The Sentimental Blokes

The Sentimental Blokes

June 3 - 27, 2009

The Sentimental Blokes is the latest in Brendan Lee's ongoing exploration of Australian identity. In his new series of photographs and videos, Lee tackles the Trade Union and construction industry's archetypes and lore. Lee combines elements from Australian films and iconic photography in a desire to portray the “Tradie” as a sentimental bloke whilst at the same time paying homage to the works of C.J Dennis.

Lee's new series is timely in it's exploration into brand identity as part of the cultural iconography of Australia and what it means to those who wear them as emblems of pride.

The Sentimental Blokes is a celebration of the larrikin. Bum cracks, work clobber, pole dancing and double iced coffees all combine to celebrate the end of an era and salute our national brands as they depart our fatal shores.

The Sentimental Blokes...ramblings

The project began through an evaluation of my 2007 series Proving Ground and it's premise of questioning the differences between a Bogan, a Larrikin and a Hoon. Cultural and filmic stereotypes were all combined and digested with the series - in effect - creating a pastiche of Australian identity.

With The Sentimental Blokes the project has narrowed to explore the commonly held belief in society that it is acceptable to act in a socially unacceptable manner on a trade union construction site. The whistling trade workers on a site reinforce the yobbo exterior also bringing in to question the place of the larrikin within a contemporary context. The building site is also a sacred area where the general public are not permitted, therefore one that has its own rules that are enforced and abided by. I wanted to put forward the idea that there were OH&S rules that the workers followed (hard hats, high visibility clothing, work boots and safety signs), yet there were some ethical dilemmas that are attached to the construction worker cliché and it's romanticized (nostalgic) association with the Australian male.

One of the most disturbing things I discovered whilst conducting fieldwork for the project was the acceptance of strippers on site to celebrate a birthday or completion of a job. One stripper would routinely perform sex acts on some of the workers in front of others and for a few dollars more take them around the back. A recent crackdown on drinking on site was also an indication that the workplace was decades behind on even some of the most fundamental of principles of a working day.

The works of CJ Dennis came to my attention a few years ago (many more years for some people I imagine) when attempting to trace the earliest filmic examples of the Aussie strine. Even though The Songs of the Sentimental Bloke were released starting from 1876, it was the adaptation of The Sentimental Bloke (1915) which I found exciting in that it kept the colourful Australian language. The silent film used slides introducing each scene and in doing so inserted the character's dialogue and Australian pronunciation for the viewer to absorb. The songs and ultimately the 1919 film captured the larrikin of the turn of the nineteenth century, one who drinks, swears, gambles, succeeds and ultimately fails in love and life. I could see parallels with the contemporary Aussie blue collar worker who couldn't see anything wrong with how they lived their lives. Failure could be put down to bad luck.

Recited by Geoff Brennan a radio broadcaster for 3AW until the mid 90s

It's ard being a square bloke wen made feel galoot
With toffs in igh towers blight'n me suit

Translation: It's hard to stay calm when the director's of Pacific Brands have sold the sold of Australian workwear off shore to China.

Buildin's me grip and I'm uppish of that
With boots made for yakka me passport's me hat

Translation: He's proud to be a construction worker. He wears clothes for serious work and the hard hat has the induction stickers on it allowing access to building sites.

A nod to the law cos we built this town
And turned a blind eye when we're heading the brown

Translation: No one really cares what the workers get up to, without them there wouldn't be a city.
Illegal acts can be ignored if they are harmless including gambling.

I look like a tug yet I'm good with the fluff
Call the lip to be manly, high-falutin and tough

Translation: He may not be handsome although he's good with the ladies
They yell out at the passing women to show how manly and clever they are.

The lark is all day and smoko's for jokes
But when the legs come along
We're just sentimental blokes

Translation: They have fun all day although morning tea is where they really play it up, although everything stops when a woman walks past: it's time to put on the charm.

The photographs
The three photographic series are primary, secondary and tertiary references to Australian culture. The helmets are the grassroots of Australian identity, the workwear labels are a secondary reference to the iconic nature of the clothing and the black and white works refer to the iconic photographic imagery of iconic Australian scenes.

Hard Yakka
One of the underlying elements of The Sentimental Blokes is the tearing out of the Hard Yakka tag from the shorts of one of the characters from what appears at first t be an attack on an insatiable itch of the groin. With all of my video works, I integrate a timely issue during the planning process. The Sentimental Blokes coincided with the moving off shore of the iconic workwear labels Hard Yakka, Bonds and King- G by Pacific Brands. The made in Australia campaigns that were prominent over the past few decades have been dealt a deathly blow with the shift in these brands. The blue collar workers treat the workwear not only their uniform, the clothes define their position in society and the archetypes they reinforce. The forceful tearing out of the Yakka label conveys the loss of pride faced by the workers who held the labels in high regard. The 'Memorial' images of Yakka (made in Australia) and Stubbies (made in China) are represented in a ritualistic impaling as would be faced by the directors of Pacific Brands if the sacked workers had their way with them.

Max Dupain
There are two works which are quite obviously based on photographs by Max Dupain: The Sunbaker 1937 and Bondi 1939. In re-staging the photographs with the blue collar workers I've meshed in cultural stereotypes associated with the tradie. I've depicted them as being so tough they can drink double iced coffees and still be able to sleep on the job. The second photograph shows one worker picking the undies from his bum crack (the digging in of the shorts features heavily in the video work). The scratches and dirt have been left on the negative when developed making a point that they are referencing photography in contrast to the primary resources and locations of Max Dupain.

Passports for hats
During the fieldwork for The Sentimental Blokes, I undertook the task of documenting as many of the helmets as possible on the COSTCO site at Docklands. The uniqueness of each helmet comes down to the creativity of the owners with a definite sense of the larrikin shining through with quite a few of them. A fair few of the helmets had carried across differing jobs and sites as was evident in the stickers applied after the worker had been inducted onto the site. The induction stickers read as a passport entry and I felt that they were similar to visas to enter a country where you had to abide by their rules once you'd set foot on new soil.

Australian film is littered with references to male group mentality when faced with gender issues. The legs in this piece belong to performance artist Peter Burke who has travelled the world with his persona Shelly, including Bollywood. Films as diverse as The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Muriel's Wedding and Moulin Rouge have a uniquely Australian take on dancing girls and their relationships to men from within their socio-economic environment. I thought it would add another layer of reading by making the legs male rather than their attention and comments being directed at a woman.

Thanks to
Jenny Port, Geoff Brennan, Paul Chircop, Tom Flaherty, Tom Rees, Bryan Townsin, Anton Jeandet, Peter Burke, Andrew McLaughlin, Sally Browne, Shaun Wilson, Alexandre Maltarollo, Brie Trenerry, Anna MacDonald (ACCA) Michael Brennan (Shifted), CJ Dennis