Harrell Fletcher is an artist based in Portland, Oregon in the U.S.A., whose practice often engages with a community – offering a platform for outsiders to address a gallery audience. Eschewing traditional artistic materials and the notion of producing saleable art objects, Fletcher works in the realm of what Nicolas Bourriaud termed ‘relational aesthetics’, which takes as its subject human relationships and experiences.
Examples of Fletcher’s previous work can be found in the current exhibition in the form of photocopied magazines, posters and video pieces showing his presentations of different groups in a gallery context, for example a group of dogs and their owners from a local dog park, a church choir, a petrol station owner or a group of school children.
Likewise for The sound we make together (Melbourne) the artist has brought together a multitude of voices by collaborating with selected community organisations and local personalities. Fletcher and the NGV invited participants including CERES, Footscray Community Arts Centre, Arts Project Australia, Hell Gallery, RISE, Crooked Rib Art, The Grainger Museum, Koori elder Herb Patten and writer Jeff Sparrow to help him create this project.
There are various threads in Fletcher’s Melbourne project which exhibition curator Alex Baker allowed to develop organically and up until the last minute. This gives the exhibition a fresh quality and reflects Fletcher’s slightly idiosyncratic way of looking at the world and his DIY aesthetic. In line with the Melbourne Fringe Festival brief, but perhaps unexpected for a state gallery, the exhibition challenges conventional curatorial practice and museum displays.
By allowing ‘outsiders’ to select from the works from storage the NGV is opening its collection up to alternate interpretations. Participating organisations each selected a work from NGV storage that said something about the work they do. Wall text explains the choice in the participant’s own words. For example Herb Patten selected an intricately carved 19th century wooden Broad Shield because the patterns reminded him of gum leaves on the ground, supporting his research that Aboriginal people from the Goulburn and Murray River areas were gum leaf players.
The works from the NGV are hung alongside Fletcher’s photographs, which he took when he visited the organisations and places in which the participants do their work. In this way the participants are also subjected to an outsider’s perspective on their organisation. Rather than offering a broad overview of the participating organization, Fletcher’s photographs are his own idiosyncratic observations, displaying his own particular aesthetic. In his artist’s statement Fletcher explains his interest in the ephemera of posters, notes and other objects that accumulate in a space, suggesting that in this way people ‘unconsciously curate their lives’. Hence there are photographs of the reference library at Arts Project Melbourne, orderly stacks of magazines in Jeff Sparrow’s offices, and a lovingly handwritten list of Val Kilmer movies given to the director of Footscray Community Arts Centre by an artist working there at the time.
Other parts to the project were a weekend of presentations, footage of which is played on a large screen at the back of the gallery. In the same room, ephemera and representative objects given by the participants are presented for the audience to peruse. CERES provided a banner and scrap book from the Kingfisher festival, a listening post plays hip-hop from the refugee action group RISE, and a 19th century fiddle inlaid with mother of pearl from the Grainger Museum are included.
Disparate organisations and individuals are thus brought together. All have the common element of forming part of the cultural and historical fabric of Melbourne, and Fletcher’s aim is to allow them to present themselves in a gallery setting while also re-presenting some of the NGV’s collection in a different way.
Fletcher’s Melbourne project creates a new dynamic between the large institution of the NGV and the participants in his project. It also allows exhibition audiences a new outlook on their city as encountered by an outsider. The premise of the exhibition is summed up in Fletcher’s photograph taken at Footscray Community Arts Centre. It shows the view of the city from a large window. On the window is a bright blue post-it note that details a type of paint to be used in the centre’s renovations. Fletcher’s unconventional representation, suggests the transformations currently re-shaping the Centre while positioning it firmly in the context of the Melbourne landscape.
Harrell Fletcher: The Sound We Make Together (Melbourne)
At The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Federation Square until January 30
Melbourne Fringe Festival, September 22 – October 10