Meredith Birrell heads south for the winter where she finds those Melbourne artist-run spaces hard to find and the big O at MONA a bit of fun…
Feeling over stressed and over everything, I recently visited Melbourne and Hobart to refresh my body, my imagination and reconnect with old friends. I spent recklessly on food and wine, (that laptop will have to wait a little longer), read, biked, walked and of course, saw some art.
Kristen Phillips, Burning Up (detail), dimensions variable, 2011. Bronze. Image courtesy of Linden Centre for Contemporary Arts
There were a few essentials on my to-do list for this trip; see the Vienna exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, check out some of Melbourne’s commercial galleries and artist run spaces and visit The Museum of Old and New Art [MONA], Hobart’s new museum-of-the-moment. I had never spent more than a couple of days in Melbourne and here I had a whole week. And my first ever visit to Tasmania. I was excited.
My first day was spent at the NGV to see Vienna: Art and Design. Victoria’s state gallery has a way of presenting exhibitions in a holistic fashion, bringing together not only the famous artists that might headline the blockbuster shows, but the furniture makers, the graphic designers, the ceramicists. In fact, any distinctions between such categories are immediately nullified by the way they are all presented on an equal playing field, all contributing to an artistic milieu rather than in isolation from each other. This more accurately reflects how artists and creators operate in the world, often working across disciplines and being inspired by architecture, the written word, science, technology, the decorative arts and so on.
Perhaps this curatorial approach reflects what the gallery can actually acquire for such exhibitions, but whether this diversity comes from the necessity of filling the space or not, it is an approach that feels right and is handled with insight and care. I was staying with a good friend who also shares a passion for the arts and works and studies in the field and she finds this broad approach of the NGV to be a consistent one. In the case of the Vienna exhibition, the rooms follow a chronological order, beginning with setting a context of a medieval city evolving into a modern metropolis by the end of the nineteenth century. This room boasts an impressive selection of architectural renderings (including several grand designs that were never realised, but are none the less spectacular for their immateriality). We then progressively follow the artists and designers of the Secessionist group who worked to create a distinctly Viennese style and aimed to dissolve the divisions between high academic and the decorative and functional arts. From the work of this often splintered group, the exhibition ends somewhere in the 1930s, when a new age and a more ornate decorative style began to supersede the simplicity and straightforwardness of the previous generation. Some might say this timeline approach is intrinsically flawed, as it arranges things in a linear fashion that doesn’t accurately represent reality. This is true, but I think there are sound reasons why it works in this case. This is the gallery’s winter blockbuster, the show that pulls in the crowds and keeps the lifeblood of the gallery pumping. It has to be accessible, easy to understand and digestible. I don’t think these are bad things for a public exhibition to be. Further, the timeline nature of the exhibition is actually countered by the incredible variety of work on display. You do get the tangible sense that Vienna was a hotbed of creative activity in the early part of the twentieth century and various strains of thought and activity were influencing each other in an opportunistic and lateral way rather than in a logical and sequential manner.
I am not a devotee of Klimt or Schiele, two of the big draw-cards of the show along with Josef Hoffman and Adolf Loos, yet Klimt’s portrait skills are undeniable. There is a still beauty in the feathered brushwork of his impassive faces. They are almost translucent, with almost too much green under-painting showing through, as if Klimt would like us to see the frailties and anxieties that inhabit these sitter’s souls and to feel their sense of disconnectedness, despite the gaiety of their modern city and its amusements. This uncertainty is carried through into their flowing, amorphous areas of clothing, which are punctuated against his infamous patterned grounds, which, rather than overwhelming the fey figures, actually make them more poignant. The effect moves me, even if I do not love them. It was his landscapes that I found most touching, particularly Italian garden landscape of 1913, with its slightly disconcerting lack of perspective and riotous but controlled colour. I find Schiele the less appealing of the two, his figures leaning too much towards caricature and his style too mannered for me. There is a piercing self-portrait (c. 1916-17) by Koloman Moser, although he was known more as a furniture and object designer as well as truly beautiful art deco ceramics and silverware and fascinating poster art created for the Secessionist exhibitions. The Secessionists’ goal to harmonise life and art is an idea that I really respect, but not one that necessarily works in reality. The status of objects in a market-driven capitalist economy, which Vienna and the rest of Europe were increasingly becoming, is so inherently tied up with divisions of education, class and wealth that this eutopia will always be unattainable. That does not mean that the idea lacks meaning or maturity and these shifts in thinking certainly leave their mark on future generations.
