Political art, censorship and change

Wednesday, February 22, 2006 - 11:00

Michael Ascroft, Melbourne

Azlan McLennan has been called everything from a terrorist to an anti-Semite. In his short career as an artist he has repeatedly hit the right right-wing buttons.

Azlan studied fine arts in Canberra while producing designs and illustrations for the hardcore band scene and making his own zines. In 2005, he completed an undergraduate degree at Victorian College of the Arts and he begins his Masters there this year. He is also an activist with the socialist youth organisation Resistance.

Azlan's work became better known in August 2004 when one of his pieces, Fifty-Six, was censored by Melbourne City Council. The installation, which featured an Israeli flag accompanied by statistics about the plight of Palestinians since the 1948 formation of the Israeli state, was removed before it was finished. The media furore that ensued led to the gallery losing its funding and changes being made to Victoria's racial vilification laws.

McLennan's provocative art has been censored four more times: his Canberra's 18 exhibition at Flinders Street station in September 2005; the short film Mind the Gap the following month; the Pay your way posters this January and, just a few days afterward, the police removal of Proudly unAustralian — a burnt Australian flag displayed on a billboard in Footscray.

"Now more than ever, a hell of a lot of Australians are offended by what that flag actually represents and all the things that are being carried out in the name of that flag. Things such as the Iraq war, or Australia's treatment of refugees", Azlan told the ABC's 7.30 Report on February 2. The artwork has since been returned to Azlan, but he still doesn't know if charges will be laid.

Azlan told Green Left Weekly: "All my work focuses on outlining the contradictions of the 'democratic' state", he said. "It's not in the state's interest to have these debates public. So it's obviously important [for us] to keep having them."

Ironically, the corporate media played a role in putting people in touch with Azlan's political art, as well as backing efforts to censor it. Azlan describes the establishment media as a "very parasitic and predictable organism", but adds that there is potential for it to be used by progressives, but only if they are aware of its "class bias".

Azlan told GLW that he's never thought of art and activism as an unlikely combination. "Art that engages in politics — much like activists — needs to be radical to raise awareness. It's strategic; you need radical politics to affect the nihilism and cynicism of postmodernism, which accepts everything as inevitable and therefore nothing can be changed. What greater tool of oppression could there be?"

Azlan McLennan will be speaking alongside civil rights lawyer Rob Stary and others at a free public forum at Trocadero Art Space, Level 1, 119 Hopkins St, Footscray on February 28 at 6.30pm. For more information, phone the Resistance Centre on 9639 8622. To sign the petition opposing state censorship, visit <http://www.gopetition.com/region/12/8052/html>].

From Green Left Weekly, February 22, 2006.

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From GLW issue 657