Australian Art : In the suburbs, and below them

I don’t want to overstate the case here – there are many, many more spectacular sights in nature than the tide-turn at Styx Creek – but in my world this brings me a sense of joy every time I see it.

Mark MacLean

Last week I was reading Why Nations Fail. The topic is of close interest to me, but the book was an aggravating mix of the detailed and insightful ideas, and of furious handwaving substituting for a central framework1. The day was too pleasant for aggravation, and called for greater things. So I turned from the topic of institutions to another topic in which I have a deep, but decidedly niche interest in.

Dog walking in Newcastle drains, and what I like the most in Australian art.

The Styx Creek, perhaps one of the more epically named waterways in the country, is intended to remove from the low lying areas of Newcastle the water that traditionally belongs near an estuary. Most of, if not all of, the time it does just this. It’s a long straight scar of concrete through and below the human world, and a home to refuse and wildlife. It and all of the others that crisscross the city have long fascinated me beyond good reason. We played cricket in one next to school. I did an art project in one (albeit only after our teacher could no longer pretend he didn’t know we were climbing on the school roof). When I was 17 I created a game parodying metaphysical rumination; inevitably, in a world beyond material substance, there was still a drain. And because they have hard, angled surfaces to bounce off and a constant flow of foul smelling liquid they are also popular with dogs.

Mark MacLean saw fit to put his experiences in the Styx Creek into a book (and blog), and this is what I turned to.  It details seasonal changes in weather, wildlife and rubbish, mid 20th century urban planning, dog behaviour and conversations with homeless people. It is about the most mundane book I have ever read. And I loved it.

A large part of that is simply because it is an Australia that I live in. This is true both as a Novocastrian drain dog walker, but in a broader sense.

Australian art (in the form of literature and film) is afflicted with three horrible Australias that substitute for the Australias we actually live in.

The first is the fake hinterland. The small country town, the drover, the bush. Australia has always been mainly urban, but this doesn’t rid us of the idea that the rural is an authentic part of a nation’s soul, and the city a false one – so we end up with a literary bush that represents neither Australia, nor even the bush that exists. We should be thankful I guess. This distrust of the urban led to pogroms elsewhere, here it just led to shitty literature.

The second is focus group suburbia. Apparently the same demographers that control political campaigns also write dramas for television. They’re understanding of the country is as strong, and as fruitful in both contexts. The resulting product is for an average Australia in suburban Sydney or Melbourne that doesn’t exist, and is resolutely (and carefully) boring.

The third is determined to address the chronic underrepresentation of middle class white people on TV. They’re there to remind you that the self conscious Fitzroy/Newtown monoculture is fascinatingly distinct, despite all evidence to the contrary. To remind you that all one needs to know about an entire society is found in a shallow pond of wealthy lawyers.

The portrayal of these Australias share a few rules;

  • One can only learn about Australia through Big Issues like drugs and murder and adultery, regardless of the limited role they play in the lives of most people.
  • People can only express themselves to each other through confrontation, which always them to exposit their viewpoints and motivation without them having to actually be developed characters.
  • Under the Australian Film and Drama Act (1992) they must also do this in full sentences with pronounced full stops – speaking like a human being would be inauthentic…


I love the mundane in art. Two years ago I posted about Collaborative Autobiography, a collection of mundane stories about Cabramatta. This was a work of reaction against the approbrium against the suburb – now shifted in large part to Lakemba. But it may as well have been a reaction against the ignoring of our Australias in favour Fauxstralias that dominate Australian art. Despite the apparent gulfs in experience and ethnicity, the stories of shopping and leagues clubs felt more like the Australia I knew than most that I read or watch. Likewise, if I was to nominate a Great Australia Novel, it would be a children’s book filled largely with the minutae of outer suburban school life – after all, children are not smart enough to full themselves into thinking that the Australia they know isn’t authentic, or “biting”, or insightful enough for art.

This could be a Newcastle thing. It is the city that would produce productions like “100 Newcastle Letterboxes“. A city that is fiercly parochial without any particular desire to point at any reason to be proud of simply lovingly documents everyday aspects of itself. I just extend that love to the rest of the country.

Nonetheless, what I would really love out of Australian art would be something like Treme, David Simon’s portrait of New Orleans post Katrina, and a portrait constructed from quite ordinary lives. I imagine such a portrait of Newcastle, Toowoomba or Brisbane (all of which have recently been inundated), or of Wollongong, Townsville or Adelaide. I imagine it written by people with an ear for these cities, rather than an ear for what plays for authentic at Australia Council funding boards. I imagine it cast with people who know how to act, rather than those who know How To Act.

But this won’t happen. So I’ll keep reading about dogs in drains.

