It’s not many people who receive a commissioned artwork as a graduation present, especially one that is based on the topic of their thesis. How privileged am I!
beneath the pavement, the beach is the title of the work made for me by artist Kate Riley.
I had already admired Kate’s luminously detailed series of prints on paper that she called flotilla. Here are blue bottles (Portuguese men o’ war) stranded on the beach by a receding tide, their long tentacles drawing inky loops across the wet sand. So when Kate was approached by family members to create a work especially for me, she found inspiration at the intersection of our interests – the eyes-down scavenging for traces of life (and death) as we stroll along deserted beaches or busy streets.
Kate, it transpires, had enjoyed reading the post on my blogsite called Flotsam and jetsam. In that post I quoted author Tim Winton on the pleasures of beachcombing, because I found in his description strong resemblances to my own practice of combing the pavement for graffiti.
This is what Kate wrote to me:
‘I decided I would like to explore the “beneath the pavement lies the beach” idea … This segued beautifully into a consideration of how to use the structure of the work I had chosen, the small wooden boxes. By using both sides of the boxes I could use beach/ bluebottle/ seadrift imagery on one face of the box and pavement imagery on the other. The boxes can then be arranged and rearranged as desired. Using the ‘back’ of the box, as well as the front, also allows a push and pull of the surface that I find rather pleasing, and is suggestive of pigeon holes and display cabinets.
‘This piece is now a record of two of my favourite places and two of my favourite walks: the beach on the south coast of NSW on which I grew up, and the streets around Newtown where I live now. To build up a store of Newtown pavement images, I used the same process I used for my beach walk drawings:
‘I set aside a set period of time for a walk where I use my i-phone to take quick images of anything that catches my eye. In the studio I can then select and regroup the images to create a satisfying arrangement that captures the spirit of my walk. I know from your blog that you use the same, or a similar, process.
‘The ‘beach’ side of the work captures a moment in time. By the next tide the objects on the beach will be completely different. Any seadrift or bluebottles left will have dried, lost their colour and vibrancy. New marks and patterns will have emerged.
‘In contrast, the ‘pavement’ side is a glimpse of the layering of signs and markings that build up over time. Marks both intentional and meaningful (survey marks, messages official and unofficial …) and marks serendipitous and accidental (rust, cracks, wear and tear …) lie next to and over each other. Objects found there may be fleeting, but others can be (almost) permanent fixtures.
‘Both sides were collected as virtual beachcombing to make a gift for you.’
Thank you Kate, and thank you to the family members who commissioned this most beautiful surprise. Thanks also to other family and friends for your gifts, both lovely and silly, your good wishes, and your company on what was the best graduation day I have ever had.
(beneath the pavement, the beach: charcoal pencil, pastel pencil, powdered graphite, ink, gesso and acrylic paint on seven wood panels, two of which are 15 x 15 cm, three 10 x 10 cm, and two 10 x 5 cm)
My WordPress avatar is a pedestrian traversing the asphalt. Despite a continuous battering by passing traffic, you can see that my pedestrian still has a burning heart, thanks to an implant by the 90s band Junglepunks.
I have met many such pavement people since I began my graffiti project way back in 1999, but I seem to have only mentioned them once on this blog site. A desire to revisit them has been prompted by some of the photographs in a new little book by Phil Smith, Enchanted things, where he writes:
‘The pedestrian figures here were all intended by some designer as generic representations; yet to the glad eye they display their eccentricities, amputations, stretch marks, wrinkles, prostheses and rearrangements. They serves as memento mutabis (“remember you will change”), a reminder of your body as unfinished business, inscribed into its path and subject to all that passes along it, a history made on the hoof.’
In this photo-essay Phil, an ambulant academic at Plymouth University, UK, urges us to undertake an ‘experimental pilgrimage without destinations’ where disfigured pedestrian figures are just a small sample of the absurd, ironic and accidental artworks in the urban landscape that, if we take the trouble to notice them, will rearrange our attitude to the world.
My Sydney pavement pedestrians serve to confirm that walking in the builtscape is no simple matter. They don’t need Phil to tell them they should LOOK, LOOK RIGHT, LOOK LEFT. But even if they have an opinion about what they see, they are made to shut up. It is sometimes permissible for them to manifest their gender or age status, but more often than not they are stripped to their naked genderlessness, a mere shadow of their supposed selves.
