Adorning the full length of the foyer’s western wall, the installation #RitzHeritageOverlay in Geelong Gallery commands attention. You can’t miss it! The installation is the creation of Geelong artist Glen Smith who has used traditional street art techniques, honed during his many years as a street artist, to create the work which focuses on the controversial Ritz Flats.
For those unfamiliar with the Ritz building, it has been the subject of considerable debate in Geelong since the current owner has allowed it to become dilapidated and decrepit in a development saga spanning thirty years.
Originally built in the mid 1800s, The Ritz in Bellarine St Geelong has experienced a variety of incarnations, first opening its doors as a pub known as the Belle-vue Hotel and later as the Bay View Temperance Hotel. Other enterprises have included a coffee palace, residential flats and a boarding house.
Now The Ritz is languishing in a state of appalling disrepair, which has been defined by the National Trust as ‘Demolition by Neglect’, a process by which owners of historic buildings let their properties deteriorate to such an extent that eventually they are allowed to demolish them. Community opinion is divided on what should happen to The Ritz. The building forms an important part of Geelong’s socio-cultural history and identity and while some wish to see it restored to its former glory, others see it as an eyesore and a safety hazard. The ongoing debate about its future has given The Ritz iconic status.
Glen has encapsulated this tension between urban renewal and architectural preservation in his large scale installation. Through his work, he reflects on the notions of place, belonging, history, heritage and urban progress. Glen explains ‘Heritage’ in the title, “is drawn from the idea of the precious or rather the significance to the community. The broader context for this looks at the idea of heritage being linked to [inheritance] and ownership.”
The title of the work also contains the word ‘overlay’ which not only refers to the planning laws that council may apply to buildings (The Ritz has two walls of the facade with a heritage overlay), but also to the overlay process Glen used in creating the installation, developing the work in layers using stencils, spray paint and paste ups.
Glen spent five days installing the work, pasting fifty A0-sized sheets to cover about 15 metres of wall, making this his largest work yet. He has used calming blues and greens as a symbol of optimism and included imagery of some of the graffiti on the walls to highlight how the building has become much more than just an abandoned building. It has become a reference point in the community, a place where messages have been written and ideas communicated.
Meanwhile the ongoing saga of the Ritz Flats continues to unfold. The Geelong council have struggled to bring the owner to account, but a strengthening of the dilapidated buildings law in December 2014 might see some progress in the stand off – the council introduced a ‘Ritz Law’ which will enable the council to fine irresponsible property owners $2000 a month (Geelong Advertiser, 11 December 2014).
Whatever the outcome, Geelong’s most notorious building, the Ritz Flats, has been given a fitting tribute by Glen Smith who has captured the decline of this historic building and kept it in the public eye.
While people either love the Ritz building or hate it, the response to Glen’s work has been overwhelmingly positive. The installation was due to close on 22 February but due to popular demand, will now be on display at the Gallery for an extra month until 22 March 2015.
And in an interesting twist, behind the wall of #RitzHeritageOverlay, is the construction of the new Geelong Library and Heritage Centre. It’s unusual round shape is already dividing opinions and is set to become Geelong’s most loved and hotly debated building – a new icon for Geelong – but that is another story.
#RitzHeritageOverlay is presented as part of a suite of five exhibitions at Geelong Gallery this summer under the banner We are Geelong, celebrating Geelong and its region.
#RitzHeritageOverlay by Glen Smith
Extended until 22 March 2015
55 Little Malop Street, Geelong
Open daily from 10am–5pm
Admission is free