Visitors to NGV International this summer will be greeted by a behemoth digital display worthy of Blade Runner, as tranches of pixels in vivid colours torque across a massive digital display in constant motion.
Quantum Memories, by Turkish artist Refik Anadol, is the product of a unique collaboration between artist and machine.
Anadol talks of seeing Blade Runner on VHS at the age of 8, and getting his first computer the same year, as twin formative moments.
These days he uses data sets and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to create mesmerising moving image works — on single screens and in immersive whole-room installations.
Quantum Memories is his largest and most ambitious single-screen work to date: a 10-metre by 10-metre digital display.
It’s one of 34 major new works making their world premiere in Melbourne as part of the NGV Triennial, opening December 19.
To make Quantum Memories, Anadol is using a data-set consisting of publicly-available images of nature — from skies to rivers to flowers and so on — and images of earth from the International Space Station telescope. (He predicts he will be working with roughly 200 million images.)
These images are then fed into a quantum computer, which as it processes them into smaller data-sets, begins to “compose” — finding different ways to build an image using that data.
“Refik is trying to demonstrate what a lot of people in computer science are starting to say: once you give a super-intelligent computer all the information of the world, what’s it going to do with it?” says Simone LeAmon, curator of contemporary design and architecture at National Gallery of Victoria.
Scientists (including Stephen Hawking) have cautioned about the potential of AI and quantum computing, and Hollywood has parlayed the emergent technology into terrifying fiction. But LeAmon says that Anadol is optimistic.
“He’s trying to counteract all the dystopian narratives out there about machine intelligence and quantum computing and say ‘Hey, it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom for the future of humanity’.”
A snapshot of now
Running from December until April, and taking over the NGV International, the Triennial will feature 86 projects by more than 100 artists, designers and collectives from more than 30 countries.
Superstars like Jeff Koons and Julian Opie and senior figures like American conceptual artist Adrian Piper (presenting her installation The Humming Room) will rub up against emerging artists like New Zealand’s Natasha Matila-Smith. Science, fashion, architecture and art will commingle; questions about contemporary problems will crash into tentative solutions.
The NGV’s team of curators began the process of creating the Triennial with a long list of contemporary artists, designers and projects that they were most interested in.
The Triennial effectively amplifies the preoccupations of the creative practitioners they choose — which in this edition, means lots of work about the environment, identity, race and representation, inequality and power.
The exhibition has been developed over the last 3-4 years — but anxieties about COVID-19 have made their way into the mix: young UK designer Alice Potts changed her initial Triennial project to focus on biodegradable Personal Protective Equipment.
Potts has made 20 Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) facemasks for an “imaginary post-COVID dance party” — using food-waste-based bioplastic she cooked up in her London kitchen, dyed with plants she gathered during precious lockdown walks.
Potts created the series to highlight the rise in single-use plastic as a result of COVID-19, after her brother, a hospital worker, told her PPE was so scarce he was wearing garbage bags.
The future of design
Conservation and concerns about the environment are prominent through the program — particularly at the design end of the spectrum.
Iranian artist Talin Hazbar harnesses the natural work of molluscs and crustaceans to “grow” light-shades in the ocean.
Melbourne-based designer, researcher and SCUBA instructor Pirjo Haikola has 3D-printed coral structures made from sea-urchins — which are overabundant in Victoria’s coastal waters, and threatening the marine ecology.
Italian graphic-design duo Carnovsky (Francesco Rugi and Silvia Quintanilla) have created a ‘light-activated’ wallpaper for the British and European galleries within the NGV, featuring extinct and endangered species. As the gallery’s lights alternate between red, green and blue, the viewer cycles between panoramas of species that are extinct, species that are becoming extinct, and species that are threatened.
Erez Nevi Pana, a proponent of ‘vegan design’, is presenting the culmination of his research into salt-based architecture: an installation in which the different modes of ‘salt as material’ are demonstrated: salt as a cladding, salt as a building block, and salt as a surface.
Pana, who came to vegan design as a consequence of adopting a vegan diet, has dedicated eight years to trying to solve one monumental environmental problem in his home country of Israel: the 20 million or so tonnes of salt accumulating every year as a by-product of mineral extraction from the Dead Sea.
Most of these projects are examples of a burgeoning field: speculative design.
“These projects are outliers that indicate the concerns of designers and the things they’re grappling with — and through that you can see where industry will gradually move, into the future,” says Ewan McEoin, senior curator of contemporary design and architecture.
