Exhibitions, News & Commentary, Visual Arts

NGV Triennial: wow, stop, take a selfie, move on, wow, stop, take a selfie, move on

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When an art gallery is busy, full of young people, noisy, active and with a huge range of things to see and also to do, that’s a success, apparently.

Even on a weekday, the National Gallery of Victoria’s free Triennial is packed. You can stick a flower on a wall, you can sniff street smells, digitise your own movements, play a virtual reality travel game, and, as the gallery suggests, be “wowed” by big things.

It’s very much a “wowing” place, this grand cultural space which has opened its doors for this free exhibition that is, in critic Sasha Grishin’s words, “brilliant, exciting and innovatory.”

To quote Grishin more accurately, he writes that the Triennial is “in parts, brilliant, exciting and innovatory”, as he has a few reservations about some of the works.

His fellow critic, Robert Nelson in The Age (who, like Grishin, is one of the few critics still writing about art in what is now an old-fashioned analytical style), was also very impressed. He not only completed the mammoth task of viewing (and perhaps touching, smelling and leaping about in) this ambitious exhibition, but also found a way to summarise it.

“The Triennial is full of works that reach into the social snapping point,” Nelson wrote in his review, “– moments when the rigid protocols that hold competitive elements together give way and alarming measures are sought to stay the disruption.”

Pointing out that the theme of movement and change focuses on the plight of refugees, Nelson suggests the whole is bigger than the parts. “The most memorable works,” he judges, “are those that transcend particular circumstances to discover an emblematic image that touches the unconscious behind the institutional.”

Which is a relief, since art that doesn’t transcend the particular is probably not art at all.

There’s a sort of “move on, don’t linger” layout to work displayed in rooms.

For Ben Quilty (whose painting of a lifejacket is so still and quiet not many people stop and look at it on their way to the next room bulging with what I heard a woman call “make believe”), an art gallery is a good place to “teach empathy and compassion” because so many children visit.

Here in the Daily Review, Simon Caterson gave the Triennial a big tick of approval, impressed by all that high-quality work: “The Triennial demonstrates that if anything may define contemporary art, it is endless variety.”

And if you’ve detected a “but” about to intrude here, you’re right: this is a mighty impressive display of Melbourne’s capacity to wow, and to try to teach, and certainly to demonstrate endless variety, but it comes at a loss.

In the room of “Manga chairs” by Oki Sato from the design studio Nendo, the effect of the big white space and rows of shiny “re-imagined” chairs that borrow Manga elements to visualise emotion (apparently), viewers took lots of selfies in front of the funny chairs.

I stood for perhaps 15 minutes in a corner, a bit overwhelmed by stepping from the bright primary colours of Yayoi Kusama’s stick-on-a-flower interactive playroom into this silver and white environment of unusable chairs.

A young man came to read the wall text describing the origin of these designs. A quick scan, and “Oh, right” he said, then rushed back to his companion to explain to her that this was Manga-inspired. She nodded, uninterested, and they wandered on.

An older man reckoned it was all terrific “fun”.

The harried room guard, busy trying to keep the selfie photographers from leaning in to the chairs, stood for a while about a metre in front of me at one stage, possibly a little disconcerted that I was standing still in this room where the people come and go (but I don’t think they were talking of Michelangelo).

I stood in a few rooms for minutes at a time, and became gradually aware that, not only were there no seats for viewers, but that many rooms are set up for wandering around in.


Ron Mueck’s much admired big skulls (above) are arranged to invite wandering, even with prams, which I suppose is part of the point. I suppose.

And there’s a sort of “move on, don’t linger” layout to work displayed in rooms, to the rooms themselves, and to the whole gigantic show. Stop, take a selfie, move on to the next thing, stop, take a selfie, move on.

If we could find a way to gift a little more thoughtful analysis to the masses, that would be nice.

