The “Modern Times” exhibition at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum - part of Sydney Design 08 - is something of a curate’s egg. Containing some wonderful artefacts, the show is worth seeing for a few items alone. However, the unimaginative presentation is fairly disappointing and you walk away sensing an opportunity lost, as much as you are enlightened and enlivened by the possibilities inherent in the material.
The “untold story of modernism in Australia” is a tagline open to misinterpretation. It’s not that modernism in Australia is an “untold story” - as Australian modernism, through the likes of Boyd, Grounds, Seidler, Nolan, Preston, Dupain, the Featherstons et al, has a well-documented history here, and the architectural scene in Sydney in particular has an ongoing relationship with modernism. It’s more that the curators intended to tell a different story of modernism, one that focused perhaps a little less on architecture and built environment, and more on the social and cultural patterns emerging throughout the modern period. (This insight gleaned in an interview with curator Ann Stephen on ABC Radio National’s By Design show.)
While this is laudable, it should not negate engaging with architecture and urban planning - as this is the built expression of those social and cultural patterns. And it’s the buildings that we’re left with, marking modernism in the streets around us every day, long after the fashions, posters and poems have faded. Sure enough, many of the artefacts directly relate to architecture and urbanism nonetheless. In fact, although the exhibition opens on the body, health and the emerging fashion, it tends to become more centred around architecture, cities, and other fragments of built fabric as it continues.
Some of the exhibits in the show are fascinating and highly valuable. Numerous drawings, photographs and models explore alternative futures for Sydney, many of which shed light on the city currently around us. (A proposed new airport of towers for personal aircraft (“vertical dovecotes”), located on the corners of Hyde Park, is as viable as any currently proposed expansions of Kingsford Smith, given the gentle downward spiral of air traffic from now on, and rather more exciting.) It’s useful to see sketches, and photographs of the models, for Seidler’s Australia Square and MLC Centre in particular, given their impact on Sydney. Also illuminating are some great photographs of Sydney's streets of the modern era, usually as the backdrop for fashion shoots or Holden ads.
A few Max Dupains are predictable choices but worthy enough, particularly focusing (no pun intended) on the modern view of the body. A particularly lovely glass door shines, though I can't recall the provenance. The work
of Gallery A in Melbourne
also looked interesting enough to warrant deeper treatment. Some choice
items of furniture are hoisted up but also left a little unexplored. An attempt to wrap indigenous art into the themes
of the show seems a little forced, part of a sequence on visual art and
writing, yet here the omission of the significant Ern Malley controversy seems odd. Again,
perhaps the “untold story” was the idea here, as Malley has been told many times (perhaps best obliquely, via Peter Carey's My Life As A Fake). Similarly Sidney Nolan, Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington-Smith are featured, though in an apropriately low key fashion given the major exhibitions focusing on these painters recently. Music and sound is
largely absent - the ocularcentric approach most museums have continues
here, sadly. (If you’re interested, the release Artefacts of Australian
Experimental Music 1930-1973 covers a few examples of the
The Opera House is here, of course, represented by a beautiful wooden model (though the model on display at Customs House at Circular Quay is arguably more interesting in terms of understanding the building’s system, and some fascinating BIM-based 3D databases exist too, from which public exhibits could be reverse-engineered.)
There is the nagging sensation that the show is
focusing a little too much on Sydney. Melbourne is arguably often seen as the crucible of modernism in Australia, Canberra has perhaps the
richest representation per capita, and Brisbane, despite its
contemporaneous conservatism, has a fine tradition via the likes of
Hayes & Scott through James Birrell and beyond. The show is due to
tour to Melbourne’s Heide and the State Library of Queensland next
year, so it’ll be interesting to see how it bends towards its hosts.
An exhibition will often attempt to play to the home crowd, of course, but here this seems symptomatic of an outdated idea that people don’t travel between the city-states of Australia (nothing could be further from the truth, particularly for this crowd). Equally, there are better ways to balance local interest and more even coverage; using the internal exhibition space for the latter, and taking the exhibition out onto the streets for the former (more on this later.)
There are three standout displays.
- A large 3-screen rear projection of swimming pool architecture, in particular James Birrell’s supreme Centenary Pool in Brisbane, the elongated aspect ratio lending itself to the form perfectly, and supported by a relatively subtle audio backing. This is really rather beautiful.
- A reconstruction of Harry Seidler’s office, or at least a corner of it, is intriguing - rather more dry than the reconstructed Archigram office at the Design Museum exhibition a few years ago, but that may well be just one facet of the sizeable differences between Archigram and Seidler.
