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Poster Magic. 50 years of loud silence.

‘Got the Message? – 50 years of political posters’ brings together some 220 highly-charged and often confronting posters from Australia and around the world at the Art Gallery of Ballarat until 14 April 2013.

Silence combined with a visual language that triggers political action is particularly golden. Australia’s oldest and largest regional gallery, the Art Gallery of Ballarat, is playing host to an exhibition of 220 posters that cover a large spectrum of social and political protest and change. Geoff Wallis, the curator of the exhibition, has helped put the show in context by answering a few questions for us:

Q: Where did the idea for the exhibition come from?

A: I have long had an interest in posters as an art form and after acquiring major posters in New York in late 2010 it occurred to me – always on the lookout for an exhibition opportunity – that a small show of posters from Australia and overseas would be a great curatorial challenge. Earlier in 2010 the Art Gallery of Ballarat had mounted a large exhibition on political cartoons since the 18th century and a political poster show seemed a logical follow-on. Australian political posters have been well-served by exhibitions over the years but Australian audiences have had few opportunities to see local work rubbing shoulders with coeval work from overseas.

 Q: Was it difficult to gather the material from collections?

A: What started as a rather minor show soon transformed into a vast project. Rather too ambitiously perhaps, I tried to bring together as many of the most famous and extraordinary political posters of the last 50 years as I could lay my hands on. In the end I included 237 posters out of around 250 that were available. It was a huge challenge trying to gather these posters from far afield and in the end there were a few gaps that I wasn’t able to fill – Cuban and Vietnamese posters for example. Invariably an exhibition is shaped by what is available. Sourcing posters from Australia was easy enough and many artists were happy to lend or sell work to the gallery. In fact there was an embarrassment of riches with local posters and there simply wasn’t a place for all of them. More than a third of the posters came from our private collection, mostly those from overseas. We have a substantial collection of American anti-Vietnam War posters and a vast collection of Polish posters so major work was readily available. A large number of the recent posters by international graphic designers were sent directly to the gallery as digital files and they were simply printed out.

Q: Looking at where communication is these days are posters still powerful on their own or do they require viral/digital media to get traction?

A: There’s no doubt that the era of posters as a major vehicle for political action is behind us. In fact in the catalogue I described the exhibition as rather like a wake, a celebration of an art-form that has been over-run by the tsunami of new social media. Though it’s unlikely that political posters will ever completely disappear, the battles for hearts and minds have already largely moved from the streets to cyberspace.  When dissent does make its way to the street it is likely to be in the form of stencil graffiti and paste-ups.  Brilliant posters are still being produced however, because, for a graphic designer (and occasionally an artist), the poster format offers a unique challenge – of compressing hard-hitting information into visually arresting presentations. The digital era has also offered new opportunities for posters to be distributed in cyberspace to be downloaded and printed by anyone with a cause.

Q: Do you discern any difference between Australian posters and the rest?

A: A quick look at any of the catalogues for recent International Poster Biennales in Warsaw, Poland, reveals how the national characteristics that were so prominent in posters of the past are steadily being eroded by increasing cross-fertilization. Australian posters of the hey-day of the poster collectives in the 1970s and 80s certainly spoke with a broad Aussie ‘accent’. To outsiders the bold graphic statements of Michael Callaghan (Redback Graphix), Chips Mackinolty, Toni Robertson, Reg Mombassa (Mambo) and other artistic agitators must have appeared gauche and in-your-face offensive when they first appeared. Deborah Kelly with her Mary Mary (keep your rosaries off our ovaries) and King Charles and Queen Camilla, made specifically for ‘Got the Message?’, has continued this vein. The technical side of Australian posters also made them distinctive. Members of the numerous poster collectives mastered the silkscreen process and utilised intense colour, hand lettering and drawing, and photographic imagery to great effect.

Q: What is the strongest ‘call to action’ you’ve seen on a poster?

