A River Runs Through It: Letter From Melbourne

Breckon Randall Rear View.png
Anna Breckon and Nat Randall, Rear view, 2018. Image courtesy the artist

A hundred years or so before my mother’s mother prepared to move her family from Myanmar to Calcutta, India, and then some years later on to Birmingham, my father’s ancestors travelled on convict ships to Australia. I write this to position myself in relation to Australia: Myanmar and Australia hold a special place in my imagination as countries where people somewhat like me lead radically different lives.

I arrived in Melbourne on 25 January, the day before Australia Day, a public holiday commemorating the 1788 arrival of the first fleet of British ships. This is a controversial celebration, which, despite being tied to centuries-old colonialisation, has only been a national public holiday for 30 years. Speaking to people born in Australia and to immigrants, I came to understand that a vocal community thinks that the holiday should instead mark a different moment in the country’s history, for example the day that indigenous Australians gained rights through the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975.

Melbourne, I was told, is the most European Australian city. It is not far from Sydney, in what is considered a politically progressive state, Victoria. Like London, its cultural centre clusters around the river that divides the city. My first stop was the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, which has a permanent display of moving image history, mixing mainstream and independent cinema, video games, adverts, documentaries, artworks and ‘digital culture’. Its major exhibition was Christian Marclay’s The Clock, 2010. Having missed the London showing of Marclay’s iconic 24-hour montage, the work became a base for me while I was chronically out of sync with the city.

Next door to the ACMI is one of the National Gallery of Victoria’s two buildings – think Tate Modern and Tate Britain but then scale down by some degrees. The Ian Potter Centre hosts the NGV’s collection of modern and contemporary Australian art, temporary and thematic Australian shows. Melbourne-born, Los Angeles-based artist Polly Borland’s exhibition ‘Polyverse’ included photographs of her own body, and those of celebrities like Nick Cave and Gwendoline Christie, in distorted form. Works feature saturated colour and absurd manipulations of flesh. Funny and disturbing, they linger over the magnetic pull of the human form.

In the collections I saw a range of works by Australian artists, and was pleased to find a sculpture by London-based Michelle Ussher. Ussher provided me with guidance on how to see as much art as possible in Melbourne, recommending smaller spaces and places outside the centre. The exhibition ‘From Bark to Neon’ of collected works by indigenous artists was not extensive, but I did encounter artists that I wish to learn more about, including Brook Andrew, whose Representation, Remembrance and the Memorial visual arts research project joins calls for a national memorial to Aboriginal loss and the frontier wars, and artist and political activist Destiny Deacon, whose work features family, friends and her own collection of ‘Aboriginalia’.

At the NGV International help desk I was told that the Hito Steyerl (Interview AM375) show was great for Instagram. They were right: Factory of the Sun, 2015, is an immersive IRL ‘holodeck’ featuring dance routines, animated avatars and difficult-to-answer questions. Elsewhere the ‘Designing Women’ exhibition failed to convey the breadth and innovation of women working in design with a small room and unusually dim lighting, while MC Escher’s blockbuster exhibition took up much of the ground floor, presenting finished and process drawings and prints that were genuinely engaging amidst a difficult-to-interact-with set of exhibition furniture by the nendo design studio.

I went to a few gigs to see what kinds of music people are making in Melbourne. At the Tote, a longstanding venue, I watched four local psychedelic rock bands. There were a lot of women vocalists – as well as on guitar, bass and drums – singing funny, confessional lyrics. Further into the suburbs, I saw Sarah Mary Chadwick in a bar backroom. Chadwick’s giant voice – plaintive but with powerful projection – and stark, simple piano engulfed the 25 people present.

Talking to another local, this one writing a thesis on Theodor Adorno and film, I was recommended the video-heavy exhibition at the Australian Centre of Contemporary Art, but was warned that film is not currently popular among Melbourne artists. I saw this first-hand at Brunswick Street Gallery, a complex of galleries and studios, which as I arrived was launching seven new exhibitions. There was painting, painstaking fabrication, photography, drawing, print and vinyl installation, but no moving image. Melbourne artist Frances Cannon’s show ‘19 Windows, 19 Doors’ presented 19 figurative paintings with soft gestural curves, hand-drawn captions and washed out colours. The paintings make up a memoir, each representing one of the 19 houses the artist has lived in.

At the ACCA, the group exhibition ‘The Theatre is Lying’ featured several newly commissioned video works alongside installations that reference theatrical set design. For director and scriptwriter Anna Breckon and performer Nat Randall’s Rear view, 2018, the duration of theatre and cinema is tested in a method not dissimilar to The Clock. In this instance it pushed attention spans through a glacially unfolding narrative assembled from excerpted scripts and pregnant pauses, delivered in a heightened but naturalistic style by Randall and Linda Chen. This is a long, luxurious story of potential love, a cyclical road movie reminiscent of Thelma and Louise but with explicit rather than subtextual sexual tension.

An hour outside Melbourne is the Heide Museum of Modern Art. Founded by John and Sunday Reed, the museum grew out of a collection of works made by artists the pair opened their home to from the 1930s, launching as a private then public institution from the mid 1950s. Legendary local Mirka Mora (1928-2018), whose exhibition of drawing and dolls occupied one of the main gallery spaces during my visit, was a close friend of the Reeds. Arriving in Melbourne in 1951, she left behind a youth in France that included persecution as a Jewish woman. Her work is effervescent, combining folklore grotesques and her own chimeric creations, drawn and painted onto page, canvas, window and wall, and stuffed and sewn into decorative dolls and articulated puppets. A European migrant, she is perhaps representative of part of what informs the contemporary art scene in Melbourne: while the Australia Day debate continues, this is a city, from what I saw, that is particularly proud of its local cultural icons, whether they moved to the city or were born here.

Many people I met were surprised that I would be in Australia for only three weeks and would not travel to other states or on to New Zealand, the Pacific Islands or Southeast Asia. I was able, however, to gain an insight into a different time period through the National Film and Sound Archives. I focused on works produced between 1970 and 1990 by the Sydney Women’s Film Group and the Women’s Film Unit of Victoria – thank you to artist Alex Martinis Roe for sharing her research – and was reminded of the slow pace with which works would have travelled between ‘West’ and ‘East’ before the internet. Now artwork and discussion moves more freely between continents, but I wonder whether we will soon be prompted to focus more closely on our Commonwealth connections, and through this reckon with our colonial past.


Text published by Art Monthly, April 2019.

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