Smith Street’s Paterson Building sits somewhere between Fitzroy’s working class past and its redeeming present as the heartland of the Melbourne art world. The former 19th century furniture warehouse has been part of the area’s evolution from an industrial hive populated by factories and silos, to a creative enclave struggling to define itself against waves of gentrification.
It is not surprising then that the Paterson Building is home to Dear Patti Smith, a non-profit artist-run initiative and contemporary art space driven by the possibilities of transience and the process of becoming.
Any confusion between the space’s playful name and this lofty-sounding agenda is dispensed when speaking to founding members Marika Nilsen and Anna Gilby. The pair, along with fellow artist Brandon Hocking, architect Ross Brewin and photographers Ash Kerr and Simon Nicol, established the gallery as a ‘speculation’ space for emerging creatives and an alternative to the traditional Melbourne exhibition circuit.
Ringing the doorbell to the Paterson Building and walking up the stairs to Dear Patti Smith is itself an oddly speculative experience. Despite the grimy Smith Street sunlight, the space feels elegant and expansive – unusual for a part of town associated with tight, mixed-use living and smaller, cult galleries.
“We wanted to give a professional environment to the developing artist. It’s sometimes difficult to bridge that gap between leaving an institution and getting shows, finding yourself with an established practice,” offers Nilsen, an RMIT sculpture graduate and West Space committee member whose own practice has taken her to Utrecht and Berlin.
“We’re trying to see if there is some sort of median there, a place for honest critique.”
The gallery was launched in August last year and has hosted the Text Camp Reader, a publishing project spearheaded by the Next Wave Festival. But it is through a series of three-day shows, opening every month from February to November, that it hopes to explore its unique missive.
“We’re all quite interested in the temporal aspects to work,” says Nilsen with quiet excitement. “We wanted to offer the three-day show as a point of difference to the ordinary two, three, four week show – in terms of presenting an affordable, flexible option to young and developing artists but also to create immediacy and transience and the opportunity this presents.”
Dear Patti’s curatorial focus spans visual art, performance, installation, video and text works and reflects the dappled background of its founders. However, the space’s ambitious approach to programming – an attempt to recreate the sense of immediacy and risk sparked by happenings and live artworks – is what sets it apart from the city’s art establishment.
The first show for the year opens this Thursday and playfully invokes this fascination with temporality. ¡INSTRUCCION. PIÑATA. DESTROZAR uses the piñata, and its surrounding rituals, to explore transformation and change. During the first stage of the project, volunteers were invited to build a piñata containing a memento from the past they wish to leave behind; these then form the basis for an installation by Michelle Barrow and Sarah Gordon. Thursday’s exhibition will see these piñatas destroyed, in celebration of the year ahead and the power of new beginnings. The show will also feature works by artists Lachlan Anthony, Lucy Farmer and Winsome Spiller.
The gallery’s proportions and sprawling rooftop terrace offer the ideal canvas for experimentation and are equally suited to the short-term projects that will run alongside the main program.
“Dear Patti is unique in terms of the amount of space there is, in terms of having an outdoor space,” says Gilby, an artist who explores her spatial preoccupations through video installation and large-form sculptural works.
Though the collective may share a past as tenants of the building, there is nothing possessive about their passion.
“We’re open to allowing the space to evolve,” says Nilsen of the initiative’s refreshingly democratic approach. “We always wanted the space to be more than just us.”
¡INSTRUCCION. PIÑATA. DESTROZAR opens at Dear Patti Smith this Thursday, February 3, 6-8pm.