Sunday, 12 June 2016

Art and architecture, from London to Sydney


 The Yellow House, 57-59 Potts Point, Sydney, September 1971. Photograph: Greg Weight.

[Paper presented at the Aquarius Redux: Rethinking Architecture's Counterculture conference, Faculty of Architecture, University of Sydney, 4-5 July 2016]


"...let's paint a jungle on the walls....", Third grade boy,  Freestone - Advertisements for a Counterculture, Progressive Architecture, July 1970. Cited in Blauvelt 2015.

"[The Yellow House] is probably one of the greatest pieces of conceptual art ever achieved." Martin Sharp, televison interview, September 1971.



Abstract: In 1970 Martin Sharp - a former University of Sydney architecture student (1961), graduate of the National Art School (1963) and co-editor from 1963 through to 1968 of the landmark Australian and British counterculture magazine OZ - returned from London where between 1966-9 he produced a series of stunning Pop art posters and helped set in place the basic template for modern magazine graphic design. One of Sharp’s first tasks on arriving back in Sydney was to recreate the legendary Yellow House of Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh. It was Van Gogh’s original vision during the 1880s to set up a retreat for artists in the sunny south of France, where he and colleagues could work in true collaboration. Van Gogh’s Yellow House was a simple, 2-storey building in Arles, attached to a house and adjacent to a restaurant (painted pink), with 2 rooms on each floor. Sharp had a similar vision, though transported it to Sydney where he selected a derelict former art gallery and 3 storey, Victorian era terrace building at 57-59 Macleay Street, Potts Point. Influenced by Magritte, Van Gogh, Picasso, Hokusai, Dada and the Surrealists, over the next three years Sharp and a group of artists, performers, film makers, musicians and student architects transformed the building into a work of art and performance space. The walls, floors and exterior were repainted (the latter yellow), remodelled and turned into art galleries, living and office areas, a puppet theatre, cabaret, cafe and cinema. The post-Woodstock, pre-Nimbin, Aquarian Age participants made use of a traditional piece of urban architecture to accommodate the many and varied means of expression then at play, culminating in its final manifestation as an inner-city, countercultural commune wherein Utopian visions were enacted. Martin Sharp’s Yellow House was more successful than Van Gogh’s dream – only Paul Gauguin visited the Yellow House in Arles. Numerous artists, members of the counterculture, and the general public engaged with the building between April 1970 and March 1973. Its adaptation and use was an expression of the Dada philosophy of anarchy and the everyday nature of art within the built environment. Intellectual, practical, artistic and liveable – the Sydney Yellow House was, for a brief period, a living, breathing community. The ability of the building to accommodate a wide range of activities, from performance and publication through exhibition, entertainment and accommodation, reveals the adaptability of both it and the numerous participants then engaged with the counterculture. It also points to the significant and evolving communal ethos of the era, as seen in later events such as the 1973 Aquarius Festival at Nimbin, and creation of the environmentally sustainable Autonomous House at the University of Sydney in 1974.

 Martin Sharp, Peter Kingston, Joyce & George Gittoes, The Stone Room, Yellow House, September 1971. Photograph: Greg Weight. Featuring a reproduction by Martin Sharp of Hokusai's The Great Wave (1834).


Counterculture (un)contained

The counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s revealed itself through a variety of forms - art, architecture, graphic design, music, writing, protest and alternate lifestyles, to name but a few. All grew out of a post-World War II youth-based rebellion against conservative values and traditional norms. Precursors are evident in films such as Marlon Brando's The Wild One (1953) and James Dean's Rebel Without A Cause (1955), whilst the explosion of rock and roll at the end of the decade, led by artists such as Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, further ignited the flames of dissent. By the time of the arrival of the Beatles and Bob Dylan in 1963, the impact was becoming global. Integral to the embracing of alternate lifestyles and freedom of expression were the cultural revolutions taking place around the second half of the 1960s in Western societies such as Europe, America, sections of Asia including Japan, South America and Australasia. The sexual revolution, widespread use of hallucinogenic and recreational drugs, the anti-war movement, psychedelia and Utopian dreams - viz. the Beatles mantra "All you need is love" - were some of the more public and controversial elements of this period of evolution and revolution. Related innovations passed almost unnoticed at the time, relegated to the fringes of the underground media or denigrated as the purview of hippiedom. Many now form an integral part of everyday life in the new millennium, including issues such as environmental sustainability, enhancement of civil, political and moral rights, and adaptations to the built environment with the aim of energy efficiency. These ideas and movements could, at the time, be integrated, overlapping, individual or communal. Freedom of expression and experimentation was actively and widely encouraged. Art and architecture became ephemeral to the mainstream, yet integral to a new, alternate society often referred to as the counterculture, though it was never a singular entity (Smith & Crossley 1975, Blauvert 2015).

