bus shelter, home to an earlier paste-up. Upon investigation after the car had driven off, almost as quickly as it had arrived, I found the animal still with a slight tremor about its body. The peeping moon reflected in its moist eye, a sad glimmer as if to say “ah – the shortness of life”. In the distance I could hear the car picking up speed along the straight, gears changing making notes, rising and falling glissando like a sob, a groan of awful mournfulness.
Under the influence of this determined mood, I ready myself to take a risk for an art idea. I’d like to think that someone will stop to think about the message – these ideas that are like weeds, or the seeds of weeds that can travel miles on a currant of air. But social and political comment can be a flippant exercise if its all about exploiting the subject – the art of shock then loses its venom quickly, the “message” shrill and tuneless. After all didn’t someone famous once say that great art need be no more than sublime decoration? I approach the task with due modesty.
Night time offers a wilderness that creeps in around street lights in patches and great waves of darkness. A great shadow that descends over the most conservative of gardens, and troubles sleepers by offering a place of refuge for the dark and unimaginable ingredients of guilt. We sleep in homes while the “boat people” sleep in makeshift camps. The sterner citizens will disapprove, take note of my number plate if the opportunity arises, and rely on a world no longer offering encouragement to refugees. This night belongs to the renegades and dumpers of illegal garbage, supposedly providing safe passage through nature corridors for kangaroos and other more timid marsupials. I decide to park in the driveway to Radford College, and walk the 50 metres to where my wall awaits. Not so clever as I’m almost pole axed by a rubbish truck on shift to empty the bins to the tune of a land down under.
On the horizon I see lightening flashes, increasing in regularity, giving the suburban vista a Mayan sense of impending doom. Mosquitos feast on my hands and ankles – an early Christmas present and there is the faintest trace of smoke – the vanguard from a distant grass blaze somewhere in the wilderness of grazing paddocks connecting the territory to its satellites. My apt flames are pasted up, a more organic approach which has opened up vast possibilities. Summer is bush fire season in Australia, invading our worst fears, and when we watch poor desolate victims standing in the blackened twisted wreckage of there home on the news report, we all sigh collective relief, that is not us.
A branch falls in the neighbouring parkland and a cat scampers across leaf mould briefly disturbing but not tearing apart this Australian silence. These paste-ups take more time than usual, constructing the image piece by piece and heightening to some extent the addictive rush street artists are reported to experience. The bus shelter has become my studio in this instance not my gallery. All of a sudden having taken my photos, I hear a calamity down the street, an argument has spilled onto the road bringing recriminations and hostility the sought unique to love affairs of a malevolent nature. She calling him for everything prefaced with expletives and he, conciliatory now, following the initial rage and hole in the wall no doubt. I can make out only a few words, what sounds like ‘new big heart’ stays with me, probably an ill fated reconciliation…
The subjects of rising sea levels, coral bleaching and glacier loss remain prickly topics for discussion. Everyone has an Aunty Mary or Uncle Bob belonging to skeptical society, and then there are work place associates with a pet hatred for greenies. But the science is irrefutable, surface-temperature records; satellite data; ice-sheet borehole analysis; measurements of sea-level rise; glacier melting and observations of permafrost loss all point in the same direction. The planet is getting warmer and the effects could be catastrophic.
“The Peacemaker” was the original title given to an ICBM missile eventually designated “The Peacekeeper”. Developed in the early 1980’s and deployed in 1986 by the US military , it could carry up to 10 300 kiloton warheads. This image dates from that era, and is based on sketches for a proposed work by my father Peter Benjamin Graham (1925-87). This is the first of a series of ‘stealth homage’s’ I plan to stencil around Canberra as an adjunct to my bus shelter instillations. “The Peacemaker’s” belonged to a series of intricate and terrifying depictions of post-nuclear devastation named ‘paradise destroyed’. I remember him with drawing board on lap, completely absorbed, making these line drawings, the weight of the subject reflected in his eyes. These pictures deserve to be seen, even in my semi-representative form, I hope to do them justice.
