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Who: Nathan Coley
What: Appearances
Where: ACCA, Southbank, Melbourne
When: Until 24 July 2011

So, I am currently writing this post on the plane on my iPad so apologies if what I write may not be as composed as I might like it to be. I am on my way to Switzerland for the 500 art fairs that are happening in Basel next week. Okay, not quite 500, but when there are 7 big art fairs in the one city happening altogether in a single short week, it does feel like an overwhelmingly lot of art and a lot to do! Key one of course is the iconic Art Basel, and then you have the other satellite fairs for more emerging stuff – Liste, Scope, Verge, Volta, etc. Anyway, Basel is not the subject of my post today (or night, who knows what timezone I am operating on right now).

I made the opening night for Nathan Coley’s current exhibition at ACCA a couple of Fridays ago. I am glad I went that night because it meant that there was a lot of people, and the central concept of this exhibition is based on groups of people coming together (a stark contrast to my rant about gallery crowds in my Bill Henson post last month). Coley has been here in Melbourne from Scotland creating a site specific installation at ACCA. He has divided the space into four galleries, or “zones”, that represent places where people gather – the plaza, the university/school, the art gallery and the place of worship. These are the places where we gather as individuals to become a group.

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The space where you enter first, the main gallery, contains three large modernist concrete platforms that appear to hover above the ground. Together they transform the gallery into a “Plaza”. All right around, the edges of the platforms are cantilevered from a central foundation, standing about 60cm high. Poured in situ, the concrete structures are modestly beautiful, elegant and fragile looking. Yet from seeing the groups of people walking up their steps, standing on them and perching on the edges we know they are strong enough to support our weight. It’s quite funny because if it weren’t for me being at and opening and seeing all those people walking and sitting on them, I would have probably not walked on them. Their sublimity and thoughtful construction made me think of them as sculptures as opposed to utilitarian platforms, but in this case they are both. I then noticed that in order to get to the adjacent gallery you needed to walk on them to get across, so I guess that would answer my question. It was also quite extraordinary to see these very permanent structures at an exhibition that you know is only temporary (it is on for 8 weeks). Art and utility, permanence and impermanence – there is already so much tension going on.

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On the wall next to the platform is a text based work saying “TRESPASS AND LOITER”, a play on the “No trespassing” and “No loitering” signs in Britain. This gives a further green light to us to use the space as we would in a real plaza. I wonder if ACCA would let me eat takeaway Maccas or sushi there.

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Also in the Plaza is a sculpture that reminds me of fairy lit trees along city streets and of fun fairs. I felt that this was a great addition to the space, adding both colour and light to an otherwise monochromatic space.

Towards the back of the Plaza is the third platform, and behind this is a giant reflective wall made up of elongated rectangular steel mirrors. The reflection isn’t perfect so it’s not meant to be like a mirror in your bathroom. The nature of steel mirrors is that they are imperfect in their reflective qualities, with many variations and undulations. They reflect in a similar manner to the glass windows of skyscrapers and office buildings. The aspect ratio of the steel panels is also similar to these building windows. Their size, installation and reflective qualities all give us the context that we are in the city, amongst these glass buildings.

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To the left of the steel mirrors is another smaller gallery, representing the University. Set up like a lecture theatre, rows of chairs have been placed in front of a projector screen.

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A lecture is being held and your lecturer is – lo and behold – Cate Blanchett! Not in person, unfortunately. Her voice; calm, professional, rather monotone and serious, speaks to the slides that are shown on the screen. The slides are images that Coley has taken of random things found in the city that have no specific relevance to architecture, like electrical boxes, street dividers, rusty steel foundations of demolished buildings, piles of concrete in front of abandoned buildings and lane ways between bricked housing. Some of these images I recognise are taken in Melbourne; the electrical box is on Spring Street, and the street divider is on Brunswick Street, opposite Umago.

Blanchett, who appears to play the role of a senior member of an architecture firm, presents these images as if they were images of her projects and discusses the central concepts behind them from an architectural point of view. It is so ironic because these objects were obviously not designed by an architect. She also speaks about the object’s relationships with the environment that it is in. We know that the colour of an electrical box corresponding with the colour of plastic sleeves on tree trunks (for non-Australians, the sleeves prevent our darling possums from climbing up the trees) is most likely coincidental, but according to Blanchett, the sleeves were put on the tree to harmonise with the colour of the electrical box.

What makes it even more hilarious is that she speaks with that intellectual and professional architecture lingo that you would expect from the industry. I found myself giggling my way through the 13 minute “lecture”. I thought this added a great touch of humour to an otherwise quite minimalistic exhibition. Despite being really obvious that the artist is taking the piss, I liked seeing how easily we can over-analyse things and add meaning to otherwise rather meaningless, random objects with the right kind of language and delivery. It made me think about art writing, as I often do anyway, and how much of a work’s meaning, or rather our understanding and interpretation, is attributed to its writing.

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But back to the exhibition, the immense detail that Blanchett went into in her description of the objects in the lecture made me pay greater attention to the objects in the exhibition itself, now from an architectural point of view. I was suddenly analysing every detail; their size, height, shape, their relation to the space around them, their placement, etc. In my head, my analysis sounded exactly like how Blanchett was narrating, which I thought was quite funny. It goes to show how effective that lecture was, and I guess that’s what Coley was trying to do; to make us think about the space architecturally. But this time we know that nothing is random. Every bit of detail has been thought out carefully.

Walking back to the front of the main gallery, or Plaza, I ascended the steps of the first platform to access the adjacent gallery. Unexpectedly, there was something quite beautiful happening as I walked up those steps. The evenly poured concrete felt smooth beneath my feet. The thin steps seemed fragile and as my gaze fell on the other platforms in the Plaza, I really felt like I was standing on something that was floating. I delight myself in simple pleasures and I really loved walking up those steps!

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In the adjacent gallery, which is meant to represent the “Art Gallery”, another text based work adorns the wall and a small wooden model of Scots Church (on Collins Street, Melbourne) marked with dazzle along the bottom perimeter sits on the edge of the platform I was standing on. The platform now has a third function; first, it is a sculpture; second it is an actual platform; and third, it is a plinth for artwork. Standing next to the church, on this sculpture-then-platform-now-plinth, I suppose I became artwork in the “gallery” too ;)

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The text based work on the wall relates to the theme of religion, similar to the church. The words “NEVER TRUST A LOVING GOD” at first glance appears to be quite a straightforward statement. Yet it conflicts with absolutely everything that we as a society think of what “God” is meant to be – trusting and loving. So what is it trying to say? What is it referring to? Who is “God” in this case, is it the same God we think we know, and why shouldn’t we trust him? What happens to us of we do put our trust in him? We will never really know these answers because we don’t know where the words come from (all of Coley’s text based works are extracted from other found sources). It is purposely left open-ended and presented out of context so we are forced to furrow our brows and activate this thing called our brain to pick apart this statement, find our own meaning, and at the same time think of the many other possibilities of what it could be referring to. At first I was annoyed by how confident and confusing this statement statement was, but then you realise that that was the point.

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In the last and final gallery space is the “place of worship”. The dazzle that adorn the walls from floor to ceiling play to the highly decorative nature of places of worship; the frescoes on church walls, the decorative arabesques in mosques, and elaborate patterns in temples and some synagogues. As the only gallery with dazzle on the wall, or any kind of painting on the wall, the effect makes you feel that you have entered a completely different space and the striking patterns force you to look up and around you. It is a similar feeling to that sudden shift in awareness of our surroundings that we might get from entering a place, especially a place of worship, which is quite separate from the outside world. Like those hot sunny days when you enter a church to find it dark, cool, and quiet. Or simply just that feeling of immediately moving from the secular world into a religious one.

Coley is not one to talk too much about his art. He steps back almost completely to give his viewer an infinite space to interpret the work, and in this case, feel the space and the effect of the objects on our perceptions of the environment. Definitely worth checking out while it is still on. You don’t see such beautiful concrete structures everyday, and neither do you hear Cate Blanchett yapping on in architectural speak about random electrical boxes in Melbourne.

Okay, so I have just arrived into Amsterdam Schipol airport in transit. I managed to get 6 hours of sleep on the flight over here which is unheard of. I fell asleep somewhere above Myanmar and woke up looking over Beirut. I have found some free wifi here at Schipol, so I will post this shortly after I finish typing. I am sitting at cafe with a much needed coffee and Swiss cheese sandwich. Right behind me is a mini museum shop for the Rijksmuseum. Kinda tacky. I might just buy a mug with Vemeer’s milk maid on it just for shits and giggles. Anyway, stay tuned to my next post, which will be from Basel! Til then, afscheid!

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