At the NGV’s Grand Hall, 44 tables are set for a triennial feast. But this is no ordinary dinner party.
The theme of the evening is painter Giambattista Tiepolo’s 18th-century masterpiece The Banquet of Cleopatra, which depicts Cleopatra dissolving a priceless pearl earring in a cup of vinegar and drinking it, thus winning a bet with her lover, Roman ruler Mark Antony (you can go upstairs to see the painting after dinner).
A different artist, creative or designer is behind the setting on each table. Lighting and homewares designers Gregory Bonasera and Anthony Raymond of Porcelain Bear have zeroed in on themes of decadence and abundance, crafting a porcelain urn overflowing with 24-karat gold fruits and vegetables. Plenty of art history references crisscross the room, too. Interior designer Danielle Brustman has decked her table out in International Klein Blue (a nod to the work by French artist Yves Klein) with a model of Cleopatra’s Needle – a stone monument transported from Luxor, Egypt to Paris in 1836 – in the centre.
Proceeds from ticket sales for the sold-out gala dinner tonight will go to the NGV Women’s Association for the acquisition of new artworks for the gallery. (The public can view the tables during the day on Thursday May 2 and Friday May 3.) Over the years, the NGVWA has helped acquire dozens of works, including Andy Warhol’s Self-portrait No. 9 and Yayoi Kusama’s Flower Obsession.
For my money, the luckiest diners in the house are at the table up the back with the doll’s house centrepiece. Everything from the charger plates to the cups are wrapped in patches of scrap fabric, hastily stitched together and adorned with sequins, buttons and beads. It’s handmade, crafted, but not cutesy. It all feels a bit dark. Artist Matilda Davis, a recent VCA graduate, has constructed a mini-universe of surreal, murky childhood imagery.
For Davis, craft and textiles are too often seen as tame and sweet, and created for a set purpose. “I want to complicate that,” they explained. “The work I create is messy and improper and technically not well-made … It’s like an infection. My textile work always has this manic material fever dream. I find the combination of child’s play and a fine-art experience grotesque.”
Diners at Davis’s table will be given babies’ bibs instead of napkins, and very little room to actually fit their functional crockery and glassware. It’s about inviting the diner into the experience.
“I never like it in a gallery when people are forced to interact with a work, but seeing as people will be eating, that’s [already] a participation in itself,” says Davis. “Coming to the table, they’re agreeing to take part.”
All 44 tables will be on display in the NGV Great Hall from Thursday May 2 to Friday May 3. Timed ticket sessions are $35, pre-book online here.