At a party, someone’s joining the 40’s club. I’m tempted to say I beat you by three weeks, as if it were a race and not something I’d rather forget. It’s 35 degrees, and I’m standing next to a sandwich press employed to sizzle sausages. The conversation at hand is enough to raise a sweat alone. I have offered my services as an assistant caterer, a neat segue into kitchen sink chitchat. Evening is drawing in and most guests have drifted deeper into the garden. A halogen globe has intensified the light surely revealing skin blemishes and the sparkle of sweat. The conversation skips from culinary staples to school zoning to weekly travel arrangements. All common ground, when I can admit to sharing the same Merry-Go-Round. I prefer to let the details swirl around me like the presence of an under toe preventing my surfacing. It’s better to be immersed in the thing that doubles as subject matter. A child close by plays with the doorbell. A minor irritation at first, becoming something more. I can feel my heart palpitating in unison to the chime. The mother is preoccupied, contributing to the conversation, though she manages a sideways glance in mid sentence, considering in the depths of her mind whether or not to claim ownership of the rascal.
“So what do you do?” – I really hate that question. Why should it be so hard to frame an answer? I used to be good at framing things – pictures mostly (when I could still be bothered with an angle cutter and mount board). Now I say, give me a bucket of wheat paste any day. “Do you sell your work?” – This is the pink litmus test, if you aren’t making money, then you can’t be any good it would seem! I offer that I’m moving in the street art direction – blank faces all round. I guess this is one of those opportunities to self promote that continually eludes me. That’s what I like about this bloging caper, self-promotion without the odors, fashion foe pars and foot in mouth disease. I change the subject to politics – case in point! My wife later remarks that I sounded like a first year Uni student on a rant, fortunately she adds “in a good way – one of the things I love about you”. My learned companions extend tolerance to my impetuousness, or at least don’t give away their amusement. Mean while, the kids have found the swings in the backyard, and my urgent assistance is required. I have plenty of time now to ponder a better response, and after 10 minutes I’m eager to get back into the conversation. “would you like to get down now Evie?” “Eh Eh!” she says with her newly acquired grumpy face on! Ah well, this is to appease the part of me that feels comfortable in Australian company, a beer, laconic humor and a sausage sandwich. Catherine looks up from the nappy bag and there she is – the face I fell for on our first meeting. She asks me something about wipes and sunscreen, but I’m thinking about the first time I drew her.
It started as a sound, reminiscent of a coffee crusher growing in intensity and punctuated by the rasp of metal on bitumen. On a night so peaceful that the winds Chinese whisper seemed almost discernable, a dreadlocked skate-boardest emerged from the gloom surely as startled as I with brush in hand. He seemed not to notice me, rolling past in the floating half-light, plugged in to a world of music – and it is a world within a world, everything seen as a video clip accompaniment, slightly distant. I thought I had escaped an inconvenient meeting, but the rider spun round before the road veered deeper into the night, and with a series languid right foot strides he again slid past my shelter. This time I had decamped to the shadows of a nature reserve, leaving behind only the tell tail glue marks where the brush had touched cement.
I have recently read several articles criticizing street artists who are now showing their work in galleries, and selling it for solid prices, sighting this as “selling out” or succumbing to the commercialization that seems to be increasingly pervasive in today’s society. I would counter this by saying we all have to make a living somehow, what’s wrong with selling your pictures – if you can? In a perfect world all artists would be recognized as contributing members of society, but the reality is quite different. Most need to subsidize their meager earnings with other employment. Besides, at the core of all this exhibiting is a need to express and communicate ideas with others. One distinction between street art and gallery art is whether or not the work was intended to become a commodity or not – there is room for both. The push me pull you dilemma still exists, whether to create the picture you think will be popular, or to follow the natural whim. Just the same, you put a picture up on a wall, you want people to like it and show interest.
“There is a certain type of person that the urban art movement has bred that enjoys the adventure as much as the art. Where else do you see a creative person risking themselves legally, financially, physically and creatively?”
Quote by New York Street artist “Workhorse”
Dragons live forever, at least that’s what the song lyric tells us, and they certainly have embellished my domestic landscape in recent times. They skewer my toes when I turn lights out – the journey through darkened toy littered playing grounds is not so much a tip toe as a waltz through a minefield. Dragon growls too seem to be channelled by my son most authentically, especially when the baby is down, or a rare opportunity to sleep in presents. Post Christmas bounty, many battles have ensued, one memorable occasion in a park after dark, where young light sabre wielding Padawan did battle ferocious beastie. Now, with the year settling in and return to work, time once more is a scarce commodity and old father time reflects in the glass with necessary gravity.
My latest paste-ups have taken time to prepare. Where once slow in conception and hasty in execution, I have returned to more traditional media and laborious approach. At first I wanted as many images out as possible, and a means to replicate them with relative ease. Now I see more value in larger more time consuming pieces because they remain in tact for longer and offer greater satisfaction in completion.
