PROJECT SPACE SPARE ROOM / 31 October to 20 November 2014
The Bloke Show brings together seven artists who explore masculinity from different perspectives, whether critiquing white male colonisation of indigenous cultures, celebrating sporting heroes, or contemplating rural male isolation. Brought together, the works in The Bloke Show create a complex and layered reading of Australian male identity in contemporary society.
The exhibition forms the culmination of the 2014 RMIT Print Imaging Practice Residency. Artists have been commissioned to develop a print edition, which will be available for purchase from the galleries.
What is a Bloke? According to The Book of Bloke, “a Bloke is a human male native to Australia, typically between 150 and 200 centimetres tall, frequently partial to beer and ventilated footwear, who has built a mighty nation from the scraps of colonialism and inappropriate farming practices. That much is obvious.”1 Author Ben Pobjie goes on to say, however, that “there is a much deeper sense in which Blokedom is a mystery.”2
While having fun with popular stereotypes and clichés, Pobjie’s spoof nevertheless contains perceptive insights into post-colonial constructions of Australian masculinity. In The Bloke Show, seven artists— Paul Compton, David Frazer, Rona Green, Rew Hanks, Cherry Hood, Bronek Kòzka and Jim Pavlidis—likewise grapple with Australian masculinity from unique perspectives, revealing how nebulous, contested and fraught a figure the Bloke really is.
In tracing the ancestry of the Bloke, Pobjie writes:
There are those who claim that the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 also marked the arrival of the First Bloke; others maintain that the first settlers to arrive in this country were not true Blokes, but merely transplanted Chaps who did not fulfil the necessary requirements for actual Blokedom.3
Rew Hanks visualises the ongoing reverberations of Australia’s Chap heritage on the nation’s cultural and physical landscape by revisiting historical figures such as James Cook and Joseph Banks. Anachronistic costumes and postures expose the conceits of historical colonial practices, while also pointing to the ongoing folly of clinging to Chap customs and loyalties, particularly at the expense of indigenous populations. This is felt especially keenly in the “inappropriate farming practices” that play such a key role in constructions of (white) antipodean male identity. Blokes on the land have generally been viewed as more authentically blokey than City Blokes, yet studies by the National Rural Health Alliance reveal that men in regional areas are twice as likely to commit suicide as their metropolitan counterparts, and up to six times more likely in very remote areas.4 Alcohol abuse and loneliness are listed amongst the contributing factors to the poor statistics, along with “stoic, masculine attitudes and a rural ideology which promotes … rugged individualism, [and] discourages individuals from seeking help.”5 This exemplar of Aussie manliness is undone by his very blokehood, tragically incompatible with the land that forges so much of his identity.
David Frazer’s portraits of solitary men gazing across the paddocks from rooftops, clinging to trees in desperation, or brought to their knees by pathetic drunkenness engage directly with the isolated, and isolating, realities of country life. Loneliness is palpable in David Frazer’s The Text (2014), in which a black void weighs upon the shoulders and dreams of a solitary man gazing dejectedly at his technological portent of bad news. While the contents of the text remain hidden, we are left with little doubt that this beacon of connectedness has, ironically, just delivered new depths of solitude and isolation.
While there has been a generational shift, many Blokes still suffer from “stoic, masculine attitudes” when it comes to expressing their feelings. Dr Peter West laments in A Survival Guide for Men that “there are not many approved emotions for men, unless they are around sport. It’s OK to shed tears for your team, apparently.”6 Sport is one of the few arenas in which public physical intimacy between men is tolerated; team members openly hug each other, tousle each other’s hair, or weep in shared victory or commiseration.
In his etchings and lithographs, Jim Pavlidis creates poignant vignettes of that bastion of Blokedom, Australian Rules football. Physical tackles are transformed into tender embraces as foes entwine their limbs and torsos on the field, sharing a bodily intimacy that is usually reserved for lovers. Himself a keen follower of the game, Pavlidis resists glorifying his heroes. His anonymous, faceless players are as likely to be the local team scrambling in the mud and wet of a desolate suburban oval as the highly paid, high profile AFL champions with the bright lights of major sporting stadiums and the heated breath of legions of screaming fans to keep them warm.
A football also features in Bronek Kòzka’s I was just a child then, now I’m only a man (2013). In this double-sided photograph, a young boy looks forward to future sporting glory while his middle-aged self looks back on unrequited dreams and aspirations. The title is taken from the lyrics of a Pink Floyd song, Your Possible Pasts, and similar ghosts of unfulfilled potential, of disappointments and compromises, haunt Kòzka’s male subjects. The photographer’s disquieting portraits of Blokes in suburban settings subvert the seeming ordinariness of their subject, alluding to tensions, anxieties and frustrations that are barely suppressed behind the facades of normality.
Under-achievement infiltrates the very heart of Blokedom. In her analysis of the 2006 film, Kenny, which casts a conscientious plumber as the unlikely hero, Kirsty Whitman writes: “The very normative averageness of working-class masculinity places it at the centre of narratives concerning what it means to be an Australian.”7 This echoes Dennis Carroll’s 1982 observation that in order to conform to uniquely Australian expectations of masculinity, a “man should be reasonably successful in areas which are not too threatening to others and remain an ‘ordinary bloke’.”8
This is nowhere more evident than in the Australian susceptibility to “tall poppy syndrome”. Actor Russell Crowe, the star of Hank’s Cinderella Man linocut, as well as Ron Howard’s 2005 film of the same name, is a case in point. Playing Depression-era boxer James J. Braddock, Crowe metamorphoses from poorly-paid manual labourer to celebrated Heavyweight World Champion, a “rags to riches” story that sees the (American) hero awarded glory and praise for fighting in public. The inverse might apply to Crowe the actor. Applauded as an Australian success when he began making inroads into Hollywood, Crowe is conveniently disowned as a New Zealander whenever he causes national embarrassment. His unfortunate outbursts are considered ‘prima donna’ rather than ‘manly’ now that his success places him outside the realms of regular Blokedom, even if his anger (mis)management history is far from unique.
