In capturing the spirit of the Salon, the National Gallery of Victoria has gone further than merely wow-ing visitors to the Triennial with works such as Quantum Memories. Under the leadership of Creative Director Benjamin Ducroz, the NGV’s Salon Gallery (which holds 140 paintings and a dozen sculptures) was transformed into an immersive light and sound installation named Salon et Lumière. In an installation in NGV’s the Salon Gallery of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Using new media art, Salon et Lumière evokes the same excitement visitors to the Salon once felt when presented with the year’s artistic offerings en masse. In fits and starts, pieces are alternately lit and plunged into darkness – the works illuminated at any one time centre on a narrative or theme: Love and loss, clouds and the colour pink come into focus. The works jostle for our attention. Sitting on one of the benches that run down the centre of the Gallery, the viewer has to look around wildly to grasp why the works have been chosen for their moment in the light. Completely absorbed by the stratospheric sounds and bewildering array of works on display, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d been whipped into some kind of cross-time fusion of the Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Royal Academy and an overstimulating futuristic cosmos.
Although Salon et Lumière is the most pointed attempt by the NGV to use digital art to bring a touch of the Royal Academy to Melbourne, it isn’t the only one. Another new media piece on display at the Triennial using technology to engage with art history is Matt Copson’s Death, again (2019). The work is a laser animation inspired by Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533), which features a distorted skull that comes into focus when viewed at the correct angle. The inclusion of this symbol of death is an incidence of vanitas, a reminder of our mortality in Dutch still-life painting of the Renaissance. Copson uses a mechanical projector that refracts a highly concentrated beam with mirrors to project the skull onto the bluestone wall of the NGV. The skull flickers and warps in and out of shape, drifting from amorphous abstraction to recognisability. Although continuing the tradition of vanitas paintings, Copson doesn’t dwell on the past – through his use of technology more familiar to nightclub lovers, he encourages us to reflect on what remains constant for humankind over time.