If It Moves, Exhibit It


What is it that makes a gallery different to a museum? As I walked through the current exhibition at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, I wondered if they had asked themselves that question.

There were other questions that nagged away at me too. What am I getting out of this and what have I learned? What exactly is a "film-related exhibition" and what is it for? Can such a thing have any meaning in an art gallery, and if so, what kind of exhibits should it display, remembering that film is about movement? And is this current exhibition meant to be for a museum, an art gallery or educational institution? Or is it, as it seemed to me, a mish-mash of all three?

The six-year-old Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne is an innovative cultural institution that, as its name suggests, has a national importance. Few would dispute there are some things it does very well, including curated film screening programs and the provision of hands-on educational facilities.

But its film-related exhibitions can be a worry. I missed last year’s exhibition devoted to the great Iranian and Spanish directors Abbas Kiarostami and Victor Erice, which certainly sounded terrific, but a recent visit to its current exhibition on movie production design, Setting the scene — Film Design from Metropolis to Australia, raises some serious questions about what the centre thinks it is doing.

As a Sydney-based cinephile I was jealous when ACMI launched as part of the grand Federation Square project in October 2002. Attempts during the 1990s at creating a NSW cinematheque attached to Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art had come to nothing. Victorian cineastes not only managed to get their long-nurtured project off the ground, they expanded the concept to create a multimedia centre reflecting the explosion of moving images in the new century, from cinema and TV to computers and beyond. This of course posed its own challenges communicating ACMI’s purpose to the public is harder than, say, explaining that the Ian Potter Centre (the other major artistic institution housed by Federation Square) is a gallery devoted to Australian art.

Add to this the traditional reluctance to accept that cinema can be a legitimate artform, and you had an explosion of cynicism in the Melbourne media over ACMI’s financial problems (as if artistic institutions were ever profitable), poor attendances and various alleged managerial problems.

The arrival of new director Tony Sweeney (from the UK’s National Media museum in Bradford) in December 2004 seems to have brought a more settled period in which the institution has been able to start bragging about the popularity of its exhibitions. The first notable blockbuster, devoted to legendary director Stanley Kubrick, was in 2006, and the show the following year on US animation powerhouse Pixar went through the roof.

For the first half hour of my recent Friday afternoon visit I seemed to be the only non-employee in the screen gallery, a huge basement space converted from a disused underground train station located beneath the Federation Square edifice. But perhaps the paucity of visitors was hardly surprising.

A handful of film clips were projected onto the walls of the darkened space around themes such as "labyrinths", "stages" and "transit spaces". Nothing wrong with that. The trouble is that such an exhibition needs to constantly address the question "how is production design related to a film’s meanings and its emotional effects?". With only a few exceptions, it seems to have been forgotten here. I acknowledge that ACMI provides an "audio" tour, which may have added some much-needed depth. I also appreciate that it has been running a program of film screenings and public discussion to complement this exhibition. But an exhibition must also be able to stand without its bells and whistles.

Most disappointing of all is the fetishistic reliance this exhibition and others like it have upon underwhelming physical artefacts. Here is an actual model of an airport terminal used in constructing the set for Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal (a film that hardly anyone saw and even fewer think has any aesthetic significance). And over here we have an actual room fitted out in 1940s Australiana for Baz Luhrmann’s Australia.

The Kubrick exhibition had similar problems "featuring over 1000 objects from Kubrick’s archives", as its publicity dully boasted. I get that this is a monkey head and a space helmet used in 2001: a Space Odyssey. And…? Removed from the context of the film, where they held enormous power, these objects became not more, but less interesting. They tell us nothing about the meanings in and significance of Kubrick’s films.

Such exhibition practice is not worthy of any institution that lays claim to a mantle of artistic seriousness. The idea that a dead assemblage of plywood from a film set or a series of sketches will magically spring to life and exert a special aura when displayed is mistaken. This paraphernalia does not belong in a gallery space. They are static, lifeless chunks of memorabilia, mere fetish objects intended to trigger nostalgia. Unlike the paintings and sculptures in an art gallery there is no authentic art object that springs to life before the eyes. A prop is a prop is a prop.

This type of uninspiring approach is not exclusive to ACMI. The core of setting the scene has been imported from an exhibition curated by the Berlin Film Museum. I was singularly unimpressed by my 2006 visit to this German institution, where visitors are expected to gasp with delight not so much at the glamour of a 1930s dress but at the fact that it had been worn by Marlene Dietrich. But at least the Berlin institution knows what it is: a museum. It doesn’t claim to be a gallery.

When I talk with Sweeney it quickly becomes clear the ACMI director is aware of these issues, at one point commenting astutely: "Take a dynamic medium like film, then take Marilyn Monroe’s dress and put it in a museum where is the vitality of Marilyn Monroe?" He has the grace to acknowledge that, had ACMI put together the current exhibition from scratch, it would have done so in a "more integrated" manner.

The day after my visit I spent a couple of hours examining the permanent art collection at the nearby National Gallery of Victoria on St Kilda Road. The level of curatorial care and the standard of contextualisation was far superior in every single room. By viewing the exhibits and reading the curatorial notes on the wall I learned something from almost every exhibit. Items of medieval art, an area in which I had previously had zero interest, came to life. With a few well-chosen words the gallery notes deepened and expanded my understanding and appreciation.

But then, the NGV is an art gallery. When it started out, this is what ACMI’s "screen gallery" was trying to be. Its exhibitions of digital art, its moving image installations, sparked the imagination. And to its credit ACMI appears to be still exploring these areas, with exhibitions like the recent one devoted to musician and sound artist Christian Marclay, and a major retrospective starting this month on abstract filmmaker Len Lye.

The centre is also creating a new space to be devoted to a permanent exhibition on the moving image, much like a smaller version of London’s defunct Museum of the Moving Image but with one crucial difference: its content will not be static, but will keep being refreshed, inviting repeat visits. From the way Sweeney talks, it has the potential to be a rich and layered exhibition complete with bold use of immersive technology and interactivity.

It certainly sounds like a major improvement. Let’s wait and see.

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