By any physical or conceptual measure, the NGV’s inaugural Triennial is huge in terms of the sheer number of works included and the scale and intensity of so many of them.
Some of the room-sized works are indeed overwhelming. I am haunted by my time in the presence of Shilpa Gupta’s immense black cloud of microphones (below) that seems to float in a darkened room in the midst of its own eclipse. I imagined the massive and almost formless object could have been some hidden part of the strange alien spaceship that features in the movie The Arrival.
While recent showcase exhibitions at the NGV like the Van Gogh and Hokusai have been generously proportioned in the number of works, in physical terms those exhibitions were confined to a single space, a gallery within the gallery.
That approach could not have worked for the Triennial, which features over 100 artists and designers from 32 countries. The works are dispersed throughout the NGV on four levels, and even occupy part of the Gallery Kitchen area as well as the adjacent Federation Court.
I didn’t make it to every exhibit the day I went. To experience everything in full could consume an entire day, or longer. Simply to list and briefly describe each item in the catalogue would take ages.
Seeing everything at the Triennial in one visit would be a feat of psychic as well as physical endurance. Luckily, admission is free so you can go back again and again.
Apart from the pleasure of seeing so much high-quality work in one place, the Triennial demonstrates that if anything may define contemporary art, it is endless variety. Traditional forms such as full-length portraits in oil on canvas, linocut, coloured glass, haute couture, weaving and furniture making are represented, along with pieces that utilise advanced technology such as movement sensors, facial recognition software and thermal imaging.
So much contemporary art is sensory and immersive. In addition to the purely visual, certain exhibits work through smell, touch, and hearing.
And then there are works that combine old and new techniques to create their own form. One of the most surprising and satisfying as well as unassuming multimedia works for me is Yamagami Yukihiro’s Shinjuku calling, an unobtrusive installation consisting of a detailed pencil drawing of the world’s busiest railway station onto which is projected precisely aligned video of the comings and goings of people and vehicles. The effect is hypnotic.
So much contemporary art is sensory and immersive. In addition to the purely visual, certain exhibits work through smell, touch, and hearing. Some pieces make the viewer seem very small, while others are intimately interactive. One of the best examples (pictured below) Moving creates vortices and vortices create movement, the darkened mirrored room created by the teamLab design studio that features delicate swirling lights reminiscent of the aroura borealis that follow you as you move around the space as well as appearing to propel you at the same time.
Going around and around in a tight circle, as several small children were doing when I was there, generates a virtual whirlpool effect within the general flow of myriad strands of light. The gallery attendant at the entrance to the teamLab space warned the people going in to the room that they could become disoriented, though I suspect a swooning enchantment might be the more common response. In any case, it was hard not to want to linger in a waking dream.
I lost count of the number of whole rooms at the Triennial taken up with a single work. Perhaps the largest space in physical terms is occupied by an entire furnished apartment (main picture above) constructed at the direction of Yayoi Kusama, who invites everyone who enters the space to place a flower sticker somewhere of their choice in the domestic space. The TV, naturally, was among the first household objects to be completely festooned, with the bathroom proving to be a sticker magnet also. The piece is called Flower obsession, and as the months pass it will become increasingly clear just how emphatically literal is that title, though “Sticker obsession” could apply equally to the whole exercise. Perhaps the stickers will all be peeled off at some point in order to start the process anew, or maybe they will keep being added until there is nothing but stickers upon stickers.
Not everything that is large necessarily makes a big statement. I wasn’t particularly moved by Mass, a collection of enormous plaster skulls by Ron Mueck mostly gathered in one room, though I was impressed by the single skull placed provocatively in front of Tiepolo’s iconic The Banquet of Cleopatra, the 1744 masterpiece that depicts ancient lovers Cleopatra and Mark Antony and has been described as the most valuable painting owned by an Australian gallery. Seeing Mueck’s skull aligned visually with such a familiar picture seemed to me to allude to Holbein’s The Ambassadors with all that may follow on from the association.
Even in the mingling, whether intended or incidental, of the special exhibition with the permanent collection, there would be something for every art lover to enjoy at the NGV Triennial.
You just need the time to explore it all – and the legs.
The NGV Triennial is open until April 15