Oalking through Queer: Stories from the NGV Collection is a sensory overload experience. Classic paintings and busts give way to booming video works and fashionably dressed mannequins. Behind glass, old and new objects: an old teapot, a pair of Comme des Garçons shoes.
My gaze keeps returning to two pieces: one is an enormous wreath of flowers and gold surrounding an image of the artist, Yasumasa Morimura, reimagined as Frida Kahlo. The other is Paul Yore’s work from 2021, The Evacuation of Mallacoota: a huge abstract patchwork of textures, faces and colors, reflecting the bushfires of 2019. Two works so different from each other , yet both of them hold me gently as I continue.
An Australian first, Queer contains over 400 works of art, from Egyptian amulets made in 664 BC to works produced in Australia today. The pieces are all from the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, but some have never been on public display before. Celebrating both explicit and unspoken homosexuality, it’s a dazzling and sometimes overwhelming kaleidoscope of the myriad ways in which sexuality and gender can be experienced and expressed.
The exhibit is divided into themes, with a highlight of the exhibit, David Wojnarowicz’s 1990 AIDS response Untitled (for Act Up), included in the exhibit’s history of activism. Exchange of Light and Dark: A room dedicated to experiences of shame and discrimination details historical brutality (viewer discretion advised). A playful section is dedicated to both queer and current royalty, showcasing icons such as Kylie Minogue and Liza Minnelli, and outfits such as Lizzy Gardiner’s gold AmEx dress, worn by the Aussie costume designer when she won an Oscar for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; it’s even more eye-catching in the flesh.
Of course, a show like this will have absences, but the NGV curators involved, ranging from international art to Indigenous art, emphasize that Queer is as much about the unincluded. These shortcomings testify to the practice of art acquisition, a process that favors the systemic privileged. Much of the historical collection, for example, relates primarily to the Western world, with only a handful of Eastern stories. “We recognize that some areas are much better represented than others,” says Dr Angela Hesson, Curator of Australian Art at NGV. “In this way, we also had the opportunity to interrogate our collecting history.”
But, clearly, precautions were taken. What’s particularly pleasing about the exhibition is the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated pieces to create dialogue – for example, black trans artist Tourmaline’s compelling video work, Atlantic Is a Sea of Bones, is side by side with one of Nick Cave’s Audio Soundsuits. Other connections are more obvious, such as the positioning of works by early 20th-century Australian artists Margaret Preston, Bessie Davidson and Gladys Reynell – three women who had romantic relationships with each other.
Indigenous artists include young Queenslander Dylan Mooney, whose striking work Stuck on You depicts two black men embracing with their faces painted, and Hannah Brontë, whose video work Umma’s Tongue – molten at 6000° combines the black female body to images of natural destruction. “Being a part of this is for my people, my community, my big gay family,” Brontë says.
Meg Slater, one of the show’s curators, describes Queer as “embracing the maybe and the probable, and working against this idea that really exists as an institutional norm that he’s heterosexual until proven otherwise.” “. Many of the artists on display lived in a time when it was impossible to openly identify as queer, and some others weren’t queer at all – but their works take on what curators call a “queer beyond”. An example is Saint George Hare’s 1891 oil painting The Victory of Faith, which depicts two nude, interracial women intertwined, one in chains; long read as a depiction of Christian martyrs, in Queer a viewer can see the inherent subversion in its subject matter and form.
And for old historical content, curators used lateral thinking. “We know that many ancient Greek and Roman gods and goddesses were pansexual…it’s about saying, ‘OK, what representations of these gods and goddesses do we have in the collection?'” says Dr. Ted Gott , responsible for the NGV. international art curator. “We never told queer stories about these famous people on our walls before this show.”
Queer will reward multiple visits and a thorough review. From well-known artists such as Keith Haring, Issey Miyake and Robert Indiana to more obscure names, culminating in a glitter-soaked final room, there’s plenty to take in, explore and ponder. Yet my mind returns to those first two works, An Inner Dialogue with Frida Kahlo and The Evacuation of Mallacoota; and all the ways these works subvert or abandon genre, mix histories and culture, and create something new. Like a bird, the queer experience is often about observing and borrowing from the world around it – to create some kind of wondrous meaning, a new mode of survival.