I spent each Saturday between the ages of 12 and 18 at the Vic Market. It was here that I discovered food pretty much, formed an idea of the person I might be when I grew up observing other shoppers while I waited with a second hand copy of a James Balwin novel in my hand, boxes of fruit and vegetables at my feet, for my parents to return with the car.
For this very personal reason I'd been following the development of the City of Melbourne public art commission event, What Happens Now? closely.
In June the organisers were hosting a 10 day "lab" with the shortlisted 14 artists who had been whittled down from 150. The warehouse location at the edge of the Queen Victoria Market site was facilitated by a team spearheaded by Lab curator Natalie King, UK Public Art champion Claire Doherty and ideas man David Cross along with choreographer Gideon Obarzanek, historian Robyn Annear and artist Veronica Kent. This approach, designed to challenge existing approaches to commissioning public art, focused on engaging the artists in the stories, histories, materials and sounds of the Queen Victoria Market site by way of 'Triggers and Provocateurs'. If that sounds worrying, the artists I heard interviewed on RN's Books and Arts were surprisingly exhilarated. They obviously didn't mind having to dance for their supper.
Curators and arts bureaucrats like to talk about public art as 'activating' spaces, arguing that that artists and artwork contribute to creating new understandings and new ways of seeing. Those not familiar with the Vic Market might not appreciate how 'activated' it is by its everyday economic activity and exchange. It is a vast sprawling collection of sheds, halls, stalls, stuff, smells and noise where produce, product and sellers exchange goods for money with the public. This is a place with a lot going on. Just ambling along, even without a shopping list, can be intense. What happens when you come across art in this context? I was curious to find out.
What Happens Now? largely features works by artists engaged in a practice that is participatory. Immediately this makes sense. Of course, it's a market.
Hiromi Tango's textile work titled Wrapped that combines ideas about brain health and yarn into performance workshops that on the final day included musician Dylan Martorell and dancer Benjamin Hancock (on the day that I visited the work rested like a sleeping dragon on trestle tables), Isobel Knowles and Van Sowerwine's stop-motion animation screening amongst metal storage boxes while the artists recreate and sell market wares in miniature along side. And at Over Obelisk, a response to the John Batman monument by SIBLING, the duo have created a complex mobile hoarding that encases and frames the original monument in a variety of ways to 'reveal its contested histories'.
I didn't get to everything. There was a wait for viewing and participating in the biennials most intriguing work, A Centre for Everything by Gabrielle de Vietri and Will Foster. This hands-on guided tour took the hand gestures and cultural codes used by stall holders to communicate with each other as its starting point. I was immediately drawn to the sight of drawings of hands pinned to a makeshift partition. It reminded me of the cartoon portraitists that plied their trade in the halls.
A bit tuckered out I passed Field Theory, a fruit box clad van broadcasting non-stop radio for 9000 minutes. No one was going home there. They were bunkered in for the duration of the biennial. Like kids on school camp they were pretty lively. By mimicking the colour and matching the noise level of its surroundings Field Theory worked on the principle of amplification. And it worked. I literally felt my mood lift.
Back in my car, I was glad to be out of the wind. I felt glad to have visited. I hadn't known it two hours earlier but quite possibly I was parked on an unmarked indigenous grave, a disturbing discovery thanks to Steven Rhall's subtle, formally complex work in M Shed. Why didn't I know that? It's easy to feel sceptical of the rhetoric of contemporary art and yet events like this can produce moments and insights like that.
Image: Anna Zagala and Katrina Raymond viewing the sweet, sad Out In The Open by Isobel Knwles and Van Sowerwine. Photo by Bryony Jackson.
What Happens Now?
Public Art Melbourne Biennial Lab
17-23 October 2016
Queen Victoria Market