Inflatable Public Art, Visual Discussions, and Realizing Artists Stories

Curator Olivia Poloni
Olivia Poloni. Courtesy Paul Barbera. 2021

My father is a jeweler and for the first three years of my life we lived above his jewelry store and studio. Family time often involved him sketching new pieces (or portraits of my siblings and I), talking about precious gems and explaining ways of manipulating metals. Watching him create, hunting for treasures in his studio and meeting his contemporaries was always so fascinating but also so normal for me. I guess the handmade, studio work, collaborative commissions and creative maker communities has been a normal part of life and this has informed my ideas around art, art making and curating. A sense of community and collaboration is really important to me. As is the process of art marking. I’m as interested in how and why a work is made as how it is interpreted and experienced.

All about the artists. I was majoring in history during my undergraduate arts degree and noticed that every essay I wrote would include an analysis of an artwork. A lecturer suggested I try some art history subjects, which I did, and never looked back. Within six months I switched my major to art history and started volunteering at art institutions around Melbourne. I became involved with the artist-run-space Blindside in Melbourne and another called Allans Walk which was in a regional Victorian town, curating a few exhibitions and sitting on their boards. I started a Masters of Arts Curatorship at the University of Melbourne after my undergraduate studies and gained employment as a gallery manager at commercial art gallery Nellie Castan Gallery. The director, Nellie Castan, was super generous and nurtured my interest in curating and encouraged me to curate, in her space, group shows by emerging and early career artists, mostly not commercially represented. Working in a commercial space at the beginning of my career was invaluable, especially in preparation for practicing as an independent curator. I loved working so intensely with the represented artists and really gaining a deep understanding of their practice and needs. In 2008, I traveled to Japan with photographer Polixeni Papapetrou (1960-2018), who was one of the gallery’s represented artists, to assist in her work being exhibited at the National Arts Centre in Tokyo as part of a major group exhibition. In 2010, I moved to Cologne, Germany, for 2 years and became involved with a young commercial gallery, Galerie De Saga. When I arrived back to Melbourne I worked on a number of international projects such as the 2013 Setouchi Triennale in Japan, Dong Gang International Photography Festival, South Korea in 2014, and a temporary public art installation for Earth Hour in Beijing in 2018. In between that I held the position as Curator at Craft Victoria which is the national leader in the Australian Craft and Design sector. For the past two years I have been working solely as an independent curator focusing on photography and public art. The major driving factor for me is working with and for artists and assisting them in telling their stories.

Curator Olivia Poloni
Lisa Roet’s inflatable public art installation “Skywalker”, Beijing. 2018

I am definitely a team player which is becoming even more evident as I get older. I seek out ways to collaborate, especially with women. I really enjoy relationship building and a mutual sense of achievement. Since late 2019 I have been working within the Image Collective. There are seven of us in total and we aim to create new dialogue and discourse around what the image means today, in a post-photographic world. During 2020 we worked on both an online visually discursive platform and publication, which was quite a feat since we are all Melbourne based and we were in lockdown for most of the year. This year I am working on two exhibitions as a co-curator, both at Centre for Contemporary Photography in Melbourne. The first is a survey exhibition by one of Australia’s leading feminist documentary photographers, Ruth Maddison. I am co-curating this with CCP’s gallery director Adam Harding and CCP’s curator Jack Willet. The second exhibition is Fertile Ground, an exhibition featuring Australian and international artists who explore themes such as cultural habits, ritual and ceremony, identity, geographical boundaries, sustainability, consumerism, climate emergency and uncertain futures, through the theme of food. I am co-curating this with Melbourne based curator Sarah Bond. Sarah also co-curated the selection of Fertile Ground artists on INTERVAL so you can check that out if you are interested.

Websites that draw in. The INTERVAL platform is my sole project and I built it from scratch. I wanted something that was simple to navigate, accessible and visually striking to draw visitors in. I am very lucky to have such excellent artists participating and their images really make it. The Image Collective was designed by Lauren Dunn and Annika Koops (members of the collective) and built by digital agency Public Office. We are all so excited by this website. Have you had a play with the Dialog page? It’s our way of visually illustrating the way we discuss and questions politics around the image. It’s a living page where we periodically add prompts responding to each other and we invite contributors outside of the collective to respond too, to bring more voices to the conversation.

Curator Olivia Poloni and Polixeni Papapetrou
Polixeni Papapetrou and Olivia Poloni in Japan for Polixeni’s exhibition at The National Arts Centre. 2008

My interest in public art is about accessibility, community engagement and the elements of surprise it brings to a public space. The first major public art project I worked on was Lisa Roet’s “Skywalker”, for 2018 Earth Hour in Beijing. It involved 50 volunteer cyclists pedaling on bicycles and powering Roet’s inflatable 20-metre wide, 10-metre high, silver snub-nosed gibbon that clung to Kengo Kuma’s Opposite House Hotel and called out its mating call across the city. I love taking art out of the gallery space and offer to people who would not normally encounter contemporary art the opportunity to experience, respond and interpret it.

