WHAT EVEN IS MELBOURNE NOW?

What, exactly, is the purpose of the National Gallery of Victoria’s multidisciplinary exhibition/biennale/festival?

Ash-Keating-West-Park-Proposition

Ash Keating, West Park Proposition 2, 2012 (still), three channel synchronised HD digital video transferred to hard drive.

I moved to Melbourne last year, having packed up my share house bedroom into a single car load – furniture across the backseat, books stacked in the boot – and followed the repetitive expanse of the Hume Highway southward, arriving in the destination city on Tuesday November 6, which also happened to be Melbourne Cup Day, which is essentially the day when the entire city stops, or rather moves at a pace to a pub or a TAB or a TV set. I moved into a house about a ten-minute walk from a park overlooking Flemington Racecourse, where helicopters drowned the sky and limousines drove past with women adjusting their hats in the window reflections. I chose not to go to watch the horses, mainly because it was on the TV in the living room, and also because I was exhausted from unpacking Sydney boxes. But not going to the Melbourne Cup, even to watch from a pointless blurred distance, seems somewhat emblematic of a certain slackness to get out and explore Melbourne in any significant way since. Still, I moved to Melbourne for a job and a life partner not for the city life.

But Melbourne, more than any other city in this country, seems to demand some level of civic engagement beyond simply walking the streets. It wants your love and wants you to gladly approve of its various behaviours, and to deem those behaviours as both significant and significantly playful. It would never dare consider that it’s not everyone’s cup of world-class coffee.

This all seems like a very Melbourne way of going about things,
to institutionalise art on such an ambitious scale.

The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV from here-on-in, okay with you?) is set to open what it recurringly calls its biggest exhibition ever this November. The exhibition will be titled Melbourne Now and is the brainchild of the NGV’s Director Tony Ellwood, who took up the top role in 2012 after five successful years as the head of Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA), and most acclaimed for the key year in that five year stint – 2010 – in which GoMA recorded higher audience attendance numbers than the NGV. Melbourne Now is intended to be the showcase that reconfirms the NGV as the leading arts institute in Australia, but even with such a vision in mind, Ellwood is not doing so by making a survey of the nation, or even a statewide look at Victoria from some neat rural angles. This is city-specific stuff. Interstate attendance mustn’t be top on the list. Would anyone from outside of Melbourne really care for an exhibition with Melbourne in its title? Still, this is taking the idea of the blockbuster to the level of the street block, but what comes from busting open a Melbourne block is yet to be seen. Is the show seriously meant to be a survey of an entire city? It certainly carries the serious air of a civic project – the catalogue and accompanying promotional videos have the same tone as a council approved press release. The deadweight tagline for the exhibition reads ‘More than 300 artists. 8000m2 of exhibition space.’ It’s the 8000m2 being quoted that kills whatever personality the publicity is meant to have. Who cares about the measurement of your floors? Size doesn’t matter.

EXHI021730_RGB

Zoom.

Or, size definitely does matter. This all seems like a very Melbourne way of going about things, to institutionalise art on such an ambitious scale. Festivals here go for eleven days, not three or four, and there isn’t a day in the city’s calendar year without one seemingly scheduled. Exhibitions and events engulf the entire city rather than a single precinct. White Night drew 300,000 people into the city earlier in the year, and they didn’t even bother to close off all the streets.Perhaps the exhibition then speaks to the ambitions of the city to be wholly defined, but are we sure it needs it? Up until now, the story has mostly been about Tony Ellwood and his ambitious vision and perhaps to understand the exhibition you will need some psychology of the man. When I was out in Footscray, I saw his name signed in the logbook of the Footscray Community Arts Centre, an organisation that does community engagement well, which was kind of heartening that he had come out west and had written ‘Thank you’ and left his email. I don’t know if a logbook is worth noting, but Ellwood is not the problem with Melbourne Now.

In a daring and highly critical article in un Magazine – daring, if only because the magazine has been commissioned to curate its own section of Melbourne Now ‘involving an extensive network of artists, designers and writers’ according to the press release (talk about biting the hand!) – cheeky-as-fuck emerging artists and writers Aodan Madden and Beth Rose Caird diagnose exactly what is wrong with Melbourne Now, at least within its nascent stage before opening (the article is pitched as a ‘speculative review’) and the diagnosis lands heavily on the marketing and publicity of the show, if only because Melbourne Now has had so much build up, there’s so much to take apart. Ellwood’s corporate speech and his enthusiasm for ‘participation’ are also brought into question. The survey show, possibly more than the blockbuster, is popular fodder for the publicists – it’s a simple enough story to sell. The title alone the media will get their head around  in a few seconds and be able to spin their own stories off it. I’ve done that at the start of this piece – Melbourne Now? Well, I moved to Melbourne! I live here and feel complicated within this space! Easy. There’s no doubt that there will be a publicist out there who will count this article and these words as part of the successful media coverage of the event – another mention, another form of participation accounted for. The question is whether these publicity and marketing campaigns should even be considered as part of the art – couldn’t they be more artful and considered? It’s more than simple packaging, but talking about it here might be like eating the cereal box instead of the cereal. Ellwood seemingly saw such criticisms coming, delivering a speech at the Melbourne Press Club soon after his appointment, in which he strongly disagreed ‘that conspicuous marketing and the hype that is generated through a successful marketing campaign is somehow at odds with the curatorial integrity of an exhibition, that it diminishes or demeans the aesthetic, contemplative dimension of the visitor experience. This is to miss the point. Marketing campaigns have at their heart outreach and audience development.’

