Visual Art

In the exhibition nightshifts, Buxton Contemporary offers a space to recover the experience of art from the crushing visibility of the spectacle. By Andy Butler.

Buxton Contemporary’s nightshifts

An installation in an art gallery.
Lisa Sammut’s Full Circle (ii) and How the earth will approach you at nightshifts.
Credit: Christian Capurro

Solitude is not generally what the art world wants. There is rather a deep desire for connection, collaboration and community engagement, a need to bring people together at scale. For museums where the blockbuster, spectacle, interactive installation and reflective surfaces are the bread and butter of exhibition programming, jostling crowds circulating photos on social media is a sign of success and relevance.

The newest exhibition at Buxton Contemporary, nightshifts, purposely pushes back against the regime of the social. Instead it brings together works from the Buxton Collection – held by the University of Melbourne – and works from other collections, to draw out ideas around contemplation, quietness and the internal emotional world. The curators of nightshifts, Annika Aitken and Hannah Presley, have also commissioned two new works, to bring some 30 artists into dialogue.

For art to find a public and for artists to make a living, you need rich patrons. Creativity, and the nourishment that comes from art and inner contemplation that so many people yearn for, relies on social and civic spaces that can feel soulless. This is the contradiction the curators of nightshifts seem to be trying to work through – how to recover the experience of art from commodification and the crushing visibility of the spectacle.

The exhibition opens with a dimly lit small room with intimate and small-scale works. Brent Harris’s Swamp no. 4 and no. 7 are gold aquatint goops trickling down a void-like black background. They create a sense of moving through an emotional quagmire, as if trying to dislodge a feeling in the gut. Swamp is a series of preparatory automatic drawings and prints – process-based works that help Harris build up to the large-scale paintings for which he is known.

Other works alongside Harris’s similarly have a feeling of being dredged up deep from within, with abstracted imagery that is on the edge of expressing complex emotions and ideas. Mira Gojak’s sculpture Prop for Instabilities sits like a line sketch in space, black steel tubing twining through the air in different thicknesses, as if pushing a pencil hard or soft on paper. A tree makes itself perceptible but might collapse at any moment.

The room also includes small monochrome paintings from Rosslynd Piggott, assemblages from John Nixon and a tiny painting of a moon by Mabel Juli. The darkness in the room makes them collectively feel like small and precious objects made by an artist alone in a studio late at night, in that intimate space where you’re grappling with the dark edges of an internal world.

Gunshots intermittently ring out in the gallery, breaking the solitude. The sounds of a bustling crowd bleed in too. Just beyond this initial entrance is the antithesis of unseen worlds found in solitude. The sounds are from Callum Morton’s International Style (1999), a monochrome architectural model-sized re-creation of a house by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The window spaces are glazed over so you can’t see in, but the sounds of a busy party turned violent waft out of the interior.

Laresa Kosloff’s 1998 video work Stock Exchange plays beside it. It’s a silent black-and-white Super 8 video taken from the lifts of Melbourne’s Stock Exchange building, with glimpses of tiny people moving through offices in fluorescent lighting that makes corporate culture feel menacing.

Across a closed-door threshold is Lisa Sammut’s How the earth will approach you and Full Circle (ii). She’s one of two artists who’ve made new work for the exhibition. Human-scaled sculptures are suspended from the ceiling, reminiscent of mechanical models of the solar system. They slowly rotate. Small glass balls stand in for plants, frosted mirrors mimic the different phases of the moon.

A meditative large-scale moving image work is projected on the wall, the main source of lighting in this cavernous space. Planets cross each other, spinning. Silent poetry flits across the screen: “Now imagine a life as an orbit in time (a contained and measurable space), held within the loop of a cosmic gesture.” The installation has a soundtrack of crickets, re-creating the feeling of looking up at the night stars from a suburban backyard.

A comfortable black bench sits at the back of the installation, inviting viewers to spend time with it. This work is mesmerising. Various studies have found audiences generally spend between 15 and 30 seconds with an artwork at museums. I spend half an hour with Sammut’s, as it opens a portal for personal contemplation about one’s place in the universe.

Solitude goes in and out of vogue in art history. There’s one archetype of isolation that has long underpinned the mainstream canon – the solitary white male genius who makes sense of human experience. The Buxton Collection is full of these figures that pepper Australian art: Marco Fusinato, Shaun Gladwell, Ricky Swallow, Mike Parr.

They’re huddled in a corner upstairs from Sammut’s work. Gladwell’s video Maximus Swept out to Sea (Wattamolla) (2013) sees the leather-clad and helmeted artist barely staying afloat in a lagoon and then the ocean, holding a lit torch above the surface of the water. The screen it’s projected on is layered thick with silver glitter, giving it a camp, reflective sparkle. Gladwell eventually submerges beneath the water.

Nearby are Mike Parr’s bronze heads, seemingly dejected, in the lineage of the bronze bust. Ricky Swallow’s Picture a Screaming Sculpture is a self-portrait print reminiscent of Munch’s The Scream. The universe of canonical masculinity these artists traverse feels claustrophobically small, inward looking and individualistic – the artists seem to be knowingly trapped within it.

This sense is made especially acute through the measured curation of nightshifts. An adjoining space is dedicated to women who work in abstraction – historically a very male domain. Sandra Selig creates a cosmos with a found spiderweb that’s painted and framed, which is flanked by Louise Weaver and Teelah George, who use embroidery and printmaking to create macro and micro impressions of nature and the stars. These women look outwards to nature and the universe, to interconnectedness rather than isolation, even in works made in solitude.

The generative possibility of solitude and quiet contemplation is a surprising salve, especially when compared to the overwhelming cacophony of the art experience that dominates Melbourne’s post-pandemic art calendar. Walking out of Buxton Contemporary past the intense busyness of the blockbuster machine that is the National Gallery of Victoria, nightshifts is a welcome reminder that art doesn’t need to be a spectacle to be powerful. 

nightshifts is showing at Buxton Contemporary, Melbourne, until October 29.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 17, 2023 as "Sublime quiet".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription