Will Coles (aka Numb) is a guerrilla street artist who knows a thing or two about aphorisms. His casts of consumerism’s cast-offs often bear one-word invitations to think deeply about the shallowness of present-day culture. So perhaps it was inevitable that he would eventually appropriate Arthur Stace’s single-word sermon, ‘Eternity’.
Thanks to my loyal band of spotters, I was able to find and photograph several of Will’s ‘Eternity’ drink cans this weekend. They were stuck to the stanchions of Sydney’s now defunct monorail, a train that went from nowhere to nowhere and connected to nothing. The monorail closed down at the end of June after uglifying the streets of Sydney for 25 years. Most people would say good riddance but Will had apparently found it a great space for his mini-installations. As a farewell gesture he hit it hard with his works last week, and by the time I got down to Pitt Street many of them had been souvenired while others had been damaged, presumably in an attempt to remove them.
Will Coles is an artist who straddles both the gallery and the street scene. A more dignified example of his work is currently on show at the high end of town, in a window of the Optiver Building in Hunter Street.
(My earlier blog posts about ‘Eternity’ can be found here and here, and Will Coles’s work pops up here, here and here)
Walcha is a small, neat, and sometimes icily cold town on the New England Tableland of New South Wales. A visit there on a cool (but not so cold) weekend in early November gave me the chance to do some sightseeing and inspect the town for notable pavement features. As it turned out my most interesting finds were in Fitzroy Street, the main shopping drag.
The wide footpaths outside the shops are paved with patterned concrete slabs. Very decorative but functional as well as they are deliberately designed to be non-slip.
All around the town there are public artworks and sculptures made from apparently local materials. These include several horizontal installations set into the patterned footpaths. Although they are artistically interesting, I gather that these ‘depictions’ are not appreciated by some older residents because they are not non-slip like the concrete slabs they replace.
Early on Sunday morning a contingent of Council outdoor staff was busy maintaining the roadway. One man was tracing the cracks in the asphalt by scraping out accumulated dirt with a pick.
Another worker came after him, cleaning out the dust with a leaf-blower.
Finally, the redefined cracks were filled with bitumen emulsion, leaving a kind of scribbly black writing on the grey surface of Fitzroy Street.
Being the tidy town that it is, Walcha does not have much in the way of graffiti. In fact there only seems to be one spray-can practitioner, whose few efforts are to be seen on several walls and one footpath.
A quest always enhances the experience of travelling.
‘Pavements should not be dismissed as simply utilitarian. A close inspection of Sydney footpaths will reveal that they are seldom purely practical, and never plain. There is always some decorative embellishment embedded in the paving or applied to its surface.’ So begins a recent entry in the on-line Dictionary of Sydney. Naturally I find this article interesting, and that’s mainly because I wrote it.
Footpaths are a matter of civic pride. The state of the sidewalks is an indicator of a city’s wealth and progress. For appearances’ sake local governments not only upgrade footpaths in busy areas, often replacing asphalt with synthetic bluestone pavers, but they also commission pavement artworks. This mosaic at Erskineville Station has actual tools from the former Eveleigh Railway Workshops embedded in it.
It is also civic pride and the desire to make an area seem safe and well-managed, that prompts government authorities to outlaw graffiti. In Sydney it is unusual for pavement artists to be allowed to draw directly on the paving. Usually they are required to tape down some sort of plastic backing. This artist outside the Queen Victoria Building is an exception.
There are many artworks to see in the streets of Paris, both classical and contemporary, permanent and temporary. Whether you have set out with guidebook in hand to visit a particular attraction, or whether you are simply wandering, you are bound to encounter artistic surprises even if you don’t ever visit a museum.
It was while I was on a wander that I came upon the beautiful garden of the Palais-Royal. At the southern end of the garden is the palace itself, built in 1629 (now government offices), while the other three sides are bounded by colonnaded buildings added 150 years later. These colonnades –one side open to the garden and the other side originally lined with boutiques, cafes, restaurants, hair salons and museums – are the forerunners of the 19th century passages or arcades that I wrote about in a previous blog.