The next few days I trawled the streets of Melbourne in search of galleries. Armed with Art Almanac, my city map and a list of shows, I tried my utmost to see as much as I could. I had some success, but Melbourne, are you hiding your little galleries from the rest of us?! I simply couldn’t locate much more than the well-known spaces, I suspect they often don’t have street frontage. Great if you’re in the know, but frustrating when you are an out-of-towner and do have a genuine interest in seeing the work.
One space that was very rewarding was Linden Centre for Contemporary Arts in St Kilda, a not-for-profit space showcasing emerging work. It’s a converted old home, all white with dark timber floors, a reading room upstairs and charming original features. The current show, Linden Innovators 2, consists of five artists and one duo who each occupy a room of the lower floor. From Louise Bourgeois-esque glass bottle installations, to cast-bronzes that suggest baroque phalli, simple and elegant drawings, works made of bristling plastic straws and a room full of white mesh, it was a truly engaging selection of work. Kristen Phillips’s little bronzes, collectively entitled Burning Up, were displayed on hot pink plinths and atop the federation mantelpiece, like quirky family heirlooms. From memory, they were cast from ad-hoc assemblages of tassles, bits of plastic detritus and other cast-offs and carved remnants. Their original source however is not as important as what they become – odd, fanciful shapes that lurch out in all directions, sometimes spilling, sometimes so excessively decorated, they become either comical or disturbingly alien. Phillips has tackled the notion of excess by means of an ancient and permanent medium that we traditionally associate with important public commissions, not whimsical nick-nacks. The ploy is effective and these pieces are both silly and serious at once, both useless and precious.
Valentina Palonen’s work Imagining New Colours inhabits the smallest part of the gallery, really an annexe between two other rooms. But no more space is needed and the effect is like happening upon a nest of surreal embryonic lifeforms or a collection of fetish objects. These are again sculptural works but here made from polyurethane foam and coloured resin. A squat egg-like shape, smothered in layers of pastel-coloured foam that ooze down the sides, accosts your peripheral vision at feet level. It sits quietly on a little trolley, red human feet protruding from underneath. It is easy to imagine it starting to wobble and crack or simply upping and trotting off, so willing are we to see the animal (ourselves, perhaps) in any suggestive shape. Resin-casts of chicken feet and other organic shapes are arranged on or hanging from a shelf. The effect is of an alien nursery where at any moment life-forms might begin to emerge from their translucent membranes and jellified casing, or maybe that was just me.
Moving into Elaine Mills’ Indoor/Outdoor installation, glass bottles and objects are classified according to colour and type and arranged in-situ – filling the fireplace and arranged on the mantlepiece. There was a video piece as well as white shelf-like assemblages which sat on the available surfaces and hung from the walls and which supported more domestic objects. A glass cabinet in the middle of the room contained a jumble of gold and bronze glass and metallic vessels, suggesting archeological detritus or some collector’s passion, loved but haphazardly displayed. I didn’t get to see this but at certain times throughout the course of the exhibition, the artist is to come in and re-arrange the objects as a performance. This would have completely changed their meaning; a near-empty cabinet invites a different psychological response to an overcrowded one. These dichotomies of change and stasis, emptiness and abundance added a dynamic power to the work. Even imagining these objects in different arrangements imbues them with some sort of life and they seemed to inhabit the space as if they had claimed it as their own territory, rather than imposing on it awkwardly.
MONA – Foreground: Coffin, probably of a woman, 1550 BCE to 1069 BCE, Wood, gesso, pigment, with resinous finish. Background: Matrix, 1999, Jenny Saville (Cambridge, England, 1970). Oil on canvas. Photo credit: MONA/Leigh Carmichael. Image Courtesy of MONA Museum of Old and New Art
All this musing on the presentation of objects and playing with notions of art and life leads me to MONA. I don’t wish repeat what John Kelly has already said in his excellent piece on MONA, so I won’t indulge in too much detail. Although given half a chance, how I could rave about it. If you want to have a rollicking good time in an art-adventure playground, go. If you want to be challenged and have your psychological and visceral limits tested, go. If you want to interrogate what art is, what is isn’t (and then come to the conclusion that it doesn’t really matter anyway), go. If you want to see what a museum can be today and to have your ideas about visiting such institutions totally turned upside down, go go go. I think of it as an anti-museum because it is everything museums have been against since their inception. Instead of ordered, well lit spaces, you wander through a dark warren, in place of classification there is interpretation, fun instead of high-brow seriousness and confusion instead of understanding. Plus, it’s all topsy-turvy, literally carved out of the subterranean stone, just to affirm its subversive character, in case you hadn’t noticed it.
