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Given the proliferation of international biennials and triennials, the inevitable question arises: does Australia really need another one? And if it does, how can it differentiate itself from the venerable Biennale of Sydney (BoS)—one of the world’s oldest—and Brisbane’s celebrated Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT)? The verdict appears to be in. Based on the inaugural edition of the NGV Triennial (NGVT1), not only do we need it, but a new benchmark has been set, and a fresh approach established, at least locally, for this most problematic of exhibition forms.
On one measure at least—the attendance figures beloved by funding bodies and state governments—NGVT1 has blown everything else out of the water, far exceeding anything in the NGV’s one hundred and fifty-seven year history, and setting an all-time Australian record. By the time NGVT1 closed in April, it had attracted an astonishing total of 1,231,742 visitors, with an average daily attendance of 10,096.1 While not always a benchmark of artistic success, these statistics do say something about the enthusiasm of Melbourne audiences. Anecdotally, it seems that many people visited NGVT1 multiple times, and it was also an emphatically family-friendly offering, evidenced by a sea of parked prams, and the squeals of joy emanating from (in the entrance lobby) an embroidered dome-like pavilion (Victoria Amazonica, 2017), a collaboration between Brazil's studio Campana, Yarrenyty Arltere Artists and other designers from Alice Springs. More excitement emanated from Yayoi Kusama’s nearby multi-room installation Flower Obsession (2018), and teamLab’s mirrored arena of swirling interactive projections (Moving creates vortices and vortices create movement, 2017), among a host of other activities.
Concentrated within the NGV International’s bluestone fortress on St Kilda Rd, NGVT1 very deliberately built on the success of the 2013/14 mega-show Melbourne Now, which incorporated design, architecture, performance and hybrid artforms by over four hundred artists and collectives. This was a smaller undertaking, with some one hundred artists from thirty-five countries, but its inclusion of work by architects, as well as product, game and spatial designers, provided a crucial differentiation from a ubiquitous format which suffers from perceptions of ‘sameyness’. While many international biennials2 present an increasingly fragmented, dispersed and even grungy aesthetic, NGV1 kept it tight and slick. It was all very Melbourne, including the graphics by local firm Büro North—smart, chic and multi-disciplinary, yet somehow unpretentious, as befits Australia’s de facto design capital. This was not to everyone’s taste of course. Those who enjoy nosing out far-flung venues and obscure urban sites might have found it all a bit too stage-managed, even claustrophobic. The atmospherics of place were here superseded by controlled exhibition environments, architecturally designed and lit to provide a pathway from room to room. ‘Very Ikea’, quipped one visitor, as she wilfully doubled back against the human tide. Did this benefit the work on show? It certainly removed all distractions from the art itself, except where, very adroitly, key works were inserted into the permanent collections, of which more below.
Space does not allow for a detailed account of the extremely diverse work on offer, however in overall terms, I think it is fair to say that the exhibition achieved a finely-judged and successful balance between the spectacular and the granular. Visiting this exhibition was undoubtedly ‘an experience’, and there was a pleasing rhythm to the walk-through—darkened spaces of intense sensory immersion were interspersed with quiet white-cube spaces in which evenly-lit works invited contemplation. Thus one proceeded (from memory) past Xu Zhen's monumental, fourteen metre-long reclining Buddha installation (Eternity-Buddha in Nirvana, 2016-17), through Hassan Hajjaj’s high-chroma Morroccan café makeover (Noss Noss, 2017); past Indonesian Uji (Hahan) Handoko Eko Saputro’s zany, oversized superheroes (Young speculative wanderers, 2014-15), through Pae White’s immersive tapestry installation (Spearmint to peppermint, 2013), to arrive at a series of rooms hung with works on paper, by the likes of Olga Chernysheva (Russia), Jorge Méndez Blake (Mexico) and Riley Payne (Australia)—a brief respite before plunging back into the gloom of Shilpa Gupta’s (India) untitled auditory edifice, and so onward… this rhythm continued through three more levels.