A good example, and one heretofore not considered in any detail, is the relationship between a leading figure of the counterculture - Australian artist Martin Sharp - and the built environment. Internationally known for his involvement with the often controversial OZ magazine between 1963-73, the production of a series of psychedelic posters including the Bob Dylan Blowing in the Mind (1967) and an exploding Jimi Hendrix (1968), and a large body of work through to his death in 2013, Sharp is not generally connected with architectural movements, spatial design or built forms. However he did work closely with his physical environment and moved, occasionally, beyond the palette, canvas and sculptured piece onto bricks and mortar. The most well-known example of this is the 3-storey Victorian terrace in Potts Point, Sydney, known as the Yellow House, for which he was the primary instigator. Between April 1970 and March 1973 it became home to a disparate community of artists, musicians, dancers, puppeteers, performers, poets, photographers, writers, architects, drifters, exiles and young people looking for an alternative to the drabness of society around them. Sharp was an inspiration and guiding force for many of its activities. He, along with like-minded colleagues such as film maker Albie Thoms, generally encouraged freedom of expression and, more especially, participatory engagement with the building. The Yellow House was not Sharp's only example of transforming the built environment, both real and imagined - he also worked in film and theatre set design (e.g. Performance 1968, Picnic at Hanging Rock 1975), both in Australia and England, on building facades, and later in the general preservation and renovation of Sydney's Luna Park fun park. One contemporary newspaper report referred to the Yellow House as "an artistic Luna Park" (Thomas 1971).


The 1973 Luna Park face, Sydney, restored by Martin Sharp and Peter Kingston.

Sharp's path to role as the creative mind and spirit behind the Yellow House, and how that manifested itself, is the main subject of this text, though not the only one. The Yellow House, during its peak period of activity in 1971, was a countercultural urban commune. It became a space transformed. Refugees from the mainstream found inspiration and sometimes a home within its walls. When British comedian Marty Feldman dropped by late one night in 1971, what was he looking for? Did he find it by the time he finished breakfast the next day? And what of the American draft dodger who was resident for a couple of months at the end of that year, and took photographs; or the London raconteur on the run from the Kray Brothers; or even members of Pink Floyd in town for a concert, perhaps seeking to engage with Sharp around issues of UFOs and "Saucersful of Secrets"? The Yellow House was much more than the simple, run down exhibition space Martin Sharp walked into during February 1970 after returning from 4 years of intense activity in London. It became a node; an experimental multimedia space and focus for the forces of change brewing in the Emerald City (Sydney) during those years between the first moon landing (July 1969) and the liberating politics and breath of fresh air that swept across Australia in December 1972 with the election of the Whitlam Labor government. Prior to the Yellow House, Sharp's education in the frontline of public opinion and alternative cultures was filtered through magazines such as OZ from 1963, and a period of international fame whilst based in London between 1966-9. Art and architecture were influences, and there was, as he noted, "something in the air" which drew him to do what he did and bring others along (Hathaway and Nadel 2010).

The Australian Ugliness and OZ

Martin Sharp was born in Sydney in 1942. He showed an interest in, and talent for art from an early age, encouraged by a mother who was an amateur artist working with collage, and later by Justin O'Brien, art teacher at Cranbrook High School. During his formative years he developed an interest in art history, with twentieth century movements such as German Expressionism, Dada and Surrealism revealed through his earliest works. Sharp's interest in the former may have led him to encounter the Utopian designs and artworks of Wenzel Hablik, with their highly detailed pen and ink drawings of floating castles in the sky, alongside crystal palaces and structures in draewn in brightly coloured oils, predating psychedelia by almost half a century. 

 Wenzel Hablik, Big colourful utopian constructions, oil on canvas, 1922.

