Melbourne’s NGV Triennial Is An Unmissable Cultural Showcase Of The World’s Most Important Artists

By Varsha Anjali
An installation view of Tracey Emin’s works on display in NGV Triennial at NGV International, Melbourne. Photo / Sean Fennessy

Varsha Anjali visits one of Australia’s most eagerly anticipated and beloved cultural events, the NGV Triennial, an epic showcase of contemporary art, design and architecture.

Melbourne is a city that wastes no time.

Not when it comes to celebrating self-expression. Not when it comes to glamour. Not when it comes

If it wasn’t the vibrant street murals, the large-scale outdoor installations, or the plethora of exhibitions within walking distance — perhaps then the best encapsulator of this l’amour de l’art lies within the walls of the nation’s oldest and most visited gallery right in the centre of the city: the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV).

As I stepped into the gallery’s central Federation Court, towering bronze statues of two young black adults stood in front of me, minding their own business. The woman, dressed in casual pants and sneakers, looks at her phone. Metres away, the man looks straight ahead with his arms folded. Feet planted firmly on the ground, plinths unneeded.

Installation view of Thomas J. Price’s works in NGV Triennial in Melbourne. Photo / Sean Fennessy
Installation view of Thomas J. Price’s works in NGV Triennial in Melbourne. Photo / Sean Fennessy

This magnificent yet everyday 3.6m display stands as a distinctive starting point of the third edition of the NGV Triennial — a colossal showcase of contemporary art, design and architecture that opened on December 3 and features 120 artists. Anchored by three pillars — Memory, Matter and Magic — their work explores some of the most pressing issues of today.

The giants, based on people UK artist Thomas J. Price has observed, tell stories of race, power and politics of space. Viewers are beckoned to ask, who is elevated in our cities? And who gets to decide who is elevated? Its central position is somewhat ironic given the work portrays ordinary people doing ordinary things — which is part of the point. How often do we see prominent sculptures of black people in public spaces? As Price admitted, “I’m playing a mischievous game to get people to ask questions”. It set a provocative tone as I ventured through the rest of the free-to-see exhibition that has evolved into one of Australia’s most eagerly anticipated and beloved cultural events.

Enchantment fills every corner when it comes to French haute couture house Schiaparelli. A nod to the house’s founder Elsa Schiaparelli’s interest in the cosmos, artistic director Daniel Roseberry’s work shone like planets in an otherwise blackened, celestial space.

Bouyant designs by Maison Schiaparelli. Photo / @Ngvmelbourne
Bouyant designs by Maison Schiaparelli. Photo / @Ngvmelbourne

A fantastic dress in the shade of Shiaparelli’s famous 1930s Shocking Pink was a magnet to me. Or I was the magnet to it. With sleeves dangling off earrings rather than shoulders, it leaned towards me, whispered sweet nothings in my ear and then rejected me in my fleeting lucid dream. Jaws and eyes open, heart on floor.

As curator Danielle Whitfield explained, “always [Roseberry’s] work is in dialogue with the history of the house”. The textures, exaggerated sizes, volumes and “surrealist wit” are examples of codes and tropes Roseberry has adopted from the house, showcasing and celebrating them through reinvented and redefined stunning couture.

John Gerrard’s memorable piece Flare (Oceania) screamed that time is running out and pulled me back to reality. Using photographs sourced from Tongan artist and eco-activist Uili Louisi, it vividly illustrates the urgency of the climate crisis, particularly for vulnerable communities close to Aotearoa. The silent, digital artwork portrays an imaginary pipe emerging from the Pacific Ocean and burning excess gas — a stark reminder of Tongans’ potential fate as climate refugees. It’s poignant. It’s harsh. It’s beautiful.

Installation view of John Gerrard’s Flare (Oceania) on display in NGV Triennial. Photo / Sean Fennessy
Installation view of John Gerrard’s Flare (Oceania) on display in NGV Triennial. Photo / Sean Fennessy

The big guns do not shy away from the Triennial. The exhibition features some famous artists, including Yoko Ono and Tracey Emin. One of my favourite pieces by the latter features a decapitated figure of a woman in bronze, lying down. Lumpy, incomplete, and perhaps ugly. Is she okay? Wait — I recognise this headless woman! She often appears when I have a hangover, when I have a tight deadline, or when I really am fine I just need a few moments/days to myself, thanks.

