Melbourne Now, a huge, and hugely ambitious, cross-disciplinary exhibition has opened at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), occupying both the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, NGV International, as well as several sites across the city.Over 300 artists and designers are represented, with 175 individual and group presentations. These include a series of artist curated ‘exhibitions within the exhibition’, commissions for children and families, installations by artists engaging with the NGV permanent collection, a community garden and public art projects including a series of artist-designed flags flown across the city.
Melbourne Now is not only a departure in how the gallery engages with both contemporary art and with gallery audiences, it also has employed a collaborative curatorial structure, involving more than twenty NGV curators working across disciplinary and departmental areas. Guest curators have overseen a number of special projects encompassing architecture and design, dance and choreography, art criticism, performance art and sound. The NGV’s Senior Curator, Max Delany suggests that while it has become commonplace for cities to promote their identity and civic aspiration through the staging of major exhibitions – a rote ‘metropolitan branding’ – Melbourne Now is more about representing the diversity and complexity of contemporary creative practice. Most importantly, he says, it serves to celebrate ‘the way that artists and designers influence the city, how they contribute to the culture in which we live, to the kind of community we want to be and values we might have’. Such broad curatorial reach can’t help but deliver something carnivalesque, but the show’s ebullient multi-voicedness retains a seemingly instinctive cohesion.
Delany admits that any survey show will be guilty of ‘sampling and partial account’, but goes on to venture that Melbourne Now ‘does indeed reflect the city itself: boulevards and avenues where larger ideas are articulated, and also neighbourhood clusters and little labyrinthine itineraries’. While the exhibition does an excellent job of exposing the city’s diverse, dynamic and often grassroots creative community to a wider audience, some of the most compelling works are in fact those of solidly mid-career artists. Marco Fusinato’s Aetheric Plexus (Broken X) is a giant shiny machine, an assemblage of deconstructed stage equipment that emits a shock and awe noise and light show, a siren song that beckons or repels from several gallery spaces away. Nearby, Stephen Bram’s Level 3, E29 also engulfs the viewer, albeit in a far gentler manner, read as it is from within variously as sculpture, architecture and pictorial plane.Brook Andrew’s Vox: Beyond Tasmania is a tragic wunderkammer of colonial trophies – severed bones, documents and artefacts – its single skull and silent trumpet remapping past trauma and forcing viewers to confront anthropological and scientific fictions. Patricia Piccinini’s The carrier also questions our relationship with scientific narrative, but her hybrid character is as shockingly present as Andrew’s subject is catastrophically absent.The term ‘selfie’ has Australian origins, its diminutive ‘-ie’ suffix a dead giveaway for anyone familiar with Australian vernacular. The global selfie phenomenon long ago lost any sense of its original affectionate and deeply irreverent diminution; Melbourne Now – a selfie on a grand scale – has not. Yes, there’s posturing and just a hint of self-congratulation, but its big themes and intimate conversations, humour and provocation, critical engagement and sensual overwhelm explode monolithic representation, capturing instead the ambiguity of a culture that is constantly being remade, presenting a richly multi-faceted and outward looking vision of what creative practice is, and might be, what the city of Melbourne is, and may become.