ephemeral traces: Brisbane’s artist-run scene in the 1980s

University of Queensland Art Museum
2 April - 26 June 2016

Jeanelle Hurst / Highrise Wallpaper / 1988

Words by Isabella Baker

‘A functioning gallery simply requires a room’

The exhibition ‘ephemeral traces: Brisbane’s artist-run scene in the 1980s’ explores the emergence of artist-run initiatives during the last 10 years of a right-wing government under Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Despite Brisbane’s reputation as a ‘cultural wasteland’, this exhibition has brought together clear evidence of a thriving art community where there was a thirst for excitement, experimentation, creativity and change. The rich collection of ephemera on display conveys the history of the underground political and subversive grass roots movements in Brisbane. Archives, artworks, multimedia and punk paraphernalia are some of the ephemera that have been snatched from oblivion and are displayed for the first time in a formal art setting. Central to this exhibition is a timeline of the 1980s that provides an understanding of the cultural and political issues that brought about such a radical and experimental energy. These artists worked with anything they could get their hands on to get their message across.

This exhibition focuses on five key artist-run spaces that were initiated from 1982 to 1988: One Flat, A ROOM, THAT Contemporary Art Space (now THAT Space), The Observatory, and John Mills National. They were rebelling against everything. There was high unemployment, an exclusive art community that seemed to lock them out and an oppressive government that prosecuted those who were different. Artists sought a democratic community-based initiative that enabled them to express themselves freely. They were not complacent in the dismissal of Brisbane as a cultural backwater. Brisbane was a city for sale as there was unprecedented bulldozing of city streets and development of skyscrapers. For many, it seemed that the personality of the city was being destroyed. There was born the cultural amnesia of what Brisbane is. It was also called ‘pig city’ because of the overbearing amount of police control of youth, the obvious corruption and hypocrisy that were taking place in the public sphere. These young people felt they had nothing to lose and that they were at war with the state. Therefore, their focus was on hit and run art, on ‘art-work’ rather than ‘the art object’. The line between art and non-art activities is part of the experimentation by artists of the time, for example Brian Doherty. It was locally specific, identifiable to a Brisbane context of its time, directly attacking and provoking those in power. Along with this exhibition is a comprehensive catalogue and a series of public talks, podcasts, and events around visiting the spaces where so much energy and artistic freedom are memories because it is now a very built up CBD. A catch-cry of the time was ‘95% of artists leave Brisbane. Why don’t you?’. This exhibition is about the artists that stayed. It is interesting that there is an increasing number of artist-run initiatives emerging each month on social media looking for spaces – backstreets, warehouses, empty walls in Brisbane. UQ Art Museum provides a space for this important exhibition that has brought to light this powerful image of a resourceful, inspired, groundbreaking art movement of Brisbane.