Reaching new territory filled with the kind of utter darkness that makes one fill in the spaces with an imagined view of the world, one that is ultimately spoiled by the great reveal at dawn, I set about assembling the pieces of my newest art work – a dragon, maybe puff, maybe Smaug. This is a time of day that could belong to dragons, and certainly entertains mythology in abundance, in bedtime stories lingering in dreams. The building of a myth, brush stroke by brush stroke is an endless pursuit and the parable of the success story one that needs reinterpretation and reinvention many times over. I crawl back to bed on the heals of dawn, my dragon patiently waiting to make the journey from dreams to daylight.
A camera snaps and leaves the impression of roos on the wall fleetingly. Like their road kill counter parts, they will disappear in time, absorbed to add pathos to the pavement. So I return home, answer imaginary questions – “Nothing. I have seen, I have done nothing”, and log in to a world of fine spun lines and visitations by anonymous parties, a world I feel exists but that I can not yet corroborate.
Art practice is like a hunger that diminishes you if left unfed. At its core it remains isolated, a being in of itself but also meaningless without an external connection, a context. In the hierarchy of greatness, we are made to fear, to self-doubt, not unlike a child daunted in the face of skill, crushed by not achieving a likeness. The best lesson is that you never stop learning, never reach the summit. The creative journey is a way of life, of educating the senses, not of collecting accolades.
The Kangaroo became of common subject for my father after he spent two years living in Alice Springs in the mid 1950’s. He worked as a solid plasterer, his father’s trade, and would paint and draw secretly in a Nissan hut on his days off, spied on by aboriginal children through cracks in the iron, giggling to reveal their presence. It was during these years that he gained a deeper appreciation for the Australian environment, and through the people he met and the places he visited a vision became distilled – an insight into the interconnectedness of all things.
As a child I was informed of the existence of Kangaroos through the paintings that furnished our walls. Around the dinner table, fables and parables would unfurl under influence of bubbly (miniature flutes for the children), coming from a memory place behind twinkling eyes – the places my father had been, the ghosts and the indelable friendships made. Above us looming larger than life on the wall, “Kangaroo Paddock” with its blazing palette resonating still with the desert heat, always from somewhere else yet so utterly local. It is now on my own living room wall, a puzzle for children to interpret a new, and the much coveted prize, to find the fifth kangaroo.
The mysterious, faceless art worriers of the night protect their true identity in a way most Hollywood super stars can only dream about. But is this true anonymity? There is a long tradition in the arts, that being the adoption of pseudonyms – a name, a character that becomes the public profile behind the private person. Every artist has their own reasons for attributing their work to a fictitious name. In literature male pseudonyms were used by female authors in order for their writings to be taken seriously, in the time when gender equality languished in the dark ages. Even as recently as the advent of the Harry Potter saga, the authors name was promoted with invented initials, because it was believed that popularity amongst boys would be compromised if they knew the books had been penned by a woman! It is common place for actors and musicians to choose a name that reflects the style and content of their professional persona, it’s usually called brand marketing and there are fewer brands more recognizable in the art world today than that of legendary street artist Banksy.
He was still dazed by the studio lights when he drove off into the darkened streets. The humidity following rain was oppressive and the slippery, inhospitable glimmer of the road reminded him of the lure of homely comforts. The journey was swift, punctuated by hesitation at each set of lights where doubts settled to nest momentarily. At that time of night, a journey that by day was no less than 20 minutes, could be achieved in little more than 5. The taxis continued picking their way unconcerned by the presence of the shadowy loiterer and his equally shadowy painted companions. Best laid plans soon turned into a mess of glue and fragile paper sticking together, ripping, the turn of a finger snapped at the knuckle, a head bowed beyond the natural limit of flexibility. The bottom heavy paper kept folding in on itself, and as the glue soaked in, the joins weakened and the drenching sickly light mixed with the thick air to diminish his resolve. The thought did descend, to abandon the project, screw the bloody thing up into a pulpy ball and pitch it at the rubbish bin, already laden with beer bottles and takeaway rappers. Should have turned the car around after all he thought, but he was stuck up there now with the slow drip drenching his cap where it had seeped through a prominent crack in the concrete above – and even when someone walked on by, the struggle was all-consuming – he didn’t seem to notice anyway. After an hour or so, one last effort to smooth down the paper cyclone fencing seemed to work and to his surprise, something respectable had been cobbled together out of the looming disaster. He returned home, relieved though unsettled, and slunk into bed at a ridiculous hour, his phone telling him that his alarm was set for two hours 30 minutes from now, and the prospect of a nine-hour shift to follow.
