by Avantika ShankarFeb 03, 2021
At the National Gallery of Victoria Triennial in Melbourne, audiences are the artwork. One of the first major art exhibitions to be open to the public post-COVID, the Triennial exists within an unprecedented context, but the works on display are still strikingly relevant. Many works pose questions about climate change, offer alternatives to petro chemical mass production, and speculate on a cleaner future—but they now all come with an added layer of urgency, brought to the gallery by audiences themselves. In a post-COVID, socially distanced world, visiting an exhibition in person carries a weight that cannot be ignored. A viewer co-habiting with a work of art in a public space is a radical notion once again—what was once taken for granted is begging to be considered.
As unique our circumstances may be, what is especially interesting is that none of these conversations are really new — artists have been engaging with them for decades. For instance, Lee Ufan’s Dialogue, which was presented in conjunction with Kengo Kuma and Geoff Nees’ Botanical Pavilion, is representative of the mono-ha art movement of the 20th century. “One of the key qualities of mono-ha was that art consisted of the audience member, the artwork and the space between the audience member and artwork,” says NGV’s senior curator of contemporary art, Simon Maidment, adding that “At the time, this was an enormously radical concept”.
Today, the idea is second nature to audiences and artists alike, and many works at the Triennial don’t just encourage, but depend upon audience participation. In one example, NGV commissioned visual artist Alicja Kwade to create WeltenLinie, an interactive series of sculptures comprising double-sided mirrors and carefully placed objects that seemingly respond to the audience’s perspective. “You can see people transition from seeing all those pieces as sculptures, to then understanding that it's their movement and it's their seeing that completes the work,” explains Maidment.
An extension of that concept is Adrian Piper’s The Humming Room, which is a space that audiences can enter only if they agree to continuously hum a tune of their choosing. They must negotiate this “fee” with a guard stationed at the entrance. The work was created in 2012 for Hans Ulrich Obrist’s exhibition Do It, and has also been presented at the 2015 Venice Biennale, and then in 2018 at Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Institutions, 1965-2016 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. At the MoMA, visitors to The Humming Room were confronted with a portrait of Trayvon Martin, and compelled to consider their complicity in the institutional systems that perpetuate anti-black racism. The Humming Room at the NGV sees an added layer of viewership: the room has only one entrance and exit, and so audiences could potentially stand outside and simply watch as other visitors wander the space. And in its current context, it encourages people to consider what it means to co-habit a space with strangers in a post-COVID world. “You are very aware of your own presence in that room,” explains Maidment. “You are allowed to be there because you hummed, supposed to be there because you are a visitor, but you are disrupting this empty white cube”. Visitors engage with the work in different ways—some are cognizant of the institutional frameworks they are participating in, and become aware of the hidden social contracts that surround the context. Others are simply aware of themselves, their breathing, and the fact that they are, themselves, the art.
Situated right next to The Humming Room, but on the other end of the experiential spectrum, is Tabor Robak’s monumental digital installation Megafauna. Rendered on an immense arrangement of flat screens and floor projections, Robak’s work erases the viewer with its magnitude. It is a speculation on the future of evolution, and the creatures that might populate a post-human planet. “I was reading about how Australia was the last ecosystem to be really affected by stages of human evolution,” says Robak, “and so they had types of flora and fauna that were very special, and existed later into human history”. The title of the exhibition, Megafauna, is a reference to these pre-historic beasts that were so unique to Australia, and calls back to the concept of extinction—but also, in many ways, the process of evolution.
The “megafauna” are creatures that Robak has designed as a speculation on how artificial intelligence and technology will impact biological evolution in the future. These AI deities are immense and inaccessible, designed to be looked upon with reverence. Still, Robak has offered visitors moments of more intimate interaction within the installation. Computer-monitor style consoles with UI design-style invite closer inspection, and even analysis. Finally, a floor projection seemingly depicts the inner workings of the installation, and is synced with the ambient sound in the room.
Unlike The Humming Room, the creatures of Megafauna exist without their audience—indeed, they hold no regard for the visitors in the space. “There’s a sort of active fiction that the work creates,” says Robak. “Like an ambient dread, but also a sort of curiosity. It’s that fear of God feeling, like everything is so impressive and imposing, but it's also beautiful and articulate," he adds. Robak was inspired by the sense of reverence one is made to feel upon entering a Catholic cathedral—a sense of awe, of witnessing something larger than oneself, but at the same time feeling insignificant in comparison. “What happens in Tabor's work almost exclusively is that people go in, and they immediately stop talking, like they are in a church,” says Maidment, while adding that "as cathedral-like as it might be, you aren’t going into that space for a communal experience”.
Still, just like The Humming Room, Robak’s work posits the question of individual agency within society. Piper asks us to consider what systems are we complicit in, whereas Robak wonders, what is the future we are building? The answers change with each viewer and each moment in history, and therein lies the power of the experience. The concerns of the world may be reflected in the art, but only because the audiences bring them into the gallery in the first place.