NGV Triennial 2020

By Miriam Cosic

With a mix of eye-catching works, the second NGV Triennial blends the avant-garde with the populist

Installation view of Refik Anadol’s Quantum memories, 2020. Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. © Refik Anadol. Photo: Tom Ross

Holding biennials, let alone triennials, is a risky business. They are expensive, can take years to organise and depend on a range of factors from the quantity of funding to the quality of artistic direction.

Last year was a debacle for biennials. Who could have predicted the coronavirus pandemic? By May 2020, The New York Times reported that of an estimated 43 such exhibitions, 20 had been postponed. Many were because of gallery closures due to health risks; none could have had the usual impact without the circulation of artists and visitors from around the world.

In Australia, Brook Andrew’s exciting Sydney Biennale, which some of us feared might be too ambitious to get off the ground, opened to glowing reviews only to close 10 days later.

The Yokohama Triennale – with a non-Japanese curator for the first time, the Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective – insisted it would go ahead from the start of the pandemic. It opened in July and none of the 67 artists pulled out. (Yokohama has a history of nonchalance: the 2011 iteration went ahead right after the Fukushima nuclear disaster.)

The National Gallery of Victoria suffered several mandated closures last year and postponed some important exhibitions, such as the Destiny Deacon retrospective, which was due to open in March, and then in July, and finally did in November. (A powerful exhibition, by the way, and it will remain open until February 14.)

The NGV Triennial was able to go ahead (despite director Tony Ellwood reporting some heart-stopping moments) thanks to Melbourne’s months-long lockdown ending on time. On December 19, the gallery’s doors opened on 86 works by more than 100 artists from more than 30 countries. Thirty-three of the works were commissioned by the NGV and will remain in its permanent collection.

It’s difficult to understand the point of triennials, let alone quadrennials (like Rome’s), when the tradition of biennials, like Venice’s and São Paulo’s, the two oldest, is continuing strong. An extra year to raise the funding, perhaps, and extra time for the hard work required. More narrowly cast triennials – such as the brilliant Asia Pacific Triennial at the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, and the comprehensive National Indigenous Art Triennial at the National Gallery of Australia – need the extra time to stay fresh, with smaller worlds to choose from. The prestigious Documenta in the German town of Kassel, a quinquennial, has developed its own powerful purpose since it began in 1955.

The first NGV Triennial, in 2017, attracted huge crowds and rave reviews, though the hardcore cognoscenti of the contemporary art world were sceptical. The day I joined the crowds, visitors were very happily engaged. Some were pinning red flowers all over Yayoi Kusama’s furnished indoor space. One coolly dressed young man even climbed onto the shoulders of his mate to decorate the ceiling. Some people were lining up for fun games using face-recognition software (forget the politics of surveillance) that placed the viewer in a hologram.

And then there was the giant replica of a Tang-dynasty buddha, by Chinese artist Xu Zhen, reclining in the main building’s foyer with white Graeco-Roman and Renaissance-style figures climbing all over him. Ron Mueck’s room-sized anti-war installation of massive skulls, called Mass, would have had more gravitas if teenagers hadn’t been sitting on them, giggling and taking selfies.

This year’s Triennial has fewer participatory events and even fewer that invite serious intellectual engagement. Which is not to say that it’s not interesting: it has much that is beautiful and intriguing.

The Triennial is divided into four broad themes: illumination, reflection, conservation and speculation. As the truly gargantuan and scholarly catalogue explains, those themes emerged from the works submitted rather than forming the commissioning structure of the exhibition.

The massive foyer event this year is Refik Anadol’s video work Quantum memories. Using a dataset of more than two hundred million internet images of the natural world, the Los Angeles-based Turkish artist leaned on quantum physics theory and recruited Google’s quantum computing software, as well as the algorithms of a supercomputer programmed with machine learning, to attempt a remix of our stored visual memories. 

“In our daily life, we are not able to see alternative dimensions,” a cheerful Anadol explains in a video on the NGV website. “But in quantum mechanics, or in quantum computation, there is still a theory of many worlds … And the speculation here is: what will that alternative reality be through the lens of AI.”

It is light-years, as it were, from the gallery’s superstar holdings by Tiepolo and Picasso, and reminds me of Nam June Paik’s comment about Marcel Duchamp: that Duchamp had exhausted Western art but hadn’t known video, and video was the only way forward after Duchamp.

Anadol’s resulting LED screen, which stands 10 metres tall by 10 metres wide and has four audio channels, shows abstract shapes and colours morphing in real time, which, like so much contemporary art, is doubly mesmerising once you have read the background information. As Anadol says, with that self-effacing grin, “We are taking that truly scientific experiment and bringing out … a new narrative for humanity. It’s very ambitious but very exciting.”

