The Art +
Culture
of
Tomorrow
The Art and Culture of Tomorrow

with Atong Atem

A project of unprecedented scale for Melbourne, STH BNK By Beulah brings together leading figures in international design and placemaking to create a world-class, multi-use development that sets a benchmark in liveable city design. Primed to become a feast for the senses by offering a new place to live, work, play and explore, it is the ultimate setting in which to discover the future of art and culture.

Situated in Melbourne’s iconic Hanover House, BETA By STH BNK’s dedicated Experimental Testing Area brings together international brands, revered artists and makers, immersive dining experiences and much more. Celebrating the conscious consumer, with sustainability, wellbeing, art and culture at its core, BETA explores the future of living, food, fashion and wellness while celebrating individuality, diversity and creative expression.

The vibrant transformation encapsulates the artist’s vision of Melbourne’s past and future, while making art accessible to the public.  

A rising star who embodies all of these values, artist Atong Atem was commissioned to transform Hanover House with Outdoor Living, a dramatic, large-scale mural illuminated with neon flowers across two facades, in which wallpaper references interior spaces, while LED evokes the neon signs of a 20th-century cityscape lit with commercial designs. The vibrant transformation encapsulates the artist’s vision of Melbourne’s past and future, while making art accessible to the public.  

Atong is an Ethiopian-born, South Sudanese, Naarm/Melbourne-based artist, who has exhibited at the National Gallery of Victoria. She describes her work as exploring her relationship to Melbourne, Australia and beyond when forming the sense of belonging to a place. In this exclusive video, she shares insight on her unique aesthetic.

What came to mind first when you were commissioned to work on Outdoor Living?

My initial thought when making Outdoor Living was how can I make this incredibly huge canvas into something really bright and attention-grabbing while staying true to my artistic form? What was practical and possible with my grand ideas? I considered paint application and light at the beginning as part of my approach. When I was asked to put together a proposal or an idea, there was an emphasis on sustainability and a consciousness of the environment.

What inspired the eventual concept?

I use a lot of flowers and natural elements in my work already, so I thought that it would be really great to create an outdoor external artwork that references my use of fabrics with floral prints and nature. I created a retro-futurist aesthetic to reference the fact that the building itself was one of the oldest multi-storey buildings in the area. Originally built in 1973, it was going to make way for a futuristic, aesthetically innovative building. I thought about combining the two with my work, and responding to the fact that the site will transition into something new and extremely modern.

I thought about combining the two with my work, and responding to the fact that the site will transition into something new and extremely modern.

Outdoor Living By Atong Atem

Outdoor Living By Atong Atem

How would you describe its unique aesthetic?

It made sense for me to literally reference the history of this seventies heritage building. The retro-futurist aesthetic is a bit like Blade Runner meets your grandmother’s living room in the 1970s — that was my intention. I’m interested in the mundane in general, in daily life and its rituals. I take portraits and am usually interested in what’s happening behind the subject as well. I referenced the post-colonial Australian aesthetic by using wallpaper which would be considered a little bit kitsch.

Atong Atem working on initial sketches

Research and Ideation

Outdoor Living creation process

TELL US MORE ABOUT THE WALLPAPER DESIGN

I wanted the Banksia wallpaper design to feel old fashioned because there’s something quite interesting to me about referencing history in my work aesthetically. My portraits tend to reference the seventies anyway; it’s a timeframe I’m really interested in, which is why I used colours that would be really common then, like oranges and browns.

What was the significance of making wallpaper a focal point?

I like this idea of playing with the way people in urban environments relate to the spaces that we occupy. Creating external wallpaper forces us to reckon with the difference that architecture and modern environments have created between internal and external spaces— and how those aren’t natural. Things that happen within spaces as opposed to outside of spaces, is like manmade conceit. It felt really interesting to make people aware of the fact that you’re outside and this is a barrier that’s been created to separate us from nature.

Exploration with Banksia Flower

Exploration with Banksia Flower

Did you choose the Banksia flower for a particular reason?

The Banksia flower is important in my practice. I made a film titled Banksia about migration and my relationship to the process. There’s something about the flower which looks similar to native African flowers. But it’s this native Australian flower that has the name of one of the early settlers here, who didn’t necessarily do a lot of good things. It felt like an interesting object that references the history of the continent and of colonialism in a way that’s disarming and unassuming. There’s so much I can read into that flower as someone who’s not from here, but who now lives here; there’s also a beautiful aesthetic to it as well.

