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News Interview with Ewan McEoin, National Gallery of Victoria
“Product design is so tied to the central proposition that growth and on-going retail sales is the only way to survive and therefore how vulnerable that situation is.”
Ewan McEoin, National Gallery of Victoria
Melbourne

As the Senior Curator of Contemporary Design and Architecture at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Ewan McEoin is focused on a continued dialogue about the future of our planet and how design should be more about invention, entrepreneurship and finding an alternative way and less about consumerism.

YOU HEAD UP THE DEPARTMENT OF CONTEMPORARY DESIGN AND ARCHITECTURE AT THE NATIONAL GALLERY OF VICTORIA (NGV). IT WAS ONLY ESTABLISHED IN 2015. CAN YOU EXPLAIN WHAT YOUR REMIT IS?
I originally trained as an environmental scientist, but always loved writing, so worked at design magazines for a while, edited one and that led me to setting up my own company to run triennials. When Tony Elwood became the new director of the NGV we began the work to form a department. There are other institutions in Australia that collect design, but we’re perhaps more ambitious in terms of how much we do. It’s dedicated contemporary design and architecture and we’re not collecting design as decorative arts. We kicked off in 1980, but my personal preoccupation is the future not the past. I understand the importance of collecting and movements in design, but I feel like the thing that we do is not just collecting and reflecting on what has happened, but instead we are making things happen.

COMMISSIONING IS AN OPPORTUNITY TO MAKE THOSE INTERESTING CHOICES ABOUT WHAT NEEDS TO BE REPRESENTED AT THE GALLERY.
Totally. We do collect existing work and we bought things quickly to bring it all up to speed, however, my feeling is that design as a tool of industry is quite a narrow interpretation of what design actually is. If you think of what we predominantly see in collections it’s really an output of industry and I would argue that there are many aspects of the industry of the 20th century that are now questionable in terms of materials and proliferation of materials such as petrochemical-based plastics, which at the time we of course considered amazing. So, when I reflect on any object, I’m reflecting on the context in which it comes to life and the context in which it will die and what happens in that cycle. For me it’s not good enough if it has sold heaps and has been in magazines to then make it something worth collecting. Simultaneously, we’re looking at contemporary craft practice and contemporary Indigenous design and architecture in dialogue with design. It’s all part of a swirling creative process. A good example would be the project that we commissioned from Formafantasma. We were looking for research-based design practice studios, and this studio we considered the best today. So, we opened a conversation, agreed on a brief and supported them to research over a two-year period and from that create a body of work of which we’d collect the first edition and associated research. The project Ore Streams is about extraction, originally about metal and that much of the metal we need is already on the surface of the planet; we don’t really need to mine anymore to access many metals. So, we’ve commissioned work that tells stories through objects; the objects being a Trojan horse or a catalyst for a conversation we think we should be having. Whether that’s about the environment or AI or the advent of new forms of manufacturing - there’s many we need to have. I’m conscious that we’re putting things in a collection that will exist and endure. And for me, when we look back in 50 years at the NVG collection it will be unique – rather than the normal mindset fort collecting which is about lots of iterations of the same thing, showing a gradual improvement as new technology or materials become available, which seems like a very slow and arduous way of moving.

IT’S BEEN A DIFFICULT TIME FOR INSTITUTIONS, BUT HAS THE PAUSE BEEN A CHANCE TO REFLECT AND PERHAPS ALTER THINKING? ARE YOU HAVING THOSE CONVERSATIONS WITH OTHER CURATORS?
It’s been really interesting. There’s the human experience and the work experience. On a personal level it’s been amazing for me to reconnect with my children, reconnect with where I live and to find a sense of clarity. Luckily, we’re working on an epic exhibition, which opens in December; it’s the NGV Triennial, so we’ve been busy. In March we were running Melbourne Design Week, which opened on the 14th of March with about 350 events planned, and suddenly the gallery closed. It was interesting though. It made it quite apparent that the main strain of what design does, not architecture, but product design, is so tied to the central proposition that growth and on-going retail sales is the only way to survive and therefore how vulnerable that situation is. It clarified that design is a service to industry, to retail and to consumerism, and it hasn’t found its own agency to navigate its own course. I think design, as a broad discipline, has to be much more about invention and entrepreneurship and finding an alternative way.

ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT NOT NECESSARILY FINDING A PHYSICAL SOLUTION FOR SOMETHING?
Yes, totally. Maybe some designers don’t need to design another thing. As an institution it’s been tough not having the public. We’re in a hard stage IV lockdown here; we’ve all been home basically since the 16 March, with a very coherent approach from our government and a sense of calm, but yes, people are frustrated, but also with a shared purpose. It’s been amazing to see the team at the gallery – the marketing team and publications team – all flipped instantly into providing this social support network and inspiration and access online. We went really quickly into that and it reminded me how important public institutions are, like galleries in how they connect people and the service they provide.

BECAUSE THE GALLERY IS DEDICATED ONLINE FOR NOW, HAVE YOU UNEARTHED A NEW AUDIENCE?
Yes! We’ve had a big show open, which was initially ticketed, but after lockdown we opened it free online and did a full tour. One of the beauties of the NGV, while it’s a big institution, is it can move quickly because we have a very decisive leadership team. We’ve seen a massive increase in online access and of course you respond in kind. Everyone’s doing it: Instagram Live and so on, but it’s good to have the resources internally to do it well. The Triennial was always intended as a free show; it’s massive, hugely relevant and inspiring and will open in December as we emerge from lockdown. Just the timing is so exciting for me as one of the first events that people will go to. My objective as a curator is to tell a story to as many people as possible, so the online presence means you can reach an international audience. It’s wonderful living in Australia, but I can’t expect people to fly here to go to a show.

CAN YOU TELL US A BIT MORE ABOUT IT IN DETAIL?
The first Triennial was presented in 2017: contemporary art, design and architecture together, without one overarching theme as such. What we do is really look for the most interesting people we can find that we want to work with and from that we tease out narrative threads and thematic pillars. The first one had 1.25 million visitors, so it’s really a big exhibition. There are four thematic pillars in the 2020 Triennial, which are importantly not the themes we started with, but those that have emerged. Firstly, Reflection is looking at self, representation of self, race, gender and who we are, as communities and cultures. A lot of that work is coming in the form of contemporary photography and other departments. We have a theme of Illumination – and that means illuminating the sometimes positive and sometimes negative histories that are embedded within a historical collection. We have a vast historical collection of about 77,000 things, so digging into that. There’s a whole load of contemporary commissions throughout our historical galleries: a big commission with Faye Toogood through three galleries, Cecilie Bendixen, the textile designer from Denmark, she’s created an array of clouds to hang in the landscape galleries. A commission from Erez Nevi Pana, his largest work yet in salt and so many others. We have a very funny installation around the world’s worst practices in architectural development, and Porky Hefer from South Africa has made his largest commission yet: mutated sea creatures, which have absorbed ocean pollution. The other two pillars are Conservation and Speculation. There’s a major piece from Liam Young who has created a speculative future city as an animated film revealing how we might re-wild the planet. We also have the first quantum artwork ever produced in the world, where Refik Anadol has harnessed two hundred million images from a Google data set of the natural world, processed by quantum computers and AI. And so, the artwork is alive and self-recreates. There are conversations about our relationship with the natural world, but also who owns this data and memory. We have a commission from Patricia Urquiola, a whole array of giant socks as furniture made with the rug company Gan. So, it ranges from what I call epic craft projects to data-driven media art.

YOU MUST HAVE BEEN IN TOUCH WITH ARTISTS AND DESIGNERS REGULARLY THIS YEAR. ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT CONCERNS AND FEARS, ABOUT LIFE AND THEIR STUDIOS FUNCTIONING?
Yes and no. Everyone is so tired of being on Zoom all day, so I’m a bit more about sending a message. There’s this general consensus happening in the conversations we’ve been having. We had massive bushfires in Australia in January, so there’s climate change knocking on our door. We have BLM and coming to terms with colonisation and its consequences, which for a lot of people is also about coming to terms with the facts relating to materials and extraction and how they relate to colonisation. One of the core purposes of functions of colonisation was about establishing and protecting global supply chains for the extraction of goods and labour. Many of those commodities are still exacted and many of those frameworks that wrap around these systems of extraction are no longer tolerable. In my opinion that’s now converging with COVID where we realise that we’ve pushed so far into nature, or created such intensive systems that we are being met with unanticipated or unintended consequences. That’s what it feels like. It is undeniable that as we push harder with more intensive farming, more intensive food production and land clearing, pushing into ecosystems that we’ve never been in before, slashing biodiversity, that we will meet and create new complexities. I wrote about Conservation for the book that accompanies the triennial and it’s basically about how we think we have dominion – we can decide what is saved or not saved, or extracted or sold and a lot of that is without the permission of the indigenous peoples who lived or live in those places. I see conversations emerging about planetary health – if we’re thinking about the idea of the interconnectedness of all supply chains at the birth and death of any product. The emerging consensus is that there’s a radical shift needed, but when you jump onto design blogs, or read design magazines, or attend design fairs you don’t see that reflected. It still seems to be about more design widgets.