A: The posters produced in Paris in May 1968 by the members of Atelier Populaire were certainly impassioned, but cris de coeur of this kind are not as prominent in ‘Got the Message?’ as one might expect. Certainly there are few protest posters in the exhibition that present straight-forward demands for action with images of raised fists and waving flags. The visual rhetoric of the past has largely been replaced by more subtle and layered messaging using tropes such as metaphors, and post-modern strategies of appropriation, subversion, and parody. Posters by the Israeli artists Yossi Lemel, Yarom Vardimon and David Tartakover all argue for action over the Israeli-Palestinian stand-off but present their cases in subtle ways that invite meditation on the complexities involved. Lemel’s visceral Seam Line for example, confronts us with an image of two slabs of meat/flesh sewn together which we can interpret in a number of ways. Many other posters similarly take an oblique approach, one that requires decoding by the audience. Maja Wolna in her pictographic series ‘Unveiled’ adopts a very clean, minimalist look but the subject matter – the way women are mistreated in some Islamic societies – is hard-hitting and deeply disturbing.  James Victore’s Racism and the Death Penalty, one of the most powerful calls to action in the exhibition, also uses an unexpected angle – the hangman’s game which is ‘completed’ by the racism of the audience.

Q: Is good poster art the same as good graphic design?

A: To be effective and achieve its aim of provoking a reaction that in turn leads to action a poster has to bring all its elements into line so that the image and text work in concert. In almost every case this involves good graphic design. Of course, given the variables in context and circumstance, there are probably times when a poorly designed poster actually hits the mark. The Lambert Studios’ War is good business – Invest your son poster which filches Michelangelo’s famous Pieta is artistically bereft but possibly it encouraged some to take to the streets in protest.

An obvious problem is determining whether any particular poster is successful in getting across its message.  Jerzy Janiszewski’s Solidarnosc was undoubtedly a potent rallying point for Solidarity supporters in Poland in 1980, and the posters produced by ‘Silence = Death’, ‘ACT-UP’ and ‘Gran Fury’ may have hastened authorities to acknowledge the reality of HIV/AIDS. Shepard Fairey’s Hope, an image of President Obama, was successful in rallying people to the Democrat cause and this was directly due to its specific qualities as graphic design.

Occasionally a single poster may find itself in the thick of political events and act as a catalyst for change but in most cases posters help effect change by playing a part in a broad process of consciousness and conscience raising. In ‘Got the Message?’ a central criterion of selection was that the posters were aesthetically remarkable and original. Not all measured up – the Lambert Studios’ poster mentioned above for example – and some were included merely as documents of their time.

Among the finest works of graphic design in the exhibition were Yossi Lemel’s 50th Anniversary (1995), Mark Gowing’s Oil Kills Peace (2006), Art Chantry’s I take one everywhere I take my penis (1997), Maja Wolna’s ‘Unveiled’ series and her Grand Prix winning Anti-AIDS Ukraine (2006), Klaus Staeck’s Solidarity with Chile  (1973), Harry Pearce’s Burma (2006), Lex Drewinski’s 2D 3D (2005), Eugeniusz Stankiewicz’ Satyrykon 90 (1990) and Paul Rand’s Death Mask (1968).

Many posters in the exhibition were produced by artists rather than graphic designers and by and large this is reflected in their work. Distinguished work by members of the Australian collectives included Marie McMahon’s You are on Aboriginal land (1984), Pam Debenham’s  No Nukes in the Pacific (1984), Viva Gibb’s CIA Assassin (1979), Carol Porter’s Beautifully slim … at last (1992) and Nicholas Mau’s China Plate Mate (2008). Other significant posters were by Tomi Ungerer Black Power – White Power (1967), Keith Haring Free South Africa (1985), and Josh McPhee Young Americans (2004).

Q: Are there any posters relating to political and social change that came out of the Victorian gold rush?

The famous events in Ballarat in 1854 centred on the Eureka Stockade certainly led to many letter-press posters being produced at the time. Any lingering impact of that era is likely to be the spirit of rebellion that has been claimed as an important part of the Australian make-up over the years. Perhaps we can see in the dissenting output of the 1970s and 80s poster collectives echoes of that earlier antipathy toward authority and readiness to take up arms.

Poster Magic: 50 Years of Loud Silence
Marty Neumeier War = Terror 2003 digital print Courtesy the artist © The artist
Poster Magic: 50 Years of Loud Silence
Art Chantry (USA) I take one everywhere I take my penis 1997 offset print Private collection © The artist.
Poster Magic: 50 Years of Loud Silence
Michael Callaghan Mutate now and avoid the rush 1970s screen print Collection: Art Gallery of Ballarat Purchased, 1978 © The artist’s estate
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Liz Bond

Liz Bond comes from a PR background and loves fine wine, great food and rewarding travel - all the magnificent things in life. She prides herself in an innate ability to meet famous celebrities at baggage carousels.

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