Creation of Banksia Flower Neon Sign

Banksia Flower Neon Sign for Outdoor Living

How do you explore the notion of identity in the piece?

I liked the idea of using something that can just be beautiful, but also has layering in terms of what does it mean to be Australian? What is Australian iconography? What is Australian imagery?  How do I, as a migrant, define Australia as someone who has other places to reference my identity from? The responsibility of the work, being so central in the city and on such a large scale, and the intimate connection I have with my work, I suppose it could have easily felt quite overwhelming. It could have felt like a huge task, referencing history in terms of colonialism. But in reality, in all of my work, I am only talking about myself.

but I wanted to make a statement about my personal relationship to the environment that I live in, and all the layers that come with it, or just the layers that come from me as a person.

I’ve spoken about my work as an ongoing self-portrait. There wasn’t pressure, it’s no different to taking a selfie in a way. I suppose I went out of my way to make a difficult or complex statement about Australia or colonialism, but I wanted to make a statement about my personal relationship to the environment that I live in, and all the layers that come with it, or just the layers that come from me as a person. It wasn’t so much pressure about the work, but more in terms of it being a massive 24-metre-tall building, that I had to cover, and make feel full and complete.

A Collaborative Process

A Collaborative Process

How did you enjoy the collaborative process?

The people I worked with were the ones that brought it over the edge. I brought the ideas and my collaborators took it home. It was beautiful. It was immediately obvious that I couldn’t do it all myself because I had such a grand idea with hand-painted wallpaper and neon lights. I’m a photographer so I don’t know how to do any of that stuff myself. But rather than outsourcing it to a commercial group, it felt like an opportunity for me to work collaboratively because that’s my favourite thing to do.

The first person I reached out to was Justin Holiday, who is an electrician. Once I had him on board, he recommended Georgia Harvey who works with Chris. They are mural artists and handpainted the external facade. They had two or three friends volunteer to help, but basically did it themselves, over three weeks with 500 litres of paint. Electric Confetti came on board immediately, and we ended up working together to figure out ways to make the budget and timeline work.

The people I worked with were the ones that brought it over the edge. I brought the ideas and my collaborators took it home. It was beautiful.

How did the final product reflect the collective input?

It really is like a labour of love. I don’t think I could have done that work with any other group of people because there was so much genuine care. That makes me feel really happy about the work, and I’m proud that it’s the accumulation of many caring people. Working with neon was so much fun, especially because it’s LED, so it’s less fragile than glass neon. I was able to really open my mind to a lot of other possibilities.

A Collaborative Process

Which artists are you influenced by?

I like to start by looking at references from artists whose work is colourful and bright and who do really big things. Nick Cave was a big inspiration in terms of thinking about taking up space and using colour.

Did you spend much time in nature researching the floral element?

One of my favourite things to do, especially during lockdown when I was making a lot of this work, was walking along Merri Creek and engaging with the natural world around me. I gardened and looked after my little baby strawberries and tomatoes. Having a tactile relationship with nature makes it so much easier to bring that into our built environment. The lockdown experience really pushed that idea of how important it is to be outside.

As an artist who tends to work on a computer inside my studio at home, it’s super refreshing to be outside and actually feel like I’m part of the world.

Did nature offer any lessons you applied to art?

As an artist who tends to work on a computer inside my studio at home, it’s super refreshing to be outside and actually feel like I’m part of the world. It’s really nice to be able to touch a tree and have a visual reference for inspiration that isn’t digital, and to visit places with Banksia trees so that I can really see what happens when I move them around.

Looking at them from different angles led to me choosing colours I had never thought of. Most Banksia flowers have silver underneath, which I would not have initially thought about, but being out in the world changed my relationship to it. It ended up being a giant 8.5 metre neon Banksia which was one of the most powerful elements for me, knowing that it came from a drawing I did of a dried-up Banksia I had at home.

Outdoor Living creative process

Outdoor Living creative process

What does your creative process look like?

When I’m delving into the thought process and formulating things at an early stage, those are the moments I feel most comfortable as a person—not as an artist—because it’s so intimate and it’s about trusting that the things that I gravitate towards are beautiful, interesting and worth exploring.