- And a few of the Grant and Mary Featherston ‘sound chairs’ and costumes from Robin Boyd’s design for the Australian pavilion at the Montreal Expo in 1967 ends the exhibition, surrounded by flickering newsreel of celebs and royals visiting the installation.
All in all, though, it falls a little short. Some wonderful exhibits,
some less so. The exposition and narrative is too low-key, as is often
the case. The accompanying book (with Philip Goad as one of the
editors) will contain detail on the context, influence, and arguments
that still fizz around modernism, yet very little of that discussion
makes it into the show, onto boards. I’m so used to this that it almost
goes unnoticed, sadly, but as ever I feel that it’s really neglecting
the museum or gallery’s mission. (One of Sydney’s greatest writers,
Robert Hughes, showed what this kind of informed appreciation of the
subject can deliver, when writing about the V&A’s modernism show
for The Guardian a few years ago.)
What really lets the show down is the exhibition design. Save for the aforementioned set-pieces it’s near non-existent. Most photos and prints are displayed in glass cases or framed on walls, and the lighting is too low throughout (surely one of the panoply of themes that a modernism show should engage with is the more basic experiential exploration of punching light through a more open plan?) There's little that really addresses the ideas of the show in terms of the exhibition design, save for those set-pieces mentioned above, and a series of booths from a reconstructed milkbar.
Anyone who’s been to exhibitions at any of the world’s leading museums
and galleries in the last decade - and the crowd going to the Powerhouse for a modernism show can be assumed to be fairly savvy in this respect - will
know that the design of the show isn’t simply about mounting a display; it is an exhibit, a
cultural artefact, in its own right.
Personally, I’m thinking of several shows at the Pompidou in Paris in
particular, or several at Tate Modern, Barbican or Hayward Gallery in
London, or the 21:21 Design Sight gallery in Tokyo, or several in NYC. Yet small galleries in
Zürich, Amsterdam, Barcelona and others indicate you don’t have to be a world city
gallery. Having said that, I’ve sat through enough recent NSW
State Government presentations indicating Sydney’s placing in various
‘quality of life’ surveys (usually in the top 10, and often ahead of
cities like Paris) - if Sydney is really up there, then there’s no
reason that its largest public museum shouldn’t aspire to punch its
With that ambition, and commensurate budget, perhaps a fuller version of the Seidler office could’ve been reconstructed outside the building? Robin Boyd’s 1949 'House of Tomorrow' could have been rendered more fully, at least room by room, adorned with Grant Featherstone’s furniture (London's little old Geffrye Museum provides a decent precursor here). Could not the entire Montreal Expo 67 Australian pavilion by Boyd have been reconstructed, with replica Featherston sound chairs talking away, enabling visitors to really begin to feel the spaces? I'm fully aware of not wanting to focus too much on built forms when attempting to conjure the social and cultural patterns at play during the modern era, so exploring these ideas in other media might layer further meaning. Perhaps a series of specially-commissioned films or other installations could add context to the artefacts? Maybe an information design approach to the themes, as with of 010's Metropolitan World Atlas, or various MVRDV titles.
The building doesn’t help. A labyrinthine interior, difficult to read,
the areas of the Powerhouse remaining for shows like this aren’t really
appropriate for, well, a show like this. It almost intrinsically conveys the sense that the vast
proportion of its collection is in archive at any one time, which isn't necessarily a good feeling when you’re in an exhibition there.
Yet this is hardly something that can be a ‘quick fix’, nor something to which the current adminstration can be held responsible. And while it might be worthwhile considering how to remodel the space, there are some strategies that could be enacted to extend the exhibition in the short term either way.
Five years ago, after visiting the ‘Art Deco’ exhibition at London’s V&A (which has now washed up on the shores of Melbourne, incidentally), I wrote about extending the exhibition into the city. I’d make exactly the same recommendation here, on the same premise. With ‘Art Deco’ and London, the city itself offered up numerous examples of the style, ideas, originating context and resulting reactions. I wrote the post before the mainstream existence of smartphones with 3G and GPS, or user-generated, collaborative Google Maps and the like, though I did suggest that they'd be good examples of what to create. Yet simple fold-out maps would’ve done, marking and describing examples of art deco in concentric rings around the V&A, and handed out to those who leave the exhibition inspired by the subject matter and ready to see more.
With modernism and Sydney - and the other Australian capital cities - this is another golden opportunity to extend an exhibition into the city. As well as the Google Maps, walking tours and audio guides, I'd advocate marking up buildings in the city i.e. fix temporary plaques outside the MLC Centre, Rose Seidler House, El Alamein Memorial Fountain, NGV etc., which offer up a short note about the structure and indicate they're part of a major exhibition around modernism in Australia. In this way, the exhibition is distributed, each building is adopted to become a node threaded into a wider network, each small plaque strung together thematically, connecting structures across cities and pulling the ideas of the glass cases.
