The NGV is currently hosting its second Triennial which I strongly recommend. It closes on the 18th of April and is well worth a visit; maybe even two. There’s no charge but it’s a bit simpler, and quicker in a crowd, if you book in advance.
This screen will greet you on arrival; worth standing and watching the amazing videos in brilliant colours that stretch out beyond the frame. There is a grey one that looks like milk pooling and expanding – a nice contrast to the exuberant colour in the others. Quite mesmerizing.
It’s hard to see everything. And visitors are not helped by the absence of maps and signs. It took me a while to realise you just have to treat the whole gallery as a backdrop and visit every part of it in order to discover the Triennial gems hidden throughout.
I went twice; on the 21st of January when it was very busy, and on the 2nd of March when it wasn’t. Now that it is close to ending numbers might build up again. So I’d encourage you to go as soon as possible.
All of the exhibits are stimulating, both visually and in the issues they raise. Environmental concerns were a bit of a theme and I thought the video installations this year were really impressive, unlike at the first Triennial. Here are some of the exhibits that really impressed me.
Salon et lumière
This ornate light foreshadowed we were entering the equivalent of the annual Paris Salon or London’s Royal Academy some time during the nineteenth century. I had no foreknowledge of what was in store, but it turned out to be my favourite installations.
The room contained 140 of the Gallery’s permanent collection of nineteenth century paintings; all hung as they would have been at at the time. Which was close together from ceiling to floor.
As the accompanying note tells us, before the invention of cinema looking at paintings was the only way to see visual culture so this exhibit seeks to recreate the exhilaration experienced by nineteenth-century audiences in a twenty-first century context, to capture for new audiences the immersive thrill felt by their forebears … Modern illumination and projection techniques have been combined here with an immersive soundscape to recreate for our own time the clamorous power of these great exhibitions.
You enter the room in darkness or in the middle of the video show. A dazzling array of images swirl around you lighting up the paintings in different ways. Accompanied by a soundscape that conjures up a whole array of moods; sometimes pensive, sometimes thrilled, often shock and awe. I checked it out on both my visits and the second time took these little videos so I could maintain the memory. They are very short but give a taste of the experience. Absolutely stunning!
Different paintings are lit up at different times engendering a feeling that you are surrounded by art. The first time I went I focussed on one painting to see how the different images affected it. I’ve since discovered it is Anguish by August Friedrich Albrecht Schenck and twice voted the gallery’s most popular work. A newly birthed ewe is defending her ill/dead newborn lamb from a group (murder) of crows . You see it in this video. A striking image – with the emotion it engenders heightened by the lighting display happening all around it.
In this next video you see dots – snowdrops? moonlight?- splashed across the pictures. Either way they conjure up nature intruding on the Salon.
Other images passing over the paintings made you think of the world out there and it’s relationship to the things artists chose to paint. At least that’s what I thought about this lion.
From time to time the paintings in the frames are replaced by crackling images reminiscent of televisions on the blink – although the fuzziness also conjures up illegible coding symbols.
It ends with a soaring operatic score accompanying the lighting up of the whole gallery. It brought to mind for me the rise and fall of civilisations – life comes and goes the pictures remain.
It was created by a team of people including the Creative Director Benjamin Ducroz Acting Manager of Multimedia at the NGV and Lead Moving Image Designer Taylor Curry (the son of a former work colleague).
I hope the NGV keeps it up past the Triennial. It’s a great experience. It’s on the second floor.
The title doesn’t prepare you for these three rooms and it took me a while to realise we were meant to look at the wallpaper which was different in each. Items from the Gallery – paintings and sculptures – were arranged around this extraordinarily beautiful work by the American Fallen Fruit artist collective made up of David Allen Burns and Austin Young.
One room was decorated with images from sketchbooks and drawings from the NGV.
The primary colour against which the images were printed was different on each wall.
The pattern was created from historic botanical drawings, notebooks and sketchbooks held in the NGV Collection. The intricately drawn birds, insects, eucalypts and other indigenous shrubs creates an atmosphere that the artists speculate existed before and during colonisation. They are certainly beautiful drawings.
Another room had wallpaper made up of images from photographs taken at the Botanic Gardens in Cranbourne; the hundreds of indigenous species being preserved there. The note accompanying says; Many artefacts in dialogue with the wallpaper here are European artifacts brought to Australia with limited cultural context and thus misidentified. The statue is Eros a 16th century bronze from Italy.
Amazing backdrop to these paintings, and the juxtaposition certainly makes you think.