Upon leaving school, in 1960 Sharp attended the National Art School (NAS) at Darlinghurst, Sydney. At his father's behest he also undertook a year of study at the University of Sydney's Faculty of Architecture during 1961 before returning to the NAS. As his family were financially well off Sharp did not need to work, however from 1962 he found employment  as a freelance cartoonist for The Bulletin, Sydney Morning Herald and Australia and undertook similar work for student newspapers such as the University of Sydney's Honi Soit and the National Art School's Arty Wild Oat. Sharp had a biting wit which he was able to express through black and white art and writing. He also had a rebellious, laissez faire, libertarian attitude which was in many ways typical of young, urban Australians at the time. Open to change - to the words of Bob Dylan's famous song The Times They Are A Changin' - he found an outlet through work with the landmark countercultural magazine OZ. Co-edited by Sharp and writers Richard Neville and Richard Walsh, it was first published in Sydney on April Fool's Day 1963. This magazine of dissent initially set out to cast a satirical lens over Sydney society, lampooning the conservative establishment and attacking issues such as censorship, conservative politics, the monarchy and police corruption. However before long stories on the Vietnam war, sex, music, society mores, racism, women's issues and recreational drug use began to appear, morphing the magazine into part of the burgeoning counterculture. From its earliest issues the built environment was not exempt from satirical and critical attack by the OZ editors. For example, issue number 6 of March 1964 featured Neville and two others purporting to use the Tom Bass sculpture on the side of the recently opened P&O building in Sydney as a urinal. It is referred to within the attached commentary as an example of "the Australian Ugliness", owing in part to "the severe drabness of its sandstone facade."

OZ magazine cover, issue no.6, February 1964. Richard Neville and two others pretending to use the Tom Bass sculpture on the P&O building, Sydney, as a urinal.

Needless to say, the image and issue content caused outrage amongst the establishment and eventually saw the editors brought before court on charges of issuing an obscene publication of dubious literary merit. Art and architecture were very much part of Sharp's world view, with even the humble public toilet the subject of one of his full-page OZ expositions. He also produced a cartoon accompanying the article by Geoffrey Lehmann which was critical of the pencil-thin Blues Point Tower apartment building erected in 1962 on a prominent headland adjacent to the landmark Sydney Harbour Bridge (Lehmann 1963). Designed by well-known architect Harry Seidler, it was the subject of much controversy, and remains so to this day, being cited amongst the city's ugliest buildings (Miller 2015). Sharp's cartoon was titled 'Harry Seidler's Functional Ugliness' and portrayed the architect as a naked female, after Modigliani, revelling in narcissistic beauty.

Martin Sharp, Harry Seidler's Functional Ugliness, OZ magazine, no.2, May 1963.

Harry Seidler's Blues Point Tower (1962), cited in 2015 as one of Sydney's ugliest buildings (Miller 2015).

Sharp's precise views on the architectural work of Seidler are not known, however the cartoon most likely reflects his support for Lehmann's critical comments in regards to the Blues Point Tower. A quote in the article from Seidler's 1954 book on architectural design, which denigrated decoration, would also have raised the hackles of the young artist:

Decoration should be OF a thing not ON a thing. A riot of flowery patterns so prevalent today only succeeds in destroying the form of the object to which they are applied and result generally in a tasteless conglomeration of shapes (Seidler 1954).

Seidler was a student of Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus School in Germany between 1919-33. Sharp, a student of early twentieth century European art movements, was aware of the important crossover between art, architecture and craft associated with the Bauhaus. Throughout the 1960s he revelled in the decorative detail of collage and psychedelia, often masking his satire behind their apparent prettiness. It could be said that this work was in stark contrast to the sterile modernity of many of the Bauhaus forms, and more attuned to the decorative detail of artists such as Aubrey Beardsley, whose work was in vogue during a period of rediscovery in the mid 1960s. 

Another architecture-related target of the OZ editors was the abysmal treatment by local politicians of the designer of the Sydney Opera House, Joern Utzon. Sharp and OZ supported the talented Utzon and lambasted those bureaucrats and politicians whose petty-mindedness interfered with the building's construction and the architect's vision. Utzon was forced to withdraw as chief architect in February 1966, amidst much local protest in support of his work. Sharp's final OZ issue before leaving Australia that month featured on its front cover a reference to this nationally embarrassing debacle.

Martin Sharp, 'Boofhead: ...But I don't give a stuff about opera!', OZ magazine, no.26, March 1966.
 
Students protesting the treatment of Joern Utzon, Sydney Opera House, March 1966.

The use by Sharp of iconic Australian cartoon character Boofhead suggests, through a speech bubble, that whilst he may not care much for opera, he recognizes the genius of Utzon's design (Nuttall 2006). The point is that any fool (i.e. 'boofhead') could see this. As a parting shot, Sharp's image was powerful in its reference to the backward and conservative attitudes of Australian society, art and architecture that he now sought to leave behind for the not-so-sunny shores of England.

