There’s a trend you might have noticed emerging in an array of Australian popular cultural forms at the moment. It announces the return of locally-grown pride: albeit one taken through the route of irony and absurdity.
It’s the reinvigorated interest in Australiana – material visual culture that is visually themed as Australian – appearing in an era in which other forms of flag-waving nationalistic feeling are held deeply suspect. This is tongue-in-cheek nationalism, an image of the country as seen through the rose-coloured lens of Dame Edna’s diamante cat-eye glasses, reeking strongly of eucalyptus oil and Vegemite.
Its reference points are from the past – at the moment it seems to be drawing particularly from the 1970s and 1980s – and its current use, especially in fashion and pop music, seems to be connected to the re-evaluation of some of the iconic signifiers of Australian identity.
This is the Oz-themed paraphernalia of everyday life that is now considered highly collectible, crafted items such as trinkets, coins, pottery, plastic and wooden items, featuring images of flora, fauna and Indigenous (or at least “Aboriginal” themed) collectible items and domestic knick-knacks.
Indeed, indigenous commercial art for the domestic and international tourist market – such as the intricate shell and wooden art produced by the Timbery family sold in La Perouse at Botany Bay – was dismissed at the time as “curios” and have only recently been elevated to “high art” for their precision, technical skill and originality.
In the 1940s and 50s, these objects circulated in efflorescence in the post-war period due to the rise of leisure tourism and hence the mass-produced souvenir industry (tea towels, ash trays, toys, ornaments, etc.).
They were increasingly materials produced off-shore: in China and the UK. So such items were typically characterised as superfluous, cheap and utilitarian: just a quirky or “tacky” part of the mass culture.
This repertoire of the kitsch was re-examined in the 1970s in an era that we call the “postmodern turn”: a moment that around the world saw a blurring of the boundaries between high and low art forms, and a re-evaluation in general of populist and commercial art.
Around this time, Barrie Humphries – our performance artist of the absurd - catalogued this quotidian decorative art in 1980 in his comic Treasury of Australian Kitsch.
In the introduction to the book, in his mock-Robert Hughes voice Humphries pretends that the popular kitsch items were actually part of an intentional avant-garde project:
Elements apparently disparate speak with a single voice: the man-made aluminium bottle opener in the form of the Sydney Opera House springs as naturally from the mainstream of Australian art as do the dancing debutantes at the Sulphide Welfare Club, Newcastle.
Similarly the exposed aggregate urinal and the deadly Slipper Spider are, so to speak, a single chord upon different instruments, the Skyline-of-Melbourne hearth-rug and the Jenolan caves but twin avatars of the same divinity.
It was a great joke, but by this stage such items were being embraced by artists.
In the 1970s, avant-garde artists started to embrace popular Australiana and create works that drew upon images of excess, rejecting the scorn that had been heaped on it from the modernists.
Excitingly, this art was often connected to the newly emerging field of identity politics, and increasingly used to examine the politics of gender, sexuality and nationality.
The fashion designers and artists Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson, who ran the fashion store Flamingo Park in Sydney’s Strand Arcade from 1973, were each interested in establishing an iconography that moved away from the famous national “cultural cringe” (the term was defined in 1950 by A.A. Phillips) and embraced popular forms of Australian representation.
Drawing upon “feminine” arts such as fashion and home crafts, their work suggested a feminist re-appropriation of women’s craft and fashion as significant within Australia.
One famous piece created by Linda Jackson in the mid-1970s was a dress constructed to look like the brand new Sydney Opera House (there was homage to this architectural dress in the film Priscilla, Queen of the Desert designed by Tim Chappell in 1994).
Kee was experimenting with bright “bush” designs, and her “Opal” pattern was used by French label Chanel and made her internationally famous.
Outré design linked a camp sensibility to deeply political statements about Australian life – other artists of the Australian kitsch such as Peter Tully and David McDiarmid fused enquiries into national tackiness with questions about homosexual rights in Australian culture. (In 1982, Tully was appointed artistic director of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras). So, to reference Australiana in this era was a deeply political act.
So, where does the new Australiana appear today?
These labels had all became especially popular in the 1980s, and were able to sell an image of Australian visual identity to international markets that became synonymous with tourism rather than subversive politics. Ken Done, perhaps due to the artist’s market ubiquity, had become particularly synonymous with kitsch and commodity for a period of time.
