With Little Cultural Cohesion, the 2023 NGV Triennial Still Manages to Delight

A blockbuster Australian exhibition shows how easy it is to teach a (robot) dog new tricks.

A ripe banana taped to a wall. An apocalyptic classroom. A rabble of painting robot dogs.

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Three yellow robot dogs in a white room with blue panels - it's unclear what the robots are doing
Installation view of Agnieszka Pilat’s work ‘Heterobota’. Photo: Sean Fennessy

These are the three Rs headlining the latest installment of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) Triennial, which opened on December 3 and has quickly become one of Australia’s premier and most popular art and architectural events.

There might be an overarching tagline marketing it to the masses (“Magic, Matter and Memory,” this time) but the diversity and breadth of practices, disciplines and art suggest little thematic cohesion otherwise. The show features the work of over 100 international artists and practitioners, with twenty-five pieces specifically commissioned by the NGV for permanent acquisition.

There are overt statements from the likes of UK artist Tracey Emin, including her terse confessional, Love poem for CF (2023), rendered as a blinking neon sign, and Yoko Ono proffering patrons a declarative if hopeful message: I LOVE YOU EARTH (2021).

Other works in the Triennial are likely to court skeptics. Polish-born Agnieszka Pilat and her Heterorobota (2023)—three automated canines painting the gallery walls—is one, while David Shrigley’s bronze sculpture, Really Good (2016), with its thumbs-up on life today is undoubtedly another.

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For Ewan McEoin, NGV Senior Curator of Contemporary Art, Design and Architecture, any overt claims at a unifying concern are part marketing spin and part outsider observation. “A lot of biennials and triennials are very thematically coordinated—we don’t do that,” he says. “The theme is more about what we’re observing coming from the work, rather than where we start.”

The NGV Triennial is set distinctly apart by the fact that many pieces are commissioned and then kept by the gallery. “A lot of the work is newly commissioned, and we collect it,” McEoin says. “That’s unusual, as most biennials and triennials are ephemeral.”

A commission that has attracted much media attention is Pilat’s three computerized “Spot” dogs. The robots play, sleep and paint on the walls in a contained space and will do so for the length of the Triennial. It’s an exercise in durational art—with the finished artwork technically not complete until April 2024—that agitates at the boundaries of art and automation.

McEoin expects some cynicism about the spectacle of painting robot dogs but says the piece itself represents a new era in art practice today. “With A.I., there is often an overstated paranoia about new technologies as they emerge, especially in art,” he says. “The paintings done by the robots aren’t sophisticated; they are of a moment. We talk about these works being like the Neolithic art of robots.”

While Pilat probes the creativity found in AI, American artist Hugh Hayden embraces the analog to examine race, assimilation, and destruction in his installation, The end (2022). The artwork—which takes over one full gallery area—sees unlacquered wooden chairs and a teacher’s desk sit in an empty room while dodo skeletons stalk the space.

A gallery installation featuring many wooden student desks with what looks like tumbleweeds on them
Installation view of Hugh Hayden’s ‘The end’ (2022). Sabrina Staeubli, courtesy of the artist

Hayden uses the silent classroom as a grim display of how cultures—and indeed animals, like the dodo bird—have been extinguished and erased by past colonial conquests. Classrooms today cannot retell these stories. The deadened brown branches emerging from the skeletal shells prove a somber and ironic reminder of the destroyed knowledge of bygone traditions and lost cultures.

Where institutional spaces, like schools, provide a site for critical conjecture, social media’s iconography inspires more humorous fun. Really Good, British illustrator and artist Shrigley’s 23-foot-high bronze sculpture of an upright thumb, was the playful antidote to Great Britain’s decision to exit the European Union in 2016.

The sculpture was originally conceived for Trafalgar Square and now greets visitors before they enter the gallery. Some say—including the artist—that seeing a thumbs-up is a self-fulfilling prophecy: catching sight improves your mood by showing you a positive gesture. Whether the statuette is read as a sincere sign (thumbs-up), or a sardonic announcement (thumbs-down), is still up for debate years after Brexit.

Irish artist Kevin Abosch’s deep fakes of mass protests and civil unrest may cause minimal initial rousing to those of us who are used to such media imagery. It’s only on closer inspection that their unreality truly sets in. Pictures like Las Vegas (2023), which depict flaming police cars and metallic shrapnel glistening on the road, are hyper-real images of fictionalized scenes of civil combat. They are not unlike recent journalistic photographs of mass protests but are all indeed faked by the artist.

A disturbing scene of a street riot with a burning polic car at the center
Kevin Abosch’s ‘Las Vegas’ (2023). Courtesy of the artist © Studio Kevin Abosch

“What Abosch is saying is that they are quite obviously fake. But because we’re so used to being bombarded with images, we’re losing the capacity to discern ourselves what is real and fake,” McEoin says.

The images probe at what is real and what is fake. The surreal photographs attempt to unthread the purity of news photography, underscoring the eroding trust the public has in the media and its avenues of reporting reliably. “Abosch is asking us to see that the medium of photography can no longer be accepted as truth,” McEoin adds.

The NGV Triennial wouldn’t be complete without at least one controversial postmodern piece, so Maurizio Cattelan’s 2019 Comedian (which first debuted at Art Basel Miami Beach) makes an appearance too—with accompanying instructions to replace the fastened banana every 7-10 days.

A banana duct taped to a wall in the name of art
Maurizio Cattelan’s ‘Comedian’ (2019). Courtesy of Perrotin and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York © Maurizio Cattelan. Photo: Zeno Zotti

But McEoin notes that it’s important that the art world and institutions alike recognize and celebrate individual craftsmanship and not just hyped works. “There’s a conversation in the world of art that we still need to remember skill and the mastery of tools,” he says.

In particular, McEoin cites the many Aboriginal artworks featured at the Triennial, including the wondrous installation, Mun-dirra (2023)—a woven fish fence, with flowing veil-like movements that was created over two years by some 15 Aboriginal artists. At almost 328 feet long, it sees small eel traps interlaced together with natural leaf dye to create a glorious and glistening color. The fence is as much an art installation as it is an architectural display celebrating the enduring cultural and agricultural practices of these Indigenous artists.

To the gallery, what’s most important of all is this: the NGV Triennial is free. Open access to engage and wrestle with disruptive and immersive pieces—for the first time since COVID-19 waned in Australia—is paramount to McEoin: “We are inviting the community to understand, to look at the world through the eyes of creative people.”

Just make sure you let any sleeping (robot) dogs lie.

The 2023 NGV Triennial is on view at the NGV, Melbourne until April 7, 2024.

With Little Cultural Cohesion, the 2023 NGV Triennial Still Manages to Delight