Although exposed to assault from all sides, they can hardly complain they weren’t warned. Even so, when cautioned to THINK BEFORE YOU CROSS and STEP SAFELY they generally decide to make a dash for it. Some do so with a defiant display of insouciance but others are so terrified by the traffic they jump right out of their shoes.
The more purposeful striders who stick to the footpath find they are obliged to share their way with cyclists and sometimes even elephants. Hidden trenches and falling manhole covers are additional hazards.
Casualties are high and many pavements are haunted by the remains of hapless pedestrians, last seen in healthy condition maybe twenty years ago, now reduced to making ghostly appearances from between the cracks in the asphalt.
Like my flat mates, I find it hard to keep up with Phil’s ambulant ruminations. Nevertheless, the next item on my reading list is another recent book by him, larger in size and no doubt equally challenging. It’s called On walking … and stalking Sebald and its cover features an array of pedestrian figures. How could I resist?
Smith, Phil, 2014, Enchanted things: signposts to a new nomadism, Axminster: Triarchy Press.
Smith, Phil, 2014, On walking … and stalking Sebald: a guide to going beyond wandering around looking at stuff, Axminster: Triarchy Press.
In February and we are supposed to be back at work. Holiday time is all over. I didn’t go away for the holidays, but we’ve been lucky enough to have beautiful weather in Sydney and there’s plenty to do here – beaches, parks, entertainment venues. I had a good time.
For instance, one evening I went to a children’s ballet concert at the Seymour Centre in Chippendale.
On another day I visited a corner of Sydney Olympic Park and did some bird-watching round the mangroves and water bird refuge.
And on a blazingly sunny day I drove to the Manly headland and looked out over the Cabbage Tree Bay Marine Reserve.
That crime scene body outline. It’s all over the place. I can’t get over the pervasiveness of this simple graphic – as if its invention satisfied some yawning gap in our visual vocabulary. I’ve written about it before on this blogsite here, here and here.
I also devoted a section of my thesis to the body outline. And that’s another thing that’s all over. During the past twelve months I finished the thesis, it was examined, and I have received notification that I have ‘satisfied the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at Macquarie University’. I am only a graduation ceremony away from becoming the real thing.
The project was called Pavement graffiti: an exploration of roads and footways in words and pictures. With that done I am looking ahead to the next thing. So the blogsite Pavement graffiti might be all over, too. I’m thinking this could be one of my last posts before I start a new blog.
The Festive Season is upon us and, in response, the blizzard of pavement markings in Sydney’s central business district has taken on an appropriately merry appearance, with designs based on traditional Christmas colours.
A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald about ‘Sydney street scribbles’ goes some way to translating what these symbols indicate about the pipes and cables buried beneath the pavement. However, here is my alternative translation of the photograph above, taken on the corner of George and Bathurst Streets.
It is a double manhole or service cover, cleverly decorated to represent a Gingerbread House covered in snowy frosting. There are fairy lights draped on the roof and hanging by the window and front door. The chimney, in the shape of a Christmas stocking, also has fairy lights. These are focussed on a point in the sky (E9-1) which may be interpreted either as the star in the EAST, or the route Santa’s sleigh will take on Christmas EVE.
The ELVES who live in the manhole gingerbread house have festooned it with codified greetings to Sydneysiders as they go about their daily work. E1, for example, stands for EXPRESSIONS of cheer to each and every one of you; E4 means EVERY good wish for the New Year. F10 is an interesting one. It reads FORGIVE us for any TENsion or aesthetic discomfort we may have caused by making such an unholy mess of Sydney’s bluestone footpaths.
The 1950-60s television courtroom drama, Perry Mason, is said to have been the first detective show to feature either a tape or a chalk outline to mark the spot where a murder victim’s body had been found. The body outline made its first appearance in the episode ‘The case of the perjured parrot’. The writer of the show, Erle Stanley Gardner, had actually used this idea much earlier in the book, ‘Double or quits, which he wrote in 1941 under the pen name A.A.Fair (see Perry Mason TV series).
Ever since then the body outline has not only been used regularly in murder stories and television shows, but it is very often adaptively reused in illustrations alluding to all sorts of crime and fatality. It is a symbol — based on a fiction — that is continually modified, re-invented and re-purposed. We recognise it in newspaper cartoons, TV commercials and political protests and we understand what is meant.
In New York I came across two instances of the symbolic body outline, both associated with the New York Public Library. The first was in an exhibition, Why we fight: remembering AIDS activism, which recently opened at the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. One of the exhibits was this poster from the library’s archives. It was produced in 1988 by ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), a deliberately confrontational organisation that was formed to challenge government inaction over AIDS.
