March 2018

Arts & Letters

The NGV Triennial

By Julie Ewington
A new exhibition series’ first instalment delivers a heady mix of populism and politics

Right now, in Melbourne, it seems the NGV Triennial is setting a new international exhibition standard: the shorter the title, the greater the ambition. This inverse ratio is a triumph of branding, coupling the nation’s oldest, wealthiest, best attended art museum with today’s big drawcard: an alluring recurring contemporary exhibition. The staid old National Gallery of Victoria is now the snappy NGV, and she’s dancing with an energetic new partner.

What’s in this name? This descriptor devoid of poetry or thematic claim? Whatever the museum wishes to make of it, evidently. The NGV Triennial (until April 15) is entirely about what a great museum like this can do: the potential in its sophisticated processes; its unmatched abilities in this country to muster creative and monetary support for extraordinary commissions and a multitude of acquisitions; its productive partnerships both local and international. The University of Melbourne, for instance, made a substantial intellectual contribution to the digital and public programs, and the catalogue; RMIT, which has been a partner of the NGV’s design programs, contributed a major installation. Brazil’s celebrated designers Estudio Campana worked with the Yarrenyty Arltere Artists from Alice Springs’ Larapinta Valley Town Camp on a pavilion welcoming visitors at the very beginning of the exhibition.

Marshalling expertise and goodwill in this way, museums have a huge capacity to explore the pressing issues of contemporary life. The NGV Triennial exemplifies this with a focused address to migration, the speed of social change, the role of virtual technologies. This is Tony Ellwood’s driving vision and big punt as NGV director. Contemporary, ideas-focused, provocative, risk-taking, the new triennial series is the antithesis of the NGV’s annual Winter Masterpieces and builds on the museum’s previous hit with Melbourne Now (2013–14). It is the current Australian apotheosis of the revisioning of the art museum as an open arena of ideas. Judging from the throngs of visitors of all ages and backgrounds I’ve seen on three visits, it’s a howling success. (You do have to keep going back – one bite won’t suffice. Which is exactly the intention.)

Design, coupled with art, is the surprise key to this success: design in and for the world, whether applied to daily living or problem solving in the face of material wealth and environmental disaster. As Ellwood claims, “What sets this exhibition series apart … is its focus on artists and designers working at the intersections between architecture, fashion, art, design and performance.” The determined turn to design in the NGV Triennial has grown out of the establishment of the museum’s Contemporary Design and Architecture department in early 2015. And “design” is interpreted very broadly: Retallack Thompson and Other Architects’ exquisite Garden Wall (2017) divides the garden into outdoor rooms, while couturier Guo Pei’s extravagant virtuosity is installed in the Asian galleries; Australian Sean O’Connell makes poetic considerations of material and energy in the wonderful series of Spark rings (2015). This catholicity has encouraged cross-disciplinary dialogues. Ore Streams (2016–17), a project by the rigorous Amsterdam-based Studio Formafantasma, investigates the problem of contemporary electronic waste. Provocatively placed in the magisterial European galleries, it is demanding, initially even repellent, eventually rewarding. And could nowhere be more pungent than this location, surrounded by a superlative assembly of luxury goods from the past?

The NGV Triennial colonises and celebrates the St Kilda Road building in inventive ways. At first its core seems to be show-stopping installations in the level 1 exhibition galleries. Hahan’s Indonesian-Pop satire and Japanese techno-wizard teamLab’s lyrical mirror room with music and swirling interactive projections, for instance, anchor thoughtful, sober drawings by the peerless Olga Chernysheva, or fascinating photographs by Angola’s Edson Chagas of suited men wearing traditional masks. It’s a lively mix, with startling juxtapositions and constant changes in pace and energy. But that’s just the start: the NGV Triennial compels you to walk through almost every room in the building, turning it into one experiential proposition. Ticketed exhibitions are by nature confined; this free exhibition invites exploration. Büro North’s interactive and thematic signage guides visitors as they navigate the various levels, and NGV Triennial: Voices on level 3 encourages digital visitation to the exhibition and its interlocutors, both now and after the show has closed.

Metaphorical and actual threads pull visitors along, from Pae White’s magnificent 8-metre tapestry Spearmint to Peppermint (2013) on the entry level to Faig Ahmed’s deconstructed carpet on level 3. Textiles, the ancient image of connectivity that Kevin Murray calls “the expanded weave” in his catalogue essay, is vibrant and alive today. This astute choice of an enduring medium in the digital age prompts some hard thinking about the triennial’s five focuses: movement, change, virtual, body, time. Are they coherent? Enunciated baldly, the topics are awkward, but in practice it’s a rich brew that clearly offered great latitude to artists and curators. In the catalogue introduction, NGV curators Ewan McEoin and Simon Maidment describe “an intuitive approach to curate from the works of art ‘up’ rather than concept ‘down’”. No grand single theme, then, but a bundle explored within what McEoin and Maidment call “a platform”, rather than an exhibition.

