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Virtual Reality, Portals and Parties: NGA X Balnaves

Josie Gouvoussis


The Balnaves Foundation and the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) have partnered to introduce a new series of intervention art that is out of this world.

The Balnaves Foundation is a private philanthropic organisation established in 2006 by Neil Balnaves AO to provide support to charitable enterprises across Australia. Dispersing over $2.5 million annually, the Foundation supports eligible organisations that aim to create a better Australia through education, medicine and the arts with a focus on young people, the disadvantaged and Indigenous communities.

“We are thrilled to partner with the NGA as this partnership captures our commitment to fostering exciting talent and championing the future of the arts in Australia,” said Hamish Balnaves, General Manager of The Balnaves Foundation.

Featuring artworks by Australian contemporary artists Jess Johnson, Simon Ward and Sarah Contos, the exhibition will incorporate the interiors of the NGA itself to produce large-scale performance pieces hand-in-hand with virtual reality experiences.

Credit: Sarah Contos. Work in progress for Balnaves Contemporary Intervention Series, February 2018
Image courtesy of the artist; Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney and STATION, Melbourne.

“By installing work in unexpected spaces as Contos does, or reconceiving of space itself as malleable and full of ‘portals’ as Johnson and Ward have, these artists are creating works that will alter the atmosphere of the NGA, and the way our audiences explore its iconic architectural interiors,” explains Jaklyn Babington, Senior Curator of Contemporary Art at the NGA.

The series will launch with Maze on 4 May where an enormous suspension work of sparkling textile mobiles by Contos will hang in the NGA foyer. Contos’ works have a distinctive 1920s and 1980s nostalgic twist that will set your spirits in a whirl as you admire her installation art in a pop-up bar setting.

Credit: Jess Johnson. Bloatware Syndrome, 2018, drawing in fibre-tip pen, fibre-tip markers and gouache. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Purchased 2018. Image courtesy of the artist; Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney; Ivan Anthony Gallery, Auckland and Jack Hanley Gallery, New York.

“The work in the foyer is a series of mobiles and these will be made out of stainless steel and screen-printed imagery. The imagery is mostly found from books on film, theatre, opera and even personal images from the shelves in my house,” says artist Sarah Contos.

“It features colours and textures reminiscent of the 1980s which pop against the rubber and chain materials.”

A mobile is usually a small toy purely for children to admire in their room, but this piece is on a mass scale and can be viewed by anyone from different angles and multi-levels. The installation is a mashup of quilts, textiles and imagery. An incredibly detailed piece, Contos has been developing it since early September 2017 and due to the organic nature of the way it hangs, the artist herself doesn’t even know how the piece will eventually look once it has been installed.

Credit: Sarah Contos. Work in progress for Balnaves Contemporary Intervention Series, February 2018. Image courtesy of the artist; Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney and STATION, Melbourne.

The commissioned work, titled ‘Nikola Tesla Sends Theda Bara to Mars’, aims to focus on the concept of the Hollywood machine and the installation is about film history, constructs of identity and is overall, a nod to the 1920s silent film era. 
“I am fascinated by how cinema transformed from silent film to the talkies and how women were represented through cinematography.

One half of their identity on film is of a very strong individual and then after the Hays Code was introduced in the 1930s, there was a shift where women started to be portrayed as ‘the secretary’ or the ‘woman in the kitchen’,” states Contos, “I like that 1920s period where women have a certain power in cinematography although their 
image was constructed to an extent by the Hollywood machine.”

Credit: Jess Johnson and Simon Ward. Working drawing for Terminus 2018
Image courtesy of the artists; Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney; Ivan Anthony Gallery, Auckland and Jack Hanley Gallery, New York.

The installation is for all demographics as it has elements that would evoke a response from the little ones, and also the older generations that will recognise movie stars such as Joan Crawford or Jean Harlow in the mix. The viewers will ultimately have a sense of familiarity with the piece.

After sipping champagne and admiring Contos’ cinematic universe, don’t hesitate to strap on the VR headset and immerse yourself in Jess Johnson and Simon Ward’s ‘world within a world’, Terminus. The artistic duo has created the first virtual reality (VR) interactive world for the national collection.

“It’s the most ambitious work we’ve ever undertaken,’ said artist Jess Johnson. ‘Never before have we had the space or resources to create this sort of guided, sequential journey with multiple VR experiences.”

the essentials

Balnaves Contemporary Intervention Series: Sarah Contos runs from 4 May to 24 September, National Gallery of Australia Foyer.

Balnaves Contemporary Intervention Series: Jess Johnson and Simon Ward runs from 4 May to 26 August, Contemporary Galleries, National Gallery of Australia. 

Feature image: Excerpt from We Dream of Networks 2016 by Jess Johnson. Drawing in fibre-tip pen, fibre-tip markers and gouache. Image courtesy of the artist; Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney; Ivan Anthony Gallery, Auckland and Jack Hanley Gallery, New York

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Josie Gouvoussis

Josie Gouvoussis is a 16-year-old intern, currently in Year 11 at Radford College, studying Ancient History and English Literature. Born and bred in the nation’s capital, Josie is an aspiring journalist and hopes to one day write her way around Europe. She enjoys meeting, learning from and writing about local Canberrans and the extraordinary lives they lead. She is a low key (by low-key meaning fangirl obsessed) book lover who will read anything from politics and history to gore, crime and fantasy. Usually one can find her lounging around deeply immersed in a fiction novel or swimming with her friends. More about the Author