- William Yang, “Erwin Olaf Opening” Roslyn Oxley 9 Gallery, 1996. Silver gelatin photograph; courtesy of the artist.
- Josey Kidd-Crowe, Debt Forgiveness, Oil on found fabrics; courtesy of the artist and Neon Parc.
- Georgia Robenstone, Power Without Glory, 2020. Two Channel Video, 5 Minutes 47 Seconds, courtesy of the artist
- Isadora Vaughan, Resus, 2020. Plastics, mesh, glass, bacteria, sugars; courtesy of the artist and STATION.
- Spencer Lai, Moral inventory, 2020. Acrylic on foam core; pint glasses; bottle; Windex, water and beer; vintage ‘Mommy made’, Barbie and Polly Pocket dolls’ clothes and accessories; cardboard; fish tank provided by Rex Veal; oranges; courtesy of the artist and Rex Veal. Spatial and conceptual attribution by Rex Veal and Nicholas Tammens.
- William Yang, The Party After the Mardi Gras, R.H.I Showground, 1992. Silver gelatin photograph; courtesy of the artist.
- Rafaella Mcdonald, Untitled 1, 2020. Icing sugar, gum tragacanth, aqua resin, recycled Victorian Ash cupboards, found candles from a skip, cotton jersey dyed with synthetic dye; courtesy of the artist.
- Rafaella Mcdonald, How___ Relates To A Pair Of Pants, I’m Not Sure, 2020,
Repurposed bed sheets and cotton fabric dyed with rose petals found in Fitzroy, Eucalyptus leaves, and synthetic dye, shoe keyrings found in downtown Los Angeles, LED candles, thread; courtesy of the artist.
- Mark Smith, Improvable, 2019, Ceramic, courtesy of the artist and Arts Project Australia.
- Lorraine Connelly-Northey, Narrbong, 2020. Wire cable; courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery.
- Meow TV (Carmen Sibha Keiso with Meow), MeowTV Episode 1, 2, 3, 4, 2018 – 2019. 96 minutes (total); courtesy of Carmen-Sibha Keiso and Meow Gallery.
- Katie West, Untitled, 2020 Calico Dyed With Wandoo Bark, permanent installation in the West Space office; courtesy of the artist.
- Ilana Harris-Babou, Reparation Hardware, 2018. 4 Minutes, commissioned by Dis Magazine; courtesy of the artist.
Improvements and Reproductions is powered by Lūpa Media Player.
Improvements, West Space’s inaugural exhibition at Collingwood Yards, ruminates on the aspirations and costs of improvement. Shown in parallel to 1856’s exhibition, Reproductions, the two exhibitions collectively and separately investigate the conditions under which art is produced.
West Space has been sited in multiple locations in the past 27 years. Beginning above a food court in Footscray, in the Western suburbs of Melbourne (the “west” of its name) it has progressively moved east—via two CBD locations and a temporary transit through Fitzroy—to its current location in Collingwood within a multi-building arts precinct. Since their original construction more than 140-years ago, these buildings have been home to a Technical School, a courthouse, and council chambers, before entering into a sustained period of vacancy before becoming an arts precinct. In recent years, Collingwood has undergone immense changes in its social and economic fabric. In 2015 the implementation of the Local Law No 8 outlawed public drinking on Smith Street, Collingwood’s major thoroughfare and an important meeting point for the Aboriginal community. The law was backed by local business owners and real estate speculators, but disputed by the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Services as “mirroring a return to old fashioned punitive approaches to law and order marked by the over-policing of the poor and marginalised”.
Land rights, pay structures, reproductive justice, health equality, police abolition — urgent social reform is a clear beginning point in thinking about collective improvement. Yet improvement maintains a double character. Historically, the term improvement is linked with colonising forces of the British empire in relation to land improvement, begging the question: improvement for whom? And at what cost? When considered at the individual level, a desire for betterment can be manipulated into individualised causes with little regard for social, material, economical and environmental consequences. It slips into neoliberal agendas, from the weaponisation of self-care, to the violence of gentrification and widespread ecological degradation. The exhibition Improvements brings together existing works by Mark Smith and Ilana Harris-Babou with new commissions by Rafaella McDonald, Georgia Robenstone and Katie West. These artists bring different subjectivities to the concept of improvement, and to West Space’s position within Collingwood.
