As we wave goodbye to another year of biennales, biennials and blockblusters, a new offering emerges beguiling us with its promise to be different.
This summer, the National Gallery of Victoria has embarked on its inaugural ‘Triennial’, focusing it says on art and design and how the two inform each other (creative form on function and vice versa). NGV director, Tony Ellwood ambitiously claims this theme is "an even more contemporary way of reflecting what our creative community is doing around the globe".
Featuring the work of over 100 artists and designers from 32 countries, this large-scale exhibition celebrates according to Ellwood the "world of art and design practice, across cultures, scales, geographies and perspectives".
Space is tight, with paintings, sculptures and installations crowding the ordinarily austere gallery spaces of the NGV International. Scale and spectacle is clearly front of mind here.
In talking to the artists, Ellwood says five conceptual themes emerge: the body, change, movement, time, and the virtual. The works are challenging, and wrestle with some of the more significant and contentious issues of our times, including climate change, the movement of refugees and religious persecution.
Alexandra Kehayoglou, 'No Longer Creek' (2016) Photo: NGV
David Altmeid’s fossil-like blackened polystyrene sculpture hangs upside down from the ceiling in a hallway. In a corridor lies Pascale Marthine Tayou's pile of painted rocks. Alexandra Kehayoglou’s Santa Cruz River – a huge wool-woven rug landscape – covers a floor and climbs the wall.
Ron Mueck’s mountain of giant skulls sits behind several rooms of 18th and 19th century portraiture and landscape paintings. The more conservative wing of the gallery is a perfectly natural home for it, giving this complex work room to breathe away from the brasher works, and putting it in the context of the history of art.
Installation views of 'Mass' by Ron Mueck (2017) Photos: NGV
This stimulating gallery-wide exhibition is in this sense a gigantic step away from its nakedly populist blockbuster predecessor, ‘The House of Dior’. But in one important respect, is it really that different?
Art as spectacle v Art as commentator
The Triennial remains the latest in a long line of money-spinning, blockbuster exhibitions at the NGV, each promising foremost to engage new audiences.*
The idea of art as a popular spectacle is not new. Such has long traversed social divides with museums and public galleries providing the biggest stage. In the 1800’s huge crowds could turn out for artists like Turner, Church, or Géricault.
Fredric Edwin Church, Heart of the Andes (1859) Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art
But by so starkly fulfilling the primary function of contemporary art by responding to the world around us in a challenging way, the NGV has in my view succeeded here where it and others have failed in the past when it comes to staging epic exhibitions.
With the success of recent art spectaculars predominantly being measured by audience attendances, public galleries appear to be losing track of how art should function in a modern society.
Sitting amidst the NGV Triennial this week I was struck by the shadow it casts over previous art spectaculars. This glaring contrast leaves me to ponder our public galleries perilous failure to embrace new art forms.
Installation view of 'Incoming' (2015-16) by Richard Mosse Photo: NGV
But does the staging of the impressive NGV Triennial against a background of public galleries’ populist blockbuster exhibitions simply highlight the need to change our basic assumptions about how art should function in our modern world?
2017: A year where orthodox thinking was challenged
In his fascinating article ‘Museums, ‘Experiences’ and the Year of Big Fun Art‘ (Artnet, 27 Dec 2017), art critic Ben Davis argues that the unprecedented political and social events of 2017 enable us to be forgiven for forsaking some of our basic assumptions about how we expect the world to function.
In the same way, Davis says basic assumptions about how art functions and responds to our times are also changing.
Artnet's National Art Critic, Ben Davis Photo: The Conversation Pod
Davis suggests there is a ‘slower, destabilizing tectonic shift underfoot’ that we may miss with all the ‘flashes of controversy in the air’. In other words, like many of the extraordinary events of the past year, Davis says ‘we may not see it coming’.
A brief history of the changing function of art
Museums have always historically been designed with church-like atmospheres - designed specifically to be anything but populist. The preciousness of the “white cube,” as Brian O’Doherty famously termed the modern gallery space, had an embedded message: “Aesthetics are a kind of social elitism”.
However, a shift Davis argues began to emerge in the middle of the 20th century.
The demands of radical art activists in the anti-establishment ’60s focused on making the museum less aristocratic, more accessible to a wide-ranging audience. In that sense, the idea of the truly mass-appeal museum is recent-ish - born yesterday, in art-historical time - and is thus still evolving.
In the ‘70s, the highly hyped and merchandised “blockbuster” ‘Treasures of Tutankhamun’ exhibition arrived in London, and museum culture began to dance to (a different tune). Trying to justify their existence amid the changing, post-’60s culture, as the less buttoned-down Baby Boomer sensibilities went mainstream, museums … turned towards touring spectacles to draw big crowds.
When art observers repeat the demand, today, that we bring “art into life” or bring “art to the masses”, this missionary imperative seems to me to ignore the degree to which that particular demand has already been fulfilled.
Queues for the 'Treasures of Tutankhamun' exhibition outside the British Museum, London, 1972
From Touring Blockbuster to the Internet
With the arrival of the internet in the late 1990’s, different levels of culture began to collapse into a single, on-demand media space. A little more than a decade later, Apple launched the iPhone. Another ten years later, the god-like capacities of the mobile internet have become such a banal fact that it is hard to recall that something like it was envisioned as a utopian outcome for culture not so long ago, Davis argues.
The populace today is more savvy than any before. Davis observes,
(Today) the average person supposedly touches their phone more than 2,600 times a day. Whatever is in front of you, there is always a potentially more interesting thing available at the swipe of a finger - French stamps, Renaissance paintings, candy-based slot machine apps, whatever - with social consequences we all know. It’s an encyclopedic museum in every pocket.
As a result, the public is ever more encased in some form of culture or other at all times, at levels that weren’t imagined five years ago, let alone 50. This year, the average American adult consumed more than 12 hours of media a day, a staggering total only made possible by the fact that people are often consuming multiple streams at once. There are mobile video games designed to occupy bursts of as little as three seconds of your free time.
Art, in other words, has embedded itself pretty deeply into life.
How our public galleries navigate this will determine their place well into the future. To rise to that challenge, they will need the vision of contemporary artists and the support of critics to make sense of the world in which we live.
In this NGV Triennial succeeds.
* Whilst entry is free to this exhibition, there is no shortage of merchandise available to generate revenue. Nonetheless, previous stand-alone spectaculars such as The House of Dior, David Hockney, Viktor and Rolf, Monet's Garden and Napoleon all charged entry fees.
NGV Triennial runs until 15 April.
Installation view of 'Noss Noss' (2014) by Hassan Hajjaj Photo: NGV
Installation view of 'Untitled' (2017) by Pae White Photo: NGV
Main Photo: Zanele Muholi - from the series 'Somnyama Ngonyama' ('Hail, the Dark Lioness') (2016) (Detail) Photo: NGV
Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist, living and working in Melbourne, Australia