May Day: The Return of Art & Politics in the 21st Century — 6 May to 3 June 2006

Curators: Jelle van den Berg and Jo Holder.

Artists: Simon Blau, Barbara Campbell, Tom Carment, Tom Nicholson, Raquel Ormella, Jacky Redgate, Emma Rees and Bernie Slater (Artists and Writers’ Alliance, ACT), Toni Warburton, Jelle van den Berg, Deborah Vaughan, John von Sturmer, Waterside Workers Federation Film Unit

The exhibition May Day: The Return of Art & Politics in the 21st Century reflects on these sorry days of government manipulation of unions and the introduction of divisive industrial laws, on the curbing of civil liberties and the strangling of access to information. It also identifies a strong neo-conceptual critical and aesthetic strain within contemporary Australian art practice that interacts with global concerns and local political topics.

As many have observed, the 1950s and Cold War political posturing have become a metaphor for today’s conservative politics. While not a historical survey, the exhibition includes newsreel footage of the 1956 Sydney May Day shot by the acclaimed Waterside Workers Federation Film Unit, whose work typifies an ‘art is a weapon’ style mixed with Brechtian theatre techniques, and some related archival material.



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Barbara Campbell The sentence we all carry, 2006. Watercolour placards read: 'Once upon a time Australians believed that an employer who could not afford to pay a living wage did not deserve to be in business. That's over. Now anything goes.' Source: John Buchanan, quoted in Chris McArdle, 'Laws to settle a score don't bode well for the weak', Sydney Morning Herald, 27 March 2006.
Tom Nicholson, Marches for a May Day, Sydney, 2005. Documentation of dawn banner march prior to May Day. Colour photograph, 90 x 90 cm. Photo: Performance Waverly Cemetery, Sydney 2006.
Artists and Writers’ Alliance, ACT: Art action to protest the ‘Work Choices’ Industrial Relation Bill passed in the Australian Senate, December 2005, Canberra. Photo Kim Hopper
Artistand Writers’ Alliance, ACT: Art action to protest the ‘Work Choices’ Industrial Relation Bill passed in the Australian Senate, December 2005, Canberra. Photo Kim Hopper


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Simon Blau, Miss Red, 2006. Acrylic on paper, 25 x 20 cm
Simon Blau, Placard for abstract thought, 2006. Acrylic on plywood, 31 x 41 cm
Emma Rees, Employers Beware, 2005. Screenprint, Megalo Print Workshop. Artists and Writers’ Alliance, Canberra: Protest art action the night the ‘Work Choices’ Bill passed in the Australian Senate, December 2005.
Barbara Campbell, The sentence we all carry, 2006; May Day Banner (1950s), Toni Warburton & John von Sturmer with Daniel Wallace, Tea Ta Tae/Eat Ate Earn, 2006.


In contrast, artists are now manoeuvred off the set by the spectacles of art and entertainment, and cultural politics is divorced from institutional political culture. However, artists often work with this lineage of modernism and cultural activism. Barbara Campbell, Tom Nicholson and Raquel Ormella use traditional emblems of protest—banners, occupied sites, anonymous poster paste-ups, hand-to-hand materials, collaborative actions. Some — Tom Carment is an example — work with activists like Pat Geraghty, veteran member of The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and resident of Kings Cross, to document passing cultural history. Other artists, like Simon Blau or Jacky Redgate, comment in symbolic or abstract ways, often with irony and humour.

The project evolved from discussion of Jelle van den Berg’s sketchbook titled ‘Industrial Relations’ which juxtaposes notes and views of the old industry suburb of Waterloo with notes and views of the shiny new Waterloo of residential apartments. Gentrification and outsourcing — both processes in the tension of globalisation.

The artists of May Day honour the determination and colour of two great workers’ commemorations: the Eight-Hour Day (renamed Labour Day), won 150 years ago by stonemasons, and the May Day parade initiated by shearers at Barcaldine in 1891. Today the two have pretty much fused into one public event. May Day, associated with rites of spring, May Queens and maypoles, and given aesthetic legitimacy by William Morris and Walter Crane, is undergoing a renewal.

Kylie Tennant’s novel Foveaux (1939), an account of life in inner-city Sydney set in 1912, recounts the glories of these events; Eight-Hour Day was almost invariably blessed by rain or wind and some of the unions from bitter experience had taken to carrying their banners furled. More than one groan had gone up from the crowd as over a hundred pounds' worth of crimson silk split like old sailcloth.



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Waterside Workers Federation Film Unit (Norma Disher, Keith Gow and Jock Levy). Banners Held High, May Day 1956. Courtesy The Maritime Union of Australia.
Workshop, 6 May 2006 and May Day March 7 May 2006. Participants: Pamille Berg, Robin Blau, Phillip Boulten, Loma Bridge, Elisabeth Burke, Liz Day, Christopher Dean, Shirley Diamond, Trevor Fry, Sarah Goffman, Helen Grace, Gunther, Jo Holder, Robert Lake, Ruark Lewis, Fiona MacDonald, Fleur MacDonald, Sue Pedley, Anna Rauls, Mary Roberts, Catherine Rogers, Ann Stephen, Jeffrey Stewart, Sophia Thibaudeau, Toni Warburton. Watercolour on paper on mdf, 12 x 16 cm, attached to hardwood battens. Photograph courtesy of Myles Formby
Raquel Ormella, Relative Value, 1998–2006. Detail. Coins (5 cents) and typed cigarette papers, cardboard.



May Day Catalogue > Download as pdf

May Day Poster > Download as pdf