Design & Style


Behind the scenes at the NGV Triennial.

30 November 2020

One hundred artists and designers from more than 30 countries will take over the four floors of the NGV this summer for its second annual Triennial. We spoke to the curators and conservators bringing this blockbuster exhibition to life in the middle of a pandemic.

Design & Style


Behind the scenes at the NGV Triennial.

30 November 2020

One hundred artists and designers from more than 30 countries will take over the four floors of the NGV this summer for its second annual Triennial. We spoke to the curators and conservators bringing this blockbuster exhibition to life in the middle of a pandemic.

The planning for the National Gallery of Victoria’s blockbuster 2020 Triennial began before the inaugural 2017 exhibition had even finished. What followed was three years of dreaming, pitching, planning, nurturing, changing and finally executing a dramatic collection of the world’s best contemporary art and design, encompassing 86 projects by more than 100 artists, designers and collectives from more than 30 countries.

NGV director Tony Ellwood AM next to artwork

Tony Ellwood AM, director, NGV, at NGV International during the installation of NGV Triennial, featuring Optical (tinted) 2009 by Stuart Haygarth. Image:  Eugene Hyland.

“The Triennial comes at a time when people really want to be elevated and hear about global views, and want lots of space,” says Tony Ellwood AM, director of the NGV. “This is over 12,000 square metres for one of the largest curated gallery shows ever mounted in the country.” 

NGV staff have been working around the clock to prepare for the opening on December 19, adapting to COVID-19 travel restrictions by Zooming with artists who would otherwise be travelling to Melbourne to put the finishing touches on their long-planned works.

NGV curator of contemporary art Pip Wallis

Pip Wallis, curator of contemporary art, at NGV International in the Conservation Lab during the installation of NGV Triennial. Image: Tim Carrafa.

“It has been amazing to work with artists in the changing conditions [of 2020] because artists are, by their professional nature, very nimble,” says contemporary art curator Pip Wallis. “The NGV has also been very quick to adapt to working online and working from a distance with artists.”

Pip spent the past three years collaborating with international artists and visiting overseas exhibitions to secure pieces that will encapsulate this moment in time, with themes such as Illumination, Reflection, Conservation, and Speculation emerging over the process.

“Often a curator will start with a theme and build from there, but we go the other way,” she explains. “We let the works speak and we offer some interpretation around them. Themes naturally emerge, connections between works, but we try not to imprint them at the top by forcing them into categories.”

Many curators work on the exhibition, bringing together diverse expertise in fields such as photography, painting, sculpture and contemporary design. “Each curator brings that knowledge about that field and those artists, and that’s why it can be such a strong exhibition, because we’ve got this range of expertise,” Pip says. 

NGV manager of exhibition design Ingrid Rule next to artwork

Ingrid Rhule, manager of exhibition design, at NGV International during the installation of NGV Triennial, featuring Dawn XXXIII 2015 by Sabine Marcelis. Image: Tim Carrafa.

One crucial element of such a large-scale project is carefully plotting the overall design and flow of the exhibition. Ingrid Rhule, manager of exhibition design, heads a team of designers, project managers and construction experts to bring the Triennial to life.

“My job is to create the environments and the spaces in which we present and display the art and design,” Ingrid says. “We look at ways in which we can amplify encounters. We do this by considering the positioning of the works, and the sight lines to other works that might be in proximity, and design has all of these tools that we can use: the lighting, the space, the effect on how the work is revealed, and the journey from one work to the next.”

One of the most highly anticipated pieces at the Triennial is Quantum Memories, a massive digital display by Refik Anadol that explores artificial intelligence. Ingrid and her team positioned the piece at the centre of the gallery, where it will greet visitors as they enter the exhibition.

“When we met with Refik some time ago, we knew the work was going to be spectacular and epic and amazing, but we also had a challenge on how we construct this thing, which is 10 metres high by 10 metres wide … almost like a three-storey building,” she says. “Many of these installations are new and have never been presented before, and [the artists] don’t know exactly how it’s going to work, so we are there to support that process.”

NGV director Tony Ellwood AM next to artwork

Michael Varcoe-Cocks, head of conservation, at NGV International during the installation of NGV Triennial, featuring Natural History 2020 by Fallen Fruit (David Allen Burns and Austin Young). Image: Tim Carrafa.

Michael Varcoe-Cocks is the NGV’s Head of Conservation, a team of 25 conservators and technicians who oversee the delivery and care of all the objects in the collection.


“As soon as ideas get put forward for the Triennial, we have to start thinking of logistics, and what that’s going to involve,” Michael says. “It can be thinking about how it’s possible to install something like a neon light, or something that has an incredibly heavy load, or whether it can actually be practically put into gallery spaces safely.”

Some works are quite simple to display, such as hanging a painting on a wall. Others are far more complex, and involve custom-built mechanics, large-scale sculptures, and objects hung from the ceiling, as well as more conceptual ideas, such as smells and performances.

“[During lockdown] we’ve had teams working in different coloured bubbles so that we’re not mixing and there’s no crossover,” Michael says. “It’s been a very safe way to work but unusual, and slow – but we’re getting through it. We’ve had to plan, replan, and keep replanning. But each week, as we get closer, we get more excited as things get achieved.”

With just weeks to go until the launch, it’s the end of a long road of hard work as well as an exciting new beginning. The 2020 Triennial will open with free tickets available to book online. “We’ll have an hourly rate of people we’re allowed to have in the building, which is quite generous,” says Tony Ellwood. “We will always comply with health regulations, but it won’t feel cavernous and empty.”

After spending much of the past six months at home, it’s the ideal time to get out and re-engage with the art scene. “I think people are keen to get in there and be in front of an artwork again – I know I am,” says Pip Wallis. “For anyone who loves art, we’ve just had such a weird year. We haven’t been able to go and see any … I’m dying to get into the gallery.”

The NGV Triennial runs 19 December 2020 to 18 April 2021 at NGV International, St Kilda Road, Melbourne. Free entry. Visit ngv.vic.gov.au/exhibition/triennial-2020. Mercedes-Benz is proud to be a Principal Partner of the National Gallery of Victoria.

By Michael Harry