It works. The NGV Triennial is an unwieldy beast in a difficult building that nevertheless serves the project surprisingly well. Spaces on all four levels manifest the museum’s potential in many voices and modes: Hassan Hajjaj’s amped-up Moroccan tea-house at the entry level, participatory hubbub around the installation by Dutch collective We Make Carpets on the other side of the building, Aboriginal artist Reko Rennie transporting visitors from the ground to the skies in the lift. In the great space of the main entrance foyer, Xu Zhen’s gigantic Buddha reclines, unperturbed, amid a sea of snapping selfie-takers and enthusiastic Instagrammers. Of all these interventions, Ron Mueck’s Mass (2016–17) is the most extravagant. A gigantic memento mori, this huge pile of outsized human skulls is introduced by the museum’s iconic European masterpiece, Tiepolo’s The Banquet of Cleopatra (1743–44). Both works show earthly things will pass: Cleopatra is dissolving her famous pearl in a glass of wine, while Mueck’s skull in front of the painting reminds us of our own mortality – and of the museum’s traffic in changing ideals of art, beauty and social engagement.

This frank engagement with the role of the museum is essential to the persistent mix of populism and politics in the NGV Triennial. The stern tone of major video works by Josephine Meckseper, Candice Breitz and Richard Mosse sits alongside a giddy profusion of distractions and constant invitations to interactivity: yet another participatory installation by the veteran Yayoi Kusama; Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s composite visitor portrait based on sophisticated face-recognition technology; and the fabulous landscape carpet of the Santa Cruz river by Argentinian Alexandra Kehayoglou, populated by delighted toddlers. It’s all bells and whistles, relentless action, bright and upbeat. “There’s so much to see,” murmured the woman sliding past me in the Stygian gloom of Shilpa Gupta’s magnificent sound sculpture. Add a new NGV app, a 650-page brick of a publication packed with engaging writing, a thoughtful array of interpretive events, a rich 10-day performance program during the Australian Open with the gallery open until midnight, free gigs and activities for kids and families, and there is, literally, something for everyone.

Perhaps there is a further inverse ratio: the more riotous the fairground, the more provocative the messages. (Not for nothing are there so many mirrors.) When Ellwood invites visitors to make their own paths through the exhibition, he’s not only being a canny entrepreneur, he’s offering an itinerary that is, in fact, resolutely open-ended. Visitors are responding in droves: on a holiday Saturday the lower level was heaving, but, equally, a full house upstairs sat silently through all 52 minutes of Richard Mosse’s heartbreaking three-channel video Incoming (2014–17). This magnificent work, demanding and unflinching, explores some of the thousands of lives swept up in the current global refugee crisis. Shot in Greek and German refugee camps on a thermo-imaging camera, so no one filmed may be identified, Incoming is sublime in the original sense. It presents images of great and terrible beauty: an autopsy takes place; refugees set up a place for Christian worship; a man washes and then faces Mecca to pray; a child is engrossed in a screen and plays on in spite of the noise that surrounds him at a temporary camp in Berlin’s Tempelhof airport. Life insists on being in the midst of loss and sorrow. The thrumming sound is compelling: I could feel its base notes reverberating where I sat.

This brings me to Australia’s policy on asylum-seekers and mandatory detention. The exhibition catalogue includes an interview with interned Kurdish-Iranian writer Behrouz Boochani and, just prior to the NGV Triennial’s opening, Mosse modified his 2016 work Grid (Moria) to include images of Manus Island and a statement by Boochani. Lozano-Hemmer and Candice Breitz changed the titles of their works to Wilson Must Go, identifying the security firm that both manages Australia’s offshore internment camps and is employed at the NGV by the Victorian government. Breitz’s original title for her thoughtful, compassionate video installation (discussed in my review of the 2017 Venice Biennale) is Love Story. This title will be restored at the NGV when Wilson Security is, finally, gone from the site. The NGV has taken on extraordinary contemporary artists in Lozano-Hemmer, Mosse and Breitz, and the embattled NGV staff, almost without exception, faced this conundrum with dignity. But, in fact, we are all implicated in the tragedy.

The NGV Triennial manifested the complexity of the museum’s situation as a state institution, the bitter ironies within which, from time to time, it works. Martin Foley, state minister for creative industries, made much at the media preview of Victoria as the “creative state” and how the NGV Triennial “firmly asserts our position in the global community”. Perhaps, then, there’s also a perverse ratio in play here: the greater the support by the state for artists and designers and, by implication, museums harbouring their work, the more likely it is they will bite the hand that feeds them. It’s one mark of an open and sophisticated society that this is possible, that the NGV is, as the saying goes, a safe place for unsafe ideas.

Postscript: On Wednesday, February 28, 2018 the National Gallery of Victoria confirmed that it had ended its contract with Wilson Security.  

Julie Ewington

Julie Ewington is an independent writer, curator and broadcaster, now living in Sydney.

Installation view of Mass by Ron Mueck, 2016–17, on display in the NGV Triennial at NGV International. Photo by Sean Fennessey

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