It is rare that Melbourne is not at the forefront of art and culture, acting as Australia’s trend maker. In 2017, the National Gallery of Victoria joined the likes of the Biennale of Sydney and Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art to present a survey show of contemporary art every three years to the people of Melbourne and Australia. The strength of the National Gallery of Victoria’s triennial lays in its complete immersion in its own concept – 100 artists, 32 countries and one unified world. The 32 artists’ works are spread across the entire NGV’s international building, making it a treasure hunt of sorts which aligns with NGV Director Tony Ellwood own description of the Triennial as a ‘choose your own adventure’.
The ‘blockbuster’ or changing exhibition space of the NGV features the majority of the artists’ works within a similar design layout to the Art Gallery of South Australia’s Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art (3rd March to 3rd of June AGSA 2018). The viewer enters a traditional exhibition space and weaves through varying exhibition rooms which are loosely thematic in nature before exiting at the gift shop.
Whilst the artwork on display are incredibly thought provoking, moving and whimsical, the exhibiting of them is a little too formulaic. If the NGV had stopped here it would be a great summer exhibition but for the first ever showcase of its kind the audience demands more. It is at this point where the NGV delivers and sets itself apparent from the other major galleries.
The entire international building on St Kilda Rd has been transformed, creating a cross dialogue or reinterpretation between the permanent collection and the temporary contemporary pieces on show. In my opinion, the best example of this and my favourite from the entire show is Ron Mueck’s Mass. To find the monumental hyper real installation, the viewer must traverse beyond the NGV’s grand atrium and ascend to the second level. The journey takes you through the 17th and 18th century European galleries which adds to a heightened weight of expectation. When finally confronted by the sheer size of the installation, the hype adds to the viewing experience. The individual skulls are solemn and desolate in tone when contrasted to the bold and rich permanent European art in the shared gallery space, but when viewed as a collective, Mass paradoxically radiate a sense of life and purpose which diminishes the permanent art. When you contrast the dialogue between Mass and the rich portraits and displays of 17th/18th century wealth, the imagery is quickly contextualised to be a commentary on morality or as ‘a reminder on the transience of life’. This example couldn’t be more highlighted than the masses (pun intended) of visitors I saw posing amongst the skeletons. The NGV has purposely removed the invisible barrier between the viewer and the sculptures so people can get amongst the individual skeletons. It is anything but ironic watching the hordes of smiling selfie loving people snap away amongst the skeletons which could be seen as the 21st centuries own version of the symbol of wealth and opulence preserved in the many 17th century portraits which share the same space.
The NGV Triennial has been declared a success by almost every critic and viewer alike. The incorporation of artworks by so many diverse artists working across varying mediums makes the entire experience a delightful reflection on the weird and wonderful nature of our contemporary world. My highlights included Yayoi Kasuma’s Flower Obsession, Xu Zhen’s Eternity – Buddha in Nirvana, teamLab’s Moving creates vortices and vortices create movement and Sissel Tolaas’s delightful SmellScape Melbourne _ PastPresentFuture.
Whilst the scope of artists and artworks on display cannot be faulted, I did wonder if presenting one hundred artists was too ambitious. To view all the Triennial in one day is possible but I feel that you could not engage with every piece of art in a meaningful way at such a breakneck speed. On the day I visited, it was 42 degrees and a Saturday. The mass of people that had descended upon the NGV was intimidating and altered the viewing experience. Before attending the exhibition, I was looking forward to spending time immersed in teamLab’s Moving creates vortices and vortices create movement. Upon entering the small digital room I was overcome by the number of people posing in extravagant manners to get that perfect new Instagram shot or the groups of people just hanging out and catching up on their favourite TV show (Netflix’s The Sinner if you’re wondering).
In almost every room I entered, the number of people I witnessed viewing the art purely through their phone camera was depressing and distracting. Shout out to the adult man who threw himself unabashedly onto the bed in Yayoi Kasuma’s Flower Room and laid in the bed whilst everyone filed past and an honourable mention also goes to the young lady filming herself rolling gleefully along the floor of the darkened teamLab space. The large and poorly behaved crowd quickly sapped my friend’s and my energy and distracted from the overall exhibition experience. The NGV can’t be held accountable for society’s lousy behaviour or the 42 degrees weather, but I feel during peak times they could perhaps introduce a free ticketed system for the more crowded sections so everybody can enjoy the experience – they could even go a step further with the ticketed system and introduce viewing times that don’t allow phones for people who experience sensory overload. I would therefore recommend trying to attend the exhibition mid-week if possible, alternatively attend on the weekend, grab a bench and people watch.
The National Gallery of Victoria Triennial’s ambition to present a cross section of contemporary art from across the world successfully presents a thoughtful and playful mediation on the major political, geographical, environmental and cultural dynamics which will prove to define our times. I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition and the breadth of art on display and think it’s a great way to spend a day in Melbourne.
The NGV Triennial is on display at NGV International until the 15th of April with free entry