In Melbourne Now the National Gallery of Victoria has staged a sprawling, colossally ambitious survey of the city’s contemporary art that also includes architecture, design, dance, performance and more. Although the logistical achievement is impressive, the exhibition is an act of metropolitan navel-gazing on a scale inconceivable in any other Australian capital. The catalogue is filled with references to Melbourne’s global status and international sophistication, but this event is insular and tribal almost by definition.
With such a show it’s impossible to completely avoid the old Sydney vs. Melbourne debate, so please forgive a few generalisations. The first is that Sydney is a city in which collective identity runs a poor second to individual ambition. Sydney’s movers and shakers are looking after Number One, with the city providing a scenic backdrop. Melbourne, by contrast, has a strong sense of community that is just as evident in the Bohemian world of avant-garde artists as it is in the exclusive clubs and boardrooms.
For broadcaster, John Faine – one of the celebrities asked to contribute a “My Melbourne” statement to the catalogue – the city’s character may summed up in two words: “Melbourne cares.” If I had to venture an equivalent motto for my hometown it might read: “Sydney doesn’t give a stuff.”
There may be a similar blend of care and indifference in both cities, but it would be uncharacteristic of anyone from Sydney to make a claim such as John Faine’s. Melbourne has a penchant for thinking well of itself whereas Sydney barely thinks at all. One might say that Melbourne is prone to reflection, self-consciousness and nostalgia, whereas Sydney lives in the moment. Sydney is action whereas Melbourne is thought – or perhaps, talk.
Much of the talk is braggadocio, dedicated to keeping up appearances. No-one would dispute Melbourne’s status as the sports capital of Australia but the visual arts record is another matter. As we prepare for the 19th Biennale of Sydney let’s not forget the huge flop of the one-and-only Melbourne Biennial of 1999, ironically titled Signs of Life. It’s a curious fact that both shows share the same director.
According to one contributor to the catalogue, Melbourne is its own planet. Another trumpets Melbourne as a microcosm of the world – which is true of any big city. In this show, in this town, one allegedly finds contemporary art “at its most interesting and inspiring.”
Only a small part of the display manages to live up to this relentless positivity. Although the word “new” recurs like an incantation in the catalogue essays many exhibits are variations on well-worn themes. The trump cards of Melbourne Now are bulk and variety.
Individual pieces may be shallow, dull or pretentious but there is always something else to look at, along with an abiding impression of colour and activity. With work by 300 artists distributed between the NGV’s St. Kilda Road and Federation Square venues there is a huge amount of information to take in. One may spend hours watching videos, or listening to collections of experimental music on iPads. It would be a masochistic exercise but it is theoretically possible.
Then there are the shows-within-the-show: projects put together by guest curators exploring different aspects of local creativity. Fleur Watson has compiled a busy overview of new Melbourne architecture, in a section titled Sampling the City. Simone LeAmon has the done the same for design in Melbourne Design Now. Eight independent fashion labels are represented in a section called Designer Thinking. There are displays devoted to dance, jewellery, art publishing and sound art. There are specially commissioned works by indigenous artists, including a couple of striking, rusted iron installations by Lorraine Connelly-Northey.
The curators have ticked all the boxes, although some parts of this cornucopia are harder to accept than others. Drawing Now is a scrappy selection of doodles gathered through “personal and professional networks” by self-styled avant-garde guru, John Nixon. It’s a mystery as to why the NGV would go down such an indulgent and cliqueish route instead of getting a staff curator to put together a more representative survey.
Nixon must be delighted with the gallery’s generosity, as his experimental music collective, The Donkey’s Tail, has been allotted space at both branches of the NGV. When one reads that this group, comprised of an ever-changing cast of artists, has released 65 CDs in the past six years, the quality of the ‘music’ is laid bare. The original Donkey’s Tail was a Russian revolutionary movement that included artists such as Malevich, Goncharova, Larionov and Chagall. It lasted less than two years, which suggests a higher level of creative tension than their Melbourne namesakes.