The Streets of London

Change your surroundings and you change yourself (Faralbone Institute, Berkeley 1970). 


Remaking one's physical environment .... was the essential route to achieving both an authentic identity, and freedom (Hill 2013).

When Martin Sharp and his fellow OZ editor Richard Neville travelled overland through South-East Asia to London at the beginning of 1966 they had no plans to publish a British version of the magazine, however circumstances drew them to such a fate. London OZ appeared on the streets in February 1967 and became a flagship for the counterculture through to its final issue in 1973. Whilst Sydney OZ had been black and white in colour and tone, set in letterpress, satirical and Australian, the London version was pyschedelic, offset printed in multiple colours, international and with a focus on the myriad countercultural issues then sweeping across the globe. Sharp's first experience with LSD - at a Pink Floyd concert during December 1966 at London's UFO Club - resulted in a transformation and expansion of his art from a focus on black and white drawings in pen and ink to multi-coloured, psychedelic works on various surfaces, including mylar and plastics. London and Europe also opened up a new world of art, architecture and design for Sharp upon his arrival there in the middle of 1966. London was swinging, and it was full of colour and excitement. The streets were alive with activity and facade decoration. A good example was the famous Granny Takes a Trip fashion shop on the King's Road. Opened in April 1966 and operated by Sharp's artist and designer friend Nigel Waymouth, the small shop front featured an ever changing facade, the work of Waymouth and Michael English, his partner in the design team known as Hapshash and the Coloured Coat.

Granny Takes a Trip, 488 King's Road, London, 1966-9. Artwork by Nigel Waymouth.

Other examples included the facade to the Lord John clothing store by Binder, Dudley & Edwards, and the Beatles' Apple boutique which, during November 1967, was painted in a multi-coloured pyschedelic design by the Dutch collective The Fool.

Exterior of the Beatles' Apple boutique store, corner of Baker and Paddington Streets, London, November 1967. Design by The Fool. Source: Design & Marylebone (blog).

 Lord John boutique facade, Carnaby Street, London, 1966. Design by Doug Binder, Dudley Edwards & David Vaughan.

In 1968 Sharp undertook his own shop front commission for The Sweet Shop, a London fashion boutique (Anonymous 2012, Jamieson 2014, Organ 2014). The original Sweet Shop frontage was boarded up and painted white when it first opened in 1967 and the business operated as such for about a year. However sometime during late 1968, as part of the relaunch which took please early in 1969, Sharp repainted the facade in his own inimitable style.

The Sweet Shop, 28 Balantyre Street, London, c.1968. Painted facade by Martin Sharp.

The only record of his work is an unsourced, black and white newspaper cutting. This reveals a design featuring a two-coloured background with white figures running across the middle portion and a central image of a sheeted figure standing on a white ball with an inverted Vincent Van Gogh chair on its head. The motifs reflect, in part, Sharp's cover artwork for the September 1968 edition of London OZ magazine (issue number 15). That work included an adaptation of an early film strip in the form of a figure - in this instance The Little Prince - running and jumping.

Martin Sharp, [cover art], OZ magazine, London, no.15, September 1968.

The figures in the OZ cover are similar to the Sweet Shop facade, only running in the opposite direction. It is possible that this blue colouring, and a lighter shade, were used on the shop front by Sharp, though the precise detail is not known. The Sweet Shop running male figures appear to have balloon-like coneheads, with bubble extensions. They are based on the famous Eadweard Muybridge strip of motion study photographs from 1887 of a naked man running. The Running Man  is seen artificially compiled into a YouTube film clip: http://youtu.be/Jq201Oi3UxM. The famous Van Gogh chair (1888) - in this instance inverted for the Sweet Shop shopfront - was also a motif which featured in Sharp's art and collages from the same period. For Sharp, life - as in art, architecture and everyday activity, including friendships - was collage, whereby disparate elements were brought together, forming a unified, unique and stimulating whole. He was not afraid of the serendipitous interaction of people, places and things. In fact, he encouraged it.

The Pheasantry

Whilst resident in England between June 1966 and the end of 1969 Martin Sharp worked from a base known as The Pheasantry - a grandiose, though run down, mid-eighteenth century, Georgian brick and stucco 3 storey building located just off the King's Road, London (Wikipedia 2016). The Pheasanty housed an old 1930s era nightclub in the basement and was the setting for the Oliver Reed film The Party's Over (1963). It was heritage listed in 1969, though demolition was a threat during the early 1970s. Fortunately it survives as both a pizza restaurant and jazz club.

