Rewind: Universal Pictures

By Bridget Crone

Myfanwy Macleod, My Idea of Fun, 1977. Universal Pictures, Melbourne International Biennale, installation view, 1999. Courtesy ACCA Archive

I’ve been thinking a lot about spectres recently, principally about the power of images to remain long after they’ve been overlooked or perhaps forgotten. Talking with many different people about their memories of cinema, I am struck by the force and immediacy of recollection, as if the past lives alongside and inside our present rather than consigned to some other place-time.

The Canadian Pavilion presented at ACCA as part of the Melbourne International Biennial has this effect by firstly evoking the whirlwind energy that was the Biennial itself, and, secondly, the body-memory of my passage through the Botanic Gardens to the modest building that then housed the gallery. After countless visits, it remains the same – traversing (usually hurrying across) grass that is sometimes wet, sometimes strewn with leaves, sometimes, of course, dry and springy.

For a month in 1999, ACCA was hard to miss. Surrounded by makeshift signs and flags, this was alternatively a so-called pet cemetery and advertising for a changing program of screenings taking place inside. Curated by Kitty Scott, Universal Pictures was at once lively, full of stuff and full-on but always entertaining. According to Scott, the title articulated the ‘universalising tendency’ through which the ‘local is replaced by generic locations drawn from the realm of popular culture’. ([i]) Universal pictures in other words.

Myfanwy Macleod, My Idea of Fun, 1977. Universal Pictures, Melbourne International Biennale, installation view, 1999. Courtesy ACCA Archive

Many will remember seeing Geoffrey Farmer’s intricate and beguiling installation (Leaves of Grass, 2012) at the last documenta13. A long table of puppet-like figures cut from copies of Life Magazine, it was a work that confounded hierarchies of scale, space and distance – a work you could get stuck in. For the Canadian Pavilion (back in 1999), Farmer’s work Haunted 3.5 (From Hanging Rock to Coopers Creek to Gallipoli also includes Poltergeist) included a table of tiny tinfoil sculptures alongside videos and other ‘manufactured’ documentation related to the films of the title. Here Farmer’s ongoing interest in collage is at the forefront, yet with an emphasis on process that is not so evident in the later work; for example, the table of tinfoil sculptures made entirely by the artist using his feet was accompanied by a video showing the process and placed underneath.

While Universal Pictures spoke to the ubiquity of images in our midst (an Americanisation of our cultural imaginary, perhaps), it also demonstrated the very particularity of images once they become attached to the specifics of event, site and body. Farmer’s work demonstrates this, as does the work of the other artists in the Pavilion. Ron Terada’s powerful word-based paintings reiterating platitudes and their restaging (via the canvas) in the gallery caused us to question their relation to our own contexts. Similarly, Myfanwy Macleod’s giant doll head and suit enabled an activation of these symbols through the viewer literally entering into them (as the photo of Vikki McInnes wearing the suit illustrates so wonderfully).

Bridget Crone is a curator, writer, lecturer based in London. She was the projects and marketing officer at the Melbourne International Biennial (1998-9). She is currently in Australia to curate The Cinemas Project.


[i] Canadian Pavilion information sheet