Tuesday, 2 November 2021

Silo art

This is a guest post by Mark Dober who operates a newsletter out of the town of Castlemaine, Victoria.

A spectre is haunting Victoria, the spectre of Silo Art. In farming districts across the north of the State silo-sized images of farmers, kids, whefiields, sheep, trains and cars, Anzacs, and cricketers have been appearing. The Silo Art phenomenon first began in Western Australia in 2015. At last count there were 49 works of Silo Art across Australia. More are on the way.

Tim Bowtell’s Silo Art at Colbinabinn, Victoria. Photo: Mark Dober

These massive works find their home in very small and quiet towns. These towns have commissioned highly professional street artists – Australian or overseas-based – to design and paint the Silo Art. Various spokespersons for these projects have said that the main purpose of these projects is to encourage tourism to their town.

I would think most people in our State know of the existence of Silo Art, though perhaps few have seen it, due to its being in out of the way locations. Though I live in regional Victoria it was only when I made recent trips to Wagga Wagga to make work for my Murrumbidgee show at Wagga Wagga Art Gallery that I saw examples of Silo Art. These were at Colbinabinn in central Victoria and the Yerong Creek water tower in NSW (see photos).

Both of the artists who made these works come from a Street Art background (an art form which has been fostered in Australia by Melbourne’s international reputation for Street Art). Artist Tim Bowtell, who made the Colbinabinn work, lives in Benalla. His mural is colourful and realist, though with a slightly cartoony quality. It is also nostalgic, celebrating country living and transport in bygone times. The Yerong Creek water tower mural was made by the Melbourne based street artist who goes by his tag name Heesco. Again, the work is colourful, slightly cartoony, and nostalgic in its celebration of traditional icons of Australian identity such as Anzacs, cricket, and sheep farming. These two works of Silo Art, characteristically of this art form, trade on sentimentality.

Heesco, Yerong Creek water tower mural, NSW. Photo: Mark Dober

But Bowtell’s and Heesco’s murals are not of the photorealist style more typical of Silo Art. An example of this more representative photorealist style of Silo Art is the mural at Wirrabara, South Australia (see photo below) made by the artist who goes by the tag name Smug. He is Australian born but operates out of Glasgow, Scotland. In the Wirrabara mural the farmer is represented as a type, and an understated heroism pervades the work. The artwork attributes generalised qualities to the farmer who is seen to personify dedication, integrity and independence. The mural enables the viewer to clearly read the work as a celebration of farming.

Murals like these are likely to be well received by much of the public who see them. Partly this is to do with subject ma\er, and partly to do with their realist/photorealist style. That photorealism is popular with the general public is attested by the track record of the winners of the People’s Choice – almost always photorealist works, and often sentimental – in contemporary portrait prizes such as the Archibald Prize. If the extremely high number of likes that the street artists who do Silo Art get for their work is an indicator of popularity, then the level of interest and support for their work is astounding (check out these artists’ websites). It seems we’re talking about two quite different, even opposing audiences for this art. On the one hand a young, mainly urban demographic who relate to Street Art and express their support with likes on social media (few seeing the actual work). And on the other hand an older age demographic who do not relate to Street Art but who identify with the nostalgic imagery, content and values – the subject ma\er - of Silo Art. This audience is represented by the crowd, many of whom appear elderly, milling about the coach in the photo above.

For all its popularity in some quarters (and for different reasons) can Silo Art be valued for its artistic merit? Indeed, could it be that Silo Art is kitsch? If so, would this necessarily mean that Silo Art is bad, especially considering that kitsch is self-consciously pursued by some contemporary artists, including the world’s biggest money earning living artist, Jeff Koons (Koons, like all high achieving artists who indulge in kitsch, brings a protective screen of irony to his work).

If Silo Art is kitsch, by what criteria can it be fairly described as such? A crucial criteria of kitsch is obviousness. America’s most famous post-war art critic, Clement Greenberg, said ‘In kitsch, nothing is le^ to the viewer – everything is given and obvious’. While Silo Art conforms to this description, by its very nature as mural art it presents its themes in a direct and legible way. For these Silo Art murals are a collaborative effort and the artist is working to a brief: he (usually they are a he) has been commissioned by the local town council who want the mural to project a specific narrative that is celebratory of community values and the town’s rural identity.

Indeed, community consultation may be intrinsic to the design process: the artist’s proposed design for the Yerong Creek water tower was seen as unsatisfactory by many of the locals (too garish and cartoony) and was significantly modified.

Smug, detail of Silo Art mural, Wirrabara SA.

Another criteria of kitsch is sentimentality. Certainly there is a nostalgia to Silo Art imagery, and nostalgia and sentimentality can be close cousins. Yet the characteristic realism of Silo Art – an illustrative realism reliant on photo sources – can express sentiment as much as sentimentality. Dignity, hope, love, admiration, belonging – sentiments solicited by Silo Art – are expressions also found in the greatest art – in the work of Vincent van Gogh, for example. By contrast, sentimentality is mawkish, cliched and superficial. Whether Silo Art is expressing sentiment or sentimentality will vary from one work to the next (as each artist has their own ‘style’) and viewers’ assessments will likewise differ.

Personally, Silo Art is not to my taste. Too illustrative and visually jarring. The murals strike me as incongruous in these small, quiet towns. I feel they compromise the sculptural integrity of the silos, which have an appealing form, presence, meaning and significance all of their own. Breaking the flat horizon line like ancient Sumerian ziggurats, silos are a singular and dramatic feature in the flat farming landscape, and they don’t require a mural makeover that confuses their sculptural and functional identity.

Nevertheless, Silo Art does have something to say of which we should take note, for while it is promoted as a tourism drawcard, Silo Art is also a unique expression of the cultural identity of the agricultural regions of Australia. It promotes ‘good self-esteem’ and community pride in what are often struggling towns (drought, poor harvests, declining population and services).

And there is a larger point to be made here that pertains to the art world. Have you noticed that we don’t see much (if any) contemporary art in metropolitan or regional galleries that addresses the themes of Silo Art? That is, the themes and values that rural communities identify with as already noted. True, regional galleries do make a point of showing work that addresses their local regional landscape, but this work rarely, if at all, engages with the values and themes expressed in Silo Art. (‘Community Art’, typically by local amateur artists, is shown from time to time by many regional galleries, particularly the smaller ones, where qualities associated with Silo Art, such as nostalgia, can make an appearance).

Having said this, and recognising that the art world is not monolithic, I have come across exceptions. For example, Swan Hill Regional Gallery Director Ian Tully has spoken to me of his keen interest in encouraging professional artists to engage with the local rural landscape. To that end the gallery has established an ongoing program, the Acre Project, which is an artist residency program on farms in the Swan Hill region.

Though I question the artistic merit of Silo Art, I recognise that it is a bold and ambitious reminder that another Australia – today a marginalised culture that occupies much of the territory of habitable Australia and an important referent of our national history and traditions – wants to be seen and heard.

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