DURING THIS PERIOD OF FLUX AND UNCERTAINTY, WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THE ENFORCED PAUSE THAT’S ACTUALLY USEFUL?
Somewhere on Nick Cave’s blog over recent months he talked about the virtue of doing nothing – just observing and learning. For me it’s about empathy. I’ve made a big effort to stay connected to people and to have true empathy for others. I’m sure everyone is saying this, but I don’t want everything to go back to how it was before, but the reality is that we probably will because it’s the only model we currently have that people can agree upon. From a design industry point of view, it’s difficult. We’ve had a hundred years of the evolution of industrial modernism and the growth of design manufacturing and that propagating throughout the world, often with huge benefits, and it’s now so much part of how we measure success and how we make a living – the question is how to redesign design itself. The good things: designers realising that we don’t all have to live in the centre of the city, but we can reconnect with nature and possibly do more with less. I feel like that one thing we should take away is interconnectedness, the clarity that economy, society, nature and ecology are deeply entangled. I’m eternally optimistic because there are plenty of fantastic people who do care and there’s so much creativity.

IMAGE CAPTIONS

Image 1: Refik Anadol
Render of Quantum memories 2020 (render)
Custom software, quantum computing, generative algorithm with artificial intelligence (AI), real time digital animation on LED screen c4 channel sound
1015.0 x 1020.0 x 250.0 cm
Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased with funds donated by Loti & Victor Smorgon Fund and Barry Janes and Paul Cross, 2020
© Refik Anadol
Image courtesy of Refik Anadol

Image 2:
Installation view of Patricia Urquiola, Recycled woollen island, 2020 (render),
Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased, Joe White Bequest, 2020
Courtesy of Patricia Urquiola Studio, Milan

Image 3: Atong Atem
Paanda 2015, printed 2019
from the Studio series 2015
digital type C print, ed. 5/1084.1 x 59.4 cm (image) 92.8 x 63.2 cm (sheet)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2019
© Atong Atem

Image 4:
Salt blocks produced for Erez Nevi Pana's Crystalline, 2020
salt, aluminium, clay
Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased with funds donated by the Andrew and Geraldine Buxton Foundation, The Michael and Janet Buxton Foundation and MAB Corporation Pty Ltd, 2020
© Erez Nevi Pana
Photo: Dor Kedmi

Image 5: Jeff Koons
Venus 2016-20 (render)
mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent colour coating
254.0 x 144.5 x 158.4 cm
Edition 1/3 + 1 A/P
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased with funds donated by Loti & Victor Smorgon Fund, Leigh Clifford AO & Sue Clifford, John Higgins AO & Jodie Maunder, Paula Fox AO & Fox Family Foundation, Professor AGL Shaw AO Bequest and NGV Foundation, 2020
© the artist and Gagosian

Image 6:
(foreground)
Kengo Kuma & Associates, Tokyo and Paris
Kengo Kuma (designer)
Geoff Nees (artist)
Botanical pavilion 2020 (render)
various materials 280.0 x 1000.0 x 1300.0 cm
Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased with funds donated by Connie Kimberley and Craig Kimberley OAM, 2020
© Kengo Kuma and Geoff Nees
Image courtesy of Kengo Kuma and Geoff Nees

(background)
Lee Ufan
Dialogue 2017 oil on canvas 227.0 x 181.9 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased with funds donated by Andrew and Judy Rogers and Professor AGL Shaw
AO Bequest, 2020
© Lee Ufan, courtesy Pace Gallery, New York

Image 7: Cecilie Bendixen
Cecilie Bendixen and her team creating Clouds in her studio 2020 textile, thread, lighting components
dimensions variable
Photo: Cecilie Bendixen
© Cecilie Bendixen

Image 8: Talin Hazbar
Accretions 1-5 2020 (detail) stainless steel, calcified organic matter, brass, lighting componentry
Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased with funds donated by Gordon Moffatt
AM, 2020
© Talin Hazbar
Photo: Alex Callueng

Image 9: Cerith Wyn Evans
The Illuminating Gas at Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, 2019
Courtesy of the artist and Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan.
Photo: Agostino Osio

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