People have been talking about the relationship between art and change for a long time. Art as an agitator for change, a messenger for change; art as an act of activism or assertion. These days, this relationship may feel like a natural one; however, this hasn’t always been the case, with many of the artistic practices and theoretical concepts linking art and change having shifted over time but especially within the last two decades. Dr Geoff Hogg, Adjunct Professor in the School of Art at RMIT, notes:
The last twenty years have seen a growth in socially engaged art as an accepted field of creative practice. Today this feels normal, and it is becoming harder to remember that for much of the twentieth century this was highly controversial. The concept of ‘art for art’s sake’ was a nineteenth-century philosophy that extolled the intrinsic value of art independent of political, moral or educational purposes. In the twentieth century, these ideas were still influential amongst people interested in the arts.1Dr Geoff Hogg, ‘Art and agency: how did we get there?’, NGV online course, <ngv.vic.gov.au/program/online-course-art-and-agency>, accessed 28 Jun. 2021.
Hogg also writes that prior to the latter part of the twentieth century, the broadly accepted understanding of the role of artistic production was that art was not created to overtly instigate (social) change through criticism or protest, but existed as an independent practice (independent to politics, activism or social critique or reform).2ibid.
Many exceptions to this ‘rule’ can be found throughout history, from the social satire and critique of Spanish society in the work of Francisco Goya at the end of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the anti-establishment art of the Surrealists and the craft and visual media–supported activism of the women’s suffrage movement and feminism, to the social changes for women in Japan prior to the Second World War documented by artists such as Taniguchi Fumie. These are just a few examples, all of which in their own way speak to ideas of art as an arbiter of change. However, many scholars accept that the conceptual relationship between art and change – or at least change through the lens of activism – emerged with the radical social and cultural changes of the 1960s and beyond. Art historian Frances Borzell, for example, describes it as ‘a new tradition’ which she terms ‘art in the name of political activism’.3Frances Borzell, ‘Art in the name of political activism: the personal and the political’, NGV online course, <ngv.vic.gov.au/program/online-course-art-and-agency>, accessed 28 Jun. 2021.
We Change the World contributes to this ongoing conversation about the role of both artists and designers as changemakers. Featuring Australian and international works from the NGV Collection, including works that address some of the big issues of today to others that illuminate the everyday, it considers how creativity and artistic expression can contribute to change at a personal, community or global level. It also takes the conversation further by inviting visitors to contribute their own thoughts on the value of art and design as agents for change, and to think about their own potential to create change. Recognising that change comes in many forms and concerns, many different aspects of life, place and culture, the works in We Change the World are organised into four themes.
Environment and place
Can art and design change the way you see or feel about a place or an environment – or even how you engage with it? How do we change the places we engage with? Cultural traditions and stories can be deeply embedded in place. These stories can be expressed through materials and forms, such as larrakitj (hollow pole coffins) made by artists including Nawurapu Wunungmurra from East Arnhem Land with Gapu ga Gitkit (Water and birds), 2005, supported by Jason Yeap OAM and Min Lee Wong, or Jangarra armchair, 2017, a cross-cultural design collaboration by artists and designers from the Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency in Fitzroy Crossing, Western Australia, together with Thirroul-based designer Trent Jansen. The work is an embodiment of Jangarra, or the ‘man-killer’, a cautionary tale told to children in the desert region around Fitzroy Crossing. Storytelling has always been central to the continuation of First Nations culture.
Art and design can also prompt new ways of seeing places, asking us to reflect on our physical relationship with what is around us, how much we really understand of the places we think we know and how deeply we engage with their layered histories. Art and design are also powerful tools for discussing environmental issues, such as waste, water and the vulnerability of living creatures. We see this in Brodie Neill’s Gyro, table, 2016, created from plastic particles that have been retrieved from marine waste collected from coastal areas around the world, which has entered the Collection through the support of Mercedes-Benz Australia/Pacific. Alexandra Kehayoglou’s monumental hand-tufted woollen rug, Santa Cruz River, 2017, supported by Michael and Andrew Buxton from MAB Corporation Pty Ltd, and the Andrew and Geraldine Buxton Foundation, depicts and documents a vital water system under threat from human development – a symptom of humans’ globalised commodification of the environment. Playfulness and humour has also been used by artists and designers to tackle the devastating effects of human activity on the many life forms that inhabit our planet, as imagined by Paola Pivi’s vivid pink-feathered bear Mama no more diapers, please, 2013, and Porky Hefer’s Fiona Blackfish, 2015, which shows an endangered killer whale as a swinging nest seat. Killer whales are a vulnerable species due to being hunted, as well as pollution, food shortages and other changes to their natural habitat – Hefer created this work as part of his Monstera Deliciosa series of which he has said: ‘My pieces get people to think about nature, and its fragility, and make them consider how to protect it’.4Anna Winston, ‘Porky Hefer’s Fiona Blackfish is a killer-whale-shaped hanging chair’, Dezeen, <www.dezeen.com/2015/12/02/porky-hefers-fiona-blackfish-killer-whale-shaped-hanging-chair-monstera-deliciosa-animal-themed-nests-design-miami-2015/>, accessed 16 Jun. 2021.
Activism and protest
What is an act of activism or protest? Is it a march or rally? An action undertaken in opposition to a majority opinion or a mainstream edict? What about the act of remaining true to your beliefs, values or identity? The quiet activism of choosing how you look, what you do with your body or your life? Or the simple act of existing and living authentically in a world catered for the majority?
