Friday, August 29, 2014

The Radiant Baby

Running east-west through the inner North, the largely commercial stretch of Johnson Street is an unusual place to go looking for fine art. But there you will find it; among the trendy cafes and retro clothing outlets, standing five metres tall over the nearby Tote, a public mural by one of the 20th century's most famous street artists.

Born in 1958, in Reading Pennsylvania, Keith Haring showed a talent for art from an early age. After high school he studied drawing in Pittsbugh, where he had his first solo exhibition in early in 1978. Later that same year, he moved to New York to study at the renowned School for Visual Arts (SVA), an event which would change his life.

The late seventies saw a burgeoning street art movement in New York City, and Haring was quickly at the centre of a group of talented, like minded individuals (among them Jean-Michel Basquiat, who Haring befriended). Experimenting with different media, drawing energy from his contemporaries and influenced by Andy Warhol and Christo, among others, Haring became determined to express himself artistically in a public way.

He found an outlet in New York's subway system, the operators of which used to cover disused advertising with plain black board. This provided a free canvas, which Haring was eager to utilise.

Creating strange, cryptic images in white chalk, often with a subversive, socio-political message, Haring's subway drawings quickly became well known. He later described his subway work as his 'laboratory', the results of which were then transposed to rapturously received solo shows in the city's private galleries. By the early 80's, Haring was famous, a meteoric rise.

Keith Haring, 1980.

Founded in 1983, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) was part of a range of initiatives funded by Victoria's then Labor Government to promote artistic endeavours in Melbourne. From a modest start in a three bedroom cottage in the Botanic Gardens - ACCA's first exhibition was aptly titled '3 Artists/3 Rooms' - centre director John Buckley was keen to make an impression on the wider community.

ACCA's original home in the gardens.

Buckley had seen both Haring's subway work and an exhibition of his while visiting New York in 1982. When he met the artist in London that year, he extended an invitation for a visit to Melbourne, with the offer of some publicly commissioned pieces as an enticement. To the delight - and, perhaps, surprise - of the local artistic community, the rising street art star accepted. Haring arrived in Melbourne in February 1984, for a one month visit.

The main project Haring was to work on was a new design for the 'water wall' in the lobby of the NGV.

While well received, unfortunately the NGV mural did not last long. Only a few weeks after the piece was completed, a bullet was fired through the wall, shattering the glass and effectively destroying the artwork. The broken glass was beyond salvage and the wall had to be replaced (The shooters motive could not be established from any of the available reference material).

Haring then made a flying visit to Sydney, where he produced another large scale work for the state gallery; this time an internal mural at the Art Gallery of NSW.

This piece lasted much longer than the work at the NGV, but was also, subsequently, removed. While in Sydney Haring, open about his homosexuality, also appeared on a float dedicated to him in Mardi Gras.

With Haring returning to Melbourne near the end of his trip, Buckley hoped to facilitate one final, major public work from the artist. As Haring liked to work with young people, Buckley wanted to arrange for the work to adorn a school, and so approached the Principal of the Collingwood Technical School, then on Johnson Street. The blank wall at the east end of the main school building was given over for another mural.

Haring's final Australian mural was created in one day; March 6, 1984.

Haring left Australia two days later, never to return.

His distinguished career subsequently took him to many parts of the world and he left large scale public works in many of them, similar to what he had produced in Australia. Always engaged with important causes and charity work, in the late 80's Haring devoted an increasing amount of his time to raising awareness of AIDS, then in its infancy as a global health risk.

An AIDS awareness poster created by Haring.

Sadly, this cause would intervene directly in the artists life, when Haring was diagnosed with the illness himself. Haring died of an AIDS related complication in Manhattan on February 16, 1990. He was only 31 years of age.

In its obituary, the New York Times called him 'one of the most astonishingly unique talents of recent times.' Among the broad legacy the artist left behind, his most famous image seemed to sum up some aspects of his short life:

The Radiant Baby. Many people who met and worked with Haring remarked on his energy and enthusiasm, much as John Buckley had done, traits that seem to be captured in the image above.

In the years after his passing, the Haring mural in Collingwood slowly faded into neglect. It's out of the way locale, and outdoor positioning, meant that while the elements took their toll, little was done to preserve the artwork. By the 1990s, the paint had faded badly, and parts of the wall had become damaged.

Victim of neglect; the mural in the 1990s.

With the Collingwood Technical School relocated, the building was acquired by Arts Victoria, who began to investigate ways to restore the work. But the assessment was both lengthy and frequently delayed, as the merits of different restoration techniques were debated.

In 2013, the Victorian Government finally appointed Italian expert Antonio Rava as chief conservator and the restoration project commenced. Cleaning the original work, and re-touching where required, the mural was several months in being restored. It was re-unveiled in August 2013, to much acclaim.

The restored work unveiled by the Arts Minister, Heidi Victoria

But there is one final prologue to the story.

When the work was first completed in 1984, Haring signed his name on a small service door at the bottom centre of the wall. You can see the spot for this on the image, above.

