+ Superpositions #3 Damiano Bertoli, 2019. Terrace of Ombra restaurant.

An Open Air Love Letter to Melbourne

An Open Air Love Letter To Melbourne | Robert Buckingham

Walking through the city during Melbourne’s first major lockdown in 2020, curators Robert Buckingham and Fiona Scanlan were deeply affected by the depressed state of city centre.

Their response was to create UPTOWN (15 December 2020–28 February 2021), a uniquely Melbourne initiative designed to reactivate the city and encourage people to look anew at the current state of the important connections Melbourne has with its visual artists.

 + Death of a Disco Dancer The Huxleys, 2020.

UPTOWN was a 24/7 open-air exhibition that re-imagined the streetscape as a large outdoor gallery. It featured artwork by twenty-six artists in vacant shops, on billboards, in laneways and in the windows of local businesses at the top end of Bourke Street, from Parliament House to Exhibition Street. Created in just two months, the project received massive support from the local art and design community and was made possible through a public/private partnership with City of Melbourne, local businesses, property owners and corporate sponsors.

The facade of the 19th-century Hotel Windsor was emblazoned with photographer Polly Borland’s portrait of Nick Cave in drag and drawings by Alasdair McLuckie. The windows of the dilapidated Job Warehouse fabric outlet were occupied by textile sculptures by Elizabeth Newman. A gigantic hoarding across the former Metro nightclub hosted a seminal image by Bill Henson of an ethereal young woman floating above a nocturnal skyline.

 + Untitled Bill Henson, 2000-20001. Installed on the exterior of the former Metro nightclub, photo: Simon Schluter.

The artists selected were all from Melbourne and the artworks addressed aspects of their relationship to the city. The Borland image of a gussied-up Cave, for instance, was as an ode to the generations of expatriated creatives who once watered at The Windsor: Borland and Cave both moved to Britain, following in the footsteps of Melbourne illuminati such as Barry Humphries, Germaine Greer and Leigh Bowery. But it was also a testimony to cities as sites of reinvention.

The large scale billboards by Henson, Damiano Bertoli and Kent Morris and an evocative laneway poster installation by Destiny Deacon contrasted with intimate interventions such as a video work by James Lynch amongst a bookshop window and cartoon-like drawings by Kenny Pittock in out of the way corners.

 + Man and Doll Colour Blinded and Dolly Eyes Destiny Deacon, 2005, 2020.

Finding the artworks placed throughout the street and how they changed from morning to night was part of the adventure. Vacant shops had after-dark screenings of photographs of 1980s nightclubs by John Gollings while installations by performance artists, The Huxleys recreated a dystopian disco with costumed mannequins, Louise Paramour responded to the joyful exuberance of Myer’s annual Christmas windows and Eugenia Lim questioned both the city’s history of failed public sculpture and its relationship with Asia.

 + Wikileaks dress and Joyful dress Elizabeth Newman, 2013. Installed in the windows of the former fabric warehouse, photo, John Betts .

The Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) was a key of supporter of the project and commissioned Kerrie Poliness to orchestrate a community drawing on the steps of Parliament House, at the top of Bourke Street. This saw 200 locals colour in Poliness’ intricate geometric pattern that cascaded down the grand staircase.

Apart from a dedicated website, another key initiative to help visitors navigate the exhibition was partnering with ZOME, a new AR wayfinding app. The artworks, artist interviews and local histories were available via a QR code or by download and now exist as a permanent on-site documentation of the project.

UPTOWN is an example of how the impact of COVID-19 inspired the curators to rethink the traditional exhibition formula and find new ways to engage with audiences. It showed the enormous goodwill that exists for collaborative projects. Most importantly it highlighted the importance of creating connections between visual artists, their urban environment and local businesses to rebuild cities as spaces for creative interaction and cultural production.  


1. The artists: Peter Atkins, Damiano Bertoli, Polly Borland, Danica Chappel, Su san Cohn, Destiny Deacon, Yanni Florence, John Gollings, Louise Hearman, Bill Henson, Janina Green, Lou Hubbard, Eugenia Lim, James Lynch, Alasdair McLuckie, Viv Miller, Kent Morris, Elizabeth Newman, Louise Paramor, Kenny Pittock, Kerrie Poliness, Steven Rhall, Elle Shimada, The Huxleys, Lisa Young, Constanze Zikos.

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