After the unfortunate closure of Meow early last year, not long after Paris Lettau's survey of the state of the not-so-"new museological consciousness" of the housemuseum, Meow2 opened last Saturday 15 February with a solo exhibition by Alethea Everard titled simply Art show. Unlike the lived-in Meow, we might see Meow2 as a gallery proper. Although it also occupies a small terrace-house (this time in West Melbourne) there is no furniture, kitchenware, mouldy bread, dirty dishes and so forth that revealed the previous space's second function as a home.
The space is freshly painted and fitted out with a levelled-up plywood floor in what would have once been the living room. Meow2 appears as much a "legit" gallery as, for instance, Conners Conners gallery—which opened in November last year with a series of group exhibitions and cloaked the Victorian interiors of the Fitzroy Town Hall with floating white plaster on temporary stud walls at about a foot's distance from the Oxford blue-grey carpet. As shepherds of the situation, Meow directors Hana Earles and Calum Lockey wore neckties (looking a bit slutty porno pastiche, but with all the connotations of professional gallerists left intact), and Brennan Olver a satin spaghetti strap number fit for the occasion. In a crisp white shirt, slim-fit black pants and understated smoky eye, Everard looked the part too.
While Meow2's architectural/aesthetic approach might be analogous to the Connors Conners ilk, the weed brownies going around and the need to piss in the alley at Meow2 (they're sorting out some pro bono plumbing if anyone knows anyone) distinguished the two. The patronage and social atmosphere are central to the Meow experience. This is typified by the simultaneously resurrected MeowTV—a series of episodic videos shot at the exhibition opening celebrations. MeowTV has previously been directed by Carmen-Sibha Keiso. The new MeowTV documentation was undertaken by anyone willing to take up one of the gallerists' phones, or Keiso's recognisable old handy cam, to survey the room and capture commentary. Some took this invitation very seriously—David Homewood, for example, could be found slumped in the corner filming interactions as the evening progressed, the plywood became muddied and inhibitions dwindled, with some sort of "abjectifying" Harmony Korine aspirations.
As with the social revolutionaries and avant-garde artists of the Situationist International (SI), the art of conversation and wastedness is part of the parcel—whether consciously arranged or not. Art showcould be read from a Situationist perspective in that both Meow and Everard evoke one of their founding principles—the notion of "psychogeography", which entails both the dissolution of the art/life distinction and an exploration of the effects of geographically-determined milieus. This was perhaps exemplified by iconology ranging from the recurring Citywide logo (westside waste management) and A1 (the Brunswick bakery that is an institution in its own right) to the North Melbourne Primary School logo (Everard's old school, less than two kilometres away) and the State Government catchphrase: "Victoria—The Place to Be." While the construction of community-based situations and their video documentation does not by any means work in the same way as the SI attempted to counteract what Guy Debord called the "society of the spectacle", it nonetheless references the Situationist idea that "authentic social life" has been replaced with a series of representations.
Everard's paintings, which largely consist of spray paint and magic marker on MDF board, are also reminiscent of the Situationists in their use of the visual codes and conventions of graffiti—not only in the style of the lettering (few works appeared text-free) but also in the palimpsest of collaged imagery, soil, twigs and burger rings. Walking through the front door, the narrow hallway walls were crowded with paintings (ten in the hallway alone), some mounted one above the other in such a way that to see (or read) those closest to the ceiling was a struggle in and of itself. This evinced something of the essential relationship of graffiti to architecture, despite having confined the graf gesture and style to a commodity parameter: the canvas. This distortion or obfuscation of content also has something in common with apocryphal graffiti—words concealed from the uninitiated or outside eye that remain distinguishable to the insider. If not narrative discourse, graffiti is a discourse cluster, and its interpretation depends on a larger communication context—as social expression.
Today, Paris is once again an aestheticised riot-zone, and its political graffiti appears relatively unchanged since the attempted student-worker revolution of May 1968, which was in part inspired by the Situationists who preceded it—steeped in direct word-message expression. Some 2018 examples include "People want the fall of systems"; "popular insurrection"; "Make the bourgeoisie dance". However, unlike the overtly political graffiti of Parisian wall writing from '68 onward, which always consciously pits utopian demands against ironic absurdism, the stylistic references in Everard's paintings are more aligned with the practice of tagging. Generally focused on the repetition and stylisation of a writer's pseudonym, tagging does not make any demands or explicit propositions. What it does evoke is something akin to the words of another Parisian: Jean Baudrillard's contention that graffiti is a subcultural attack on spectators, with no content or message—its "emptiness gives it strength".
One work, Journalist (2020), teems with what Baudrillard famously called "empty signifiers", no longer denoting anyone or anything: a stencil featured the word "journalist", followed by quick permanent marker phrases such as "people's names", "people wearing clothes", "local community (a group of people)". While these phrases are strictly literal and referential, the referents remain ambiguous—"names without intimacy" taken to their (logical?) conclusion. Likewise, emptied art-world referents were littered throughout these works, maybe the best example is the title of the exhibition: Art show. One painting, Grants and scholarships catalogue essay (2020), features its title, partially obscured by a white clearing at the centre of the board with a little crayon stick-figure house and the further text: "1. Actually focus on what's going on in the painting". Artspeak as an empty, hegemonic, demand on the viewer.
