The shape of things to come

‘The shape of things to come’ could not be a more apt title for the inaugural Buxton Contemporary exhibition. With this phrase, borrowed from Benjamin Armstrong’s alchemic linocuts printed in metallic pigment, curator Melissa Keys establishes a sentiment that addresses the conceptual parameters of the 77 works on display, along with the role this show plays in foregrounding the journey of Melbourne’s newest institution; past, present and future.

Destiny Deacon & Virginia Fraser, Forced into images, 2001, still, Super 8 film transferred to video, DVD format, 9:00 minutes, silent. Courtesy the artists, Roslyn Oxley9, Sydney and Buxton Contemporary, Melbourne

Buxton Contemporary is the outcome of the gift to the University of Melbourne by Michael and Janet Buxton, comprising predominantly Australian artworks from the 1980s to 2017. The couple began collecting in 1995, inspired by the philanthropy they witnessed in America in 1990, and later by the focused collection donated by Loti and Victor Smorgon to the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia in 1995. The Collection has been carefully crafted over the past 28 years with the defined intention to eventually donate the holdings for the benefit of public access. Under the ‘Museums and Collections’ umbrella, the 354 works will be transferred to the university over the coming five years, accompanied by additional donations towards the construction and operation of the Buxton Contemporary museum. Joining Keys as the Director is former Australian War Memorial Head of Art, Ryan Johnston.

Buxton Contemporary has taken shape with a design by iconic architectural firm Fender Katsalidis that transformed pre-existing structures on the Victorian College of the Arts campus. The galleries are pitched to balance varying demands of scale and medium and the layout of the internal exhibition spaces allows for the perfect slow reveal, both of the architecture and art. Careful slices of natural light warm the edges of the cool spaces and operate as beacons of transition – in the stairwell to the upper level, and between the gallery and the future education space.

Keys, like all involved with the project, has been burning the candle at both ends, yet when we meet there is nothing but infectious excitement in her demeanour. Keys talked through six broadly thematic rooms of ‘The shape of things to come’ with reference to tiny images in the foam-core architectural model, walking her fingers through the galleries to mark out the connections between works and artists from across the thirty-odd years. The show will be accompanied by a handsome catalogue with three academic essays alongside Keys’ informed introduction. ‘The shape of things to come’, Keys explains in her text, ‘sets out to trace a constellation of ideas around the role and agency of the artist in culture, society and politics,’ and has brought together works of art and their makers with categories such as ‘storyteller, visionary, witness, dissenter, foreseer and imaginer of different possibilities and futures.’

Jess Johnson & Simon Ward, Whol Why Wurld, 2017, MilkyzWae, video stil, soundtrack by Andrew Clarke. Courtesy the artists, Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney, Jack Hanley Gallery, New York and Buxton Contemporary, Melbourne

The exhibition resists a chronological hang, as the collection was never intended to be an exhaustive survey of the era. However, one of the earliest works in the exhibition – a 1991 iteration of Peter Tyndall’s long-term project A Person Looks At A Work of Art/someone looks at something… – highlights the consciously reflective and conceptual tone of both collection and show. As Keys’ essay notes, Tyndall sought to disrupt the act of looking to challenge ‘the art system and individual audience members to be conscious of their position within the experience of art, and implicitly, within wider society.’ Further works underpinned by the social politics of looking include Juan Davila’s ‘most recognisable and infamous provocations’ with the painting Art i$ Homosexual (1983-86), Destiny Deacon and Virigina Fraser’s early video consideration of the persistence of racial stereotypes in Forced into Images (2001), and Daniel Boyd’s richly loaded tributes to Indigenous scientific knowledge in cartography, oceanography and meteorology in Untitled (TI1) (2015).

As the exhibition title suggests, many works in this show have been selected for their allusion to the future, helping to foreshadow the latent potential of the new institution. Jess Johnson and Simon Ward’s digital installation Whol Why Wurld (2017) – the most recent work in the collection – holds references to what Keys describes as ‘portals or cosmic gateways into animated possible worlds and futures.’ The exhibition will test the waters for the institution as it finds its points of difference in the Southbank arts precinct, and the sector more broadly.

Buxton Contemporary launches with some key tenets of the original Michael Buxton Collection; primarily the support of leading practitioners who have made a significant contribution to contemporary art. The immediate future for the museum is however – at the time of writing – more loosely slated, with proposals to develop further focus collection exhibitions and critical surveys of artists, to establish dialogues between international and Australian practices, to broaden the holdings with an Australasian focus, and offer strong public programming. It is an exciting task ahead for the growing team as they continue to articulate the shape of things to come.

Michael Buxton. Photograph: James Greer

Buxton Contemporary
9 March to 24 June, 2018
Melbourne