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Jon Cattapan, artist, on his Melbourne art tram

The Melbourne Art Trams project is now a fixture of the Melbourne Festival, and artists are happy to jump on board

Take some trams, wrap them in distinctive artwork by a group of Victorian artists, allow the work to interact with passengers, drivers, pedestrians and passers-by. That’s the premise of Melbourne Art Trams, now in its fourth year with the Melbourne Festival.

Of the nine artists whose work features this year, four have a connection to the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. Eliza Dyball works at the VCA in Art; Damiano Bertoli and Megan Evans are Faculty alumni. We can assume they’re happy to see their artwork moving with the grace of a rhino on a skateboard.

Damiano Bartoli’s Art Tram. Picture: James HH Morgan

But in the case of Jon Cattapan, renowned visual artist and Deputy Director of the VCA, we don’t have to assume. He’s standing next to me on St Kilda Road, waiting for the Number 67.

In the artist statement for his tram, Cattapan writes that he tried to “create a painterly mobile palette that references in abstract ways, aspects of Melbourne’s environment of parks and bay”. And as we stand, watching his vibrant green tram glide past the dense foliage of the Botanic Gardens, it seems like a job well done.

Jon Cattapan’s Art Tram on Melbourne’s St Kilda Road.

“I’m delighted with how it’s taken shape,” says Cattapan. “I’ve never really sought public art opportunities of this sort – my work is generally seen in museums and galleries, but this was such a happy project to do from start to end. The tram has been wrapped digitally, which means you can pretty well replicate a painting or set of paintings and it will be really quite a close facsimile, at least from a distance.”

Melbourne Art Trams is a revival of Transporting Art, which existed between 1987 and 1993, and the fruit of a creative partnership between Melbourne Festival, Creative Victoria and Public Transport Victoria in collaboration with Yarra Trams.

Another of the 2016 Melbourne Art Trams, by Megan Evans and Eve Glenn. Picture: James HH Morgan.

Now that the works are en route to and from various city destinations, the focus will turn to the People’s Choice Award – but that wasn’t Cattapan’s motivation for getting involved.

“Even before being approached by Melbourne Festival, a number of people had told me to try to do a tram because of the urban nature of my work,” he says. “I submitted four or five rough designs that were loosely based around two old works I’d done for the Basil Sellers Art Prize in 2006. They were shot at really high resolution and, with my photographer, we were able to mess around with the images and recomposite them.”

Eliza Dyball’s Art Tram. Picture: James HH Morgan.

Cattapan’s work – often featuring panoramic layered city vistas and figurative groupings – already spans painting, digital imagery, drawing and printmaking, but the tram project has offered a new twist. “I’m particularly interested in how I can fuse digital technologies with traditional painting as a medium, but in this case that idea’s been flipped. What were traditional paintings are now a work that now only exists digitally.

A time-lapse video shows the “wrapping” of Jon Cattapan’s Art Tram. Video: Melbourne Festival and Yarra Trams.

“Some of my work can be politically motivated and requires a careful unpacking of the images. For the tram, I wanted some references to the figure – the idea of football players and games generally was really important to me. I wanted it to be a fairly joyful thing.”

The turnaround for adorning the tram, he says, was tight, with the actual wrapping done over a single day – far quicker than it would have been in the days of hand-painting. But the relative speed and simplicity of the project doesn’t diminish its value.

“It’s very interesting to see how a simple gesture like this reaches really broadly into the community,” says Cattapan. “It’s gone off on social media in ways that, perhaps, my exhibitions don’t always do. To see this kind of moving palette rolling down the street in amongst cars and pedestrians, to watch those interactions, that’s been really energising in a way that’s surprised me. I’m going to keep using tramTRACKER so I can look out for it myself.”

Visit the Melbourne Art Trams web page.

Banner image: Jon Cattapan’s Melbourne Art Tram, by James HH Morgan.

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