Dazzling, subversive, confronting: inside Queer, a landmark Australian art show

From ancient Egypt to Kylie, this NGV exhibition celebrates camp, gender, love and activism, to dispel the idea that art ‘is heterosexual until proven otherwise’

Walking through Queer: Stories from the NGV Collection is an experience of sensory overload. Classical paintings and busts make way for rumbling video works and mannequins dressed in high fashion. Behind glass, there are objects old and new: an ancient teapot, a pair of Comme des Garçons shoes.

My gaze keeps wandering back to two pieces: one is a huge floral and golden wreath surrounding an image of the artist, Yasumasa Morimura, reimagined as Frida Kahlo. The other is Paul Yore’s 2021 work, The Evacuation of Mallacoota: an enormous abstract patchwork of textures, faces and colours, reflecting on the 2019 bushfires. Two works, so different from one another, yet both hold me gently as I continue through.

An Australian first, Queer contains more than 400 artworks, from Egyptian amulets made in 664BC to work produced in Australia today. The pieces are all from the National Gallery of Victoria’s permanent collection but some have never been displayed publicly before. Celebrating queerness both explicit and tacit, it’s a dazzling and sometimes overwhelming kaleidoscope of the myriad ways in which sexuality and gender can be experienced and expressed.

Inside the installation.
Inside the installation. Photograph: Peter Bennetts

The exhibition is broken into themes, with an exhibition highlight, David Wojnarowicz’s confronting 1990 Aids response Untitled (for Act Up), included in the show’s history of activism. Light and dark interchange: a room dedicated to experiences of shame and discrimination details historical brutalisation (viewer discretion is advised). A playful section is dedicated to royalty both queer and actual, highlighting icons including Kylie Minogue and Liza Minnelli, and outfits including Lizzy Gardiner’s gold AmEx dress, worn by the Australian costume designer when she won an Oscar for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; it is even more eye-popping in the flesh.

Lizzy Gardiner’s gold golden AmEx dress.
Lizzy Gardiner’s gold golden AmEx dress. Photograph: Sean Fennessy

Of course, a show like this will have absences, but the NGV curators involved, spanning international to Indigenous art, stress that Queer is as much about what is not included. These gaps speak to the practice of art acquisition, a process that favours the systemically privileged. Much of the historical collection, for instance, pertains primarily to the western world, with only a smattering of eastern stories. “We acknowledge that some areas are much better represented than others,” says Dr Angela Hesson, the NGV’s curator of Australian art. “In that way, we’ve also had the opportunity to interrogate our history of collecting.”

But, clearly, care has been taken. What’s particularly delightful about the exhibition is the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated pieces to create a dialogue – for instance, the Black trans artist Tourmaline’s mesmerising video work ​​Atlantic Is a Sea of Bones, is side by side with one of Nick Cave’s audio Soundsuits. Other connections are more overt, such as the positioning of works by the early 20th century Australian artists Margaret Preston, Bessie Davidson and Gladys Reynell – three women who had romantic relationships with one another.

‘We know that many of the ancient Greek and Roman gods and goddesses were pansexual …’
‘We know that many of the ancient Greek and Roman gods and goddesses were pansexual …’ Photograph: Peter Bennetts

Indigenous artists include the young Queenslander Dylan Mooney, whose striking work Stuck on You depicts two embracing Black men with their faces painted, and Hannah Brontë, whose video work Umma’s Tongue – molten at 6000° pairs the Black female body with images of natural destruction. “Being part of this is for my people, my community, my big gay-ass family,” Brontë says.

Meg Slater, one of the show’s curators, describes Queer as “embracing the maybe and the probably, and working against this idea that really does exist as an institutional standard that it’s heterosexual until proven otherwise”. Many of the artists exhibited lived in a time where identifying openly as queer was not possible, and some others were not queer at all – but their works take on what the curators call a “queer afterlife”. One example is Saint George Hare’s 1891 oil painting The Victory of Faith, which depicts two intertwined nude, interracial women, one shackled; long read as a depiction of Christian martyrs, in Queer, a viewer can see subversion inherent in its subject and form.

Leigh Bowery’s The Metropolitan c. 1988, on display in the NGV.
Leigh Bowery’s The Metropolitan c. 1988, on display in the NGV. Photograph: Sean Fennessy

And for ancient historical content, the curators employed lateral thinking. “We know that many of the ancient Greek and Roman gods and goddesses were pansexual … it’s a matter of saying, ‘OK, which representations of those gods and goddesses do we have in the collection?’” says Dr Ted Gott, the NGV’s senior curator of international art. “Queer stories have never been told about these famous people on our walls before this show.”

Queer will reward multiple visits and close examination. From well-known artists including Keith Haring, Issey Miyake and Robert Indiana to more obscure names, culminating in a final, glitter-soaked room, there’s a lot to take in, explore and ponder. Still, 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 gender, blend histories and culture, and make something new. Like a bowerbird, the queer experience is often about observing and borrowing from the world around oneself – to create a wondrous kind of meaning, a new mode of survival.

  • Queer is at the NGV from 10 March to 21 August


Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen

The GuardianTramp

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