I took lots of pictures and it takes a lot of discipline not put them all up! They are all very beautiful. I can’t resist this one showing Rupert Bunny’s painting Garden idyll against the lovely wallpaper.
The drawings were incredibly delicate. Here’s a close-up of the Cranbourne wallpaper.
Another wallpaper comprised a pattern of roses and other non-native plants from the Melbourne Botanic Gardens and the gardens around Collingwood. Very familiar. From photographs by the artists, these images represent colonisers’ social constructs regarding the ‘naturalisation’ of plants, as well as the adaptive powers of introduced species conducive to urban and rural environments.
Exquisite up close. Brought to mind the lounge rooms of grandmothers and aunts.
Another exhibit, up the glass walkway on the way to Fallen Fruit, is about the precarity of life on Earth. It depicts species that are recognised as in danger of extinction. Internationally there are seven risk levels and the designers of this work grouped animals, insects and plants into three displayed in either red – critically endangered, green – near threatened, or blue – now extinct. In this photograph you can see the different items stacked on top of each other.
But as you walk around the display the colours change. You have to wait to see the different illustrations emerge in and identify the animal’s level of risk according to what colour finally attached to it. Very clever and thought provoking.
And, whilst very beautiful, when you see those animals that are extinct (above), or critically endangered (below), heartbreaking.
Can we all have a happy life?
This is the name of a room full of Indigenous art utilising the most wonderful tones of blue. Reminiscent of Brett Whitely. These are by a wheel-bound artist Dhambit Munungurr who works at the Yolnu-run art centre Buku-Larrngay Mulka in Arnhem Land and the installation was presented by them collaboratively.
Because of her disability Munungurr was given special permission to paint with store bought acrylic paint (normally artists who paint Country use materials collected from Country). She says she paints with blue because the earth is blue, the sea is blue, and the sky is blue.
It was hard to get a picture of the whole installation which included a number of larrakitj (hollow poles) as well as paintings. The note tells us that these larrakitj is a general reference to the ocean and creatures within it including dugong, fish and octopus.
The painting below is called Dhambit blue Bäru and is of her totem, the crocodile (bäru). Fantastic colour; not properly captured in the photo.
These three paintings – Mungurrawuy saved by dolphins, Narrpiya, The hole in the wall – were huge; which is not captured in this photo. I had to stand well back to get them all in the shot.
I hadn’t been able to find this room on my first visit. It’s off to the left of the big screen in the courtyard, past the cafe. As were the next couple of exhibits.
This is by Alicja Kwade and as the note says nothing is quite what it seems … Through the use of double sided mirrors and … paired objects Kwade’s installation creates the illusion of sudden and surprising material transformations. It was eerie – you didn’t know whether a panel was walk-through or a mirror. I found it deeply unsettling – a mood not quite captured in this photo.
Plastocene – Marine Mutants from a Disposable World
This was another installation concerned with environmental degradation. It was designed by Porky Hefer and made by a community of artisans from around Cape Town, South Africa. They make imaginary sea creatures from rubbish. This one is made from cigarette butts!
AS you can see when you get up close. Horrible, but clever and thought provoking.
The Song of Amergin
A small room contained paintings by an Australian artist Clare Milledge based on the words of The Song of Amergin translated by Robert Graves. I am a stag: of seven tines / I am a flood: across a plain / I am a wind: on a deep lake / I am a tear: the Sun lets fall / I am a hawk: above the cliff / I am a thorn: beneath the nail / I am a wonder: among flowers / I am a wizard: who but I / Sets the cool head aflame with smoke?
The paintings are from a series painted in 2018 called Sacks of Wind: A Rock Harder than Rock and their titles are from the poem – but the images all have a decidedly feminist twist. It was hard to photograph because she uses a technique known as reverse glass painting, so I only have these (very poor) pictures. But I include them here because I want to remember them. I loved both idea – very clever and thought provoking – and its execution – very beautiful images.
I am a hill where poets walk
I am the queen of every hive
I am the womb: of every holt
I am a hawk: above a cliff
I am a wind: on a deep lake
I am a breaker: threatening doom
These were all on the ground floor to the left of the courtyard; easy to miss.
On the right-hand side another installation easier to find and also worth a visit.
That’s the name of the artist not the overall installation. I can’t remember what that is, but it’s prominently displayed and has been used to promote the Triennial. On my first visit you had to queue up to see it because it was so popular.
He hand-carves lime wood figures based on real people who he finds around his home neighbourhood of Dalston in London. They are scaled at one third of the model’s size. Gorgeous.
This one is up to date with her; she may be the one he had to finish working remotely when the model had to return to Canada just before lockdown in the UK. He also referenced our current climate by having his models situated properly socially distanced!