Spinning side to side on a wheelie chair in some sought of fog, trying to dredge up a good idea. Call it inspiration, some intangible aura like perfume that passes deeper into the night blown by truckies on their 2am run. The washing machine chimes in telling me its cycle is done. Art also runs a cycle, following the scent until the brain is purged of all good ideas, false starts, small steps forward and artifacts that are diminished with later scrutiny. Good art works are born out of need, and the expectation that the new image springs forth from the embers of the old. The conclusion of the cycle cures the original need, so is it any more absurd to paste them on a wall than keep them in a folder? Besides, the kind of pictures I’m doing now are different to those I commit to canvas. Related yes, but abiding by different rules and considerate of a broader more accidental audience. Busy as a bee line, I jump from one idea to the next as each ripens in turn and the compulsion to act overwhelms.
So why do I do it? A question I find myself asking repeatedly. To put it bluntly – street art is…well, cool (for want of a better description). It is not reliant on appraisal by stuffy experts, being judged as suitable or not for the purposes of exhibition. It exists in the world as a natural consequence of events that lead to its creation. It acknowledges that art is about communication and forming connections first and foremost. It doesn’t need that other cultural context, in order to thrive and become more than just another advertisement for some loses blog! And it is addictive, gathering momentum, trying to out do the last piece or extend it in a meaningful way. Beside the world needs more art, and I’ve never minded gazing at a tangle of tags either! In some ways, street art is the new folk art for a generation, or may become so in time – as long as it can emmancipate itself from the label and perception of it being vandalism, then it can compliment and contribute to the cultural life of any community.
A new home, we are here, almost – yet still caged and treated like a problem to be dealt with. Some invisible process continues, digging for a reason to send us back. If they dig deep enough, I’m afraid they might reach my heart, and damage all that is left of me. I came with only the heart to start again. I will offer it to them in place of identity papers with my lineage scribbled in a spiral to the core. Unpinning the paper heart, I shall then let it float on the breeze before snagging on barbed wire. Animals are kept in pens, to stop them escaping and sheep behind fences to stop them demolishing the garden. If I could speak words with wings, they would also be ripped by the sharp edges, then plummet no further than the rocks and white breakers surrounding the Island. “Will you tell me what is wrong” – he breathed – conscious of the physical process in doing so. The voice seemed distant, though he longed to embrace it, to drown in it rather than be left. Is it true that some have sown their lips together?
“If you lived in a country governed by a tyrannical regime, and your parents had been killed, and family members had been brutalised and put in prison without trial or in some cases shot without trial, what would you then do? You could not go to the government and ask for papers. That would immediately get you into trouble. So people travel without papers, something recognised in the 1954 Refugee Convention, to which Australia was one of the first signatories.
With regard to Australian policy on Nauru and on Manus Island, ask yourself this: are we prepared to allow our government to establish a regime so brutal that the terror it creates would rival the terror from which people flee?”
My kangaroo’s of a different colour, huddle together in the bus shelter. Outside we share fashion, a common journeys rhythm. We watch free to air and are appalled by the same bad 6 o’clock news stories. But inside we carry difference, more complete than any one could guess. Fixing up the placement of the last ‘roo’, I stop for a moment. The stillness of the night is like a great hovering bird, and with every set of head lights that pass, I imagine them pulling over to investigate. But they never do, they just pick up pace and in these hours seemingly immune to speed limits, a motor could just as easily be launching from its formula one start line. On the pavement behind me, a child,s toy has been discarded, defined by the artifice of its hue, red even in the shadows and half-light – it could even be a plush kangaroo, not dissimilar to one I treasured as a small boy.
To belong to a place is an alien concept for those who have shifted. You take with you an accent, a memory of home and a vague sense of being part of a general community – united in its difference and comforted by the thought that you are one of many who feel they don’t quite fit in. Difference comes as a shock. I remember first seeing an Asian child, a refugee from Vietnam that joined our local primary school mid-term grade two. I was part of a rough group, who kicked sand in his eyes and chanted ‘ching chong china man’ at first. But something about him was interesting to me, and I soon rallied the lads to adopt him into the fold. It was a great year, hunting cicada’s, star wars action figures in the sandpit, playgrounds transformed into battle fields – and in the last days of school, my new friend confided that we were the best friends he had ever had. Something had changed in me, in such a subtle fashion that I was barely aware of it.
