A single note plays in a darkened room – a C tone. It is then repeated, short + long, long + short, until you hear an unfortunately familiar pattern: short short short, long long long, short short short. It’s a distress call from a violin on a spaceship that has lost power, leaving its passengers to float through space until the life support system gives out.
This is the beginning of Turner Prize-winning artist Susan Philipsz’s A single voice, a multi-channel sound artwork showing at the NGV Triennial. The ship, the Aniara, is no ordinary ship: it’s full of colonists escaping an environmental catastrophe on Earth. The theme is not, however, drawn entirely from contemporary concerns about the state of the environment. Rather, Aniara was born as a poem in the 1950s by Nobel Laureate Harry Martinson, and was adapted into an opera by Karl-Birger Blohmdahl in 1958.
Philipsz has deconstructed the twelve-tone composition: each of the twelve tones of the chromatic scale is sounded by a different speaker placed around the darkened room. In the centre, violinst Leyla Ahkmatova continues to play the C tones in the composition, as the camera gently pans around her. It creates a call and response between the notes, linking people across time and space in contrast to the isolation of the individual notes.
Isolation and loneliness, themes with which Philipsz has worked for decades, have a new resonance in a world of lockdowns, iso, quarantine and a reliance on digital communication to bridge distances between bubbles. But – Philipsz created the work in 2017; its resonance with our recent experience reflects her capacity to articulate ideas and feelings that transcend the moment of their creation. Aniara is as equally relevant to the 1950s fears of nuclear annihilation as it is to today’s concern with climate change, and as it would have been to Aeneas’ flight from the destruction of Troy.
The work was selected for the 2020/21 NGV Triennial because it speaks to the themes around which the event is structured: Reflection, Conservation, Speculation and Illumination. But it also speaks to an underlying sense throughout the exhibition of how contemporary art is unashamedly created from interaction with and between traditions.
The event, which first ran in 2017, has become an art show the size and likes of which are rarely seen in Australia. More than 100 artists and designers from around the world are participating in the exhibition, which stretches across four floors of NGV International.
An exceptional range of artists has been selected and many of the artists’ names might not be generally familiar in Australia. But this is a strength: the exhibition stands on the quality of the art rather than the reputation of its makers. The diversity among the artists too is not merely cultural or geographic. The range of media and genres used by these artists genuinely reflects diversity in contemporary art practice: no one region, no one type of art is privileged above the rest.
Most importantly, the range of artists’ work on show doesn’t get samey, which keeps a large exhibition such as this from becoming fatiguing. Part of the secret here, I think, is that the works selected elicit a wide range of responses from viewers. Some works, such as South African artist Porky Hefer’s giant sea creatures, elicit a smile or a giggle. That is until you realise that Buttpuss is made from cigarette butts and that the artist has been imagining how marine life will mutate in response to what we put in the ocean.
Other works engage in a quieter dialogue. Pierre Mukeba’s Impartiality, for example, depicts four women staring back at you, surrounded by fabrics that look to be stereotypically West African. This type of fabric, together with its patterns, was imported from Indonesia to Europe by the Dutch, and then mass-produced for sale in Africa. A picture tells a thousand words: about the movement of goods, about colonialism, about ideas of beauty, about what constitutes African-ness, about how communities are represented.
Such relationships between people and material culture over time also remind us that very few cultures have existed in isolation. In Yann Gerstberger’s tapestries, for example, we see elements drawn from Mexican popular culture along with Picabia, Rousseau and Matisse. His aesthetic is defined by a fusion of influences that is also present physically in the work: he uses traditional dyes such as cochineal alongside cheap industrial dyes, traditional cotton alongside vinyl and polyesters. Old World vs New World, elite vs popular culture, fine art vs craft – basic dichotomies are broken down creating a work that is both contemporary and deeply rooted in different art historical traditions.
Interactions between past and present run throughout the exhibition. Below, we’ve taken a closer look at how this plays out in a couple other standout-artworks on display.
The best-known artist on display is Jeff Koons, whose work invites speculation into the relationship between art and spectacle in an image-saturated modern culture. For the Triennial, the NGV commissioned Venus 2016-2020, a monumental brightly coloured sculpture made from mirror-polished stainless steel. The piece is inspired by the 18th-century porcelain figures of Wilhelm Christian Meyer, which used bright pastel colours for figures of Graeco-Roman deities.
These domestic-scale items were a stark contrast to the brilliant white Carrara marble used by Renaissance and neoclassical sculptors, and the cleaned-up collections of classical statuary we’re so familiar with. But the love of pure white art is part of a western cultural fantasy – the sculptures of antiquity were originally painted in bright, often clashing, colours. A love of the gaudy colours found along supermarket aisles has deep roots, and Koons, whether you like his work or not, alerts us to this link between the present, the 18th century and classical antiquity.
Salon et Lumière
The Koons is one of a number of works on display that draw attention to how art is and has been experienced, something that is central to the nature of an art event that relies on spectacle for its success.
For Salon et Lumière, the NGV team has transformed their Salon Gallery, which recreates the experience of viewing art in the 18th and 19th centuries. For a behind-the-scenes look at the hang, you might enjoy this video put together by the NGV.
