The gaping mouth which serves as the entrance to Luna Park has been an iconic Melbourne landmark for over a century. Located in the seaside suburb of St Kilda, in what used to be Melbourne’s bohemian heartland, the area has now fallen into decline in terms of cultural significance. Many of the artists who made this area unique have moved to cheaper digs across the Yarra River and some, who found success on the international stage have left, never to return. In their place have come the upwardly mobile to dwell in poorly designed condominiums that have sprouted en masse from the suburb’s demolition sites. This influx has fundamentally altered the cultural character of this once colourful and raffish suburb.
Traditionally, St Kilda has been a social melting pot and at its heart is the absurdly luminous Luna Park, with its ajar mouth promising entree into a parallel universe where the ordinary cares of existence remain in the real world outside the park’s boundary. Today the face of Luna Park contemplates a busy Mc Donald’s restaurant while on its flank is a bar frequented by some of this city’s most self-conscious hipsters. There are dark rumours circulating that the celebrated attraction, like many of St Kilda’s iconic establishments, is losing money.
Despite this shifting social paradigm, Luna Park resonates strongly in the collective memory of all who live in this city. It has been the subject of paintings by Nolan, Blackman and Albert Tucker and it is one of the city’s most photographed structures.
Tucker, who lived in nearby Robe Street during the WWII, imagined a darker Luna Park and while his free spirited wife, the artist Joy Hester, disappeared for trysts with her lover, Billy Hyde, the drummer in the resident band at St Moritz, Tucker painted a sombre and slightly monovalent Luna Park within whose shadows we imagine Victory Girls locked in smudged embrace with drunk U.S. service men.
For Tucker, Luna Park was a structural deception and a tangible representation of a general decline in moral standards brought by the war. He felt surrounded by this moral decay and it was made real for him by the infidelity of his wife.
As a photographer, I confess that I have developed an acquired blindness in regard to some of the charms and narratives concealed in the streets and buildings of my home town. Much of my recent work features non-Australian subject matter and, perhaps for that reason, has achieved a more receptive audience overseas and outside the parochial confines of the Australian art market. In the last decade, Melbourne gradually became a place I flew in and out of whilst working on new projects elsewhere. On the occasions when I was in town, I drove past Luna Park every other day, but the park’s graphic power, despite its gaudy palate and fanciful structures, had declined in my consciousness as a result of its familiarity.
Last year I read a book written in 1979 by Andrew Mallon entitled: Leonski – The Brown Out Murders, which is a well-researched and gripping account of Melbourne’s most notorious serial killer, Edward Leonski.
Leonski, was a U.S. Army Private from New Jersey, billeted in Melbourne along with thousands of other U.S. service personnel when this city was converted into a massive staging post for the campaign in the Pacific in 1942. He stalked his female victims throughout this city’s gloomy, winter streets during the so called brown out – so named because only minimal external lighting was permitted due to the threat of Japanese aerial bombardment. St Kilda and Luna Park feature prominently as backdrops in his story. When eventually apprehended and under police questioning, Leonski admitted he had stalked many women during his time in Melbourne. He provided graphic details of attacks on six women, three of whom he had strangled to death whilst asking them to sing for him – he told police he had a fetish for female voices.
He named Luna Park as one of his favourite haunts.
Somewhat surprisingly, Leonski was declared sane and was court marshalled by the U.S. Army. He was found guilty and on November 9, 1942, he was executed in Pentridge Prison.
This disturbing episode, now a footnote in local history, represents Albert Tucker’s Luna Park made real. Perhaps the open mouth with its raised upper lip revealing a neat row of teeth represented a gateway into something quite opposite to what it promised; something psychologically darker and less predictable.
From my perspective, fair grounds and circuses are slightly unnerving and melancholy places. I was scared of clowns as a child and I found the manufactured alternative reality, unattractive and disorientating.
Contemplating Leonski and considering my own shifting perception of St Kilda, my beloved but utterly changed former stomping ground, I began to look at Luna Park in a different way. I felt motivated to try to represent this shift by continuing to photograph the park until I realised a graphic representation of the Luna Park which momentarily existed on the periphery of my consciousness – a Luna Park which had morphed into a darker reality as a result of recent personal circumstance. My Luna Park represents the distorted heart of St Kilda as dark and chaotic. It attempts to take its visual metaphor from the school of David Lynch and Boris Karloff rather than that of Ken Done for the same reason.
The way I experience St Kilda has certainly changed since I first walked up Fitzroy Street as a newly arrived 18 year old immigrant from South Africa, but recently the momentum of change has accelerated and taken on a much darker hue. The recent unexpected deaths of people I love, the difficulties experienced by those who remain and the closure and boarding up of haunts I once frequented, has impressed an indelible impression on me of flux and the onset of bad times.
Understandably, my initial efforts shot last year were received with complete horror by the management of Luna Park who promptly refused to grant further access, thus limiting my visual point of view to some extent. Melbourne art dealer, Angela Tandori was more receptive and has encouraged the expansion of the series of exterior photographs with view to exhibiting several large scale, interrelated prints at the Port Jackson Press Gallery next year.
The opportunity to realise an artistic impression of an important part of my home town, let alone a subject located in the heart of my beloved, tired and troubled St Kilda, is too much of a temptation to refuse. I wish it was being undertaken in happier and more prosperous circumstances for the many people I know in the area however, I accept that all must change and evolve and eventually St Kilda will rise again in a form quite distinct from what we know today, but hopefully no less vital.
Christopher Rimmer 2015.