Visual Art

MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art provides an engaging and broad survey of how we have sought to understand the negotiation between technology, nature and our humanity.

By Lisa Radford.


An installation view of MoMA at NGV, including Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin’s ‘H-Facts: Hospitality/hostility’ and Camille Henrot’s ‘Grosse fatigue’.
An installation view of MoMA at NGV, including Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin’s ‘H-Facts: Hospitality/hostility’ and Camille Henrot’s ‘Grosse fatigue’.
Credit: Tom Ross

This morning I swapped one of my books for a bootleg. This bootleg is called MoMA Exhibition Catalogue. It is 500 pages in length and sourced from the extensive online archives of the MoMA website, a readymade archive rearranged and interpreted by a designer, photographer and fan, without references to names, dates, periods or places. It was made by Will Neill, who lives some 16,000 kilometres away. This distance is very much part of the point. I am looking at something that feels like an objective-pictorial-fan catalogue. This book is something like how I felt when I first entered MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art – back to being an excited child, seeing for the first time the things she thought she would only ever see in reproduction. I was shuttled back to my first encounter with a real Vermeer in the Frick Collection or to experiencing the scale of Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa in the Louvre, to swimming in the same sea as Pipilotti Rist at the Whitney. Beforehand, these works existed only as images rendered in print or on screens.

In MoMA at NGV we find a collection determined by a narrative, a constructed one. A series of architectural interventions, more subtle than is usual for the National Gallery of Victoria, riff on MoMA itself and modernism’s love of the white cube. The more than 200 works are arranged in chronological order categorised in eight parts – from “Arcadia and Metropolis” and “The Machinery of the Modern World” through to “Immense Encyclopedia” and “Flight Patterns”. There are 20 or so works for every chapter. The seemingly scholarly and relational approach to their hanging is refreshing and informative – notorious crowd-pleasers alongside surprises. The past informing the contemporary, a real sense of something collected, nurtured, considered.


On one of the open tabs of the 35 currently open in my Chrome browser there is an image of artist Robert Rauschenberg looking through the archive of The Miami Herald in 1979, from Rosalind Krauss’s 1999 article “Perpetual Inventory”. I am reading it because of a wonderful collection of Rauschenberg screen-prints from his 1970 Surface Series in the MoMA exhibition. Rauschenberg’s use of newspapers reminds us that everything in the world can be political or aesthetic and is up for judgement and subsequent rearrangement.

Critic and theorist Boris Groys has noted that the separation between the production of things, which we might call poetics, differs distinctly from its reception, which we might call aesthetics. With reception and production interchangeable as an act, Rauschenberg reminds us that the affordability and accessibility of image production and its redistribution is forever altered by means of media and technology and that it is an act we can all engage in.

Previously I have suggested that we can ask where is the site of and for art. The “power” of the museum has been questioned and altered by the redistribution and the apparent democratisation of knowledge and communications. The solidity of the archive as a display and force of power has shifted, and this shift has meant that institutions, both state and private, are now more accountable to a public – our concerns, whether wise or otherwise, subject to both fashion and the fickle. But to ask again, where is the site of and for art?

The NGV was held to public and, perhaps more importantly, artistic scrutiny during its Triennial last summer, with protests against the hiring of security company Wilson in light of its role in offshore detention camps. But art’s sometimes complicit and always complex relationship with conflict and history is present in this exhibition as well. George Grosz’s relatively small painting Explosion (1917) depicts an extremity of an early war machine, Jasper Johns’ not-quite abstract and almost Expressionist Map (1961) at almost two by three metres simply is what it is – a map of North America. The border is delineated, the scale immense, minus glitter or glam, but does this map remind us of Eva Cockcroft’s 1974 essay “Abstract Expressionism, Weapon of the Cold War”, tracing the Rockefeller family relationship to MoMA and to oil in Latin America?

Art and design in America could be said to have been built on those who fled Europe, such as Marcel Duchamp, Franz Kline, architects Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. Anselm Kiefer’s more subtle than monumental watercolour titled To the Unknown Painter, which references the architecture of the Third Reich, eerily marks the many losses to both legend and culture through the sheer absence of humanity of Albert Speer’s monument to chancellery. Let’s not forget, Hitler said he himself was a painter. Mona Hatoum’s Routes II in red pen on found maps, tracks routes with a purpose of which we are unsure. Here, as Edward Said suggests, home is provisional. Hatoum herself experienced this when studying as an exile in Britain during the 1970s after civil war erupted in Lebanon. Rineke Dijkstra’s 14-year photographic project documenting the seated evolution of Bosnian refugee Almerisa simultaneously renders the changing social, solitude and singularity of a young woman’s physical relation to place – an individual, a girl, a teenager, a woman, a mother, in space, with us. But it is Syrian artist Yara Said’s Refugee Flag that I am struck by. In orange and black like that of a lifejacket, it flies between spaces, between an “Immense Encyclopedia” and “Flight Patterns”. An anomaly in the interfilament space between the exhibition’s rooms, its didacticism tells me it is a proposed acquisition similar to the one MoMA already owns.  


