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Artist profile: Peter Atkins

RAILway by renowned Melbourne artist Peter Atkins has been selected for display on the construction hoardings at City Square.

The work is based on abstracted designs of suburban train tickets issued between 1920 and the late 1980s that departed from or arrived into Melbourne.

Artist essay

RAILway 2018

RAILway is a project that explores our collective cultural, social and personal narratives in relationship to the graphic, abstracted designs of suburban train tickets issued between 1920 and the late 1980s that departed from or arrived into Melbourne.

RAILway is a broader development of an earlier project developed in 2013/2014 titled Station to Station, which was exhibited in Melbourne Now at the National Gallery of Victoria as part of the group exhibition ‘Flags for Melbourne’. This was a narrower project that primarily referenced train tickets in and out of Finders Street Station. RAILway enhances the original concept by extending the scope further by tapping into the now obsolete but still resonant visual design language that was used on suburban train tickets throughout greater Melbourne as well as country tickets issued across Victoria.

When people first encounter these works along Swanston Street, I expect they will be provoked into a very personal response by recalling train tickets associated from their own childhood. Perhaps triggering a sense of nostalgia through their own individual memories relating to personal or collective experiences, remembering journeys undertaken with family and friends between particular destinations. For example, there were some absolutely beautiful tickets specially printed for travel to Flemington, Sandown and Caulfield horse racing tracks, with destinations stating HILL, STAND, LAWN and PADDOCK. These appear to be inspired by the colours, spots and stripes of the jockey’s silks. There are also tickets relating especially to VFL Park, which again appear to loosely reference the stripes of players Jerseys and other tickets printed for journeys to and from Calder Raceway. One ticket I expect to resonate with many people is the one issued for ‘The Show Platform Only’ when the eagerly anticipated Melbourne Show was in town. This is a project that has the capacity to relate to all Melbournians - to all walks of life.

Early tickets, from 1900 onwards, were printed by Victorian Railways, all in house, using machines brought to Melbourne from London. This probably explains why the designs in the beginning were so generic, and why the circular red, white and blue ticket ‘Corio to…’ looks so similar to the London Underground symbol. Later, as Melbourne continued to grow with new suburban lines and stations, new colours were introduced and crosses, numbers, letters and stripes added. All coded with colours and symbols that reflect both inward and outward journeys as well as weekly, return or single journeys. Individual tickets were issued to children, adults, pensioners and workmen, all coded to help identify each particular passenger and journey.

These tickets represent a complicated and fascinating visual coded language that is particular to Melbourne. This project titled RAILway takes these tickets out of their original context and distils the underlying abstraction. What is revealed is an extremely evocative collection of abstracted forms - common to us all.


Peter Atkins is a graduate of the National Art School, Sydney and currently lives and works in Melbourne. He has held over 40 solo exhibitions in Australia and Internationally and has been included in several recent important group exhibitions including SCAPE8 Biennale, Christchurch N.Z, Melbourne Now, Contemporary Encounters, and the prestigious Clemenger Contemporary Art Award, all held at the National Gallery of Victoria. His work is represented internationally in the collections of the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León, Spain and the Chartwell Collection, Waikato Museum of Art & History, New Zealand. Peter’s work is represented in every major Australian State Gallery including the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney as well as prominent Institutional, Corporate and Private collections.

In 1985, while still a student at the National Art School in Sydney, he was awarded the N.S.W. Traveling Art Scholarship and in 1994, he was sole Australian representative and gold medal recipient at the VIII Indian Triennale, for his work titled World Journal presented by the Lalit Kala Academy in New Delhi. He has been the recipient of numerous international residencies including the Cite International des Arts in Paris, The British School in Rome and Green Park in New Delhi. He has also been awarded Australia Council Studio residencies in Barcelona (1998) and Los Angeles (2008).

Atkins’ practice centres around the appropriation and re-interpretation of ready made abstract forms that he documents within the urban environment. This collected material becomes the direct reference source for his work, providing tangible evidence to the viewer of his relationship and experience within the landscape. Peter is interested in the social and cultural associations of forms that evoke within the viewer our collective, cultural recall. Material from the real world that has the capacity to trigger memory, nostalgia or a shared history of past experience. Peter often uses the term 'readymade abstraction' to describe his practice. A term he coined to define the space between non-objective abstraction and representation. Peter states that ‘My work could be described as an amalgamation of Modernisms attention to process and materials, Pop Arts re-contextualization of mundane mass cultural objects, Minimalisms desire to achieve simplicity through the elimination of all non-essential features and Post Modernisms re-examination, appropriation and deconstruction of all that has gone before. These amorphous boundaries are a calculated attempt to blur the distinction between High Art, Low Art and popular culture.

He has been described as 'a cultural nomad' by the former director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, Daniel Thomas, 'an obsessive psychological wanderer' by curator Simeon Kronenberg, 'a visual anthropologist' by the director of Fleisher/Ollman Gallery in Philadelphia, Alex Baker, 'a visual terrorist' by Spanish Curator and arts writer Paco Barragan and 'a hyper-caffeinated bowerbird' by arts writer Ashley Crawford.

He is represented by
Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne
and GAGPROJECTS Adelaide|Berlin