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Journey to Wrongtown

Posted to The Art Life, 13 August 2010

Din Heagney took a trip to the wrong side of town...

For an indication of the kind of cultural divide between north and south in Melbourne (the class economic divide being more east and west) then you need look no further than the curatorial premise of Rendezvous in Wrongtown. This one-day exhibition and event was described on the invitation as “the perfect excuse to indulge in the wrong side of art on the wrong side of town.”

As someone who spent most of his life on the “wrongside”, I was just about ready to jump on the defensive at this kind of cultural and geographic discrimination until I saw that the curators were none other than local art pros Tai Snaith and Vexta. I quickly found out from them it had all started as a joke over a doormat and rolled on from there to mean all things wrong, so I suppose I can let them off the hook. Besides, the show was refreshingly raw, with a group of artists taking over an entire house for a no holds barred art event. It was a perfect digestif and just what Melbourne needed after all the cashed-up high jinx of the Art Fair and Not Fair.

Some of you will remember Tai Snaith’s popular project House Proud for Next Wave 2008, where invited artists exhibited in their lounge rooms and backyards. And anyone who knows anything about the street art scene will know Vexta as one of the top female street artists in the country who also curated a group show of self-taught, outsider artists and was recently shortlisted for the Metro Art Award. So these two friends had teamed up with curator Theresa Harrison and plotted an event that would involve some of the edgier artists at work in Melbourne. Artists like Ash Keating, Tom Civil, Andy Hutson, Simon Pericich, Hotham Street Ladies, Kiron Robinson, Bonnie Lane and the list goes on.

There was only one hitch though: the location was kept secret and the invitation specified that to see the show you had to meet at a flower stand at the rather conspicuously small Rockley Gardens on Toorak Road at 2pm sharp on a Saturday afternoon. Well, that in itself was worthy of a conspiracy plot (or perhaps a romcom) and we did get looks from people in passing cars staring at all the strange folk gathering at the local garden, their suspicious faces speaking volumes that this lot was from their idea of the wrongside of town. We were clearly not of the village, so to speak. After standing around chin-wagging, we got the signal and started to venture off up the road deeper into the heartland of wrongtown.

Actually, it was only a couple of blocks away and, with nervous smiles of anticipation, we started filing through an old fenced gate, stepping over some golden painted stepping stones (Vexta dust no doubt) into a fairly unremarkable, single storey house that would once have looked good, oh perhaps in the 50s, but now just looked dated with far too many walls. Trying to pass off the feeling that we were all at some open-for-inspection auction, we lined up at the front door as the crowd began to bottleneck outside. But the front door was shut off, and we found the only way in was to crouch down and climb through the windows. This off-kilter entrance gave the feeling of entering a house that had been taken over by kids, turning the whole place into a cubby, with all the weird outcomes that entails.

I was reminded of the empty shows, held around the country in different cities over a number of years, where artists would take over derelict and abandoned buildings turning them into impromptu galleries with secret locations and meeting places for those in the know. I asked Vexta about this not knowing that she and Snaith actually met at the second empty show and had been friends ever since. “The empty shows were a big influence on Wrongtown,” Vexta explained, ”Basically it’s the same concept, only instead of us doing it illegally, we could do it legally. Theresa Harrison also curated with us as she just did Holes in the Wall, which was in her house and involved the audience peering through windows.”

Weeks earlier, the curators had struck a unique deal with the new property owners who wanted to demolish the existing house and rebuild: do whatever you like to the place, they’d said. This is rather like giving a credit card to a teenager before going on holiday. While some of the work that awaited us was disturbingly funny to say the least, it was remarkable that someone hadn’t burnt the place down by the time we all arrived.

From the outside there was a good view of the garage covered in Tom Civil’s suburban houses and apartments as stick figures, running amok across the property. There was also a set of coloured glass engravings across each of the windows by Ash Keating — more geometric and decorative than his usual style but maintaining his practice of using existing materials to create new works. Inside the house we were welcomed by a severe wall intervention by Simon Pericich, a carven, burnt text work giving a death metal foray into the more family-friendly works like Matt Morrow’s paper home gymnasium and mattress, and Tai Snaith’s grandma knit-off setting in the main lounge. Urban Village Melbourne had meanwhile torn up the floorboards of the next room to expose a secret bedroom underneath where Michelle Emma James slept in a bed surrounded by books. Nearby was a pile of ominous-looking but watered down insulation stuff. Political commentary perhaps.

By this time, the hallways were chokers and a bunch of us were caught up in a stream of people squeezing through, gently pushing us from room to room. Then I found myself in the dark end of the house. Here the Hotham Street Ladies had created a kind of (J)Amityville Horror where strawberry jam dribbled from the doorframes and cupboards surrounding a child’s bedroom. In the room the furniture was weirdly unpacked and was overflowing in popcorn and hundreds and thousands and oozing marshmallow like a nightmare that almost came true when we peered next door. Inside this next room, behind a high barrier that you had to leer over, was another UVM piece: papier-mâché girls covered in shaving cream were crammed into the shower of a dirty bathroom where a real girl sat lonely in a bathtub. There was something a little sinister at work here and we had to have a quick improvised parental approval discussion in the room before shuffling the complaining kids out of the room with some excuse about too much sugar.

In the next room, an even darker piece by Bonnie Lane consisted of a video, key-framed into the shape of an oval mirror and placed at the back of an empty wardrobe in the darkest corner of the house. The looped piece showed a girl skipping rope while a snippet of Julee Cruise music from Twin Peaks repeated. It created a claustrophobic atmosphere, so much so that it was one of the few rooms that people were keen to leave, only to stumble into Kiron Robinson’s bathroom. Here his rong neon sign was slammed through the bathroom vanity, casting shiny pink shards of light around the little room, while people dared each other to use the toilet. There were plenty of other works worth mentioning as well, such as Robbie Rowland’s brilliant peeling back of floorboards, carpets and wardrobe units, slithers of the material delicately removed like shavings from a pencil.

The combintation of sculpture, performance, and intervention with existing materials worked well together to create a sometimes playful, sometimes ominous tone to Wrongtown, and it was quite unexpected. It also had the feeling of a bizarre home invasion with hundreds of people traipsing through a place that was once someone’s house. With the mute girl in the bath at one end of the house and the other girl asleep under the floor at the other end of the house, and the jammy faux blood dripping from everywhere, and being unable to move as more people poured into the house I had a moment of anxiety, a moment of clithrophobia (yes I looked it up), it’s a fear of being enclosed inside. The only thing that assuaged this weird feeling was being reminded of an early chapter in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, where armies of the dead march through the world unseen by the living, inside our homes, next to us as we sleep, while we shop or visit a gallery. Strange that this thought should comfort me as the house began to reach an intimately close gridlock. When a gap emerged a few minutes later, I made a swift escape into the backyard. The welcome sight of sunshine and beer gave me some much needed respite from this urban dream that was fast on its way to a suburban nightmare, albeit an aesthetically haunting one.

Rendezvous in Wrongtown
Saturday 7th August 2010
Como Avenue, Toorak

Artists: The Agents, Tom Civil, Hotham Street Ladies, Andy Hutson, Ash Keating, Bonnie Lane, Jonathan Leahy and Vexta, Matt Morrow, Simon Pericich, Kiron Robinson, Robbie Rowlands, Neale Stratford, Hiroyasu ‘TWOONE’ Tsuri, Urban Village Melbourne, Danae Valenza. Curators: Theresa Harrison, Tai Snaith and Vexta.