Throughout history, artists have often addressed key social and political issues through their work. You might be familiar with Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937), for instance, which Picasso painted to protest the brutality of war.
Today, a growing number of contemporary artists are finding new ways to use art to give voice to the most pressing issues of our time.
“Activism has become more prominent because what constitutes art has changed. Art has become a lot more complex, and artists have had the space to be more courageous and creative in the way they address issues,” explains Dr Vincent Alessi, Senior Lecturer in Creative Arts at La Trobe University.
This summer, you can witness the latest activist art in Melbourne for free at the NGV Triennial. From multi-channel video installations to needlepoint made from mesh and wool, we’ve rounded up the must-see artworks for your visit. Here’s our top five:
1. Richard Mosse – Incoming (2015-16)
In an immersive three channel video installation, Irish artist Richard Mosse uses military technology to illuminate the plight of Syrian refugees. Shot on a long-range thermal camera developed by the US military – in settings from aircraft carriers to Greek beaches and refugee camps – Mosse’s subjects glow with life from their own body heat.
“You get a great sense of the complexity of these issues and what drives people to move from their nation states to other nation states,” says Dr Alessi.
“And because it’s shot with this particular camera, all the faces are completely white – there isn’t any sense of being able to identify anybody. It really plays on the notion that this is an enormous crisis, where we’re talking about millions of people, rather than one or two individuals.”
2. Louisa Bufardeci – The sea between A and I (2014-15)
Melbourne artist Louisa Bufardeci applies craft techniques to visualise data. Each work in her series of eight needlepoints is named after a set of GPS coordinates where boats carrying refugees sank between Indonesia and Australia. The works embody abstract imagery of the water, as mediated by Google Earth, at the corresponding GPS location.
3. Reko Rennie – Home Sweet Home (2017)
Australian Aboriginal artist Reko Rennie uses art to explore contemporary Indigenous identity. His site-specific commission, Home Sweet Home, advocates for the ongoing recognition of Aboriginal people through their connections with the land.
Dr Alessi describes Rennie as an artist whose practice is underpinned by ‘the interrogation of personal identity, Indigenous history and memory’. He writes,
“Rennie’s projects remain political and shine a light on the richness of Aboriginal culture. Most importantly, his work enables him to continue to explore what it means to be an Aboriginal man in today’s urban Australia.”
4. Candice Breitz – Wilson Must Go (2016)
South African artist Candice Breitz examines the conditions for empathy in her fast-paced video installation. Her work communicates the sociopolitical circumstances that force refugees to flee their home country – and, in an act of protest by the artist, it has been pointedly renamed for the NGV Triennial. Based on deeply personal interviews with six refugees, the refugees’ firsthand accounts are performed by Hollywood actors Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin.
5. teamLab – Moving Creates Vortices and Vortices Create Movement (2017)
teamLab describe themselves as an ‘interdisciplinary group of ultra-technologists’ who explore new relationships between humans and nature. For the NGV Triennial, they’ve created an immersive digital installation that uses projections and mirrors to transform the gallery floor into an infinite body of water. Incredibly, the illuminations respond to your presence.
teamLab’s Toshiyuki Inoko hopes that the artwork will help us understand the direct impact our behaviour has on the natural world around us.
“Human beings are very, very bad at recognising that the nature we’re looking at is the result of billions and billions of years of Earth’s movements and the interaction between earth and life,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.
“Many so-called modern technologies have contributed to our perceiving the world as separated, as having boundaries within the world. [But] nature and human are united and you don’t see any boundaries. We are part of this borderless world. My behaviour in that world will change the appearance of the world as well. I’m directly affecting the world surrounding us.”
Together, these five activist artworks offer political commentary across a range of today’s most pressing social, cultural and environmental issues. Whether you’re passionate about the global refugee crisis, contemporary Indigenous identity or humanity’s separation from nature, you’ll find something worth shouting about at the NGV Triennial.
Learn more about art’s role in social and political change at our public events held during the NGV Triennial. As the NGV’s Learning Partner, we’ll help you translate the stories and key themes of this summer’s inspirational exhibition.