Georges-Pierre Seurat’s 1886 painting Evening, Honfleur is the first and earliest work in the exhibition. It’s not the first you encounter, though: that is Cézanne’s unfinished Still Life with Apples, painted over three years from 1895–98. Both remind us that we are seeing – we are in the process of seeing. The isolated marks in Seurat’s painting render mostly air, or perhaps distance; those in Cézanne’s render the carefully placed formal arrangement of apples, fruit and fabric. In my notes I have written “The Big Four” – all men, making work just before the turn into the 20th century. The others are Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. The exhibition catalogue – the real one, which is half as long as the bootleg – tells me that these four were the focus of MoMA’s first exhibition when it opened in 1929.

Seurat’s tiny marks, rendering both light and sight, parallel the scientific research at the time, and now very much point to our digital reality. I wonder if it is painted with an optimism that predates a looming world war, a harbinger of that which is to follow – mass industrialisation, communication and the atomisation of experience. Could a young Seurat, who died far too early, foresee that Pantone would effectively take each small mark, and those yet to be made, and give them a code for their exact scale and reproduction?

In the queue that forms to snake through this exhibition, I wonder whether Seurat would have anticipated people in headphones listening to an explanation of his painting, and the works of others, then capturing it for themselves on their own small screens, as a means for keeping. It is this negotiation between technology, nature and our humanity that unfolds as the overarching unspoken narrative in the eight unfolding chapters that align design with paintings, architecture, sculptures and film in this show, each informing the other. It is seemingly both reassuring and an unanswerable quest. Rather than a problem to solve, we find compatible concerns over decades and demography – in Seurat’s “color-luminism” and in the most recent acquisition of emoticon-pixels by Shigetaka Kurita et al for Japan’s phone company NTT DoCoMo.

This doubling of concerns takes place across the exhibition. Loie Fuller’s Danse Serpentine, hypnotically captured on film by the Lumière brothers, speaks with Diane Arbus’s document of Two men dancing at a drag ball, N.Y.C. (1970) and Simone Forti’s 10-minute Huddle (1961), the latter being performed in NGV’s Federation Court on Saturdays at 11am as if new. There is optimism in form from the Bauhaus and Suprematists and in the chat between painters in the work of Matisse and Derain. Camille Henrot’s rhythmic and mesmerising montaged video, sourced from the Smithsonian archives and aptly titled Grosse fatigue (2013), refers back to a post-revolution Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), attempting to document a changing industrial world, a filmic version of the Cubist conversation between Braque’s Soda and Picasso’s The Architect’s Table, both from 1912. We are led to the contemporary art through paths and visual references: Robert Indiana’s 1967 LOVE happily repurposed as General Idea’s 1987 sociopolitical semiotic reminder AIDS (Wallpaper).

Like all languages, art is built by artists in conversation with each other and their surrounds, their divergent contexts, their natural and technological environments, an ecology of experience. This language is shared by the living and the dead – in both the museum and the internet – the trajectory of which is somewhat traced by MoMA at NGV, but also in the action of artists making friends and enemies in and out of time. MoMA’s history is not devoid of flaws – it’s quite obvious when women make an appearance, when South America is “discovered” by the museum, and when the rest of the world enters the stage in the later parts of the 20th century. Because contemporary art is contemporaneous with us, it is often the most difficult to discuss, but this very much overplayed exhibition of narrative time with historical inputs, or vice versa, does well in making some very empathic and reassuringly human connections. Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin’s H-Facts: Hospitality/hostility (2003–07) remakes internationally themed hotel signs found in Istanbul, which read BALKAN OTELI, MOTEL BEIRUT or HOTEL BRISTOL, presented in sequence as either an escape route or way home. The distorted figures in Ernst Kirchner’s painting Street, Dresden are painted in chromatic contrast, reflecting the new electric nightlife of 1907. The painting was reworked in 1919, soon after the end of World War I. The double effect an artwork has is a condition informed both by our own time, place and history – what we might call aesthetics – and that of the artist – or poetics – that lets it speak. Cheaper than a ticket to New York, but perhaps still a little pricey for students – can’t they be free? – this far from groundbreaking exhibition gives us time and space within which to see beyond the insta-tainment of art and a culture delivered, and hopefully into that which both connects and divides us across time and place.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 22, 2018 as "Okay, Seurat, Seurat".

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