We ascribe countless social, collective and cultural narratives to the idea of place. The architectural form, suburban block and post-industrial expanse are sites imbued with stories, histories and socio-political resonances, be they humble, grandiose, forgotten or denied. Place is a notion rich not just in meaning, but also in contestation and struggle. For every story and assumption, there is another wiped from the record.
Wandering the cavernous, creaking space that houses The Museum is the Region, the Region is the Museum, a very different vantage and perspective is granted on the particularities of such an idea. Initiated as a conduit for West Space to reconnect with its roots in Melbourne’s western suburbs – and curated by West Space director Danny Lacy alongside the artist-run initiative’s program curator Liang Luscombe and Patrice Sharkey – this quietly unfurling group exhibition takes The Living Museum of the West, set on the at once gritty and scenic banks of the Maribyrnong River, as both its venue and subject. A former concrete pipe-makers plant, the volunteer-run museum is dedicated to tracking the various histories of Melbourne’s western suburbs.
The Museum is the Region… not only broaches the history of the site and its wider social implications, but also delves into the specificity of its current inhabitants. A stunning video work and installation (featuring some strategically placed stacks of plastic chairs) by Lisa Radford, Sam George and Kim Munro is a centrepiece and a highlight. Titled It has to be more than just two foxes and a hen deciding what to have for lunch, the twin-channel work sees the trio deconstruct and transform interviews conducted with Living Museum volunteers into fleeting fragments of dialogue, stories and confessions, each detailing a personal belief, foible, anecdote, wish or desire. This taxonomy of specificity seems disconnected at a glance, but with time the work and its dialogues bind together. Every group or organisation is built from a collective of individual lives and experiences.
A cinematically scaled video from UK duo Mikhail Karakis & Uriel Orlow, meanwhile, reads not unlike a kind of post-industrial opera. Aging ex-employees of a defunct coal mine in Kent mimic the sound of mining activities and sing mournful strike songs as they wander the austere grounds of their former workplace in an at once humorous and poignant choreography. Intimate close-ups are spliced with wide shots that consider the collective and the stark, barren undulations of the former mining site. Again, this is as much a series of sensitive individual histories as it is a consideration of something much larger – in this case, the decline of British manufacturing and labour.
Kerrie Poliness, a long-time volunteer at the museum, deals with the material detritus and echoes of the site’s industrial history as pipe-making plant. A CD Rom work from 1997 leads viewers on a virtual tour of the rundown factory, which is imbedded with hidden artistic interventions by the likes of Rose Nolan, Marco Fusinato, Stephen Bram, Melinda Harper and others, while her installations out in the grounds re-imagine concrete pipes as sculptural stacks and surfaces bearing a system of abstract motifs.
There are other considerations of the site: Avni Dauti creates a sculptural installation of pipes and various materials that act as a foil to a video work. Geoff Robinson’s sound work tracing oral histories of the Maribyrnong River and Braybrook is expanded by a kind of abstract mapping system comprising coloured lengths of timber.
Susan Jacobs’ scattering of compact sculptural works, dissected objects, material experiments and gestures is the most lateral, but perhaps also the most subtly astute in its handling the exhibition’s thematic strands of history and its material articulation. Her works read like elusive, evocative vignettes – her semi-industrial materials echoing with human intervention and poetic form. Like the site itself, Jacobs’ Frontier is rich with the evidence of the human imprint.
The Museum is the Region, the Region is the Museum, Fri to Sun noon–5pm, until 5 October 2014; The Living Museum of the West, Pipemakers Park, Van Ness Avenue, Maribyrnong, 9662 3297, westspace.org.au