For the Triennial they’ve added a multimedia show, which uses frequently shifting selective illumination to draw attention to themes and common subjects that are otherwise scattered across the 140 paintings and sculptures. As you walk around you see landscapes appear from the dark and sink back; portraits of people rise and fall, and nudes, genre and history scenes come in and out of the light.
The aim of all of this is to recreate the “clamourous power” of the great salon exhibitions of Paris. The works at these once shocked and awed audiences; but they are now so familiar in style that they have become part of the furniture. Salon et Lumière is a creative way to give us back that experience of wonder and delight that these works once inspired.
Wonder and delight have been common responses to Refik Anadol’s Quantum Memories, one of the most frequently photographed works on show. But photography can only catch the tiniest slice of this 10m high digital work in the NGV foyer.
Anadol, a Turkish artist who now lives and works in California, has created what has been labelled “the first truly quantum artwork”. Quantum Memories uses “artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and quantum computing” to break down and identify patterns among the more than 200 million nature photos on the internet. It’s a colossal amount of data to process. Quantum computing not only processes data faster, it also processes information in a fundamentally different way. Standard computing requires definites – everything is rendered into chains of I or 0. Quantum computing allows for indeterminate states, something that may be I, 0, both or neither. A spinning coin is often used as an analogy for this state: in the future it may be heads or tails but at the moment is not either. The computer can then work very quickly with contrary possibilities which, when combined with AI, allows a machine to think in terms of what could be – quite a step towards creativity.
You might enjoy this interview put together by the NGV, interviewing Refik Anadol on Quantum Memories.
AI is a very new and rapidly evolving field of art. One of the key difficulties of using AI and machine learning in art, however, has been to produce an aesthetically good result. (I once had the privilege to view a work in Venice that sought to use AI to generate a multimedia novel. The machine was fed e-books from the internet and matched these with digital images and films. The idea was to see if it could produce a work of literature; two weeks in, the machine got stuck on Mills & Boon, and started flashing images of women from Baywatch on screens around the room. You can look at this two ways: as a dismal failure or as a remarkable discovery of individual taste, for which there is no explaining.)
Such difficulties are multiplied exponentially when you consider that Anadol is not creating a series of stills, but an ever-changing digital artwork that creates a cultural memory of nature. From the millions of images created by people emerge patterns, compositional principles, a sense of where different objects should be placed in an image according to how they are valued. Anadol’s success can be measured in the beauty of the work and how much we identify the ‘beauty of nature’ in the scenes floating up before us.
The show is genuinely international in its outlook and also does well to locate Australian artists within an international context, but it is still quite common for Australian art to be segregated from international art in Australia – thematic exhibitions of contemporary art aside.
Among the Australian artists on display is Dhambit Mununggurr, a Yolngu artist from Northeast Arnhem Land. Mununggurr is a member of one of Australia’s great dynasties of artists: her late father and late mother Mutitjpuy Mununggurr and Gulumbu Yunupingu are both internationally renowned artists and first prize winners of the National Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander Art Award in 1990 and 2004 respectively. Her sister, Yananymul Mununggurr, too, was awarded this prize in 1995. Her uncle is Mandaway Yunupingu, the original singer from Yothu Yindi, which he founded with his nephew, Dhambit Mununggurr’s late brother, a yidaki master. Yidaki are often mistakenly called didgeridoos. Dhambit Mununggurr‘s son, Gapanbulu Yunupingu, is also a yidaki master and a member of Yothu Yindi too. Few families can match this degree of success in the arts. For more on Dhambit Mununggurr, you might be interested in Quentin Sprague’s interview with her in The Monthly.
Her installation, Can we all have a happy life, is not quite what you might expect from a Yolngu artist: Yolngu art is particularly strict in maintaining its conventions for painting Country. Munnunggurr was given special permission to use acrylics rather than traditional ochres, and to introduce a new colour: blue. Permission to use acrylics came after she was hit by a car. Despite the strength of her recovery, she is unable to use both of her arms, and traditional ochres require two hands to prepare and use.
Her use of blue, the dominant colour in her palette, across the 15 paintings on stringybark and 9 larriktji (memorial poles) in the installation is not, however, exceptional for its rarity in Yolngu art alone: the range of blues she uses is wonderful and her work is mesmerising. ArtReview, a prestigious international art magazine, declared this work to be the ‘stand out’ of the whole NGV Triennial.
Explore the Triennial with Dr Nick Gordon
Our new five-day tour, Contemporary Art in Melbourne, includes the NGV Triennial, along with visits to Heide Museum of Modern Art and TarraWarra Museum of Art in the Yarra Valley, private collections of Melbourne’s most innovative collectors, and studios of well-known and emerging artists in and around Melbourne. Limited places available. More information >
Dr Nick Gordon
Dr Nick Gordon is a cultural historian and artist, with over 10 years of experience leading tours to Europe. He has strong interests in art, history, philosophy and architecture, from the ancient world to the present. Nick is also a practicing painter and brings this passion to the visual arts. He holds a University Medal and PhD in history from the University of Sydney.