Australian-born architect Liam Young, now an experimental artist and environmental activist also based in Los Angeles, has contributed his new video Planet City, which is subtitled Humanity’s Super High-Density Sci-Fi Metropolis Designed For 10 Billion. Commissioned and acquired by the NGV, it prompted the Getty Center to commission a series of similar documentary films.

A 15-minute dark sci-fi fantasy, Planet City imagines what would happen if we reversed the world’s urban sprawl and instead densely packed humans – and their necessary resources – into one gigantic city, leaving the rest of the planet to revert to sustainable nature. It is deeply political. Young didn’t invent the wild and eye-catching images in the video, he says, everything is already here.

Many of the works are a self-conscious discourse with traditional art, a popular intervention at the art world at the moment. Jeff Koons is best known in Australia for the floral Puppy that stood sentinel outside Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 1995–96. Now he has contributed a 2.5-metre sculpture called Venus, part of his ongoing Porcelain series. Those works meld classical concepts of beauty and sculptural shapes with contemporary production techniques. Venus, based on an 18th-century porcelain figurine by Wilhelm Christian Meyer, is made of stainless steel, polished to mirror perfection, with a protective transparent colour coating. Like many of Koons’ works, it’s eye-catching but doesn’t tell us much.

Other interactions with historical art are more colourful and equally transient in their appeal. Wallpapers by LA-based (again) art collective Fallen Fruit depict busy representations of Australian flora and fauna against bright pastel backgrounds, dispensing with the convention of monochrome walls for showcasing art. Called Natural History, the work has been installed in the renaissance and baroque rooms. The purpose, the catalogue tells us, is to “challenge assumptions about the making and meaning of historical artworks”. Seeing the lovely and unattributed 15th-century Italian painting The Garden of Love hanging against a floral wallpaper challenged little for me after the first stimulating jolt of seeing busy upon busy. Nor did it have much to say to the NGV’s 16th-century Flemish carved retable of the Passion of Christ. But it was pretty.

There are intriguing curiosities elsewhere in the show. It’s hard to tear oneself away from Alicja Kwade’s installation WeltenLinie, which translates from German as “world lines”. She is apparently well read in political philosophy and quantum physics, among other subjects, and her theme here is to question concepts of space and time, and physical and social transformations. This is a provocative contemporary work that does well enough without an explanation. With its large-scale, double-sided mirrors facing other mirrors, alongside concrete and wooden frames, stumps and other paraphernalia, it is easy to get lost – physically and in thought – while wandering through it.

Elsewhere, an installation by the Zurich-based collective BTVV is a play on the real estate boom in apartments in Melbourne, riffing on the often ridiculous – and mendacious – photography used to sell them. The room that has attracted the most comment has a hip-high toilet in it, which visitors were asking others to stand next to so they could photograph the humour of its scale.

There are queerly quirky things too. Like UK fashion designer Richard Quinn’s Look 2, ensemble, a play on England’s pearly kings and queens. The “garment” is made of satin, silk, and faux pearls and diamonds; it is fashion-model thin, partly shaped like Tudor armour in reference to real-life British royalty, and is shown in a vitrine as a fashion exhibition would have it. Another, Skin heel boots, by a Canadian fashion collective that rejoices in the name Fecal Matter, apparently refers to post-human possibilities. It is a pair of silicon legs with elongated heels, and horns sprouting from the calves. And American artist and poet Diamond Stingily’s In the middle but in the corner of 176th place is an installation of more than 700 trophies on industrial metal shelving. Closer inspection reveals more modest plaque lettering such as, “I did the best I could with what I had”.

There are also beautiful things, such as Indonesian collective Tromarama’s video work Solaris, also created by a computer program, and also commissioned and purchased by the gallery. It is a wall-sized LED curtain displaying beautiful coral and jellyfish floating in generated seascapes. And outside in the NGV’s garden is a moving installation by the French artist JR. Called Homily to Country, it is a meditation on the environmental decline of the Darling River and the tensions that play between the local Indigenous people, family farmers and corporate agribusiness. A type of chapel made of scaffolding, it includes five stained-glass windows made from JR’s field photography, depicting the martyrs and the winners.

The Triennial is big, and many more works are worth discussing, but time and space are not insurmountable in the real world. It is neither as vast nor as thought-provoking as Brook Andrew’s ill-fated First Nations-led Sydney Biennale. That will be my benchmark for some time. The NGV’s blend of the avant-garde and the populist, however, is bound to engage and impress a wider range of visitors.


The NGV Triennial runs until April 18. Miriam Cosic travelled to Melbourne as a guest of the NGV.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

Installation view of Refik Anadol’s Quantum memories, 2020. Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. © Refik Anadol. Photo: Tom Ross

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