Two teenagers are standing in the central court of NGV International: a girl texting and, a short distance away, a boy with his hands in his pockets. They are 12ft tall and black, and are on display as part of the third edition of the NGV Triennial: the National Gallery of Victoria’s behemoth exhibition of contemporary international art and design, which opened on Sunday.
These teenage titans, the work of UK sculptor Thomas J Price, are a particular choice for this central position. While they are unmistakable, they have no sight of the giant curved Buddha (by Chinese artist Xu Zhen) that occupied this central venue for the first Triennial in 2017, and the supersized swirling digital display (by Turkish artist -American Refik Anadol ) in 2020. In contrast, Price’s sculptures feel anti-monumental; quotidian. They ask the questions: What is size worth? What takes up space – in public and in museums? How do these Big Important Things make us, as viewers, feel? Is bigger really better?
This moment is emblematic of the latest edition of Triblianta, and the changing nature of the show over nine years. Having established itself with a larger audience, and cemented itself as a major event in the national art calendar, the Triennial – which is free to enter – can try a little less; be more tactile, and fun.
There is a humorous provocation in the huge sculpture by UK satirist David Shrigley at the gallery’s street entrance, and in the two banners hanging above the building’s entrance: one of them is a photograph of Maurizio Cattelan’s imaginary banana work, the another a photograph of UK artist Ryan Gander’s pre-made animatronic mouse, its head poking through a tiny hole in the wall. (NGV doubles Catellan’s stain by giving the banana its own white cube space; Gander’s talking mouse is in an appropriate anti-hero lane position.)
That’s not to say that this year’s Triennial isn’t a Big and Important Show. It’s quite a crowd in itself – almost 100 works or projects by over 120 artists, designers and collectives, spread over three levels of the gallery – before you even try to wrap your eyes and brain around the exhibition. (Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to do the “Triennial” in one visit.)
There are exhibition-stopping moments and plenty of famous names: a text-based work by Yoko Ono on the north face of the building and a participatory installation about mothers inside, a series of newly acquired works by Tracey Emin, and a collection of amazing works. looks and accessories by Maison Schiaparelli. This year’s Instagram fodder will include Sheila Hicks’ giant blue balls of yarn (the soft antidote to Ron Mueck’s giant skulls, of 2017) and Swiss artist Franziska Furter’s “weather room”: a hyper-colored carpet displaying infrared satellite images of hurricanes, hanging with sensibilities. strands of transparent glass beads that resemble rain.
But Price’s teenage placement, at the heart of the Triennial, seems to reflect changing priorities, and the gallery’s responsiveness to global conversations about representation in museum spaces – and specifically, black visibility.
This is backed up by a series full of excellent art by black artists, including works by US photographer Tyler Mitchell (who shot to fame aged just 23 for his historic cover Vogue de Beyoncé) who “brings joy everyday”; and two works by New York-based artist Derek Fordjour (also a favorite of Beyoncé), including his tour-de-force video work Fly Away, in which the puppet figure of a young black man tries not to not just survive but thrive while he’s there. manipulated by four white (and human) puppeteers.
Textile works also get a hero placement in this year’s edition, reflecting a renaissance in the art form. In addition to the work of Sheila Hicks, Mun Dirra is given a huge room on the ground floor: a labyrinthine installation made up of 10 large panels of woven pandanus created by 13 women from the Burarra language group in western Arnhem Land over two years. , drawing on common techniques used to make fish fence traps. Using the channels of this installation, inhaling the grassy scent of the dried pandanus, I was transported; in a moment of day, I dreamed it was a fish.
Another highlight among the major textile commissions is the epic narrative tapestry, 40 meters long Conflict Avocados, by Mexican designer Fernando Laposse, which tells a fascinating true story of environmental degradation, human exploitation and indigenous resistance in disarming pastel tones , using pigments concocted from avocado pips and yellow flowers.
There are also powerful works on a smaller scale: losing my way in the rabbit-collecting galleries on the second floor, I suddenly find myself face to face with a striking symbolic tapestry by US artist Diedrick Brackens, woven from hand-dyed cotton and featuring a figure black kneeling on bare red ground, holding a strand of chain between his clenched fists.
Painting is also featured in this edition, from senior APY artists Iluwanti Ken and Betty Muffler to mid-career Melbourne painter Prudence Flint and Farrokh Mahdavi from Tehran. There is an abundance of work by so-called “ultra-contemporary” artists (born after 1975), including British art market stars Lucy Bull and Flora Yukhnovich, New York-based painters Chase Hall and Ilana Savdie, and Czech artist Vojtěch Kovařík.
Among overcrowded gallery spaces where things often push for the viewer’s attention, these paintings are often elevated by their presentation: Yukhnovich’s luminous work sits alongside examples of Dutch floral life and Rococo paintings of the It was inspired by France; A series of Flint’s uncanned house portraits are given their own custom carpet pile, and sit alongside striking 16th- and 17th-century portraits of women by Flemish masters, a style that informed her practice.
Among several impressive full-room presentations, including installations by Japanese flower artist Azuma Makoto and Kosovar artist Petrit Halilaj, one of the most beautiful is dedicated to a series of large, jewel-toned paintings by the Melbourne-based artist Richard Lewer depicts the Bible. the story of Adam and Eve. Within the dark space, two rows of six paintings face each other from opposite walls, with a 16th-century altar painting of the Passion of Christ on the adjacent wall. In the middle of the room, two church pews are placed back to back, for quiet meditation.
As in previous editions of the Triennial, these moments when the art of the old and the new are broken together are the most magical, with each work creating a strange, exciting vibration in the other. New York artist Diana al-Hadid takes top honors with two major new sculptural exhibitions inspired by (and incorporating) ancient and medieval objects and works of art from the NGV collection – including two Renaissance paintings out.
Laced with gold, brightly lit and set within a figure-of-eight gallery space lined with dramatic black velvet, it’s a coup de théâtre moment.
Similarly, many of Triennial’s weaker moments come down to design and presentation. While many of the contemporary works are successfully incorporated into collection displays for expressive effect (within the Chinese and South Asian collections, for example), there are some placements that feel baffling, even harmful. Italian artist Diego Cibelli’s dramatic white sculpture of a throne made of fruit and vegetables feels lost at sea among impressionist landscape paintings and 19th-century portraits. Almost all the contemporary works installed in the well-loved Salon room feel close-hung, underwhelming (and therefore underwhelming), including the carved tree scenes by Aurukun artist Keith Wikmunea that won Natsiaa and Vernon Marbendinar should pop rightfully.
Next door, a vibrant hanging of vibrant canvases by Guatemala-based artist Vivian Suter threatens to overwhelm three striking black-and-white paintings by Pitjantjatjara artist Timo Hogan, with no apparent logic behind the juxtaposition. – feeling worse at inclusion. in the same room a 19th century English landscape by Constable and an 18th century seaport by Thomas Gainsborough.
In this large exhibition, which represents a large spectrum of art forms and aesthetics within a very limited space, it is not possible to present all works in the best possible way. Inevitably, some will shine and others will not. After spending hours navigating the labyrinthine NGV galleries to find each work, my impression was that less art can have more impact. Perhaps more is not, in fact, better.
That said, you’d be hard-pressed to spend even 20 minutes exploring these Triennials and not be rewarded; with this body of work, selected with love and care by the entire NGV curatorial team, finding art is like shooting fish in a barrel. You simply cannot miss.