The other body outline was on one of the plaques along the section of 41st Street known as Library Way. These sidewalk plaques carry inspirational quotes about reading, writing, and literature. The one I photographed reads:
… a great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading it. William Styron (1935 – ), Writers at Work.
To me, the embossed illustration on the plaque seems very odd. The reader of the book looks, not exhausted, but dead (presumably in a hiatus between two of those ‘several lives’).
On 42nd Street, near the New York Public Library, I spotted fresh chalk notices. Of course I had to photograph them even though I didn’t get a chance to read them properly because it was the evening rush hour and the sidewalks were crowded with people on their way home from work.
Then I noticed there were more police about than usual and suddenly I realised there was a protest march coming down the avenue, timed to disrupt the maximum number of people. Marchers were confined to the sidewalk and were accompanied by a phalanx of police motor cycles in the kerbside traffic lane. It was quite a sight.
The issue was the ‘Robin Hood Tax’ or, more properly, a Financial Speculation (or Transaction) Tax. Supporters of such a tax maintain it is a way to raise funds to meet human needs, like protecting public services, tackling poverty and dealing with climate change. The date was 17 September, the two-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street.
It was good to see a strong showing from Occupy Wall Street. The previous weekend a small group claiming to be Occupy Wall Street was occupying space amongst all the weekend goings-on in Union Square. Their presence was not very impressive.
Tunnels are favourite locations for graffiti, not only tags and ‘writing’ but also creative — though unofficial – public artworks. The ephemeral nature of these makes them more interesting than the durable commissioned murals that are sometimes painted or tiled on tunnel walls. However charming or sophisticated the official works might be, they can become boring for people who pass that way day after day.
In Antwerp there is a pedestrian tunnel underneath the railway line between Centraal Station and Berchem. It has several artworks painted, pasted or projected on the walls, floor and even the ceiling.
Naturally I like the zebra crossing, given my interest in the symbolism of crosswalks. Perhaps, given the amount of bicycle and even motorcycle traffic in the tunnel, the artist had in mind that pedestrians needed assistance to cross safely from one side to the other, should they wish to do so. Or perhaps the artist wanted to encourage people to go against the flow, although going against the flow in this case would only bring you up against a brick wall.
My thanks to Duncan, a fellow participant at the Visual Methods Seminar at the University of Antwerp, for finding this pedestrian crossing for me. Thanks also to Alan for demonstrating the use of the crossing for the photo.
Apart from the Scallop Shell Trail for pilgrims I found another, less permanent trail on the footpaths of Antwerp. On Molenberg Straat these stencilled chickens and arrows led … where?
I think I might have found the answer on a sticker attached to a mooring bollard in another part of town. It is advertising ‘Ceci n.est past une galerie – a unique dinner concept’. Apparently this is a nomadic ‘restaurant’ where a small number of people share a table to eat, converse and view artworks in a private studio or house. The stencilled chickens I saw must have led to one of these locations. But was it the current one?
In some of the streets and squares of Antwerp I have spotted what I thought were brass cockle shells fixed to the cobbles.
A colleague explained what they meant and I have since found out more about them. The scallop shell is the emblem of Compostela pilgrims. Scallop shells on the ground guide them on the various routes that take them to the Way of St James, which leads to Compostela in Spain where the remains of apostle Saint James are supposedly buried.
Pilgrims whose route to the Camino de Santiago de Compostela takes them through Antwerp can visit the main sights in this city by following the Scallop Shell Trail, which runs from Saint Jacob’s Church to Saint Julian’s Inn (Sint-Julianusherberg) where they can find overnight accommodation.
The University of Antwerp, where I have been taking part in a summer school is scattered over a number of buildings, new and old, in the narrow cobbled streets near the centre of Antwerp. It just so happens that the building where most of the classes were held is directly opposite Saint Jacob’s Church.
In my next blog post I will reveal another footpath trail in Antwerp.
I am writing this blog post from Antwerp in Belgium, where I am attending a Summer School in Visualising Urban Culture. Before I left Sydney I did a quick scout around some local streets, to catch up on any pavement graffiti I might have missed.
I found this body outline in a back street of Camperdown. A number of graffiti artists have utilized the walls of this closed-down factory building (now being renovated, presumably into desirable inner-city apartments). I don’t know why one of them turned their attention to the asphalt, but I like this chunky body on the road. It exemplifies my arrival in Antwerp. I hit the ground running and have been flat out ever since.