Visual Art

This year’s NGV Triennial is a site of topological turmoil that presents artworks to the masses but also empties them of substance. By Tristen Harwood.

NGV Triennial

Refek Anadol’s Quantum Memories.
Refek Anadol’s Quantum Memories.
Credit: Courtesy of Refik Anadol

The National Gallery of Victoria is a new player in the world of recurring international art expos. Now in its second iteration, the NGV Triennial offers a familiar kind of spectacle.

This year’s exhibition duplicates the format of the 2017 Triennial, from the massive foyer centrepiece to the technicolour artist-designed cafe, to the Instagram-ready artworks. This time around, Porky Hefer’s 2020 Buttpus – a giant octopus – replaces Ron Mueck’s 2016-17 Mass – gigantic human skulls – as the most selfie-friendly exhibit.

This Triennial is trying to cover a lot of territory quickly. It includes more than 100 artists from 32 countries, whose work is divided into four themes: “Illumination, Reflection, Conservation and Speculation.” No particular aesthetic point of view or conceptual grid seems to unite this unmelodious arrangement of material: as you walk through the NGV’s four gallery levels, it’s challenging to determine where each theme begins and ends.

As with most contemporary expos, the Triennial is ticketed as a site of prestige, innovation and experimentation in which an ever-expanding list of disciplines collide, and art itself is reshaped and redefined. The populist is placed alongside the elitist, the political with the vacuous, while commercial imperative rubs against critical practice; all supposedly exfoliating each other’s categorical boundaries until, as the director’s message says, “traditional silos have dissolved into an ever changing and accelerating landscape of creative practice”.

It’s a landscape of topological turmoil, in which the imbalanced power dynamics that shape art’s traditional categories are reinstated at the very site of their alleged denunciation. Take, for example, the asymmetrical relationship between the foyer centrepiece – Quantum Memories (2020) by Silicon Valley-based artist Refek Anadol – and Glenda Nicholls’ tender Miwi Milloo (Good Spirit of the Murray River) (2020), which hangs in the NGV’s entryway. The installations are presented in the same open space, but there’s no way they share it equally.

Anadol’s work boasts a 10-metre-square LED screen – the largest the NGV has deployed – streaming a constantly changing sequence of polychromatic forms abstracted from more than 200 million images of nature. At different times the animation resembles an explosion of fireworks, or a milky ooze, or the kaleidoscopic images that retailers play on HD monitors in hi-fi stores. Processed through Google AI Quantum Supremacy, the result is the most high-tech collage imaginable.

Quantum Memories captures the audience, tracking their movements and feeding this data back into the ever-changing animation on screen. In this spectacle of machine learning, all of the millions of images of nature, and the kinetic data that Anadol has condensed on screen are reduced to illusory abstractions of digital simulacra. Like a Rorschach test, it’s up to the audience to imagine they’re perceiving something in the endless supply of random patterns swirling on screen.

Miwi Milloo attracted less attention from the crowd on the Sunday afternoon when I visited the Triennial. A large hand-woven net of white cotton draped from the ceiling just in front of the NGV’s permanent Waterwall, the work resembles a fishing net. Hanging inverted from the woven finger knots are white-feathered flowers that mimic the cascading water of Waterwall, as if the Murray River were speaking a ghost language with the water feature.

Miwi Milloo conjures the ecological destruction wrought throughout the Murray–Darling Basin, but it isn’t quite elegiac. Nicholls made the flowers in collaboration with her daughter Melinda Andrew, nurturing the generational practice of feather flower-making common to Aboriginal communities throughout the south-east of the continent. Nicholls’ work is very specific about space and place, which are entangled with kinship, history and enduring cultural practice.

You don’t need to be an accountant to understand that much more money was invested in presenting Anadol’s work than Nicholls’. This financial and spatial privileging of some artists over others is repeated throughout the exhibition. Enormous, technologically advanced works, some by artists whose brands eclipse their art – Jeff Koons is the most obvious example – are offset by modest but often more engaging artworks by artists who “require” less financial investment.