It seems unfair, in a short review, to single out individual works in an exhibition of standouts. While I did not personally warm to everything, I cannot think of one serious misfire. However, mention must be made of Ron Mueck’s monumental pile of skulls (Mass, 2016-17) in the level two European galleries; Alvaro Catalán de Ocón (Spain) & Bula’bula Artists (Ramingining) PET Lamp project; Sean O’Connell’s Spark series; Melbourne games designer Tom Crago’s extraordinary, high-res virtual reality environment (Materials, 2016-17) accessed via Büro North’s futuristic Triennial Voices multimedia hub/café; and South African Candice Breitz’s multi-screen installation (Wilson Must Go, otherwise known as Love Story).3
In the central core, past Guo Pei’s (China) theatrically-lit installation of haute couture costumes, lay the dark, beating heart of the exhibition (for this writer anyway)—Irish artist/photojournalist Richard Mosse’s giant, three-screen installation (Incoming, 2014-17), shot with thermal imaging cameras developed for military surveillance, which can record heat signatures up to thirty kilometres away in total darkness, smoke or fog. Running close to an hour, its distressing subject matter is the mass migration of refugees from the Syrian conflict, filmed in numerous locations. The ghostly monochrome footage, which resembles the tonal reversal of a photographic negative, is further manipulated, slowed down and set to a powerful rhythmic soundtrack (composer Ben Frost, cinematographer Trevor Tweeten). I found myself conflicted—simultaneously enthralled and appalled by the strange intimacy of the images. I was very conscious of the disconnect between seductive aesthetics and the heart-rending spectacle of human distress, rendered anonymous and generic by the thermal treatment. This discomfort is no doubt intended by the artist—Mosse gives a good account in numerous forums4 of his own conflicted feelings as a photojournalist, and on balance his use of the medium, with its central metaphor of body heat, is justified. It is certainly memorable. The project, which included a related multi-screen video work (Grid (Moria), 2017), and large photographic prints, was jointly commissioned by the NGV and the Barbican Centre, London, indicative of the NGV’s financial commitment to resource-intensive new work of global significance.
In conclusion, something should be said about NGVT1’s thematics, pleasingly muted throughout the exhibition, somewhat more apparent in an impressive printed publication.5 The curators explain that the underlying themes—Movement, Change, Virtual, Body, Time—emerged gradually from research and development, and were never a premeditated curatorial scheme. The image-rich publication (so much more than a catalogue) expands on these thematic clusters with a trove of insightful writing, commissioned in collaboration with Melbourne’s major universities, and it sets a new high-water mark for scholarship, design and diversity of thought in Australian art publishing. If you did not catch the show, get the book—I’m still reading.
Richard Mosse, Incoming, 2015–16. Still, from three channel black and white high definition video, surround sound, 52 min 10 sec (looped). Cinematographer / Editor: Trevor Tweeten. Composer / Sound Designer: Ben Frost. Co-commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne and the Barbican Art Gallery, London. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased with funds donated by Christopher Thomas AM and Cheryl Thomas, Jane and Stephen Hains, Vivien and Graham Knowles, Michael and Emily Tong and 2016 NGV Curatorial Tour donors, 2017. © Richard Mosse. Image courtesy Richard Mosse, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York and carlier|gebauer, Berlin.
Ron Mueck, Mass, 2016–17. Detail. Installation view. Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Collection National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Felton Bequest, 2017. Photograph Tom Ross
Candice Breitz, Wilson Must Go, 2016. Alec Baldwin and José Maria João. Seven channel high definition colour video, sound. Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Outset Germany, Berlin and Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg. Collection National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Donald Russell Elford and Dorothy Grace Elford Bequest, 2017. © Candice Breitz
Tom Crago, Materials, 2016–17. Detail. Colour virtual reality environment, sound. Collection of Tantalus, Melbourne and the artist. © Tom Crago. Image courtesy Tom Crago.
1. By way of comparison, in 2014 the NGV’s Melbourne Now attracted a then record-setting 753,071 visitors. The world’s top museum attendance in 2017 was at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, for the exhibition Icons of Modern Art – The Shchukin Collection (total 1,205,063; daily 8,926), and the top daily attendance was 11,268 (total 600,439) at Japan’s Tokyo National Museum for Unkei – the Great Master of Buddhist Sculpture. Both of these were ticketed exhibitions. The Venice Biennale (ticketed) attracted a total of 615,000 across its multiple venues, and Documenta (free) a total of 1,230,500 across over more than 46 venues in Kassel (891,500) and Athens (339,000). See The Art Newspaper, ‘Visitor figures 2017’, and ArtNews, ‘Documenta 14 Reports Record Attendance’, 19 September 2017.
2. Of course I include triennials and the quinquennial Documenta in this generic descriptor.
3. Both Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and Candice Breitz changed the titles of their works to Wilson Must Go, in protest against the NGV’s security firm, which manages several of Australia’s offshore refugee detention centres. On 28 February 2018 the NGV terminated its contract with Wilson Security.
4. See video interview: NGV Triennial website: https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/multimedia/richard-mosse/
5. Ewan McEoin, Simon Maidment, Megan Patty, Pip Wallis, Mark Gomes and Rowena Robertson (editors and contributors), NGV Triennial 2017, National Gallery of Victoria, 2017.