It’s an old adage that success breeds success but it’s just as true that success breeds complaints. In recent years no Australian art institution has come within coo-ee of the National Gallery of Victoria when it comes to organising spectacular, ambitious exhibitions. These shows have been intended to draw the biggest possible audiences and in this they have largely succeeded.
Nevertheless whenever the gallery comes up in conversation I’m surprised by the number of people who are scornful and dismissive. It’s too “Barnumesque”, it’s just “populist entertainment”, and so on. The nature of these complaints testifies to an élitist and somewhat romantic idea of art: a belief that the really important stuff is too dense and difficult for the general public.
Such a thesis has its limits. The pragmatic response is that in an age when governments try to shirk their commitments to art and culture, public institutions need all the visitors they can muster. The NGV has brought in the crowds and state government funding has followed. But the argument should not be about numbers, it’s the quality of presentation that matters most. In this sense the NGV has shown a commitment to dynamic exhibition design that puts most other places in the shade. In New York a couple of years ago I was struck by how second-rate the exhibitions looked in comparison to Melbourne.
The gallery’s publishing program is just as sensational. The second NGV Triennial is accompanied by a five volume boxed set of catalogues weighing in at almost five kilos. To be frank it’s over-the-top, as I can’t imagine anyone reading this monster from cover-to-cover.
The launch of the show was timed to coincide with the reopening of the gallery after the COVID-19 lockdowns, creating a major attraction from Day One. Has any other museum re-opened with such a bang? The Triennial boasts 86 projects by more than 100 artists or groups of artists from 30 countries. Most contributors have been allowed to show a substantial body of work, with many pieces being created specifically for the event. I can’t hope to write about more than a handful of pieces but this is not to suggest that many others are not worthy of attention.
The tone is set by the very first work one encounters upon entering the building: Refik Anadol’s Quantum memories – a massive, ever-changing projection generated by super-super computer. An all-powerful algorithm has ingested 200 million landscape images which it recomposes according to its own logic, creating a restless, giant-sized abstraction that seems to be forever on the verge of leaping from a 10 by 10 metre screen and swallowing everything in sight. As an added extra it even composes its own soundtrack.
This work is so mesmeric it becomes hard to tear oneself away. It’s worth a long stare because we may be looking at the future of art, as Artificial Intelligence gradually usurps the sacrosanct domain of human creativity.
Scarcely less elaborate and even more labour-intensive, is a film called Planet City, by Liam Young, an Australian architect based in Los Angeles. The novel idea is that human life has been gathered into a single Amazonian city of 10 billion people, allowing the rest of the planet to regenerate. Young has created a dark, futuristic city, with some of the slum-like vision of the future found in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. We see towering apartment blocks, vast walls of solar panels, mutations of ethnic building styles, people belonging to incomprehensible sub-cultures. There’s also a separate publication devoted to the project.
In the first NGV Triennial of 2017 works were distributed throughout the gallery in juxtaposition with the permanent collection. This time artists have been invited to work with the collection, the most impressive effort coming from British designer, Faye Toogood, who has reconfigured three galleries into a triptych of Daylight, Candlelight and Moonlight, in which objects of her own invention are integrated into transformed rooms hung with Old Master paintings. The installation becomes even more remarkable when one learns that Twogood had to do the project by remote control from England because of travel restrictions.
In another large room NGV curators, Ted Gott and Benjamin Ducroz, and composer, Cornel Wilczek, have created Salon et lumière, which collects favourite pictures from the gallery’s French and British holdiings into a crammed Salon that plunges dramatically into darkness with pictures being picked out by spotlights. This technique is meant to replicate the way 19th century viewers were forced to focus on a single picture from a wall of images hung with apparent randomness. It’s a way of (literally) highlighting particular paintings but I expect some will see it as an act of curatorial delinquency.
The rearrangements are continued by American collective, Fallen Fruit, who have hung Australian colonial paintings on bright, specially designed wallpaper studded with plants, birds and animals. It may be a radical visual strategy but it’s based on the most scrupulous research.
In the galleries devoted to temporary exhibitions the variety of art is breathtaking. Alicja Kwade shows why she is one of today’s rising stars with a subtle installation of thin metal frames, mirrors and objects that does strange things to the viewer’s spatial sense. One might feel just as disoriented in a room of poles and bark paintings in a livid shade of blue by Yolngu artist, Dhambit Munungurr. The forms and motifs may be traditional but the colour is completely unique.
Among the potential crowd-pleasers is Diamond Stingilly’s In the middle but in the corner of 176th place – a room-sized installation of cheap-looking sporting trophies arranged on rows of shelves. It’s the ultimate amateur sportsperson’s fantasy – overwhelming in scale, witty, and irredeemably tacky. Neither is there anything shy and retiring about Porky Hefer’s Buttpus, a gigantic octopus made from thousands of cigarette filters, which are one of the major sources of marine pollution. An over-scaled children’s toy with an environmental message, it’s a staggering thing to come across without warning.
It would be criminal not to mention the Botanical Pavilion by Japanese architect, Kengo Kuma, and Geoff Nees – an elaborate spiraling construction made out of thousands of interlocking wooden slats. We wind our way through this plant-like structure to arrive at a single, transcendentally beautiful painting by Lee Ufan, consisting of one red brushstroke.
There’s no prizes for picking the most famous artist in the show – and probably the most expensive work freshly acquired by the NGV – it’s a shiny, stainless steel statue of Venus by Jeff Koons, copied from a 18th century porcelain ornament and brought to high kitsch perfection by the skilled craftsmen the artist employs. Venus may be the goddess of love but with Koons it’s strictly love of money.
As much as I dislike the idea of the artist as supervisor and style director, not to mention Koons’s banter – he sounds like a used car salesman who has retrained as a charismatic preacher – the piece has a weird allure. It’s sticky on the eye, like all things that gleam and glisten. If NGV director, Tony Ellwood, were looking for an overarching symbol of the gallery’s popular success he’s found the trophy for his mantlepiece.
NGV Triennial 2020
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 15 December, 2020 – 18 April, 2021
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 13 February, 2021