A Risk-Averse Triennial at the NGV Struggles with Its Own Mission

Beneath the slick surface appearance of the National Gallery of Victoria’s blockbuster exhibition is a timid exploration of Australia’s colonial legacy

BY Andy Butler in Reviews , Reviews Across The World | 05 APR 21

The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) is the fifth most Instagrammed place in Australia. This is by design. In a country that is double the size of Europe, world-famous for its beaches and natural beauty, its bluestone building (now known NGV International) rivals the nation’s greatest spectacles. The gallery temporarily reopened post-lockdown with its blockbuster NGV Triennial, a show of 86 works by more than 100 artists from 32 countries, spanning all four levels of the museum.

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Refik Anadol, Quantum Memories, 2020, installation view at NGV International, Melbourne. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Tom Ross

Refik Anadol’s Quantum Memories (2020) dominates the NGV’s forecourt. Drawing on AI, algorithms and datasets of nature photographs, an LED screen emanates flowing abstracted images that mimic sublime renderings of nature in real time. Anadol built his ‘data sculpture’ using quantum computing software specially developed by Google. Watching it prompts both fascination and fear: a machine is learning to represent an image of nature back to us. Anadol is quick to note in an accompanying interview that his work is not meant to be dystopian, but rather speaks to the possibilities of technology and the worlds we might create.

Quantum Memories takes on darker undertones in the context of the triennial, however. Like this work, the rest of the exhibition peddles in algorithms and technology to build an overwhelming aesthetic experience that transfixes its audience. Though beautiful, many of the works  purposefully seem to shy away from complexity, their shiny veneers transforming into Instagrammable moments in which gallery-goers serve either as consumers or as agents in the proliferation of images of NGV.

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BTVV, Walls 4 Sale: near new and supersized, 2020, installation view at NGV International, Melbourne. Courtesy: the artists; photograph: Sean Fennessy

Current museological discourse is focussed on existential questioning, with producers of cultural memory and imaginary rightfully evaluating their close relationships with the structures of power that propagate inequality, climate change and structural racism – social phenomena that have been thrown into acute relief following the events of 2020.

Since 2012, under the direction of Tony Ellwood, the NGV has doubled down on its relationships with public, philanthropic and private sectors as it hurtles towards the construction of a new building. AU$20 million was successfully raised towards this project from the Ian Potter Foundation last December, along with a sizeable portion of the AU$1.4bn funds allocated by the Victorian government in November to the Melbourne Arts Precinct project, as well as AU$10 million for the triennial itself from private and philanthropic relationships that will be leveraged to raise more funds for the new building.

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Fallen Fruit, Natural History, 2020, installation view at NGV International, Melbourne. Courtesy: the artists; photograph: Sean Fennessy

BTVV’s installation Walls 4 Sale: near new and supersized (2020) riffs off the tricks used in real-estate photography to make apartments seem larger than they are. Playing with perspective and scale in a strange model apartment – oversized toilet, tiny bathroom, corridors that lead nowhere – the work has become a popular backdrop for visitors taking Instagram selfies. Despite offering a commentary on poorly planned modern housing developments, Walls 4 Sale is timid in its unpacking of the realities of contemporary art’s role as an asset to property investors and its complicity in the gentrification and social cleansing of neighbourhoods. Some of the most prominent supporters of the NGV – and contemporary art in Melbourne – have vested financial interests in housing inequality.

Fallen Fruit’s Natural History (2020) is an uncritical reflection on Australia’s colonial legacy. The Los Angeles-based duo create an immersive environment through a collection hang of European and settler-Australian paintings and sculptures from the NGV collection, offset against colour-matched fabric wallpaper patterned with Australian introduced and native flora and fauna. While beautiful, these wall coverings are flimsy in their claims to unpacking colonialism, indigeneity, race, class, gender and sexuality.

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Lakin Ogunbanwo, Are We Good Enough, 2015, exhibition view at NGV International, Melbourne. Courtesy: the artist and WHATIFTHEWORLD Gallery, Cape Town; photograph: Tom Ross

The triennial has a curatorial fixation with works that deploy photographic portraiture as a means of questioning the legacies of ethnography and the colonial gaze, with little reflexivity on how museums are still implicated in this history. In a narrow corridor behind what is being touted as the most significant Jeff Koons to enter an Australian collection (Venus, 2016–20), pieces by seven Black artists who work with the figure – including Atong Atem, Girma Berta and Lakin Ogunbanwo – are crammed together as if the mere representation of non-white subjects translates to a form of uncomplicated empowerment.

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Angela Tiatia, Narcissus, 2019, installation view at NGV International. Courtesy: the artist and Sullivan + Strumpf, Sydney; photograph: Tom Ross

The most successful works trouble the logic of consumption and spectacle that feeds the triennial. Angela Tiatia’s powerful silent video, Narcissus (2019), is heightened by its monumental projection within the museum’s collection of 16th–18th century European art. A throng of actors adapt Caravaggio’s interpretation of Narcissus (c.1597–99), falling into water in slow-motion as they collectively stare at themselves. 

Steven Rhall’s Air Dancer as Black Body (2019) bursts forth from a pitch-dark room with the loud whirr of an electric fan and the flash of a strobe light. Activated by audience movement, the nylon inflatable air dancer with a frown-emoji face plays on expectations among white audiences that First Nations artists will make work about trauma. In a related performance, Cultural Capital $ (2021), Rhall – in the guise of his alter-ego Blak Metal – dons full-face glam make-up and a punk jacket. He lays prone in a vitrine, around which audiences swarm to photograph his body, while an assistant sells associated souvenirs.

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Steven Rhall, Air dancer as black body, 2019, installation view at NGV International. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Tobias Titz

As is the case with many large-scale arts events, the triennial asks few probing questions about itself while at the same time presenting works by artists who, in various ways, speak to issues of social justice or present visions for the future. There are glimmers of beauty in this exhibition but, at a time when museums are claiming to tackle pressing issues, the NGV’s risk-averse approach and lack of self-reflection makes the spectacle feel hollow.

Main image: Fallen Fruit, Natural History, 2020, installation view at NGV International, Melbourne. Courtesy: the artists; photograph: Sean Fennessy

NGV Triennial is on view at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, until 18 April 2021. 

Andy Butler is an artist and writer. He is exhibitions curator at West Space, Melbourne, Australia.