I walked down Galerie de Valois on the eastern side, glancing in the windows of its expensive fashion salons and art dealers. Along the length of the tiled floor I noticed what seemed like a carpet-runner with a striped pattern in black and white. It took me a while to realise that I was walking on a temporary art installation. Notices attached to the arcade’s iron railing informed me that the work was Text(e)-Fil(e)s by digital artist Pascal Dombis. On the 252 metre long ribbon Dombis has reproduced thousands of lines of text taken from the works of both notable and obscure authors who have written about the Palais Royal, “for two centuries the most fashionable and visited place in France and even Europe”.
Sometimes I wonder whether people who write on the ground really intend for passers-by to read their messages. Similarly, I wonder whether the inspiration and effort that goes into horizontal artworks might not be wasted. As I loitered in Galerie de Valois I did not see one person look down at the ‘carpet runner’; and even as I moved about taking photographs from this angle or that, no-one looked to see what it was that had caught my attention. But then perhaps Parisians are inured to tourists with digital cameras and are too sophisticated to want to be seen taking any notice of what a tourist is photographing.
That party in Enmore. It’s still going. Only at some stage it turned into a Bon Voyage Party. Having wished ‘Neill Bourke’ Happy Birthday the appendage-challenged gnome is now waving farewell. ‘Bye Bourkes XOX’, he’s saying.
The remote is by Numb (that’s Will Coles). The gnome is by Hazzy Bee. Thanks to Godot, the cabbie and graffiti blogger for this information. Here’s Godot’s Wallup blog, and here’s his Zombie film of Sydney Street Art.
In the month since I took the photograph of the mauve decorations I’m afraid they have faded considerably. But the party on the corner of this lane in Enmore is still happening. The disabled gnome has now become the bearer of birthday greetings for Mr Neill Bourke.
OK, the gnome and his party speech balloon are not on the pavement. I have allowed my eyes to stray vertically. But Numb’s cement confections certainly are pavement graffiti. Here’s a photo of another one just round the corner.
Now here’s a colourfully interesting grouping of pavement and close-to-pavement graffiti in Enmore. A gnomish amputee in paper, a soda siphon stencil, a cement cast – presumably by guerrilla artist Numb – and mauve crowns and circles. Mauve is an unusual colour for pavement graffiti and not particularly distinct on the mottled concrete. Did Numb add these embellishments to his own work or was the violet (not violent) spray-painter an admirer who came along afterwards?
How quaint, I thought. Someone has etched an autumn leaf in wet cement on the sidewalk. Then I noticed another, and then a whole slew of them under an almost bare street tree.
On many blocks along Seymour Street in Downtown Vancouver it is permanently autumn, thanks to these almost inconspicuous installations that must have been put in place when the sidewalks were paved in the late 1990s.
Vancouver has many examples of street art, most of it official, some of it unofficial (though, as you would expect, graffiti mostly occurs at the fringes of Downtown, not in the centre).
At Federation Square in Melbourne Nearamnew is a public artwork that incorporates the cobblestone paving. According to the Federation Square website, it is a vast paving design with poetic text inscriptions where fragmented voices of historical and fictional characters can be deciphered in nine locations around the site.
In 2005 I found that a contemporary character had added an inscription to another location on the cobbles. I don’t know how long it had been there. Australia joined the war in Iraq in 2003.
Sydney’s most famous pavement graffitist was Arthur Stace, a reformed no-hoper who walked the city’s streets writing the single copperplate word ‘Eternity’, after being dramatically converted to Christianity in the 1930s. Some years after his death in 1967, Sydney artist Martin Sharp adopted his chalked word and began incorporating it into prints, posters, tapestries, postcards and T-shirts. Thanks to Sharp’s thirty-year Eternity industry, what was originally a religious message has become a product of popular culture. In 2001 ‘Eternity’ in Arthur Stace script was registered as a trademark by the City of Sydney because of its ‘iconic value … to the people of Sydney’.*
A replica of Stace’s one-word sermon is preserved in metal near a fountain below Town Hall Square. Unfortunately is it is hidden from most people except the patrons of a café whose outdoor chairs and tables surround it. It was raining the day I took this photograph – the cascades off the café umbrellas matched the cascading fountain.
Every now and then I come across ‘Eternity’ written in chalk by someone trying to imitate Stace. And a stencil artist in Melbourne has used the form of Stace’s word to write ‘Optimism’ on the pavements there.
(* I have written about chalk and pavement writing in ‘The Eternal City’, Meanjin 65(2), 2006, pp.139-146).