In 2009 the collaborative trio Open Spatial Workshop (OSW) hosted the West Brunswick Sculpture Triennial (wBST) that spread across the northern suburbs of Melbourne, filling backyards, lounge rooms and the surrounding streets. Six years on, Feeling Material, curated by Benjamin Woods and C3, could be perceived as an unofficial reprisal of the Triennial that was never repeated. Scattered across the C3 gallery at Abbotsford Convent, its gardens and surrounds, Feeling Material acted as a diverse survey of current sculptural and spatial practices in Melbourne. The exhibition, whilst indebted to the lineages of wBST, diverged from what Kelly Fliedner described as the wBST imperative to ‘find ways for audiences to inhabit both public and private spaces through ephemeral provocations that challenged institutional modes of display’.1 Rather, Feeling Material exhibited a series of independent artistic responses to the site of C3 in order to speculate over how material, situational and performative gestures can mediate a viewer’s relationship to objects and spaces.
Woods, a mentee of OSW, approached Feeling Material from within the milieu of practitioners that are participating within this discursive field. This allowed Woods to assemble a much overdue mapping of the lineages of spatial practice and its current incarnations in Melbourne. It is no coincidence then that the majority of artists within the exhibition have a close affiliation with the Victorian College of the Arts (with the exception of Helen Grogan and Geoffrey Robinson). While making for a coherent, dynamic and strong collation of artists, this ‘family affair’ approach limited the exhibition’s scope as a survey, as omissions of artists such as Bridie Lunney, Katie Lee and Susan Jacobs seemed particularly noticeable.
In the tradition of OSW, the exhibition was comprised of a range of events, sculptural installations, performances and outdoor works that unravelled over various locations and times and was almost impossible to take in in its entirety. This curatorial approach encouraged recurring visits to the show, hunting for works across the Convent’s grounds and to the uninitiated, provided a series of material and performative encounters amidst the gardens of Abbotsford Convent. Artworks in the gardens by Eliza Dyball, Jessie Bullivant, Isadora Vaughan and Geoffrey Robinson, acted as situational provocations that intercepted and mediated the public’s experience of Abbotsford’s spaces; heightening elements of the gardens’ social, political and poetic content.
Vaughan’s piece, Acknowledging the River Just Here, a large mound of contaminated clay excavated and positioned on the pavement outside the gallery, was a displaced index of the actions that have contributed to the Yarra River’s degradation. When it rained the clay lost mass as its brown residue ran down the pavement. Robinson’s piece, itinerant sound/CUB stack-Good Shepherd steeple/12 noon Saturdays/ 28 October – 22 November 2015, comprised a series of sophisticated aural mapping exercises which involved the ringing of federation bells between the Convent and the Carlton & United Brewery smoke stack. The paths and trajectories of the bell ringers echoed along paths describing the relationship alcohol, more specifically beer, has to Australia’s colonial history. Vaughan and Robinson’s pieces, unlike many of the works in the exhibition, appeared more concerned with place rather than space; employing signifiers that implied narratives in order to frame their relation to the site.
Inside C3 a series of installations had been commissioned that interrogated documentation, the artwork as event and process. OSW’s glass cast meteorite, Glimpse, occupied the entrance of the gallery. The meteorite held up high was a talismanic marker of the threshold between the inside and outside, a static object that the exhibits orbited around. Inside the gallery Robinson’s bells lay dormant, occupying that awkward space between residue, documentation, installation and process. Helen Grogan’s installation, DENSE AND HOLLOW OBSTRUCTIONS (that area has too much matter to be represented), was an austere arrangement of office partitions that had been documented in various configurations. The installation, accompanied by documentation, split the experience and reading of the work between the residue of a conceptual gesture and the experience of walking through what felt like a vacated call centre.
Whilst the artworks outdoors approached criticality through networks that engaged context, objects, actions and public encounters, the installations inside appeared comparatively self-referential and hermetic. This tendency to hermetically rescind and for clear distinctions to be made between each of the artist’s work marked the shift in much of the practices from those of their precedents. Whilst wBST was a relational, convivial and communal affair that engaged with the social and political limitations of institution and collaboration, Feeling Material reflected on subjective interrogations of material and spaces. This is closely tied to a shifting theoretical terrain from the relational towards New Materialism and Object Oriented Ontology. The accompanying exhibition text was a stream of consciousness that name dropped new materialist theorists such as Karen Barad, Elizabeth Grosz and Jane Bennett without elucidating how their critical position is reflected in the exhibition. Fortunately, many of the artists’ positions were clearly and rigorously enacted in their engagement with materials and sites. Having the opportunity to encounter a woman lying in a field with horses, classical music streaming from a gazebo and earth leaching unexpectedly down the pavement asked us to reflect on and become more attuned to the complex forces that shape our surrounds.
Jeremy Eaton is a Melbourne-based artist and writer.