December 2023 – January 2024

Arts & Letters

The rule of threes: NGV Triennial

By Miriam Cosic

Agnieszka Pilat and Basia. Photograph by Aaron Richter

The sprawling show’s exploration of technologies and pressing politics takes in artificial intelligence and deep-fake photojournalism

Australian-born, Los Angeles–based Liam Young’s contribution to the last NGV Triennial was a surreal short film titled Planet City (2020). In it, 7.5 billion humans are crowded into one city: “The world collapsed into a microcosm of the planet that may allow us to return the rest of the world to a global scaled wilderness”, as his website described it at the time. The film, fantastic in the literal sense of that word, is frightening as a glimpse of the worst despite the impossibly massive solution it offers.

“Most of the work that we do now is telling stories about the way technology is changing our lives and all of these works, even though they are speculation about the future, begin with a deep engagement with the present moment,” Young told me at the time. “[W]e’re living out real-time dystopia.”

For this year’s Triennial, the National Gallery of Victoria has chosen to revisit the subject within the immediacy of that “real-time dystopia”. The gallery’s senior curator of photography, Susan van Wyk, commissioned 10 photographers to capture the urban environment of their own global megacities, each with a population of more than 10 million: Cairo, Delhi, Dhaka, Jakarta, Lagos, Mexico City, São Paulo, Seoul, Shanghai and Tokyo.

“The project really began around a whole series of conversations that were happening internally, with colleagues, about the future of architecture and changes in urban planning,” van Wyk says. “What implications does that have for the rise of the mega-city? And that started me thinking, well, what is a megacity? How big are those cities? What does life in a megacity mean?”

She started researching those questions and began to wonder what practising street photographers would make of them. She contacted some well-known artists, all stylistically different, and asked them to produce a suite of images over a six-month period. Then she worked with a multimedia team to create an immersive digital environment that “reflects those vast cities, those great global cities in 2023, through the eyes of someone who lives and works in each”.

In the finished work, 500 images and pieces of moving images shift in an 18-minute loop across 20 screens in one large high-ceilinged room. A single sound stream has been built from environmental sounds – such as the hum of voices and the clatter of cutlery in a restaurant – and contemporary music.

The thing about triennials – and biennials and quadrennials and all the other -ennials – is that the curators have a brief to spend a great deal of money getting out there and surveying the up-to-the-minute practices of veteran and emerging artists, commissioning many of them while using existing works of others, and presenting it all to their visitors in a way that is both informative and entertaining. This year’s NGV Triennial includes nearly 100 works by 120 artists, designers and collectives that range across paintings, installations, photography and videography, fashion and other creative practices. Twenty-eight of the works, including Megacities, are commissions that will enter the NGV’s collection.

In the past, I’ve annoyed directors of the NGV Triennial by suggesting that their event can be a little fluffy, a little populist, for the purists – though I’ve enjoyed them very much. This year’s, however, has a particularly serious political edge. That, on the other hand, is something that annoys conservative art critics (one really can’t please everyone) but is inevitable in our times of heightened emergency, particularly about global warming, as well as postcolonial and post-feminist discourse.

Ewan McEoin, the NGV’s senior curator of art, contemporary design and architecture, is leading the large curatorial team who assembled this year’s Triennial. And art, design and architecture are all key parts of it. “You’re trying to strike a balance between visually arresting work, work that can be engaged with by a broad audience, but also that offers a strong story about the artist, their life and the work itself,” McEoin says. “The work is often less about artists who are looking inward, just pursuing their own interests, and more about people who are engaged with the world.”

McEoin adds that the NGV has an ongoing interest in artificial intelligence and robotics, in terms of how they will shape our future world. He refers to the major digital piece by Refik Anadol set up in the foyer in 2020. Quantum Memories was a massive work that used a dataset of more than 200 million online images of the natural world manipulated with quantum physics theory, Google’s quantum computing software, and algorithms of a supercomputer programmed with machine learning.

This year, artificial intelligence, which seems to have leapt into public consciousness fully formed, like Athena from her father’s brow, figures in interesting ways. Agnieszka Pilat, famous for having walked her robotic dog Basia under the Discovery space shuttle at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, for example, brings a new work, Heterobota, to Melbourne. Pilat is working hard on questions such as whether machines can have agency and, further down the track, whether they might be programmed to have empathy.

For the NGV Triennial, she has programmed robots to make art. “Before the Triennial, she’s driving them like she’s got a remote control and she’s painting through them,” McEoin explains. “But in the Triennial, they will do it on their own.” Davis Richardson’s catalogue essay on Pilat’s research points out the uncomfortable question it raises for artists (quite apart from the uncomfortable questions AI poses for society in general). What will it mean once machines can make art that has serious content? “We arrive instead at a new frontier, where all of what was previously thought ‘genius’ – our mathematics, our poetry, our psychological configurations – is instead subverted into an automated end point,” Richardson writes.

Another artist McEoin has brought to the Triennial, Kevin Abosch, is pushing the concept of new photography. “Photojournalism,” McEoin writes in the catalogue, “serves as a starting point for his exploration of synthetic photography, specifically his deep fakes of scenes depicting civil unrest across the world.” As we discuss this, McEoin’s deep curiosity about Abosch’s experimentation with deep fakes is almost palpable, and he seems to miss my deep misgivings about it as a professional journalist.