1 Let this review stand in partially for my own.

  1. fn1[][]
  2. This part originally went on for much longer, my hatred for the iron tropes of Australian film and drama is exceeded only by my hatred for the iron tropes of journalism – not coincidentally both are dying by auto-erotic asphyxiation. But I’ll avoid the aggravation for happy things, like a comic about using a trolley in a drain to move a TV. I like drains.[]

About Richard Tsukamasa Green

Richard Tsukamasa Green is an economist. Public employment means he can't post on policy much anymore. Also found at @RHTGreen on twitter.
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[…] Australian Art : In the suburbs, and below them from Club Troppo by Richard Tsukamasa Green […]

john r walker
11 years ago

most art has always been the working through of well established forms such as boy meets girl, the standard tragic/comic formats , journeys of self discovery, and cooking contests. Reality has never sold all that well and the history of art is ultimately as history of audiences.
I am not convinced that Australia is particularly worse or better in this, in the great french galleries of the Louvre there are hectares and hectares of tedious blah to endure for every Raft of the Medusa .

john r walker
11 years ago

Sorry should be
the history of art is ultimately the history of audiences.

john r walker
11 years ago

The classic Australian pastoral is not all that idyllic: Streeton’s “Fires On” is an image of an industrial building accident; “Wake in fright” and “Mad Max” are dystopias; Drysdale’s images are hardly optimistic or noice and D H Lawrence’s “Kangaroo” is hardly a complacent image of Australia, straggling as it does on the fringe of an indifferent, uncomprehending vastness. “Voss” seems more typical to me.

11 years ago

I have to restrain my self every now and then from “going all Alan Jones” on Macca’s Australia All Over.

It manages in one program to encompass all that is wrong with this place. A confection of suburban grey nomads, supported on comfortable unfunded defined benefits super schemes, being paid for by the rest of us, often directly in increased rates for local gov employees, all waxing about how they are travelling in “the real australia” out of the city. All blissfully ignorant of their city based actual homes, city funded super and a smugly insincere host sitting in a studio in inner Sydney.

“tone of self-congratulatory mawkishness that binds his whole show … a program laden with promotions, both for particular products and for McNamara himself. Strangely, given the way he identifies with all things Australian, he isn’t particularly pleasant to his listeners, indeed more patronising than friendly.”

“is, to listeners of any savvy at all, a dopey gnome in the ABC’s garden, a mash of 1930s folksy corn … Not much happens apart from a lot of telephone calls about very little and much talk of wombats, curlews, white-tailed spiders and mopokes. Conversation, if that is the word, is loaded with catchphrases of banal goodwill: ‘A lovely little song … a lovely little poem … lovely gestures … Broken Hill is a lovely place … Australians are really nice people … We’re just sittin’ here an’ bein’ nice.”

murph the surf.
murph the surf.
11 years ago

There you go John – I rather think that art history in reality reflects the history of the patrons and sponsors! Then again I love mannerist and baroque paintings.If they wanted to show their education and superiority well done and thanks for the legacy.
From about the late 70s /early 80s art history/comprehension was infected by the desire of various agents and dealers to create markets in new tastes and just as conveniently sell their clients (or their own!) store of paintings.
I agree with Richard , maybe I’m misinterpreting him but I think there is such strength and resilience in the mundane.
Recording the everyday will be appreciated but not in our lifetimes.
Damien Hirst anyone?And what may be neighbours to some is Wake in Fright to others.

john r walker
11 years ago

“there is such strength and resilience in the mundane.”
It is much easier to make poetry out of the mundane than it is out of the ‘special’.

In the 70s art history became theoretical , unconcerned with reality, it has not been seen for years now.

Louie Houghton
Louie Houghton
11 years ago

Just a note of thanks for allowing me to sit in.

Julie Thomas
Julie Thomas
11 years ago

“Recording the everyday will be appreciated but not in our lifetimes.”

Georgio Morandi concentrated on the ordinary, the mundane re-presented without any pretensions and without ‘saying anything’.

And thank god for art that doesn’t want to say something. Come back Morandi; there is way too much ‘saying stuff’ in art these days at the expense of making picture. The whole point of ‘art’ according to the majority opinion of the teaching staff at the institution where I did parts of a Vis Arts degree 2000-2001, was that art had to ‘say something’ or ‘challenge or question something – something traditional or male of course’.

My objection to the idea that a visual image could be a ‘concept’ – without the intermediary of a mind that constructs any equivalence that exists between image and meaning – was the trigger for my ‘expulsion’ from one class.

Nobody, least of all the lecturer understood what the hell she was talking about, but the students who needed to get their degree worked out what they had to say and how to copy the academically approved post-modern artists like Jenny Holzer. She is even more banal than Damien Hirst.

One time during a slide show presentation of artists who were to be admired, one image was of a sentence “Glasnost in the USA” projected onto a large building and one mature aged student – only the mature aged were silly enough to question the received wisdom – asked what glasnost was. Rofl, the lecturer didn’t even know what the word meant and told the woman that was something she could find out for herself. Pffft.

But the real problem for most of the students was that the conceptualist lecturers had no skills to pass on and that was what we wanted to know.

murph the surf.
murph the surf.
11 years ago
Reply to  Julie Thomas

I love Morandi!

john r walker
11 years ago

Learn about pines from the pine, and about bamboo from the bamboo.

Don’t follow in the footsteps of the old pets, seek what they sought.

The basis of art is change in the universe. What’s still has changeless form. Moving things change, and because we cannot put a stop to time, it continues unarrested. To stop a thing would be to halve a sight or sound in our heart. Cherry blossoms whirl, leaves fall, and the wind flits them both along the ground. We cannot arrest with our eyes or ears what lies in such things. Were we to gain mastery over them, we would find that the life of each thing had vanished without a trace.