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Melbourne Now

In the cool, quiet hiatus between Christmas and New Year Melbourne is, in art and design terms, very Now! With everyone else either out of town, or enjoying the sales or the cricket test, I was in town experiencing the Melbourne Now exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria and The Ian Potter Centre at Federation Square.

For the first time at the NGV, design and architecture are being shown as part of the contemporary art conversation. The gallery should be applauded for its efforts to work with artists and designers across Melbourne uncovering the deep talents that lie within the city.

Starting at the NGV on the first day, I barely scraped the surface of the show, which spans 8000 square metres of exhibition space across the two venues. Going back for a second day, with a 12-year-old guide who had seen the show earlier with school, I realised that I had missed much in my first visit.

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Therein lies a problem, perhaps the only thing I can find fault with in this crazy mélange of art, design and architecture: it is difficult to navigate. Yes there is signage and an exhibition guide, but there is not an obvious pathway to guide the audience experience. Perhaps that is the point. Perhaps it is meant to be a voyage of discovery taking you to the heart of Melbourne culture, peeling back layers revealing experiences that are unique, surprising and special.

There were many highlights for me.  Lots of new work was commissioned. At times it felt like there were many exhibitions within the exhibition, so different were the spaces. 

Julia deVille’s taxidermy installation in an ornate Victorian dining room is hauntingly beautiful. I loved Greg More’s (currently touring Australia as part of Object’s CUSP: Designing into the Next Decade) fascinating data tapestry of new and old information about Melbourne projected on to four large screens The Zoom project designed to create a future city encourages everyone to contribute. Lorraine Connelly-Northey’s large woven installations are majestic and compelling as are some of Bin Dixon-Ward’s contemporary jewellery pieces. ( Lorraine Connelly-Northey and Bin Dixon-Ward feature in the New Weave exhibition opening at Object Gallery in February.)

There is a massive wall devoted to award-winning product designs, including the new green Melbourne tram handles, which are very comfortable to hold on to while standing in a hurtling peak hour tram.

What stood out though were the experiences to be had: the seemingly endless, immersive and participatory activities. 

Community Hall, a circular space reminiscent of an amphitheatre takes over much of the NGV foyer space. A place for the Melbourne community to experience all sorts of cultural activities over the 100 days of the exhibition immediately captivates. What is it? What is going on inside? When I was first there visitors were invited to take up a drawing board and participate in a still life class, and the other day there was a meditation session in progress with lots of chanting filling the NGV foyers.

The kids can play table tennis, take to a wild dance floor, contribute to a flock of seagulls, get lost in a labyrinth of coloured string, pick up a new tshirt at an artist pop up, smell the sweet creations by the Hotham Street Ladies, make a necklace, compose some music, sit in the sculpture garden and plan their own veggie patch. This show is as much about the audience and what we contribute to the cultural fabric of the city as it is about the curators, designers and artists.

Added bonuses: we always get a kick out of the NGV wall of water, instantly cooling on a summer’s day; the ribbon sandwiches in the oh so lovely tea rooms in the gallery; and stealing a glance at the cricket on the big screen while crossing Federation Square to The Ian Potter Centre. I couldn’t help but feel very proud of the city of my birth for digging deep into the cultural heart of the city and giving such a generous platform to the artists and designers who have shaped Melbourne and given it a soul.

I highly recommend downloading the Melbourne Now eBook from the App Store and getting along to see this fantastic showcase of creativity before it’s packed away on 23 March 2014. Go, and go many times if you can.

Lisa Cahill is the Executive Director of the Australian Design Alliance and is curator of New Weave: Contemporary approaches to the traditions of weaving, showing at Object Gallery from 6 February to 29 March 2014.

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