How do you document a scene? Melbourne / Brisbane: punk, art and after

by Estelle Tang , April 19, 2010Leave a comment

Image: Performance by The Boys Next Door with Jenny Watson’s “An original oil painting (black & white) (For Nick Cave)” at the Crystal Ballroom, Melbourne’, 1979, photograph courtesy John Nixon

In Martine Syms’ Bad at Sports review of North Drive Press #5 – an annual art publication that manifests as a cardboard box of interviews, text and multiples from contemporary artists – Syms catalogues the box’s contents: ‘from a Bart Simpson t-shirt to a photo of Damien Hirst’s penis … Aurel Schmidt’s faux cigarette butt, a three-dimensional translation of her detritus drawings’. While North Drive Press grants the Christmas-like promise of surprise to its beholder, it can also, as Syms notes, ‘act as both an archive and a fanzine’. With reference to How Do You Document a City?, a documentary made by Matt Keegan (one of North Drive Press’s founders), Syms suggested another name for North Drive Press: How Do You Document a Scene?

How, indeed? In Melbourne><Brisbane: punk, art and after, David Pestorius attempts to do just that. Pestorius was himself a participant in Brisbane’s punk and new wave scene, and as such, Melbourne><Brisbane features a wealth of intimate artifacts evoking that time. I’m barely old enough to remember the later part of the eighties, so the exhibition’s 1975-to-1985 timeline seems mythic to me, as do the names of the artists whose work appears in it: Howard Arkley, John Nixon, the Saints, the Go-Betweens, Nick Cave, the Birthday Party.

There’s plenty of beauty and immediacy in Pestorius’ documentation. A highlight of the exhibition is an early set of Eugene Carchesio’s matchbox sculptures, which sit in a quiet grid. The familiarity of the materials used to create them forges an easy alliance between the individual sculptures’ isolation and the set’s dynamism. Then there are the zines featuring interviews with bands and hand-‘illuminated’ letters: the capital ‘G’ of the Go-Betweens is set within fineliner scrolls as if the first letter of the Book of Genesis. This becomes a poignant detail when its painstaking DIY aesthetic is juxtaposed with what follows: a transcript of an interview conducted by the hapless David Nichols with Grant McLennan of the Go-Betweens and ‘Mr. Pierre’, a musician and contemporary of McLennan’s.

Grant: I wish you’d ask me some specific questions David.

Cos if not turn off the tape and we’ll have a conversation.

The overlap of art and music is central to Melbourne><Brisbane. Though I usually find musical exhibits daunting – the conspicuous self-sequestration, big headphones, the clunky, awkward towers of audio equipment – Pestorius has overcome this problem by mounting small iPods around the room. These are loaded with playlists, which are pleasurably amenable to non-committal sampling. My favourite is a sampler from Anti-Music, an alternative music collective formed by John Nixon in the late seventies, featuring artist–musicians who created, according to Gail Priest in her Experimental Music: Audio Explorations in Australia, ‘ephemeral, non-object-based music, where concepts such as ‘product’ or ‘audience entertainment’ were rejected in favour of art as everyday activity’. At times impenetrable, and at other hypnotic, the Anti-Music pieces speak of artistic practice that is local, immediate and social.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the exhibition is how personal many of its components are. Many of the items come from private collections, and it is these that enable Melbourne><Brisbane to document a scene, rather than an era. Jewel-tone cassettes with esoteric titles – ‘early forced audience 1975’ and ‘ad hoc illusion; starlings’ – record hyper-personal allusions. The screenprinted-plastic-clad cassette magazines are things of analog wonder – take a look at That Striped Sunlight Sound for examples of these publications. And though these objects are beautiful, their emotional meaning can only be approximated by the casual viewer.

It’s not the carelessly scrawled set lists that eventually attract my emotional attention, nor the band t-shirts in XL sizes. While the zines are promising, and in perfect condition, they’re stuck in pine troughs and covered in glass. But it’s thanks to the humble mix tape that I experience a moment of having smashed through the glass (figuratively, of course) of the display trough. Playing on one of the wall-mounted iPods is a re-created mixtape that Grant McLennan once made for Brett Colquhoun. Some of the inclusions are expected (The Left Banke’s ‘Just Walk Away Renée‘), but it’s the oddball choices that strike a nerve (Dolly Parton’s ‘Do You Think Time Stands Still’). The track listing plastered to the wall makes listening to the ‘tape’ a non-choice. It’s a you-and-Grant moment: of course he didn’t make it for you; but it’s just like he did.

Melbourne><Brisbane: punk, art and after is on at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne University, until 16 May 2010.


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