At the NGV Triennial, a bio-material revolution is underway

The Triennial at Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria considers a future in which nature regains control over architecture and design.

by Avantika ShankarPublished on : Feb 03, 2021

The NGV Triennial is one of the first large-scale exhibitions to have opened since the COVID-19 pandemic brought the design world to a standstill. While most of the works on display have been in the making for years, they are curiously relevant to the post-COVID climate. Conversations around sustainable design and environmental responsibility have dominated design fairs in the recent past—but now, NGV’s Triennial is poised for action.

“We are looking at projects that sit on the cusp between architecture, design and contemporary art practice,” explains Ewan McEoin, NGV’s senior curator of contemporary design and architecture. “Our proposition is that the concerns of the world are being interrogated by artists, architects and designers through different media, but by bringing them together, you make it clear that these are fundamental concerns”.

Unsurprisingly, the most paramount of these concerns is the environment. While it has now become essential for architects and designers across the world to follow sustainable methods of craft and construction in their practice, the projects at the Triennial are pushing the conversation even further. They are reconsidering the very nature of production.

In response to the waste generated by disposable PPE during the COVID-19 pandemic, designer Alice Potts has created a series of face masks out of dyed flowers and organic waste. Erez Nevi Pana’s Crystalline considers how salt-based architecture could offer a more sustainable paradigm for housing and tourism. In Planet City, a film specifically commissioned by NGV for the Triennial, film director and architect Liam Young speculates on the ways in which humanity might coexist with the environment in the future. 

  • Installation view of Alice Potts’ work Dance Biodegradable Personal Protective Equipment (DBPPE) post COVID face masks 2020 on display at NGV Triennial 2020 from December 19, 2020–April 18, 2021 at NGV International, Melbourne.© Alice Potts| NGV Triennial 2020 | STIRworld
    Installation view of Alice Potts’ work Dance Biodegradable Personal Protective Equipment (DBPPE) post COVID facemasks 2020 on display in NGV Triennial 2020 from December 19, 2020–April 18, 2021 Image: Tom Ross
  • Installation view of Erez Nevi Pana’s work Crystalline on display at NGV Triennial 2020 from December 19, 2020– April 18, 2021, at NGV international, Melbourne | NGV Triennial 2020 | STIRworld
    Installation view of Erez Nevi Pana’s work Crystalline 2020 on display at NGV Triennial 2020 from December 19, 2020– April 18, 2021, at NGV international, Melbourne Image: Sean Fennessy

“There's a lot of works that are all tied together by drawing attention to the consequences of the status quo on the natural world,” says McEoin. “I suppose what we are calling for is an era of bio-materiality, of thinking about the end of the fossil fuel, petrochemical and extract-ivist material world, and healing through an act of design,” he adds.

For Dubai-based artist and architect Talin Hazbar, this healing emerges through active collaboration with nature. Hazbar’s Accretions is a series of light shades that was created by dipping hand-forged steel armatures into the ocean and encouraging the growth of crustaceans, corals and molluscs on the framework. The calcium carbonate structures left behind by the oceanic organisms have a curious relationship with light, and make for exquisitely ornate lighting pieces. They also happen to be freely manufactured by the ocean, and can be harvested with no adverse environmental impact.

“It is the sea that is actually dominating the process,” says Hazbar. While she regularly consults marine biologists and other academics, as well as local fishermen who have first-hand knowledge of the waters, the ocean remains elusive—and Hazbar has no intention of ever taking control. “For me, it was about linking and bridging various sources of information together, to try and understand what’s happening… while respecting the uncertainty. You can set the framework, but then let nature be a part of that,” she says.

  • Detail of Accretions 1–5 2020. Stainless steel, calcified organic matter, brass, lighting componentry. Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased with funds donated by Gordon Moffatt AM, 2020 © Talin Hazbar | NGV Triennial 2020 | STIRworld
    Detail of Accretions 1–5 2020. Stainless steel, calcified organic matter, brass, lighting componentry. Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased with funds donated by Gordon Moffatt AM, 2020 © Talin Hazbar Image: Alex Callueng
  • Accretions 1–5 2020 (detail). Stainless steel, calcified organic matter, brass, lighting componentry. Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased with funds donated by Gordon Moffatt AM, 2020 © Talin Hazbar | NGV Triennial 2020 | STIRworld
    Accretions 1–5 2020 (detail). Stainless steel, calcified organic matter, brass, lighting componentry. Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased with funds donated by Gordon Moffatt AM, 2020 © Talin Hazbar Image: Alex Callueng

Accretions is what McEoin calls a ‘Trojan horse’, in the sense that it is a critical design piece that interrogates systems of production. “Talin’s work is challenging the one hundred years of modernism, and the idea of control,” says McEoin, while adding that “The idea that came through the Bauhaus and through modernism was to push nature aside and to have technology as the sort of driver. Then what came through Scandinavian modernism was bringing back some of that natural material, maintaining that connection, but fundamentally, all of those systems rely on this idea that nature is purely a fan-deck of materials to source from”.

