Art against gentrification

This article was originally published in Arena magazine.

Artists have long been associated with the poor, derelict quarters of cities. But it is only in the last few decades that art scenes in general have sought out such areas as their habitus. Marginality has become an important component of artistic capital, and working-class and industrial areas provide a diverse range of studio spaces and distance from the more financially driven environments seen as antithetical to artistic capital.

In this context, artists have become associated with gentrification. An influx of artists and galleries facilitates the implementation of developers’ and planning departments’ agendas to elevate an area’s status. An area’s occupation by artists eventually prices out poorer residents, while artists’ work enhances the area’s aesthetic appeal in the eyes of
new, usually middle-class residents. As gentrification has become a highly polarising issue, less generous critics have even used the term ‘artwashing’ to condemn the role of artists in this process. Certainly, particular artworks, such as London Kaye’s crochet
installation Moonshine Kingdom, which was hung on a Bushwick building for the visual benefit of the flea market next door in New York, and Blu’s iconic mural in east Kreuzberg in Berlin, which was subsequently painted over by the original artists in protest at the ‘poor but sexy’ label attached to such parts of Berlin, have been the most visible signs of this process: as eulogies to urban vitality that only accelerate its demise.

Beneath the surface, policies such as rezoning and tax breaks for investors tend to be more important structural determinants of development. In cities like Sydney and London, urban planning is driven less by the needs of local populations than by the neoliberal imperative to establish public–private partnerships and to facilitate capital flows. When certain areas require new amenities and infrastructure, the state responds by effacing the existing urban landscape under the pretence of ‘modernisation’. Sydney’s
Barangaroo is a prime example. A beautiful harbourside park, home to many artistic projects, was built on the land of a former shipyard, but its funding was conditional on the construction of an extensive financial precinct on public land.

In this context, it may appear that the formal relation between urban transformation and the world of art is no more than the relation between artists and capital—here the opportunistic seizure of new spaces opened up by capital for aesthetic appropriation. Yet some artists go to great lengths to resist such development, often directing their work towards non-hegemonic ends.

I meet industrial-heritage artist Jane Bennett at the workshop end of the Sydney Bus Museum. It is fitting that one of Sydney’s most critically minded artists has chosen to be interviewed at this intersection of industrial labour and aesthetic curation. She has set
up her easel and canvas next to volunteer bus enthusiasts restoring a White single decker to its 1930s shape alongside a Daimler double decker that operated two decades later, and a few times we make way for parts being pushed through. A painter en plein air (in the open air), Jane has no permanent studio. Once she picks a streetscape or construction site as her subject matter, its location becomes her studio for as long as the weather and site managers allow. She has spent years as artist-in-residence at sites like the White Bay Power Station, Barangaroo and the Sydney Heritage Fleet yard at Rozelle.‘I like knowing where things come from and how things work. I wish I knew more’, she tells me.

Artists, despite often living precarious lifestyles, rarely experience the same limits to their working conditions and social mobility as working-class people. Yet Jane makes clear that much of her inspiration arises from the common lineage shared by artists and
artisans. It was with the arrival of artisan guilds in the Middle Ages, comparable to some extent with modern trade unions, that people who made things with their hands began to enjoy significant social regard. The development of aesthetic forms was an extension of the creation of functional objects by the most skilled artisans. The Renaissance marked a turn towards the inner life of the artisan/artist, whereby mastery over materials came to be associated with insight into the conditions of life and the soul, and in this context the individual artist became established.

Plein air painting brings the artist closer to the materiality of the situation than the more convenient method of photographing a subject and then retreating to the studio. Oil is ideal for depicting Jane’s subject matter, for as the scene or one’s perception of it changes over the course of a day or several, more coats of paint can be applied to modify the painting. Depicting patina on the canvas gives a sense of the ruination that time exerts on objects, but it takes a particular skill and effort that is less apparent than, for example, editing a faded look onto a photograph in post-production.

Jane brings up the immense difficulty she faced when mixing paints to make the right shade for the rust covering a hammerhead crane on Garden Island. ‘At some point I realised that either I had cataracts or there was a very strange green-yellow tint appearing on the crane when the light hit it.’ As she later found out, the tint on the
structure was the result of applying the wrong coating—of a substance called zinc chromate—to the metal, which was subsequently painted over. She adds that the colour she used to reflect this is very unusual in the process of oil painting itself, as it is a fugitive pigment that deteriorates and changes colour over time.