Shortly after the mural's completion, the door went missing, although exactly when seems to have been unrecorded. By the time it's absence was noticed, it seemed too late to do anything to recover it. The door then remained missing throughout the mural's slow decline, for 29 years.

When the restoration project began to gain pace, Arts Victoria made a public plea for anyone who may have souvenired the door to come forward and return it. Remarkably, this was successful, and an anonymous package containing the door was delivered to Project Administrator Jessica Hochberg.

Hochberg with the returned door.

The door's authenticity was verified with Haring's estate, and returned to the mural shortly afterwards. The Collingwood mural is now one of only 31 Haring murals left in the world.


Saturday, August 23, 2014

I Wanna Be Loved

In 1984, rock-pop musician Elvis Costello was close to the peak of his popularity.

His previous record, Punch the Clock, had been a critical and commercial success; it featured one of his biggest singles, Everyday I Write the Book, alongside edgier moments, like his denunciation of Thatcherism, Pills and Soap. Costello was hip, credible and popular.

But, behind the scenes, all was not as well as it appeared.

His marriage to wife Mary Burgoyne, who he had known since his teens, was faltering. And tension between Costello and his backing band, The Attractions, had been building for some time. In particular, the relationship between the singer and his bass player, Bruce Thomas, was on the slide, an issue exacerbated by the band's frustrations with the previous album.

While Punch the Clock had been a hit, Thomas felt the group had drifted too far from their roots. The clean production and accessible tunes were a long way from the raw, new wave style of the band's earlier albums.

Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas

With these different tensions in the background, the group gathered at Sarm West Studios in London to record a new record, ominously titled Goodbye Cruel World. The sessions did not go well; tensions between the band members were quick to surface, exacerbated by further differences with producer Clive Langer (who urged the band to continue with their recent, more polished approach).

Guest musicians were brought in, substitute producers hired for individual tracks, and Costello subsequently called the recording 'tense and unproductive,' and the resulting record 'our worst album.' Reflective of the behind the scenes disagreements, the content of Goodbye Cruel World was a hodge podge of many different musical styles and approaches.

One of the tracks from the new record was a cover of an obscure 1950's song called I Wanna be Loved, originally recorded by Teacher's Edition. This slow tempo, moody love song was one of the cuts on Goodbye... to get a big, commercial production and so was chosen by the record label as one of the album's singles. To support the release of the song, the label also sprung for a music video.

To create this, Costello would make a left field choice. Possibly still trying to balance commercial and artistic considerations, he selected a largely unknown, avante garde crew of Melbourne film makers, who had come to his attention after he had seen some film they had shot of The Birthday Party (then just a fringe group themselves).

Evan English

Evan English was a maverick, iconoclastic visual artist in the finest film school tradition. Studying film at Swinburne University in Melbourne in the late 70's, English - in conjunction with his classmates Paul Goldman, John Hillcoat and Chris Kennedy - established a reputation for heavy drinking and wild behaviour. Together, they were dubbed 'The Gang of Four'.

Their group's antics were at least as well known as their unusual, experimental films. In one instance they dumped frozen chickens into a lecturer's swimming pool, in another they set a school office on fire. A classmate recalled, 'They were intelligent but dumb, optimistic but nihilistic, stressed out and driven by a creative urge.' They were, effectively, film making punks and their involvement in the local punk music scene would lead them to the collaboration with Nick Cave and The Birthday Party, that brought them to Costello's attention.

Forming an ad hoc production company, The Rich Kids, English turned his attention to directing Costello's music video clip.

And true to his reputation, English proved difficult and demanding to work with. He insisted that the clip be shot in Melbourne, and so forced Costello to fly half way round the world right as his marriage was falling apart. Recalling this time much later, Costello remembered sitting in his hotel room on his own, depressed and uncertain.

For the clip itself, English had a simple, if unusual conceit.

Costello would sit in a photo booth at Flinders Street train station, with the camera positioned directly in front of him. As he sang, different people would join Costello in the booth, interract with him, have their photo taken and depart. To give it some edge, the director did not disclose to the singer who would join him in the booth, or what they would do.

The emotion of the shoot is apparent, as Costello looks slightly dazed at times in the clip, and mutters half of his lines.

But the video is a clever, surreal, highly original piece of work, and provides terrific accompaniment to the song. Costello was certainly pleased with the outcome, describing it as 'probably my favourite' from among the band's music videos. The clip rounds off with a nice shot of the station's well known entry hall, as Costello collects his photos and walks away.

(Viewing on an iPhone? Click here).

The song proved a hit as well, making the top ten in the UK (the last Attractions song to achieve this for a decade).

While The Rich Kids didn't last, Evan English continued to work in the local film and music industries, most notably with his old schoolmate John Hillcoat (English wrote and co-produced Hillcoat's remarkable prison movie Ghosts of the Civil Dead in 1988). But his fan favourite music video clip remains an enduring achievement, and a neat time capsule of Melbourne in the 80's.