Against the odds: Melbourne's NGV announces major Triennial for December

Stephanie Convery
·5 min read

You’ll remember the skulls, if nothing else.

Even if you weren’t one of the 1.23 million people who attended the National Gallery of Victoria’s inaugural Triennial in 2017, you will have seen Ron Mueck’s colossal installation, Mass: enormous piles of oversized skulls scattered across a gallery space and dutifully Instagrammed by every attendee with a smartphone.

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The NGV’s second Triennial – which the gallery announced on Thursday will open on 19 December – is slated to be of much the same scale as its first. Eighty-six projects from more than 100 artists from around the world will grace the spaces of the cavernous St Kilda Road premises, and the organisation is hoping that after eight months in lockdown Melburnians will be keen to get out and see it – and placing a heavy bet on the hopes that they will be able to get out at all.

Assuming they can, they’ll get to see artworks from the likes of Jeff Koons, Tony Albert, JR, Faye Toogood, Dhambit Mununggurr, Kengo Kuma and many more from across the globe. But that won’t be possible until Victoria reaches the “last stage” of its Covid recovery roadmap, when there have been zero new cases in the community for more than 14 days – a situation the gallery (and everyone else) is hoping will happen before the Triennial opens.

Managing an exhibition of this scale is no small feat in ordinary times, but the pandemic – and the state government’s stringent lockdown restrictions caused by Victoria’s second wave – has added an extraordinary extra layer of complexity to the production. In some ways the gallery was lucky: the first wave broke at the opposite end of the year to the scheduled opening of the project that has been three years in the making, meaning it was possible to envision it could still happen on schedule, while other projects were necessarily either shelved or kicked down the road.

That didn’t mean that the exhibition could stay the same.

“Artists have changed or adapted some projects in light of the things that have happened,” says Don Heron, NGV’s assistant director of exhibition management and design. It’s his job to oversee the Triennial’s logistics: the design of the spaces, the installation of the works, and actually getting the art to Melbourne in the first place.

“We had to revisit how [those pieces] might work, how audiences might interact with them, how much space is required for them to work effectively.”

The Los Angeles-based Japanese artist Misaki Kawai, for example, had been commissioned to create an interactive piece for the children’s gallery featuring large, shaggy dog sculptures, a puppet-making studio and recording booths for puppet performances – an incredibly tactile work that required some rethinking.

“We had to move from a hands-on mode to a hands-free mode,” says Heron. NGV’s multimedia team collaborated with Kawai’s studio to turn, for example, touch-screen elements into foot-activated trigger mats on the floor. Instead of punching your details into a computer screen, QR codes will be used to facilitate video sharing of the puppet performances.

While some artists have evolved their work, others have completely shifted gear. The UK artist Alice Potts had planned to travel to Australia to continue her Sweat series: a project that involves turning perspiration samples into unexpectedly beautiful crystals, and incorporating them back into garments – football boots, ballet slippers and gymwear.

That stopped being viable with the global circulation of a highly contagious virus that is spread through close contact and bodily fluids. Potts’ new work, Dance Biodegradable Personal Protective Equipment (DBPPE) Post COVID Facemasks, was inspired by a phone call from her London paramedic brother during the onset of the pandemic who had resorted to wearing bin liners for masks, such was the scarcity of PPE at the time.

Getting the art to Australia also required tactical thinking. Freight flights weren’t leaving London, so works from the UK were bundled together and sent by rail to Amsterdam to meet a plane bound for Melbourne.

Installation, particularly of site-specific work, has been a challenge, but Heron has nothing but praise for how the artists have handled it.

“Artists and designers are problem-solvers by nature,” says Heron. “A challenge comes up or something that might be an impediment and they’re very good at finding a way to work through that.”

The practical solutions involve the gallery’s design team doing more work in advance to create 3D visualisations of how works might look in a particular space, and coordinating with those artists online as things shift. Things may change again once the work is in situ, Heron says, but “that happens all the time”.

His team has also reassessed the layout of the gallery to allow free movement between rooms and enough space for people to physically distance from each other while viewing the works. The result will be a more open-plan exhibition than some of the labyrinths of past shows, but it may come as a relief for those patrons who loathe crowded gallery corners.

The 2017 Triennal remains the NGV’s most popular exhibition ever. If there were ambitions to repeat or best that success this time around, Heron is not admitting to it – particularly with closed borders and Melburnians who have grown wary of crowds.

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“I think it’s fair to say you’re not going to get the numbers that you would normally get,” he says. “But we certainly really hope that the Triennial is something that will appeal to a really diverse and broad amount of our community.

“We’re really hopeful that people will come out to enjoy it, and hopefully we can provide a really good, safe space for them to do that.”

• The 2020 NGV Triennial will open on 19 December. Hopefully.