Improvements adapted its title from Mark Smith’s eleven hand-formed ceramic letters that spell out the word IMPROVABLE. For the past 15 years, Smith—who lives with a disability— has made art invested in the shared, yet singular, human condition of having a body. He is perhaps best known for his figurative soft sculptures, such as his life-sized reproduction of a newborn baby being born; or his small scale ceramics studies of women’s bodies. IMPROVABLE is an open-ended reflection on the conditions of its own production—not idealised by the artist, the work is slightly wonky, each letter balances precariously to stand. Although a departure from his figurative representations of the body, this work extends Smith’s ongoing interest in the variances and differences of being human.
Casting herself or her mother in roles that include the host of a cooking show, a lifestyle influencer, and a reality TV Star, Ilana Harris-Babou’s multimedia practice interrogates the aspirational spaces of late capitalism and the intersections of race, class and labour therein. For Improvements, Harris-Babou presents a satirical single-channel video, Reparation Hardware. Riffing off the language of home improvement vloggers and the marketing videos of Restoration Hardware—an up-scale American furnishing company—Harris-Babou speaks of “unresolved pasts and untapped present”, offering a proposal for how reparations might be delivered to African-Americans. Through humor, the artist draws attention to the cliched tropes of nostalgia and authenticity in the language of advertising, and the effect this has in glossing over America’s history of slavery. Reparation Hardware serves as a commentary on the institution of slavery in the United States, from its historical past to its continuing effects in present day North America, and the ongoing fight for financial compensation for the descendants of slaves.
Interested in unstable states, Rafaella McDonald explores notions of precarity through material. The installation How____ relates to a pair of pants I’m not sure consists of two pieces of suspended hand-dyed fabric, anchored by a line of tiny shoes, to create an anthropomorphised pair of pants. This fabric has been reworked through various processes of staining, patterning and mark marking including imprints from found objects, mixtures of synthetic and natural dyes from gathered materials. The abstracted form of unwearable pants is a recurring symbol for the artist, other iterations have been made out of edible, domestic substances including toffee and boiled candy. Here, the pants are pinned in place by double ended candles, an allusion to envitiable combustion and the exhaustion that comes from lighting the candle at both ends.
The roles of social agency and collective action in the fight for public space are key concerns for artist Georgia Robenstone. Her two-channel video work, Power Without Glory, explores the changing social, material and political conditions that “transform” suburbs. This video reuses local found footage—from pop culture, Youtube videos, advertising—together with loosely associative imagery shot by the artist. The work takes its title from Frank Hardy’s novel of the same name, an illegally published piece of 1950’s social realism set in the suburb of “Carringbush”, a fictionalised version of Collingwood. Hardy’s novel criticised the corruption of Melbourne’s local Labor politicians through thinly veiled fictionalisations. From the brutal colonisation of unceded lands, the gridded city plans imported from Europe, the subterranean pathways of cables, to the rhetoric of real estate agencies, Power without Glory speculates on ongoing forces of gentrification that shape cities and displace communities.
Katie West is interested in systems of renewal and reciprocity. Combining textiles and social practice, the artist uses plant-knowledge to cultivate connections to place, and to create sites for meditation, reading, listening and conversation. Her process begins with gathering materials on country: leaves, bark, flowers, each fallen to the ground after storms or heavy winds. The hot or cold seasons determine which dying process is used: in cold weather, boiling water is used to transfer dyes; whereas in the hotter months, fabric and dying materials are immersed in water and placed in the sun. The infusion of place into these fabrics forms the central part of Katie’s installations. They are a reminder of our indivisibility from the landscape, from the microbiomes that we host in our bodies to the natural and built environments in which we live. Emphasising our points of connection, to the land and to each other, Katie creates places to address trans-generational trauma. Permanently installed in the West Space office, the work invites institutional self-reflection and accountability in regards to West Space’s position on stolen land. It is a clear reminder of the duty of care owed to the custodians of the countries in which we live and work.
