One suspects the late M.C. Escher would be pleased to learn even NGV staff are becoming disorientated during the set-up of his new exhibition.

“One word I’ve heard used is ‘mesmerising’,” says Cathy Leahy, NGV’s Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings. It does sound hard to describe – she says staff are increasingly unable to tell where in the gallery they are as the transformative exhibition’s build goes on around them.

Escher’s surreal visions have become iconic. (You know art has become a pop cultural artifact when it’s referenced on The Simpsons). You’ve seen Escher’s Relativity (1953), a tangle of staircases and archways coalescing at, impossible angles, with figures walking the paths, defying gravity and logic. In Waterfall (1961), an aqueduct flows simultaneously downhill and uphill pushing water towards a waterfall in an infinite loop. Both are present in the new exhibition.

Throughout his career the illustrator observed insects and plants, reflection and tessellation, architecture and mathematics, turning his interpretations into remarkable artworks. For this exhibition the NGV has gathered over 150 pieces.

“He was fascinated by the nexus between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional,” says Leahy. “A picture on a wall is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional world, but [in Escher’s work] your mind actually reads it as 3D.”

He was, of course, far more than a purveyor of trippy imagery to hang on students’ walls. He was a consummate craftsman, skilled draughtsman and a self-taught mathematician. It’s these qualities that inspired the gallery to match him with Japanese studio Nendo, award-winning purveyors of furniture, products and interiors with a playful edge.

They’ve gone a little further than just curating the show – they’ve created entirely new site-specific artworks, including shrinking corridors, optical illusions, projections, and a vast installation inspired by Escher’s tessellation prints.

“[Nendo’s founder and director Oki] Sato has an interest in spatial anomolies, and a pared back, precise sense of design,” says Leahy. “And also a sense of whimsy.”

Surprisingly Sato wasn’t especially familiar with Escher’s work. But the resulting partnership finds strength in not staying reverent to the master’s vision.

“One of the things that’s so extraordinary about the exhibition is it’s not a pastiche of Escher’s concerns,” says Leahy. “Sato didn’t want to highlight the commonalities, he wanted to try and look at the differences. Nendo have done a lot of research into Escher’s practice and come up with something entirely new.

Between Two Worlds | Escher X Nendo will be at NGV International from December 2 to April 7.

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