Gertrude Contemporary has a special place in the hearts of the many who have passed through its doors. Since its inception in 1985, the gallery, project space and studio complex has fostered and supported artists, curators, independent publishers, writers and academics. For Melbourne’s arts community, it’s the next step up from the rich array of artist-run initiatives for which the city has become known.
Gertrude Contemporary originally occupied a former home-ware factory and emporium, Johnston’s, which opened in 1889. The model for the gallery was New York’s PS1, which repurposed a school as artists’ studios and exhibition spaces. But Gertrude is now at the next stage of its institutional career. Though well funded by state and federal government, the gentrification of the surrounding inner-city suburb of Fitzroy has caused rents to soar and Gertrude must now find another home.
Gertrude’s history is the focus of the 14th edition of its annual ‘Octopus’ exhibition, for which it invites a curator to develop an idea for a show. Tara McDowell, who recently arrived in Melbourne as the inaugural associate professor and director of the Curatorial Practice PhD programme at Monash University Art Design and Architecture (MADA), curated ‘Nothing Beside Remains’.
One of McDowell’s innovations was to stage the exhibition throughout Gertrude Contemporary’s rabbit-warren of corridors, storage spaces, stair-wells and staircases, as well as in the gallery. Visitors accessed the show through the usually private studio entrance, walked up a steep flight of stairs and then percolated throughout the building. Artists Saskia Schut and Scott Mitchell programmed a series of readings by local writers, publishers and designers, which took place in the gallery’s shop-front entrance. That McDowell is a newcomer to Melbourne led her to examine the traces of the gallery’s history that many locals have, perhaps, overlooked simply because they are so familiar.
The histories revealed by the exhibition have curiously universal echoes. Lining the entrance stairway was an untitled series of photographs from 2010–12 by Georgian artist Otar Karalashvili, which document the hand-made notes that people looking for work attach to Tbilisi’s buildings and street lamps. Other pieces in the show also explored forms of labour. Allan Sekula’s Untitled Slide Sequence (1972/2011) is a series of 1970s black and white slides of employees ending their shift in an aerospace factory, while Harun Farocki’s film Workers Leaving the Factory (1995) interweaves footage from the first film by the Lumière brothers with other clips of workers exiting factory gates.
A number of past and present Gertrude artists engaged directly with the building’s inhabitants. At the top of the stairs, Agatha Gothe-Snape created a cosy den with comfortable chair, reading light and crocheted rug, where she and gallery invigilators read from texts that former studio artists nominated as having been influential during their residencies (An Uncertain Reader, 2014). Ash Kilmartin’s neon sign spells out OHN (2014) – the only remaining letters of the building’s original sign. It was illuminated as the last studio artist to leave the building turned it on, and then turned off by the first to arrive the next day.
Other works also drew attention to the fabric of the building. Nicholas Mangan’s A Division of time that neither begins nor ends here … (2014) is the finest of geological cores, drilled from the gallery and studios’ timber-and-masonite surfaces, and presented in a glass-fronted display case embedded into a corridor wall. Zarouhie Abdalian’s Simple Machines (2014), a series of small black lacquered wooden wedges, were placed on the floor, in ceiling cavities and in other unexpected spaces. Susan Jacobs re-assembled the vast conveyor belt that had lain untouched in storage at the rear of the building in the downstairs gallery: Conveyor (George Watts is a traitor) (2014) was a monument to redundant industry.
The exhibition’s apt title, ‘Nothing Beside Remains’, is a quote from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet ‘Ozymandias’ (1817), an ode to the ravages of time. Gertrude Contemporary will move to a new, as yet undecided, venue in 2016, in a location that hopefully is not too far from its original roots.
First published in Issue 167