Exhibition

NGV International’s blockbuster Triennial presents a deluge of contemporary art – but the highlights are worth searching for. By Sophie Cunningham.

The highlights make NGV International’s expansive Triennial a must visit

A spinning record.
An installation view of Basse Stittgen’s work Blood record.
Credit: Sean Fennessy

The third National Gallery of Victoria Triennial is an expansive affair that showcases the work of 120 artists and designers spread across four floors and the mezzanine of Melbourne’s iconic gallery. It begins before you enter the gallery – Julian Charrière’s And Beneath It All Flows Liquid Fire (2019) flickers behind the water wall while an extraordinary eight-metre-long bronze eel trap, created by Wurundjeri artist Aunty Kim Wandin, sits in the moat.

The scope of the Triennial is ambitious, as it should be. The 2017 Triennial was the most visited exhibition in the NGV’s 157-year history. Presumably the 2020 Triennial had to compete with Covid but it’s fair to say previous versions have been successful in terms of the numbers of punters they attracted and the calibre of artists and commissioned projects. This year’s Triennial equally fulfils the brief. Attendance is free and that alone feels like an incredibly generous gift to the artistic community and the general public.

It does, however, feel crammed. You could visit this exhibition half a dozen times and not be confident you’d seen all the works on display. It’s by no means the first exhibition I’ve seen that raises questions about the nature of blockbuster events. The density of excellent projects and the crowds required for an exhibition to be deemed a success affect the experience. It can be difficult to sit with the work and engage with it in a way that allows you to feel you’ve communed with the art or the artist’s intentions.

This desire to “experience” the art in a “soulful” way is of course desperately naive. My naivety – or perhaps it’s just grumpiness – extends to works that seem to exist only to be reproduced on social media. They bring to mind a dog carrying its leash in its mouth: artworks not just commenting on marketing but being forced to become agents of their own promotion. Reviews, including this one, inevitably become a part of this dynamic – more a form of publicity than critique.

There are two approaches to an exhibition of this nature. Aim to be objective, which involves buying and reading the excellent catalogue, studying the map and list of artists and spending a lot of time on Google. Certainly, I didn’t find the navigation tools provided by the NGV on the ground enough. But there is so much worth seeing that you could just throw yourself in, and frame and control the inevitable overwhelm through subjectivity. I did a bit of both and what follows is inevitably a personal response to the works I saw and some of the realisations I had while walking from room to room.

Some significant works are scattered through the permanent collection, to various effect. Glenn Brown’s After Rembrandt (2019), a skilful riff on historical portraiture and drawing, sits alongside an actual Rembrandt and other Dutch masters. Spanish designer Jaime Hayon’s set of spectacular glass vessels Afrikando (2017) more than holds its own in the Decorative Arts section, where it sits alongside traditional Venetian glassware. In contrast, Flora Yukhnovich’s modern reimagining of a still life, A Taste of Poison Paradise (2023), struggles to assert itself beside its lush neighbour, Flowerpiece, a Jean-François van Dael painted in 1811.

As I get older my eyesight gets worse and sound, perhaps as compensation, affects me more profoundly. I think less about the aesthetic qualities – by which I mean the beauty – of the work and more about how it makes me feel. That is, I’m increasingly interested in the interaction between the art and the body. Many artists in the Triennial seemed to consider this issue – the room of surrealist fashion from the Paris fashion house Schiaparelli is pretty fabulous. I coveted the leather handbag with well-cut abs.

I found works such as Basse Stittgen’s Blood record (2023) – a recording of a cow’s heartbeat pressed into a record made from cow’s blood discarded by abattoirs – incredibly affecting. I was engrossed by the video works – there are several, including by the artist Sky Hopinka – that flirted with documentary style while using sound and multiple screens to build resonances and echoes. I was gripped by Hoda Afshar’s The fold (2023), a multimedia work that considers the use of the human body in the archives: the enslaved body, the veiled body, the gendered body, the colonised body.

