March 2014

Essays

National Gallery of Victoria’s ‘Melbourne Now’

By Quentin Sprague

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, and author of The Stranger Artist.

From the front page

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and 2021 Australian of the Year Grace Tame. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Tame impaler

Grace Tame owes the PM nothing, least of all a smile

Image of Oliver Twist. Image supplied.

Oliver Twist’s ‘Jali’

With quiet charisma and gentle humour, the Rwandan-Australian performer weaves together vivid autobiographical stories in this one-person show

Image of South Australia Premier Steven Marshall addressing the media during a press conference in Adelaide, August 24, 2021. Image © Morgan Sette / AAP Images

Marshall law

Premier Steven Marshall claimed South Australia was “COVID-ready” when the state opened borders just as Omicron was emerging, but it now faces the same issues as the eastern states

Image of Lisa McCune, Zahra Newman and Peter Carroll appearing on stage in Girl from the North Country. Image © Daniel Boud.

‘Girl from the North Country’

Weaving Bob Dylan songs into a story of Depression-era hardship, Conor McPherson’s musical speaks to the broken America of today

In This Issue

© Didier Plowy

Christian Boltanski’s chance at life

The French artist in Sydney

Son Chhay’s hopes for Cambodia

Co-operation or coup?

Lorde performing at the Laneway Festival in Sydney. © Will Reichelt

Kids these days

Laneway, Lorde and other disappointments

Tim Fischer on the Ghan

From Adelaide to Alice Springs with a train devotee


More in Arts & Letters

Bing Crosby and David Bowie on Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, circa 1977.

Oh, carols!

The music of Christmas, from the manger to the chimney

Image of Gerald Murnane

Final sentence: Gerald Murnane’s ‘Last Letter to a Reader’

The essay anthology that will be the final book from one of Australia’s most idiosyncratic authors

Image of The Kid Laroi

New kid on the block: The Kid Laroi

How Australia has overlooked its biggest global music star, an Indigenous hip-hop prodigy

Still from ‘No Time To Die’

The Bond market: ‘Dune’ and ‘No Time To Die’

Blockbuster season begins with a middling 007 and a must-see sci-fi epic


More in Noted

Cover of ‘Crossroads’

‘Crossroads’ by Jonathan Franzen

The acclaimed US author’s latest novel is a 1971 church drama modelled on ‘Middlemarch’

Still from ‘Yellowjackets’

‘Yellowjackets’

The US drama about teen plane-crash survivors is a heady mix of folk horror and high-school betrayal

Still from ‘New Gold Mountain’

‘New Gold Mountain’

SBS’s Australian goldfields series looks beyond colonial orthodoxies to tell the neglected stories

Cover of ‘The Magician’

‘The Magician’ by Colm Tóibín

The Irish novelist’s latest ponders creativity and the unacknowledged life of Thomas Mann


Online exclusives

Image of Oliver Twist. Image supplied.

Oliver Twist’s ‘Jali’

With quiet charisma and gentle humour, the Rwandan-Australian performer weaves together vivid autobiographical stories in this one-person show

Image of South Australia Premier Steven Marshall addressing the media during a press conference in Adelaide, August 24, 2021. Image © Morgan Sette / AAP Images

Marshall law

Premier Steven Marshall claimed South Australia was “COVID-ready” when the state opened borders just as Omicron was emerging, but it now faces the same issues as the eastern states

Image of Lisa McCune, Zahra Newman and Peter Carroll appearing on stage in Girl from the North Country. Image © Daniel Boud.

‘Girl from the North Country’

Weaving Bob Dylan songs into a story of Depression-era hardship, Conor McPherson’s musical speaks to the broken America of today

Still from ‘The Worst Person in the World’, showing Anders Danielsen Lie as Aksel and Renate Reinsve as Julie. Image courtesy Everett Collection.

‘The Worst Person in the World’

Renate Reinsve is exceptional in Joachim Trier’s satisfying Nordic rom-com