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Moynihan, Dan - 2016.83

Dan Moynihan

mirror finish 316 stainless steel, epoxy industrial coating psx700, aluminium
490 x 3003 x 2.5 cm
Monash University Public Art Commission, with support of the Faculty of Science, 2016

When Melbourne-based artist Dan Moynihan was invited to make a site-specific artwork for Monash University’s Clayton campus, he was drawn to its functional, modernist-style architecture, 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 not only how to use the architectural vernacular, but improve on it. The resulting artwork, Seeing things, 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 distinctive 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 facade, but it evokes so much more.

A related body of work from 2016, titled The least I could do, comprises more portable brickworks. Like the mother wall that they are born 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 Judd’s minimalist units with Howard Arkley’s vernacular maximalism, Callum Morton’s ironical stage sets with Fiona Connor’s institutional critique.

We usually think of bricks and mortar as physical, material – real and fixed. Apparently, it was Charles Dickens who, in Little Dorrit, 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.[1]

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 mind in his London, Moynihan offers us just the ticket. His brickworks offer a perceptual threshold and possible escape route, encouraging us to look beyond the mirrored surface and to seek out brighter realities.

Charlotte Day is Director, Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne.

[1] Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit, Penguin, London, 2003 [orig. 1855–57], p.43.
Photo: Andrew Curtis