I am told that Canberra (The Bush Capital) has changed over the past decade. From the perspective of a Zimbabwean migrant I am working with this morning, it has become less friendly, less safe. She could leave her car unlocked at the mall, the place was so small. It is growing now, eating into the very bush that defined its character and spawned its name, consuming its earth hues, the same landscape that stretches for miles, flora adapting to micro climate. Another colleague reminisced about first impressions, mistaking the entire airport for a community lounge – a place to buy over priced sandwiches and a coke for the price of a low-ball black Russian, on route to what would of course be the main auditorium. But then he was in the street and taxi rank, with the shock of the light and the notorious chill sweeping through him with a less than welcoming whisper. Coming from a mega complex in Johannesburg, the smallness of everything was over whelming, nestled amongst mountains, farming acres and a multitude of bush environs.
What now is being Australian? Is it in the menu, the colloquial quip? The parameters of the mystical fair go or In the measure of my laconic gate – G’day mate! A national identity we seem so desperate to secure has never been more elusive. Maybe it has always been this way – The elite stricken by cultural cringe and the humble Aussie, defensive of tradition to the point of xenophobia – the digger defined by his insubordination toward British rank and the veteran fiercely protective of the Union Jack in the corner of our flag, a flag many have fought and died under. We are a country in the grip of change, not weighed down in history, but striving to build new traditions all of them now saturated in majority culture, and the hegemony of the global age.
The urgency to return to my cream curved walls has ebbed and flowed for two weeks. Now my unrehearsed gesture has come to fruition and the old adrenalin rush, as fresh as that imagined head line. I chose one of those shelters that look newly painted in half light, like the monolith had just emerged, sprouting from the pavement watered by the scent of rain. Somehow, despite their truncated life, these art works seem more real by there being made public. There is a pang of sadness when the bus stops return to their undisturbed blankness, but it is a trifle and in the scheme of things, a colourful memory can be worth a thousand possessions. They offer a different reason for disapproval aside from the commuter detritus that gathers under seating or the occasional lurid remark scrawled in permanent marker – equally as impermanent. Then silence again, and the blue screen demanding some meaningful insights or shafts of wit – both eluding me this evening. But the conversations from work are louder now, and I find myself torn and distracted. My wife thought it a religious picture in time for the Easter festival, but my quieter classical conversation spanning the centuries – El Greco to Picasso, between my thumb and pinky was intended to have an almost pious respect for art traditions.
We get ideas in our head about what it means to be in control – the power that trickles down seems to feed a quicksand of emotions amongst the populace. For our politicians life is there as something to control. Something that needs to be shaped and herded with maxims of benefit for the majority whether given as truth or as fabrication – we need this war (to prove that I am as great a leader as my forbears). For the most part we don’t mind being dragged nowhere in particular, it’s the journey that counts. We also share a common satisfaction in rubbishing the elite. At least we aren’t ‘disappeared’ for doing so.
Very dark, on account of the street lights being out for the purpose of road works – I did my best
The film starts to become real and our hero (anti-hero) chokes on cue trying to balance popular elements with that, which is of interest only to him. It could be like a performance, leaving behind its atmospheric radiance to alter the environment and disrupt the lives of those who pass through the theatre – the shelter. Something surprising and incongruous such as a paste-up can cause shifts in our consciousness. Just as an advertisement is intended to work on us in a subliminal fashion while we wait for the bus. The wall is now changed, that which had had its imperfections previously committed to memory – a mark in the shape of a slipper moon; a crack like a bolt of lightening and a stain in the shape of a gingerbread man stuffed with darkness.
Surely pressure must be growing on the Australian Government to close the Manus Island detention centre. 34 children are amongst the 275 detainees being held there without adequate medical facilities, drinking water or reliable power supply. Most housing is made up of military tents with wooden floors and camp beds or stretchers. The tents are cramped and jammed together resulting in a lack of privacy, and brings to mind the dehumanizing intent of war time concentration camps. The site is situated in a low-lying swampy area and is subject to torrential downpours; mosquitoes in plague proportions; temperatures soaring into the 40’s and humidity around 100%. People are self-harming, attempting suicide and stitching their lips together as a means of protest.
