Interview with 2020 Artistic Director Emily Cormack

Emily Cormack has been curating exhibitions and public art since 2001 in an institutional and freelance context throughout the Asia Pacific region and in Europe. Recent exhibitions include From Will to Form: 2018 Tarrawarra Biennale, and Primavera: Young Australian Artists (2016) at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney.

She has been co-curator of major international projects including; City Within the City (2011), Art Sonje, Seoul, South Korea; Still Vast Reserves (2010), Magazzino d’Arte Moderna, Rome, Italy; And the Difference Is (2009), National University Museum, Singapore; The Independence Project (2008), Galeri Petronas, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and 100 sound Works By 100 Sound Artists from the 21st Century (2008), Gertrude Contemporary, Melbourne. Charged with developing a bold artistic program for the 2020 fair edition, we hear from Emily on her ambitions as the inaugural Artistic Director. 


(MAF) As a curator, what attracts you to the art fair model?

(EC) Art fairs are a platform like any other space created for art offering an essential opportunity for audiences to experience a huge selection of artworks. Moreover, they are an essential moment within the creative ecosystem providing tangible opportunities for connection between artists and audiences, where the encounter with art is enlivened through the possibility of ownership. Allowing oneself to be enveloped by an artwork is such an exciting experience and with art fairs this enveloping is all the more nuanced, with the aim of each exhibit to connect with the subjectivity and life force of the audience/collector. This desire to reach out and connect is an exciting context for me to work within.


(MAF) Melbourne Art Fair has been reinvented as a highly curated platform with a focus on solo shows and curated projects. What does that mean to you as Artistic Director? 

(EC) When I was approached to take the role as Artistic Director it indicated to me that Melbourne Art Foundation were serious about reinventing themselves. As a curator who has been rigorously artist-focused, collaborative and experimental, appointing me to this position affirmed their desire to raise the 2020 art fair to meet the creative expectations of Melbourne’s unique creative context. Australian audiences are highly educated and critically astute, but they are also quite grounded and open minded, seeking art that opens their world, excites them or challenges them. As such, with the entire fair this year I am hoping to create a space where each artwork is contextualized thoughtfully. Often art fairs operate in much the same way as the meat aisle of the Queen Victoria Market, where each stall-holder is bellowing as loudly as they can, jostling to extract visitors from the throng. With this fair we will aim for a tone that encourages connection through creating thoughtful, enlivening relationships between each stall, project space and commission so that the visitor experience is one of enhanced and stimulated contemplation. We want the visitors senses to be enlivened rather than assaulted, so that each work has the opportunity to express its intent and fuse easily with the inner worlds of the audience.


(MAF) Beyond (installation sector) debuts this year under your directorship. Can you tell us a little about your ambitions for the sector? 

(EC) We are still very much at the beginning of this process but my ambitions are vast. I am aiming for all of the major commissions to work together to set the tone of the entire exhibition. The emphasis will be on harmony, rather than spectacle. Starting from the body as the site of encounter, I am planning site-responsive works that focus on the ways we navigate spaces of creativity and the dynamics at play within this bodily journey. I am also particularly keen to draw attention to the plethora of works around at the moment that think through the body as a repository of memory and stories, and how these can be expressed through film, sculpture and dance. Importantly I want these larger commissions to work with the stalls and project spaces, so that every part is essential to the whole experience.


(MAF) You are a curator that is drawn to the experimentation and dynamism of emerging arts practices. How will this translate for the fair’s 16th edition? 

(EC) The energy and dynamism within emerging arts practices endures throughout the spectrum of experience, one just has to tap into it, set the levels right. With the 2020 Melbourne Art Fair we will be featuring 10 young galleries within our Accent section. This is a hugely exciting opportunity for younger galleries and their artists to rise to the challenge of this major international context, and equally for the public to understand how art comes into form, and to be reminded of the experimentation that is at the heart of all creative practices, however polished. Within these spaces we will aim to draw out more challenging practices that progress the discussion of contemporary art into new terrain, breaking new ground.


(MAF) In your view, how does Melbourne Art Fair fit into the current network of fairs in the Asia Pacific? What makes it stand apart? 

(EC) Melbourne is a unique cultural context with a solid history of fostering and upholding innovative and experimental practice in a way that is locally driven, and internationally focused. The culture is both confident and curious – open to new and sometimes difficult ideas. In recognition of this position, Melbourne Art Fair was the first Art Fair in the Asia Pacific region to attract international galleries, and it continues to hold a reliably central position within the region’s rapidly increasing suite of art fairs. Not only does the Melbourne Art Fair offer the benefit of its historical positioning, but it is also supported by Australasia’s most vibrant arts community.


(MAF) Looking into the future, if in five years you were asked to write a book on the wider Australasian art scene, what do you think the first chapter might cover?

(EC) I’m not sure what the first chapter would be, but on the cover I would feature some kind of elemental image of lightening hitting sand. An electrical impulse that is both beautiful and dangerous and that transforms matter upon contact.  Across Australasia there are profound changes occurring right now as colonial settler cultures begin to sit with the reality of their origins. New Zealand as an officially bicultural country has moved further into the process of indigenizing public space than Australia, but here also there are profound shifts in the culture occurring. Australia has some hugely exciting new terrain to activate in this field, connecting with the language, wisdom and knowledge of the current and original owners of Australia. The currently dominant pakeha or settler structures of thought will need to be dismantled, so that they might open up to the incredible possibilities of collaboration and learning. It is only through this kind of respectful and affirmative change that we will be able to focus on that which unites us, rather than divides us.