Sydney Morning Herald Column

NGV Triennial 3

Published February 10, 2024
Maurizio Cattelan, 'Comedian' (2019)

Over the past decade I’ve had so many positive things to say about the National Gallery of Victoria that I get accused of favouritism. My response to such charges is very simple: Put in the work and reap the rewards. The NGV owes its success to a busy, dynamic exhibitions program and an unwavering focus on audiences. They host twice as many shows as any comparable Australian institution, maybe 3-4 times as many. They cover all the bases: local and international, art and design, contemporary and historical.

Julian Charrière, ‘And Beneath It All Flows Liquid Fire’, (2019)

The NGV recognises the growing global emphasis on First Nations, women and LGBQT artists, but not at the expense of all other artforms, and with an unusual degree of quality control. One sees the opposite approach in the debacle of Sydney’s now-shuttered Powerhouse Museum, which abandoned its core business of applied arts, science and technology in favour of a lop-sided indulgence in an identity-driven program, with the result that attendances returned to levels not seen since the early 1960s.

The Powerhouse is an extreme case, but there’s an insidious belief among art institutions that if they feel virtuous, the job is done. This complacent attitude flies in the face of a reality which sees governments requiring museums to raise a progressively larger percentage of their own funds.

Figures by Thomas J. Price

The first NGV Triennial in 2017 claimed the extraordinary figure of 1.3 million visitors, making it the gallery’s best attended exhibition of all time.

The second NGV Triennial of 2020-21 arrived at the end of COVID-19 lockdowns, but still managed to draw more than 500,000 visitors. The most miraculous part of the event was the number of large-scale international works brought to Australia at a time when loans and freight posed huge problems. In that same year, the Powerhouse Ultimo boasted annual attendance figures of 187,164.

Mun-dirra installation


The third, rapturously post-COVID, installment of the NGV Triennial is running until April this year, giving everybody a chance to see this barnstorming show. As a new installment of the Sydney Biennale gets underway in March, it allows an excellent opportunity to compare the contemporary art offerings of Australia’s two major cities.

This year’s NGV Triennial will be a hard act to follow. The stats alone are daunting: “75+ projects by 100 artists, designers and collectives from 30+ countries.” But it’s the quality and variety of work that really sets this exhibition apart from most of the world’s large-scale contemporary art fests. Whatever I write about individual artists must be viewed as the tip of the iceberg.

Sheila Hick, ‘Nowhere to go’

Some parts, such as the Megacities project, constitute a show-within-a-show that deserves a review in its own right. Ten photographers, who reside in global cities of more than ten million inhabitants, have each contributed 50 images, shown on a constantly changing display. It’s astonishing to think this is only one small component of the Triennial.

In such a vast exhibition, in which works are displayed in the groundfloor spaces, and threaded through the permanent collection upstairs, first impressions are important. Upon entering from St. Kilda Road, one encounters a gigantic video screen featuring a work by Swiss artist, Julian Charrière, titled And beneath it all flows liquid fire. It shows an elaborate, antique fountain bubbling with hot magma rather than water. In one arresting image, we are made to think of a world in which the life-giving flow of water has been supplanted by scorching heat, as nature rises up in anger.

Franziska Furter, ‘Liquid Skies/Gyrwynt’ & ‘Haku’

Turn around, and we are confonted by two towering figures, created by British sculptor, Thomas J. Price. It’s a fanfare for the common man, portraying an average-looking black man and woman on a heroic scale. What’s impressive is the fine bronze casting that makes these ebony figures more than a match for all those statues of great men (and occasionally women) that gather dust and pigeon droppings in public places.

None of this prepares us for the shock of the first room, which features Mun-dirra, a weaving of more than 100 metres, made from Pandanus and other bush materials, by women from the Arnhem Land community of Maningrida. Anybody who thinks, “Ho hum, another grass mat,” needs to experience the overwhelming physical presence of this work, which feels more like a feat of architecture than sculpture. The project was commissioned by the NGV in 2021, but the thirteen weavers went far beyond anything the curators anticipated.

Makoto Azusa, ‘Block Flowers’ installation

Mun-dirra is a dramatic illustration of the idea that a fibre work can transcend the art-craft clichés and become an aesthetic event of the first order. It also eliminates any suggestion that First Nations works require special categories of their own. The sheer scale and ambition of this piece makes many works by artists from Europe or America seem half-hearted.

