Melbourne Art Fair & Spring 1883
This week Memo Review travels through two art fairs currently open as part of Melbourne Art Week: David Wlazlo and Amelia Winata review the reborn Melbourne Art Fair at Southbank Arts Precinct, and Vicki Perin reviews the third Spring 1883 at The Hotel Windsor on Spring Street.
Melbourne Art Fair
Southbank Arts Precinct, 111 Sturt Street, Southbank, 2–5 August
By David Wlazlo
Maybe it isn’t the best way to approach it, but Melbourne Art Fair (MAF) seems to me an enormous and amorphous group show. Around fifty different galleries have presented some of their best work, and while it is pretty much impossible to do justice to each of these in a few hundred words, I’m going to make mention of a couple of trends or directions I noticed. In fact ‘direction’ is probably the best term, for the things that stood out to me are indeed directional, geographic and even cardinal. I’m picking these ideas out for myself, so please remind yourself this is just one particular interpretation.
A number of works in MAF suggest a kind of ‘axis of relation’ that traverses south to north or north to south. Starting perhaps in the elegant round woodcut of Cressida Campbell, Interior with Chinese Lantern (2018), an explicit chinoiserie emerges that is softly hinting toward a rethinking of regional relations, political and economic but also aesthetic. It is also possible to draw similar aesthetic and even exotic connotations from Alexander McKenzie’s painting Bird Sculptures (2018), a sumptuous rendering of an island garden in an idealised perspectival paddy field. The value of 19th-century cultural appropriation seems to be put to new use in an era that is beginning to echo the sentiments expressed by Paul Keating (so long ago) that the ‘far east’ is better thought of as the near north. Keating’s policies were as economic as they were cultural, suggesting a kind of ‘play toward the money’ that potentially carries through to the MAF. Aesthetics and the exotic seem to be intimately entwined, and more connections are made toward ‘the north’ throughout the show, seeming to culminate—mainly because it is at the dead end of the corridor of the Riding Hall Galleries—in Chiharu Shiota’s work, The Crossing (2018). This web-like installation of string and old books seems to hold pages in an aerial mycelium, a frozen moment of either explosion or implosion. And yet having been raised on a diet of intertextuality aeons ago, the work—while suggesting a fungal and biological beauty—seems to me to be held back by the loaded object that is ‘the book’..)
The second cardinal direction is east to west and west to east. The idea of trans-tasman relations is very strong at MAF, from the amazing work of Kirsten Lyttle to Michael Stevenson’s fascinating installation MC510: Towards an Elective Clinical Peer Review (2018). While Lyttle strongly reflects on her Māori heritage yet Australian location in I am not tangata whenua here (2018), Stevenson’s work draws on religious fundamentalism and osbcure Canadian churches involved in demonology, positioning the artist as a kind of citizen of the global archive. Both these possibilities are collapsed, however, in the powerfully critical video work of Cushla Donaldson. 501s (2018) shows a Hito Steyerl-esque digital rendering of a giant 17th century Venetian glass slipper overfilled with wine. The video alternately flashes with a Linux command line displaying SMSs sent by New Zealand citizens currently in off-shore detention thanks to the Australian Government’s immigration policy. These policies—spelled out in section 501 of the Migration Act 1958—allow deportation to occur based on perceived potential risk and vague assessments of ‘character’. Māori account for sixty percent of these deportations, and the message is clear: while we are all drowning in the luxurious consumption of an art fair, relations with our closest eastern neighbours are unusually strained.