The logic may be that brand-name artists will appeal to a larger audience. On the day I visited, it was apparent that this hypothesis doesn’t always hold. Only a couple of people had stopped to observe Koons’ Venus (2016–20), a mirror-polished steel version of Wilhelm Christian Meyer’s porcelain figure of Venus by the “world’s most expensive artist”.

A little deeper in the exhibition, Diamond Stingily’s In the middle but in the corner of 176th place (2019), which consists of a room filled with 723 sporting trophies, had a full audience who were patiently shuffling along to read the poetic inscriptions on the trophies. Stingily’s work interrogates status, excellence and race, highlighting the connection between the labour of athletes and artists, whose hard work is often overshadowed by racialised notions of “natural talent”. The trophy is a symbol of aspiration, respectability, the thwarted promise of equal subjectivity for the Black athlete or entertainer. Stingily’s trophies are also a cutting critique of the value attributed to Koons’ overblown Venus.

Next to Stingily’s work is Dhambit Munuŋgurr’s Can we all have a happy life? (2019–20), an installation of 15 large barks and nine larrikitj (hollow logs) painted in vivid shades of blue. Emblematic of her painting is the bark Djirikitj-Wop! (2019–20), comprising an azure background, over which Munuŋgurr has painted a loose trail of diamonds in varying blue tones. At the bottom centre she has painted a figurative depiction of quail (djirikitj) –the fire-making bird – who set light to tall grass in Maamaa, causing native honeybees living there to flee to Djiliwirri, ancestrally connecting the Gupapuyŋu and Gumatj clans.

Munuŋgurr’s use of bold acrylics – a new development among Yolŋu artists based in Yirrkala – recalls the brilliantly coloured paintings of the late Ginger Riley Munduwalawala, who worked out of Ngukurr through the 1990s and 2000s. Munduwalawala often used radiant blues, greens, reds to depict Country and ancestral beings as they appeared to him in heart and mind. Like Munduwalawala, Munuŋgurr’s paintings are a deeply intuitive negotiation of spontaneity and tradition.

In the next room is Alicja Kwade’s WeltenLinie (2020). In one of the Triennial’s few moments of curatorial coherence, Kwade’s work also consists of several upright logs. Although Kwade and Munuŋgurr deal with the materiality of the tree differently, there’s a sense of dialogue between their installations. WeltenLinie includes both actual and confected tree trunks. It’s intentionally difficult to discern which logs are “real”. Some are fossilised, one is cast in white concrete, another is stripped raw; all are placed amid a mirrored, maze-like steel structure, which further challenges a viewer’s perception.

Both installations question habitual perception – how does presence, space, philosophy and history shape the way we see the material before us? In the Victorian context, these works are a pertinent reminder of the state government’s insidious will to overlook the history and cultural significance of Djab Wurrung sacred birthing trees for the sake of extending a highway.

On the top floor of the NGV, Adrian Piper’s The Humming Room (2012) is quietly empty. A sign advises visitors must hum a tune as they enter the room. When the Museum of Modern Art showed The Humming Room in 2018, inside it was a small print of Trayvon Martin’s face in the crosshairs of a gun, instructing visitors to imagine what it was like to be the murdered teenager. In the wake of local Black Lives Matter protests, which make the connection between anti-Black police brutality in the United States and Aboriginal deaths in custody, the Triennial’s presentation of The Humming Room feels doubly empty, lacking the same affective intensity and political intent.

As I was writing this review, I heard that Lawrence Ferlinghetti had just died. I couldn’t help but think of the Triennial as some kind of nightmare vision of his 1976 Populist Manifesto No. 1, which calls on poets and artists to become politically conscious and to communicate their messages to the masses. What Ferlinghetti didn’t foresee was this kind of spectacle, which presents artworks to the multitudes as unnourishing entertainment as it empties them of substance. 

The NGV Triennial continues until April 18.


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Last chance

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 13, 2021 as "A tyranny of spectacle".

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