First Floor: swansong for a scene maker

Lucinda Strahan

David Rosetzky

David Rosetzky

David Rosetzky

The artworks almost out-numbered the crowd for a change at the massive swansong exhibition for Melbourne’s celebrated and much-loved 1st Floor Artist and Writers Space, which shut its doors in November after 8 years. The final exhibition featured 49 works from artists associated with the gallery, an impressive collection of some of Melbourne’s top emerging and established contemporary artists.

A tiny oil on glass by David Jolly (Mt Hotham) hung beside a framed wallpaper panel, Sowa by David Noonan, next to a little untitled Tony Clark. Sharon Goodwin’s 2 decapitated Ronnies (Now it’s goodbye from me and it’s goodbye from him) looked down on Jacinta Schreuder’s Video stills while one of Kate Ellis’ (untitled) wax poodle paws pointed at David Rosetzky’s recent coloured pencil video still Everything.

It was a remarkable show not only in the number and calibre of artists involved, but also because it was a retrospective survey of 1st Floor’s art and it was all so different. The eclectic collection was an evocation of a certain critical lament that contemporary art’s field of practice has lost coherent direction, instead fanning into a multitude of ways and meanings, ever more individual and personal.

American critic Lane Relyea’s succinct statement is particularly relevant to 1st Floor: “We’d like to imagine our practices as unified by social rather than institutional or discursive forces. We don’t read postmodernist theory any more, and we don’t critique institutions, what we do is hang out.” (Relyea, ‘It’s the End Of Art Criticism as We Know It (And the Art World Feels Fine),’ lecture, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, October 10, 2001).

We certainly did a lot of hanging out at 1st Floor. In the absence of any one formal or stylistic trademark, the one characteristic that will identify 1st Floor’s project in the future is the scene that developed around the Fitzroy gallery. 1st Floor’s fortnightly openings quickly became a fashionable hang-out where artists and writers mixed with designers, architects and DJs. Criticised more than once as being ‘cliquey’, the scene was not a vacuous add-on, but rather strategically cultivated through an exhibition program which from the outset aimed to extend the definitions and audience for contemporary art.

Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces director Max Delany says, “I wouldn’t undervalue the critical or theoretical role it has played because in fact it was quite a sophisticated program that was certainly interested in formal practices and…in the politics of representation, but it was very much understanding of late 20th century practice.”

Opening in 1994, 1st Floor had an aggressive mission to put postmodern mantras into practice. Through collapsing binaries between art and life and bleeding boundaries between creative fields in exhibitions such as the yearly Fashion Festival which attracted hundreds of people, 1st Floor’s practitioners mined the ever-more visible space between art and culture that emerged in the late 20th century. Shows like 2000’s Mayonnaise where people could visit the gallery, read magazines and listen to records, encouraged viewers to examine the crossover between fashion, lifestyle and consumer culture through art.

“[The 1st Floor artists] were probably as much interested in the reception of art as they were [in] the production of art…they were interested in how art was perceived and understood by different audiences in different contexts and also how different people identify with cultural practice and position themselves culturally,” Delany says.

The successful courtship of wider audiences produced a sophisticated and hybrid creative sensibility that had not previously existed in Melbourne. As the gallery’s founding members and exhibiting artists’ practices continue to develop and are canonised through critique and private and museum collection, the wider cultural effects of hanging out and making the scene at 1st Floor will linger in the cultural fabric of inner city Melbourne. Many non-art projects—businesses, bars, fashion design—continue to crop up in the niche between art and mass culture carved out by the 1st Floor crowd who stood around smoking and drinking VB every second Wednesday.

While we may now take it for granted, it’s worth reflecting on the 8 years during which 1st Floor found and developed a real-live, new cultural space.

1st Floor Artist and Writers Space Final Exhibition, Nov 6-30 2002

RealTime issue #52 Dec-Jan 2002 pg. 30

© Lucinda Strahan; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2002