The work of Indigenous artists provides the strongest idea of a centre or pivot to these two directional axes. Karla Dickens’s series In the ’Hood (2017) presents head coverings printed and embroidered with various European iconography. Resembling balaclavas with drawstrings, these are the kinds of hood that might be used in torture, incarceration and their tragic crossover. Gina Bundle’s beautiful kangaroo skins, In Remembrance (2018), are my favourite works in the Fair. They combine patterns with repeated icons of black cockatoos and sting-rays bound by the shape of the skin, condensing the frame and the shape of representation so directly (if I were able to introduce Bundle’s work to Elizabeth Willing’s, I feel like they might have similar things to say). Dickens, Bundle and the work of many others bring the global connections back to work here. None more so than Ryan Presley’s Blood Money Currency Exchange Terminal (2018), which best sums up the relations between my hastily articulated directions around the compass. Presley’s installation is a mimicry of the ubiquitous currency exchange kiosk, except here we can change our dollars into blood money, literal polycarbonate notes that insert Indigenous material into our most treasured global system of value and exchange.
The directions that I propose are reductive, I know: most artists are indeed akin to something like global citizens (Michael Stevenson and Chiharu Shiota are good examples). And yet I still think that, as in Presley’s exchange, perhaps we pay a price—a transfer fee—when we cross a frontier. Like Presley’s work, this fee operates within a complex and ever-changing system. And like MAF, there are always innumerable factors working within it to create a diverse and varied experience.
David is a PhD Candidate in Art History and Theory at Monash University.
Melbourne Art Fair
By Amelia Winata
After a four year absence and an enormous amount of PR surrounding its relaunch and rebrand, the Melbourne Art Fair had high expectations to live up to. Unfortunately, it feels like less thought was given to the main objective of the fair—sales—and how to achieve that. At its 2014 iteration (the last one prior to this) at the Royal Exhibition Building, patrons were treated to ceaseless drink and, when the main event finally wound down, were shepherded off to an after party in the CBD. It was pure hedonism. In stark contrast, Wednesday’s vernissage felt more like a music festival. Budget was a big consideration of this year’s festival, but asking people to pay $16 for a glass of wine and then forcing them to line up for eternity at an understaffed bar really did not feel conducive to a luxury art buying experience. Visitors were then ushered out promptly at 8pm.
If these criticisms sound elitist, then perhaps it is because the thing that pulled people to the Melbourne Art Fair previously was the sense of elitism that it offered—that one might be wined and seduced into making a purchase. We would be lying to ourselves if we thought it was anything but. In any case, it is hard to come back with a bang when there is obvious budget concerns and Spring 1883, now in its third iteration and firmly established at the Windsor Hotel, is dishing out its very distinct tongue-in-cheek form of luxury close by in the CBD.
The fair is staged across two locations—the newly refurbished stables at the VCA and an elaborate temporary structure in the ACCA forecourt (maybe that is where the budget went). One comical side effect of the temporary building is that the floor is quite unstable and with the large volume of visitors on opening night, many sculptural works swayed back and forth as though motorised. At Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Dale Frank’s massive stalagmite-like sculptures reached up to the ceiling and waved about like enormous rubber dildos. Indeed, this left the crowd bemused and with plenty of Instagram fodder, though I doubt artists would have been pleased with this unexpected outcome.
Making an overall quality judgement about the work on display at an art fair is almost impossible: it is, after all, not a curated exhibition. Like all commercial fairs there were highs and lows. Not surprisingly, painting remains a low-risk crowd pleaser, with landscapes featuring heavily—Lucy Culliton at Jan Murphy Gallery, Alan Jones at Olsen Gallery, Travis McDonald at Niagara Galleries—some less ironically than others.
There are highlights, too. James Tylor’s offering at Vivien Anderson Gallery features works from his now well known Un-settling photographic series. Only here they have been beautifully installed across the entire length and height of one wall and interspersed with a number of ceremonial and quotidian tools. Meanwhile, New Zealand gallery PAULNACHE is exhibiting a series of gilded ceramic works from Virginia Leonard that, perched atop gold spindly plinths, are grotesque and over the top but simultaneously alluring for their extreme visceral qualities. The stalwart champion of Australian modernism—Charles Nodrum Gallery—is offering a small survey of works from Ron Robertson-Swann—the artist whose infamous yellow Vault sits in the ACCA forecourt. While I cannot say I have ever been a fan of that particular work, a series of more recent small framed pieces comprised of acrylic on canvas and/or polystyrene surprised. If nothing else, Melbourne Art Fair continues to represent an intergenerational cross section of galleries, though I can’t deny that free wine would make things a lot more fun.
