Tag Archives: NGV

Melbourne Now

Thirty-three years after that tumultuous turning point in Melbourne’s culture when Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault (aka “The Yellow Peril”) was installed and then removed from the City Square. Melbourne Now is yellow; the exhibition’s logo is yellow, at the launch of the exhibition the Minister for the Arts, Heidi Victoria was dressed in yellow complete with yellow nail polish. Back in the 1980s Barry Humphries suggested that Melbourne should be called “the big Orange”, in reference to NYC moniker, “the big Apple”, but the orange trams are no longer on Melbourne’s streets. In Peter Tyndall blog post for 21/11/13 (reproduced in Melbourne Now) Tyndall suggests that Melbourne’s colour is black – that appeals to me (ha ha).

Thirty-three years ago it would have been impossible to have an exhibition of the quality and scale of Melbourne Now. There were not enough quality artists or gallery space in Melbourne then. Now Melbourne has become the city that Robertson-Swann’s sculpture anticipated, a city where the arts and design flourish.

Daniel Crooks, A garden of parallel paths, 2012 (still)

Daniel Crooks, A garden of parallel paths, 2012 (still)

Melbourne Now is huge exhibition covering 8000 square meters of gallery space in both of the NGV galleries, and extending out of the galleries into the sculpture garden at the back of the NGV International and onto Melbourne’s streets. It is all free and will occupy most of a day; it took me over three hours to just to get an impression of the exhibition. I’m sure that I must have missed something and I will happily to go back for another look.

The exhibition includes so much – painting, sculpture, drawing, art publications, design, architecture, fashion, music, and dance. I will try to focus on a just couple of aspects.

Parents take your children to this exhibition; later in life they might thank you for it when it is mentioned in Australian art history and there is plenty to keep kids engaged with this exhibition at the present. Children’s activities include making experimental music with The Donkey Tail Jr. on the mezzanine gallery of the NGV (St. Kilda Road) and adding silhouette bird stickers to the sky of Juan Ford’s huge work You, me and the flock. The Dewhurst Family supported both these features of the exhibition. Much of this exhibition is interactive; you can also make your own jewellery, design your own shoes out of cardboard or sketch in the beautiful room of taxidermy work by Julia DeVille (sketching materials: black paper, gold and silver pencils and boards provided).

Street art is a major part of Melbourne’s current art scene and the influence of street art, graffiti and tagging is clear in Melbourne Now. There is Ponch Hawkes photographs of tree tagging, Stieg Persson’s paintings, Reko Rennie’s paintings, Ash Keating’s video and Lush’s installation: Graffiti doesn’t belong in the gallery? It is typical of Lush to get his tag up everywhere. Daniel Crooks’ a great video installation A garden of parallel paths and a Rick Amor painting Mobile Call also present views of Melbourne’s graffiti covered laneways. The walls of Hosier Lane, with All Your Walls, are also part of Melbourne Now. (I will write about All Your Walls in a later blog post when the project is complete on Friday 29th of November.)

Some of the artists in Melbourne Now

Some of the artists in Melbourne Now

Finally with such a large collection of contemporary artists it is worth doing a bit of statistical examination: 56% of the artists are men, 44% are women and 11% identify as indigenous Australians. Indigenous Australians are well represented in the exhibition given that, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics “Victoria had the lowest proportion of people of indigenous origin at 0.6% of the total state population”. I only counted individually named artists and not groups. Compared to statistical break down of the artists to be included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial with only 32% women and 7.6% artists of African descent (see Hyperallergic “The Depressing Stats of the 2014 Whitney Biennial”) Melbourne Now is very balanced and representative.


Street Art Big Time

Five years is a long time, especially with the internet and especially with a new art movement. Five years ago when I started this blog I dreamed of a time when street art would be in major galleries, now it is. There are currently two exhibitions at the NGV of what could be broadly called street art. Robin Rhode “The Call of the Walls” at the NGV International and Ian Strange (aka Kid Zoom) “Suburban” at the NGV Atrium.

