A dark, cylindrical behemoth has arrived at the NGV, reaching to the heavens in two parts. And it’s designed to fuel some pivotal conversations.
The winning design of the annual NGV Architecture Commission – a national competition for architects to create a temporary, site-specific structure for the gallery’s Grollo Equiset Gardens – is called In Absence and is a collaboration between contemporary artist Yhonnie Scarce, of the Indigenous Kokatha and Nukunu peoples, and Melbourne-based architecture practice Edition Office.
In Absence references both the cleft down the middle of the structure, which reveals a cavernous empty space between its two stained-wood halves, and the practice of government-sanctioned erasure that taints the Indigenous history of this country. Of course, there is dialogue between these two meanings: the former directly symbolises the latter.
“An appropriate civilisation in legal terms [under Terra Nullius] meant having legal rights to that land and recognisable things such as agriculture and architecture and trade. Although [Indigenous Australians] had many advanced agriculture and aquaculture systems in place, these were not recognised,” says Aaron Roberts, co-director at Edition Office. “[With] the crack in the middle of the building, you’re walking into emptiness, [but] it also speaks to that process of dispossession. So much has been lost and there’s so much that can’t be brought back or replaced.”
The form is intentionally simple, but its impact is immediate: a tall, dark monolith that, though it has a deep, dark inky palette, amplifies the light once you step inside. And it’s inside you’ll see Scarce’s mesmerising contribution: hundreds of hand-blown glass yams that shimmer up the walls, appearing to ooze through the cracks in the interior wood panelling.
“I create work that symbolises our traditions and cultural practice of eating food, and the importance of maintaining our cultural tradition,” Scarce tells me. “Yams have been quite active in large works of mine as they tend to represent Aboriginal bodies as well as individual figures. Light for me is very important in terms of the colour of our skin; I find black is a really powerful colour. The dark glass yams can represent mapping waterways and stars and leeches, and they do tend to move if you spend long enough inside the chambers and when the light changes. They have their own little life force.”
In past years, the winning Architecture Commission designs have been immersive in a sprawling, labyrinthine and playground-like – 2016’s hot pink car wash is one example. In Absence is still immersive, but in a quieter way. The experience is less like running through a maze than it is entering a flotation tank. Walking inside, you’re enshrouded by the work in a way that focuses your senses and disorients you right out of your busy city-dweller mentality. The idea is that the piece will facilitate thought and meaningful conversation rather than distract you or deprive you of it. Add a handful of strangers to the mix, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for immediate intimacy.
“There’s a lot of heated conversation [about Indigenous recognition] across mainstream media. But in a pavilion like this, when you’re having a conversation in this intimate space, people aren’t acting in the same way,” says Kim Bridgland, another Edition Office director. “There’s a greater openness in how people engage with ideas.”
It is this dual intensity of In Absence – the strong exterior form and the defence-stripping intimacy of its interior – that makes it the perfect catalyst for conversation. In addition to the kinds of spontaneous exchanges that Scarce, Bridgland and Roberts hope the structure will elicit, it’ll also host the usual program of talks and performances that accompany the NGV Architecture Commission each summer.
“It’s designed so that when you go inside, you don’t have that strength and that thick skin. On the inside, it’s a celebration of deep listening. You’re in those chambers and you’re immersed and it wraps you like a blanket,” says Roberts. “It puts you in a much more vulnerable position for dialogue and talking and for sharing.”
“Architecture is very much like an art form as well,” adds Scarce. “People might not like to read or watch television, but with architecture you can create a space where people can interact with this story and leave with something new.”
In Absence is at NGV International’s Grollo Equiset Gardens until April 2020.