The first thing I see outside NGV International is a seven-metre-high thumbs-up by acerbic artist and Instagram icon David Shrigley. The sardonic sculpture, ironically titled Really Good, was first seen in London’s Trafalgar Square in the immediate aftermath of Brexit – characteristic of the artist’s darkly satirical works.
Triennial curator Ewan McEoin draws a parallel with Australia’s own recent referendum result, as I take note of the sculpture’s placement next to the Aboriginal flag flying full-mast in the wind. “Read it as you like,” he says – a sentiment that’s echoed through much of our tour.
Shrigley is one of many international luminaries headlining the NGV Triennial – alongside pivotal British artist Tracey Emin, avant-garde icon Yoko Ono and Parisian fashion house Maison Schiaparelli.
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Packing nearly 100 works by more than 120 artists, designers and collectives from over 30 countries and regions into all four levels of the gallery, it’s an expansive and powerful snapshot of the world today – so it’s little surprise to see ruminations on artificial intelligence, the climate crisis, race relations and war. There are also robot dogs, deep-fake photography, haute couture, textile landscapes, and a single banana duct-taped to a wall. “Some artworks shouldn’t be provided with too much explanation,” McEoin quips of the latter.
A few steps away from the giant thumb is an eight-metre-long bronze eel trap by Wurundjeri artist Aunty Kim Wandin, installed in the NGV moat as a tribute to the history of Wurundjeri women, their tradition of weaving and their relationship with the short-finned eel.
The two pieces that kick off the Triennial, even before you step inside, are emblematic of its vast scope – stretching across past and present, local and global, art and architecture. They also touch on the key thematic pillars anchoring the exhibition: magic, matter and memory.
“Magic is spirituality, the unknown forces of nature,” McEoin says. “Memory is about collective and individual memory … but also we’ve got works about conflicts and other forms of memories. And matter is our relationship with materials, the physics of the universe – also works questioning material and how we value things.”
These ideas play out in many of the works: there’s a nightmarish three-panel moving image inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s equally disturbing triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights that depicts paradise, purgatory and hell with several allusions to consumption and surveillance. Ono’s participatory project asks visitors to write reflections about their mothers (or mother figures), which are then displayed on the gallery walls. In the next room are newly acquired works by Emin, including a five-metre-tall rendering of the artist’s handwriting in neon lights, alongside sculptures and paintings. And there’s a large-scale installation of a 100-metre long woven fish fence produced over two years by 13 women from the Burarra language group in Western Arnhem Land – a striking display of First Nations architecture and infrastructure.
As you stroll through the NGV’s rooms, corridors and courts, the artworks engulf you. You’ll step on them (and feel weird about it), wander through and below them, hear them and feel them. Among these immersive works is one (of many) that’ll leave a lasting impression – a deeply moving installation by Kosovan artist Petrit Halilaj that revisits the childhood drawings he made in an Albanian refugee camp during the height of the Kosovan War, and blows them up onto large-scale felt canvases. Interspersing childlike depictions of landscapes, animals and birds with scenes of war, violence and destruction, it’s a tragic insight into the mind of a child trapped in a conflict zone – and impossible not to connect to the humanitarian crisis happening in Gaza right now.
The last Triennial was (naturally) three years ago, and work behind the scenes of each Triennial starts three years before it opens. The world has changed a lot in that short amount of time.
A key shift that took place in the early days of curating this show was the Black Lives Matter movement, both here and abroad. Several works in the exhibition explore issues of Black (and Blak) identity, representation, power and class, including Thomas J Price’s towering sculptures in Federation Court; Chase Hall’s use of coffee and cotton in his diptych painting God Is You; and Tiff Massey’s examination of the cultural and political significance of Black hair and the racial bias inherent in Western ideas of beauty.
“The artists, designers and architects of our time play an important role in helping us to understand, navigate and relate to the world around us,” NGV director Tony Ellwood said in a statement. “The 2023 NGV Triennial offers audiences a valuable opportunity to experience new and surprising forms of creative expression from around the globe, which, together, present a compelling snapshot of the world as it is, while also asking how we would like it to be.”
NGV Triennial 2023 opens on Sunday December 3 and runs until Sunday April 7, 2024. Entry is free.
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