Recently, these labels and designers have been championed by Luke Sales and Anna Plunkett of the contemporary fashion label Romance Was Born. Their forthcoming season is entitled “Bush Magic”, draws on May Gibbs’ Gumnut Babies, with references to acacia and eucalyptus leaves festooning the new collection.
Previously, they had already connected to retro kitsch imagery of Australian identity: one famous early dress was an imitation of the Arnott’s Iced VoVo biscuit; another range uses the motif of Country Women’s Association granny crochet squares.
The new Australiana appears in other art forms as well. In painting, the work of artist Danie Mellor demonstrates the conflict between forms of European and indigenous visual cultural schemes, but also the more touristic national icons – such as his comic images of friendly koalas and cockatoos intruding into the bush.
Artist Paul Yore has created hyper-coloured tapestries, such as “The Glorious Dawn” (2013), which depicts a reinvented Eureka flag surrounded by the expression “BENEATH OUR RADIANT SOUTHERN CROSS”, and flanked by black and white skulls and cockatoos. A triptych of work for the current Primavera exhibition at the MCA features one kitsch work filled with an excess of Australian signifiers and centred by an aggressive koala with a 3-D penile tumescence.
Yore has noted in a recent article that his work is inspired by thinking of Australia as a “place still marked by colonial violence, and of lingering imperialism”.
The Melbourne-based artist and photographer Eamon Donnelly has created a website called The Island Continent: Archives of the Australian Image, and features Nu-Color-Vue tourist postcards, old television advertisements and visual culture, especially focusing on the commercial design of the post-war period from the 1950s to the early 1990s.
From the “Life Be In It” TV animations to the Women’s Weekly birthday cookbook, Donnelly also documents urban milk bars, a project that links to a nostalgic reflection on Australian culture that has inevitably gone through massive change.
In pop music, the emerging Australian band Client Liaison have drawn upon a visual and verbal aesthetic that draws heavily upon Australian legends, specialising in imagery of late ‘80s excess, invoking the likes of now obsolete Ansett airlines and the infamous entrepreneur Christopher Skase.
In their earliest single “End of the Earth”, Harvey Miller sings “this Big Fruit, this Big Lobster/ this dodgy disaster of a culture/is it what we stand for?” Playing with the long-lived “frontier” representation of colonial Australia as a place of entrapment, Client Liaison’s accompanying video uses a veritable smorgasbord of kitsch Australiana, ranging from news footage of John Howard’s daily power walks, the Big Pineapple, Toadfish from Neighbours and Nikki Webster performing at the Sydney Olympics.
The questioning of values and norms of Australian identity is ever-present. “Unlike a joke, our humour doesn’t come from a punchline. It comes from absurdity, and satire,” Miller explained in one interview, making a similar point to Barrie Humphries in the creation of Dame Edna.
This is the lesson that we must learn from the new Australiana in art. Like its appearance in the late 1970s and 1980s, its revival seems to be often linked to the desire to re-appraise and make sense of Australian identity and history.
The inter-generational context of this new trend is manifest: it is no coincidence that a lot of these new artists are the children of the 1970s and 1980s, raised in the divisive “Celebrate ‘88” moment (Client Liaison have re-appropriated its logo as band paraphernalia).
There is no sense of a collective identity for artists drawing upon this engagement with national iconography either; it just seems to be occurring simultaneously in a range of different places.
Arguably, the trend is also appearing in more commercial art mediums such as television, with shows such as Puberty Blues (2012-), Howzat: Kerry Packer’s War! (2012) and Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo (2011) all interested in capturing late 1970s and early 1980s glimpses into Australian society, fetishizing the old everyday materiality (Chiko Rolls, surf-boards, old cricket songs, etc) and through this act illustrating key differences from one era to our own. Whether this is pure nostalgia or progressive commentary is an issue for debate.
It is not my intent in this short piece to think of each artist’s individual aims in a reductive sense here, but rather to try and understand one concept that seems to be part of a larger cultural conversation at the moment. If you see the new Australiana in popular culture and engagement with the kitsch and the Outré, don’t just think of each example as a blind and humorous celebration of “Ozstrine” flag-waving culture and crass commercialism.
Operating independently, each seems to be part of a deeply thoughtful analysis about national fictions: one that should be taken seriously as well as enjoyed.