In recent years, a new subculture has surfaced in Australian art. It lacks any aspiration to be recognised by mainstream public art institutions and has formed a self-conscious avant-garde with "arm's-length" distance (sometimes literally) from major museums like Tony Ellwood's National Gallery of Victoria. The latest expression of this subculture is the freshly minted $15.8 million Lyon Housemuseum Galleries. Situated in the leafy electorate of Kooyong, Lyon Housemuseum Galleries (a more public expansion of the old Lyon Housemuseum) is the newest member of a nascent scene of private Australian art museums that includes, amongst others, the $20 million Buxton Contemporary (which at least has private origins), the $75 million Museum of New and Old Art and the more modest Justin Art House Museum.
Lyon Housemuseum Galleries represents a coming of age in Melbourne of the democratic civil society already evident in Europe and the USA for many years. This civil society can be seen in private museums such as the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, the John Soane Museum, London, and the Frick Collection in New York, all of which the Lyon Housemuseum explicitly cites as inspiration. But it strikes a particular note in Melbourne when one considers that alongside this subculture is another subculture. It is also anti-aspirational (at least in style) and characterised by an avant-gardist independence from major public art institutions. Its latest expression is Meow, an $800 per month sharehouse in the equally leafy suburb of Carlton, the long-time heartland of Melbourne's intelligentsia. Meow is co-directed by Calum Lockey, Brennan Olver and the fast-rising artist Hana Earles (undeniably Meow's public face) and hosts one-night exhibitions every month or so.
Together, Lyon Housemuseum Galleries and Meow are manifestations of a new museological consciousness that has formed in the mind of the contemporary artworld—and has even witnessed the museumification of the nature strip by Musée du Strip. It reflects the accelerating trend of new institutionalism in contemporary art, in which individual artists, curators and arts workers have started to imagine themselves to be living arts institutions, exemplified in Melbourne by figures like Debris Facility Pty Ltd, Guest Work Agency Pty Ltd as well as a host of minor curators and business entities.
There is nothing necessarily new about this museological consciousness. From its beginning, the modern democratic state was characterised by a museological consciousness wrapped in an ideology of civic virtue. In 1789, when the French middle-class found itself in the delivery room of a newly born nation-state, it founded the Louvre as a nursery for the universal citizen of the République de l'Esprit. Likewise, in 1850, when the District of Port Phillip achieved separation from the colony of New South Wales, and soon gained a limited self-government as a colony in its own right (the Colony of Victoria), it embarked on a grand civilising mission as if it would be the Paris of the South. Its architectural edifice was elaborated by Joseph Reed (today's Bates and Smart), in a public library and art museum stretching between Swanston and Russell Streets—laying the cornerstone of a legacy Melbourne has jealously guarded to this day as the cultural capital of Australia.
The Lyon Housemuseum Galleries, which opened on 16 March, is part of this legacy. Its owners, Corbett and Yueji Lyon, were fashioned into significant art collectors by the pioneering gallerist of Melbourne's contemporary art scene Georges Mora (Tolarno Galleries). In the 1950s and 1960s, alongside John and Sunday Reed and the members of the Contemporary Art Society (CAS), Mora helped spearhead Eric Westbrook's internationalist transformation of the NGV (previously the stronghold of Alexandrian Sir Daryl Lindsay) into Melbourne's bastion of contemporary art, realising a renewed version of Victoria's original colonial vision.
The new Lyon Housemuseum Galleries is an independent extension of the original Lyon Housemuseum that opened in 2008 and housed the Lyon's significant collection of (largely Melbourne) contemporary art. The new "Galleries" transform the Lyon Housemuseum's former indistinct existence between public-museum, private-museum and living quarters, into a wholly public art museum—if still grounded in a private collection. While the first to coin the term "Housemuseum", Lyon is not the first to find its origins in a house. What became Heide Museum of Modern Art originally took a housemuseum as its model—MoMA, which began as a modest apartment gallery—and started in the Victorian cottage that is now known as Heide I. Like Buxton Contemporary, Heide had origins in a private collection, but its current public form was achieved by the Government of Victoria after the Reeds sold it to them in 1980.
The "Sharehousemuseum" Meow has Melbourne-based precedents in the likes of Allen David's St Kilda flat, which hosted Gallery 43 and Weekend Gallery. But Meow also recalls the apt-art ("apartment art") of the Moscow conceptualists (even Meow's red front door looks like Mikhail Roginsky's Red Door, 1965). Their work is most iconically represented (and allegorised) in Ilya Kabakov's installation The Man who flew into Space from his Apartment (1988), which displays the aftermath of a soviet-era apartment room after its resident catapulted himself into outer space, in search of a universal utopia. There is nothing cosmic about Meow, but it shares with apt-art a certain unofficial ethos that shuns the Soviet-like uniformity of mainstream "official" taste.