Much of the work I responded to was about colonialism, capitalism and, perhaps inevitably, both, such as Hank Willis Thomas’s screenprint on canvas, Colonialism and Abstract Art (2019), and Diedrick Brackens’s textile Marrow becomes breath (2022). I adored Mexican-born artist Fernando Laposse’s Conflict avocados (2023), a multimedia project that includes a textile mural made from cloth dyed in a range of muted pastels using avocado products. The mural tells the story of the women of Cherán, a group who led an uprising against the cartel-controlled loggers that were clearing the forests for avocado plantations. Against the odds, they won. As well as drawing on traditional crafts, this work reminded me of the great mural tradition of Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera.

The symphonic Megacities (2023), commissioned by the Triennial, is a highly orchestrated compilation of 500 photos by 10 artists from 10 cities, including Cairo, Delhi, Jakarta and Lagos. Combined with a soundscape and multiple screens, the result is an immersive, powerful experience. Other photography work that stood out for me was that of American photographer Tyler Mitchell. His idealised re-creations of childhood are underpinned by a belief in the right to joyful, lyrical narratives, resulting in images that challenge stereotypes of race and class. I was less taken with Kevin Abosch’s CIVICS series (2023). The ideas underpinning the images are interesting and the execution impressive. But the reimagined violent futures felt tricked up – and it’s a challenge to make the future more confronting or horrifying than the present is.

Many works were about trees, which delighted me. These include Fernando Laposse’s cabinetry made from avocado trees, and one of Joshua Yeldham’s rich, deep photos, Resonance (2022). Japanese artist Osamu Mori’s sculpture 3MMM-rivalry (2022) carves a body out of a 120-year-old camphor tree. Australian designer Brodie Neill’s ReCoil (2021) table, built from drowned Tasmanian timbers, is glorious.

I was underwhelmed by some of the rock stars of the Triennial, such as Yoko Ono or Tracey Emin and Maurizio Cattelan’s Comedian (2019), but was charmed by its tiny superstar, a mechanical rat built by Ryan Gander for The End (2020). It’s hard to find – ask for directions.

The works I responded most strongly to were soft works, creations that might once have been dismissed as “craft”, and women’s craft at that. You’ll find them scattered through the exhibition. These really put into form the notion of soft power and exude a marked charisma. I’m thinking here of Lin Fanglu’s She’s Four Seasons (2023), which first looks like macramé but is in fact a combination of weaving, folding, stitching and sculpting. It is incredibly arresting, as is the much photographed soft sculpture by the great textile artist Sheila Hicks. Her Nowhere to go (2022) looks like massive balls of blue yarns knotted and balled together and piled so high they reach the ceiling. I also adored Kosovo artist Petrit Halilaj’s room of painted felt hangings, Very volcanic over this green feather (2021).

I’m not sure if it’s useful to talk about the “best” work in an exhibition as complex as this but Mun-dirra (Maningrida fish fence) (2023) would be my pick. A 100-metre-long fish fence woven from pandanus by 13 Burarra women, it is simply jaw-dropping. The woven pandanus filters light as the fence curves and snakes. The effect is akin to walking through flickering twilight. The work feels monumental, in the way of a Richard Serra, but also ephemeral, a work made of light and leaves, as delicate as breath. An expression of cultural heritage and a great work of art at the same time. This piece alone makes a visit to the Triennial a must. 

The Triennial is at the National Gallery of Victoria until April 7.

ARTS DIARY

EXHIBITION Steven Rhall and Sung Tieu: Statecraft

Monash University Museum of Art, Naarm/Melbourne, February 3–March 23

STREET ART The Art of Banksy: Without Limits

Sydney Town Hall, Gadigal Country/Sydney, until March 16

VISUAL ART Rearranged: Art of the Flower

Museum of Brisbane, Meanjin, until August 11

MULTIMEDIA Yhonnie Scarce: the Light of Day

Art Gallery of Western Australia, Whadjuk and Noongar Country/Perth, February 2–May 19

THEATRE The Children

Dunstan Playhouse, Kaurna Yarta/Adelaide, February 2-17

LAST CHANCE

PHOTOGRAPHY Nan Goldin

National Gallery of Australia, Ngambri and Ngunnawal Country/Canberra, until January 28

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 27, 2024 as "Artistic overwhelm".

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