 
 

 

The Pheasantry, King's Road, London, 1970, 1974 and 2015. The entrance to the basement night club is seen in the third image (Walker 2013). The present building is a pizza restaurant and jazz club.

The Pheasantry was a hive of activity during Sharp's period of residence. His neighbours included writers Anthony Haden-Guest and Germaine Greer - the latter engaged downstairs on her landmark book The Female Eunich; Australian photographer Robert Whitaker, then working with the Beatles; film maker and artist Philippe Mora; raconteur, print maker, jazz expert and associate of the Kray Brothers, David Litvinoff; and English guitarist Eric Clapton from the rock group Cream, who shared the upstairs studio with Sharp (Pim 2016). By the end of 1969 its walls were heavily decorated with art by Sharp, Mora, Clapton and others, with large areas of colour and assorted decorative elements. One party at the Pheasantry was noted as being reached through a snake-like tube. A sense of the decor can be gained from the photospread contained in the March 1970 edition of Italian architecture and design magazine Domus. Therein we see the red and gold painted walls and, through a doorway, Sharp working on one of his large paintings. In another room the walls and ceiling are painted with artworks and covered with photographs and posters.

 Martin Sharp's rooms in the Pheasantry. From the Italian Domus - Magazine of Architecture, Design and Art, no.484, March 1970. The gigantic silver ball seen in the above photograph later featured in the Magritte Room within the Yellow House.


A series of colour drawings from late 1969 by Brigitta Bjerke - former resident and noted designer of crocheted wearable art - survive, providing further evidence of the richly painted, and partially decorated interior which was in place prior to Sharp's departure.

 Birgitta Bjerke, Interior of the Pheasantry, London, drawings in pen and ink, late 1969. Compare the above drawing with the Domus magazine photograph from a similar view. The drawings below are of a stairway, with decorative elements by Martin Sharp seen on the left, and a view looking into the bathroom, with unfinished artwork by Sharp on the walls. C.f. Cepress 2016.



This multi-storey artist community and alternate lifestyle was a foretaste of what was to take place in the Yellow House. In addition, Sharp's experience as art editor of the London edition of OZ from January 1967 through to the end of 1968, and ongoing participation in the magazine's publication, undoubtedly brought to his attention the many facets of the counterculture then finding expression around the world. He was part-hippie in his rejection of the violence of the Vietnam War, a deep cynicism towards the media and military industrial complex, adoption of libertarian views in regards to sexuality, freedom of expression and the use of hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD, and an interest in esoteric issues such as UFOs and tarot. Sharp's work with OZ reflected these many aspects of his active engagement with the counterculture.

Martin Sharp, The Great Society blows another mind - the pornography of violence, OZ magazine, London, no.10, March 1968.

Just as the art world did not accept psychedelia as a legitimate form of expression in the same way as it accepted Pop Art, so also alternate design and architectural reform was initially ignored or rejected during the period in which the counterculture was evolving (Ryan 2015). Sharp and Mora were very much aware of this rejection and formed part of the anti-establishment movement - rejecting the rejection and using popular culture forms to express themselves. As Mora recently noted:

At the time we were very conscious of the art establishment as being elitist in London and elsewhere which is why Mart and I believed in "democratic" works i.e. cheap to buy or see - posters, movies, comics etc. My personal contempt at the time for elitism .... culminated in my meat sculpture which Mart loved and helped me with. The idea was you could not sell it! This was part of our anti-establishment vibe (Philippe Mora to the author, 16 June 2016).

Sharp's work with the London-based poster company Big O Posters was an expression of this democratic ethic and support for alternate forms of media. However his immersion in the counterculture only went so far. His gradual distancing from active involvement in OZ after 1968 was a reflection of this. He was never overtly political, did not adopt planetary ecological views, and steered away from Eastern spirituality, turning instead, later in life, to the Anglican Church and its attractive - to him - mantra of Eternity. Nevertheless he learnt a lot from, and in turn contributed a lot to, OZ. The London edition was a key member of the Underground Press Syndicate - a group of copyright exempt publications which shared stories and graphical content, giving voice to those innovations, ideas and issues not covered by the mainstream media. For example, the 'Communal life in New America' montage in OZ number 30 from October 1970 featured Buckminster Fuller geodesic domes and elements of the alternative lifestyles being taken up across America and Western Europe by groups such as the hippies. This followed on the Summer of Love during 1967 and subsequent failure to realise earlier Utopian dreams within urban environments.

