The 2019 NGV Architecture Commission Is Revealed!

Art and architectural pavilions offer an immersive experience, and an opportunity for ideas and concepts to be communicated to audiences in unexpected and visceral ways. The potential of the pavilion is realised to the full extent in this collaboration between architects Edition Office and artist Yhonnie Scarce, who won the annual NGV Architecture Commission for 2019.

We chatted with Yhonnie and co-directors of Edition Office Kim Brigland and Aaron Roberts about their project ‘In Absence’ that celebrates country and culture, and highlights the fallacy of terra nullius – the myth that the land was ever empty.

Miriam McGarry

‘In Absence’ by Edition Office and Yhonnie Scarce. Photo – Ben Hosking.

Inside the chamber. Photo – Ben Hosking.

The pavilion is installed in the NGV gardens. Photo – Tom Ross.

Light catching on Yhonnie’s stunning glass yams. Photo – Ben Hosking.

Photo – Ben Hosking.

A monumental installation at the NGV. Photo – Tom Ross.

Architect Aaron Roberts (left), artist Yhonnie Scarce (centre) and architect Kim Brigland (right). Photo – Ben Hosking.

Photo – Ben Hosking.

Looking back to the NGV. Photo – Ben Hosking.

The impressive scale of the pavilion on full display! Photo – Ben Hosking.

Miriam McGarry
26th of November 2019

Architects Kim Brigland and Aaron Roberts, of multi-award-winning firm Edition Office (including recent winners at the TDF Design Awards!), explain that they’ve long been fans of the incredible artist Yhonnie Scarce. When the commission opportunity came up to create a temporary installation for the NGV’s Grollo Equiset Sculpture Gardens, they knew they had to find a way to work with the South Australian glass blower and sculptor!

Yhonnie is a Kokatha and Nukunu artist, renowned for her masterful contemporary glass blowing and sculpting. She creates dynamic installation works that question dominant narratives and bring new perspectives to Australian history and culture. After some initial emails, international skype sessions and sharing of resources, the architects and artist have created an arresting, immersive piece for the NGV. In Absence seeks to provide visitors with an understanding of indigenous construction, design, industry, and agriculture before European settlement – thousands of years of sustainable systems and ideas that have been largely erased from Australian education and history.

Research into eel traps (including the recent world heritage listed Budj Bim indigenous eel trap aquaculture network, which has been maintained over 6600 years), grain storage techniques, and the works of Bill Gammage and Bruce Pascoe helped to shape the concept for the pavilion. In particular, Yhonnie’s knowledge of smoking trees informed the design of the cracked timber monument.

The black-stained Tasmanian oak vertical cylinder is split into two chambers. Yhonnie’s glass-blown yams line the walls, with 1600 of the precise objects installed to creep upwards with increasing density towards the sky, capturing the light with a sense of shimmering movement. Yams are a powerful and recurring motif in Yhonnie’s work, and across her extensive career have represented Aboriginal bodies, the desecration of land, loss of bush food sources, and internal organs. For In Absence the specific meaning is not prescribed, but Yhonnie speaks about the enduring and continuing culture of harvesting traditional foods and the importance of sustaining traditional practices.

Yhonnie highlights the power of this pavilion in communicating the resilience of Australian Aboriginal people, and the environmental sustainability of Indigenous communities in land management across tens of thousands of years. This message is woven through all aspects of the design, including scent – the smell of a smoking tree in one chamber, and the bright new fragrance of eucalyptus in the another. Aaron explains how these two scents reflect the broader intention for the pavilion to communicate both ‘a deep history and a deep future’.

In Absence invites visitors to walk into what the architects describe as the ‘false emptiness’ of the chambers. The team hope that by engaging with the space, Yhonnie’s work, and a curated program of talks, people will leave understanding the long history of Australian Aboriginal agriculture, engineering and architecture, and the ongoing resilience, vibrancy and tenacity of culture.

In Absence will be on display in NGV’s Grollo Equiset Garden from November 2019. Entry is free. 

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