On Friday afternoon Professor Alison Young gave a floor-talk at “The Call of the Walls”. Prof. Young spoke about street art moving from fringe to mainstream; the influence of commercial galleries, auction houses, the internet, street art tours and major museums. For some sages this might spell the end of street art, it is certainly the end of fringe phase but that doesn’t mean that all the energy and development has gone.

Robin Rhode “The Call of the Walls” occupies two spaces, the children’s room where parents with children were encouraged to draw on the wall. Robin Rhode’s photographs have the quality of break-dance in stop motion. Rhode positions himself in his photographs, influenced by the British body artists of the 1970s who saw the body as another media for sculpture (and spawned the international art phenomena of Gilbert and George).

Although most of the exhibition is photographs and Rhode’s videos use stop motion, which is essentially still photographs, moving images are the code to Rhode’s work. Rhode had a circular collage image titled “Zootrope” in case it wasn’t clear.

Robin Rhodes is from South Africa so there are some comments on the racial divide but he handles this with the same playful manner as in his other work. He does not have a graffiti, tagging, street background. He could have worked in a studio but he chose the street and the street aesthetic of painting or drawing on walls and playing with the urban environment is there in his work.

The opening of Ian Strange’s “Suburban” on Friday night was a big event; hundreds of people from Melbourne’s street art and art scenes having a look, drink and talk. It was an example of the interests and influences cross-pollinating in the NGV’s space: Prof. Young was talking to Rone, HaHa told me he was planning to go Blender’s opening after and I said hello to street art collectors Sandra Powell and Andrew King.

Ian Strange (aka Kid Zoom) is a former Perth based (now New York based) street artist. In this exhibition he has gone up in scale painting whole houses or setting them on fire. It is the complete transformation of a landscape, like Christo but in this case the landscape is the familiar suburban world of detached houses with gardens. All documented in high quality videos and photographs, weeks of work behind each image. The videos have the power and beauty of the potlatch of a Hollywood film where there is a massive explosion in slow motion that destroys everything. And all these houses waiting for demolition that Strange used reminded me of the housing bubble in the USA one of the causes of the current economic crisis.

Now that street art is in the major art galleries and museums there is a new energy and the promise of new types of works in the future. Both exhibitions use photography and video to document urban interventions, although Strange also brought big cut out bits of the houses along with him. And both Robin Rhode and Ian Strange’s exhibitions are an ample demonstration of this new energy and new pushing the envelop of street art that an art gallery like the NGV can bring.


Armstrong’s Melbourne Sculpture

“Bruce Armstrong’s name is synonymous with current sculptural practice in Melbourne.” Boasts John Buckley Gallery’s website. There is good reason for this boast Armstrong’s sculpture Eagle (aka “Bunjil”) erected in May 2002 at Bunjilway is now an iconic image of Melbourne. However, Bruce Armstrong is hardly a household name.

Bruce Armstrong, "Eagle", 2002

Bruce Armstrong, “Eagle”, 2002

Geoffery Barlett & Bruce Armstrong "Constellation", 1997, wood and steel, detail

Geoffery Barlett & Bruce Armstrong “Constellation”, 1997, wood and steel, detail

Bruce Armstrong was born in Melbourne in 1957 and studied painting and sculpture at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). He has sculptures in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Canberra. In the 2005 Armstrong was an Archibald Prize finalist with a self-portrait with eagle.

“Bunjil” is not an isolated work Armstrong’s sculptures have been around Melbourne for decades. There are two more of Armstrong’s eagles, “Guardians”, 2009 out the front of the Grand Hyatt Hotel on Russell Street. At Yarra Turning Basin there is a series of angled pillars, Armstrong’s “Constellation”, 1997, made in collaboration with Geoffrey Bartlett. His “Tiger” 1985 is out at Heide Museum of Modern Art.