Communal life in New America, OZ magazine, London, no.30, October 1970.

When Canned Heat sang Going Up the Country at the Woodstock music and arts festival in July 1969 they were reflecting a general trend in American and Western youth culture, namely to get "back to the garden [of Eden]", as identified in Joni Mitchell's song Woodstock and made famous by the group Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young early in 1970. With this move away from cities such as San Francisco, New York, London and Paris - which had been hives of activity during the years 1965-8 - came the need for new forms of housing and ways of living that would be at one with an increased awareness of the environment and the fragile ecology of planet Earth. The Whole Earth Catalog (Brand 1968), with its stunning picture of Earth from space on the cover, brought many of these elements together and was a reflection of the ever changing times. Martin Sharp would have been aware of much of this, and his friend Richard Neville was one of the most prominent and eloquent commentators on the counterculture at that time, before moving on to his public role in Australia from the late 1970s as a futurist and proponent of alternate ways of living. However Sharp was cosmopolitan and city based, and though he did on occasion escape to the island of Ibiza for rest and recreation during his time away from Australia, he never went "bush" or communal apart from his experiences with the Pheasantry and Yellow House. Having said this, it should be noted that his life after 1977 in the large Sydney mansion Wirian had communal aspects about it, with Sharp's spirit of openness evident though the number of visitors and short-term residents. Of their time together in London, friend and film maker Philippe Mora has noted:


Our discussions and interests at the Pheasantry were far reaching into many cultural subjects. It was a catalytic salon and everyone was welcome. Artists and musicians frequently visited us and Martin transferred some of this very democratic vibe to the Sydney Yellow House. Architecture was discussed from Albert Speer to Utzon. We fell in love with the Utzon opera house and disparaged the government hicks who vandalized his vision. Martin became quite friendly with the Utzon family. Architecture, sculpture, music, painting, film et al. were all one tapestry to us, intertwined and vibrant (Philippe Mora, email to the author, 16 June 2016).

And so it was that at the end of 1969, from the Pheasantry, London, Sharp journeyed back to inner city Sydney.

The Yellow House 1970-3

Every part of the great building was given over to the festivities. There was dancing in every room ..... Corridors and stairs were filled to overflowing with masks and dancing and music and laughter and tumult..... The walls were mostly hung with wild and cheerful paintings by the latest artists. All the world was there.... I went on thru the long corridors... There, on pitch black walls shone wicked garish lights... (Herman Hesse, Steppenwolf, 1927)

Martin Sharp returned to Australia early in 1970 with two projects in mind. Firstly, he sought to stage an exhibition of his works in the Holdsworth Gallery, Sydney; and secondly, to create an artist community along the lines of Vincent Van Gogh's 1880s Yellow House in Arles, France. When the Holdsworth Gallery fell through, Sharp moved to the former - and then derelict - Clune Gallery in Potts Point, after securing an agreement from the new owner to make short-term use of the 3 storey terrace pending its redevelopment. This agreement continued through to the beginning of 1973. In the meantime, Sharp and his colleagues - who according to light show pioneer and Yellow House member Roger Foley eventually numbered more than 300 individual artists, performers and practitioners - set about making use of, and transforming the space. 

Left to right: Moth (with kitten), Martin Sharp (with hat), Richard Weight (seated) and others, outside the Yellow House circa 1970. Source: The Australia.

The story of the Yellow House is not of a failed venture or hippiedom out of control. It is, instead, one of success, of artistic endeavour unconstrained; of experiments, exhibitions and performance - played out and put to rest. When the doors of the Yellow House were closed by Foley in March 1973 it was a natural progression. The counterculture had evolved. The Aquarius Festival of that year, and development of the Nimbin alternate lifestyle community, were new manifestations of the earlier "spirit in the air" Sharp had referred to, just as the Yellow House had been during its heyday in 1971. And what did that heyday look like? At its peak the Yellow House was an art gallery, performance space, music venue, cafe, cinema, hotel and school - the Ginger Meggs School of Arts. Its uses were diverse. For example, Albie Thoms in July 1971 experimented with a form of what is now known as 'reality TV' when, using a primitive video camera, he and other members of the Yellow House recorded 30 hours of activity in and around the building. Labelled Yellow TV, it captured a blend of anarchy and directed activity, much of which is revealed in a 1 hour compilation prepared by Thoms in 1995 under the title Akai Ghost Poems.

 Albie Thoms, Akai Ghost Poems [video], compilation of Yellow TV video from the Yellow House, July 1971. Edited from 30 hours of tape in 1995. Duration: 57 minutes.