Greta Costello Photography

Ash Keating, West Park Proposition 2, 2012, (still), three channel synchronised HD digital video transferred to hard drive.

In February, the NGV ran in conjunction with Radio National a series of participatory forums around themes that would be explored in the exhibitions – collaboration and nextness and some such. This is no exhibition – it’s public program, talk show, fashion runway, cruise ship, strip mall, burger joint, whatever school, city made small and digestible, art made big and narrative-driven and geographically specific, location sensitive. For the moment, you can imagine there will be a terrific essay on kitsch to be written in relation to all this. It’s contemporary art exhibition as Brisbane’s World Expo 88. This definitive democratisation of art – a democratic do or die ethos, really – is not all bad. Why not bust it open and let as many people in as possible? The populist appeal or the participation angle are little more than a couple of Metro counter lines stretched across the road, to take a tally when you drive over. But in trying to get everyone in, perhaps they will let people in they wouldn’t normally. That seems to be the case with some of the artforms they are including. The most interesting parts of the show may well be the incorporation of design, jewellery and architecture into curatorial perspective, all still mediated, of course, but no longer ushered through the doors like poor cousins. How are bespoke shoes going to fit in for instance? Maybe they’ll give a pair to everyone at the door and ask people to tap their way around the room.

The point here might be that the show is so inclusive as to be entirely incomprehensible. The attempts at accessibility – including a daily countdown on the NGV blog – might simply be there to reconcile this, to reign in the mass of information being delivered to NGV fanatics and the general public alike. There will, hopefully, be no real entry point into the Melbourne Now exhibition, no single door waiting to be opened. The writing about it prospectively is not easy for this reason. There will, of course, be a few ways in, through the doors of the NGV International, but you will be greeted by architect Rory Hyde’s information hub, which in conceptual drawings looks like a giant Chia pet-like dome sculpture. Making the front of your gallery look like a garden is one way to promote accessibility of your art for the general public; it’s just like taking the nice walk up the path to Grandma’s house. Literal gardens will be created by design agency Urban Commons, in which visitors will be encouraged to plant seeds which can be harvested at the end of the run. The artists’ collective The Hotham Street Ladies will be turning the foyer of NGV Australia into a simulation of a share house and then covering it all with icing sugar. If the holier than cool West Space and MONA’s Red Queen exhibition can both feature a fully functioning Ping-Pong table replete with images Leith McGregor printed across the surface, then why shouldn’t Melbourne Now throw icing sugar over everything? Leith McGregor, his biro friendly art and his table tennis artworks will also play a part of Melbourne Now. In these end times, why shouldn’t art be capital F Fun? The reason that MONA has captured the nation’s collective imagination isn’t necessarily its much-mooted sex and death angle, but the very irreverence of that angle, the larger than life nature of David Walsh, and the insanity of the entire project to begin with. It’d be great to see Tony Ellwood down at Crown Casino laying a million dollar bet to pay for a new wing.

It’s contemporary art exhibition as Brisbane’s World Expo 88.

Melbourne Now continues to play it safe with its initial marketing materials, which is infuriating because when you go into the details of the press releases there’s much, much more here. Ash Keating has undeniably become the poster boy for the show. A still taken from his Painting the West Park Proposition video work has been used throughout promotional material.  The photograph immediately recalls street art – Keating is wearing white tracksuits pants and a white hoodie, with the hood hooded. He isn’t using a spray can, though. He’s throwing a bucket. Again, size matters. His canvas, in this case, is a large industrial building in Truganina, a fringe suburb of Melbourne (it qualifies as Melbourne, now) and on one wall paints an idyllic picturesque landscape via hurls of the bucket. The Keating image, with its safe evocation of Melbourne laneway street art, is rendered flat by the intellectual slightness of Melbourne Now’s use of the image. Keating mumbled his way through one of the February forums and it feels unfair that Elwood, or the marketing team, or whoever, put him so front and centre of the exhibition. It’s this overt institutionalisation of art that Melbourne Now currently represents more than any real problem the exhibition may have. The legendary American art critic Dave Hickey turned his back on the contemporary art world after he was asked to sign a ten page contract before he could speak on a panel at New York’s Guggenheim Museum.

Still, there is a genuine hope here that when the show finally does open, it will be as chaotic and loopy as putting all the press materials together makes it sound. Tony Ellwood has done a terrific job of playing sane. Part of the show will include data visualisations by something called OOM Creative. You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried. What all of this says about Melbourne, of course, is still not particularly clear. In Ellwood’s speech to the Melbourne Press Club announcing the show, Melbourne Now was referred to as the working title of the exhibition. That they have kept the simple title shows that the central idea for the show may not have expanded even as the projects gathered together have. There does not seem to be a cohesive statement being made. And maybe that’s okay. For now, let the show just happen, and the curators and publicists stand down and out of the way and stop making so many claims on its behalf. Whatever it ends up being, it won’t be watching horses on TV.

Melbourne Now is on display at NGV Australia and NGV International, Melbourne until 23 March 2014.

Sam Twyford-Moore is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction and the director of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, Melbourne.
His work has appeared in The Australian and the Los Angeles Review of Books