A collector can only span a lifetime but an institution’s collection can span more than one lifetime. A collector has a limited interest but an institutions collection policy can be redirected and renegotiated. RMIT’s 120 years of art collecting reflects a major period in Australian art history.
This makes RMIT Gallery’s exhibition of the RMIT collection, Chaos & Order, one of the best exhibitions of Australian art history that you will see. The size of the collection, which fills more spaces in the building that I’ve ever seen the gallery use before, means that it can tell Australian art history. And it does this without being too big and overwhelming.
The collection has works from the modern to the post-modern. Often these are not major works by major artist but works on paper and sculpture maquettes.
It is an exhibition to expand your knowledge of an artist, to round out your knowledge of Australian artists and to throw in a few surprises. A work by the Spanish artist Antoni Tapies? What is it doing there? The reasons why a work was added to the collection is one thing missing from the exhibition.
For a reviewer selecting a couple of examples to write about posses more problems than even the curator, Jon Buckingham faced in selecting the exhibition from the collection. I am faced with constructing a narrative order whereas the exhibition fills a building or laid out as a mass in the middle of the gallery. Sculpture nerd that I am I have to take a photograph with the work of Norma Redpath, Inge King and Clement Meadmore in the one shot. Note the conflict of interest in a couple of paintings by my Facebook friends, Juan Ford and Sam Leach.
Listening to the sound art in the basement on a multichannel sound system and trying to think of ways of finding order in the chaos of the collection. There are so many stories to tell in the collection. There is a watercolour by Albert Namatjira and Noel Counihan’s linocut depicting a crucified Namatjira. Should I follow this theme through to Reko Rennie’s neon graff-style slogan: ‘I wear my own crown’? Or, I could trace waves of immigration and its impact on the arts in Australia. Or, changes in artistic media… It is such a rich collection that many stands in the narrative of art history can be easily found in it. Strands that will reach into the future and define yet unimagined art.