Part of the inspiration for Dan Moynihan’s new series of artworks,The Least I Could Do
(2016), comes from an invitation to create a public artwork for Monash University. Moynihan was drawn to the functional, modernist-style architecture of the Clayton campus, which was built quickly and economically in the early 1960s to meet increased demand for university education in Australia. The early campus architecture is distinctly utilitarian and unabashedly mission brown. Moynihan’s art commission took on this architectural context.
I can imagine Moynihan returning to his studio after a site visit and speculating on how to use the architectural vernacular but improve on it.The resulting artwork, Seeing Things
(2016), does just that. It is a thirty-metre-long feature wall in an unassuming courtyard, deep in Monash’s science precinct. Polished stainless-steel bricks set in graduating pastel mortar replace the brown bricks and mortar, creating an effect that is surprising and distinct in its environment. Moynihan has transformed the rear wall of a lecture theatre into a mirrored surface that glistens in the sun and reflects both the small forest of pines planted in the courtyard it looks onto and the people walking by. As the artwork’s title suggests, the wall functions as a mirage, creating optical stimulation but also confusion; it is a false wall, or façade, but it evokes so much more.The Least I Could D
o comprisesmore portable brickworks. Like the mother wall that they areborn from, the polished stainless-steel bricks are laid in coloured mortar. Particularly noticeable in these individual and serial works is the tension between the regularity and uniformity of the bricks and their renegade bonding. These works waver between art and architecture, sculpture and painting, the mundane and the miraculous. They nod to much recent art history but collapse seemingly incongruous references into each other: Donald Judds’ minimalist unitswith Howard Arkely’s vernacular maximalism, Callum Morton’s ironical stage sets with Fiona Connor’s institutional critique.
We usually think of bricks and mortar as something physical, material–real and fixed. Apparently it was Charles Dickens in Little Dorrit (1855–57) who coined the phrase ‘bricks and mortar’ to that effect. His particularly depressing description of the life and fate of the worker in nineteenth-century London pulls no punches:
It was a Sunday evening in London, gloomy, close, and stale. Maddening church bells of all degrees of dissonance, sharp and flat, cracked and clear, fast and slow, made the brick-and-mortar echoes hideous. Everything was bolted and barred that could by possibility furnish relief to an overworked people. No pictures, no unfamiliar animals, no rare plants or flowers, no natural or artificial wonders of the ancient world—all TABOO with that enlightened strictness ... Nothing to see but streets, streets, streets. Nothing to breathe but streets, streets, streets. Nothing to change the brooding mind, or raise it up. Nothing for the spent toiler to do, but to compare the monotony of his seventh day with the monotony of his six days, think what a weary life he led, and make the best of it—or the worst, according to the probabilities.
In Dan Moynihan’s twenty-first century Melbourne, the profile of the worker may have shifted and the city is no doubt cleaner, safer and more attractive, but the regularity of working life remains. While Dickens lamented there was nothing more to inspire or ‘raise’ the mindin his London, Moynihan offers us just the ticket. His brickworks offer a perceptual threshold and possible escape route, encouragingus to look beyond themirrored surfaceand to seek out brighter realities.
Charlotte Day 2016
Director, Monash University Museum of Art
Press release courtesy Tolarno Galleries.