While the realism of a socially critical artist like Noel Counihan focuses on people—on the way their faces and postures disclose the struggles they face—Jane Bennett’s paintings do not take so much from people as from the environments they inhabit. The
paintings stop short of an ideological commitment to such struggles, rather expressing a
deep empathy with metalworkers, wharfies and residents through adopting the ways of seeing implied by the places where they live and work. In this way, Jane’s paintings bring to light not those things that are suppressed or disavowed but rather those that are simply ignored in the course of urban life. This is apparent in her ‘Hungry Mile’ series. Here, workers appear infrequently, but we are given intimate views of the machinery of work that constitutes their activity.

As an artist-in-residence Jane often spends so long painting certain places that she outlasts the site managers. She mentions anecdotally that she has witnessed, years apart, the same construction workers being made redundant at different sites and being given the same future career advice. As a self-employed artist, her relationship to sites of
industrial production is unlike that of the working class. Yet this does not prevent the artist from engaging with the political consequences of her work. Indeed, her paintings capture moments whose passing reminds us of the breadth and weight of historical
change that has taken place and often gone unnoticed. However iconic these juxtapositions of work, urban skyline and natural landscape appear, they cannot
easily be aligned with our understanding of Sydney as it is now or as it was decades ago.

Loads are suspended from cranes, crosses are being hoisted for World Youth Day, and building materials sit in vacated lots. Are the loads and crosses being lifted or lowered? Is this a construction site or a demolition site? Jane’s paintings carry a certain melancholy of delicate, historical detail overpowered, if not forgotten, amid forces beyond its control. Indeed, the small details, including signs, beams and people, are dwarfed by the monumental buildings, ships and warehouses around them. And yet, as Jane reminds me, the large objects must also be depicted accurately, for they are as much
the handiwork of humans as the small details are. Marx outlined how, under capitalism, relationships between people take the form of relationships between things.

This can be depicted as alienation between people and the urban landscapes constituted by the things surrounding them. In many of Jane’s drawings the alienation lies within the landscapes themselves. In paintings like May Close Without Warning! one feels the pathos of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks in an industrial environment. Jane calls her way of seeing a ‘memento mori adapted to landscape’.‘I’ve been painting loss of identity, loss of memory. When does something lose its identity?’ She recalls an influential moment. When regarding the painting Rat’s Castle by Blamire Young, she was struck by its evocation of a ghost world behind the tactile facade of a building, the very dimension she was attempting to grasp in a Pyrmont streetscape. When change is experienced as loss, one is left wondering what exactly is being lost. Abandoned sites are often described as
‘haunted’, but if so, who are these ghosts and where were they hiding when these places were still being used?

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Rat’s Castle by Blamire Young

These questions, often overlooked, provide insights into the role of art in gentrification. When artists paint captivating murals in a working-class area they often purport to reflect its culture. And yet this is little more than reification of an ever-evolving history. Art, Jane tells me, has always been obsessed with the idea of the ruin fixed in time:

People have been touring battlefields and looking at sphinxes without noses for millennia. [Giovanni Battista] Piranesi made his name in the eighteenth century painting ruins not as they actually were, but sexing up the shadows and the majesty and creepiness. He heavily influenced neoclassical art and architecture, to the point where buildings were being built to look like ruins. We generally think of Greek
sculptures as this white headless marble, but back then they had limbs and were painted to look like flesh. We would have hated them, we would have found that garish, lurid and tacky. But now they’ve got some kind of dignity…a certain gravitas.

It is this tendency that makes art complicit in gentrification. Jane’s claim to have painted many places before they were ruined or transformed, such as the Terminus Hotel in Pyrmont, would appear pompous if it were not accompanied by a genuine sense of loss and anger at the decline of places that had been part of her earlier life and the knowledge that a similar fate will face many of the sites she currently paints. The ghosts in her paintings are not the colonial formations and cheerful Australiana that embody mainstream understandings of‘heritage’.

They are the scaffolds, the awkward shadows, the overused chimneys and the sandstone blocks tagged with the cutter’s name (for which he got into trouble). They are the histories and struggles of workers and residents. As with many other social struggles today, what is most difficult for those who oppose gentrification is that it is unclear who is responsible. In Sydney this question is particularly vexing. On one hand, inner-west suburbs from Redfern to Dulwich Hill have experienced the gentrification characteristic of cities like Berlin, where the cultural capital embodied in works like Newtown’s ‘I have a dream’ mural attract upwardly mobile residents whose future interests would normally dictate that walls be kept clean. Here, the changing aesthetic profile of suburbs functions as an active vehicle of a broader displacement that draws heavily from violent modalities of colonialism.

