Public Art For Its Own Sake


Whoever is Premier of New South Wales next week might well front up to a press conference on Macquarie Street and talk about getting tough on graffiti. But on the streets this year, Sydney has witnessed a huge resurgence in public art — for its own sake. We’re enchanted by the stuff because it’s ephemeral, because it adds an unexpected magic to our streets, and mostly because it’s absolutely obviously clear that the artist made it for us.

Walking into most art galleries is like walking into the backroom of a seedy Kings Cross club — you easily get the feeling you’re not welcome. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve spent some very happy half hours in art galleries. But there’s often a tension between the viewer and the work, which makes sense when you understand what’s going on. Talking art with a friend who works as a gallery curator, he explained art can be anything — a piece of software, a sculpture, a monochromatic canvas. What makes it art, he said, is a "self-reflexivity"; in any artistic venture, the artist’s investigations bend back on him or her and the project becomes something that is just as much about the art maker as the art made.

No wonder it’s intimidating walking into an art gallery. They made the work for them.

But with art on the street — from tags and pieces to cute stencils and knitted socks for public toilet blocks — it’s so obviously been made for you.

Several months ago, I saw two lanky guys duck under a chain fence strung up outside the car wash in Darlinghurst. People walk through there all the time. It’s like a bridge between Victoria Street and Darlinghurst Road, and one entire wall is basically a stencil gallery, albeit one that’s been dormant lately. It feels like the owners are trying to discourage artists with the chain.

It was dark, there was no one about, and these two guys started pulling big bits of paper out of a bag. One of the guys dolloped glue onto a giant two metre tall "J". They pasted it up on the wall, nice and high.

Next came a "U" and an "M" and a "B". Coming from the other side, there was a "P" and an "A" and a "Z". It looked like "JUMB ZAP" — which didn’t make much sense. But several days later, they returned with an "O" and the piece read "JUMBO ZAP" — the alter egos of two guys, Jumbo and Zap, who’ve been prolific, to say the least, this year.

Their man-sized work has been pasted on walls across inner Sydney, around the corner from the Powerhouse Museum (but torn down before Sydney Design this year), across from Cafe Giulia in Chippendale, just down from the Block in Redfern, over the commercial space on a Glebe billboard and a stack of other spots in Sydenham, Surry Hills and Newtown.

The two guys have distinct but complementary styles, which is good, because they often paste their work side by side. Jumbo uses vivid, solid colours, with geometric patterns and a distinct 80s style. Zap’s work has a Marvel comics touch, with much finer detail in the illustration. You’ll see a couple of character profiles which appear unrelated, but might have a speech bubble saying something like, "OK!", "Yo!", "I’m not happy but I’m not sad" or "I’m free free there isn’t enough on this ship to hold me!" Typographically, it’s wild.

Is it art? They did go to art school, after all. Or is it vandalism and graffiti? They did freak out when I mentioned their names in a radio interview.

Those sort of questions — is it or isn’t it art? — popped up again in a recent First Draft gallery show from Sydney collective Bababa International, which featured a fully functioning soap factory. Upon entering the gallery, visitors were given a bar of soap inscribed with a map, which gave directions to a nearby rooftop shower.

I’m not sure what it meant. But walking between the gallery and the shower, looking about as I went, was a breath of fresh air. These old areas of our cities are undergoing rapid urban renewal, with old school milk bars being replaced by big new developments, galleries and cheese shops.

City planners seem to think we want an urban environment that is pleasant all of the time, but cities need to intrigue and surprise. Bright and dull colours, different shapes, areas that buzz and places to reflect, and, yes, places that are threatening or ugly, are part of the urban fabric, too.

A Surry Hills laneway accustomed to nefarious activities became an instant gallery space this year when Sarah Cunningham fell out with her College of Fine Arts lecturers, and decided to make a DIY grad show.

Sarah’s two portraits hung on the wall — her William Blake inspired words tumbled down Denham Lane from the corner of Bloomfield Lane, until there were just individual letters flailing about on the tarmac.

A completely different kind of public street art appeared in Kings Cross this year. Michelle McCosker and Alasdair Nicol, who collaborate as Reef Knot, issued a general invitation to anyone keen to get together in local cafes and bars and knit their way through masses of yarn.

Inspired by guerrilla knitting crews with names like "Knitta, Please" (Texas, USA) and "Maskerade" (Stockholm, Sweden), the process of creating their show, I Heart Kings Cross, was part public art, part craft and part social event.

After several months of knitting, the group of knitters used a crane and a giant ladder to install outfits on trees and sculptures and park benches and telegraph poles — there were even pom poms hanging like apples from one tree. It was one of the most unexpectedly glorious things I’ve seen in a long time.

Despite watching it happen, and interviewing Michelle and Alasdair partway through, I couldn’t have predicted how thrilling it would be to see the final work.

Let’s face it, the odds are stacked against public art. Making a heavy metal sculpture costs a lot, you need engineers and council permits and things. It’s the sort of thing that breeds bureaucracy. But it doesn’t need to be like that.

Knitting, pasting, painting, even making soap and sending visitors out for a shower, can add a bright and playful, intriguing and entirely beguiling aspect to our cities. Who knows what it means — but it’s a breath of fresh air, and it’s made for us.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.