Turning to the streets – art in COVID times

From pop up galleries in empty shops, using trams and traffic barriers, billboards and pocket urban parks and laneways - Sydney and Melbourne are flourishing outside 'the white cube' of the conventional gallery, post COVID.
Turning to the streets – art in COVID times Destiny Deacon's work at Windsor Place, Melbourne for Uptown. Image supplied.

Visual Arts Writer

Wednesday 13 January, 2021

Many of us are still nervous, when it comes to packed theatres or galleries, despite our desire to support artists.

Both the City of Sydney and City of Melbourne are accommodating that trepidation with a roll out of public art works and commissioned projects that enliven urban spaces, while considering how we might engage with art in this new normal.

The City of Sydney has commissioned four temporary artworks to breathe life into underused city spaces in a response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and which also address issues such as communities, urbanism and sustainability.


Melbourne has taken a more pop-up gallery and billboard approach with several projects, such as the Uptown Bourke Street Festival, Tram Art commissions, and utilising traffic barricades and tunnels in partnership with PHOTO2021.

Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore said of their four new commissions, which are part of the City Art Laneways program: ‘These four artworks are part of our plan to revitalise the city centre, support local businesses and artists, and create jobs across the summer period.’

Many of us are now returning to our place of work. ‘These [art] works will transform many people’s daily experience of our city and add an element of surprise, humour and intrigue,’ added Moore.

The four artists were granted up to $50,000 each to see their ideas come to life, projects that will remain on show until July.

Read: Billboard art reimagined – the new prize taking creativity to the streets

Immersive and 'thinking' projects for Sydney

Leading the Sydney projects is the collaborative environmental group, Dirt Witches, who have created a sidewalk forest made of over 30 native species, which recreate the layers of a natural ecosystem. It is situated along Barlow Street.

'This project aligns with local and international movements to establish fast growing, dense and biodiverse plantings,’ said Barlow Street Forest project curator Vivienne Webb.  ‘As artworkers and activists the six of us have come together from different disciplines to try and maximise our environmental impact.’

Image courtesy Dirt Witches Collective and City of Sydney.

A series of public talks by scientists, poets, academic and environmentalists will be held while the artwork is on display.

With a similar environmental twang, artist Rochelle Haley responds to the mood of the weather with her suspended installation Ever Sun on Wilmot Street.

‘The work is a reminder of the cycles of life as constant and spectacular as the rising and setting of the sun,’ Haley said.

‘It offers an inspiring space to walk and reflect, feel nurtured by colour and light, and be together in public, sensitively, in a way that reminds us of the resilience, necessity and beauty of art.’

After many having faced lockdown at home, this is like an elixir to renewed life in 2021.

The third project is by Katy Plummer – an interactive experience of a fortune-telling video installation on Abercrombie Lane, while Adam Norton has created a series of provocative and prophetic slogans drawing on archival materials from apocalyptic sci-fi films, pop culture and counterculture. They take the form of giant badges mounted on lamp posts on Barrack Street. 

What Melbourne is doing to reactivate

Outdoor galleries make sense right now. Uptown is a new project along Melbourne’s Bourke Street that matches 26 contemporary artists with vacant shops, restaurants, store windows, building exteriors and laneways.

Curated by Fiona Scanlan and Robert Buckingham, Uptown is supported by the City of Melbourne.

Describing it as an 'art walkabout', Scanlan and Buckingham said in a statement: ‘We aimed to create a very public exhibition outside the traditional gallery environment and engage with the world; an art adventure that responds to the scale, history, color, personalities, and architecture of the top of Bourke Street.’

‘Uptown is a very local, very spontaneous, very people-focused creative project designed to reflect this moment in time and the importance of friendship and relationships,’ they added.

Among the projects are: The Huxleys with a pop-up disco installation, a massive 17m by 9m billboard featuring a classic Bill Henson work, a community drawing project by Kerrie Poliness, Kent Morris’ Never Alone billboard work commissioned by ACCA last year, Louise Hearman's window paintings at Grossi Florentino, among other projects.

Bill Henson's work on Bourke Street Melbourne for Uptown. Image supplied.

Guy Grossi (Restaurateur, Grossi Florentino) said: 'What's exciting about the UPTOWN exhibition is how it shows artists and local businesses working together and using their creativity to create something beautiful and meaningful for Melbourne.'

Artist Destiny Deacon (pictured top) added: 'I’ve lived in Melbourne since I was a nipper and Melbourne’s been the background, visible or not, to virtually all of my work. Most of my models are Melbourne people or at least lived here long enough to pose for me. Most of the dolls come from local second-hand shops.'

Deacon currently has a major exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, making this project a nice stitch across indoor and outdoor spaces.

Uptown: an art exhibition about our city is a free and can be viewed 24/7 until 28 February.

Read: 9 billboard art and outdoor interventions thanks to COVID

Melbourne Art Trains, Image supplied.

And while Melbourne has long commissioned artists to paint its famous trams, in 2021 it is turning its Arts Trams initiative entirely over to First Nations artists, in a first.

‘This shift to celebrate and support First Peoples artists with the iconic program is a recognition of our stories and deep connections to the city and that reach out to the regions,’ said Art Trams curator and RISING Artistic Associate, Kimberley Moulton (Yorta Yorta).

‘The representation of First People’s culture and voice in public art and celebration of the cultural strength of community is something I am passionate about,’ continued Moulton.

In 2021 there will be six trams that will be unveiled; four will be allocated to artists who identify as Traditional Owners of Victoria and two trams to First Peoples artists who live and work in Victoria. Expressions of Interest are open until 1 February.

Also playing off transport networks, the PHOTO 2021 International Festival of Photography has partnered with Melbourne’s Metro Tunnel Creative Program to present one of the largest outdoor public photographic exhibitions ever seen in Australia.

From 18 February 2021, over 500 metres of photographic art will be displayed on construction hoardings across Melbourne, as part of the wider PHOTO 2021 program of exhibitions and events.

The collaboration will present works by 18 artists from across the world at seven different locations. Each project responds to the central theme of the 2021 Festival, The Truth. 

Organisers described some of the projects: 'Amanda Williams response to the impact of climate change and urban development on natural habitats and animal life; and the experiences of Victoria’s healthcare workers are examined in a collaboration between Phoebe Powell and Kate Disher-Quill.

'In a time when travel is heavily restricted, audiences will be taken to faraway lands, including imagery from Swiss duo Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs epic land journey from Switzerland to Mongolia in a 1987 Toyota Land Cruiser; Malagasy photographer Emmanuelle Andrianjafy’s visual exploration of the port city of Dakar; and British photographer George Georgiou’s photographs from 24 American cities of people lining the streets to watch parades.'

This is the first time the Metro Tunnel Creative Program has invited one festival to curate works across each of its construction sites.

PHOTO 2021 Artistic Director, Elias Redstone said: ‘By working collaboratively with the entire photographic sector as well as partners such as Metro Tunnel we are able to create a Festival of scale that hasn’t been seen in Australia for the photographic community.’

Again, as with all these projects, they can be viewed at all hours of the day and are free.

About the author

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