The most extraordinary feature of the building, however, was the decor - the transformation of individual rooms according to various themes e.g. the Stone Room, the Cloud Room, the Puppet Theatre, the Magritte Room, the Bonsai Room, the Womb Room and the Infinity Room. An extension of ideas developed in The Pheasantry, Sharp and his colleagues provided paint and inspiration to all who entered. As a result, by the middle of 1971 the building had been transformed inside and out, from Clune Gallery to Yellow House. Peter Wright set up an ultraviolet and kinetic light installation; Martin Sharp and others created the Stone Room, with its centre piece a reproduction by Sharp of Hokusai's iconic woodblock print The Great Wave. Though all was not peace and light, as he nearly came to blows over the precise form of the work with fiery Australian artist Brett Whiteley, who sought to alter Sharp's interpretation of the original Japanese work.

Greg Weight and Julia Sale, Infinity Room with sculpture, Yellow House, September 1971. Photograph: Greg Weight.

 George Gittoes, The Puppet Theatre, Yellow House, September 1971. Photograph: Greg Weight.


Peter Wright, Ultraviolet and kinetic light installation, Yellow House, September 1971. Photograph: Greg Weight.

 Martin Sharp, Eternity Wall and Magritte Room, Yellow House, September 1971. Photograph: Greg Weight.

On any given night a member of the public could see a George Gittoes puppet theatre presentation, followed by a performance of Michael McClure's controversial play The Beard (1967). They could attend a cabaret and enjoy a magic show or dance performance; perhaps even a Surreal Soiree or screening of a cinema classic such as Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) or the avant garde Un Chien Andelou (1928) by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, presented on a special psychedelic screen made by Peter Wright. At the Ginger Meggs School of Arts lessons were given in art, film making and writing by people such as Martin Sharp and Albie Thoms. School groups experienced the building as it became part of the Sydney tourist trail for a brief period, and a full schedule of events was presented to the public (Organ 2015a).

Yellow House calendar of events, May 1971.

One participant recently referred to the "fast flow of it all" and the "24 hour art-happening vibe of the Yellow House" (Axel Sutinen to the author, 18 June 2016). All this activity arose out of a general atmosphere of freedom of expression. As Albie Thoms notes in a 1971 interview for the ABC television program GTK:

We never tell anyone to do anything.... It depends on the energy of the person as to what happens... That's the wonder of the place - it's in a constant state of non-control. Therefore anything can happen, any time of the day. You'll always be surprised in the Yellow House. (Albie Thoms, GTK, September 1971).

The Yellow House, GTK, ABC TV 1971, 6 mins 45 secs. Featuring interviews with Yellow House participants such as Albie Thoms and Sebastian Jorgensen, along with a tour though the building.

In an early 1972 Yellow House newsletter, this openness and experimental philosophy was re-iterated:

Members are encouraged to take an active interest and exhibit their work or use their building in any way, for plays, concerts, environments, rehearsals or anything at all. NO judgements as to 'artistic merit' are made. We want everything from your collection of garbage and debris to a child's uncontrolled finger painting - whatever is in your mind. Do it. Now. (Yellow House newsletter, 9 March 1972)


Perhaps as a manifestation of the evolving counterculture, during 1971 Peter Kingston, a University of New South Wales architecture student and friend of Sharp, installed - as part of his university course - an experimental, bright orange geodesic dome above the rear courtyard of the Yellow House. This Buckminster Fuller-inspire addition to the building - which he named the Elephant Home - served no particular function apart from creating a shelter beneath which Sharp was able to give a press conference in September, outlining the raison d'etre for the Yellow House and identifying its significance as "probably one of the greatest pieces of conceptual art ever achieved" (Sharp 1971).

Martin Sharp (centre) giving a television interview below Peter Kingston's Elephant Home structure at the Yellow House, 1971.

 
Peter Kingston, Elephant Home, a Buckminster Fuller-inspired, geodesic dome-like structure, located at the rear of the Yellow House, Sydney, September 1971. Photograph: Sam Bienstock.

Peter Kingston beneath his Elephant Home geodesic dome, Yellow House, September 1971. Photograph: Greg Weight.

Martin Sharp was an active participant in the Yellow House through to early 1972 when he returned once again to England. By this stage a number of artists were resident and individuals such as Albie Thoms and Sebastian Jorgensen were responsible for day to day management. However the energy of the venture began to dissipate during that year and in March of 1973 its doors were closed. Just as Sharp had moved on, so too had the times, with some of the Yellow House events during its last 12 months pointing a way to the ongoing evolution of the counterculture.

