Melbourne is a city branded the same yellow as its taxis. First glimpsed in Denton Corker Marshall’s motorway architecture on the way from the airport, and epitomized by Ron Robertson-Swann’s iconic sculpture Vault (1978) outside the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, ‘Melbourne Now’ has borrowed the colour for its marketing campaign. This is appropriate for a show that is effectively a fast taxi-ride across the city’s creative topology. For the largest project in the history of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), Max Delany leads a team of some 20 curators on a show involving more than 300 artists, arch-itects and designers held in both the NGV International and The Ian Potter Centre, plus numerous satellite events. The exhibition includes 58 commissioned projects – a remarkable investment by the gallery. Never before has a Melbourne curator so required ‘The Knowledge’.
‘Melbourne Now’ targets both informed and wider audiences, with a particular focus on children. This defining feature is epitomized by McBride Charles Ryan’s Community Hall (2013), a flexible space at the entrance to the NGV; it’s used for kids’ workshops, pop-up projects and community events that literally cross the threshold of the gallery and the street.
Any claim to a particular urban identity or contemporaneity is risky. Disentangling Melbourne-specific from Australian – or wider – issues would also seem a fool’s errand. However, the ex-director of the Ian Potter Museum of Art, Chris McAuliffe, accurately traced four themes in his review for national broadsheet The Age: play, collaboration and interaction; the exposure and critique of art production itself; the ‘spirit’ of Melbourne and its urban dynamism; and ‘the determination to enliven urban space’.
Play is indeed very apparent, from Nick Selenitsch’s modernist-themed participatory games to Trugo-GoGo (2013), the kids-focused Trugo room – a local variant on croquet – by PHOOEY Architects. Bianca Hester’s Hoops: sound tests, performances, documentations (2011–13) and Laith MacGregor’s ballpoint-on-table-tennis-tables are also good examples. This sports-obsessed city does arguably breed a kind of ludic conceptualism, congruent with the play–urbanity binary proposed by McAuliffe. Allegedly inward-looking and ‘European’ (whatever that means), this Melbourne-ness is tempered, perhaps wilfully, by a game-playing sensibility: with the canon of modernism; with the art institution; with art as recreation; and with each other.
Indeed, McAuliffe’s last two threads do play into this matey, myopic reputation of Melbourne, and cross-referencing introspection is sometimes too apparent in the cultural community. Yet it is hard to define this as unique to Melbourne and the flip side is a remarkably vibrant, mutually supportive artist-run gallery and publication scene, acknowledged here by the retrospective of locally produced un Magazine, one of several exhibitions-within-an-exhibition. ‘Melbourne Now’ documents something of this fulminating, fertile, cross-generational density in the finely paced curating, which allows the themes of one space to overflow into the next, generating surprising segues.
Particularly successful are the adjacent rooms, which display inventive yet rigorous critiques of colonialism by Tom Nicholson, Juan Davila and Brook Andrew; and analyses of landscape as matter, politics and history by Siri Hayes, Susan Jacobs and NickMangan. Elsewhere, similarly strong curatorial groupings include the quirky psychologies of Anastasia Klose, Claire Lambe and Bridie Lunney; the dry wit of Helen Johnson and Stuart Ringholt; the mutual skewering of painting and photography by Zoë Croggon, David Thomas and Lydia Wegner; and the charged, visceral jouissance of Lou Hubbard, Gareth Sansom and Mira Gojak.
Despite this productive friction, ‘Melbourne Now’ still points to the challenges of integrating the presentation modes of design and architecture with art at an institutional scale. While great design, craft and architectural work is apparent, the show stumbles slightly in these sections: for example, the bunker-like framing of Melbourne’s world-class architectural practices into a single room and showreel.
Inclusion always assumes exclusion and it’s impossible to avoid criticism over who gets left out. One absence I would cite is Fiona Abicare, who interweaves design and art: her work would have helped address the challenges with the links between different disciplines. In terms of highlights: Patrick Pound’s Wunderkammer meditation on air; Darren Sylvester’s Yves Saint Laurent colour-scheme disco floor; Daniel Crooks’s mesmeric HD splicing of Melbourne’s famous laneways; Slave Pianos’ folk-robot gamelan; Hotham Street Ladies’ icing-sugar party debris still-lives; Marco Fusinato’s explosive son et lumiere; Ash Keating’s epic colour-field graffiti; and Steaphan Paton’s beautiful but chillingly punctured indigenous shields, are all worthy. Each present something of a show-stopper but handle the inherent risk of crowd-pleasing with, again, wit. Here they encapsulate what is perhaps the forerunner of a new age for the NGV under the guidance of the recently appointed director Tony Ellwood: ambitious, intelligent programming that engages the community while satisfying the cognoscenti. To achieve this through the output of a single locale speaks volumes about both the institution and the city.