By Simon Holberton
One of the many joys to be had at the National Gallery of Victoria’s celebration of contemporary art in its Melbourne Now happening (it’s not an exhibition as such, but a four-month rave across multiple sites) is Patrick Pound’s Gallery of Air on the third floor of NGV International on St Kilda Road.
In a tight lozenge-shaped space he has arranged 286 objects around the theme of air. So, there is a knife stamped USAir, a Constable cloud study, a picture of the young Lauren Bacall (the following line from To have and to have not came to mind — ‘You know how to whistle, don’t you? You put your lips together, and blow’), a piece of Italian lace (punto di aria, or stitches in the air), a fart cushion, a copy of Wind in the Willows, a sentimental Victorian painting a sheep exhaling over a dead lamb, resuscitation Annie…I think you get the idea.
Gallery of Air makes you smile, stop and consider, and admire the ingenuity of its creator. There’s a bus ticket from WW2 that was issued to air raid wardens and afforded them free travel, and there’s Donald Judd’s aluminium and dark glass open-ended rectangle that used to sit in the contemporary galley but has in recent years been confined to storage. Its rehabilitation here is a revelation and art lovers can only hope it is restored to permanent public view after this exhibition ends in March. It works better for being elevated.
As Susan Van Wyk, a senior curator at NGV who helped Pound navigate the gallery’s collection, says, Gallery of Air “engages you in really looking at things and about trying to make the connections. It makes you slow down, stop, perhaps, it’s a remarkably contemplative work, joyful and whimsical.”
Assembling ‘museums of things’ is a key part of Pound’s practice. Usually he works with photographs — usually small format black and white snaps taken by amateurs, the sort you might uncover in a forgotten trunk at your grandmother’s place — and presents collections of them thematically. One group might focus on shadows, another on wind, and still another on photographers in their own photos. Currently he’s working on holes and whiteness.
Pound says he’s exploring “meaning though the accumulation of details”. Art is a process of seeking coherence in the world, of seeking order in the chaos of life. For Pound the world is, therefore, a puzzle to be solved. With Gallery of Air he says he told the NGV it would either be a “palimpsest or a dog’s breakfast”. It is certainly not the latter.
The palimpsest metaphor is particularly suggestive. But the uncovering of meaning here is not so much revealed by peering beneath the surface of things as through the power of juxtaposition. This is a premeditated display; nothing is where it is by accident.
“I started off collecting things that I was interested in, things that went together. So they were more like typologies. And then I realised that when you put things together in more than two and three you get narrative sequences and they have narrative implications. It was a way of introducing political agendas and different social things, humour – a fart cushion next to a Constable cloud study, or a stealth bomber next to a beautiful piece of jewellery. It just shifts the meaning of things when you put two things together.”
I particularly like the way objects refer to each other. Judd’s Untitled (1969-71) and René Magritte’s In praise of dialectics (1937) seem in dialogue — the formal characteristics of Magritte’s window within a window and Judd’s enclosure of air complement each other perfectly. As does Constable’s Cloud Study of 1822 and Streeton’s Oncoming storm of 1895. In the same zone as these is a Pipe which reminded me of Magritte again (Ceci n’est pas une pipe) and a beautiful scroll painting by Tran Kim Hoa (Delusion, 2002) which had no associations at all other than it is beautiful.
Click on the pictures here to see them enlarged.