Feminism in 2021 means bringing my daughter up letting her know that her voice is always important and valid and to use it to elevate the voices of other girls and women around her. It is also to bring my son up to advocate for women’s rights and know his privilege as a white male and use that to always advocate for equality and dismantle discrimination. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have had some exceptional and wise creative women in my life to date. Polixeni Papapetrou for one, who inspired the exhibition ‘In Her Words’. This exhibition was a touring show from 2019 to 2020 that focused on women behind and in front of the camera. It featured works drawn from the holdings of feminist photography from the Horsham Regional Art Gallery, in Melbourne, exhibited alongside key figures in Australian contemporary practice. It’s focal point was the female gaze, showing artists and subjects who are in control of their own stories, and covered themes such as migration, queer culture, First Nations identity, youth and childhood, the body, domesticity, place, race and female repressions and expression. It toured four venues within Australia.

Adam Harding, Jack Willet, Olivia Poloni, Ruth Maddison
Adam Harding, Jack Willet, Olivia Poloni, and Ruth Maddison. Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne.  2021

I’m a first generation Australian from an Italian migrant family who left war-torn Italy post WW2. My familial stories have always centered around the war and what Italy was like directly post-war when they left, so it’s very much part of my identity. In Australia I’m always referred to as Italian and in Italy I’m ‘the Australian’… I guess I’m lucky to have two homes but it’s also very complex because a lot of the time I feel like I don’t totally fit into either. I feel at home when I am with people who allow me to truly be myself.

I never travel without my paper diary and pen.

To keep sane I work out at the gym and go for long solo walks. Both are great to clear my head and re-focus. 

For fun, I like to share champagne and a dance floor with close friends. 

I don’t discriminate between forms of art, they are all important to me. I love any type of high and low art. I binge Netflix, listen to opera, enjoy experimental soundscapes, dance to disco, devour true crime podcasts, and read feminist literature. The more, the better. It’s all about storytelling for me and I love hearing stories in any form. 

My favorite recipe at the moment is Fuchsia Dunlop’s Fish-Fragrant Eggplant cooked by my husband. Eggplant deep fried is always the best, but when you pair it with the chilli paste and vinegar, there’s literally nothing better! During lockdown it became a staple. 

Ingredients:

1  1/4 lbs (600g) eggplant
Salt
Cooking oil, for deep-frying (1  1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons/400ml will do if you are using a round-bottomed wok)
1  1/2 tablespoons Sichuanese chilli bean paste, or Sichuan pickled chilli paste, or a mixture of the two
1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
2/3 cup (150ml) chicken stock
2 teaspoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon potato flour mixed with one tablespoon cold water
2 teaspoons Chinkiang vinegar
4 tablespoons finely sliced spring onion greens

Instructions:
Cut the eggplant lengthways into three thick slices, then cut these into evenly sized batons. Sprinkle them with salt, mix well and leave in a colander for at least 30 minutes to drain.
In a wok, heat the oil for deep-frying to 350°F (180˚C). Add the eggplant in batches and deep-fry for three to four minutes until slightly golden on the outside and soft and buttery within. Remove and drain on paper towels.
Drain the deep-frying oil, rinse the wok if necessary, then return it to a medium flame. When the wok is hot again, add 3 tbsp of oil. Add the chilli bean paste and stir-fry until the oil is red and fragrant, then add the ginger and garlic and continue to stir-fry until you can smell their aromas. Take care not to burn these seasonings; remove the wok from the heat for a few seconds if necessary to control the temperature (you want a gentle, coaxing sizzle, not a scorching heat).
Add the stock and sugar and mix well. Season with salt to taste if necessary. Add the fried eggplant to the sauce and let them simmer gently for a minute or so to absorb some of the flavors. Then stir the potato flour mixture, pour it over the eggplant and stir in gently to thicken the sauce. Add the vinegar and spring onions and stir a few times, then serve with steamed rice.

Olivia Poloni in artist Lauren Dunn's Warehouse
Olivia Poloni in artist Lauren Dunn’s warehouse. Melbourne. 2021

The books that I am reading at the moment are Tayari Jones’s novel Silver Sparrow that centres around deception, family, and womanhood in 1980s Atlanta, “Silver Sparrow”, Conversations with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie edited by Daria Tunca and the first issue by new online publication Co-Publishing themed ‘Time’. I am thoroughly enjoying it all!

If I were an art collector I would collect photography and video works by living women artists and have a house designed around the exhibition of these works, but hey, I guess that’s an art gallery :-). 

If I wasn’t curating I would be a psychologist.

Olivia Poloni

Independent curator

Melbourne, Australia

Biography:

Olivia Poloni is an independent Melbourne-based Contemporary and Public Art Curator working across Australia, Asia and Germany with an interest in social engaged practices.  She is one of the founding members of the Image Collective, a collective set out to create new dialogue and discourse around ’the image’ in its various forms. Her current curatorial projects include Curator of Australian regional photographic touring exhibition In Her Words (2019 – 2020), Co-Curator of Ruth Maddison: It was the best of times, It was the worst of times, Centre for Contemporary Photography Melbourne (2021), Co-Curator of Fertile Ground, Centre for Contemporary Photography Melbourne (2021), Curator of the Image Collective at Blindside Gallery Melbourne (2021) and Consultant Curator for T Projects an arts and culture consultancy that integrating creative programs and public art into complex built environments. During the 2020 COVID pandemic Olivia produced an online platform for visual art outcomes titled INTERVAL. Olivia sits on the City Space Architecture Advisory Board (Bologna, Italy) and holds a Masters of Arts Curatorship from the University of Melbourne (2005).

Art critic and writer.

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