The government defends this style of detention centre, identifying the deterrent effect as central to its asylum seeker policy. Plans have been made to invest a further $170 million into construction over the next 6 months. However the way this centre is being run is in direct breach of our international humanitarian obligations. Under the “no Advantage” principle, these detainees are facing an uncertain length of time in the centre, possibly years. It is that uncertainty coupled with the intolerable conditions, which threatens the mental health of everyone held in detention. The health and safety of these people is Australia’s responsibility, and given that more than 4 in 5 asylum seekers arriving by boat are found to be legitimate refugees, surely there is a better, more humane way of dealing with this situation. Subjecting children to this kind of experience is unforgivable.
“If they can’t rectify that situation straightaway, then my view is that children and their families should be returned and managed and processed here in Australia”
A statement recently made by Paris Aristotle – A member of the expert panel employed to advise the government on asylum seeker policy, which recommended a return to off shore processing in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. He also stated that safe guards were an integral part of the original plan. “They included compliance with international obligations, no arbitrary detention, the provision of legal assistance, review mechanisms, case management services. Health and mental health programs.” These safe guards seem to have been neglected in the governments hurry to detain asylum seekers in off shore facilities.
From nowhere out of darkness, the street artist plies his trade. A dog barks and a Roo leaps away from a car doing 80 in a 40 zone. Keeping to the shadows, muscles tense with determination, it’s minus 2 degrees and the whole damn town is tucked down to bed. His actions seem reminiscent of a puppet theatre, something to be puzzled over and guessed at. Leaving behind clues – a glue stain describing the art works out line glistening by moon light like the snails had shared communion. It feels good to return to the car, but still fighting the compulsion to smooth out the air bubbles once more. The night has a shape, suspended in an expectation that has come to represent this need to create by stealth, reaching those who prefer not to come to conclusions – those that live most richly in the mystery of the act.
I am being tempted by other walls around Canberra. pylons of an over pass, traffic signal boxes, and the pillars creating a covered street walk along the main road running through civic. It would be interesting to see how long the paste-ups last in that setting.
The motif of the bird in the tree stems back to 1985, watching my father paint ‘The Cockatoo Tree” in the living room. I would come home from school and have a look at what had changed that day: a turquoise sky over fiery mountains; the posture of the birds and personality in their eyes; the characteristic scrolls for roots that now appeared in my own strange interpretations. Showing the roots of the tree was a device he had learnt from his friend and mentor, Irish folk artist Gerard Dillon when living in England in the 1940’s. I developed my own story surrounding the groupings of birds, the lovers; master and apprentice; wide-eyed youth; first flight and reverie; each representing different stages of life and the diversity of relationships.
The rider surges onward, past scraggling bush from an olden Australia, left to remind us of this countries true nature. An Australia where the sombre beauty of the tall trees remained just beyond our European sensibilities, unlike the newer, tamer, partitioned version. Yet even now bitumen surrenders to its unmade counterpart on the small connecting roads joining the suburbs to townships. Then the rider comes out on forgotten paddocks and trees sloping up toward quiet hills with rocky pinnacles. Infrequent homesteads stud the bush corridor and occasionally a forlorn bungalow with rusty roofing and dark glass-less windows, followed by a vast run for livestock. Then suddenly more bush, reaching back as far as the neighbours fence line. This wilderness exists, not ten clicks from the burgeoning metropolis of Gungahlin, fragments of the past when the unvisited bush consumed vast slabs of terrain. Some say that even the thylacine may eke out an existence in the most impenetrable forests unseen for 77 years accepting the odd unsubstantiated anecdotal sighting.
Pasted up three weeks ago on a very cold night. The air had a real bite to it – a determined Doberman, Pitbull or dachshund after a badger, like the epidermis has been peeled back making one feel leaner despite layers of clothing – muscles contracting instinctively, pulling in the middle age bits. To my left, a frozen vista of slender gums cutting across a white building rising out of the gloom like a cliff face ending at a murky sky glazed with vermillion. Nice wall, an image springs to mind…a knot of branches, power lines and sleeping birds – reminds me of a canvas I once worked on.
Being alone on the dark and empty traffic way is the surest way of feeling detached from all possible sequence of events. Another life belonging with dreams and imaginings, not part of the community, that in saner moments is a mission (hence the blog, hence the paste-ups). It’s easier to entertain the urge to crusade against the natural order of things when you are painted as an outsider.
