Design-focused, craft-based and entwined in the politics and poetics of movement, the NGV Triennial’s most memorable works are future-orientated
Long ago, a rain of asteroids embedded Earth’s crust with precious metals. It is thought that by 2080 the great majority of these compounds will have been consumed and the following era will be one of above-ground extraction, where gold and silver are mined from discarded technology. Formafantasma’s Ore Streams (2017), commissioned by the 1st NGV Triennial, details this reality. An installation of office furniture composed of e-waste and images of the cosmos, its elegant modernist structures evoke late capitalism’s love for efficiency, quantification and consumption. The work also stands as an embodiment of the Triennial itself: design-focused, craft-based and entwined in the politics and poetics of movement (of waste, of people, of commodities).
Curated in-house by director Tony Ellwood and the gallery’s senior curatorial team, the Triennial showcases 100 artists and designers from 32 countries; 22 of the works are NGV commissions and the gallery is set to acquire more than 100 works. Though it intends to explore the ‘intersections of art, design, and architecture’, the governing spirit of the exhibition is one of design and technology. Its most memorable works are future-orientated. Joris Laarman’s 3D printed-furniture assumes wild, undulating forms, unconstrained by the limitations of traditional carpentry. The Japanese art collective teamLab recreates natural vertices through a large-scale installation of moving, responsive lights – participants jump, skip, and run, shaping whirlpools across the floor. Indeed, the strength of the Triennial lies in this emphasis on participation: great swathes of the show are haptic playgrounds, engaging and drawing in audiences across a wide demographic. Argentinean artist Alexandra Kehayoglou’s Santa Cruz River (2016-17) delights children: they scream, squeal and throw themselves across the 46-metre carpet landscape. For adult participants, too, there is something strangely gratifying in grasping the tuffs of carpet representing bushland and then lying on the woven topography, reflected in mirrors on the ceiling. Across the four levels of the gallery, where the diverse works are nested – often amongst the permanent collection – there is a fizzing energy. It’s refreshing to experience an exhibition of this size that is so accessible.
In tandem with such accessibility, however, comes safety and, at times, an aversion to risk, and this is where the exhibition falters. Many of the artists are established voices producing familiar work. Yayoi Kusama, one of the Triennial’s biggest names, delivers Flower Obsession (2017), a variation on her well-known Obliteration Room (2002–ongoing), with the exception that visitors now place flowers, rather than dots, throughout the interior of an Ikea-furnished living space. Some of the works exploring the pertinent theme of migration – Candice Breitz’s Wilsons Must Go (2016), Ben Quilty’s High Tide Mark (2016), Louisa Bufardeci’s The Sea Between A and I (2014–15) – are too prosaic and literal in their approach. Richard Mosse’s Incoming (2015–16) is the most gripping and discomforting work exploring the theme. Projected across three enormous screens are scenes from refugee camps and boats filmed through a thermographic camera. The subjects are rendered anonymous yet palpably human, with their black-body radiation and mortal hotspots. The smaller of the two installations, a grid of 16 channels, features an audio installation of the former Iranian asylum-seeker and Manus island detainee Behrouz Boochani condemning the NGV for its association with Wilsons Security, a company which was responsible for guarding refugees in detention centres on Manus and Nauru islands. Mosse says that the audio was a last-minute insertion, after a call to protest by the Artists Committee. Breitz also acted upon this call by renaming her work Wilsons Must Go, with Mexican-Canadian artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer soon following suit. Listening to Boochani’s voice floating through the room is a visceral and haunting experience. In contrast, Mosse’s triptych feels voyeuristic and uneasy. Refugees are filmed as they attempt to operate with a sense of normalcy, their everyday rituals (washing, praying) fetishized on screen – the subjects here are caught unaware and the viewer, like a peeping Tom, consumes their misery.
Untethered by the limitations of corporate and government responsibility, NGV Voices – the digital extension of the Triennial – bites harder, responding to issues with more confidence. Highlights include Hannah Black’s masterful curation of the theme ‘Body’ and James Bridle’s treasure chest of essays, images and videos on ‘The Virtual’. In alliance, the two sites of the festival (the physical and digital) present an astute and curious survey of a world in flux. Situated at the entrance/exit of the NGV, is Xu Zhen’s Eternity-Buddha in Nirvana … (2016-17). Xu – who both parodies and profits from the artist-as-corporation model through his company, MadeIn – has produced an enormous reclining Buddha, draped by neo-classical Greco-Roman sculptures. One statue, the Dying Gaul, is a 3D printed-version of a Roman copy of a lost Greek original. It is these contradictions, these echoes and this gesture exploring the possibilities of technology, that best define the 1st NGV Triennial.
The 1st NGV Triennial, runs at the National Gallery, Victoria, until 15 April.
Main image: Yayoi Kusama, Flower Obsession, 2017, exhibition view, NGV Triennial at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2017. Courtesy: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; photograph: Eugene Hyland