Baudrillard's thesis was that modern capitalism ought to be thought of as a code dominated by the "structural law of value", not just a mode of production. Extending Karl Marx's claim that the commodity form dominates all of life, this was a way of reading social domination as a code made up of signs: a "brothel of substitution and interchangeability". In Everard's work, the metalinguistic illusion, its reduplication and cyclic referentiality, does not simply refer to the closed system of graffiti but also to the art world at large. It is not freed from the anxiety of the referential but overwhelmed by it (nicely encapsulated in the workWhat else can I say, featuring a syntactically confused German translation of its title—"was noch kann ich sagen?"). In the context of Meow2, the graff references are not stripped of their subcultural significance; they remain firmly within a community that can read these references and who share their concerns: the infiltration and transgression of codified and commodified space/s.
In keeping with its subcultural reputation, there remained some more classic closed-system graffiti in-jokes such as the repetition of the word "Jacket"—a reference to another writer's tag "Pants" or Poppy. In one of the more minimal works, "Pants" appears directly beneath a more discernible "global" referent—the ever-changing Björk logo, which is, itself, referential of graffiti codes and conventions. With each release the artist is known to redesign the logo or typeface of her namesake—a practice mirrored by the ever-changing form of "Poppy". Björk's practice has been situated with a post-punk lineage—described by Peter Webb and John Lynch as "utopian punk" in the sense that it generates sites of discovery and potential, linking collective experience and transformative activity. They go so far as to argue that Björk's conception of utopia is tied to a location or place via processes of actualization and momentary unification. In Art show, even this reference is itself strangely relevant to this clique, as in 2017 Ander Rennick's work at Suicidal Oil Piglet, entitled Identity and Influence (Björk discography), which reproduced the outlines of Björk's various logos in his signature graphic pattern-making style.
Although Art show is, for all intents and purposes, a "solo" show, many of the works were collaborative and/or explicitly referencing the psychogeography and linked artistic practices of a very particular Melbourne scene. However, the reference to Björk did not seem to recall any notion of utopian unification. On the contrary, it evoked something of the link between art/fashion, consumerism and militarism—nonetheless bound by collective experience. In Full Metal Vietnam (with Caesar) (2020), a bandolier or bullet belt runs down the right-hand side of the collaged and layered painting and, upside down, the words "relational", "databases" and "chemistry" are just discernible, this time in a chic Humanist sans serif typeface. The word "journalist" also reappears in freehand spray paint (the right way up), obscuring some of the aforementioned words, and a blue biro pen sits at the top of the "canvas" dead-centre.
In graffiti, where words are the dominant visual form, Everard seems to reposition herself as correspondent or war-reporter. If propaganda aims to enact infrastructures that shape reality, constructing reality as opposed to merely sending a message, Art show at Meow2 could easily be defined in these terms. Thus, the militarism resonance is two-fold: as propagandist control over collective narratives (excessive documentation and the "writing" of spaces) and the persistent recuperation and commodification of transgression. As we can observe at the National Gallery of Victoria at the moment with the Kaws/Haring/Basquiat trio, the canonisation and institutionalisation of graffiti is particularly pertinent at this juncture in Melbourne. In this way, Everard's Art show is the perfect Meow2 inauguration in that it exemplifies the enmeshed contradiction between subculture inhabiting a "transgressive" style and its recuperation into the culture industry, which Everard appears to then re-recuperate again back into art: an act of irony and authenticity.
As outlined by Nicolas Bourriaud, relational artistic practices have been repeatedly criticised due to their containment within the sanctioned gallery space, which contradicts and dilutes any form of social critique with their engineered, alienated model of sociability: imposed communalism. Art show did not escape this criticism (or attempt to) but was hyper-aware of it. Graffiti, like music, is an historically social practice that functions as a signifying system or framework to construct group identities and alter egos—a manifestation of communal/social ideologies beyond personal expression. As an essentially spatio-temporal and socio-semiotic practice, it acquires meaning through human action and intersubjectivity—"artwork as social interstice". MeowTV certainly foregrounds how the human flow of exhibition attendees become raw materials and/or subject of the work—as well as a self-reflexive comment on the transformation of inter-human relations into consumables. A comment reinforced and expounded on by Everard (see: Jacket Journalist).
At work in Art show is a clear tension between the attempt to create/represent a transgressive space of relations and the tendency to recuperate and recodify it within existing value systems—particularly given that Meow2, however ironically, has now institutionalised itself as gallery proper. As is often the case, the line between détournement and recuperation wears thin and, as such, it could be seen to function as that ironic/cynical distantiation that simply sustains the oppression of a given order ("they know it, but they are doing it anyway"). However, Everard—in collaboration with Meow2—did not aim to transgress or redefine experiential behavioural modes of being (together) in purely Bjork-utopian or cynical terms but reported on, or repeated, these self-conscious constructions, where sociality itself is continually invested and dismantled (divested?) by its impoverished signs. I would argue that the main mechanism at play in Art show and Meow is comedic without being purely ironic: an antagonistic, impersonal play with the Object that is neither pure subjectivity nor "uncontaminated" universalism. A "bit of fun" with Master-Signifiers, through repetition and recuperation. Art show seemed to recognise that the field of the symbolic is never neutral but conflictual—a discursive field (or space) comprised of multiples. The text "local community (a group of people)" in Journalist (2020), for example, does not destroy or empty its referent of meaning, but paradoxically emerges outside meaning, yet inextricably from it.
Meow2, 16 Chetwynd Street, West Melbourne
Open Sundays 1 – 6pm, or by appointment
Audrey Schmidt is a writer and Melbourne Personality.
Alethea Everard, Art show installation view, Meow2, 2020. Courtesy of the artist. Image credit: Nik Lee.