Concrete bus shelters on Commonwealth avenue are being replaced with glassy protrusions, framed in silver pearl powder coated aluminum – with a wall set aside for advertising hoardings that we are coached are an effective means of getting your message across to the community. I switched off from such advertisements a long time ago; they are a pervasive source of annoyance and a constant reminder of how presumably imperfect the un-airbrushed hoards are. I’m still waiting for a survey that disproves the effectiveness of saturation advertising, a veneer of sameness that is superficially experienced. Shame, because I had planned a series of paste-ups in the shelters, they would have been handy galleries for political traffic.
Media coverage on asylum seekers arriving to Australia by boat has reached fever pitch in recent weeks. The newly resurrected Rudd government has lurched to the right in framing a policy designed to win back public favour in the shadow of an imminent election. The ‘Boat People’ will now be moved to Papua New Guinea, and will no longer be considered for settlement on Australian shores – a policy that clearly disregards our responsibility as signatories to the refugee convention of 1951 , a document enshrining the rights of an individual to apply for asylum in order to escape persecution and violence. The relentless rhetoric has centred around stopping the boats, sighting the prevention of further deaths at sea as the justification for adopting a punitive approach to asylum seekers. Once in detention, they are invisible, shut away from the media and shut away from the dream of starting a new life. I can’t imagine that degree of hopelessness and accompanying sense of isolation from ones surrounds, where even clouds that may have once drifted languidly over home soil, now appear alien and hostile in their deluge that can only cause rot rather than encourage growth. Notions of a better life may beat on the edges of consciousness as on some invisible wall guarded by a foreign military.
Most telling is the government’s decision to withhold the names of those who have drowned taking the perilous journey (almost 1000 since 2001). While ‘Border Protection’ remains a hot topic driving opinion polls , further fuelled by a media hungry for sensation, It appears to not be in the politicians interest to humanise these people by revealing their identity. Christmas Island Administrator and former ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope recently reflected on the state of public commentary by wishing “that each of us would perhaps look at asylum seekers not as a bulk anonymous grouping of individuals, but as individual human beings that have hopes and aspirations and dreams and feel the same pain and suffer the same grief as each of us…We have a one-year-old baby in our mortuary, the child of an asylum seeker family. I wished we named [him] … I wish we humanised them. I wish we gave them that respect in death.”
As a child I was afraid of the dark – the unknown lurking in shadows, and the creeks and groans of the house changing temperature seemed to be the footsteps of invisible intruders. I could lie awake for hours, paralysed despite my bodies yearning to turn over. Then as a young adult, that fear attached itself to a more tangible concern, the fear of being alone and the prospect of a growing isolation. Now, with one type of isolation remedied, another manifests itself in a latent outrage at seeing another country descend into civil war, or the brutality that follows when ideals are placed higher than a human life. The sense that society is this organism that has ceased to obey the will of its components and as a component, I am helpless to affect its momentum.
There is an odd stillness despite the juggernaut of electioneering, and the newest shadow to fear is the coalitions right-wing upgrade to it’s already draconian mantra on asylum seekers. Now they are proposing that temporary protection visa’s be issued to anyone granted refugee status, also to be applied retrospectively to the 30,000 or so asylum seekers already residing in Australian waiting to be processed. This has terminated the possibility of them ever becoming citizens and importantly, applicants would be stripped of their right to appeal their refugee status before the Review Tribunal. Under a Liberal government, asylum seekers would be placed on a work for the dole program indefinitely and they would also be denied family reunion. In this climate of depreciating fairness, a cloud mass and accompanying balmyness are building in anticipating of a cascade of fears. The brick veneers and manicured lawns all have a brassy sheen, lulling one into a sense of satisfaction with the prosaic routines for a day. When feeling overwhelmed, one turns to the dirty dishes as a positive solution to this malaise, a duty to take refuge in.
