Old Gaol now a riot of colour as city landmarks get a makeover

Old Melbourne Gaol doesn’t spring to mind as a joyous place but this week it has been transformed by massive artworks made up of thousands of flowers in bloom.

It’s part of Photo 2022, a three-week-long festival of photography, and the gaol is one of many venues around Melbourne to feature unexpected imagery.

Photography will feature everywhere from billboards over Fed Square to tiny laneways in the city, to Docklands and Parliament House to Prahran Market. Works by locals Christian Thompson and Atong Atem, as well as international stars including Cindy Sherman, Gillian Wearing and Helmut Newton, are among the headline attractions.

The stunning flower walls, which use native flowers as well as the artist’s face and hands, were created during lockdown by Thompson, who says they capture many of the motifs from his 21-year career. A Bidjara/Chinese-Australian contemporary artist, his work explores identity, cultural hybridity and history. Historically I was wearing the flowers and now it’s like the flowers are wearing me. I’m immersed in the constellation.

There is also a sound work as part of Thompson’s gaol takeover. Obviously it’s a site with a loaded, problematic history, says Photo 2022’s artistic director Elias Redstone, who also came up with the idea for the event.

The idea emerged when Redstone arrived in Melbourne from London and discovered the incredible photographic and visual arts community here, the artists, the curators, the collectors, as well as all the options for study of photography.

Anywhere else in the world this would be celebrated but here it seemed to fly under the radar, he says.

The event is deliberately ambitious, he says, and involves everyone from our biggest institutions such as the NGV and regional galleries through to artist-run spaces. We wanted to make sure it would represent the full ecosystem, he says. The aim was always to use Melbourne as a canvas, as a backdrop for the work.

Another priority was to commission work, especially after the pandemic.

Spring Street has been taken over from top to bottom, says Redstone. All around the old Treasury building are images by James Henry, who photographed Kulin nation leaders and the next generation of their mob on Country. Henry has also interviewed elders in conversation with the younger generation, which visitors can listen to by scanning a QR code.

A mural featuring four men sits outside 99 Spring Street called Men Do Not Cry, a striking piece by Richmond Kobla Dido, whose work looks at stereotypes surrounding men – especially black men – and their emotions.

Dido is a young Sydney-based photographer, who moved to Australia from London and was shocked by the lack of representation of people of colour in the media. I went to a few events and saw that we are here, and we are living, we are having lots of different experiences, he says, adding that he used regular people rather than models for the shoot.

Atong Atem was commissioned to create a new series, on show near the old Treasury building, while at Parliament Gardens, Scotty So has created three different installations inspired by Asian paintings and chinoiserie, reinterpreted through his queer gaze.

British photographer Jenny Lewis’ project One Hundred Years features photos of 100 people from Hackney, London, from the ages one to 100. It will be matched with a local project created as part of the Metro Tunnel Creative program, shown in Parkville, with portraits by local photographers of people from across Victoria.

opens on April 29 and many venues will open late for gallery night, with artist talks and other events over the weekend including precinct tours where major works are installed.

A cultural guide to going out and loving your city. .

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