The following is an extract of an article by Steph Harmon, The Guardian.
It’s 9pm on a Saturday, and the gallery attendant watching over Ron Mueck’s Mass is looking slightly panicked. Swarms of people are pouring into the small room and elbows are going everywhere.
Mass – the Australian sculptor’s largest work to date – is the stunning centrepiece of the National Gallery of Victoria’s inaugural art and design Triennial, at which 100 oversized human skulls tumble from the ceiling to the floor. Placed among the gallery’s permanent collection – 18th century oil paintings of rich white nobility, posing and picnicking as was their wont – the sculptures bring to mind the stacked skulls of the Catacombs or Cambodia’s killing fields; they force us to confront our own mortality, our shared histories of genocide, the universal and undeniable bigness of death itself.
When the work opened in December, the public’s proximity to it was rigorously policed. These enormous skulls are placed precariously atop one another, an attendant explained; a misplaced limb could send them scattering like an unfathomably expensive game of Jenga. A woman’s tote bag flirted with the edge of a skull and the attendant rushed forward, hissing: “Step back!”
But a month later, it’s the opening weekend of Triennial Extra: a free festival that takes over the exhibition for 10 nights of performance art, poetry readings, talks and parties. The hundred or so people cramming into the space are less hushed, more chatty, stepping closer than they probably should.
They’ve been led there by choreographer and dancer Thomas ES Kelly, of acclaimed contemporary dance group Chunky Move. The collective are premiering five new solo works inspired by the exhibition, inviting hoards of people to chase dancers through the galleries all night.
When we get to the first skull, which sits alone in the room next door, we surround it in a circle. Kelly, dressed casually as an audience member, walks into the centre. He twists and turns and dances around it, grunting and clapping; he grabs the heads of a couple of viewers and compares them to each other and to Mueck’s. Our skulls are this skull, he is telling us; we will all one day be reduced to bone.
We follow him into the next room, where the majority of the skulls are stacked. Kelly comprehends them gravely. He weaves himself among the sculptures, throwing his limbs and his body towards and away from them. The attendant looks momentarily alarmed as we step with the dancer into the negative space. Kelly hurls himself on to the floor; he grunts and breathes, thumps his chest, descends into a kind of madness throwing his hair over his face. He sings in Indigenous language, a haunting verse that hangs in the air around us, before we’re guided to the next space – and the next dance – downstairs.
When I return to the room later that night, the Polyphonic Voices chamber choir are singing Amazing Grace in the corner. The crowd is silent, the sopranos soaring, the skulls watching over all. The work itself was astounding enough, but with voices like these it is breathtaking...