Of course, the digital layer could be even more detailed -
smartphone-based in particular; featuring audio, like the recent
‘Unbuilt Melbourne’ project, or even, video and phone camera-based augmented reality - but these
simple analogue interventions would also be interesting, discreet and
more widely accessible. Plaques (analog or digital) could indeed denote unbuilt projects too, or the converse of that - ruined spaces, like the laneways cleared to enable the MLC Centre, discussing the impact of the modern era of urban planning.
This approach also doesn’t limit the exhibition to Sydney. It enables the actual museum exhibit to take a more balanced view of the artefacts that don’t relate to the host city - as this distributed exhibition is already reaching out to the host city, by taking it to the streets. So the Powerhouse is experienced outside the Powerhouse, even outside Sydney, and the modernism exhibition likewise (when the exhibition tours, and other institutions host the exhibit, the plaques and exhibits can switch accordingly.)
An accompanying Google Map (or equivalent), detailing modernist places of interest, could be Bluetooth’d/SMS’d to phones and other mobile devices from the exhibition (or the exhibition's website) as well as from transmitters embedded in the plaques mentioned above. Walk away with the map on your phone (current issues around accessing collaborative maps on mobiles notwithstanding.)
The Powerhouse has started a decent Flickr pool around the exhibition, which is a very good thing to do (and there are some other good initiatives going on around the museum too) - but the location-based nature of many of the exhibits (leaving aside fashion, furniture, graphic design etc.) suggests itself to maps. And I'm pretty sure they haven't done this. At least, as far as I can tell. No links from the website, nothing from their Flickr experiment, nothing found by searching. (In the interests of genuinely constructive criticism, watch this space for a small contribution shortly.)
Finally, a return to architecture and exhibitions. Given the obvious problems of scale and complexity, it’s notoriously difficult to deliver illuminating exhibitions about architecture. A good friend reported that the recent Richard Rogers retrospective at the Pompidou was the the worst architectural presentation he’d ever seen in Paris. Yet apart from that unusual misstep by the Pompidou, it’s perhaps unfortunate that ‘Modern Times’ runs at the same time as a number of shows that outdo it: ‘Place Makers’ at GOMA in Brisbane, which shows how to elegantly mount a modest architectural exhibition; ‘Homo Faber’ at the Melbourne Museum, which will probably deal better with models (caveat: I haven’t visited; only judging by a précis from The Architects); ‘Home Delivery’ at MoMA in New York, which builds a series of prefabs in a disused parking lot to allow visitors to genuinely engage with the ideas in the show; ‘SITE’ in Santa Fe or indeed Sydney's Biennale, which indicate the value of taking art to the streets …
And perhaps most of all, and putting things in even sharper relief, an edition of Japanese architecture and urbanism magazine A+U from a couple of months ago (picked up at the extraordinarily good Kinokuniya bookshop here in Sydney) focuses on ‘Reconsidering the museum’, with detailed discussion of architectural exhibitions from the world’s leading curators. Actually, the presentation here is often relatively traditional in format, yet it’s executed with such rigour, craft, imagination and ambition.
In particular, look at the extraordinary exhibition of Peter Zumthor’s work at the Kunsthaus Bregenz, with these models of Zumthor’s buildings situated in reconstructed landscapes, or on tables mounted at eye-level. And in particular, in the commissioning of two filmworks exploring ideas in Zumthor’s work, displayed in a dedicated space for audio-visuals. This show also indicates how to deploy darkness - for the video installations - amidst light.
(The Kunsthaus itself was designed by Zumthor, who also designed the wonderful new Kolumba Museum - the Art Museum of the Cologne Archdiocese - rising from the ruins of the late gothic Saint Kolumba Church, also featured.)
Elsewhere, we hear from the curators of the Miami Art Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art LA, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Cité de l’Architecture, Centre Pompidou, Louvre-Lens, Tate Modern, Serpentine Gallery, Austrian Museum of Applied Arts + Contemporary Art, Amsterdam Centre for Architecture, and others.
The issue, as is generally the case with A+U, is worth tracking down. It sheds new light onto the issues, possibilities and best practice in displaying architectural exhibits. Save a few examples (Morphosis at Pompidou and the Koolhaas/Balmond collaboration for the Serpentine etc.) it doesn’t necessarily discuss the different formats and ‘distributed exhibition’ ideas above, but observing the quality of thinking and execution in ‘reconsidering the museum’ indicates numerous ways forward for exhibitions about architecture nonetheless.