I have to mention my favourite work, though. For an absolutely revealing look at how unique we all are, you can’t go past 150 life-size porcelain portrait sculptures of women’s vaginas, Cunts…and other conversations, 2008-9, by Gregory J. Taylor. Just when you think you’re done, there’s more around the corner. The feminist in me was cheering that finally a few vaginas could go some way to balancing all the phalli already out there and maybe help to demystify this very normal part of the female anatomy. We all know what a penis looks like, but have you ever really thought about the variety in vaginas? And ladies, if you’ve ever had any anxiety about your map of Tasmania, don’t worry, there’s bound to be someone with a stranger one than yours. Male, female, we’re all a bit odd really, but that’s what makes us so beautiful.
A feature of the ‘O’ you are given on entry (the touch-screen device that locates you in the museum and contains the specs about each artwork, plus supplementary detail) is that you can vote on whether you ‘love’ or ‘hate’ a work. In the spirit of the anti-academic nature of the place, I decided to play along with the gimmick. I selected the ‘love’ option on a handful of works, but found that what I liked was only shared with a small percentage of visitors, 18% was my highest. A bit of silly fun, but also reminding us that one’s immediate response to an artwork, the most powerful and instinctual, should actually be valued and remembered, even as we later superimpose our reasoned judgement. (I find it nonsensical to hate a work of art, the only thing that evokes that response for me in art is laziness of concept or process, or blatant prejudice). I mention this because I heard a rumour where I was staying (love a bit of intrigue), that David Walsh intends to remove the most popular works and replace them with something more controversial. [A claim he made on the ABC Artscape documentary – Ed]
He evidently wants to test limits and generate debate and I think he is doing that most successfully. Rumour or fact, it doesn’t really matter anyway, go with your mind open and a healthy sense of irreverence and you will get so much out of it. In addition to the easy functionality of the O, it allows you to be in control of what information you take in. I find when I’m in a gallery and confronted by each work’s information panel, I am compelled to read it – because it’s there and because I am interested – but I tire so quickly with all the reading and looking, looking and reading. Here, however, you can choose how much you want to read or listen to. I was relieved to hear only about 20% of works had audio, as I find this such a distraction to viewing art – I always avoid audio guides. It means you appraise the work foremost with your eyes (and sometimes your ears and nostrils) instead of with your brain. How many times do I go to galleries and see visitors reading the panels and then moving on with no more than a cursory glance at the work of art! It also means you don’t get that aching mental exhaustion that is a feature of most large museum visits and I happily spent a good six or so energetic hours there, followed by a restorative glass of red in the wine bar. I didn’t want to leave.
In their own ways, each of these exhibitions raised questions in my mind about the function of museums and galleries, (in their many guises) and demonstrated anew the way art can engage all your senses and your intellect at one and the same time in the most surprising ways. Most importantly it reaffirmed one key idea that seems to get so swamped by that very thing we esteem most highly – reason – that is, that to create is the most important act of all. Not to question the death out of everything so there are no stories left to tell, no pictures left to make, but to make for the sake of our humanity. For every generation this is a new discovery and for every individual it is a personal odyssey. To create something with intent, whether in a spirit of communication, interrogation or love, is to add something to our human experience. I really needed a good dose of this medicine, this reminder that we, across all times, have talked the same language of human joy, suffering and passion. I’ll finish with a thought from an eight year old I had in an art workshop the day after I got back; if you’re not having fun, then it won’t be good art. I must remember to play more.
Vienna: Art and Design, National Gallery of Victoria, until 9th Oct
Innovators 2, Linden Centre for Contemporary Arts, St Kilda, until 24th July
Monanism, MONA, Berriedale, Hobart, extended beyond 19th July (evolving)
Photographs of MONA art courtesy of MONA Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania.