If you spend any length of time hanging around a university, at some point you’ll probably notice their art collection. I don’t mean the art on display in the glossy university art museum; I mean those forlorn, dusty works hanging around in office hallways, musty stairwells and quiet library cul-de-sacs.
Much as I enjoy them (I’m particularly fond of a photograph hanging high in a stairwell above the fast food joints in Melbourne University’s Union House) sometimes I feel a little sad for them. They seem to have been forgotten about entirely, left in the same place for so long they’ve become part of the furnishing.
Fiona Connor doesn’t see it quite the same way. “I think people really do notice them and enjoy them and I think it really improves the quality of life on the campus.” She goes on, “I think they’re really idiosyncratic and I like how they can create a foil with the architecture or the institutional spaces.”
It’s inevitable that works will get a little neglected when they’re on constant public display, she says, spread out over many different campuses and allowed to become part of the everyday life of the people who use those spaces. “That’s the price you pay and that’s a very small price I think.”
For Wallworks, her new exhibition at Monash University Museum of Art (until 20 September), Connor walked around the campuses of Monash and found artworks from the collection lingering in unlikely places. She then brought them, and an entire cross-section of the wall component on which they were hung, into the brightly lit MUMA gallery.
“I liked it when the work had been around long enough to get dusty,” she says, “and I was keen for them to remain dusty and dirty with all the cobwebs.” MUMA, however, felt compelled to clean the artworks up for the exhibition. Connor simply shrugs, “the museum and my work really butted heads but that was meant to happen.”
The result is a study in contrasts, between the pristine white walls and polished concrete of a dedicated modern art gallery and the other, much less grand, institutional spaces where so much of the university’s permanent collection lives.
A work of gauche on paper by Mike Nicholls from 1984 hangs on a sludgy pea green wall between grimy aluminium windows. A reproduction of a fifteenth century tapestry is mounted to a wall of '70s timber veneer and painted brown brick.
“I think it’s definitely talking about the effect that presentation has on an artwork. Not just as a work specific to its site but as a site specific to an artwork.”
Connor has reconstructed the exterior skin of the walls - skirting boards, power points, veneer, plasterboard - as well as their internal structures - bricks, concrete, steel and timber. As Connor says, "a building is metaphysically transformed" both by what it gets used for and what goes in it.
"It’s exciting to see those building sciences and systems of building which are very temporal and spatio-specific. These are Melbourne walls with Melbourne brick. The brown brick and aluminium - those are postwar technologies accommodating baby boomer needs for mass education. You can really talk about the history of a place through the way the buildings are built."
Wallworks doesn’t just document the ways in which artworks become embedded – for better or worse – in the built environment. Nor does it simply critique institutionalised practices of art museum display, which routinely hide the hard work staff do to make a white gallery wall look perfect all the while pretending the artwork on show is so great it needs no adornment. Instead, Wallworks is about construction – in all senses of the word including its most literal.
>> Maura Edmond
>> Posted 25 July 2014
GO SEE IT:
19 July - 20 September, 2014
Monash University Museum of Art
Monash University, Caulfield Campus
900 Dandenong Road, Caulfield East
Tues - Fri 10am - 5pm | Sat 12pm - 5pm