The NGV Triennial

Julie Ewington
The Monthly, March 2018
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. 
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