NGV Triennial 2017

December 23, 2017
Ron Mueck's 'Mass' takes up an entire gallery

Melbourne has long been envious of the Sydney Biennale, which has just announced the artist list for its 21st iteration in 2018. At the opening of the inaugural NGV Triennial this week there was much talk of the one-and-only Melbourne International Biennial, held in 1999, under a title that in retrospect sounds a little tragic: Signs of Life.

The short story of the Biennial was that it lost a lot of money and the concept was shelved, yet if one looked up the show on Wikipedia it was portrayed as a monumental triumph. There is, however, a God in cyberspace. Consult the same page today and you will find a notice saying the previous entry did not meet the “general notability guideline”. Ahem!

A resurgent National Gallery of Victoria, boasting attendances of 3 million in 2107, has set out to revisit the idea of a large, contemporary international exhibition – and this time they’ve got it right.

The NGV Triennial has been four years in the making. Spread throughout every floor of the St. Kilda Road building it unfolds like a massive treasure hunt, having the side benefit of inducing viewers to pause and scrutinise items in the permanent collection. The show features over 100 artists and designers from 30 countries, and comes with a 660-page catalogue filled with substantial essays, and emblazoned with a large ‘1’ on the spine. It’s an impressive display of self-confidence from an institution blitzing the competition.

To provide a loose structure, curators have divided the show into five separate themes: Movement, Change, Virtual, Body and Time. As usual, many pieces might be accommodated in more than one section, but it would be foolish to expect these categories to be precise. Where would contemporary art be without its productive ambiguities?

Xu Zhen's big Buddha

Xu Zhen’s big Buddha

At least 20 works have been specially commissioned and acquired for the gallery with funds provided by private sponsors. Some of these, such as Xu Zhen’s Eternity-Buddha in Nirvana, which dominates the NGV lobby, are true crowd-pleasers. A 16-metre reclining Buddha, copied from an original sculpture in a cave at Dunhuang, is being clambered over by 15 life-sized plaster figures taken from the annals of Greco-Roman, Renaissance and Neo-classical art.

The size alone is impressive, but the fascination of the work lies in the way it plays with the relationship between East and West. The European statues swarm over the Buddha like demented sight-seers looking for the best camera angles. It suggests that the western engagement with oriental art and religion has been largely touristic.

Most viewers are happy to respond in precisely this way, standing back and enjoying the awesome scale of the piece. There’s a lot of ‘wow factor’ in this exhibition, as one moves from Xu Zhen’s Buddha to a room of large, cartoonish paintings and sculptures by Indonesian artist, Hahan, who has created a suite of works titled New Speculative Wanderers, portraying a brief history of Indonesian contemporary art – its growing popularity and entry into global market. The final panel depicts the NGV’s St. Kilda Road premises as if this were the holy sepulchre to which all artists aspire.

Hahan's 'New Speculative Wanderers' , or part thereof..

Hahan’s ‘New Speculative Wanderers’ , or part thereof..

Hahan’s tongue may be in his cheek, but his observations about the growing hysteria of the art market are only too accurate. Successful artists become entertainers, makers of lavish spectacles. The trick is to produce works that fulfil this need while retaining enough of a critical perspective to engage viewers intellectually. Both Xu Zhen and Hahan are skilled performers in this respect.

There’s more spectacle upstairs, with an entire gallery devoted to Chinese fashion designer Guo Pei, who has created full-length dresses of such luxury and extravagance it seems hardly credible that these spring from the same country that gave us the unisex, dun-coloured Mao suit. Guo Pei’s designs are only too symbolic of the wealth and decadence of the new China.

Guo Pei, shock frocks from China

Guo Pei, shock frocks from China

In a Triennial notable for its orchestrated contrasts one may leave Guo Pei’s ballgowns and walk into Incoming, a three-channel video installation by Irishman, Richard Mosse, which documents the refugee crisis engulfing the world. At sea, in camps, and even in the operating theatre, Mosse has created a multiple portrait of populations in limbo that is stark and occasionally horrifying. By using a thermal imaging camera that renders body heat as a vivid play of contrasts he brings a surreal drama to these scenes. The most unforgettable sequence is an autopsy in which doctors with blackened faces cut into bodies from which death gleams with a blinding whiteness.

Richard Mosse's thermal imaging

Richard Mosse’s thermal imaging

The refugee theme is continued by South African video artist, Candice Breitz, with a double screen of Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin narrating refugee stories. Go behind the screen and we find videos of the refugees themselves, allowing us to put faces to the narratives.

Mosse and Breitz push our noses up against the glass, forcing us to consider scenarios that rarely make it into the news bulletins for more than a few seconds. Other works try to remove us from the world altogether, notably Flower Obsession, a full-sized apartment fitted out by Yayoi Kusama. As viewers enter they are invited to take a sticker of a flower and place it wherever they wish within the installation. The idea is to obliterate everything with flowers, making humdrum reality disappear.

Candice Breitz, Julianne Moore as avatar

Candice Breitz, Julianne Moore as avatar

This process is taken even further in an extraordinary virtual reality installation by Melbourne artist, Tom Crago. With the exception of Lynette Wallworth’s Collisions, I’ve always found VR to be a disappointment, but Crago and Tantalus Media have taken the technology to another level. After donning the headset one is transported into the cavernous interior of a sailing ship, full of dark, wood-panelled rooms, broken floors, rickety bridges, and vistas of surging waves. I wandered around for about 20 minutes until the first signs of sea-sickness told me it was time to leave – which must be counted as a sign of success.

I’m sorry to be dwelling only on the large-scale works, but one commissioned piece that can’t be overlooked is Ron Mueck’s Mass, which fills a gallery of old master painting with a mound of giant-sized skulls, at once reminiscent of a vanitas still life, and perhaps the killing fields of Cambodia. In the midst of so much frantic spectacle and activity, we are halted by the colossal presence of death. It’s like listening to one of those symphonies by Giya Kancheli, where we go from the most minimal of themes to full-on catastrophe in the blink of an eye, then quickly back to zero.

So many large-scale exhibitions devolve into nothing but a commentary on prevailing art fashions, but there is a exhilarating feeling about this first NGV Triennial. This is not a private conversation between curators but a viewer-oriented experience. Panoramic in scope, it shows us the world today in all its contradictions; its extremes of pleasure and pain, opulence and despair.

NGV Triennial
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne,
15 December, 2017 – 15 April, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 23 December, 2017