It is the level of detail and the uniqueness of each sculpture that makes them so appealing. This includes their choice of clothes and things like ear-rings – all based on the models own.
Here’s Joe demonstrating scale. It takes three months to create each figure. They are enchanting.
House of heroines
This is an installation by by Lara Schnitger. The room is full of quilted fabric panels and items commonly associated with women – there were things that looked to be made with old panty-hose. I didn’t find the work very attractive but the message was potent. I took these photos back in January little knowing how topical they would turn out to be.
She uses materials and techniques traditionally associated with female labor and touching on aspects regarded as taboo such as women’s expression of sexuality. Great messaging.
Upstairs, near the Salon de lumière is a terrific piece. It’s by an Indonesian collective called Tromarama and is an LED curtain with images inspired by a unique marine environment off the coast of Indonesia. The background to the work sounds very complicated – they’ve used weather data, wind speed, temperature readings and the like to track, record and film jellyfish. Sounds like a lot of work but the end result is beautiful as these videos demonstrate.
Stay and watch for a while as the images change quite dramatically over time. Beautiful.
EYE HEAR U MAGIK
This work by Hannah Brontë is right up on the third floor somewhat hidden away but it’s worth continuing until you find it. She makes videos and installations exploring the role of Indigenous/Blak women through recurring themes of resilience, matriarchy and power. It is very beautiful. I started out taking still photos of the amazing images. Here is a pregnant woman floating beside a whale.
And here are two young mothers with newborn babes in arms surrounded by jelly fish.
Magical imagery befitting the title of the work. Here is one more photo – all of which are taken from videos (and so not great quality – but still beautiful). It’s all very stylised.
I finally managed a tiny video.
On the way to or from (I can’t remember) that last installation we passed through a room devoted to what I’ll call scientific art. Things like objects suspended in salt water and encrusted with crystals and things like that. The best of which I thought was by Elliot. He grows vibrant blue crystals from a copper sulphate solution and then adds them to ordinary objects suggesting a possible future for design where new materials and production methods could be realised. Beautiful blue – notice the chair in the background.
I also liked the nine vessels that made up Vicki West’s installation. These are contemporary reinterpretations of customary rikawa (bull Kelp) water carriers used by Tasmanian Aboriginal people. Their feminine form creating a matriarchal link to the nine traditional nations of Lutruwita (Tasmania). Sturdy and beautiful.
Homily to Country
Finally you must venture outside to see JR’s installation drawing attention to the decline of hte Darling River. JR is famous for his oversize photographs. I’ve seen the wonderful film he made with Agnes Varda, Faces Places, which explains the nature of his work. Here’s the trailer. He immerses himself in a community; speaking to people and finding out what the issues are in a place. He then illustrate that situation or issues via outsize pictures of either the place or the people.
Here he has been to the rural communities that have been devastated by mismanagement of the Murray-Darling Basin. Whilst he has taken his normal photos, here they have been turned into stained glass windows and erected inside what is described as an open-air chapel.
A video outside the structure explains the background to the photos. You see JR speaking to the people that he subsequently photographs. Two white farmers who have been forced to burn their orchard because of a lack of water in the Darling and a senior Indigenous Baakandji Elder with whom he discusses the impact of this water mismanagement his community.
The stained glass windows are beautiful. Here is the woman (the black shadow is caused by a sculpture outside).
And here is the Elder, Baaka is the Indigenous word for the Darling.
And the other orchardist. It’s always a funny moment when JR tells the people he’s talking to that he wants to take their picture. They can’t quite believe it, but most of them say okay. It was the same in his film with Agnes. They ask what they should do and he says, just look at the camera!
This is art with a political message. In the video we see JR tell these folk that he’s witnessed this agricultural decline all around the world; in France and in Italy he has taken pictures of farmers and Indigenous peoples who have been forced off the land because of environmental degradation and the impact of multinational agribusinesses.
And that was the Triennial for me. It’s a terrific thing to have here in Melbourne – and terrific that despite COVID 19 we were able to get along to it finally. This is just the tiniest snapshot of what’s on display. It’s all very stimulating – but tiring. A couple of hours does me in.
As I said at the start, I’d just go through the gallery seeking out all the bits and pieces. If you are looking for something in particular (thanks in part to this blog) don’t hesitate to ask the NGV attendants. They’re helpful.
And if you want to have lunch or high tea or afternoon tea in the second floor cafe you have to book (not that I would bother doing that).
But you now need to get in quick. The whole thing finishes on the 18th of April.