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Private viewings, public connections

Miranda Tay

This year’s Melbourne Art Fair takes audiences beyond traditional ways of engaging with art into innovative and dynamic realms.
Private viewings, public connections

Erwin Wurm, Anna Schwartz Gallery. Image: Miranda Tay

Public engagement and a chance for artists, collectors and audiences to interact is the name of the game at this year’s Melbourne Art Fair (MAF).

And judging by the first two days of activity at the Royal Exhibition Building, where the Fair is being held, the program is well on the way of achieving its aim.

About 3000 to 3500 VIP art collectors, leading industry figures, and visiting international guests thronged the glamorous opening night Vernissage to mingle with more than 500 artists from 70 galleries.


It was a night when the stunning fashions of the glitterati and creative art collided and colluded in a spectacular show of eye-popping artworks, video, and installations from Australia and internationally, a free program of talks, lectures and forums, and – for the first time at the Fair – performance art pieces that added, as described by MAF Director Barry Keldoulis, real buzz to the atmosphere.

Many were there to enjoy the quality of artworks presented, which Keldoulis said, had been given ‘a real boost’ this year. ‘That was [a] comment I heard a lot. That there was a real boost in the quality of the work. People were really impressed by the standard of the work and almost all of it was very engaging.’

And the prices ranged the gamut from the affordable and up. ‘A complete price range,' said Keldoulis. ‘Works for over half a million dollars but all the way down to works for a few hundred dollars that anybody can afford.‘

‘All the punters were happy, the galleries were happy, the artists were happy,’ he said. ‘Every single gallery I’ve spoken to is happy; some were ecstatic with sales. And of course the sales is very much a part of it, half if not more than half of that goes back to the artist; it makes them happy as well.’

Close to the entrance, Mikala Dwyer’s winning 2014 Artist Commission, The weight of shape (2014) immediately caught the eye. The mobile, strategically hung at body level height, to engage with the audience, was an arresting sculpture of acrylic, fibreglass, copper, ceramic, bronze, brass, stainless steel, steel and rope; at once static and mobile, moving seamlessly in its geometric, organic form. The sculpture will be gifted to the National Gallery of Australia.


The weight of shape, Mikala Dwyer. Image: Miranda Tay

Nearby, Austrian artist Erwin Wurm’s sculptures, photographs and video works at Anna Schwartz Gallery captivated the crowds with their humour, cheek and quirkiness, offering a fierce critique of contemporary culture.

Pearl Lam Gallery’s debut showing of Asian and international art had elaborate works on show including Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos’ intricate explorations of Western mythologies and iconographies, and Chinese artist Zhu Jin Shi’s dynamic visual language in the work Yellow Yulan Magnolia Spread on Floor (2013).

Upstairs, the Watters Gallery, which represents among its impressive portfolio of artists, the ’70s-inspired iconic work of the late Richard Larter, had an unmissable selection of works celebrating the gallery’s 50th year.


Damien Minton (left) and Geoffrey Legge (centre), of Watters Gallery, with MAF Director, Barry Keldoulis. Image: Miranda Tay

But it was the level of engagement between public and art that had everyone talking, said Keldoulis. ‘The level of engagement with the art was sort of above and beyond what they’re used to at the Vernissage.

‘People were really engaging with the art and with the artists because we had 500 or so artists in the mix. That really changed the atmosphere from previous times when it was perhaps a bit more formal. I think the artists being there to talk about their work and also to engage with other artists and people just created a really good buzz.'

There was Anna Pappas Gallery’s Luke Roberts, who as his alter ego Pope Alice traversed the floor solemnly with an entourage, flanked at the rear with a parasol. From the Rolls-Royce exhibit, where artist Michael Zavros gave a performance, twin models Zach and Jordan Stenmark embarked on a journey, gifting gold-wrapped coin chocolates – some of which remained in the boot of the luxurious, deep-red Wraith – through the crowd.


Quest, Noula Diamantopoulos. Image: Miranda Tay

Performance artist and psychotherapist Noula Diamantopoulos conducted a contemplative, silent Q&A with guests, one at a time, in Quest. Real security guards were roped in, three at a time, to guard a squared-off space, through which (Gandalf-like), visitors were advised they should not pass in a performance that sought to make the visitor think about the way we engage with public space.

‘People really engaged with the performance art. A lot of those performances made you think about stuff. Some were entertaining, of course, and visually spectacular. And there were others that were very subtle but made you think about your engagement with the space, the artist’s engagement with the audience, but also about how we operate public space. It was fantastic,’ Keldoulis said.

Melbourne Art Foundation Chair and gallery owner Anna Pappas agreed: ‘I think it gave a different atmosphere to the whole fair. It’s more interesting, it’s something probably the public is not aware of. Sometimes they confuse performance art with performing art. So it’s just something different at the Vernissage where a lot of the ideas and artists there are walking around the floors. I thought it was something very, very exciting and very, very new. I enjoyed it, I have to say, I really loved it.

‘It just breaks the monotony a little bit from constantly going from booth to booth. You can actually interact a little bit more with this extension of  art because visual art has become a lot more than just 2D or 3D that we’re used to it. Even video. So this is the next form of how we interact and engage with art. And I think it was brilliant. And I had many, many positive comments on it. Even today and tomorrow, we have the rest of the performance artists from upstairs doing some very interesting interaction.’

Video art is a key component of this year’s Fair, said both Keldoulis and Pappas, playing an important role role in the engagement of public space.

‘MAF video was very well received,’ said Keldoulis. ‘The openness of the video component is also a real innovation. People appreciate that you didn’t have to – well, we did sort of have a theatrette there that work needed to be presented in – but the openness of the general vivacity of space linked people; it wasn’t something that was cloistered. It was something you could engage with like you could almost engage with a painting.’


MAF video. Image: Miranda Tay

A strong public program of highlights during Melbourne Art Week will continue to boost the Fair’s desire for public engagement – and thus visitor numbers, which Keldoulis hopes will be somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 by the time the Fair concludes on Sunday.

The public program includes:

  • Melbourne’s trams, which will have pop-up performances by artists, where commuters will be entertained on their morning commute with flash-mob style musical performances or an attempt to make them laugh;
  • Federation Square, which will play a large-scale video work by artist Julie Rrap on its big screen throughout the Fair in the evenings.
  • Aesop, which hosts a pop-up exhibition of emerging Melbourne artists inside their flagship Collins St store until 17 August.
  • Chin Chin restaurant, which will project the work of a number of video artists from the Fair onto the wall adjacent to their restaurant during Melbourne Art Week.
  • Art After Hours, which will continue its late-night gallery openings, artist DJs and laneway events until tomorrow.

As Pappas said: ‘The whole thing is not just about galleries and gallery spaces. It’s also about connecting and having that dialogue afterwards, outside, inside and during.’

Melbourne Art Fair
Royal Exhibition Building, Carlton Gardens
Until 17 August

About the author

Miranda Tay is Deputy Editor of