Steampunk was a term that I wasn’t all that familiar with until I went along to the National Trust Australia (Victoria)’s latest exhibition – The Antipodean Steampunk Show.
It’s currently displayed in the Trust’s headquarters, Tasma Terrace, Melbourne, until the 8th August 2014. I loved the show and am now an informed and enthusiastic “Steampunker”.
The exhibition, an intriguing, wildly amusing look at the genre, takes visitors on a fascinating retro-futuristic journey into the visionary custom-made contraptions of a new world – some lol (laugh out loud), some quite amazingly inventive, if not just a little weird.
The exhibits in the show come from a range of cross-discipline backgrounds.
This includes engineer-sculptors, artist-scientists, shoemakers, jeweller-taxidermists, writers, performers, photographers, filmmakers, tinkerers, designers and hobbyists.
Works exhibited include jewellery, shoes, time machines, ray guns, photography and music players, all created to reflect 19th century futuristic vision from an artistic perspective.
Tasma Terrace was built in the Victorian period in the Victorian wrought iron inspired Filigree Style.
It’s hard to imagine a more suitable environment for an exhibition based on the eclectic design and artifacts much admired throughout the 19th century.
The show, on three levels, has been exceedingly well curated; great care taken to strike the right note with displayed exhibition notes.
The Victorian restored interior rooms of the Trust’s Flagship, Tasma Terrace’s authentic ambiance is used to great effect in the staging of the exhibits
Walking along the Terrace’s wallpapered passageways, gloom (the Victorians turned gloom into an art form) illuminated by the soft glow from stained glass light fittings is a slightly creepy step back in time to when maps of the world were mostly coloured!
Red for the British Empire, a leader in an age when steam powered technology revolutionized industrial practice.
Climbing the well lit stairs to another level, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Phineas Fogg or Captain Nemo had materialised from a dark corner, the better to instruct me in the operation and use of inventions.
While polished to perfection and quite beautiful in presentation they looked like you might need an engineering degree to find the Off switch.
So what is “Steampunk” and when did it begin?
A sci-fi subculture, which borrowed the aesthetics of Victoriana, it offers a romanticized view of technology by making it retro.
Its popularity has spread around the globe infiltrating and influencing fashion, film, literature and much, much more.
The term “Steampunk’ was first used in the 1980’s. The works are often set in an alternative history of the 19th century’s British Victorian era, the American Wild-West, in an apocalyptic future where steam power has regained mainstream use, or in a fantasy world that similarly employs steam power.
Clothing, culture, design and art are all likened to the creations and dreams of people who may have lived in the 19th century.
Artists who work in the Steampunk genre are influenced by, and often adopt the style of the 19th-century scientific romances of Jules Verne, H.G.Wells and Mary Shelley.
Several works of art and fiction significant to the development of the genre were produced before the genre had a name.
Perhaps the first Steampunk short story is “The Aerial Burglar” (1844) by Percival Leigh.
The oldest example of this sub-culture in film is Fritz Lang’s masterpiece, Metropolis.
Made in 1927 it’s quite possibly the most important early film to represent Steampunk as an emerging stylistic genre; a blending of 19th century aesthetics and technology with the modern world.
It explodes at the intersection of technology with romance.
On the day The Circle’s publisher Carolyn McDowall and I visited we were lucky enough to be shown around by Trust volunteer, Lee.
Her helpful running commentary was very enlightening as well as amusing.
We enjoyed both her company and professionalism as an experienced volunteer; giving her time for the greater good.
She also certainly made sure we didn’t miss any of the gorgeous fashion, jewellery, artifacts and innovative machinery on display.
Steampunk fashion, a particular winner with me, encompassed the intricately detailed use of diverse materials (some vintage) to create exhibit outfits that were a combination of past eras.
Gallery Serpentine, an alternative Australian fashion label based in Sydney, have been inspired by my favourite periods.
Made a note to myself to visit them next time I am in downtown Sydney. They are located at Enmore, just 5kms from the centre of Sydney, which was definitely accessible by steam train in the Victorian era.
The gorgeous steampunk outfits displayed on their website made me long to throw a Steampunk party to celebrate moving soon to Victoria’s Geelong, another great ‘Industrial’ age area.
Enmore, so appropriate a place for them to be, the suburb and the Victorian style Enmore House built in 1835 were named for and owned by Captain Sylvester Browne (with an e), who was master mariner of the British East India Company. His son wrote Australian classic novels including another old favourite Robbery Under Arms. But I diverse.
A fab jacket in hand screen printed black stripe on bronze, complemented by Keeper of Time cage bustle and overskirt with clock and femme fatale corset – wonderful outfit, a true sensation at the office Christmas party!
And how wild is that bird in a cage fascinator on her head! Have to have me one of those!
Alexandra Gill-Chambers, the designer behind Clockwork Butterfly, is included in the show – butterfly bodice, Victorian in style but unique in design it made my list of ‘love-to-own’.
Alexandra has worked in theatres as a wardrobe supervisor and costume maker, she specialises in tailor made designs to suit the needs of the individual.
Boots, a must if you want to get the Steampunk look, Pendragon’s boots, particularly the Owl and Clock designs are on display; quite unique and so exquisitely made it would be a shame to wear them.
The work of shoe making duo Jackie Orme and Adrian Lockwood, I fell madly in love with the chaps created in 2010; a combination of hemp, leather, clock parts, bulbs, tool parts and Lord-knows-what – the effect: arresting and special.
Kate O’Brien, a Brisbane artist, draws upon her love of art history and vintage fashion and textiles to produce original images in historical settings.
Kate’s exhibited work consists of elaborately staged portraits, the central figure clad (sometimes not entirely covered) in fantastic outfits comprised of materials sourced from liquidators and antique dealers.
The image backgrounds, quite amazing in complexity and detail, I spent an enjoyable time gazing at dream like scenes, which epitomise the style inherent to Steampunk design.
Quirky, unusual jewellery and Michelle Murray – it was hard to separate the two.
Michelle’s jewellery is a complex mix polished copper, brass and antique silver toned metals silver, brass with dark wood and glass to create small sculptural pieces, unique in execution and design.
Russell Anderson’s Remote Effluxion Cloning Apparatus, created in 2012, like many of the other inventive scientific exhibits defies description and has to be seen to be richly enjoyed and appreciated.
Andrew MacDonald’s Peepshow For Artemis, a box which houses a slideshow for grownups, similar to most of the other exhibits is a huge amount of fun – hard not to smile when browsing the exhibition levels.
It is a case of so much to see and to be delighted by, with the added bonus of tripping around the Victorian grandness of its truly wonderful setting.
Take your aunts, grandmothers, daughters and their friends – a special show not to miss!
Janet Walker, Special Features Correspondent Victoria, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014