If you’ve walked down Fitzroy street you’ll have seen it – the artwork that completely covers Café Di Stasio, cocooning the restaurant and adjacent bar. Striking, chalk-white sketches leaping out from the black, stopping passersby in their tracks.
It appeared in late November, on one of those blustery, wet spring days that would have seen most other construction projects shelved until conditions were more conducive to being outside with power tools.
But for the people behind this installation, a bit of weather wasn’t going to get in the way of a celebration. And make no mistake, this piece of work is a celebration.
“When I saw these drawings, I just loved them,” remembers Ronnie Di Stasio. “There was art, ideas, and the shape! I mean, they’re my kind of shapes. I love symmetry, I love raw, I don’t want fuss.”
The drawings Di Stasio is referring to – and which have turned the façade of his restaurant and bar into an open-air gallery, were Barrie Marshall’s sketches for a new Australian pavilion at the Venice Biennale. As part of architecture firm Denton Corker Marshall’s entry into the design competition for a permanent Australian pavilion, the sketches helped judges decide to give DCM a license to create a new chapter in Australia’s international art and design story.
The Venice Biennale is one of the world’s most important art exhibitions. Thanks to a Phillip Cox-designed temporary pavilion, Australian art has had a presence there since 1988, but the 2015 Biennale marks the first permanent home for Australian work, making us one of just 29 countries to have a national presence at the world’s oldest art event.
“A small percentage of the population is aware Australia is getting a new pavilion, but on an international scale it really is important,” says Mallory Wall, Di Stasio’s restaurant manager. “When you get someone who doesn’t know anything about it and you explain the story of the Biennale, the pavilion, its role in Australian art – it’s a feelgood thing. Plus, this is the first 21st Century building in the Giardini gardens.”
“I wanted to make sure it wasn’t overlooked. It really is important,” Di Stasio continues. While he’s keen to stress the importance of DCM’s new pavilion, he’s less keen to talk up his own role in bringing it to life.
Di Stasio has a long association with Australia’s presence at the Venice Biennale. The first pavilion opened in 1988, the same year he founded his eponymous restaurant on Fitzroy Street, and of all Di Stasio’s passions, the marriage of the best elements of Italian and Australian culture is perhaps the one that drives him. It’s an idea he describes as "Italianality", an ever-evolving concept that draws on his heritage as both a Melburnian and an Italian. And Australia’s pavilion in Venice captured it perfectly. When it became clear the temporary pavilion had outlived its purpose, Di Stasio – determined to ensure a place for Australian art in Venice – sponsored an ideas competition to start the conversation to replace it. This led to the Australia Council formalizing a 2011 competition that led to Denton Corker Marshall’s design being selected, and, finally, built.
“As much as art should be centre stage, every national pavilion is itself an exhibit,” wrote Deyan Sudjic in The Monthly, when the winning design was first announced. The building certainly fits that bill. With Melbourne Museum, the Sydney Museum and Australian embassies in Tokyo, Beijing and Jakarta in their portfolio, perhaps only DCM had the confidence, knowledge and inspiration to create such a bold and deceptively simple design. With its exterior of black granite, it has been described as a white box within a black box, but such explanations don’t begin to do it justice. Needless to say, there is nothing else like it in the Giardini gardens.
“It is not for the faint hearted,” agrees Di Stasio. “But it’s Australian architecture at its peak. And people are drawn to this,” he says, gesturing to the work outside his restaurant. As if on cue, a smiling Robert Kirby, co-executive chairman and CEO of Village Roadshow, knocks on the window, then pops his head around the door to tell Di Stasio how much he enjoys the installation, and how much he enjoyed the party thrown to launch it.
After years of work, and with the new pavilion well on track for its unveiling at the 2015 Biennale, it was clear that a party was in order. And not just any party – a gathering of art cognoscenti from across the country. Kirby and his wife Mem joined Sir James and Lady Gobbo, outgoing director of Heide Museum of Modern Art Jason Smith, DCM’s John Denton, Barrie Marshall and a host of carefully selected friends to toast the new pavilion.
But while the party would be invite only, Di Stasio felt that everyone needed to be able to share in this Australian design success story, and set to work on a new commission.
“Let’s dress up the restaurant, wrap it in the pavilion to put it into the public conscious, and have everyone aware of it,” Di Stasio says.
To do this, he enlisted friend, colleague and graphic designer David Pidgeon. “This is the second collegamento with David Pidgeon. We’ve been working with each other for 13 years, so we’re in each other’s heads. He understands me, we finish each other’s sentences,” Di Stasio smiles. “I had an idea of what I wanted, I didn’t want it to be token, I wanted it to be substantial. It had to act as its own art installation. It’s not just a poster, it had to take over, which David was able to achieve.”
Despite the success of the installation, it’s not to everyone’s tastes. “Someone the other night ran in and said to one of my waiters, ‘I’ve been here 30 years. I fucken hate it,” Ronnie laughs. “And that’s good too. It’s not mainstream. If you had a football coach signing autographs in here you’d have a queue around the block.”
“I don’t want to claim anything on my own,” Di Stasio continues. “It would be great if the pavilion was celebrated in other parts of Australia, in any shape or form. Have a picnic in the Botanic Gardens, anything. But the story will continue. Instead of opening another restaurant, I think Di Stasio will continue doing things like this. This is not the end, this installation.”
The installation will be up until May 2015.