Hoddle Street tragedy revisited in charcoal, pencil and chalk
Twenty years since a young man opened fire to lethal effect on a busy Melbourne thoroughfare, the street where it happened is still the street where it happened.
Hoddle Street. Horror Street. How else would you describe it? With forensic detachment, if you are New York-born Australian artist William Kelly — in homage to the ordinary people who lost their lives and/or their serenity in the outrage.
Shattered by the grief of the bereaved parents of one of the victims, Bill Kelly obtained Police Department permission to document the event — in a series of 39 workman-like drawings of the carnage, when the clock stopped forever on an ordinary day.
In charcoal, pencil, and chalk he recorded, among other impressions: two handprints, one bloodied, on an off-white surface; a discarded baby's bottle; a soaring bird; a disembodied hand under a blue tarpaulin; a drift of gaily-coloured balloons; a bullet-riddled family sedan; four randomly-spaced bullet holes in a panel of red duco; a television news shot of a white four-door car with the driver's door open; a digital clock-face showing 9:37:50 PM; the discarded blue, red and yellow packaging of a box of Winchester Buckshot bullets.
And a signpost on a steel pole against a blue sky that reads: Hoddle Street.
Kelly's drawings were shown in public for the first time in A Contemporary Tragedy at the Heide Museum of Modern Art in 1993 — then donated by a private benefactor to La Trobe University, where until now, they've been archived, in deference to community sensitivities.
Twenty-four of the 39 drawings are now in the public arena again at the University's Bundoora-based Art Museum, as the centrepiece of Cruel and Unusual Punishment: Art and Violence – an exhibition that seeks to engage audiences in the psychological and social implications of violence.
"We haven't shown these drawings until now because the images are generally sensitive for a Melbourne audience. Even though it's 20 years since Hoddle Street happened it still resonates, most people know where they were when they heard about it, it was such a graphic and shocking thing," says Managing Curator Vince Alessi.
"We wanted to be sure that when we did show them it was in the right context. This is the context. It is not sensationalist, it is about the issues surrounding violence. You are not looking at images of blood on the street, but images that remind you these were real people whose lives were affected forever."
Like his companion artists in Cruel and Unusual Punishment: Art and Violence, Kelly is an activist who seeks to trigger social awareness of the ordinary context in which violence happens.
"Violence has become a consumerist pastime, you can pick up any newspaper or watch any television show or computer game and find violence as a form of entertainment," says Mr Alessi. "That is what these artists are challenging. There's an emotional element involved in looking at these images which we think is more powerful than just having a full-on image where you get the full impact but then walk away and forget."
The Hoddle Street sketches — collectively titled "Notations 1988-1993" — are accompanied by 12 other powerful reminders of the psychic impact of violence. Melbourne artist Mary Lou Pavlovic is best known for her footy-fever posters at the VFL's 2004 Grand Final, "outing" the seasonal outbreak of violence against women during macho sporting events. She confronts us this time with Tommy and Angelheart, two-dimensional wooden silhouettes of two children brightly encrusted in "hundreds and thousands", mounted on empty bullet casings.
"Mary Lou is very vocal about the consumption of violence and what it means to children, and this work is about children losing their innocence. She's very concerned with how violence is portrayed in the media, how young people are becoming almost desensitised, they don't actually understand what violence means," Mr Alessi says.
Among the most evocative images, Sydney artist Fiona Lowry's psychedelic warm weather and a holocaust hints at the rape and murder of a 14-year-old child committed there; Rosemary Laing's Welcome to Australia presents an exterior view of the Woomera Detention Centre – and leaves to us to imagine the violence within its walls; indigenous artist Brook Andrew splits and reverses a 19th century anthropological photograph in i split your gaze to splice racism through its core, and Destiny Deacon uses dolls dressed in found objects to recall a colonial past, in Under the Spell of the Poppies.
William Kelly said (in an essay Notes from the End of the World): Art is not a dumb mirror to society but a means of enlarging its potential. In contrast to the bullets that gun us down and the culture that supports this there is a place and even a need for art that is positive and constructive – brick by brick, poem by poem, film by film, artwork by artwork.
The exhibition runs from 26 February — 11 April at La Trobe University Art Museum, Bundoora. Images are available.
Media inquiries: Vincent Alessi, Managing Curator, La Trobe University Art Museum and Collections
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