Bruce Armstrong, Untitled, 1986

Bruce Armstrong, Untitled, 1986

Armstrong’s two lions beasts (Untitled 1986) once guarded the front of the National Gallery of Victoria but are now out the back in its sculpture garden. When Armstrong’s two lions untitled beasts were out the front I overheard a man and woman from the country who were looking at them. “I reckon I could do that with my chainsaw” the man remarked. I’m sure he could be I doubted that he would make the effort to move such enormous logs and do all the carving.

The muscular nature of the sculpture is part of what makes Armstrong’s work powerful, the monumental physical displays of power. There is an unrefined power to the statues of Bruce Armstrong, the large lumps of materials from which they are carved are still visible. His huge animals are usually carved from native red gum and cypress although the monumental 23-meter tall “Bunjil” is cast aluminium painted white.

Armstrong’s sculptures are totemic, in a Jungian collective unconscious way; it is serendipitous that his Eagle happens to correspond to the sea eagle creator, Bunjil, of the Kulin Nation. His public sculptures work as totemic features along paths or guarding gateways. And because of their monumentality they are treated with a kind of awe.


White Night with kids

We ventured into the inaugural White Night in Melbourne with 4 young people, two sixteen year-old girls and two ten year-old boys, each of our kids had brought a friend.

Because we had kids with us we did that nerdy thing of arriving right on time, in fact slightly before the official start – and really – arriving early for an event that was supposed to go all night was, predictably a little disappointing. When a show is all about the lights, its only ever going to be good after dark.

Walking down to Federation Square from a meal in Chinatown, we could see some settling up just off Russell St, but we had strung out during the walk and dawdlers had to keep up and not duck down side streets and get lost.

The teenagers had been shopping in town and were keen for a sit down, so we headed to St Paul’s Cathedral which was listed as a venue. I had never been into St Paul’s, so that was worth it just for the stickybeak- such beautiful woodwork on the ceiling – majestic. 7pm ticked up, the cathedral filling – and ticked past – that was when it occurred to us that any laser show would be better after dark, which was still more than an hour away. So, shoppers rested, we decided to check out the National Gallery.

Working our way across a not yet too crowded Federation Square where some zumba dancers were trying, with not a lot of luck, to engage the crowd, we hit our first success for the night. “Red Centre” by Konstanin Dimopoulos, not part of the White Night event, but it drew the boys like moths to a flame, because people were playing it like a tall, bright red percussion instrument, reaching grasping, rattling, banging. It sounded great, clunks, bangs, resonate thrums.

Heading on down St Kilda Rd we passed by the Arts Centre and let the boys join in the clambering on “Forward Surge” by Inge King while we watched the passing parade.

Continuing on the the National Gallery Victoria, “The Commoners” by Jompet Kuswidananto caught the teenagers attention, the missing bodies, the potential for noise (it wasn’t active when we went in). “How does it work?” What is it meant to do?”

Further on in the Great Hall, “Bouquet Final 2″ by Michal Blazy beckoned.

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What a hit! It has foam! What’s not to love? We spent awhile there. It was enchanting.

It was quite mesmerising as the billows of foam grew before your eyes, and yet at the same time imperceptibly. It was so hard to catch it actually growing. There was so much of it, huge walls of growing bubbles, and I don’t think they grew at a constant rate either. I suspect the pumps were variable.

The boys had a ball. It was all the fun a giant bubble-machine should be. You were allowed to play with any bits that had fallen off, and a lot did.

We had a few goes of foam volleyball, where you had to blow and keep the foam in the air.

They boys were sticky with it by the end.

From there we headed back to the Yarra and Birrarung Marr, where there were a large number of things to interact with, from creepy blow-up purple clowns to “From the Deep” laser show another highlight of the night.

I asked the 10year old to dictate something about what he thought of White Night.

The White Night was OK. I particularly like the laser show on the river, because of the way that they incorporated water and light to make the shapes and the colours.

I also really liked the foam thing in the gallery. It was really fun to play with, the bits that fell off, they were so foamy and bubbly.

How would you describe it?

Really really Awesome. And bubbly and foamy.

