When I arrive at an unmarked warehouse in an industrial pocket of Sydney’s inner west, I wonder if I’ve come to the right place. For a world-renowned street artist who is best known for his adornment of public-facing spaces, Anthony Lister’s studio frontage is a clean canvas. But beyond the facade lies another story. Inside, Lister and his small, harmonious team are hurriedly preparing for his upcoming show, which will feature more than 50 new pieces. His vivid works-in-progress dapple the studio, and, although I’m sure there’s a quietly acknowledged order to the disarray, to the unknowing visitor it’s an affront on the eyes.
Despite the fluster of the looming deadline, the artist greets me calmly as though an old friend has wandered into his studio – he offers coffee, tea and a warm place to sit. He fusses over finding me a more comfortable chair. He opts for a latte with one sugar. His equally welcoming daughter, Lola, is visiting for the school holidays – and, like any teen put to work at their parent’s workplace, she tells me begrudgingly, with air quotes and a friendly eye-roll, that she’s the new studio “intern”. And yet, her excitement about the upcoming exhibition, like that of Lister and his colleagues, is palpable.
Come July 17, Lister’s latest body of work will fill the once notorious and now-neglected Porky’s Nite Spot along Kings Cross’ red-light strip. The show, he says “could be a going-away party for culture in the Cross, or it could be a wake-up party”.
Ten years ago to the date, Lister held his now-famous one-night exhibition No Win Sitch in the same space. In fact, the same decade-old posters have been used to promote the upcoming show, Culture is Over – which, I learn, Lister himself has been posting around town, dressed in disguise with a hand-drawn monobrow and blackened tooth.
The posters feature the face of Lister’s dear friend and “muse of two decades”, Magnus McTavish, who died suddenly last month. “The show’s not a tribute, but it’s great to have Magnus remain part of the new show on the posters,” says Lister.
At the original, one-night pop-up, Magnus played the perhaps unconvincing part of his friend Lister, who hid away from the spotlight of the event. This time, Lister will be present.
I ask him if he thinks culture has taken a backseat in Sydney since his previous exhibition. “Culture can never truly die,” he says, a big smile forming. The show’s title, he explains, is intentionally “absurd and impossible”.
While in Kings Cross recently, the artist observed some changes to the once-lively strip, which prompted him to think about the changes facing Sydney and its nightlife.
“I hadn’t been through Kings Cross for a long time. While driving past, I noticed that the neon lights of Porky’s were switched off. This led me to notice that a lot of things had been turned off – and a lot of places were up for lease, too, or worse, had been demolished or become run-down.
“I’m not sure if it was the rise in rent prices, or the lock-out laws, but it seems to me it’s become a desolate wasteland. Of course, McDonald’s was still there operating, as usual, but outside of that it was dead, as far as I could see. I went through a shifting emotional response: first was the denial, then I got a little sad, then I got a little angry, and then accepting. And then, within my acceptance, I thought, ‘I can do something’. I don’t know if it’ll change anything, but I can do something.”
Lister spotted a “for lease” sign on the Porky’s building, and before long his colleagues were crunching numbers and negotiating the lease. “I put some serious money down to get a hold of this thing,” continues. “And we still don’t know who the owners are.”
Despite the stimulus that prompted the new collection, Lister says the resulting show is more than an homage to a city that has “lost its soul”. And, he insists, whether this loss is due to governing bodies or not, he’s hesitant to engage in any political debate. “The focus of the show isn’t so much on what’s happened to Sydney – I make it known that I’m not on side of any political fence – it’s not from one point of view or another,” he explains.
Once he’d secured the space, Lister realised there was a lot more work to be done than he’d anticipated. “Sorting out the logistics of preparing for this show and having it look the way I want it to, I’ve come across so many restrictions. For starters, I thought that the neon lights would be operational, or at least there’d be a switch I could just turn on. But they’d been cut, and I’ve needed to invest my own funds into restoring that. It’s going to cost me around $4000 to restore the sign, but it’s important not just for my show; [it’s] iconic. It’s like the Hollywood sign – people pay to sponsor it to be cleaned and up-kept because it’s an icon,” he says. “Through this project I guess I’ve turned from this painter that is sometimes seen as criminal for my practice, to a patron who has sponsored a cultural asset.”
So, I attempt to nail down, if not the demise of Sydney’s cultural scene, what is the focus of the new show?
“It’s about the myths of Sydney, myths of Australia, and the differences between fact and fiction. It’s about the grey area between history and legend. It’s about finding the truth and accepting reality.”
The new body of work, incorporating film, sculpture, painting and live happenings, will also reveal Lister’s imagined predictions for the future of social media usage and its addictive nature.
And yet, he’s not focused on finding solutions or outcomes. As the artist, he seeks to draw attention to cultural problems. “I’m not a doctor – I’m more of a comedian,” he says. “I’m more like a dog chasing a car: I wouldn’t know what to do if I caught it. But as the comedian, it’s my role to observe.”
Ideally, Lister hopes viewers will respond to his works with a smile: “The best art that I’ve experienced has made me smile. I’ll either smile at the shock or the audacity of the person who’s created it, or I’ll smile at the beauty that overwhelms me.
“In some parts of the show I hope they feel overwhelmed with the heavy duty of it and the confronting nature of some pieces too.”
The 2017 documentary Have You Seen The Listers?, which is now on Netflix, has some elements of that. The candid film gives huge insight into Lister and juxtaposes the birth and the breakdown of his family unit with his rising profile as an artist. It’s mainly footage Lister took himself.
“Emotionally it’s been funny because people message me on Instagram to say they appreciated the honesty … But I just press record a lot on a camera while I’m painting and when my friends are doing silly things. A very clever and organised filmmaker Eddy Martin compiled it – it’s really his film .... People have approached me in the street when I’m with my kids, which is strange, but mostly the film has helped me connect with a wider audience.”
As for the future of Kings Cross, “Will I go back there in 10 years? Will the building even be there in 10 years? I don’t know,” he muses. “Who knows even if the people in power want culture to exist. But, by posing these questions, or statements, I want to break art. Conceptually that may sound absurd, but emotionally I find it amusing – and fuck it, I’m breaking it.”
Anthony Lister’s Culture Is Over is at the old Porky’s site, 77 Darlinghurst Road, Kings Cross, from July 17 until July 24. Entry is free. There’s an opening night party from 7pm to 9pm. Get more information here.