Tag Archives: RMIT Gallery

Modernism and Refugees

On world refugee day March 20, the Metropolitan Museum in New York shrouded paintings by refugees. “What would the Met’s walls look like if there were no refugees?” (No Max Beckmann, Marc Chagall, Ibrahim El-Salahi, Max Ernst, Piet Mondrian, Sopheap Pich, Mark Rothko) If that had been done at the opening of RMIT’s exhibition, “Melbourne Modern: European art & design at RMIT since 1945”,  there would have been many shrouded works.

Vincas Jomantas, Landing Object, 1971

In his opening remarks Philip Goad pointed out the contribution of the European modernists to RMIT. Without the post-war refugees RMIT and Australia’s culture (art, design, food, life) would be boiled, bland and ugly. It is clearly visible in the high tide mark of modern art, architecture, jewellery, fashion and other designs in this extensive exhibition at RMIT Gallery.

It is especially evident in the sculpture. The central sculptures in the main gallery are by Teisutis Zikaras, Inge King and Vincas Jomantas; all were displaced by WWII and were essentially refugees.

Teisutis Zikaras, Mother and Child c.1956-9

Teisutis Zikaras was the first of five émigré sculptors to teach at RMIT. His geometric mother and child in the exhibition are a homage to cubism and European modernism.

Inge King Daruma, Maquette for Garden Sculpture 1978

There are two familiar black steel sculptures by Inge King; many local people would be familiar with King’s sculptures from her public works. Her Daruma are particularly elegant reducing the traditional Japanese doll to two curved planes.

Vincas Jomantas, Birds of Death, 1964-5

Vincas Jomantas is particularly important to the RMIT art department; indeed the curators refer to 1961-1987 as the “Jomantas years” in wall notes. Jomantas may not be a famous artist but his influence on generations of sculptors is a greater legacy.

Jomantas black wooden curved forms in Birds of Death (1964-5) and his white geometric forms of Landing Object II (1971).

Even at modest scale in their sculptures look monumental. Their simple solid forms stand of symbols of modern sense of freedom.

So much of modern culture has been created refugees. Successful and humane countries took them in far greater numbers and far earlier than Australia. Who knows what damage current Australia’s refugee policy is doing to its culture because it takes decades to measure this; Australia definitely lost at least one refugee who is now a Fulbright scholar.

I don’t want any smug ALP supporters reading this and thinking that anyone who doesn’t support the current refugee policy should support the ALP. The ALP started the cruel policy of indefinite detention of refugees under Paul Keating (a creature with less compassion than a snake) and has no plans to end it. I call on my readers to imagine a better world where there is no ALP or LNP and then to do everything that they can to make it a reality.

“Melbourne Modern: European art & design at RMIT since 1945” was curated by Jane Eckett and Harriet Edquist.


Three model buildings

Looking at three artist’s models of buildings in two exhibitions that I saw this week. From miniature realism to fantastic visions model buildings represent a form of life.

David Hourigan, The Chicken Shop Yarraville

The first two models were in “Uncontrolled Development” a group exhibition at Brunswick Street Gallery. One was by David Hourigan, the other by John Gatip.

Hourigan has received plenty of mainstream media coverage for his models of Melbourne’s disappearing old urban sites, like milk bars and donut stands. They are very detailed, almost photo-realistic, 1:25 scale models of actual buildings. However accurate, Hourigan’s models are just a road to nostalgia, a criticism free version of the past, where there are no regrets or disappointments. (For more on Hourigan’s models see The Age.)

John Gatip, part of Eureka series

Gatip’s ‘Eureka’ series of golden models are abstractions of Melbourne; particularly the nineteenth century Melbourne constructed from the profits of the gold rush. His models are not an accurate representations but the city is clearly recognisable from the forms. Gatip is an architect but these models are very different from architects models. In an architects model the building is shown in an ideal state, as an example to imitate in the actual construction; in the artist’s model it is a three-dimensional representation.

Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, Arrivals and departures

In “Bruised: Art Action and Ecology in Asia” RMIT Gallery, Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan models of buildings are clearly made of corrugated cardboard. In their Arrivals and departures multi-storey towers of dense bricolage homes are piled on top of each other in chaotic constructions. Aquilizan’s houses are lively, with overgrown pot plants, bird boxes, antennas and other signs of life. Each building is on a luggage trolleys, ready to move to a new location on the artificial grass.