One couldn’t say this about Sheila Hicks, almost certainly the world’s leading fibre artist, who turns 90 this year, and is still creating monumental installations. Born in Nebraska, Hicks has lived in Paris since the early 1960s, becoming a French ‘national treasure’. Nowhere to go, which has been acquired by the NGV, is a seven-metre-tall pile of soft fibre bundles in different shades, ranging from deep blue to a greenish pastel. The colours are suggestive of the sky, land and ocean, but there is also something musical in the way each bundle represents a distinct note in a composition, that could potentially be rearranged.

Fernando Laposse, from his ‘Conflict Avocados’ project

Another large-scale textile work is Franziska Furter’s Liquid Skies/Gyrwynt, a woollen carpet which reproduces infra-red satellite photos of hurricanes in a destructive configuration that is also remarkably seductive. Hovering over this carpet, Furter has place another installation, Haku, consisting of thousands of small glass beads, hanging in the air like frozen water droplets. One thinks of W.B. Yeats’s famous line, “A terrible beauty is born.”

What’s significant about the works by artists such as Furter and Charrière is their ability to focus our thoughts on a topic such as climate change, without hammering away in a dogmatic manner. Contemporary art engages most effectively with political issues when it treads lightly, attracting our attention and inviting us to draw the relevant conclusions.

Petrit Halilaj, ‘Very volcanic over this green feather’ (2021).

A problematic beauty is also the major theme in Makoto Azuma’s A Chaotic Garden, which seal flowers at the peak of their life cycle in blocks of clear resin. Looked at from one angle it’s a way of freezing a perfect moment in time, from another. it’s a memento mori, alerting us that perpetual beauty is purchased at the cost of life itself.

Ryan Gander’s talking mouse, ‘The end’

There may be nothing in the show that portrays the human relationship with the natural world more dramatically than Fernando Laposse’s Conflict Avocados project. Working with farmers and peasants in one of the poorest parts of Mexico, Laposse has created a range of furniture that uses avocado skins, and dye from avocado seeds, as material for a mural, a couch, and a multidrawer cabinet. These items come with an incredible story, about the booming global demand for avocados fuelling a culture of criminal gangs and environmental degradation in the state of Michoacán. A video documentary pulls all the threads together, telling how the women of the region led a rebellion against the gangs when the law failed to act.

It’s food for thought, next time you order smashed avo on toast at your local café.

Jessica Murtagh, from the ‘Modern Relic’ series

Another artist who deals with conflict is Petrit Halilaj, whose drawings, made as a 13-year-old refugee, during the Kosovo War of 1998-99, show scenes of violence and terror mixed up with the stereotypical child’s view of the world. These drawings have been blown up and presented as a room-sized installation, Very volcanic over this green feather (2021). They are as chilling and fascinating, in their way, as Goya’s Disasters of War.

Painting installation by Farrokh Mahdavi

The works I’ve described may not even be the biggest crowd-pleasers in this exceptional show. Many will flock to see a version of Maurizio Cattelan’s Comedian (2019), the infamous banana stuck to the wall with duct tape. It will take all of ten seconds. You’ll need a little more time with Ryan Gander’s The end (2020), a realistic looking animatronic mouse that philosophises from his mouse hole at the foot of a gallery wall. I’ve encountered this rodent all over the world, but he never loses his charm.

SMACK collective, from ‘Garden of Eden’

I can only point at the witty sculptures of Scando duo, Elmgreen + Dragset; the spacious desert paintings of Timo Hogan; the SMACK collective’s three-screen phantasmagoria on Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, the paintings of Farrokh Mahdavi, that you can walk all over; and Jessica Murtagh’s pseudo-Greek vases that show people queuing at Centrelink, and similarly classic activities.

Agnieszka Pilat’s robot dogs

Perhaps the ultimate drawcards are Agnieszka Pilat’s robot dogs, which wander around greeting visitors and even painting a picture. Is this the future of art? Pilat’s pups are a lot more engaging than the NGA’s dreary $6 million Jordan Wolfson cube, which does nothing but wave two robotic arms at the viewer for half an hour. The fact is, the human brain is wired in such a manner that we just love to look at animals, even when they’re machines. With these mechanical dogs, the NGV shows how adept it is at surfing the contemporary trends and giving the people what they want.





NGV Triennial 3

National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 3 December 2023 – 7 April 2024


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 10 February, 2024