So usually when I’m at home and get all sorts of inspiration laid out, for me it’s about getting into a meditative state. In recent years, I’ve come back to appreciating that art can and should be fun, something that makes me feel good and like I’m doing the right thing in life.

That’s what I seek out. So often I’ll play with dried-up flowers or something, and see where that takes me. Maybe it brings a smile to my face, or makes me feel positive to lay them out or photograph them. I’ve been scanning things as well, just allowing the things around me to lead what I’m doing and to make it feel intuitive. I have self-stability and self-trust making art in the early stages—as long as there’s no deadline—it’s such a human feeling.

Atong Atem in front of Outdoor Living

How did you feel when Outdoor Living was first unveiled

It was quite stressful in the lead-up, as we had quite a short timeline and a lot of hurdles to overcome. As a team, we all worked really hard to make it happen. And then as soon as the lights came on, I was like ‘Oh my God, this is actually really beautiful’. It was just a moment of settling where it felt like this thing that so many really lovely people put a lot of heart into was awake, and there for the world to experience. For me, the love, energy and actual compassion that went into it was really evident.

And then as soon as the lights came on, I was like ‘Oh my God, this is actually really beautiful’

I know it can be seen as just an exciting, bright thing to bring people into a space, but for me it feels like a collaborative artwork made with so much intention.  It felt this really positive encouraging offering, especially during lockdown when the city was going through so much,  that was free and able to be experienced by everybody. It was like “Here’s a gift from us, we put a lot of heart into it and hope you like it”.

 

What does the future of art look like to you?

I think a lot about the relevance of art, especially in these trying times, and it can sometimes feel less significant or important than life-saving things. But as someone whose life has been intensely improved by not even just making it, but being surrounded by art, I think there’s so much potential for it to really define a culture and a community, literally and philosophically.

The future of art that I want to work towards is one that does not rely on the status quo to determine what should be shown. There’s so much potential in art to be groundbreaking and earth-shattering, not just visually, but in terms of who is creating the work, who is given opportunities, who is uplifted. I like the idea of art as a collaborative community-based thing that is about gift-giving and contribution, but also art as something that can speak about one person’s personal story while reflecting upon a larger community history.

I hope that we work towards a future where that potential is on earth, and not just sitting there dormant. Having worked collaboratively on Outdoor Living and seen people who put a lot of care, effort and love into something, it makes me feel as though perhaps that is an avenue that art can explore further. As someone who’s had tons of awesome artistic opportunities, it never quite feels as generous to the community when it’s just something I’ve done on my own, versus when I’ve worked with other people or allowed other voices to contribute. Art can do so more than just look good.

I hope that we work towards a future where that potential is on earth, and not just sitting there dormant.

Atong Atem at Higher Order

Atong Atem at Higher Order

How does BETA By STH BNK align with your own creative vision?

As an artist who has been trying to do my own thing in the art world, it’s a generous offer to be able to work with Beulah on BETA By STH BNK and awesome to have my work on such a huge platform. It gives me hope that low-profile artists can be supported by people with resources, and also be given a big public platform.

It’s not just behind the scenes, or quiet. It means a lot to me that BETA By STH BNK is very loudly saying we’re in alignment with this artist and the people that she’s collaborated with. There’s bravery behind that because I hadn’t ticked any boxes in regards to large-scale public art before, so they really took a risk putting my project up there and I’m grateful for the opportunity. I’m excited to see the outcome of STH BNK By Beulah — it’s incredibly groundbreaking and the only one of its kind in the world.

 

It means a lot to me that BETA By STH BNK is very loudly saying we’re in alignment with this artist and the people that she’s collaborated with.

As an artist, I’m excited to have more inspiration in my city and see the new ways that technology can inspire. Hopefully, it brings more people to Southbank as well because it’s a very beautiful area. I hope they see the neon lights that I’ve put on there and keep coming back to see what else is going to happen.

Hanover House was built in Southbank in 1973. It’s 24 meters tall, about six storeys with an underground garage,  which was the tallest building at the time. By the time I worked on the project with Beulah, it was possibly the shortest building in the area surrounded by giant glass skyscrapers — there was something really fascinating about that. When I was asked to cover Hanover house with my work, it felt really important to acknowledge the transition and pay homage to the history of how a building changes from 1973 to 2021 and beyond, so the retro-futurist aesthetic really came out of that.

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