Sunday, January 7, 2018

Incoherently Massive

Earlier this week I visited the National Gallery of Victoria's NGV Triennial exhibition. This is free to enter and is a very large show, claiming over 100 artists from 32 countries. I only saw a fraction of the works, so I will be back. But here are some first impressions.

Firstly, there were a lot of people here. Secondly, the works that I saw are very diverse. The NGV has made a point of including design, fashion and craft alongside art, and information about the show states that there was initially no set theme, but that five themes or "prevalent ideas" emerged: Movement, Time, Change, Body and Virtual. It is hard to think of anything not covered by at least one of these.

And thirdly, the show is certainly tuned into modern media. Apart from actual multimedia artworks there are screens around the place showing words and images related to the five themes, and on the third level there is a bar with tablets for people to use, linked to all sorts of vaguely connected discussions, and more screens around the walls. And visitors are encouraged to get on social media and say what they think.

There were, as expected, a number of works dealing with refugees and with climate change. Some of these turned out to be political in a way that the NGV perhaps didn't expect, turning into protests against the employment by the NGV of Wilson Security, who have been involved in brutal treatment of detainees on Manus island. Two artists, Candice Breitz and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, retitled their works to include the words "Wilson must go", and a third, Richard Mosse, edited his work to include statements from Behrouz Bouchani, a refugee detained on Manus Island who had been mistreated by Wilson Security. The changes came too late to be included in the catalogue, but they are included in the NGV's online material.

On this visit I saw two of the works just mentioned. Richard Mosse's Incoming is a large installation showing videos and still images of refugee camps and the like, obtained by using a military-grade infrared telephoto camera. The images are crisp, black and white, and with an eerie quality that reminds us that this camera does not see the same way that we do. Candice Breitz's Wilson Must Go consisted of six in-depth interviews with people driven out of their countries, and also a news-bite version consisting of brief extracts from the interviews read by two Hollywood actors, Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore. There was a point here about the way that celebrities acting a part are more real to us than the actual people who have lived through the events.


A detail from Richard Mosse's Incoming

A number of the works in the Triennial were placed in among the NGV's permanent collection. This applied in particular to Ron Mueck's Mass, a massive collection of oversize skulls, in with 18th-century European paintings. The wall text referred to the tradition of vanitas painting, but the surrounding paintings didn't reflect this. For more, and more varied, skulls, come to Ballarat and see the exhibition Romancing the Skull, on until 28th January (http://artgalleryofballarat.com.au/gallery_exhibitions/romancing-the-skull/).

Ron Mueck's Mass in among the 17th-18th century European painting

Another work from the Triennial placed in among the permanent collection is Ore Streams, from the Dutch Formafantasia design studio. This complex installation is about mining of metals; the group consider that by about 2080 most of the available ores will have been mined, so the source of metals will have to be recycling: "the era of above-ground mining is upon us". Ore Streams was placed among the 19th-century paintings, and there was no discernible connection. But the placing did lead to some of the 19th-century works getting more attention than usual, even if of the selfie-taking kind.

Ore Streams, installation view (one side)
In front of John Rogers Herbert, Moses Bringing down the Tables of the Law (1870s)

Some other works I saw, across art, design and fashion: Sean O'Connell made images made by placing jewellery (rings made out of different materials) in the path of electric discharges that then struck photographic plates. The design studio Joris Laarman Lab had a large table in the form of a bridge, made by advanced manufacturing techniques. Timo Nasseri had a modern take on muqarnas, a technique used in Islamic architecture of covering the inside of a dome or vault with repeating three-dimensional shapes. Nasseri made a small version covered in mirrors and placed in a wall; it showed kaleidoscopic fragmentary reflections of the people passing by. Iris van Herpen had a remarkable dress cut somehow out of leather.


One of Sean O'Connell's Spark Ring works.


Joris Laarman Lab, Bridge Table (prototype)

Timo Nasseri, Epistrophy
Leather dress by Iris van Herpen
What I took away from this first visit was a feeling of incoherence. There are a lot of interesting things here (and I know I haven't seen some of the most interesting ones yet), but there didn't seem to be any reason for selecting these particular works and bringing them together. There wasn't even a post-modern line like "the theme is that there is no theme". What I saw reads as though the curators took a bunch of interesting works and threw them at the wall to see what would stick, always with one and a half eyes on mass audience appeal. The catalogue gives the same impression of incoherence, being a heterogeneous collection of essays, statements, interviews and images; the amount of space given to individual artists represented in the Triennial varies wildly.

After I had visited the Triennial I came across two contrasting reviews, an enthusiastic one by the Guardian at http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/dec/18/ngv-triennial-astounding-blockbuster-grips-the-heart-and-repels-the-nostrils, and a remarkably jaundiced one by Giles Fielke at http://memoreview.net/blog/triennial-at-ngv-international-by-giles-fielke. I haven't made up my mind about the exhibition yet, and I need to see more of it. I will definitely be back.




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