Book Review: NGV Triennial

To be ‘bigger than Ben Hur’ is to be in excess, larger than life, of epic proportions. Whether this phrase describes the second NGV Triennial itself is debatable. It certainly is an apt descriptor for the five kilogram boxed set of catalogues that accompanies it – yet what does Peter Hill, writing in Artist Profile 55, discover?

Big. Bigger. Biggest. I remember learning by rote these comparative adjectives back in primary school in Glasgow in the 1960s. Everything about the NGV Triennial fits into the third category, not least the five kilogram catalogue that arrives in a box and unfolds into five volumes. Try putting that on a library shelf without it constantly falling onto the floor. I try to remember bigger catalogues. But even casting a distant eye over all the past documentas, Skulptur Projekte Munsters, and Venice Biennales, I still draw a series of blanks. Does it need to be this big? Having just recovered from a hernia operation, I looked on the box before me with the horror of a vegan contemplating a cheeseburger.

There are many questions that could be asked about the second NGV Triennial. Would it have been better to spread the same amount of work over the entire NGV campus and use Federation Square as a way of creating more space? Alicja Kwade’s WeltenLinie, 2020, was a fabulous threnody on perception and spatial relations, but it felt cramped within the space it was allotted. It underscored how the NGV lacks a monumental space like the Hamburger Banhof in Kwade’s adopted city of Berlin, or Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Did the NGV underestimate how popular it would be, and for what reasons? I visited four times and it was always packed. More than one insider told me it was a very popular and apparently safe venue for Tinder and Grindr hook-ups – but aren’t all art galleries these days? And does an art gallery need to be so noisy? Some galleries sounded like an unamusing amusement arcade.

But let’s return to the catalogue. It mirrors the four themes of the event: Illumination (Volume Two), Reflection (Volume Three), Conservation (Volume Four), and Speculation (Volume Five). I’ve always disliked the quartering of a theme into something that usually becomes as formulaic as The Four Seasons (it does).

To give you an immediate example of the navigational problems this throws up, I’ve just turned to page 105 of Volume One (or the ‘Dossier’ as it’s called) of the catalogue, to fact-check a couple of things about Alicja Kwade in the Index. I look under the heading ‘artists/designers and works.’ I look under ‘K’ (on page 115) and can’t find her at all. Krishnamurti is quickly followed by Kusama, but no Kwade. I’ve just spent fifteen minutes trying to solve this puzzle as I know how thorough and excellent NGV proof-readers always are. And the fault is, of course, my own. What I’d missed was a tiny heading at the top of page 113 that reads ‘Index of subjects.’ I had unknowingly segued into this new territory without realising it. So mea culpa, but I still maintain this five-volume behemoth is not ‘user- friendly,’ especially for arts journalists with deadlines to meet. And it gets worse.

Having located Alicja Kwade’s listing in the correct place (the last of the Ks, after Krishnan Siji and Kengo Kuma, I then find there are nineteen (!) references to her, spread across three of the volumes. My research into over one hundred artists is derailed by a single artist, as I juggle different volumes of the catalogue and find some references are incredibly brief, others of essay length, and some are interviews. Mentally, I note a few missing apostrophes as in Kwade’s bio on page fifty-eight, but do not let this detain me. I have bigger things to worry about than this – and possibly some solutions, now that I’ve had a few weeks to reflect on how other major events have navigated similar problems.

Venice, documenta and the Sydney Biennale have, in some years, produced substantial catalogues – usually in one thick volume but occasionally in a boxed set of three, as with the 1997 documenta. Additionally, they then produced mini-catalogues that ranged in size from a booklet to that of a Lonely Planet travel guide. The booklet versions, usually sub-divided by venues, with travel tips on how to find them, were given away free. The more substantial paperback volumes were sold for the equivalent of $10. This meant everyone – family visitors, students, those who already had heavy bags stored in the cloakroom – could take something home and perhaps be prompted to return when they realised what they had missed. I honestly can’t see many paying customers (a misnomer, as the whole glorious event is free, but a timed ticket is essential) lugging a five kilogram box home on the tram, and then perhaps another twenty minutes on foot.

In my opinion, the current first volume (Dossier) could have been used to solve at least two problems. It contains an excellent section, ‘project overviews’ that sensibly lists every artist, designer, and architect in alphabetical order and speaks clearly to their practice. There are approximately three entries per page, but no images. If this were reworked so that each artist had a double-page spread with, say, two images sunk into the text, it would be a great introduction to the other four volumes, but it could also be sold on its own for a very affordable $10. Another useful addition to it would be a fold-out map showing where in the NGV International each artist is to be found. And when will the NGV take the daring step of spreading the Triennial right across this amazing city?

So, who is this Moby Dick of a publication aimed at? Obviously each of the one hundred artists will receive a box, air-couriered to their city of choice. Each artist’s gallery (if they are so represented) will want one with which to impress potential clients (and they will be very impressed). Art school and university libraries of course – but best keep them corralled in the sturdy brown box they arrive in here – other museums, arthouse museums, and private collectors, all of whom usually have extensive art libraries of which they are justly proud. And many will, I know, have been sent out in advance to art magazines, newspapers, appropriate media outlets and hand-picked individuals (by NGV curators, and the museum’s press office, which is one of the best in the world, I might add).

So, who pays for all this, especially as there is no admission charge at the door? On the opening pages one reads: ‘This publication has been generously supported by Wendy and Paul Bonnici and Family.’ What that sum amounts to I have no idea, except that it will have been substantial. Not so easy to find, but on page thirty-three is a list of ‘Partners’ (twenty-six in total) who have also contributed in cash or kind, and their names and logos hang like heraldic shields: Mercedes Benz, Creative Victoria, QANTAS, Herald Sun, Telstra, and those of four Melbourne universities.

There is some superb and illuminating writing contained within ‘the box,’ from as varied a crew of wordsmiths (and some artists) as you could hope for, including Edward Colless, Kimberly Drew, Tim Flannery, Jörg Heiser, Simon Maidment, Sarah Martin, Astrida Neimanis, George Megalogenis, Tony Oursler, Jim Shaw, Simone Slee, Fred Wilson, Pip Wallis, and Donna Zuckerberg. A longer critique of these pieces must wait for another day.

The elephant within this boxed set, and throughout the many galleries, is of course COVID-19. We all know how quickly, and for how long, Melbourne can close its shutters to its citizens and the world. Everyone from Tony Ellwood to those at the unloading dock must have known that the catalogue might be the only presence that the NGV Triennial had in 2021. So, it better be good, and it better be big. 2024 will be another story. And so to bed.

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 55, 2021.

NGV Triennial Catalogue
National Gallery of Victoria, 2020
RRP $79.95

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