Reporting from Down Under

Melbourne Now (16)

I arrived in Melbourne, Australia at the perfect time to get a snapshot of what’s going on in contemporary art in this bustling, cosmopolitan city. Two of Melbourne’s premier art institutions – the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) and the Ian Potter Center were dedicated to the Melbourne Now exhibition “celebrating the latest art, architecture, design, performance and cultural practice to reflect the complex cultural landscape of creative Melbourne.”

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A colored-mirror skyline fragment greeted visitors at the waterfall entrance to the NGV. Once inside, a cleverly designed igloo-like structure demonstrated what one could do with plastic planters filled with plants at different stages of growth (below).

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I followed the path of the exhibition into a very large video gallery where Aussie humor was on full display. Take George Egerton-Warburton’s video entitled Why are you wearing athletic gear if you’re not playing any sport today?  In a Calder-like mobile,  a screen displayed the artist’s feet in sneakers walking through the streets of Melbourne, while on the other end of the mobile, the artists suspended his sneakers by their shoelaces.

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I was also mesmerized by Charlie Sofo’s video ‘33 Objects that can fit through the hole in my pocket’. I watched as combs, lighters, pens, snakes, keys, notebooks, etc. slithered down the artist’s pant leg. I can’t explain it, but I really liked this work!

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There were several contemporary Aboriginal artists represented as well, and the shield as object was evident is several works. One of the Melbourne Now exhibition workshops offered to the public was a native demonstration of how to make a cloak out of possum skins!! You can hear possums scampering about on urban rooftops  ever since they were placed on the endangered species list several years ago.

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I enjoyed several interactive works such as a wall of  postcards printed with the public’s suggestions for how to develop Melbourne in the future, and another installation that comprised a circular wall  that from a distance looked like trees and nests and flocks of birds. On closer inspection the entire scene was created by tiny blackbird stickers that the public were encouraged to build upon. I even got to relive my youth with a fabulous remake of a disco-era dance party (see images of these installations below).

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Linda Marrinon’s plaster and cast figures referenced Hellenistic and Roman sculptural periods, but her individual figures were most decidedly anti-heroic Winter bride, Twins with skipping rope and Voltaire were some of the titled sculptures.

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There were few paintings on exhibit, Linda Forthun’s Bright Lights being among the few: A large canvas of Melbourne’s skyline painted in her signature style using stencils, and overlays.

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In case one starts getting too serious about the art, that Aussie humor will turn up again when least expected, like when I was looking for the Ladies room…

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To the ends of the earth and back: PART I

I was raised in Australia and my immediate family still resides there, necessitating regular pilgrimages to the ends of the earth and back. That is no exaggeration. Australia is a hell of a long way away from anywhere, which may actually explain why everyone there is just so-o-o nice! One of my art goals this time round was to visit the wryly named Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Tasmania. This relatively new museum has placed sleepy Tasmania, the large island to the south-east of the main continent, on the global art map. Tourists are flocking in to visit this unique museum which is reached by ferry from Tasmania’s capital, Hobart.

Approaching MONA by ferryThe understated exterior architecture  represents the tip of the iceberg of this underground museum, which was dug into the cliff face and descends six floors down into the bowels of the earth. I personally prefer a museum to literally vibrate with natural light. It was only several days after an intense visit to MONA that some research revealed that the museum is in fact perfectly designed for the collection. But I am getting ahead of myself. The story behind the art museum is almost as interesting as the art itself. The $80 million wonder houses art estimated at over $100 million and has already been hailed as the Bilboa of the Southern Hemisphere. Not too shabby considering that the collection belongs to one individual – 50-year-old multi-millionaire David Walsh, a homeboy who made his fortune by gambling. A modern-day tale ripe for the big screen. For a truly fascinating read into Walsh’s unorthodox thinking and anarchic personality take a peek at Amanda Lohrey’s interview for The Monthly.

Even before learning of Walsh’s anti-citadel approach to museums, the cave-like undertones mirrored the often dark and disturbing art.  The collection is at once wild, downright gross and superb. And every so often the parade of mostly contemporary works is interrupted by ancient treasures such as a mummy in its own temperature-controlled room, or prescious Ming dynasty vases dotted around the various halls. It must be wonderful to be David Walsh, to be able to purchase art which appeals only to your sensibilities and not blink at the outrageous price tags, nor worry about pleasing the public, the board of directors or the donors.The works were relentlessly challenging and the scope overwhelming. I am devastated that I did not conscientiously research the names of the artists when I took photos of the following artworks but in the absence of any labelling, I am not entirely to blame.

One of the very coolest features offered by the museum is the option to view your own personal tour of MONA after you leave. The touch screen on the museum’s smart guides record the artworks you tapped and when you are done for the day you can request a link to your individualized experience for future reference, with full info and 3-D images of the art you saw. Please check out part of my personal tour (use the password My tour focuses on the enormously talented Wim Delvoye, creator of the poo machine, illustrator par excellence and unparalleled conceptual artist. Click here for the latest revolutionary exhibition Theatre of the World.

So next time you think of Australia solely in terms of koalas and kangaroos, think again…!

(Postscript July 10, 2012:  Astronomical Tax Bill Stalls MONA Expansion: In Australia, quirky art collector and professional gambler David Walsh is in hot water over a backdated tax bill to the tune of over $40 million. While Walsh denies that his personal finances will force the closure of his private museum, Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art, he acknowledged that a planned expansion, which has already cost him $180 million, will have to be put on hold. [Sydney Morning Herald])