Melbourne Art and Design, Past and Present

Melbourne Art and Design, Past and Present

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Natasha Frost, a reporter in Melbourne.

As a design student in Melbourne in the 1960s, Mimmo Cozzolino, who in childhood had moved with his family to Australia from Italy, was struck by his lecturers’ preoccupation with design movements taking place on the other side of the earth.

“As eager ‘New Australians,’ we couldn’t fathom why our lecturers were teaching us Swiss Design,” he said of himself and Con Aslanis, a fellow student and a migrant of Greek descent. “We thought that we should be learning about Australian Design.”

That belief would later suffuse the work of the advertising design studio, All Australian Graffiti, founded by Aslanis and Cozzolino. And it would also inform a longstanding commitment to answering an at-once naïve and hugely complicated question: What is Australian design?

“Radical Utopia: an archaeology of a creative city,” an exhibition on at the R.M.I.T. Gallery in Melbourne until May 27, explores that question through the work of Australian designers of the 1980s, including Aslanis and Cozzolino, across Day-Glo protest posters, koala-patterned suits and spikily postmodern club furniture.

In these and other works, you can see the questions that preoccupied many of these artists and designers: What does Australian design mean, in a world where much manufacturing takes place offshore? Can Australian design take its cues from new migrants and Indigenous people, and eschew the catwalks of Paris or the museum halls of New York altogether? What political ideals ought Australian design aspire to?

After 40 years of reflection and percolation, some of the answers to those questions are visible on the other side of town, at the sprawling blockbuster show “Melbourne Now,” which opens today at the N.G.V. Australia in Melbourne.

The exhibition includes works from more than 200 artists and designers based in the state of Victoria. It is the continuation of a 2013 exhibition by the same name, and includes some of the same creators who were part of that show.

If “Radical Utopia” reflects a certain anxiety about what it means to be an Australian designer or artist, “Melbourne Now” is supremely self-assured.

Take the architecture and furniture design section, called “No House Style.” Unlike in “Radical Utopia,” where a throughline is clearly visible within sections and across the show as a whole, you might not immediately connect these works.

A nearly 150-pound aluminum chair, from the studio Brud Studia, has few obvious parallels with a teetering plaster vase with an uncannily organic undercarriage, made by Jordan Fleming, for instance. Where one is Brutalist and inspired by the Communist-era war memorials known as spomenik, the other is deeply human, and might make you laugh or wince.

In an accompanying essay to the section, the curators Timothy Moore and Simone LeAmon make the case that Melbourne design is “independent, original, plural and expressive,” and “a juxtaposition of creative possibilities, philosophies and aesthetic approaches to materials, forms and making.”

That plural, expressive nature comes through both within the individual works and in their limited relationship to one another. And that holds for almost every part of the exhibition, which spreads over three floors and includes works involving artificial intelligence, augmented reality, large-scale crochet and, sometimes, simply paint on a canvas.

“Melbourne Now” makes the confident argument that all art and design made in Australia is Australian art and design. That holds whether the work acknowledges its Australianness overtly, like an installation of driftwood and jute from the Aboriginal artist Lee Darroch that makes reference to Australia’s 38 Indigenous language groups, or whether it is simply a beautiful and functional object made with an Australian sensibility, like Kookaburra Sport’s bright pink cricket ball.

Where “Radical Utopia” spells out a manifesto for an artistic Australia to come, “Melbourne Now” says something quite different: This is the future, and we’re living in it.

Now for this week’s stories.

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