June 2013

Arts & Letters

‘Mix Tape 1980s’ at the National Gallery of Victoria

By Ashley Crawford
Ian Potter Centre, Melbourne, until September 1, 2013

The National Gallery of Victoria’s new director, Tony Ellwood, appointed last March, has wasted little time making his mark on a lately moribund institution. As part of a broad effort to reinvigorate the NGV, Ellwood threw a curve ball to his new curator of contemporary art, Max Delany: come up with a blockbuster that summarises the culture of an entire decade. The unlikely result is that Delany succeeded. Unlikely because Delany was not only restricted to the NGV’s current collection, but also because the 1980s is almost impossible to articulate comprehensively.

Mix Tape 1980s: Appropriation, Subculture, Critical Style makes reference to key moments of cultural, subcultural and sociopolitical turmoil with flair and intelligence: AIDS rearing its gruesome head; mainstream Australia being confronted by gay and indigenous rights movements; French theory becoming de rigueur in academic circles while the music and fashion worlds played out the aftershocks of English punk.

The ’80s saw visitors to our shores such as Jean Baudrillard, Umberto Eco, Malcolm McLaren and Keith Haring treated like rock stars. Independent galleries and cultural magazines emerged alongside numerous fashion and music labels. Fights, at times physical, broke out between the conceptualists and the expressionists, the new romantics and the punks. Even the usually staid architectural world joined the fray in response to the anarchic designs of the “young turks” such as Biltmoderne. Mix Tape manages to embrace almost every aspect of this mayhem, and much of the vibrancy and energy of the period remains intact.

It is obvious that previous curators such as Robert Lindsay and Jennifer Phipps, under the direction of Patrick McCaughey, had their finger firmly on the pulse of the ’80s, giving Delany a cornucopia of material to work with. Artworks by John Nixon, Jenny Watson, Juan Davila, Howard Arkley, Mike Parr, Bernhard Sachs, Maria Kozic, Tony Clark and Dale Frank, largely sombre and often monumental in scale, stand the test of time admirably. Delany’s inclusion of works by the Lajamanu women of the Northern Territory is a well-placed reminder of just how important indigenous art was to become on the cultural landscape.

All that is missing from Mix Tape is a serious and studious catalogue or accompanying book. Despite Delany’s inclusion of rock posters, music, video and his innovative “re-creation” of the nightclub aesthetic in one room, younger audiences may find the tsunami of styles and aesthetics bewildering. But this is a time capsule that captures a powerful period in Australian cultural history and exactly the kind of exhibition the NGV should be creating.

Ashley Crawford

Ashley Crawford is a Melbourne-based cultural critic and the author of Spray: The work of Howard Arkley and Wimmera: The work of Philip Hunter

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