In the months that followed this exhibition’s conception, the list of improvements (now known as demands) grew. Katie, Rafaella and Georgia’s commissions were made over Australia’s disastrous fire season of 2019-2020, and the global pandemic that swiftly followed suspended the opening of this exhibition for three months. While institutions furloughed staff, artists were unionising and collectivising, practicing mutual aid and enacting social economies. In the face of mass closures and lockdowns, artists and arts workers called for protection for casual workers, stable funding for organisations, those in positions of power to sacrifice their salaries, state governments to prevent major organisations from entering into administration. As these collective demands were being made, there were demands on individuals to translate self-isolation into an opportunity for self-improvement; to maintain productivity amidst a pandemic.
And now, as restrictions regarding public gatherings have begun to ease, the socialist policies of free childcare and JobKeeper are being withdrawn, global reckonings over police violence and racism are rising. Cracks in our already failing systems have become chasms, as we bear witness to the ongoing effects of the systematic devaluing of society’s most vulnerable. The works in Improvements offer multiple counter-positions to the neoliberal agenda of continual improvement and exponential growth. As we reckon with the challenges of 2020, we are collectively imagining an improved world — the only way we can do this is by dismantling the systems that are failing us.
Improvements is curated by Amelia Wallin.
In planning this exhibition we began with a question: what reproduces the conditions for an artist’s work? We might think of this broadly: a community, a “scene”, cultural relationships and identities, state policies, economic and social determinations (the wage and the unwaged labour in its shadow, class privilege and lack thereof), the past and present of colonial effects (as well as the refusal of and resistance against them), an environment (in the micro and the macro sense of the word), and habits of seeing, perceiving, and producing. Or we might think of it more intimately: food, money, rest, friends, work… These lists are far from being exhaustive or without gaps.
We began with this seemingly innocuous question, which, it turns out, can’t simply be answered by works of art. What we can say is that it’s not the role of this exhibition to provide answers, rather, what we can observe is that artworks themselves raise another and very old question: what is the ability of the work of art to reflect the conditions in which it is made? Or said another way: what does it reproduce?
MeowTV documents the openings and parties at Meow, a gallery formerly run from a share-house living room in Carlton by artist-occupants Hana Earles and Brennan Olver, and artist Calum Lockey—recently reopened at a house in West Melbourne (@me_ow2). Filmed and produced by Carmen-Sibha Keiso, the series parodies the format of reality TV and the pedestrian “about town” reporting of community television shows. Shot with a dated hand-held video camera, it ironically inhabits the documentary format while quoting the performative enthusiasm of home video.
For an audience, we can observe that MeowTV produces a distance between who is represented in the series—the artists and audience become actor-participants—and who remains outside of it. The series sits in an uneven space between documentation and the way in which documents function within the self-mythologising system of art. It records a small scene at a certain time, while parodying the possibility of a truthful document.
A large section of Lorraine Connelly-Northey’s work focuses on reproducing the form of the Narrbong. These woven fibre bags are traditional to the Waradgerie (Wiradjuri) people for the gathering, collecting, and storing of food and other objects of value. As a tool, they are intrinsically linked to the reproduction of a culture through the simple and universal need to provide, gather, carry, hold. She reproduces this form with a range of gathered materials found on the side of the road, in illegal rubbish dumps, or decaying on farms. Connelly-Northey asserts that her practice is undergirded by her culture’s principle that “you only take what you need”. Because of this, she only focuses on collecting materials and producing artworks when an exhibition dictates it. Furthermore, if a work goes unsold or is returned to Connelly-Northey, it may be digested as material for another work. As Connelly-Northey explains:
“The scouting begins when I get a commission for an exhibition. We Aboriginal people only take what we need when we need it. I do a lot of travelling to spot something and it can take up a lot of time. On one occasion, it took me two years to find the owners of a farm to take two rolls of wire. It is not easy, but well, it is about earning what you get. Before I had a driving licence I had to rely on other people. It is still hard to know how much I need, so I tend to get a bit too much. But the beauty of that is that I always work from leftovers and if I don’t use a material, I take it back. Also, in the sculpting process, I try to not alter the material too much.” 
The work on exhibition here is composed of two bag forms from Connelly-Northey’s Narrbong-Galang (many, many bags) exhibition at Roslyn Oxley Gallery last year.
