Awkward Visions: Melbourne Now

Melbourne Now presents a dazzling survey of Victorian-based artists, designers and architects. Nestled amongst the glitzy installations and innovative product displays are works that offer reprieve, depth, and timely formal and conceptual experimentation.

Ten years ago, the National Gallery of Victoria presented the first iteration of Melbourne Now: a “blockbuster” summer show featuring over 250 works across the NGV’s two venues. The exhibition aimed to affirm the city’s status as one of the cultural capitals of the world, demonstrating to a broad public the ways in which Melbourne is significantly shaped by its artists, designers and architects.

Melbourne Now has returned a decade later, somewhat smaller and more focused, presented across all levels of the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia in Federation Square. Its aims also seem humbler, posited as a “snapshot” of vibrant creativity embedded within the city.

The exhibition is multifaceted and dense. Some works are thematically clustered and some galleries are dedicated to particular art or design forms. But overall, the only real through-line is that all exhibiting artists and designers are Victorian-based. The sheer diversity of work and ideas that this lends itself to is both inspiring and overwhelming.

Whilst attempts to blur the boundaries between art and design have deep roots in the Western art-historical context, an awkwardness prevails in the curatorial vision of Melbourne Now. Innovative and market-focused design products are placed alongside artworks made by independent artists who, for the most part, make work that is antithetical to commercial culture’s commodification of creativity.

In one moment, gallery goers will encounter Laresa Kosloff’s disarming video La Perruque, 2018, which uses stock footage to tell the story of an employee who spends his working hours writing a book. In the next moment, visitors pass an unironic window display of Koko Black chocolates. On level three, Layla Vardo’s Orders of magnitude, 2021, a visceral supercut of David Attenborough breathing in over the course of his career, is installed near the design wall, which “celebrates innovative consumer products,” such as a set of tapware by Sussex Taps. The conditions and intentions for these types of creativity are so different, and in fact disparate, that it feels jarring to find them on equal footing in a public gallery.

One redeeming quality of this curatorial approach is that perhaps it truly does represent the Melbourne we live in now – a place in which artists jostle for space and resources to create freely, both attempting to defy, yetbecoming enmeshed within the economic cult of the “creative industries.”

Amidst the innovative product displays and glitzy installations, works by perhaps lesser-known emerging artists provide moments of reprieve, depth, and timely formal and conceptual experimentation.

Towards the back of a level three gallery hangs an unassuming, almost ragged fabric, painted, and stained with textures, and figures in natural browns, charcoals, pinks, and blues; it hangs from ceiling to floor and stretches wider than an arm span. Imagining a future looking backwards to now, excavating 60 billion chickens, 2023, by Raf McDonald, reads like a kind of dreamscape, with ambiguous figures and text fragments emerging and receding into one another.

“I wanted to explore the ways that history and geology fold into the present through chemical, social and ecological traces,” explains McDonald. “I had been looking at x-rays of teeth grinding and tooth fractures, a manifestation of anxiety that occurs in the sleep, which is really pervasive amongst people in their thirties like me. Thinking about the human fossil record and traces of anxiety in the body led me to information on how the human fossil record will be indicated through chicken bones, as humans consume around sixty billion chickens a year.”

The fabric (un-primed, unstretched, unstitched canvas) has been scoured and applied with mordants, home-made rice pastes and glues, then painted and dyed, and buried in soil at the artist’s home studio. “This process elicits staining and mark-making from metals, microbial and plant matter in the soil, creating a kind of geological record in and of itself,” McDonald says. “For example, in parts where I have painted an image with rice flour glue, soil and fungal matter has adhered to the surface of the fabric, forming a line using the black pigment of mould. I call this ‘training’ the mould.”

A humorous, almost surreal quality is present in the work, which McDonald attributes to her interest in “kitch, zany, and ugly objects.” Anchored to the base of the painting, are eight small ceramic keyrings in the form of hybrid chicken/human shoes. Of the muscly dragon-chicken figure that has been painted top-centre of the work, McDonald explains, “This is a self-portrait. I wanted to bulk myself up a bit and imagine a future where this bulking up might occur.” The painting posits, if humans continue to consume this many chickens over time, could some hybrid human/chicken being emerge?

Imagining a future creates a sense of dilated time; the feeling of zooming in and out between the microbial and the cosmic; gesturing towards interrelationships between human and non-human beings, between organic and inorganic matter, delicately marking out the ways each acts upon the others. .

Another display of formal and material exploration can be found in Nabilah Nordin’s three whimsical sculptures: The Elves of Whistletown, 2022, Creamed Angel, 2022, and Fortune Nights, 2022.

The sculptures constitute amorphous, wonky figures with textured, waxy sheens that look like they have been scratched and moulded by hand. Each sculptural figure sits atop a clear acrylic plinth that encases a different material: walnuts fill one, feathers fill another and foam mannequin heads are packed into the third.

The sculptures form almost recognisable shapes, but ultimately evade placement. Similarly, the materials encased within the plinths are familiar, even pedestrian, yet seem incongruous in the context of sculpture. Nordin’s interest lies in expanding the relational and affective possibilities of materials. “I wanted to create a kind of theatrics within sculpture,” she explains. “For these works, I was inspired by prop rooms used in film and theatre productions.”

In prop rooms, materials are decontextualised, rendered as discreet material units, waiting to be made into something, to provide meaning within a scene. By making the plinths from clear acrylic and filling them with idiosyncratic objects, Nordin playfully challenges the function of the sculptural support, imbuing it with potential and theatricality. Could a plinth also be a storage unit? Can the stage be the performance? Can the props be the actors? Where does function start and end?

In Telltale: Economies of Time, 2022–2023, Amalia Lindo has invited 1,280 anonymous and globally distributed workers from the online job marketplace Amazon Mechanical Turk, to submit a short video in response to the video submitted by the worker before them. The result is a sprawling, chain-mail-style narrative presented across ten portrait-oriented screens, installed in a circle around the viewer.

“My intention for this work was to showcase the important role we, as humans, play in shaping how artificial intelligence comes to understand our world,” explains Lindo. In particular, Telltale illuminates the relationship between human labour and the evolution of algorithmic comprehension and function.

From the centre, ubiquitous low-fi smartphone footage engulfs the viewer. The videos are often filmed surreptitiously or with an air of transgression, and it’s hard to catch hold of anything specific. Glimpses of traffic on a street, of a man pointing to his digital watch, of seagulls over a city bay, a trophy, a tray of fish, a woman sitting at her computer. A clipped temporality emerges, like seconds ticking over, not fast but steady. The soundtrack, which is made of manipulated sound from the original videos, directs the viewer towards different screens. The overall effect is of being subsumed in a matrix of simultaneous, flowing content, a construction of the world that has been organised with a logic that can only be glimpsed monetarily, in small pieces by the viewer. This disembodied sensation sparks questions of the who, what, and where of each video. How have they been sourced, organised, and disseminated? As a collective body of data, what are they telling us?

Lindo states that these are the same questions we should be applying to our everyday uses of artificial intelligence. “For me, the production and results generated by this work have highlighted how we – as users of automated technologies – can also become automated to some extent, by mirroring the behaviours perpetuated by algorithms.”

Like so many of the works in Melbourne Now, the artist’s intention and execution is highly evolved and deeply considered, begging for a return visit.

This review was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 63

Melbourne Now
24 March – 20 August, 2023
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne 

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