March 2014

Essays

National Gallery of Victoria’s ‘Melbourne Now’

By Quentin Sprague
National Gallery of Victoria’s ‘Melbourne Now’

Melbourne Now, the NGV’s ambitious exhibition of the city’s contemporary art and related disciplines, has been a varied undertaking. This is partly because contemporary art, unlike modern art before it, presents no unified front. Or, put another way, it is unified only in its diversity.

It seems logical that any exhibition that takes a broad view of contemporary practice should therefore take diversity as its departure point. But although the almost radical openness of contemporary art can seem liberating, it can also raise a unique problem. In the face of such proliferation, uninitiated audiences hoping to gain a sense of what it is, exactly, that constitutes “the contemporary” are often frustrated. 

Melbourne Now has both risen and fallen to this challenge. Built from a series of meticulously arranged glances, the final vision, while ultimately favouring artists, also liberally includes fashion designers, architects and graphic designers, among many others. Borders between disciplines, as the exhibition goes to great pains to emphasise, are now porous.

Serpentine in scope, the project has generously supported both the production of new work and the development of new audiences for it. Notably, the very young are often encouraged to breach the traditional divide between viewer and artwork. Yet for all the emphasis on participation and accessibility, “harder” work has not been sacrificed. More oblique moments, such as Matt Hinkley’s tiny plaster sculptures or Moya McKenna’s determinedly ambiguous oil paintings, stand out against crowd-pleasing stalwarts such as Patricia Piccinini.

As we have read numerous times over the course of the exhibition’s promotional arc, Melbourne Now’s renewed and more enthusiastic attitude to leading-edge practice represents something of a call to arms from the gallery’s new(ish) director, Tony Ellwood. His stellar tenure at the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane underscores the value of this strategy, particularly from the perspective of those who measure a state gallery’s worth by attendance numbers.

Yet Melbourne Now has been met in some quarters with apprehension. In an early review, the art historian Helen Hughes cautioned that the vast, omnivorous reach of the project risked incoherency. That is, in trying to say everything all at once, it might fail to say anything at all. To be fair, putting forward a particular theory about contemporary art, or articulating a regional inflection on contemporary art from Melbourne, seems outside the remit of a project like this. These more nuanced perspectives might follow. In the meantime, Melbourne Now seeks to create something that even the best contemporary art often struggles to find: an audience beyond the art world.

Quentin Sprague

Quentin Sprague is a Geelong-based writer. His first book, The Stranger Artist, won the 2021 Prime Minister's Literary Award for nonfiction.

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