Loud or quiet, these are all valid forms of activism and protest. Likewise, the events that provoke these actions can be big global issues, such as climate emergency, feminism, the Me Too and Black/Blak Lives Matter movements, or other issues of justice and discrimination, as well as deeply individual, personal issues that play out in the family home, in school or socially. In this exhibition theme, we see art and design as a vehicle for highlighting the things that matter to us, and the different methods that artists use to achieve this. This includes the traditional use of flags to denote a unified community such as Yara Said’s Refugee flag, which was designed for the first Refugee Olympic Team in 2016, or Gilbert Baker’s Rainbow flag, designed in 1978, which became an international symbol for LGBTQIA+ communities. Peter Drew’s Aussie street poster series, funded by the NGV’s Supporters of Prints and Drawings, embrace the neglected histories of Australians the artist learnt about when he discovered their portrait photographs in the National Archives of Australia, to expand ideas about national identity. Ancient vases – hallowed for their age and cultural association – and repainted to obscure their origins become a form of protest for Ai Weiwei in his Coloured vases, 2015, supported by Loti & Victor Smorgon Fund, and Pascale Marthine Tayou’s granite Coloured stones (Pavés colorés), 2015, funded by Suzanne Dawbarn Bequest, reference the rubble and ruin of revolutionary altercations that have occurred throughout history.
Celebrating the everyday
How might the everyday objects or rituals of one person prompt us to think differently about our own world or the experiences of others? How does what we do and the way we live help to shape who we are?
The works in this section consider how artists and designers elevate moments, scenes or materials from daily life into something extraordinary. Through this lens we can encounter different ways of living, from David Hockney’s domestic routines in urban Los Angeles as seen in his animated iPad drawings, 2010–2012, to Kay Hassan’s 2013 portraits from Johannesburg, supported by Wendy and Paul Bonnici and family, and Garry Namponan’s Ku (Camp dog), 2004, sculptures from Aurukun, in far north Queensland, gifted to the NGV Collection by Anthony Stolarek. These encounters open up new worlds: revealing not only ways of life but a direct connection to cultures, people and communities previously little-known to us.
Engaging with everyday life can mean making with found materials, such as scrap paper from billboards or local grasses, or referencing things that are commonplace where the artist has lived or worked; for instance, Subodh Gupta’s bicycle carrying milk pails, Cow, 2003, supported by Professor AGL Shaw AO Bequest, representing part of everyday life in urban India. Language, common phrases or colloquialisms are another means of accessing what constitutes ‘everyday’ for some – with both positive and more confronting implications, as is seen in Vernon Ah Kee’s If I was white, 2002, inkjet works. And for others, the everyday can be both routine and ritual, embracing or reviving traditional skills and crafts, or making things in collaboration with family or community.
Shaping the future
How do you imagine the future? What is important to you and your community, and can you use creativity to help shape it? The works that speak to this theme invite us to think about what we value and hope for, looking to factors that shape our world.
The resilience of First Peoples is highlighted in many works throughout We Change the World. While some highlight stories of loss, sorrow and mourning, such as with Maree Clarke’s Men in mourning, 2012; printed 2014, we also see the enduring strength of cultural traditions, and the significant role that women play in sustaining culture in communities, for example, in Hannah Brontë’s Heala, 2018. Many artists and designers are at the forefront of exploring cutting-edge technologies and using traditional materials or processes in new ways, often working with different experts to realise their ideas. We see this in Joris Laarman’s Bridge table, large, prototype, 2010 (manufactured by Joris Laarman Lab), supported by the Donald Russell Elford and Dorothy Grace Elford Bequest, which was made using software that learns from the natural growth patterns of tree and bone. Flax chair, designed in 2015 by Christien Meindertsma (manufactured by Label/Breed), supported by Gordon Moffatt AM, demonstrates the possibilities for a new, sustainable biomaterial to be created from the ancient flax plant.
Art and design can also inspire us to think critically, offering creative solutions to contemporary challenges. Ore streams, 2016–2017, a suite of office furniture, designed by Studio Formafantasma from discarded electronic devices, represents an ongoing and in-depth research project into the scope and complexity of the global e-waste crisis. The project, supported by Nicholas Allen and Helen Nicolay, highlights the positive role design can play in addressing the challenge of e-waste, while the invitation to reassemble protest patches in Rivane Neuenschwander’s Watchword, 2012, funded through the Loti & Victor Smorgon Fund, reminds us of the power of our voice and agency for change. In 2021, a year of significant change, the exhibition is a prescient reminder that change can come in many forms and that the acts of creating, making, researching, learning and exploring continue to offer not only ways to understand and engage with the changes at play, but to directly and authentically own and engineer change for the world we want to see.
This essay was written by Elisha Buttler and Michele Stockley in consultation with Myf Doughty, Hannah Presley and Katharina Prugger.
Dr Geoff Hogg, ‘Art and agency: how did we get there?’, NGV online course, <ngv.vic.gov.au/program/online-course-art-and-agency>, accessed 28 Jun. 2021.
Frances Borzell, ‘Art in the name of political activism: the personal and the political’, NGV online course, <ngv.vic.gov.au/program/online-course-art-and-agency>, accessed 28 Jun. 2021.
Anna Winston, ‘Porky Hefer’s Fiona Blackfish is a killer-whale-shaped hanging chair’, Dezeen, <www.dezeen.com/2015/12/02/porky-hefers-fiona-blackfish-killer-whale-shaped-hanging-chair-monstera-deliciosa-animal-themed-nests-design-miami-2015/>, accessed 16 Jun. 2021.