From the huge, you can’t possibly miss it, to the subtle, blink-and-you might, the pieces that make up the NGV Triennial vary in size and scope, but not power. There are some blockbuster pieces, but don’t let the smaller, subtler works slip by you. We’re here to help – make this your checklist.

Xu Zhen: A Giant Meeting of Two Worlds
You can’t miss it. The first thing you’ll see when you walk into the NGV is Chinese artist Xu Zhen’s huge Eternity-Buddha in Nirvana, a specially commissioned sculpture of a gargantuan Buddha overrun with reclining replicas of classical Greco-Roman, Renaissance and Neoclassical statues. The Buddha is a replica of the one in the Nirvana Cave, near Dunhuang, northwestern China, dating from the High Tang Dynasty about 1300 years ago. There’s been divergent reactions to this meeting of cultures. Some see it as a playful clash of artistic traditions; some say it depicts the west being typically disrespectful of a revered Eastern symbol. However you see it, it speaks to the globalist society of which China is a part, and its roots in history.

Pascale Marthine Tayou: Weapons of the Poor
From the Republic of Cameroon, Pascale Marthine Tayou brings a pile of granite paving stones, some painted in primary colours. It’s bright and seemingly playful, but it’s full of the threat of violence. From the French Revolution to demonstrations in Turkey in 2013, stones like these have been hurled through windows and at police. Tayou says paving stones are “the weapon of the poor, the weapon of someone who has nothing else except his chameleon-like state, his colour, to protect him.”

Brodie Neill: A Revolutionary (and Depressing) Table
Vast floating islands of waste are depressingly common in the world’s oceans. There’s millions of tonnes of plastic in our seas, and 51 trillion microplastic particles. Tasmanian designer Brodie Neill saw the coastline of his native Tasmania’s Bruny Island littered with plastic waste that has drifted there from all over the world, and wanted to create something that responds to the problem. With the help of environmentalists, he turned some of it into furniture. Gyro, table is a slick, deep-blue table made from fragments of collected plastic waste, cast in resin and adorned with the Earth’s longitudinal and latitudinal lines. Stare deep into the spinning galaxy of plastic: it’s beautiful, and it’s a wake-up call.

Louisa Bufardeci: A Sea of Sunken Boats
Louisa Bufardeci’s small needlepoints tell a big story. In blue and black thread, Bufardeci stitches eight images of the ocean cribbed from Google Earth. The titles are GPS coordinates of the locations of refugee boats that have sunk between Australia and Indonesia. Boatloads of lives get lost between the threads, just as the reporting of these incidents has gone from uncaring to non-existent.

Formafantasma: E-Waste or Furniture?
A gold-leaf-coated rubbish bin, anyone? The NGV commissioned one of the world’s most keenly observed design collective’s, Formafantasma, to create an installation inspired by electronic waste and precious metals. The Italian design duo – Simone Farresin and Andrea Trimarchi – used the journey of metal from mining, to tech, to rubbish, to produce a series of elegant everyday objects (alongside the bin, there’s a desk, a chair and a cabinet) that make use of salvaged metals from SIM cards and circuit boards, TVs and microwave ovens.

Iris van Herpen: Björk’s Dress
Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen’s avant-garde garments communicate emotion with fabric and new technology such as 3D printing. Dress, designed for Björk’s 2012 Biophilia tour, is a futuristic, swirling form of blue lines. It’s experimental, cold and dramatic – it’s no surprise it was originally designed for the pioneering Icelandic singer to wear on stage.

Candice Breitz: Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore Tell Other People’s Stories
South African artist Candice Breitz’s video work unabashedly uses star power to talk about politics: it’s about using high-profile voices to amplify overlooked stories. On huge screens, Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore perform monologues based on the experiences of refugees. Behind those screens, smaller monitors show the refugees’ original interviews. Breitz was keen to use this work to discuss the NGV’s contract with Wilson Security(the firm that also services offshore detention facilities on Manus Island and Nauru), so at the last minute she changed the name of the piece from Love Story to Wilson Must Go.

Reko Rennie: A Supersized Desert Inside an Elevator
Aboriginal identity is at the forefront of Footscray-born Reko Rennie’s work, incorporating text and tag-like repeated imagery inspired by his youth as a graffiti artist, all presented in furious colour. He often works in public spaces, bringing art to the masses. (You might have seen his “Always was, always will be” tram doing the rounds of the city.) He’s right at home in the Triennial, with a piece that doesn’t hang on a gallery wall, but rather takes over an elevator shaft, with a desert landscape that literally moves through the building like his people through history.

Richard Mosse: Refugee Camps Like You’ve Never Seen
Irish-born, US-based Mosse uses experimental hardware to highlight hidden and overlooked instances of human suffering. His large-scale, hypnotic, confronting films Grid and Incoming use a new military-grade long-range thermal imaging camera to document the dangerous journey of asylum seekers from the Syrian Civil War – and military interception of their boats – from 30 kilometres away. The thermal vision makes these enormous filmic works uncanny and almost imaginary, but you never forget the reality of what you’re watching. This is an acutely emotional work that will hit you for six.

Tala Madani: Bald, Middle-Aged Men in Their Underwear
Iranian painter Tala Madani’s dark, ironic and sometimes hilarious works capture absurd little moments – bald, middle-aged men are regularly her main characters. Behind the comic-strip facade, her inscrutable pieces use the language of cartoons to depict dark and oblique ideas. Smiley has no nose depicts several overweight men in underpants, holding their noses in response to a series of bright yellow, smiley faces. There’s a comment in there somewhere about power and subversion, but it defies obvious definition.

Ron Mueck: 99 Skulls
There’s a room full of huge, jawless skulls on the second floor of the NGV: 99 of them piled up haphazardly, like a macabre ball pit. Each skull measures roughly one metre square. Some are cracked. Some have broken teeth. Gaping eye sockets seem to glare at you. This is Mass, a new work from Australian-born Ron Mueck, known for his twisted hyperrealist works. This piece is his biggest to date, and one of the most monumental in the Triennial. Some people see it as gruesome and sombre, some as grinning and witty. It’s certainly memorable.

Ben Quilty: A Single Life Vest
Archibald Prize winner Ben Quilty is one of Australia’s most acclaimed artists. His broad, thick brushstrokes capture subjects with a certain undefinable Australianness. His work in the Triennial, High Tide Mark, is more global in its outlook, addressing the refugee crisis. One painting says it all: on a black background, a single orange life vest. It’s a stark and emotional image.

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