There are many children’s stories of subterranean life with the Wombles, Fantastic Mr Fox or The Borrowers that have inspired the “Going Underground”. This is an exhibition at the Dirty Dozen, the display cabinets in the Degraves Street underpass.
“Going Underground” is the perfect location, underground in the underpass to Flinders Street Station. It is a perfect school-holiday time for a child-friendly exhibition, even though the height of the display cabinets may not be friendly to the shorter viewers.
It is worth looking at if you have ten or fifteen minutes before catching your train home. Many of the vitrines have been transformed into fantastic underground worlds of imagination with keyhole and cross-section views to magical worlds. These wainscot worlds occupy the unseen parts of our world, like the Borrowers living behind the wainscoting. They have a parallel existence to ours instead of being separate, alternate universes.
Anna Walker imagines charming and humous scenes beneath the garden. Tai Snaith creates a floating home for polar bears inside an iceberg. Twee scenes of a miniature world of Mole Creek created by Cat Rabbit. Other artists have ceramics or textiles with images and designs inspired by these underground dwellers.
Curator Meg Rennie has created something extraordinary, bringing together local artists: Evie Barrow, Pey Chi, Maddison Haywood, Tegan Iversen, Isobel Knowles, Yan Yan Candy Ng, Beci Orpin, Min Pin, Cat Rabbit, Meg Rennie, Tai Snaith and Anna Walker. These designers, ceramists, illustrators, and sculptors embraced the theme. And the quality of the work is outstanding, making good use of the depth of these display cases.
On Thursday I went to see five exhibitions in the city and Southbank; all are free and in non-commercial exhibition spaces.
The first exhibitions I saw were in the Degraves Street underpass as I left Flinders Street Station; Denise Honan’s exhibition “Subterranean” and Shanshan Li’s “See the light” at the Dirty Dozen vitrines. Both exhibitions might work for other artist-run-space but had no intention of engaging with the general public, a necessity for successful exhibitions in this very public space.
Next a visit to Craft where there is an exhibition about doors — knobs, handles, knockers, lights, matts… Curated by Julie Ewington the exhibition has much more than the mundane theme might imply.
In Federation Square at the Koorie Heritage Trust is “They Shield Us” a group exhibition by Indigenous women about how “wearing cultural adornments shape their identities”. The shoes by Aunty Lorraine Connelly-Northey (Waradjari) are the stand-out image from the exhibition but this is not to ignore the necklaces by Maree Clarke (Mutti Mutti/Yorta Yorta/Wamba Wamba /Boon Wurrung). Clarke has been studying the necklaces in the Melbourne Museum’s collection and creating her own versions; Thung-ung Coorang (Kangaroo teeth necklace) in 3D-printed form. (For more on Clarke see The Design Files. )
The Margaret Lawrence Gallery at the VCA has “Conscious Intuition”; a fun but sparse exhibition that pairs two artists who emerged in the 1980s, Brisbane based sculptor Eugene Carchesio and Melbourne-based painter Diena Georgetti. There is a lot of humour in their art as they transition for the modern to the post-modern, from styles of abstract art to referencing abstraction, from minimalism to post-minimalism.
Finally to Buxton Contemporary where ‘Bauhaus Now!’ is a playful look at the long tail of the great modern art and design school a century after it was established. It is very playful with Bauhaus inspired games, toys, musical instruments, weaving, costumes and parades. There is work by contemporary artists responding to the Bauhaus aesthetic and work by Paul Klee and two former Bauhaus students, Gertrude Herzger-Seligmann and Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack who ended up in Australia. Curator Ann Stephen has created a rich visual experience that expanded my understanding of art history.
A dozen surreal installations tell a history of Australian women. “Heroines in Petticoats” by Kelly Sullivan, Kirsti Lenthall (Empire of Stuff), Gigi Gordes and Liz Sonntag (Tinky) is an engaging and accessible exhibition that has a coherent and relevant theme.
The height and depth of the dozen vitrines in the pink tiled Campbell Arcade, the Degraves Street underpass to Flinders Street Station has been used to great effect. Too often the Dirty Dozen has been occupied by art students who have alienated the general public, forgetting or ignoring that this space is very public at Melbourne’s central metropolitan railway station. There were several people paying close attention to it when I saw it around midday on Thursday.
The vitrines create a timeline of the lives of Australian women from the colonial era to the present. The heroines of this timeline are not specific women, heroines to represent an era but women in a general non-specific way. This absence of specificity meant that the artists tended to represent white suburban women.
As well as, the timeline there were specific causes associated with specific eras from the anti-conscription movement of the 1910s to the domestic murder rate of today. There was no mention of the temperance movement, as it was a women powered movement, but it is not longer seen as righteous.
Although each of the cases is labelled as the work of specific artists there is a coherent look to the whole exhibition. There are differences Kelly Sullivan’s collage, Kirsti Lenthall’s ceramic decals on plates and impressively on quartz rocks, or Gigi Gordes’s disembodied body parts; hands typing, the eyes on the glasses, mouth on the mug, mouth on the phone (I don’t know why the objects are covered in crochet) and, a few cabinets later, the hands on a glass of wine.
It was Tinky’s work that drew my attention to the exhibition as I know Gigi and Tinky’s art from the street. However, Tinky’s puns were the weakest elements of the exhibition. Written on paper and the little titles didn’t match the style of the rest. Unfortunately her puns give meaning to her tableaus and without them they would just be some odd HO scale model train figures.
Has it only been half a year since Platform closed and the dozen glass vitrines in the tile lined underpass at Flinders Street Station were left empty? The artist-run initiative Platform ran the space for twenty years and I regularly wrote about their exhibitions. Now Melbourne City Council’s Creative Spaces program have taken over management of the dozen vitrines in Campbell Arcade. They have rebranded them The Dirty Dozen because, as Creative Spaces’ Eleni Arbus puts it, ”It’s a pretty grungy site”.
The Dirty Dozen brings a new direction for the vitrines, filling them with the work of what Eleni Arbus calls “creative practitioners” rather than artists. Hopefully this will make the exhibitions more engaging for the commuters who use the underpass. The work of many contemporary artists failed to produce site specific art and failed to speak to the thousands of people who continued walking past.
The first exhibition at The Dirty Dozen, Prevaricated Frequencies by Skunk Control, a team of engineers and scientists from Victoria University demonstrates what Arbus means by “creative practitioners”. The vitrines were full of a forest of animatronic blooming flowers and caves of crystals, both with prismatic light effects from rotating polarised screens. Another vitrine contains a motorised kaleidoscope and another, rotating tanks of liquid. The attention to detail to create these complete other worldly visions is impressive.
Parts of this exhibition is similar to what was seen in Rose Chong’s display window last year when Skunk Control won the People’s Choice award at the annual Gertrude Street Projection Festival for Pestilent Protrusions. That People’s Choice award is an indication of engaging beauty that Skunk Control produce. The elegant engineering and science are used to present engaging and intriguing work rather than lecturing the audience.
Skunk Control was formed in 2012 by Nick Athanasiou a lecture at Victoria University in the College of Engineering and Science. There are a surprising number of engineers in Melbourne creating exciting art, including the street artist CDH. I wish that more artists today, instead of doing their Masters or Doctorates in Fine Arts, studied something else, something apparently unrelated to their art, because this would improve both the content and the art. I am looking forward to seeing what other “creative practitioners” will next be exhibiting at The Dirty Dozen.