Insofar as it is less "Soviet" and more "Edwardian", Meow also recalls the anti-liberalism, anti-academicism and "total art" styles of the Art's and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements popular throughout the Edwardian period. Like Meow's Hana Earles', Le Maison de l'Art Nouveau's Siegfried Bing invited artists to produce decorative art environments, events and social gatherings, rather than works of art per-se. In fact, there is even something remotely Les Nabi-esque about the Fauvist palette of Earles' several small paintings that were displayed in Meow's most recent exhibition The Wish Academy (either a reference to the Tokyo clothing store or the American charter school whose Facebook about page simply states, "When you WISH upon a child... you make dreams come true"), which was held on the evening of Thursday, 21 March. The exhibition also featured "café music" by @arrivinglateintornfilthyjeans, mimicking the post-impressionistic vibe of Eric Satie's "furniture music".
Meow brings together Earles' social-media presence, artistic practice, living quarters, curatorial practice and museum directorship. "Welcome to my gallery, my name's Hana. As you can tell I've got heaps of friends, and I'm here at my house named 'Meow'—everyone here goes to VCA," says Earles in Episode 1 of MeowTV—Meow has a TV series, actually a work by Carmen Sibha-Keiso in which each episode documents an exhibition opening). Meow is not so much a museum for art, as it is a place where art comes for the museum. Another visitor senses Earles' game when she loudly opines, "this isn't a real gallery—that's all I've discovered today. A fucking scam!"
Earles has promoted Meow using the well-worn 2017-esque social-media strategy of trolling. Last month, commenting in all-caps on a West Space Instagram-post calling for volunteers, Earls called out the exploitation of free labour and encouraged volunteers to come to Meow instead. At Meow, Earles wrote, "EVERY TIME U FUCK UP WE REMIND UR IMPENDING MORTALITY AND LET YOU KNOW HOW MANY HOURS EXACTLY YOU'VE WASTED VOLUNTEERING THEN SEND U OUT TO GET COKE FOR US." Her contribution of a painting simply titled Meow, 2018, to the recent Neon Parc City exhibition, Carny, also reads as a deliberate attempt to exploit the commercial gallery's profile to promote her own gallery.
Despite this, the atmosphere at Meow is exceptionally friendly, not pretentious (even if it tries to be). If anything, I imagine it to be like the friendly and open 1950s "Mirka's Café" (run by Georges and Mirka Mora)—a slightly nerdish, slightly square, haute coolness. This is surprising, given Meow addresses itself to its public primarily through a social-media space embedded in internet subculture that, whether railing for or against mainstream media's political correctness, is rife with subcultural micro-fascisms, ironic nerdish trollers, a love of transgression, South Park humour and a shared loathing of moralistic self-flattery. But there's no Red Scare-isms (even if Anna Khachiyan and Dasha Nekrasova would be affectionately welcomed). There is not even the semi-ironic nihilism and abjectness of a Bonny Poon, who exhibited at Suicidal Oil Piglet (also co-directed by Meow's Calum Lockey and of which Meow is arguably a successor), nor the deliberate offensiveness of SOP's co-director Zac Segbedzi, who is known for lashing out at dentists, property developers and Richmond couples with new apartments.
Instead, The Wish Academy was attended by friendly accelerationists, queers, "heteros", artists, fashion designers etc. Earles' yellow "sad egg" sticker sculpture in the middle of the exhibition space looked like a drab prop, the cuddly aqua poof from Pee-Wees Playhouse. Meow is even self-mocking in its anti-aspirationalism. On Meow TV, ep. 1, Matthew Linde peers out the window with empty hands gesturing as if smoking a cigarette. "We sold out! We sold out in 5 minutes!" "What did the New York Times say?", someone asks. "They're raving about it — Artforum, Frieze... Jerry Saltz!" For Meow, these are genuine criteria of success, as they would be for the Lyon Housemuseum Galleries and the NGV.
Lyon Housemuseum Galleries' inaugural exhibition, ENTER, held in the gallery's brand new pristine white cubes, states that it seeks to "contest the neutral 'white cube'". To achieve this, it commissioned artists to "create works that explore the way viewers 'enter' and engage with art and how these works are encountered in the space of a museum." Sixteen artists (5 from the collection, 11 new) have been commissioned, including Brook Andrew, Ry David Bradley, FFIXXED STUDIOS X James Deutscher, Shaun Gladwell, nova Milne, Kate Mitchell, Dan Moynihan, Callum Morton, Baden Pailthorpe, Kenzee Patterson, Patricia Piccinini, Ian Strange, Esther Stewart, Kynan Tan, Min Wong, and Constanze Zikos.