Amelia is a Melbourne-based arts writer and PhD candidate in Art History at the University of Melbourne.
The Hotel Windsor, 111 Spring Street, Melbourne, 1–4 August 2018
By Vicki Perin
If you’ve left it to the last day to see Spring 1883 well, tough tits: suck it up, wear only the most necessary items of clothes, do not bring a bag and start (as is the only way) from the top-level of the Windsor Hotel down:
Alaska Projects looked like a community bedding down together. It’s sometimes unpleasant to have to detangle the artists’ works from each other in these cramped luxury hotel suites. Alaska makes you feel like you don’t have to. A cohesive mix of textile (Raquel Caballero, Jason Phu and Kate Scardifield), and a bunch of other mixed medias leaning either towards painting (Tarik Ahlip, Jack Lanagan Dunbar) or sculpture. The mix was perfect for the Windsor as the hotel rewards texture and loves grit. I didn’t know how good I had it—up there on level four—it wasn’t until level one when I would find suites working this smoothly again.
Arts Projects Australia was packed in the tradition of a treasure-hunt. One of the best suites for sculpture, like Adrian Lazzaro, and drawings, like Rebecca Scibilia. You’re going to miss pieces but check the cupboard and the bathroom for Chris Mason’s painted-snakeskin snakes. I also appreciated Sutton Gallery’s solo presentation of Laresa Kosloff’s video and photo-works, which were just weird enough.
Kalli Rolfe Contemporary Art had some hits and misses, as did most of the big galleries who need to squeeze their Big Gallery Art into ad hoc spaces. Ben McKeown’s head studies looked beautiful. Somehow the works of Juan Davilla, Anne Wallace and Nikos Pantazopoulos didn’t fight with each other; despite being so different, all three looked strong.
Bless you, Level One. Bless Negative Press for making great prints with no compromises: see Brook Andrew, Elizabeth Newman, Emily Ferretti, John Spiteri, Brent Harris, all printed in collaboration with Trent Walter. A solo suite at Michael Bugelli Gallery sees Heather B. Swann completely dominate the scale she’s been given. The room is so well-handled, it makes you wonder why everyone else finds it so hard to create a distinct mood at the Windsor. The Project Room, a non-gallery suite specially curated by Madé Spencer-Castle and Jeremy Eaton, was also able set a tone in their femme inspired, floral-themed group show. The ideal presentation for many of the works selected. Many highlights.
BONUS: Best Bathrooms and one-offs
The bathroom display, a special room. Always looked forward to, but seemingly hard to pull-off: I’d squeeze again into Lou Hubbard at Sarah Scout Presents (Level Four), Peter Atkins at GAGPROJECTS (Level One), and I’d dodge the heavy selfie-trade in The Project Room for Heidi Holmes' unclean soap miniatures.
A list of individual highlights: Daniel Noonan at Dutton, Alex Pittendrigh’s gummy sculpture in Murray White Room, two neighbouring pieces at Caves by Noriko Nakamura and Pia Murphy, Richard Lewer from Suite, and the solo show of Sam Thomas at Bowerbank Ninow, as the New Zealand gallery shows us all how to best handle the Windsor’s no nails policy.
Victoria is commencing her PhD at the University of Melbourne. Her research concerns printmaking in Melbourne during the 1960s, 70s and 80s. In 2013, she was the Gordon Darling Intern in the Australian Prints and Drawings Department at the National Gallery of Australia.
Title image: Ryan Presley, Blood Money Currency Exchange Terminal (2018).)