On art, music and thoughts in between

RANDAL: I’m not going to miss what is probably going to be the social event of the season.
DANTE: You hate people.
RANDAL: But I love gatherings. Isn’t it ironic?

I enjoyed a sweet taste of alternative artistic expression on two recent occasions which made me feel better about the way things are going in the art world, and maybe even in the world more generally. It would seem that a commitment to free creative expression is still running strong outside the mainstream entertainment industry. I can therefore forget all about the stuff that doesn’t matter, and instead focus my attention on seeking out things of aesthetic value that might also tell me a bit about the inherent strangeness of the world, as did an odd juxtaposition the other day when I was sitting on the front porch with some searing Japanese psychedelic rock from the 1970s on the headphones while a neighbour sullenly wheeled his recycling bin towards the kerb – a somewhat random, yet interesting coming together of the exotic and the mundane.

Banksy slaveIn any case, I happily waded through the merely ordinary to discover first-rate alternative art in two complementary instances with potential to become worthy signifiers for a free thinking individual. The first involved a recent trip to the National Gallery of Australia to check out a documentary on Bristol street artist Banksy with the cheeky, yet totally appropriate title Exit Through the Gift Shop. Banksy’s sardonic commentary on modern culture has turned him somewhat into the Andy Warhol of the street art scene, and he seems to enjoy subverting popular culture icons by investing them with personalised meanings that might resonate with the appropriately attuned art consumer.

One pertinent example is a stencil that features the instantly recognisable images of Mickey Mouse, Ronald McDonald and that terrible snapshot of a young Vietnamese girl on fire from a napalm strike, all holding hands. This particular work encapsulates many thousands of words of progressive political thought and yet the medium itself, designed to be pasted on a wall somewhere, discourages lengthy contemplation by its very nature, and is more like a fleeting confrontation. The risks associated with the preservation of street art became clear in a recent story appearing in The Melbourne Age in which a Banksy stencil of a parachuting rat was removed by the local council. But you could argue that the risk of removal is part and parcel of creating an artwork on a city street wall, and such risks form part of the artistic appeal.

Banksy Mickey stencil

A similar thing happened in Canberra a few years back when Steve Pratt, the opposition Urban Services minister in the ACT Legislative Assembly, pulled a stunt that backfired when he invited cameras to record his apparent pro-active stance on graffiti removal. It turned out that while Pratt was puffing and panting in his weekend casual wear as he vigorously scrubbed away, he was in fact removing a sanctioned artwork. This act of vandalism subsequently made international headlines.

I mention this not so much to draw attention to patently absurd political gestures, but to emphasise the impermanent nature of street art which encourages its practitioners to aim for aesthetic greatness within a small window of opportunity, because what is up there on the wall today could very well be gone by tomorrow. But the possibility of meaningful engagement with this art is enhanced both by its placement often in high traffic areas and the subject matter itself, less likely found amongst the classics hanging on walls in the various State galleries or trotted out for blockbuster exhibitions from overseas collections.

However, it also turns out that Banksy’s works now sell for many thousands of dollars whenever they happen to find their way into the mainstream art machine, and the veracity of this is called into question in the doco through the appearance of a character named Thierry Terry Guetta whose actions are designed to mock the obscene prices that contemporary art seems to sell for these days, while also subverting notions of the artist as some kind of socially sanctified personality.

In one respect, the cultivated anonymity of many street artists helps to de-romanticise the creative act in the same way that using an inner city wall as a blank canvas democratises creativity for both the artist and viewer, and these factors bring to mind famous names from the past like Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. It is also the case that Banksy’s work invites further thoughts on the role of alternative artists to extend creative horizons within the dominant culture. This can happen through the perception of free creative expression as a democratic tool to encourage individual thought, stimulate the senses and increase awareness about the world and what happens in it. Anyway, the doco is a pretty good one about an important art form, and its title Exit Through the Gift Shop is pretty cool too. Because most us would be aware when visiting an art gallery blockbuster exhibition these days, that patrons alight from all that wondrous art on the walls and find themselves similarly dazzled by the lights and the cash register which has become a misconstrued part of the gallery experience, but that is another story for another time.

I also want to briefly mention a second encounter with a rewarding alternative aesthetic which involved a quick trip from Canberra to Sydney to check out psychedelic grunge tripsters Bardo Pond perform a set at the recent Vivid festival in Sydney, and I got to thinking that the artistic intent on offer was in some ways similar to that found in street art, but occurring in quite different environments. This year the Vivid festival was curated by the very cool Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson who were billed as bringing downtown New York to Sydney harbour.

Metal machine musicIn this respect, a number of featured artists fit the picture including Reed’s own Metal Machine Trio, a musical combination that reveals the coming together of high art and street energy and suggests the monumental achievements of The Velvet Underground remain paramount for Reed. What better way to celebrate such things than in the opulent surrounds of the Sydney Opera House? But I had turned up for the psychedelic rock experience of Bardo Pond, a band that has inauspiciously helped to transform the alternative music scene since the time Sonic Youth had shown the indie-rock kids that an opening up of punk rock to other influences reaped its own rewards when in the right hands. Since its formation in the mid 1990s, Bardo Pond has adopted the psychedelic mind/meld of earlier master craftsmen like The Grateful Dead and Hawkwind with a hefty dose of magic mushrooms and Black Sabbath bottom-end heaviness added for good measure.

This basically means the right stuff in the heightened sensory setting of the Sydney Opera House. As a brief aside, it turned out that my sense of direction wasn’t much improved by the experience and access to the venue itself was not immediately discernable. After wandering around a bit, I finally worked out how to get in, but I had this dread vision of actually stepping out onto the stage and then apologising to the band mid-song as I tripped over one of the guitar leads and fell head first into the front row while vainly trying to prevent a beer spill. Fortunately this didn’t happen, and I can happily report that the intense volume and hallucinatory swirl of the music worked its magic, particularly on some of the longer jams, and all of it beautifully decorated by Isobel Sollenberger’s lovely vocals.

It also happened that a girl exuding that simmering inner city Sydney cool was standing right in front of me, yet I began to wonder if she had purchased her evening wear at one of the many stocktake sales that seemed to bring alive department stores in the Sydney CBD only hours before, and which at first glance promised the good life as I walked past in search of a beer. The shopping mall experience might have been enhanced had there been a Banksy stencil pasted somewhere nearby which features a rather forlorn looking chimpanzee with a sign around its neck reading, ‘laugh now, but one day we’ll be in charge’. This might have made some sense but alas, no such Banksy stencil on this occasion. However, the beer was safely found, yet quickly drunk, because I had a date with the unlikely venue of the Sydney Opera House where desire was fulfilled as I invited sensory stimulating psychedelia to take hold. And this happened while gazing upon the greatest art of all, which turned out to be a beautiful girl standing nearby.

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