Indeed, European colonisers often realised this “fan-deck” in the form of botanical gardens, where they would grow and study a variety of native and non-native plant species to identify how each one could be best made use of. Melbourne’s own Royal Botanical Garden lost an inordinate number of trees to the Millennium Drought of the early 2000s, simply because the exotic species weren’t able to cope with the trying climate. The gardens kept the felled trees in storage for several years, forgoing the usual practice of turning them into mulch, in the hope that they might be milled for something more substantial. Those trees were eventually discovered by Australian artist Geoff Nees, and deployed in collaboration with Japanese architect Kengo Kuma to create ‘Botanical Pavilion’.

  • Installation view of Kengo Kuma, Kengo Kuma Associates and Geoffrey Nees’s Botanical pavilion 2020 (left) and Lee Ufan’s Dialogue 2017 (right) on display in NGV Triennial 2020 from December 19, 2020–April 18, 2021 at NGV International, Melbourne © Kengo Kuma and Geoff Nees © Lee Ufan, Courtesy of Pace Gallery | NGV Triennial 2020 | STIRworld
    Installation view of Kengo Kuma, Kengo Kuma Associates and Geoffrey Nees’s Botanical Pavilion 2020 (left) and Lee Ufan’s Dialogue 2017 (right) on display in NGV Triennial 2020 from December 19, 2020–April 18, 2021 at NGV International, Melbourne © Kengo Kuma and Geoff Nees © Lee Ufan, Courtesy of Pace Gallery Image: Tom Ross
  • Installation view of Kengo Kuma, Kengo Kuma Associates and Geoffrey Nees’s Botanical Pavilion 2020 on display in NGV Triennial 2020 from December 19, 2020–April 18, 2021 at NGV International, Melbourne © Kengo Kuma and Geoff Nees | NGV Triennial 2020 | STIRworld
    Installation view of Kengo Kuma, Kengo Kuma Associates and Geoffrey Nees’s Botanical Pavilion 2020 on display in NGV Triennial 2020 from December 19, 2020–April 18, 2021 at NGV International, Melbourne © Kengo Kuma and Geoff Nees Image: Tom Ross

“We wanted to honour this wood, and tell its story again,” explains Nees, “not through the lens of science, or aspirations of enlightenment, but in a much longer, broader, sense, going back beyond white settlement”.

The pavilion comprises pieces of wood slotted together like a puzzle, within minimal mechanical fixings to hold it in place. The circular structure is essentially a tunnel, resplendent with a play of light and shadow, that leads visitors to Lee Ufan’s painting, Dialogue.  

Like the painting, the pavilion too witnesses a gradient of colour. The different shades of wood represent the different species, and in this sense, honour the provenance of the material. “This project aims to showcase the timber instead of disposing it, raising awareness on the varieties and qualities of wood and on how many times it can be used at various stages of its life cycle,” says Kengo Kuma. “In the past, nature and architecture were more closely interconnected. This project aims to show how technology and creativity can be effective tools to rebuild our relationship with nature,” he adds.

Planet City 2020 (still) colour digital video, sound 15 min, commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased with funds donated by Bagôt Gjergja Foundation, 2020 © Liam Young | NGV Triennial 2020 | STIRworld
Planet City 2020 (still) colour digital video, sound 15 min, commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased with funds donated by Bagôt Gjergja Foundation, 2020 © Liam Young Image: Liam Young

Both Accretions and Botanical Pavilion are a testament to a new mode of materiality—one that will become a necessity in the near future. They are also a warning that nature is not a resource that can be exploited any longer. “Design and architecture, to a great extent, still work on the proposition that material can be sourced from anywhere around the world, and that there isn’t a moral responsibility to understand where raw materials come from,” observes McEoin. “We are calling for a new era of design, where all materials and all systems need to be interrogated in a transparent way. Material is what is going to transform design, not new forms,” he adds. Still, while it doesn’t shy away from the difficult questions, the Triennial is overwhelmingly optimistic. “There’s quite a lot of work which is speculating on a new horizon,” says McEoin as he concludes that “the whole Triennial is calling for a questioning of the status quo, while drawing focus to the fact that a lot of people are all on the same journey, together”.

Also read: The NGV Triennial considers art and audienceship in a post-COVID world

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