Disrupting the narrative
You expect artists to needle at authority — and galleries and museums, being institutions of power that shape our cultural narratives and hold up certain versions of history and society, are ready targets.
For the Triennial, two New York artists will disrupt a ‘prestige’ site within the NGV: The Banquet of Cleopatra by 18th-century Venetian painter Giambattista Tiepolo — one of the most popular and famous works in the collection.
Like many Venetian paintings from this era, the presence of African servants or slaves, waiting on the dinner guests in this case, is a marker of the wealth and status of the white subjects.
Daniel Arsham has made human-scale replicas of Cleopatra and one of the servers, shrouded in white cloth — a provocation on race and representation in European art.
Fred Wilson‘s gesture is more oblique, though no less monumental: a massive glass chandelier in the Venetian Baroque style, with a gradient spanning from black at the bottom to clear at the top.
Wilson is best known for making good trouble in museums: his seminal 1992 installation Mining the Museum juxtaposed items from the collection of the Maryland Historical Society to unsettling effect: slave shackles beside a silver dinner set, under the label ‘METAL WORK’; antique chairs clustered around a whipping post.
In Australia in 1998, for a show at Ian Potter Museum, he put a cleaning cart on a plinth, and arranged for the cleaner — “being the only brown-skinned person I saw at the museum, ever,” he tells me — to take it down during the day and proceed through the exhibition space, cleaning.
His chandelier, titled To Die Upon a Kiss after one of the final lines of Shakespeare’s Othello, speaks softly by comparison to these works.
Wilson made his first glass chandelier for the US Pavilion of the 2003 Venice Biennale, in an exhibition titled Speak of Me As I Am (another line from Othello); it was a show that interrogated the contemporary and historical presence of Africans in Venice, and his love of Shakespeare’s play.
“From there, I used it [glass] as a vehicle to express feelings that I was having, as well as things about the world,” he says.
To Die Upon a Kiss is very personal: at the time he was thinking about Othello and the meaning of that line in the play; but his father had died recently, and later he came to realise he had transmuted that experience into his work — “his essence coming down, his spirit going up”.
I wish Wilson was causing a bit more mischief at the Triennial, but he says: “I really like using beauty.”
“There’s great power in beautiful things… we can see many thoughts and ideas through beauty, it draws you in.”
Blueprints for living
One of the major stories of the Triennial is the ascendance of Yolŋgu artist Dhambit Munuŋgurr.
Munuŋgurr’s large-scale, blue bark paintings were a key talking point at the 2019 Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAAs) — where NGV snapped up the lot, and then commissioned a huge installation for the Triennial.
The resulting suite of 15 large bark paintings and nine larrakitj (or hollow burial poles), titled Can We All Have a Happy Life, is likely to be dramatic and joyful — and a highlight of the exhibition.
“There’s something cathedral-like about the space [they’re going to be exhibited in],” says Myles Russell-Cook, curator of Indigenous art.
“It kind of gives you goosebumps being in the presence of them.”
Until the NATSIAAs, no-one had seen works like Munuŋgurr’s bark paintings, because Yolŋgu artists are not usually permitted to make art with anything that doesn’t come from the earth.
But the artist received special dispensation from community elders to use acrylic paints, after a serious car accident in 2005 left her with injuries that made it difficult to work with ochres.
With the switch to acrylics, a new colour palette opened up.
When I ask her why she has shifted to painting almost entirely in blue tones, she says it’s “the colour of the ocean”.
Her paintings share Yolŋgu culture, history and lore — and the artist’s memories.
One of Munuŋgurr’s paintings, titled Bees at Gängän, is based on a story told to her by her father’s mother’s brother when she was 14, about a place where wild honey can be found.
Yolŋgu live by an intricate system of connectedness called gurrutu, which spans all things — from country to cosmos.
Will Stubbs, the long-standing coordinator at the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre in Yirrkala (Northern Territory), where Munuŋgurr paints, says each painting is “another little piece of the mosaic or the tapestry of her identity”.
The title of her NGV installation is taken from a speech she gave in Darwin, and is intended as a proposition, not a question. When I ask her how to achieve a “happy life”, she suggests “be free like a bird”.
Stubbs suggests spending more time with Munuŋgurr and artists like her. In the meantime, we can enjoy her joyous works.
The NGV Triennial will run from December 19-April 18 at NGV International, St Kilda Road, Melbourne. Free entry.