But McEoin does add: “He works on stuff himself. So it’s like he’s collaborating with artificial intelligence to generate these deep fake images.” He doesn’t see Abosch’s work as potentially unethical; in fact, quite the opposite. The artist is pointing out the potential pitfalls of AI, the problem nowadays of scrolling past images with a lowered attention span, taking in their messages unquestioningly. “He’s not trying to present them as reality. He’s making sure that once you look closer, you can see it’s fake.”

Like the last NGV Triennial, the terms used to categorise these works and make them more accessible came after the works were decided upon. The curators pursued the artists whose work they were interested in, even as they pursued subjects that seemed to define the moment. They looked out for patterns and symbiosis between works they were discussing with their creators, and the 2023 exhibition was finally categorised with three labels: Matter, Magic and Memory.

The symbioses these words cover include the emergency confronting the environment and the depth of Indigenous traditions from across the world. Hawaiian artist Lehuauakea, for example, has made a work of fabric with stitched mulberry papers and plant dyes, titled Mele O Nā Kaukani Wai (Song of a Thousand Waters). She quotes botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer (a citizen of the American Potawatomi nation): “I dream of a world guided by a lens of stories rooted in the revelations of science and framed with an indigenous worldview – stories in which matter and spirit are given a voice.”

In a similar vein, Mexican designer Fernando Laposse’s Conflict Avocados, constructed for the Triennial, examines the origins of materials and the sustainable use of indigenous plants. “Native to Mexico, avocados have traditionally been grown sustainably and formed a reliable food source in the region; however, global demand for avocados, particularly from the United States, has altered the rate at which the plant is farmed, resulting in ecological destruction, violence and civil unrest,” the catalogue tells us. “In the state of Michoacán, where the majority of avocados are grown for export, cartels take advantage of the lucrative trade in the fruit, engaging in illegal logging, violent land grabbing and intimidation to garner control of the profitable avocado industry.” Do we consider this when enjoying our avocado on toast? Of course not; we aren’t told.

The symbioses also include: the materiality of fashion with the surrealism of works by mid-century designer Elsa Schiaparelli, and her place in the modernist era of Picasso and Diaghilev; the ancient existence of mangroves and the magic and intimacy of them (as well as the risk they face in the Anthropocene), as portrayed by sculptor and photographer Joshua Yeldham; and Joël Andrianomearisoa’s structural text installation HOW CAN I DANCE CELEBRATE DREAM WONDER THE WORLD WITH YOU AGAIN. Also, Thomas J. Price has returned to figurative sculpture with monumental bronze representations of an everyday Black man and woman, confronting the lack of people of colour in public statuary in the United Kingdom. His work will stand in the foyer this year.

The Iranian-born, Melbourne-based artist and photojournalist Hoda Afshar has an extensive and moving retrospective on at the Art Gallery of NSW at the moment. She was commissioned by the Triennial to create an installation titled The Fold. “When the opportunity arose to visit the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris in 2019, Afshar was keen to view its collection of colonial postcards in person with the intention of making a new work about them, but quickly abandoned that idea as the source images felt too violent to be put back out into the world,” the catalogue explains.

For her new work, she has taken another route into colonial imagery and “how it contributed to the construction of a multi-layered and heavily politicised image of Islamic women that remains contested to this day”. Alerted by a curator at Quai Branly, she engaged with Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault (1872–1934), a French psychiatrist and photographer who, during a stay in Morocco in the late 1910s, took thousands of pictures of Islamic women (and some men) veiled in the region’s traditional white garment. In Melbourne, a grid arrangement of fragmented and shadowy images will be hung across gallery walls to surround visitors.

Yoko Ono, a celebrity for many things apart from visual arts who has exhibited in Australia before, has two installations at the Triennial. They are simple messages. One is a large-scale clean black text on a plain white screen installed on the NGV’s façade – I LOVE YOU EARTH – which has already been seen as a part of the Serpentine Galleries’ Back to Earth project in London. The other, My Mommy Is Beautiful, is a space for visitors to pin tributes to their mothers – simple but moving with so much violence ravaging the world.

Maurizio Cattelan, best known for his strikingly beautiful and tragic life-sized horse sculptures, is gracing the Triennial with a banana taped to a wall in a work titled Comedian (2019). Controversial UK artist Tracey Emin will be represented by several works already in the NGV, including a five-metre-high text-based neon, Love Poem for CF (2007), the painting The Execution (2018) and several gouache paintings and bronze sculptures.

And so it goes. The Triennial is an expansive survey of what is intriguing NGV’s curators in artistic and design technique right now, combined with the giant shift in the world – especially technological changes and the pressing political issues they cause.

McEoin points out that events such as triennials are very much about “pushing the dial”. He refers to the first Islamic biennial, held in Jeddah in early 2023: the director was a woman, South African architect Sumayya Vally, which rather pushed the gender discourse there. And yet, he says, of the NGV Triennial “It’s extremely important that the show is broad enough, engaging enough, exciting enough to engage a big audience.”

A balance, in fact, between the profound and the populist.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

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