Tracey Emin's 'This Is Exactly How I Feel Right Now' (2016). Photo / Tracey Emin
Tracey Emin's 'This Is Exactly How I Feel Right Now' (2016). Photo / Tracey Emin

The artist called it This Is Exactly How I Feel Right Now. Exploring agency and a woman’s right to melancholy, Emin’s work is notably intimate, inspired by her own experiences — and sometimes her own body. You could feel compelled to give the headless woman a hug, maybe buy her a beer. But she just needs to be.

It’s worth noting the NGV is Insta-worthy. Engaging, inviting and fun: you’re welcome to chat, walk around and use the space — and take the all-important selfie. (They should know I was here and I saw this Beautiful Thing and it was really, really cool.)

I left the gallery feeling grounded, feeling seen, feeling inspired and feeling hungry for more. With a staggering number of artworks across four levels, I barely scratched the surface. You’d be forgiven for attempting to see the whole Triennial in a whole day, but I’d strongly advise against it. That said, you don’t need very long to come out feeling gratified.

Connie Mitchell performs at the NGV Gala 2023 at NGV International in Melbourne, Australia. Photo / Hanna Lassen
Connie Mitchell performs at the NGV Gala 2023 at NGV International in Melbourne, Australia. Photo / Hanna Lassen

The NGV Knows How To Throw A Party

Ticketholders, including celebrities, VIPs and patrons got a grandeur nocturnal encounter of the behemoth showcase the night before its launch. Dazzling lights illuminated the iconic waterwall with Julian Charrière’s stunning film piece And Beneath It All Flows Liquid Fire playing behind it; its bold colours, rhythm and imagery gave a sense of being part of some exclusive avante-garde underworld.

Attendees, adorned in exquisite designer frocks that could have easily fit as standalone pieces of the exhibition, graced the blue carpet, creating a captivating scene of glamour beneath the Melbourne skyline.

Once inside, the NGV transformed into a sanctuary of art and celebration. More than 1000 guests, including stars Liam Hemsworth, TV presenter Tony Armstrong and visual artist Atong Atem, were able to explore the curated collection amid a refined soirée ambience. Gourmet canapés tantalised taste buds, complemented by Moët & Chandon Champagne. In the Great Hall, we were treated to an energetic set by Sneaky Sound System. At one point Australian singer Connie Mitchell reached for my hand. I swore I wouldn’t wash it again.

Melbourne Has Much More To Offer When It Comes To Art

Like a magpie to shiny things, I’m drawn to beautiful storytelling. If you share this inclination, rejoice, for the city hosts a multitude of art exhibitions within a short distance from one another.

From the NGV International, I strolled to the Ian Potter Centre, home to NGV’s Australia Art Collection. There, Wurrdha Marra, meaning “Many Mobs” in the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung language, unfolded. A huge masterpiece displayed centrally in the first room pulled me in, portraying the vast salt lake Ngayartu Kujarra, renamed “Lake Dora” by settlers, with hues of peach, pink, white, blue, rose, and gold acrylic paints.

Wurrdha Marra exhibition at the Ian Potter Centre. Photo / Varsha Anjali
Wurrdha Marra exhibition at the Ian Potter Centre. Photo / Varsha Anjali

Nearby, the BBC Earth Experience also offers an immersive journey into the natural world through advanced technology with the soothing voice of David Attenborough.

Venturing a short distance from the CBD to St Kilda, you can check out the incredibly popular Rain Room; an interactive installation where visitors can experience walking through rainfall without getting wet, blending art and technology for a unique sensory encounter.

As I departed this magnificent city and its artistic revelry, I remembered a piece of advice from NGV curator and writer Sophie Prince: sometimes we just need to “stop scrolling and look at the art”.

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