The first thing I knew about the NGV’s Triennial was that there would be a room full of giant skulls. It’s a strong start for someone with an interest in sculpture and anything gothic. But my passing interest was fanned into a flame of excitement by a photo of the installation itself – the sheer, imposing scale of the ominous skulls contrasted by the curious enthusiasm of a young girl exploring the exhibition. That image made me certain that I had to see Ron Mueck’s work, but in hindsight also encapsulates what makes the Triennial so interesting: it’s a collection of works that are impressive and evocative, but that also invite engagement however the viewer chooses.
"...the Triennial feels like a perfect storm for breaking down old fashioned assumptions about art."
The purpose of the 5-month exhibition may be to survey the international art world, but it’s doing that in a way that makes traditionally ‘high art’ more accessible than ever before. The NGV always have free galleries and programs, as well as Auslan tours, a focus on wheelchair accessibility and other measures to welcome any and all visitors. But having a completely free exhibition – that’s both high profile and long lasting – is a new, and rather bold move. But even beyond that, the many interactive or immersive pieces are helping to break down inhibitions that can keep people away from cultural institutions like the NGV.
Whether it’s putting a flower sticker on an apartment wall, moving through a swirling series of blue lights and shadows, or simply having a lie down on a carefully woven landscape, the Triennial invites visitors to interact with the artwork, and to share it. As long as you keep your flash off, there’s no restrictions on taking photos of the art – in fact, with a location tag on Instagram especially for the exhibition and a photo booth in the gallery café, photos are definitely encouraged. Though, this isn’t necessarily new for the NGV – most of their visiting exhibitions get a location tag, at least, and the Andy Warhol – Ai Wei Wei exhibition in 2016 was certainly highly photographed.
But the Triennial feels like a perfect storm for breaking down old fashioned assumptions about art. It’s an exhibition that’s freely available to the public, with so much diversity in style and content that anyone can find something to love, and it welcomes interaction and engagement through social media. The Triennial might not have knocked down every barrier between Melbourne’s population and art appreciation, but they’ve certainly given it a try.
Even for someone white and middle-class who’s grown up going to art galleries, there’s something refreshing and liberating about heading into the NGV, knowing you’re going to see some pretty spectacular art, and that you’ll probably get a new profile picture out the experience. There’s no side-eyeing from attendants or disapproving baby-boomers as you take a moment to get the perfect shot of the painting – or even pose in front of a sculpture.
Some critics have claimed that this form of engagement may bring in more visitors, but doesn’t actually do the art itself any favours, but I disagree. With work from over 100 artists, engaging intellectually with every piece sounds impossible. But by making an exhibition that record numbers of people want to, and feel comfortable seeing, the NGV has given Melbourne an opportunity to discover a kind of art that speaks to them – whether it’s an interactive installation, a colossal sculpture, or a painting by a Polish artist they might have never seen otherwise.
Making art and art galleries more socially accessible, rather than the habitat of the cultural elite, can only be a good thing. With cuts to arts funding an ever-growing problem, hopefully the NGV Triennial will remind people why art is so worthwhile.
Image by Bella Mackey, taken at the NGV 2018.