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.
Hana Earles, The Wish Academy, installation view.
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.
Liam Osbourne, Someday, installation view.
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”.
Hana Earles, Instagram story, circa. March 2019.
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!”
VIDEO Carmen-Sibha Keiso, MeowTV, Episode 1, Brennan Olver
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, , also reads as a deliberate attempt to exploit the commercial gallery's profile to promote her own gallery. Carny
Betty, Performance by Grace Anderson
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 (even if Anna Khachiyan and Dasha Nekrasova would be affectionately welcomed). There is not even the semi-ironic nihilism and abjectness of a Red Scare-isms Bonny Poon, who exhibited at Suicidal Oil Piglet (also co-directed by , nor the deliberate offensiveness of Meow’s Calum Lockey and of which Meow is arguably a successor) SOP's co-director Zac Segbedzi, who is known for lashing out at dentists, property developers and Richmond couples with new apartments.
Hana Earles, The Wish Academy, installation view.
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.
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Brook Andrew (@brook_andrew_artist), Unorientable, steel, plywood, American oak, Tasmanian blackwood detail, brass, paper, oil pastel, purified beeswax, damar resin, PVC and items from the artist's archive, 2019. View this work and more in our recently launched ENTER exhibition at Lyon Housemuseum Galleries. Photo by @caitlinmillsphotography for @thedesignfiles #ENTER #LyonHousemuseumGalleries
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 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 The Australian, Ashleigh Wilson 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?
Ornament Zine, inkjet print paper, 2018 ( at The Wish Academy)
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? VIDEO