The meaning of place has a special hold on the Australian psyche. Perhaps it is due to the fact that the arrival of European settlers is recent in terms of world history and the decimation of the native, aboriginal cultures so complete. The founding of Melbourne only dates back to 1835, nearly fifty years after the establishment of the first settlement in Sydney. A mere 179 years ago, this city was an illegal squatter’s camp on the banks of the Yarra River populated by Tasmanian adventurers looking to exploit greener pastures to the North. Now, the city of Melbourne is “up itself,” that peculiar and charming Aussie expression meaning to think highly of one’s station in life.

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Melbourne is singled out every year by the Economist magazine as the best place in the world in which to live. Recent immigration has favoured Melbourne over Sydney, the city that put Australia on the world map. Melbourne hosts festival after festival, sometimes in the same week. The Melbourne Food and Wine Festival started February 28 and lasts for another week. Yesterday was the first day of this Labour Day weekend’s Moomba Festival, an event popular with families thanks to its longevity (60 years), its parade, fireworks and hilarious “Birdman” competition. The Australian Grand Prix competition takes place next weekend with its crowds, screaming engines, squealing rubber and pungent smell of fuel.

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The event that captured my attention is called, simply, Melbourne Now. It is a challenging and fascinating look at the city through the eyes of its artists. The exhibition spans both the National Gallery of Victoria (Australia) and the NGV International. It is a sampling of design and art as well as an aesthetic look at the city as place and performance, an urban area that is geographically specific and yet globally enmeshed. From the tiny village of squatters, Melbourne has never stopped growing, now covering a vast area larger than the combined size of Moscow, Paris and London.  Despite the strain, Melbourne is still serviced by trains, trams and buses, although it is increasingly congested at “rush hour”, overrun with automobiles.

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I was captivated by one long video installation piece– a DVD by a New Zealand artist named Daniel Crooks. It is called “An Embroidery of Voids.” He takes the celebrated alleyways of Melbourne as his theme and welcomes us on a magical journey through the lanes in dreamlike sequences that never seem to end. It is one seemingly coherent tracking shot, splicing and rearranging familiar environments into a haunting vision of the everyday transfigured into something new, altogether surreal.

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Other artists are playful, documenting performance pieces with hoola hoops or the release of 10,000 paper airplanes in the reading room of Melbourne’s State Library, a venue I visited in the last post about White Night. Charlie Sofo’s video of “33 objects that can fit through the hole in my pocket” brings us up short with its crisply humorous look at all the things that we live with, and often lose.

Brook Andrew’s “Beyond Tasmania, 2013” invites us to contemplate the extermination of the original Tasmanians and the display of their skeletons in support of questionable theories about evolution and eugenics. A wooden sculpture gives the skull a symbolic gramophone, one last chance to be heard.

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Siri Hayes captures the self obsession of our species with a stunning, staged photograph inspired by the French Impressionists and the Romantic landscape paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. In her work, plein air painters ignore the devastation around them, drawn only to the naked Adonis on display.

Melbourne Now is a brilliant and fascinating exhibit, entirely free and on for two more weeks only. If you don’t live here, there is an ebook you can download or view on-line. Check out my pics on Flickr by clicking on any photo running alongside this post.

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