How would you rate it?

Seven out of 10.


Public Sculpture & the collective consciousness

Why do I write about Melbourne’s sculpture? Most art critics and art historians are not interested in a collection of bad to mediocre art but I am because public sculpture shows the collective consciousness of the city. Love it or hate it public sculpture says something about the identity of the city. The taste of homogenous consensus maybe bland, even ugly, but to those in power it is acceptable. Public sculpture is concerned with the perpetration and manipulation of memory and space in collaboration between artists and city councils.

The idea of a collective consciousness was invented by French sociologist Émile Durkheim to refer to the public expression of shared beliefs and moral attitudes that operate as a unifying force within society. A collective consciousness is like a public superego exhibiting the ideals that the public aspire to. It tries to tell the official history or represent the shared values and aspirations of a culture. It is different from a ‘zeitgeist’ because it is intentionally expressed.

Bertram Mackennal, George VII Memorial, 1920

Bertram Mackennal, George VII Memorial, 1920

Public sculptures because of their durability are excellent representations of the collective consciousness. Public sculpture is the collective consciousness of a city exposed in something like an archaeological cross section with all the layers clearly defined by the commission and installation dates. From the 19th through to the 21st century, from Melbourne’s first public sculpture, Charles Summers’s River God Fountain to the very latest Laneway Commissions.

Melbourne is of a similar age to many cities and what has happened with Melbourne’s public sculpture is representative of many former British colonial cities around the world, including in the USA. Melbourne’s sculpture initially was part of the English art tradition. In the 19th century the English and Australian establishment were essentially the same; Australian sculptors trained at the Royal Academy or the Royal College of Arts. The sculptor Bertram Mackennal was born in Australia and lived in England, India and Australia.

Public sculpture reflects the way that the city is understood. It is an image for the city, an expression of civic pride and the idea of civic good. Originally a public sculpture was intended records a triumph, to memorialise ownership, to preserve and glorify the memory of a king, queen, general or hero. The height of plinths was an indication of the glory of the heroic sculpture. During Melbourne’s history plinths, the architectural support for the sculpture, have become smaller or disappeared completely.

Melbourne has changed as dramatically from the small settlement founded in 1835 that used horses as transportation to a large modern metropolis. During that time there have been many changes to the way that people use public space, the way that people think about Melbourne, their values and aspirations. There has been major political changes, Australia changed from a British colony to a separate country. Given these dramatic changes in the city and its infrastructure it would be surprising if public sculpture hadn’t changed equally dramatically.

Steaphan Paton, Urban Doolagahl, Melbourne City Council Laneways Commissions 2011

Steaphan Paton, Urban Doolagahl, Melbourne City Council Laneways Commissions 2011

There is another cross section of the work of sculptors in the foyer of the NGV at Federation Square with a selection of busts by local sculptors over the 20th Century. Many of the sculptors were familiar to me because of their public sculptures in Melbourne – Paul Montford, Bertram Mackennal and Web Gilbert. The busts are not arranged chronologically but the layers of different styles are still clear. It is like looking at a series of stone tools from an archaeological dig; there are same basic forms with modifications and changes in techniques and materials.


Contemporary Indonesian Art @ NGV

“Rally: Contemporary Indonesian Art” at the NGV International was limited to two artists Jompet Kuswidananto and Eko Nugroho both from Yogyakarta. The title is wrong. “Rally” does not have exciting connotations in Melbourne just more of the usual politics. And this is not an exhibition about contemporary Indonesia and these two artists do not represent Indonesian and their art is about more than location or nationality.

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Jompet Kuswidananto’s installation, The Commoners, 2012 is a ghostly march of day labours in the foyer. Only their boots, tools, megaphones, drums and t-shirts tied around their heads and flags fluttering in the wind of leaf blowers were visible. Only the sound of their drums and street sounds were audible. (See my video on YouTube.)

