Taking A Crack At Aussie Blokes

Taking a crack at Aussie blokes

July 1, 2009

Art is having a close look at Australian manliness, writes Dylan Rainforth.

'WHAT's the difference between a larrikin, a bogan and a hoon?" It's not a joke, but a rhetorical question video artist Brendan Lee has asked himself many times as he has peered into the workings of Australian masculinity. Lee, whose most recent exhibition was based on C. J. Dennis' 1915 verse novel The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, is just one of several contemporary artists tinkering with the archetypes and stereotypes of Australian manliness.

In Lee's video update, the larrikin character of Dennis' poem has joined the union and found some mates on the construction site. Sitting down last at smoko, his builder's crack, which rises well over his tiny Hard Yakka shorts, becomes a target his crew can't resist. They begin a game of pitching coins.

Lee had worked with many of the actors before, notably for his 2007 video Proving Ground. Casting real tradies in the role was, he says, all part of keeping the portrayal as genuine as possible. "I build up a bit of rapport with them and when I set them up I want the viewer to get into the spirit of it as much as the actors are."

It's not just about having a laugh, though. Lee had been thinking about making a piece based on unionism and the construction industry since the Howard government's contentious WorkChoices reforms, but the decision by Pacific Brands to shift factories overseas provided its definitive form.

The video begins with The Bloke unbuttoning his fly and fumbling deep in his shorts. It's a worrying image, resolved when he tears out the Hard Yakka brand label and throws it to the wind. Then, wearing his CFMEU-emblazoned hard-hat and carrying a tabloid announcing the departure of Yakka parent company Pacific Brands, he joins his mates.

It was former prime minister Bob Hawke's status as a trade union leader, a hard drinker and a man of the people that inspired Lane Cormick's 2008 performance Unearthing the Hawke. (Cormick likes a tall tale as much as the next guy, and the title came from his uncle's claim of having anointed Hawke to be "the next prime minister of Australia" during a particularly heavy drinking session sometime in the '70s.)

The performance consisted of Cormick reading Hawke speeches while a collaborator poured 40-litre vats of red wine and urine over his head. "It f---ing stank," he says in his characteristically colourful way.

Another tall tale fed Cormick's 2007 performance Only One Way Out. Growing up in Sunshine, Cormick heard stories of an older kid who rode an illegal dirt bike right into the city to Uplands skate park. Later, Cormick wanted to test this myth by offering people dinks on a similar bike around the block from his gallery Neon Parc which happens to be in Bourke Street, just down from the State Parliament. "It was just a fine-slash-jail sentence waiting to happen."

Combustion engines are the beating heart of Aussie maleness. Right now, representing the nation outside the Australian pavilion at the Venice Biennale in Italy, is a replica of the Mad Max Ford XB Falcon Interceptor, placed there by artist Shaun Gladwell. His video installation MADDESTMAXIMVS: Planet & Stars Sequence reimagines the iconography of George Miller's films with a gentle protagonist who stops to bury a roadkill kangaroo.

Films and muscle cars also shaped illustrator Eamo (pronounced Aim-O, not emo) Donnelly's upbringing in Geelong, not far from Lara where Mad Max was shot.

Born in 1981, "which was still very '70s", Donnelly has been incredibly successful with his style of psychedelic nostalgia. Inkbrushed details of Strine culture from the '70s and '80s lifeguards, the Big Things, flora and fauna are carefully layered before a sunkissed Australian palette is digitally added. He has recently picked up regular work with Playboy magazine.

Donnelly attributes his earliest interest in the Australiana that has propelled his success to the 1971 film Walkabout. "I started to get into Australian film, then I realised that all the things I loved about the films was what I loved about growing up. All the things in those movies were snapshots of things that I loved.

"And then I saw Mad Max for the first time and that was it."

Eamo owns an XB just like the Interceptor but, his fascination with Ocker culture notwithstanding, he's too polished and citified now to be a true bogan. Maybe he was a scallywag in his youth, but is that the same as a larrikin? How do these subtle differentiations exist within ideas of Australian masculinity?

Brendan Lee eventually answers his own question: "A larrikin means no harm, a bogan doesn't know the harm they cause and a hoon is a bogan in a car."

Brendan Lee: jennyportgallery.com.au

Lane Cormick: neonparc.com.au

Eamo Donnelly: eamo.com.au