On the other hand, a focus on the visual spectacle of gentrification often relates to an aestheticisation of politics, where artistic discourses themselves cover up, and become alienated from, the political language required to engage in material struggles. Ben
Davis’s 9.5 Theses on Art and Class reveals how the art world is complicit in supplanting material struggles with aesthetic struggles, exacerbated by artists’ lack of awareness of their own class dynamics. The displacement of residents from Pyrmont and Millers Point (now Barangaroo), though preceded by a steady decline in local maritime industry, came about very rapidly once developers and the state government decided that these areas
would be better devoted to corporate offices, high-rise apartments and entertainment precincts.

‘Every painting you see of The Rocks is so sugar coated that it’s enough to give you diabetes’, Jane says.‘It’s Australia’s first slum. So I try to give a certain shabby, run- down edge to my paintings of the area.’ Despite feeling largely powerless herself, Jane  foregrounds struggle in her art. She has included protest signs by Sally Parslow, one of
the oldest residents still fighting to astay in Millers Point. She once organised a gallery panel discussion featuring Jack Mundey, leader of Sydney’s Green Ban movement, and
Alex Greenwich, independent MP for the NSW seat of Sydney, on the history and events that led to Barangaroo’s redevelopment. On another occasion she tried to convince a curator to speak to union men from some of the sites she had painted to incorporate some historical information into the exhibition, although to no avail.

Jane struggles against a particular vision of modern Sydney. She describes a process of  urban shrinkage through infrastructural neglect, a deliberate government policy to
push residents and small businesses out of particular districts to make way for new developments. This is evident in Lucy Turnbull’s Bradfield Oration announcing the ‘three cities’ vision for Sydney: ‘The Eastern City is now the hub of financial, business and professional services, education, culture, entertainment and tourism…If businesses want to locate in the Eastern City we should celebrate and encourage this—a city that rejects investment is a city in serious trouble!’ Not once are the residents or the Aboriginal owners of the eastern city mentioned. The state government’s financial interest, of course, lies in an active property market and income from stamp duty. Jane’s art asks who the city is for. She recounts how perfectly good transport lines have been disused and others built in their stead. Heavy rail was inconvenient as it represented a union stronghold. Over the next few years the Epping to Chatswood line will be taken over by a private corporation and run with driverless trains as part of a metro project going all the way to Rouse Hill. Regarding the Eastern City of Turnbull’s ‘three cities’, where Sydney’s
industrial and natural heritage is most at risk, she asks, ‘Why do banks have to be on the water?’.

The irony of regarding Jane’s paintings of wharfies or metalworkers from previous  decades is that while they may signify people’s pride in their work and the prosperity of
industry, these paintings also foreshadow the fact that Sydney’s accumulated wealth will be used to marginalise these workers. Gentrification may often be a symptom rather than a cause of this transformation, but, seen by many as ‘natural’ or benign ‘progress’, it makes resistance to these forces difficult. The ghost that Jane finds in the landscape and the machine reminds us of the historical debt that must be paid by fighting for a Sydney that is inclusive of all these groups and their histories, rather than the seeming necessity of development. While primarily aesthetic, the language Jane employs in her art to render visible these identities and histories may be used in practical struggles over material conditions.

There is something redemptive about the process of restoration taking place in the Bus Museum around us. Beyond the askew aesthetics of images that Jane likes to paint, such as a bus raised atop a wooden stand, important stories are being brought to the surface.
Several buses on display have a driver’s compartment on top of the motor and isolated from the rest of the bus. As long as these buses were on the road, a conductor was
required to sell tickets to passengers. These buses were removed from service during the mid-1970s, when the unions lost the fight to keep conductors on board.

Jane tells me about her painting of a damaged wooden carriage, designated 703 HFA, in the Eveleigh Railway Workshops. The carriage belonged to a locomotive that suffered an accident at Cowan in which six people died. She says that ‘a restored carriage would be a symbolic triumph over a past tragedy’. Whatever else Jane Bennett’s art may achieve, perhaps her ultimate symbolic triumph is to show that, no matter how transformed, every urban landscape offers a way of seeing through which one can peer into the history of those who shaped it.

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