Art In­verse Ra­tios

Julie Ewing­ton on the NGV Tri­en­nial

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS -

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

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.

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 cross­dis­ci­plinary 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 asy­lum­seek­ers and manda­tory de­ten­tion. The ex­hi­bi­tion cat­a­logue in­cludes an in­ter­view with in­terned Kur­dishIra­nian 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.

Photo by Sean Fen­nessey

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

Ed­son Cha­gas, Mar­cel D. Traore, 2014, from the Tipo Passe se­ries, type C pho­to­graph, artist’s proof, 100 x 80 cm, Bow­ness Fam­ily Fund for Con­tem­po­rary Pho­tog­ra­phy, 2016 (2016.208). © Ed­son Cha­gas. Cour­tesy of STEVEN­SON, Cape Town

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