Bruised is part of ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE 2019 the art festival that is unfortunately so necessary in this climate emergency (see my other posts about visual arts exhibitions the ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE 2019: The plastic jewellers and Art in the face of a climate emergency).


Chaos & Order : 120 years of collecting at RMIT

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.

Chaos & Order : 120 years of collecting at RMIT

Chaos & Order : 120 years of collecting at RMIT

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.

Noel Counihan, Albert Namatjira, 1959

Noel Counihan, Albert Namatjira, 1959


Fast Fashion @ RMIT Gallery

Relevant, insightful, frightening – are not words commonly associated with fashion exhibitions but “Fast Fashion: The dark side of fashion” at RMIT Gallery is an exception. It an exhibition that anyone who has ever bought clothes, worn a t-shirt or other cotton garment should see. It the exhibition that critically addresses the question: what’s the true cost of that cheap bargain hanging in your wardrobe?

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Tim Mitchell, Mutilated hosiery sorted by colour, photograph 2005

The global environmental, social and political impact of mass produced novelty t-shirts and other fashion items is enormous. You will be horrified and distressed at the effects of sandblasting to make those distressed jeans. We are talking rivers running blue or pink or whatever this year’s fashionable colour is. Below-subsistence-level wages destroying workers and societies for garments that are only worn a couple of times. It is apocalyptic. I will never look at my wardrobe in the same way again.

The design of the exhibition is magnificent; even if there is a lot of information to take in. Videos, photographs and even a couple of mannequins help ease the information overload. There are soft seats made of bundled used clothes to both demonstrate the excess and give your feet a rest. With all the horror of fast fashion it is comforting that the exhibition also offers a slow fashion solution. Slow fashion can involve recycling and upcycling but it is also about how to be a responsible consumer of clothing. It is not difficult, no more expensive and it starts with not buying that: “I’m with stupid” t-shirt.

Fast Fashion is curated by Dr Claudia Banz at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg. For those who are very interested in this topic there is an extensive public program of free talks to accompany the exhibition.


Post Nuclear Art

On Tuesday 26 May I went to an artist talk at RMIT Gallery by Ken and Julia Yonetani that brought their collaborative art together, at least for me, I’m sure that there are people who have been following their art for years now.

Ken and Julia Yonetani, Crystal Palace, 2013, photo from artist's website

Ken and Julia Yonetani, Crystal Palace, 2013, photo from artist’s website

I had seen the work of Ken and Julia Yonetani before but I hadn’t tied it all together. At the Melbourne Art Fair 2014 there was their market of inedible food cast from salt, The Last Supermarket. In 2012 at an earlier RMIT exhibition, “2112 Imagining the Future”, I had seen their Still Life: The Food Bowl (2011) a play on traditional European still life with a table, glasses, fruit bowl, cutlery, fish and crayfish all cast from the pinkish salt of the Murray River. And I was aware of Ken Yanetoni’s Sweet Barrier Reef , a Zen garden made entirely of sugar, raked sugar and icing sugar coral formations as it was chosen to represent Australia in the satellite exhibition held in conjunction with the 2009 Venice Biennale.

Ken and Julia Yonetani were exhibiting two of their chandeliers made from uranium glass in the RMIT Gallery exhibition “Japanese Art After Fukushima”. The uranium glass glows green under ultra-violet light with a fantastic beauty just like radioactive material always does in movies and cartoons. The artists explained that uranium glass “is made from depleted uranium and is a by product of the uranium enrichment process – so its like recycling the byproduct of nuclear power.” The uranium glass isn’t that radioactive compared to background radiation but it does link the beginning of consumerism to the advent of electricity and the invention of ultra-violet lights.

Considering its current impact on human life radioactivity has not featured prominently in contemporary art. In the immediate aftermath of WWII some artists did focus on the catastrophic destructive power of atomic weapons. Salvador Dali talked about atomic art and there was the Nuclear Art movement founded in 1951 by the Milanese painters Enrico Baj and Sergio Dangelo. But Fukushima brought all of this back for Ken and Julia; Ken now wears a wrist watch with a built in geiger counter. The danger of atomic weapons has been dwarfed by the dangers of billions of consumers buying sugar and using fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

Ken and Julia Yonetani are collaborative artists, a not uncommon feature in the contemporary art world where artistic partnerships are common, the most notable and enduring of contemporary art partnerships are Gilbert and George. In Australia there are several other artists that work in partnership, like Brown and Green or Gillie and Marc. For this Japanese/European couple the most obvious artistic partnership is that of  John Lennon and Yoko Ono and Ken and Julia Yonetani have played with the work, “War is Over! IF YOU WANT IT”, turning it into “global warming is over, IF YOU WANT IT”.

