Visual Art

Its sheer scale means Melbourne Now has something for everyone. But the abundant offerings lead to an exhibition lacking focus and a clear point of view. By Victoria Hannan.

Melbourne Now

nstallation view of Atong Atem’s ‘Patron saint of lap dogs.’
Installation view of Atong Atem’s Patron saint of lap dogs on display in the Melbourne Now exhibition.
Credit: Tom Ross

Ten years after its debut in 2013, Melbourne Now is back at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia. Its purpose is to survey what’s new in Melbourne (Naarm) art and design, through more than 200 pieces from Victorian-based practitioners in disciplines ranging from painting and printmaking to video and fashion. More than 70 new pieces were commissioned by the NGV for the exhibition from a range of artists at different stages of their career.

Compared with the inaugural event, this is a smaller exhibition. It’s confined to just one building – and what a relief. There’s so much to see here that it’s almost overwhelming.

The exhibition begins before you’re even in the gallery proper, with an installation by N’arweet Carolyn Briggs and Sarah Lynn Rees, Gathering Space: Ngargee Djeembana. Comprising more than 55 materials sourced in Victoria, including quartzite, water and kangaroo leather, the piece asks us to think about not just whose Country we’re standing on, but from whose Country are the buildings around us made?

This attention to materiality is mirrored in Vessels on the ground floor. Presented in conjunction with Craft Victoria, Vessels features ceramic and metal sculptures from various artists. Claire Bridge’s We Are Multitudes is a colourful, textural highlight, featuring five ceramic blobs atop each other, each splattered with globs of glazed raku clay in bright blue, searing orange and light pink. Caro Pattle’s Soft pipes, play on takes the shape of a Grecian urn covered in handwoven Yves Klein Blue velvet that glows under the gallery lights. They’re beautiful objects. As is Vipoo Srivilasa’s Elarat/Ela, which is based on a character from the Sanskrit epic Rāmāyana whose gender and sexuality are fluid – known for one month as Elarat and the next as Ela. The piece is made from delicate glazed ceramic with gold lustre and features four characters stacked and adorned with flowers from the Dungowan bush tomato, a sexually fluid plant. They rest with tongues out, one from a red mouth: a daring hint of colour in an otherwise monochrome sculpture.

There is real audacity on display nearby in Rel Pham’s TEMPLE: a room of light and atmospheric sound design including 640 whirring computer fans. An exploration of digital realities and our ecologically unsustainable reliance on technology, TEMPLE, with its buzzing, flashing and glowing, is genuinely exciting.

Upstairs, Matlok Griffiths’ Mumbles & Clunks is charming. The artist was inspired by abstracted journal entries for these 44 monotypes, his first foray into printmaking. On an adjacent wall, Adam Lee’s seven large watercolours feature skeletons buried under pink earth, and ghoulish faces. They’re inspired by the artist’s time in lockdown but the Covid references do not dominate. Instead, a folkloric quality has seeped into the paper. Simultaneously whimsical and nightmarish, they are exquisite.

Towards the back of the second floor, Jan Nelson brings an interactive element to the exhibition. A crocheted rug made from second-hand protest T-shirts is, at the time of visiting, full of shoeless, joyful children running in circles. You can almost feel the relief of the parents in the room: finally, there’s something the kids can touch. Behind it hang eight giant wind chimes, each ringing a cluster of notes from protest songs. We’re invited to play them and the result is a cacophony.

Devices were out for Taree Mackenzie’s piece, Pepper’s ghost effect, circles, 4 variations, which creates colourful illusions using angled panes of glass. Viewers circle its four sections, their movements influencing the effect. It’s like a less immersive James Turrell with the palette of an Ellsworth Kelly painting and makes for nice photos. Upstairs, Meagan Streader’s Sky whispers (2023) makes the viewer run through a gauntlet of phones. It’s easy to see why people want to document the commissioned room, a striking site-specific piece that uses Light Tape to play with boundaries and scale while mirroring the building’s geometry.

Swarming takes over a gallery on the third floor and asks: What is it like to be a bee? The answer, according to the artist James Lemon, is a psychedelic room of neon colours, tactile ceramics and textile shapes. It feels like somewhere you’d play laser tag, with spray paint glowing under UV light.

There are thoughtful moments throughout Melbourne Now when curatorial decisions affect the work around it. Ying Ang’s The Quickening features 15 haunting framed photos that encapsulate the physical and psychological turmoil of becoming a mother. The images are soundtracked by an unrelated music composition that bellows from the next room. Created by Mia Salsjö using complex coded systems based on maps of Federation Square, it is an inharmonious soundtrack that makes the work around it feel even more unsettling.

On the third floor, Atong Atem premieres three photographic self-portraits. Her work builds on the history of studio photography in Africa and she’s created a visual language that’s unmistakably hers, radiating colour and life. It’s a breath of fresh air.

A room nearby showcases Victorian designers’ achievements in civic architecture but the inclusion feels jarring. These works – including a level crossing removal project – are no doubt impressive feats of design but feel corporate compared to the art around them. The same goes for the product design section, where cricket balls, stools, suitcases and sneakers are displayed with a feeling not unlike the market hall at IKEA. The fashion room too feels as if it belongs to a different exhibition. Herein lies both the blessing and curse of Melbourne Now: this exhibition offers something for everyone.

If the Barbie-pink metal curls of Elvis Richardson’s brilliant Settlement and the Gatekeepers aren’t for you, then perhaps you’ll find inspiration in the Ngali label’s Dumba quilted coat, in Lane Cormick’s double portraits or in Amos Gebhardt’s mesmeric two-screen video piece, Lovers. There is so much to see and there’s much to like.

In its description of the exhibition, the NGV tells us that what’s on offer is the latest work that’s coming out of Victoria. Not necessarily the best, just the latest. They’re not passing judgement, they’re just showing us what’s out there. The result is an incredibly generous selection but also an exhibition that lacks focus, a real point of view or even a loose thread to run through it.

It’s an ambitious exhibition – taking over three floors, it sprawls into the foyer and the gallery’s atriums. Just when you think you’ve come to the end, you stumble upon more art tucked into corners and nestled in among the permanent collection. If sheer scale is its measure of success, then it’s hard not to view Melbourne Now as a triumph.

Melbourne Now is at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, until August 20.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 22, 2023 as "The Now factor".

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