We live in a world full of beauty, but mostly, we shit all over it! I tune in to the conversation while curling around the suburbs on the evening bus. Tree tops touched with pastel colours, and everything else gradually fading to form an indeterminate shape, filled up with deep maroon and acidic charcoal. Across from me, two youths. One, a leader of sorts sporting the hoodie slogan “if you love something, set it free, then hunt it down and kill it!”. His voice easily cuts through the engine dragging us up a slope chasing the amber. His mate more demure – the follower, the suggestion of a blush knowing that others were looking. His relief is evident when his stop arrives. The leader sets up camp next to me. Got a smoke? Never hooked, sorry. You remind me of my grand father, or a cabbie. We talk, or at least he talks at me for a while. It feels like he is a long way off, despite the odorous intrusion of tobacco breath and unclean arm pits. No contact, even with his fixed stare and six-gun words. I can discern a slight crack in his voice, as if after breaking it had been resurrected carelessly with match sticks and araldite. I remind myself that it is merely bravado, the fights and girls I’m told about and the tidbits gleamed from late night talk back – an earnest rant with a professor of the night. Still, I can find no explanation or justification for my own fierce moments. He wouldn’t suspect what a volcano I can be, not a pussy like he calls his father. A bloke that talks tough, but is inexorably pushed around by others – at work; in the pub and at family gatherings. Seriously, you look like a cab driver. He pulls my cap off and rearranges it in the style of the street. He comes out with a nugget – raspberry cordial stops you getting drunk ya know, and he states it like he has discovered the cure for cancer. Finally he exits stage left, as the doors fold to open, the other passengers exhale a collective sigh. He saunters off into the dark bumming a smoke from an old timer pushing a coles trolly, and I turn my attention again to the darkness all around. Only a couple of conifurs marking a drive way stand out, the shape of ice creams topped with street light and the hint of a picket fence – don’t see many of those in Canberra.
The message I hear over and over from media commentators, and those in my circle of acquaintances, is why hold an election at all, just let the government concede and anoint the other mob. Mobs come and go, like transitory roo’s, the alpha male meets the steel of a bumper and is replaced as swiftly as night follows day. Everyone becomes fixed in their respective positions, safe seats adjust their margins, and the swinging votes float on the breeze, blown by media discourse – vested interest between headlines. My disappointment with the incumbant government is hardly alleviated by the prospect of a rampaging conservative agenda promised by the next. Maybe I’m just tiered, but I have never felt so disengaged by the policy rhetoric. I’m not known for being particularly politic, usually either flying into an exasperated rant or becoming mute – a state conjured by my abhorrence of slogans and confidence trickery. But recent elections seem to have been marred by the so called ‘race to the bottom’, and how mean…I mean, fiscally responsible each side claims to be.
I am reminded of a most vivid, 20 something dream, stopping at traffic lights in a deserted metropolis. Absurdly obeying rules of the road in remembrance of that which is missing. The dream becomes the night all around, and I wait interminable lengths behind my selected wall with cars at stoplights despite the lateness of the hour. This dance leaves me breathless, and frustrated beyond words. The difficulties involved in this paste-up multiply, and I regret waiting until 2:30am to get started. The wall is tombstone grey, pores and turns blackish when wet. The strangeness of the atmosphere is compounded by a remarkable echo bouncing around the concrete of the over-pass, even a distant cars approach is announced by an ominous roar building in intensity until the headlights flash into sight from over a rise and then is momentarily quieted before red turns green, just meters from my hiding place. I scarcely work for 60 seconds at a time between traffic interruptions. My calculations are out and the top of my tree is too high up on the wall to reach. Even the ears of my tallest roo require me to jump off a traffic bumper to glue down. I tip my glue-pot over losing half its contents, and abandon the idea of pasting a third grass bush as I struggle to glue down the long strands of another. Then a Police car rocks up to investigate, and in a few kangaroo like bounds I find myself across the road, back against an adjacent wall, heart in mouth. Those 5 minutes felt like a thousand, my mind racing through scenarios. I picture myself taking refuge in a patch of wallaby grass some 15 meters away, as the torchlights pan in my direction. I feel hunted, and haunted and I picture myself sauntering over to make a stand in the name of art. What harm is there in gluing artwork to a wall? Especially when the glue could barely withstand the picking of a strained pinky! The roots to my tree had already started coming away from this most unforgiving of surfaces. I hear them say, “there are some kangaroos here”, and then they drive off. I return to the artwork, but can only see an irredeemable disaster. I add a few forlorn pieces to the top of the trunk, but my nerves are shot and I head for home, 2 arduous hours from my time of arrival.
During my time of street art abstinence, I often vacillated between the urge to do, and wonderment at how on earth I managed to do anything at all. Now all the doubts and misgivings are again crowding my thoughts. I toss and turn for the remaining hours before the school run, and on my return, I pass by that same place, genuinely expecting the wall to be returned to its grey muteness. Then maybe it could have been just a dream, like my 20 something imaginings, obediently adhering to road rules in remembrance of that which is missing. Instead my kangaroo tableau is still there, less noticeable than I had hoped, less complete than I had hoped, in fact at speed I’d be surprised if anyone sees it at all. Now I am glad for the traffic lights. Not at all like the rather eerie snap shots taken 3 hours prior that show a hunt, a struggle and an unformed dream.