The most uncanny thing about the exhibition (and possibly the Lyon Housemuseum Galleries in general) is that it presents an aesthetic and collection of artists that, like its cousin Buxton Contemporary, is almost indistinguishable from the artworld taste presented in the contemporary galleries of institutions like the National Gallery of Victoria. Is there any better evidence of how homogenised contemporary art institutional-taste has become? This is not meant as a criticism of individual works and artists, but an observation regarding a collective persona that's formed through the collecting and exhibiting habits of public and private institutions. Entering these institutions, one can imagine entering a single large "communal museum" in which each institution is just another room through which the various works of art by various artists are infinitely transportable, exchangeable and communicable without ever undergoing any transformation—as if providing proof of Kant's universal taste.
For the viewer (who is also a subject of the communal museum's communal vision), works appear to hover independently of their art context, as though they entered the universal utopian ether of Kabakov's man who flew into outer space. Still, some works in ENTER drew genuine meaning from this context, such as Brook Andrew's möbius-orbited silver globe Unorientable, 2019 and Callum Morton's eerie enclosure with banging, automatic opening and closing gates, Monument #24: A gentle stroll in a Landscape Full of Wonders, 2019. But other works, like Shaun Gladwell's Tech-Deck Skateboard Work, 2019, were somehow completely incomprehensible (although the kids loved it, of course).
In 2018, the NGV celebrated fifty-years holding the mantle as the official centre of Melbourne contemporary art, a title it initially wrestled from a host of competing official and unofficial institutions (such as the Contemporary Art Society (CAS) and John and Sunday Reed's Museum of Modern Art Australia (MOMAA)) with the opening of its ground-breaking 1968 exhibition The Field. Just a few years prior, Reed had handed over to the NGV the blockbuster Two Decades of American Art after MOMAA failed to obtain funding and resources required to host the exhibition. This concession by MOMAA sounded the death knells of any competition to the NGV. Soon after, the NGV indicated to MOMAA that there would not be room for both institutions in the future of Melbourne's art scene.
Since then, the NGV has stood triumphant at the pinnacle of Melbourne's stratified cultural scenes. Now, a new descendent of the Georges-Mora and John-Reed legacies—Corbett and Yueji Lyon—has returned like the repressed, giving re-birth to a morphed version of the old civil society exhibiting associations (like CAS) that thrived in the post-war period. These were really the last breaths of the Edwardian period's obsession with civil society associations and fraternal orders (widely popularised by Ferdinand Tönnies' 1887 book Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft), but which gave way to the post-war era's re-interpretation of civil society in purely market terms, seeing the old publicly oriented arts associations outpaced by state art institutions (the NGV) and private art institutions (commercial galleries).
No doubt, both the NGV and the Lyon Housemusuem would publicly proclaim to be comrades in the Melbourne arts "ecology" (interestingly, a word derived from the Greek word for "house"). But writing in The Australian, Ashleigh Wilson beautifully relayed early signs of not-so-subtle overtones of competition between the two institutions, pitting NGV director Tony Ellwood AM as the Lyon Housemuseum Galleries opening event's Walter Mitty, who one day "dreams of building a contemporary gallery himself." But from the perspective of the communal museum, in which Lyon Housemuseum Galleries can be experienced as just another room, Ellwood need not interpret this as competition; he can consider Lyon Housemuseum Galleries a donation to the communal museum that follows the old philanthropic model of donations like The Joseph Brown Collection, which was made on condition that a dedicated room at the NGV be set aside for its permanent exhibition.
Is the uniformity of Melbourne taste a sign that a class of trustees and benefactors have to search out new models of cultural distinction in the form of private museums? Are we sensing the tremors of a larger fault-line forming between the institutions of Australian art? Will the mass-culture "communal" sensibility of contemporary art find a new subcultural niche beyond the "communal museum"? Is this a rising tide that lifts all boats?
Through the nihilist anti-aspirational style of Meow, Earles reveals that she in fact views these questions as pertinent. Amidst the fractures that may be forming in the mainstream, Earles presents a discerning neo-Edwardian ethos having more in common with Sir Daryl Lindsay's pre-1950s NGV than Donald Westbrook's post-1950s populism. Is Meow our Mrs Brown amongst Melbourne's many Mr Bennetts?
Paris Lettau is a writer from Melbourne.
Title image: Hana Earles, The Wish Academy, installation view.)