It’s astonishing that curators still seem to assume that art which proclaims its own radicality must be intrinsically superior to more personal expressions. Yet mediocrity recognises no such distinctions. Most of this show’s avant-garde gestures are no better than clichés.
No show in Australia has ever included so many works that invite interaction with the public. Laith McGregor has contributed a ping-pong table covered in fastidiously drawn self-portraits that may be played on. Darren Sylvester’s For You is an illuminated dance floor. Anastasia Klose has set up a shop inside NGV International selling homemade T-shirts emblazoned with arty slogans. Slave Pianos allow visitors to choose compositions to be played on a mechanised gamelan.
Add in an extensive children’s program and it seems that every part of the gallery has something that requires audience involvement to fulfill its mission. There is a continuous program of lectures, workshops, films and performances to bring people back for multiple visits. This emphasis on participation is one of the key strategies of a show that aims to involve the NGV more closely in the artistic life of the city.
Melbourne Now may be a blockbuster from nothing that panders to local chauvinism, but it is also a shrewd tactical exercise. For new director, Tony Ellwood, this is a way of announcing that the NGV is not an élite institution tucked away behind a moat on St. Kilda Road, but an inclusive space that welcomes all comers. He has sent his curators to visit artists in their studios and got them to work together on one massive project. There is a tripartite strategy here which aims to break down factionalism within the institution; to declare the NGV more responsive to the city’s art scene; and to build audiences by making the gallery more user-friendly.
While Australia’s other big public galleries have put on their summer exhibitions and are hoping for audiences to turn up, the NGV has been far more proactive. It’s a bold experiment that deserves to succeed even if the quality of the art is patchy.
Melbourne Now is bursting at the seams with collaborations and artist collectives but the most memorable works are those made by individual practitioners. In fact, the interest of a piece is almost inversely proportional to the number of artists involved. For instance, it takes a three-man collective, Greatest Hits, to produce a one-line gag of a small black cat that raises its paw in the air.
There are at least two outstanding video pieces: Daniel Crooks’s A garden of parallel paths, which takes us on a journey through Melbourne’s back alleys where doorways, gates and windows open onto different space-time continuums; and Lucy McRae’s short film that plays on the relationship between food and the body.
From a surprising amount of ceramic sculpture, the stand-outs are Penny Byrne’s iProtest, a wall of small porcelain figurines symbolic of global protest movements; and Alan Constable’s table-top display of ceramic cameras, which turn machines designed to capture action into a form of still life.
Among painters, Gareth Sansom stands out, partly by virtue of being represented by a suite of works. Others, such as Rick Amor, have only a single entry – and this piece, Mobile call (2012) seems to have been chosen because it depicts one of Melbourne’s ubiquitous laneways, thereby complementing a number of neighbouring displays. Another artist of similar vintage, Jan Senbergs, has one of his map paintings used as the basis of a children’s art project.
Richard Lewer’s massive wraparound drawing, Northside Boxing Gym is a highlight of the NGV International display, as is Jess Johnson’s elaborate installation that depicts a series of fantastic, imaginary worlds. Bradd Westmoreland is painter with a highly distinctive style, pitched somewhere between figuration and abstraction. The same might be said of Brent Harris, who is producing small expressionistic pictures that blow away his flat, serial works of earlier decades. Tony Garifalakis’s denim-based graphics have both wit and bite. They are a kind of political Gothic, if you can imagine anything so unlikely.
On the other hand, it’s extraordinary to see the loose, shambolic works being produced by painters such as Juan Davila and Stieg Persson who have both enjoyed their share of acclaim in the past. Persson’s Philosophy of individualism with goji berries is a piece of conceptual painting that is too clever for its own good. Davila is renowned for his attempts to shock and offend, but his new pictures shock us because they have grown so shapeless and slapdash.
If you’d like a different opinion on Davila’s work I offer the views of curator Max Delaney: “with technical virtuosity his paintings achieve monumental significance – encapsulating beauty and emotion, while invoking society’s intolerance of non-commercial enjoyment or desire.” Those who see this show can decide whether Max is on the money, or if you have just experienced one of those moments that show why Melbourne is the real city of dreams.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 11 January, 2014