Which brings me to the weird experience of viewing Richard Mosse’s multi-screen video installation, Incoming, which was updated by the artist just as the Triennial was opening to include voice and text commentary by Iranian refugee Behrouz Boochani.

Boochani berates the NGV for contracting Wilson Security, when, he tells anyone standing still in front of the work long enough, it was Wilson who tortured him on Manus. Art is about beauty, Boochani says at the end of this recorded message, and about bringing people together. NGV has failed art (he says).

I stood for about four cycles of this message, first because I was impressed that the NGV would present this very strong message, and then, as the minutes passed, because I became interested in what other viewers would think.

No one stopped long enough to hear Boochani’s message through.

People came in, looked at the sliding images, heard the voice, a couple of people said, oh that’s about Manus, one woman turned to her friends and said Wilson is a gallery “sponsor” – but any response was momentary, as people wandered on, like there was a conveyor belt moving them to the next thing. The response to this disconcerting crunch of art up against the institution it’s housed in was … nothing at all.

That does seem a pity, given the unusual fact this artwork actually changed in situ, given the fact the gallery is, as Ben Quilty says, a terrific place to give us an opportunity to learn about compassion, and given the fact that here was a confronting challenge to what Robert Nelson calls the “unconscious behind the institutional”.

While criticism has never been very interested in talking to the masses, and while galleries are now – wonderfully – all about wowing the masses, if we could find a way to gift a little more thoughtful analysis to the masses, that would be nice.

Oh, and a few more useable chairs please.

The NGV Triennial is on until 15 April

[box]Main image: Xu Zhen, Eternity-Buddha in Nirvana, the Dying Gaul, Farnese Hercules, Night, Day, Sartyr and Bacchante, Funerary Genius, Achilles, Persian Soldier Fighting, Dancing Faun, Crouching Aphrodite, Narcissus Lying, Othryades the Spartan Dying, the Fall of Icarus, A River, Milo of Croton, 2016–17, mineral-based composite material, mineral pigments, metal. Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne National Gallery of Victoria, Loti & Victor Smorgon Fund, 2017[/box]

8 responses to “NGV Triennial: wow, stop, take a selfie, move on, wow, stop, take a selfie, move on

  1. Very good point. This isn’t just an issue with the Melbourne Triennial but with all large survey exhibitions of. “Art now” – In Australia, Adelaide Biennial, Biennale of Sydney, Asia-Pacific Triennial etc.
    In part its to do with sensory overload. There is a real limit to how much the eye and brain can absorb in a limited time.
    In recent years the only one I can think of that has transcended this was Dark Heart, the 2014 Adelaide Biennial. I think this was because it was carefully selected so that all works related to the central theme.

  2. Look People I really suggest you read Boris Groys’s essay Equal Aesthetic Rights where Groys equates the current suppossed “plurality” of Contemporary Art and then goes on to equate this fake plurality with the fake Multi Culturalism of the West. The West (in Groys’s essay he focuses on suppossedly high minded EU Europe) loves to talk the talk BUT NOT walk the walk.

    Then I again stress that people read their Adorno and Marcuse to go back to what are now shaping up as very pertinent critiques of The Culture Industry. I am fine with the Populist Theatre of the NEW Shooping Center NGV. Where’s the Apple store at NGV hey? BUT where this exhibition fails is with this Refugeee video “immersive” (I have come to hate this concept) installation. Rosemary here is so correct to report just what “warm inner glow” frippery this work has been reduced to.

    LOOK evryone we need to get far more clear headed about what our big GOVERNMENT Institutions are dishing up to us. We also need to be far more critical about the actual art. I mean I would say to Ben Quilty: Ben, if only it were so easy Mate. How is it that an artist can dine out on his “concern” on an issue that is woefully complex, and Quilty doe sit with some dollops of thick paint = ART. Similarly Ben yes you tried to save the Bali 9 guys from execution BUT Ben there is a concrete reason why those 9 are in prison in Bali and that is the AFP! Ben where is your work against the real “murderers”? Where is your “Art” criticising the Givernment Police?! Instead you come with your think oil paint and Yay, the world is saved. Spare me please.

