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