From Yellow House to Autonomous House

One of the artists resident at the Yellow House at the beginning of 1972 was the Finnish Asko (Axel) Sutinen, who was also undertaking an art course at the University of Sydney (Organ 2015b). In collaboration with printmaker Colin Little, he produced a poster for the summer series of events being held at the Yellow House.

Axel Sutinen and Colin Little, Chapter III - Summer Show at the Yellow House, Earthworks Poster Co., Tin Sheds, Sydney, 1972.

Little was also attending the University of Sydney at the time, and a member of the Tin Sheds workshop there. The Yellow House poster proved to be the first in the series by the group of artists known as the Earthworks Poster Collective. Sutinen described its content as follows:
 
The idea came to me as a mythological Goddess being born out of the sea in front of a rising sun. Much like the Statue of Liberty by Frederic Bartholdi in New York (hence the reference to a ray-like crown), she was guiding the way to a new creative, prosperous and peaceful open culture. But my version [presented] her being born naked from the water (as the goddess Aphrodite who was born from the foam of the waves), and surrounded by UFOs and a floating Egyptian Great Pyramid. She is holding the trident of Neptune with a waving flag of victory in her right hand. So it was like a rebirth of a new culture into a more universal state of being. The exhibition titles and names of the artists were half hidden texts in the cyclical waves (Axel Sutinen to the author, 8 December 2015).

The Earthworks Poster Collective series of posters was produced out of the Tin Sheds through to the 1980s and comprised some of the most innovative and controversial graphic designs and political commentary of the period. Sutinen also noted that:


Earthworks Collective was chosen because it had allusions to an holistic planetary awareness, ancient monumental structures like the Great Pyramid & Stonehenge, and in modern art works like The Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson that was made in 1970..... Also there was at the Tin Sheds a strong alternative-architectural awareness. Next door was "Autonomous House", designed with sustainable technology to be completely "Off the grid". And soon the Nimbin Aquarius Festival 1973 came about, so a strong "Grass Roots" movement was being born at the time. The architects Col James & Bill Lucas were most likely involved with the Autonomous House project, as they were later with the Nimbin Aquarius Festival 1973 (Axel Sutinen to the author, 8 December 2015).


A connection can therefore be drawn between the events of the Yellow House, as experienced by young people such as Sutinen, and the manifestation of the counterculture post-Yellow House (i.e. after 1972) in architectural forms such as geodesic domes, the radical artist and design collective known as the Tin Sheds, and the ecologically innovative Autonomous House at the University of Sydney from 1974. The move towards rural communes was also part of this worldwide trend (Rigby 1974, Munro-Clark 1986, Pepper 1991).

'Utopian Fair', Autonomous House, University of Sydney, circa 1974. Sources: Larry Speck blog.

Broader lifestyle issues were revealed through events such as the Aquarius Festival which was held in Nimbin during May 1973 (Smith and Crossley 1975, Stickells 2013 & 2015). After Roger Foley closed the doors to the Yellow House in March he headed north to Nimbin, with video camera in hand, to experience and record some of the new elements of the counterculture then coming into play. He recorded the construction of alternate housing, the presence of geodesic domes and an interview with Richard Neville of OZ fame.


 Roger Foley, Aquarius Festival, Nimbin, May 1973 [video]. Duration: 22:16.


Summary

The Yellow House existed as an important Sydney-based point of intersection between the psychedelic / hippie / Summer of Love / Utopian movements of the 1960s and which focussed on the individual expression, and the Whole Earth Catalog planetary consciousness manifestations of the early 1970s which sought communal and universal solutions. Art and new ways of thinking were played out within and upon the walls of the Yellow House; new ways of living evolved beyond its walls when the owner sought to redevelop the building in 1973 and the doors were closed. The Yellow House VR Project at the University of Wollongong aims to reopen those doors, through the creation of a virtual Yellow House for use by students and researchers seeking to gain an insight into the art, design, architecture and inner city countercultural lifestyles of the time (Organ et al. 2016).

Acknowledgements

In the compilation of this article on the Yellow House and its precursor The Pheasantry, I would like to thank Peter Kingston, Philippe Mora, Axel Sutinen, Roger Foley and Brigitta Bjerke - all of whom were there. Also thanks to Dr. Anthony Ashbolt of the University of Wollongong.

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Michael Organ
Last updated: 3 July 2016.