punk, art and after
The Ian Potter Museum, Melbourne University
23 February - 16 May 2010

The director of the Ian Potter Museum, Chris McAuliffe, describes ‘Melbourne><Brisbane: punk, art and after’ as ‘what it’s like to be inside a fan's head’. And indeed it is, a maelstrom of memories and memorabilia for a time not so long past, but oddly forgotten, cast into the mists of memory via distance, age and misinformation.

Were Melbourne and Brisbane, culturally speaking, really so close? The city of black jackets and cold winters and the city of Hawaiian shirts and year-round sunglasses? What, back in the 1970s and the early ’80s, could they possibly have in common? A great deal, it transpires, as this eccentric and peculiar exhibition amply proves.

And Melbourne><Brisbane: punk, art and after is, as McAuliffe notes, the work of an obsessive, almost anal-retentive, fan. Not that this is all from one collection—no, David Pestorius, with almost excessive fervour, scoured the country seeking odd items, the detritus of the birth of punk in Australia and proof of the tortured beginnings of artists’ do-it-yourself galleries.

It is hard, at my age, not to get mired down in nostalgia for these ‘fuck-the-system’, knee-jerk reactions against the institutions of the time. Whether it was the punk music of The Saints or the arte povera of Art Projects, those were indeed the days.

As Pestorius’s meticulous selection proves, the Brisbane/Melbourne links were intricate indeed, and unique in terms of intra-city creative crossover. Unlike the Sydney–Melbourne rivalry of the time, Brisbane and Melbourne seemed to undergo some kind of metropolitan osmosis. Bands such as the Queensland-based Go-Betweens invited Jenny Watson to execute an album cover. Watson was then partner with John Nixon who moved to Brisbane to act as director of the Institute of Modern Art. These, amongst numerous other crossovers, led to a flurry of exhibitions and gigs flowing between the two cities.

In many ways this is very much a ‘museum’ show, the results of a deep archaeological dig into an obscure lost-civilisation site. While there may be thousands of Nick Cave fans out there today, few of his younger followers would have a clue about his real genesis in terms of the music and art worlds around him. But Pestorius’s project is part of a broader, semi-nostalgic push that includes the re-release of Richard Lowenstein’s 1986 film Dog’s in Space and the more recent documentary We’re Living On Dog Food (2009) and Jo Scicluna’s exhaustive ‘recreation’ of the Seaview Ballroom days in her 2009 project ‘The Funeral Party’. This is perhaps inevitable in a period where alternative spaces for bands are becoming a rarity although, perhaps ironically, it is also a time when artist-run spaces are proliferating around the country—most notably in Melbourne and Brisbane.

Pestorius’s show reveals just how prescient the period was. While there is an inevitable drop-off rate in terms of their 15 minutes of fame, many of the names that feature in Melbourne><Brisbane: punk, art and after went on to establish major careers in the music and art fields: Chris Bailey, Tony Clark, Brett Colquhoun, Robert Forster, Ed Kuepper, John Nixon, and Jenny Watson, amongst others, have all gone on to forge major careers.

But at the same time this is most definitely an exercise in nostalgia. Most of the venues mentioned on the walls have long since closed down. The magazines that seemed so important at the time such as PulpRoadrunnerVirgin PressFast ForwardTension and Art & Text have all folded. The original seven-inch singles from Whirlywirld, The Tuff Monks and The Primitive Calculators seem like cared-for fossils from another age. And, of course, a number of key players of the era such as Howard Arkley, Grant McLellan and Roland S. Howard have well and truly moved on to other gigs and galleries.

Perusing the photocopies, silkscreens and Polaroids one is struck by an overriding aesthetic. And it is, of course, one that is distinctly pre-digital. There’s a rawness and urgency to the entire affair, a sense of guerilla activity, an ‘us against them’ sensibility. In Brisbane especially, it being the era of Joh Bjelke Petersen’s borderline apartheid policies, such nefarious activities as punk music were far from encouraged by the authorities. But that wasn’t about to stop the artists and musicians of the time finding their own way to express their defiance. One can only hope that Pestorius’s show will help inspire a new generation.