For almost a decade Callum Morton has fused architectural icons with local mythology in his sculptural installations. Given the place of the Gas and Fuel Buildings in Melbourne's architectural imaginary, their choice as the subject of the artist's latest model installation almost seems predestined.
The brown brick Gas and Fuel Buildings, built over the central city railway yards in the 1960s in the International Style, were the very definition of industrial simplicity. But the twin towers, studded with small aluminium windows, were far from universally appreciated. With the city in the process of transformation from a site of work and production to one of leisure and consumption, the featureless buildings were regarded by the leading local politician as a 'dreadful eyesore' that 'upset the ambience of the city'. The buildings were demolished in the late 1990s to make way for a new cultural complex - Federation Square - celebrating 100 years of Australia's nationhood and independence from Britain. 'Fed Square', as it is known, houses both the National Gallery of Victoria and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, and its Deconstructivist glass design (by Lab Architecture Studio) is in stark contrast to the Brutalist functionality of its predecessor.
As a sculptural work, Gas and Fuel (2002) is rather simple - a large, 1:34 scale model of the buildings, residing comfortably in the cool, New York-style gallery space. As I approached the solitary structure, however, I could hear voices crying out 'Help me, please help me' from deep inside. The effect is ambiguous, suggesting someone trapped, but also - for those aware of the buildings' unloved history - anthropomorphizing the inert structure. As in many of Morton's works in recent years, sound exaggerates the theatrical aspect of the work. It also loads the sculptural form with personal associations, sourced, ironically, from pop culture. This is a device Morton pioneered in an early work, Cellar (1998), in which the viewer is drawn into a corridor and to a padlocked, rattling wooden box - concealing a green glow and generic growling sounds. Both works colour the uncanny with a sense of humour.
Morton originally studied architecture, and his earlier models of fragmented architectural forms were generic: balconies, shop awnings and brick façades. That these models represented the failed projects of a Utopia-driven modernity became more explicit when he began to borrow elements from internationally recognized buildings. In perhaps his best-known work, International Style (1999), Morton reconstructed Mies van der Rohe's infamous Farnsworth House, with the laughing, chattering and glass-clanging of a cocktail party inside - culminating in the sound of gunshots and desperate screams. By injecting a narrative into the building, and investigating the relationship between private and public space, the work evokes Ed Ruscha's painting The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire (1965-8).
In terms of its intensely localized reference Gas and Fuel resembles two of Morton's earlier works: Cottage Industry: Bawdy Nights (1999-2000), a reconstruction of Captain Cook's cottage that was transported brick by brick from England to a public park in Melbourne in celebration of the European discovery of Australia, and ACCAdemia (1999), a life-size reconstruction of a local garage where Bon Scott, the lead singer of AC/DC, once lived. More recently Morton has modelled Le Corbusier's Cabanon, the log cabin on the Côte d'Azur where the architect spent his summer holidays and eventually died from a heart attack. Like these works, Gas and Fuel exemplifies the collision of official and unofficial histories, public and private memories, figured as an encounter with a building and its potential narratives (the soundtrack is borrowed from the original 1958 version of the film The Fly).
This tension between local and international style was the subject of Local +/or General (2001), in which Morton collaborated with a design group, UDL, to produce large digital prints of iconic Modernist homes transformed into a series of retail and restaurant franchises: Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House as a 7-11, Glenn Murcutt's outback Australian Modernist shack as a souvenir store and so on. These works, in which specific sites are turned into non-places, are neither homages to Modernism nor its local resistance, but rather subjects on to which various possible futures have been pinned. As a return of the repressed, Gas and Fuel merely reverses the usual role of the architectural model. If at first it seems to lack the humorous narrative qualities of some of Morton's other work, its acquisition by the relocated National Gallery of Victoria assures the model a lasting and playful sense of inevitability.