“Queer: Stories from the NGV Collection”: A Review

Written by Holly Ma
Graphic by Harriet Sherlock

“Art still has something in common with enchantment: it posits its own self-enclosed area which is withdrawn from the context of profane existence and in which special laws apply.”

— Text from “The evacuation of Mallacoota”, Paul Yore, 2021. Displayed at “Queer: Stories from the NGV Collection”.

The number of hours I had spent in “Queer: Stories from the NGV Collection” was only obvious as I left the exhibition and walked back into Melbourne’s long-weekend crowds, realising the sun was sitting at a very different angle. I was energised from the journey through the themed rooms that offered a conversation with each work presented. From a mosaic of the names of those lost to HIV/AIDs, to topless woollen swimwear for women, portraits of queer couples who were “just friends”, to a dreamlike video sequence inspired by the New York ballroom scene—the “Queer” exhibition flowed effortlessly.

While the NGV states that defining a strict history of queer art is not their intention, “Queer” displays an intersectional array of stories and perspectives. I found these were curated considering the spatial and temporal history of queer expression, as they presented what I consider an accurate representation of the existing diversity within the LGBTQ+ community. A sense of wholeness was created in displaying the works conceptually rather than chronologically. In every room a range of different LGBTQ+ identities were represented, effectively contrasting the sub-setting of the LGBTQ+ community that I’ve often observed in non-queer-based media outlets. Considering the history of the LGBTQ+ community added to my experience. The works examined queer history in Australia and accentuated locations with strong roots and/or importance for the queer community, providing a coherent story for the average Australian viewer.

I’ve had the conversations that come with realising and trying to define your identity but have never engaged in such visceral dissections of queerness than while exploring these works. When walking through the gallery with my friend, we were able to openly discuss each artwork, learning from both the works and our individual experiences of queer expression. For example, seeing works addressing HIV/AIDS in the queer community prompted her to consider the most recent developments in HIV/AIDS treatments that she engages in as part of her work, allowing me to gain insight on a very personal level. These discussions entwined with our understanding of cultural and socio-political influences, as well as how these have changed over time. We discussed issues of intersectionality in queer art history and how this was represented by the exhibit’s curation. I felt this was most notable in Paul Yore’s “The evacuation of Mallacoota”, a very large mixed-media tapestry which drew the most attention from gallery-goers in the first room. The piece was a response to the 2019–20 Australian bushfires, incorporating pop-culture, queer imagery, and satirical symbolism. Within what seems to be a cacophony of colours and mosaiced words, there is something to appeal to every viewer.

“The evacuation of Mallacoota” (2021), Paul Yore. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

The movement art video installations are the starkest in my memory, perhaps as I find safety and expression in dance. I have never sat as still as I did during the 23 minutes that Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz’s installation “Moving Backwards” spans. Pulling on a large pool of choreographic techniques and dance styles, the piece switches between backwards movements and digitally reversed movements, creating an unsettling visual that requires closer inspection. Movement is coupled with sound; we see a QR code with letters written to the audience, and an immersive theatre that mimics the setting, lighting, and props seen on the screen. These elements combine to push a viewer to reflect upon dimensionality and directionality.

Why is the movement progressing in that direction?
Can we go forwards without going backwards?
Is there a difference between what I can see and what I can experience?

These questions apply to many contexts in life, regardless of whether they are related to queerness. I admit that my level of self-reflection is likely due to the deep connection I personally felt with this piece; yet I believe that there is something in the exhibition that would appeal at this depth to anyone willing to converse and reflect with art.

“Queer” unveils perspectives around queerness in a way that supports connection without being limited by your knowledge or experience of the LGBTQ+ community. Observing the curious gaze of blank-canvas children and quizzical adults left me with as great a feeling as smiling at the person wearing a t-shirt with “QUEER” stamped across the front as they walked past me. As much as queer expression is about empowering our community, the conversations that I’ve engaged in, such as those prompted by queer art, are what I’ve found the greater solace and value in.

At its core, “Queer” teemed with evidence of the existence of a queer community, something that is still challenged today. Seeing this community thrive under the harshest social conditions in such evocative mediums breathes a sense of gratitude and pride into a young queer-identifying individual. Feeling recognised in your identity fuels a person’s confidence in self-expression, something that is perhaps best demonstrated through art. Walking back through crowds of young families, I felt a sense of assurance in our society becoming more queer-friendly with each generation, something catalysed by such discourse as in this exhibit.

“Queer: Stories from the NGV Collection” is at the NGV in Melbourne until 21 August 2022, free entry to all.

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