The Commoners were attracting the crowds of young and old visitors but fewer were venturing down the corridor to see the exhibition. Most were off to see the Post-Impressionists or the rest of the NGV. I had seen works by Jompet Kuswidananto before, in 2009 at Bus Gallery and I wanted to see more – I wanted to see more of contemporary Indonesian art in general because there is so much going on in the Indonesia art scene.

Jompet Kuswidananto creates sculptures that make the figure disappear, only the accoutrements, the drumming and noise remains. These ghostly statues question the person in the military, the day labourers, the person made invisible by their occupation or nationality. The carnival of life is made up of so many ghosts in costume. These are not exclusively Javanese ghosts, the ghosts of our own history and culture haunt us.

The installation of the exhibition was fantastic, opening you up to the world of the two artists in a single room. Two sentinel figures sit at the entrance of the gallery by Eko Nugroho. Inside some of the walls have been painted in a pattern, corrugated iron lines another wall. The room instantly takes you to another world there is so much to look at.

Eko Nugroho’s work has all the intensity of street art. His street art background is clearly evident with images embroided on velour on the painted wall and his stickers, embroided badges, t-shirts, hoodies, tot bags, comic books and other merchandise at the gift shop. While at the NGV Nugroho painted the water wall; I only saw Nugroho painting on NGV’s water wall from the outside before one of the windows cracked and the whole thing was taken down (similar to Keith Haring’s experience with the water wall). As well as, painting a wall in Hosier Lane with his sci-fi inspired images with faces staring out of machines.

Eko Nugroho in Hosier Lane, 2012

Eko Nugroho in Hosier Lane, 2012

Eko Nugroho’s fantastic costumes are something else. Unlike Kuswidananto’s figures they are visible, like mad ravers or cultists from the future.

I wanted to read more about the artists. Aclaim Magazine has an interview with Jompet Kuswidananto and Eko Nugroho. Art Guide Australia has a review of “Rally”. And Art Asia has an interview with Jompet Kuswidananto from last year.


“Last Laugh” Recent Acquisition

It is good to see that the National Gallery of Victoria has purchased “Last Laugh” from Juan Ford’s recent exhibition at the Dianne Tanzer Gallery. The NGV has given me several pleasant surprises recently and I am warming to its new director, Tony Ellwood (see: The Trojan Petition).

Juan Ford, Last Laugh, 2012 (oil on linen, 107 x 92 cm)

“Last Laugh” is a realist painting about painting, a painting of paint – modernists do not have a monopoly on uniting materials and subject. The red painted paint is marking and smothering the plant as the man-made smothers the planet. It not easy to paint something that comments on the slow destruction of the planet but this painting comes close. This is not exactly Henry Lawson’s “blood on the wattle” as it is paint and not blood, and the botanical specimen is a eucalypt not a wattle; there are twists and turns in the narrative of all of Ford’s paintings. It is not a joyous image even though the sky is still bright blue for Juan Ford is an intelligent man and understands what sciences forecasts. The last laugh is the longest but also bitter and twisted.

Juan Ford’s “Last Laugh” is representative of many of Ford’s recent paintings as it is part of a series of similar paintings in his current exhibition and is similar to several paintings featuring Australian plants in his last exhibition. And there is no doubt, after a long string of awards, grants, commissions and group institutional exhibitions that Juan Ford is an artist that should be included in the NGV’s collection

The oil painting will fit into NGV’s collection in several ways and continue its narrative into contemporary painting. The question of genre is raised by these paintings, are they still life or landscapes or portraits of the nation through its flora emblems? Genre is one of those great post-modern subjects and genre mixes are a feature of post-modern art. “Last Laugh” is so much of this time and yet it obviously has many lasting qualities that will serve the NGV’s collection well in future.

As a long time fan of Ford’s work I wish, like all fans do, that he did more like his early work with engrave anamorphic images. His ability to paint that once was great has improved so much since then. (See my earlier post on Juan Ford.) But I can see why the NGV decided to acquire this strange and beautiful painting.

See also “In the Studio with Juan Ford” on Vimeo. http://vimeo.com/46172316


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