Unpopular, a new exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum, Ultimo, explores the rise of the alternative and grunge music scene that exploded across the world in the 1990s with bands like Nirvana, Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth, Mudhoney and Bikini Kill. 

At the centre of it all was Steve “Pav” Pavlovic, the music promoter and entrepreneur who brought  these bands to Australian shores for the very first time. Unpopular includes more than 200 unique items from Pav’s personal archive and collection, including backstage photographs, gig posters, unseen video footage, unheard music demos, tour itineraries, setlists, handwritten postcards, bringing visitors behind the scenes of this era of live music.

While originally ‘unpopular’ and outside of the mainstream, grunge music spoke to youth culture and broke into global success with its nonconformist attitude and energy.

 

Mural based on graphics by Alice Babidge and Mike Mills in the 1990s. Image: Unpopular, Powerhouse Museum.

 

Free-falling

The opening room of the exhibition pays homage to the bands’ visceral live performances with photographs and video from gigs stretching to the ceiling. “It should feel like a church, or a cathedral,” says Damien McDonald, who curated the exhibition alongside Sarah Rees. And you certainly get the sense of reverence and energy between band and audience. The room is called “Free-Falling”, taken from a quote from Guy Piciotto of Fugazi: “For us, the experience of playing like was like the sensation of free-falling when you go cliff diving.”

This leads into the second room, an homage to Nirvana, one of the most influential bands in all of music history. At the centre of the room is a carpeted “cube” with footage from Nirvana’s very first gig in Australia in 1992 at Sydney’s Phoenician Club – the atmosphere designed to replicate the energy and experience of being in the audience, who shook the club to its very foundations. 

The holy grail in this room is Kurt Cobain’s Martin guitar from the MTV Unplugged show in 1993. On loan from Peter Freedman, the founder of RØDE, it is one of the most expensive guitars in the world, selling for $9 million (and arrived in Sydney under the strictest security). 

 

Images from Summersault festival, including Kathleen Hanna, lead singer of Bikini Kill. Image: Unpopular, Powerhouse Museum.

 

Youth culture and community

Throughout the exhibition visitors can also encounter recent interviews between Pav and music greats such as Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters), Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill), Mike D and Ad-Rock (Beastie Boys), Melissa Auf Der Maur (Hole) and Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth) reflecting on the bands’ tours and experiences in Australia. All look back incredibly fondly on their time here, where in-between gigs they enjoyed going to the beach, camping or just relaxing. For many, these were some of their best memories touring down under.  

One piece that stopped me in my tracks was a video work by artist/filmmaker Julian Klincewicz, who, along with Lillian O’Neill, was invited to create new works that reinterpreted the archival material. Klincewicz’s 16-minute film “A Boundless Drop, To A Boundless Ocean,” uses footage from the groundbreaking Summersault festival from 1995/1996, which toured across five Australian cities with an era-defining bill including the Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth, Beck, Foo Fighters, Pavement and Bikini Kill, to name a few. 

The film captures the communal spirit of the festival, which was not just a music festival but a real celebration of creative, youth culture. “What makes up the scene in these vignettes is not a singular person – it’s the collective, the community – but each person is a droplet that makes up the entirety,” says Klincewicz. 

 

Still from “A Boundless Drop, To A Boundless Ocean” by Julian Klincewicz. Image: Unpopular, Powerhouse Musum.

 

Ultimate nostalgia

The exhibition includes an entire, colourful room papered in bill posters for gigs and tours, including original framed posters from Pav’s collection. There is a sense of fun and joy to the whole exhibition, as well as interesting tidbits (like a video of the Beastie Boys as their hardcore alter-ego Quasar performing on a boat on Sydney Harbour dressed in sailor outfits). Yet I also found it very moving, which I mention to the curators afterwards. 

“We’ve been sitting with this material for so long,” says Sarah, “but it’s such a hit of nostalgia. Especially in the footage from Nirvana’s gig at the Phoenician, when it builds up and builds up until you finally hear Kurt’s voice break through.”

Unpopular is an emotional, fun and nostalgic ride through the explosive underground music scene in the 1990s, and truly captures the communal spirit of the time. 

Unpopular opens at the Powerhouse Museum, Ultimo, on October 27.

 

For more awesome art and design events across Sydney, click here.

 

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