However, even compared to Lennon and Ono, Ken and Julia Yonetani are far more political and it is also far more personal as, Ken changed career from a financial broker to an artist. We might all need a change of career if don’t prevent global warming.

Ken and Julia Yonetani, Still Life: The Food Bowl (2011) photo from artist's webpage

Ken and Julia Yonetani, Still Life: The Food Bowl (2011) photo from artist’s webpage


First New Exhibitions for 2015

Melbourne’s art galleries have started exhibitions again; on 9th January, Friday evening Kings ARI opened first new exhibition for the year. A surprisingly early start with many people still on holidays and Melbourne’s fickle summer weather. A few other larger galleries, like the NGV and RMIT Gallery, have also reopened after the holiday season with exhibitions from last year.

Simon Crosbie's installation at Kings ARI

Simon Crosbie’s installation at Kings ARI

At King ARI there are three exhibitions in their three small upstairs exhibitions spaces. In the front gallery there was a group exhibition of four women artists, Amber Stones and Green, curated by Alison Lasek. In the middle gallery, Reveal & Conceal featured a great knitted installation by Simon Crosbie, two videos by Paul Candy and a large text based wall work by Amanda Laming. In the dark of the Side Gallery, the flickering colours of the screens reflected on the white wall creating an image of such a basic beauty. This work, Flickr  Films by Christopher Handran focused my thinking about the technology and art.

Regarding technology and art I finally had the time to see Experimenta Recharge, the 6th International Biennial of Media Art at RMIT Gallery. There was a humming from behind the, now, automatic door into RMIT Gallery as if it was housing immense electoral machines, which indeed it did. There were one hundred digital televisions for, Khaled Sabsabi’s 70,000 Veils a 3D video work of transcendental beauty.

This exhibition of  international artists has been extensively reviewed so I will only add the comment that I had seen a better version of the braking mirror that Anaisa Franco presented, “Broken Mirror” by Lee Yongbaek was much smoother and more beautiful. Franco’s other work the motion activated screaming mouth was just prop comedy. Teamlab answered my question about the watchability of long works of video art with one that last for 100 years.


Wrapped & Revealed

Callum Morton’s exhibition Neighbourhood Watch at Anna Schwartz Gallery is a lot of fun. Morton’s art is generally a lot of fun; Morton’s Motel is a familiar sight to drivers on the Eastlink Freeway and would also be familiar to listeners of the Triple M breakfast show where mistaking Morton’s Motel for the real thing has become a long running joke.

The game of Morton’s Neighbourhood Watch is a guessing game. If you have lived in Melbourne and are sighted you should be able to guess the identity of the wrapped statues. All the wrapped statues are familiar public statues that are located in Melbourne’s major streets and parks even if only their feet are visible underneath the brightly coloured plastic wrapping. What might also confuse the guess is that although the statues are a quarter of their actual size, the simplified plinths on which they stand have only be scaled down to half their size.

They are all memorial statutes but do we remember? The exhibition could have been extended into a social sculpture with a survey to find out which of these five statues were most recognised and which had been mostly forgotten.

I could go on about these wrapped statues, with reference to the work of Christo or Man Ray, but I think that I’ll use this to segue to another sculpture exhibition Revelations – Sculpture from the RMIT Art Collection at RMIT Gallery. RMIT’s art collection has the benefit that many of the best sculptors in Australia have at one time been students or staff or both. A lot of what I have to say about RMIT and sculpture can be found in my catalogue essay for Revelations “From Great Men to Landmarks”.

Revealing what is in RMIT’s sculpture collection makes an exciting sculpture exhibition that tells the history of sculpture in Melbourne from plaster casts of the Parthenon frieze, through modernism to contemporary sculpture. The exhibition also supplements the Inge King retrospective at the NGV (see my post) with more work by King and other members of the Centre Five group, so I would urge anyone going to the King exhibition to also see Revelations.

It is a great time to see sculpture exhibitions in Melbourne.


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