The NGV has just unveiled a breathtaking line-up of 86 projects – by more than 100 artists and designers from more than 30 countries – for its second Triennial, which is scheduled to open on December 19.

It’s a pretty dizzying and thought-provoking array, in the best possible way, especially considering the massive Covid-19 spanner that was thrown into the works.

“We are fundamentally excited to be able to open a show at this time, to be able to bring it together and deliver it, that’s exciting,” Ewan McEoin, senior curator of contemporary design and architecture, tells Broadsheet.

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The bill includes huge international names, such as American artist Jeff Koons (known for his balloon-animal sculptures) and French photographer and street artist JR. Koons will contribute a towering mirrored sculpture of Venus, the Roman goddess of love. And in a world premiere for JR, a chapel-like structure – with large stained-glass windows – will be erected in the NGV’s Grollo Equiset Garden.

At the inaugural Triennial in 2017, the NGV took steps to incorporate the permanent collection into the exhibition – who could forget Ron Mueck’s gigantic skulls, unexpectedly displayed throughout the gallery? This time around, expect an evocative contrast of old and new, which will delve into the collecting history of the NGV.

Several artists and designers were asked to “use the collection as part of their creative process”, says McEoin. British interior designer Faye Toogood was inspired by the different light forms – daylight, moonlight and candlelight – in Flemish, Dutch and British works from the 17th and 18th centuries. Her response is a salon-style interior complete with newly commissioned furniture, lighting and sprawling tapestries.

You’ll also find the walls of the 16th and 17th century gallery covered with vibrant Australian-flora wallpaper by American collective Fallen Fruit. “The immersive artwork also becomes a story about the formation of colonial Australia itself, and how people and plants from other places have naturalised within the Indigenous landscape,” the collective said in a joint statement.

Elsewhere, there’ll be an opportunity to look at Giambattista Tiepolo’s masterpiece The Banquet of Cleopatra in a whole new light: an ornate black-and-white Murano glass chandelier by New York artist Fred Wilson will hang nearby. Its purpose is to draw attention to the people of colour depicted, often as servants, in such 17th and 18th century Venetian paintings.

Wilson has been challenging the prejudices of history and race – and the conventions of museum display – for decades. And the NGV’s curator of contemporary art, Pip Wallis, says this work “draws out that very history [he’s] interested in”.

The Triennial will also feature a number of immersive, tech-driven experiences. Turkish artist Refik Anadol has been commissioned to create what will be the largest-ever digital artwork to be displayed at the NGV. Ten metres high and wide, it will use millions of images, artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing to bring to life our digitised memories of nature.

Another major digital commission taking over an entire gallery space will be American artist Tabor Robak’s Megafauna, where visitors will be surrounded by moving, computer-generated sculptures. It will feel “almost as if you have woken up on a space ship in the future somewhere,” says Wallis. “But at the same time, it will be monolithic, spiritual, and draw our attention to the godlike importance we are placing on AI in the future.”

Planet City, an animated film by LA-based Aussie filmmaker Liam Young, will also be on display. He uses new technologies such as photogrammetry to encourage viewers to speculate on what the future holds. McEoin describes the work as an “imaginary city in the near future, where all humanity retreat to live together to allow the planet to rewire”. It’s based on Young’s research into high-density living, and features impressive collaborators such as costume designer Ane Crabtree (known for her work on The Handmaid’s Tale).

The exhibition will also feature a diverse mix of local up-and-comers, including Melbourne-based South Sudanese artist Atong Atem, whose art explores the experience of young migrants; Pierre Mukeba, an Adelaide-based artist from the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and Brisbane-based Indigenous artist Hannah Brontë.

There’s no doubt this artistic blockbuster is exactly what we need in a post-lockdown world. But the Triennial – centred around the themes of illumination, reflection, conservation and speculation – will also give us a chance to think beyond the immediate future. As McEoin says, “With all of this evidence of where we’ve come from, who we are now, what we’re doing to the planet – could we speculate on what the future might be, and what we might want it to be?”

NGV Triennial runs from December 19 to April 18, 2021 at NGV International. Book a free ticket here.

Alana Kushnir is the founder of Guest Work Agency, a curatorial practice and legal and advisory firm for artists, collectors, commercial galleries and arts organisations.