Spencer Lai’s work produces associative meaning out of a range of accumulated materials that are worked into assemblages, installations, clothing, and exhibitions. These materials often include found objects or images from pop culture—lifted from thrift stores, online, or the mall. We should consider the usage of “material” widely in looking at Lai’s work, and include their social relations (with other artists, spaces, and so on) as part of what they pull into what they produce, and how they produce it.
Lai’s use of various commodities points to how identities are constructed within a consumerist culture, giving away to the observation that subcultural identities can be assembled on Instagram or at the mall. The works are rarely singular or stand-alone objects. Rather, their identities are intentionally constructed from multiple references, works, as well as contributions from other artists. Beyond being autonomous, they are predicated on the wider dialogues that constitute the material for Lai’s work.
Isadora Vaughan’s work proceeds from a consideration of materials, their limits, and their ethics. Recently, she has been looking to sustainable materials that are able to be broken down or composted after their “shelf-life” as art works is over. For example, she has looked into the industrial uses of fungi in building materials. These interests extend into Vaughan’s own research and material processes, investing in permaculture models of farming for the production of her art materials. In doing so, part of her intention is to recuperate her own overproduction into a self-sustaining system.
With Resus, Vaughan exhibits vessels produced from various materials—glass, repurposed buckets, moulded plastic—representing organs and processes of the body. These contain SCOBY, the symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast that forms as a thick membrane in fermentation processes that, if divided, will reproduce under the right conditions. Typical of the processes from growth to digestion to decomposition that Vaughan engages in, this work also exhibits a stage in the production of Vaughan’s materials. These sculptures require caring for and feeding, and will naturally reproduce under the right conditions.
Josey Kidd-Crowe’s paintings are largely representational, yet they are far from traditional realism or a social document. Rather, these works rely on the evocative. Worked into old bedsheets and tapestries of discarded fabrics, his paintings are often populated by people and places that seem recognisable, yet they are difficult to place at any one point in time. Much of these images come from the imaginary materials of literature and old magazines, but in their conversion to painted images they take on a less referential quality. Embedded in supports that escape the illusion of the canvas, these works expose the process of painting without falling into reductionism. Kidd-Crowe’s claim to representation isn’t about accurate depictions or records, but rather about the effects of real life on our imaginations—be they individual or social—and the distance between these images and the real material that they’re produced from.
Since the 1970s, William Yang has photographed the social scenes in Sydney in which he has circulated. Developing a diaristic take on documentary photography, his photographs have become iconic memorialisations of the Sydney gay scene before the gentrification of Oxford Street, the closure of Kings Cross, and the corporatisation of the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. More personally, they speak to Yang’s investigations into the construction of Queer and Asian Australian identity at times in which neither were given any particular nuance in representation.
Reproductions is curated by Nicholas Tammens, 1856
Amelia Wallin holds a Bachelor of Art Theory and a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) from the University of New South Wales, and a Master of Curatorial Studies from Bard Colledge, New York. Amelia has held curatorial and administrative positions at Performa (New York), Campbelltown Arts Centre, Biennale of Sydney, Performance Space, Performing Lines and Vivid Ideas. She has played an active role in Australian arts development through directorial positions at Firstdraft, Tiny Stadiums Festival, and as co-founder of the residency and exhibition program Sydney Guild. Amelia has curated programs at The Kitchen, The Hessel Museum of Art, Performa15, and Firstdraft, and has contributed writing to Running Dog, Runway, un Magazine, Artlink, and others. She joined West Space as Director in 2019.
Nicholas Tammens is curator of 1856, a program of exhibitions and events at the Victorian Trades Hall Council, a trade union building in Melbourne, Australia. Recently he was appointed to a curatorial position at Kunstverein Hamburg, Germany. Previously he was Associate Curator for Yale Union, Portland, where he curated an exhibition on the work of Flemish conceptual artist Jef Geys. Elsewhere, he has presented lectures at WIELS (Brussels) and Kunsthalle Zurich, and wrote for Mousse Magazine (Milan), May Revue (Paris), and Memo Review (Melbourne).
1856 is a program of exhibitions and events staged at the Victorian Trades Hall, it focuses on the cultural production of the labour movement, the rights of artists, and the many ways in which artists address social issues in their work.