Cover image of the review
Meredith Turnbull, _Closer_ 2018, installation view, Ian Potter Museum of Art, the University of Melbourne. Photographer: Christian Capurro.

Meredith Turnbull: Closer

21 Jul 2018
The Ian Potter Museum of Art 27 Mar - 1 Jul 2018

Meredith Turnbull's Closer was a two-part exhibition that presented objects from the University of Melbourne collection alongside photographic prints of those same objects. Spanning two galleries of the Ian Potter Museum, Closer acted as part of Turnbull's ongoing investigation into the blurred boundaries between craft and art with a capital 'A,' insofar as she questioned the status of the collection of functional objects both within the real space and then within the photograph. The objects were arranged sometimes in collections, such as a group of Czechoslovakian paperweights, but not in any particular historical manner. A collection of British pickle jars from the 1880s sat alongside a Chinese vase dating back to 1750 and an 'Etruscan bowl' from the contemporary Melbourne collective DAMP, dated 2013. Turnbull's photographs, each depicting one item from the selected collection pieces, lined the walls of the gallery. Set against background of bright monochromes or draped fabric, the photographs forced viewers to slowly experience the entire exhibition; viewers could not help but begin to match the object with its photograph.

Meredith Turnbull, Closer 2018, installation view, Ian Potter Museum of Art, the University of Melbourne. Photographer: Christian Capurro.

Turnbull showed absolute respect to the many makers who had crafted these pieces—the bulk of whom were unknown. A lengthy (albeit somewhat difficult to follow) twelve-page room sheet labelled each and every one of the items with as much provenance information as possible—this process, too, demonstrated the haphazard past collecting styles of museums, insofar as many items had very little information. As a matter of fact, the feeling that these pieces elicited in the viewer was unexpected. I was deeply moved, for instance, by a small wooden sugar scoop by David Innes dated 1975–6. Displayed on Turnbull's low chipboard table, and affixed by a simple metal fastener, its existence as the product of skill and labour became breathtakingly apparent. Certainly, the artist appears to have been drawn to objects from the 1970s, a period that, most could agree, was not the height of objects of aesthetic value. Yet, Turnbull revealed that even these pieces, such as a 1971 garish blue stoneware urn by Alan Peascod, can also be beautiful despite their dated style.

Aside from investigating the lines (or lack thereof) between art and craft, there were actually more interesting micro-concepts at play in Closer that gave it nuance. Closer honed in on the notion of the museum as a repository of lost histories and skills, bringing together thousands of accumulated years of knowledge and craftsmanship. And, in so doing, Closer refused the Wunderkammer binary that museum collections are regularly presented as. While, traditionally, these objects might have been displayed in vitrines, here they existed in the open air, without a barrier between them and the view.


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Meredith Turnbull, Closer 2018, installation view, Ian Potter Museum of Art, the University of Melbourne. Photographer: Christian Capurro.

Turnbull also built tables to house the collection objects. With their multi-coloured legs and semi-circle structure, they might have been twee on their own. But when in contact with the historical pieces, a strange sense of historical levelling out—an ahistoricity—took place; it was as though the history couched in terms of the artefact and the zero age of the contemporary platforms they were on cancelled each other out. No doubt, there was a utopian impulse that ran through Turnbull's exhibition. But I don't care if you think utopian is a dirty word; here I use it positively. While there maybe is no such thing as a world where objects are all given equal significance—where a simple wooden bowl is seen as just as valuable as a Roman jug—surely we can argue, at the very least, that one of art's functions is to clear the space for seeing things differently, even if, in the real world, that microcosm cannot materialise. This was the strength of Turnbull's exhibition: to use art to propose new ways of existence, as 'model' not as 'fact'. This, of course, is not dissimilar to the rhetoric of avantgarde artists, only here Turnbull looks back into the past to create her utopian vision.

Artists: Meredith Turnbull