    AND this leads me to what is really going on. Australian Art is run primarily by Governments, the Market is so bad in Australia that the ONLY regular income for art comes from Government to the great detrimant of Individual Artists who have ceased to be citizens or even worthwhile voters as Art Public Servants just ignore the 99% of Australia’s artists. Also the Governments are ONLY interested in increased crowds and have also forgotten about Individual artists who really are the TRUE backbone of Australian Art and not this Instagram Fest.

    It is Governments and not only the security firmsthat run the Manus and Nauru Concentration Camps. AND it is Government that runs the Art! So therefore all this Art is Propaganda for the Status Quo andinherently works to atomize conecern for the ills of the wider world. Of course the NGV would want to cover their arse with words from a true tortuterd refugee as then the NGV can look like they are maybe doing something BUT as Rosemary rightly points out basically the audience just moves on in seconds.

    UNLESS we really get beneath the gloss of what is actually being done with Public Funds we might as well invite Apple and/ or Instagram to Brand the NGV and Fed Square and pay for it all. I mean at least that would be HONEST ratherbthan the faux “concern” amongst the selfie fodder.

  3. A side issue, I know, but I am desperate for galleries (and music venues) to ban – or at least limit – the use of smartphones. I know galleries love the promotion, but to me having hundreds of people taking selfies in front of every piece destroys the purpose of experiencing original works of art in the flesh, so to speak. It’s challenging enough to have a meaningful interaction with art in contemporary shows given all the issues this article raises (i.e. art as spectacle) without having your experience of it mediated and interrupted via multiple tiny screens. At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, I just don’t understand what anyone’s going to do with photos of artworks on their phone. A postcard (or the catalogue) will be far better quality.

    1. indeed! it’s as though you haven’t seen it until you’ve taken your own pic of it. Some of those people using phones are, however, using the extraordinary technology which links to commentary, which is nifty, but I’m a big fan of wall texts… even though, at this exhibition, I watched a woman scan (with her eyes, not her phone) the wall text for an artwork that referenced Perec’s Bartlebooth from Life: A User’s Manual, then turn to tell her companions, “the artist died before he finished these paintings” – which goes to show how delicate is the task of summarising well in a wall text!!!

  4. Art is Spectularised Entertainment, jumping castles, clowns and plumed showponies. Very deserving of instafame, providing a cheap backdrop for the banal selfies of the punter hivemind.

  5. I guess “sensory overload” is what we get every time we visit a gallery, and, to this show’s credit, people are clearly coming back time after time, once they realise they can’t take it all in.
    Tourists, for whom such a free show is popular, are looking in a different way, I think, and for me that way is disheartening, because, as Rachel says in a comment above, it’s unlikely all those images of oneself in front of the snazzy art add up to a useful record even of your day out.
    I’ve not mentioned here the effect of embedding the Triennial works in the gallery’s collection; in this instance, I’m not sure it doesn’t become didactic (as in, see what connections we’ve made for you?) Again, watching people wander in the rooms, their viewing behaviours suggested all that contiguous matching was rather a waste of time. Nice rooms but.

  6. When I visited I tended to hustle from one exhibit to the next because there was so much to see. I was there for four hours until closing, I saw the Triennial and the early modern European galleries, glanced by the late Renaissance stuff briefly and completely missed the Chinese, Indian and Medieval European galleries. I find there is a similar problem to Museums, I can absorb the information and read all the displays or I can see more than half of the content within 4 hours.

  7. Ah somebody is noticing …. and the line about the people coming and going but probably not talking of Michelangelo nails it . Bugger David, as Michelangelo probably did. Art criticism that unties the knots rather than tightening and complicating them. I’ll drink to that. From a skull. Not in a seat.

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