Anger, violence, misogyny and bigotry continue to plague the Blokes of Australia. Men make up the overwhelming majority of those enjoying her majesty’s pleasure, occupying an unassailable 93% of prison cells, with rates of imprisonment increasing overall.9 The ugliness of the Cronulla race riots and recent alcohol-fuelled punch-ups have tarnished the Bloke’s wholesome reputation, particularly when adjectivally linked to Behaviour or Culture. Men are clearly failing Australian society, but is Australia also failing its men? Why do so many Blokes go wrong?
Rona Green’s animal-headed torsos are also plagued by anti-social pasts; their creature countenances and tattooed skins announce their status as misfits and outcasts, as Dodgy Blokes. Green reminds us of a pre-hipster age when ink provided a codified language—or warning—of one’s origin, allegiance, status or (largely criminal) proclivities. Her flash catalogue includes tribal markings of Bornese head-hunters, and Russian prison tattoos that chronicle misdemeanours and violations of society’s taboos. Yet rather than condemning her (anti)heroes’ social shortcomings, Green offers an empathetic celebration of their idiosyncrasies and imperfections. The artist’s animal personas don’t so much reinforce stereotypes of brutishness, as allude to soft underbellies and universal needs for mateship and fraternity, even amongst hardened, non-conformist Blokes. Howell (2014), with his facial tattoo and tuxedo, straddles the gulf between Brute and Gent, conflating archetypes of Blokedom and making it impossible to categorise him as one or the other. What to do with Blokes for whom Blokedom is not an easy fit? And where does Blokedom begin?
Cherry Hood’s large-scale portraits of solitary youths hover in the sexually ambiguous no-man’s land of nascent masculinity. Watercolour bleeds into bruised lips and tear-stained cheeks, emphasising the fraught vulnerabilities and hurts of adolescence, while the erotically-charged androgyny of Hood’s disconcertingly sensual pre-Blokes challenges notions of pre-determined gender roles or sexuality. These guarded teens do not fall naturally into the rough and tumble world of team sports and mateship, nor are futures as football stars, businessmen, labourers, fathers or other clichés of manliness mapped out for them. They are the sensitive loners, the nebulous misfits, the bullied, the clandestinely desired. Hood’s unapologetically beautiful youths beseech us to reconsider our expectations for masculinity and our own sexuality.
Paul Compton flirts with similar terrain in Party’s Over (2014), in which a young man in a bear suit gazes skyward with melancholy realisation. The fake fur that, just the night before, offered him an escape from himself—a protective, alternative identity—only exposes his emotional nakedness in the pink blush of sunrise.
In other works, Compton explores the malleability of gender itself, questioning whether one even needs to be a bloke to be a Bloke. The artist’s faux Victorian miniatures of drag kings—women who impersonate men on stage—feature contemporary performers Goldie Peacock, Landon Cider and Australia’s Rocco d’Amore, while nodding to their turn-of-the-century predecessors such as British music hall performer Vesta Tilley. Unlike drag queens with their flamboyant transvestism, drag kings are relatively understated, relying on carefully observed Blokey behaviours, mannerisms, deportment and dress in order to appear convincingly male. Akin to d’Amore, who aspires to “woo straight women, confuse gay boys, [and] challenge macho men,”10 Compton prompts his viewers to consider whether it is sufficient to walk like a Bloke, talk like a Bloke and look like a Bloke, in order to be accepted into the fraternity of Blokedom, questioning how much of being a Bloke is biologically predetermined, and how much is culturally dictated.
Which brings us back to the original question: what is a Bloke, after all?
Jazmina Cininas, October 2014
1 Ben Pobjie, The Book of Bloke, Pan, 2012
4 National Rural Health Alliance, Fact Sheet 14: Suicide in rural Australia, May 2009. Accessed online at http://ruralhealth.org.au/sites/default/files/fact-sheets/fact-sheet-14-suicide%20in%20rural%20australia_0.pdf.
6 Peter West, A Survival Guide for Men, accessed online at http://www.boyslearning.com.au/articles/men/A%20SURVIVAL%20GUIDE%20FOR%20MEN.pdf, c. 1998.
7 Kirsty Whitman, “The ‘Aussie Battler’ And The Hegemony Of Centralising Working-Class Masculinity In Australia: Gender, Class, Mainstreaming and the Axis of Visibility in Kenny”, Australian Feminist Studies, Vol. 28, No. 75, 2013, pp. 50-64
8 Dennis Carroll, “Mateship and Individualism in Modern Australian Drama”, Theatre Journal, Vol. 34, No. 4, Dec. 1982, pp. 467-480
9 Eileen Baldry, The Booming Industry: Australian Prisons, http://www.nobars.org.au/downloads/Baldry_Debate.pdf, October, 2008. See pp. 2-4.
10 i.t.a. in interview with Rocco D’amore, Powder zine.com, http://www.powderzine.com/node/185, July 2013