Living Seawall Project by Alex Goad. Courtesy National Gallery of Victoria

Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria Samples the Future

The thought-leading institution surveys the ever-expanding fields of speculative and critical design in Australia.

The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) has made a name for itself in recent years by programming robust exhibitions that ask tough questions about design’s role in our increasingly complex world. As part of the 2017 NGV Triennial, the museum commissioned Amsterdam-based design duo Formafantasma to embark on an ambitious investigation into how e-waste is processed across the globe and to consider the potential for its reuse. 

“Part of our curatorial strategy is to work with designers who can help us decipher, interrogate, and challenge aspects of the status quo,” says Ewan McEoin, the NGV’s Hugh Williamson Senior Curator of Contemporary Design and Architecture. “It’s not acceptable for the NGV to only record and interpret [these developments]. We prefer to have some skin in the game and to help support projects that engage our public in conversations about the past, present, and future.” 

Part of our curatorial strategy is to work with designers that can help us decipher, interrogate, and challenge aspects of the status quo.

Ewan McEoin, Hugh Williamson senior curator of contemporary design and architecture, National Gallery of Victoria

Transformation of Weaver mirrors from the Ode to Waratah series, 2020, Elliat Rich. Photo: James Morgan. Courtesy National Gallery of Victoria

NGV’s latest exhibition Sampling the Future builds on this impetus by showcasing new works by Australia’s leading experimental talents, working between the fields of design, science, and philosophy. Presented at the museum’s Ian Potter Centre from August 27 to February 6, 2022, the show reveals how rapidly advancing technologies and reimagined production methods are shaping the near and distant futures. Sampling the Future brings together projects from its permanent collections with these new commissions for a dynamic display that grapples with the most pressing issues of our time. 

“There are two overarching conversations at play,” McEoin says. “The first is an optimistic gaze into the ways in which advancements in design have been or could be applied in addressing ecological decline, revealing the role of the designer as a vital actor in [shaping] the world we want. The second conversation invites audiences to contemplate the ethics of [our] relationship to materials, extraction, and production, while also reflecting on the systems that have accreted over time to facilitate modern life. As we stare ahead at the challenges laid out in the most recent IPCC report, we need the populace to have new a more sophisticated understanding of what design is capable of.”

Child wearing Kyoko Hashimoto, Guy Keulemans and Matt Harkness’ Polylactic acid chain 2021. Courtesy Guy Keulemans, Kyoko Hashimoto and Matt HarknessPhoto: Carine Thevenau. National Gallery of Victoria

Given its colonial and extractivist past, Australia is an important testbed for new ideas and has spawned talents who seek to challenge that heritage such as speculative architects Roland Snooks and sound artist Philip Samartzis. The collaborators’ commissioned Unclear Cloud project implements advanced computation, 3D printing, and robot fabrication to create representations that shed light on cloud computing and its environmental impact. 

“There are many examples around the world of designs and architectures derived from algorithmic inputs coupled with digital production,” the chief curator explains. “The question though is what difference does this approach make? How will it be applied to the construction of new environments? What’s most fascinating about this work are the skills designers are acquiring to improve and synthesize multi-material outcomes. We’re approaching a place where we can reimagine how buildings might act.” 

Technicians construct Leanne Zilka and Jenny Underwood’s Knitted architecture production 2021 at RMIT Photo: Julian Kingma, Courtesy National Gallery of Victoria

According to McEoin, Australia and the surrounding region are poised to transition to a low carbon future but for things to accelerate, there needs to be a total renewal of design education and practice. The exhibition brings some semblance of this reality into view. “We have the possibility of a future that draws together the deep relationship of First Nations peoples with our shared need to [move] away from the outdated systems, industries, and economic priorities of the last century,” he notes. Elliat Rich’s installation of mirrors paired with a sound recording question when western and non-western knowledge systems will converge. It considers what a multi-species approach—perhaps even a new cosmology, or planetary approach—to design might look like. 

“Improvements in environmental design, such as what can and can’t be recycled, have not dramatically changed the way we manufacture, consume, and dispose of things. The intertwined activities that overlap to bring a product to market are so opaque that the public and, in many cases designers, have lost the capacity to ‘read’ an object: how it came into the world and what its true implications might be. The transition to a circular economy is on the horizon,” he concludes. “It’ll be far more than just recycling and much more of an interconnected system.” 

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