This year’s National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) Architectural Commission was inspired by that notion. Called (This is) Air, it resembles a massive balloon, standing 14 metres high when fully inflated. It will inflate and deflate over the course of a day, appearing to breathe, and was devised by Melbourne-born, Perth-based architect Nic Brunsdon.
“We wanted something that had a universality to it but still spoke very specifically of things we all experience as humans,” Brunsdon says. “This was conceived a year ago now, we were all emerging from the backend of COVID and we wanted to try and say something about that period of time without being obvious about it.”
A big focus of COVID was the air that we breathe, so he wanted to make something that riffed on that concept. While highlighting the importance of air in sustaining life, it raises ideas about the quality of the air, given not all air is equal, the power of the invisible and, aesthetically, it conjures ideas of playfulness and childhood.
Made from a fully recyclable synthetic PVC, the work will be created in conjunction with St Kilda-based art installation studio .
“It’s got this breathing cadence to it. You get these moments with it being a big, bold, fully realised self as a sphere, and then you have these more cloudy, dreamlike forms as it starts to exhale,” Brunsdon says.
“We wanted it to be a universal white, so it wears the countenance of the day or the weather or the season or the moment: that is reflected in it. If it’s a bright sunset, it picks up those colours, as it will if it’s a gloomy day. It’s always morphing.”
Each summer for the past seven years, the gallery has invited submissions for a massive pop-up to occupy its backyard. Called the Architectural Commission, it’s an opportunity for Australian architects and designers to create a design for the NGV Garden at NGV International.
Currently in place is Adam Newman and Kelvin Tsang’s Temple of Boom, which references ancient Greece and the street art of Melbourne’s laneways. In 2021, there was Taylor Knights + James Carey’s pond(er), a bright pink pool, referencing our infatuation with water, and before that Yhonnie Scarce and the Edition Office’s In Absence, a First Nations piece about memory.
Having grown up in Melbourne, Brunsdon is fond of the image of the piece on a grey old wintry day. His eponymous architectural firm recently completed work for the Art Gallery of Western Australia.
Describing his approach to the work, the architect refers to a quote by American novelist David Foster Wallace, about two fish swimming along when they encounter an older fish swimming in the other direction who asks ‘How’s the water?’
They continue swimming for a moment then one turns to the other and asks ‘What’s water?’
This year, 10 Australian practices were invited to submit design concepts that responded to the commission brief while considering the NGV Triennial themes of Magic, Memory and Matter.
Assessing submissions were Vivian Mitsogianni, dean of the School of Architecture & Urban Design at RMIT; Aaron Roberts, founding director of Edition Office; Amy Muir, director, MUIR; Grace Mortlock, director, Other Architects; and Donna McColm, assistant director, curatorial and audience engagement, NGV, as jury chair.
(This is) Air will be installed at the NGV International in early December. “The idea was how do we make this invisible thing seen and felt and kinetic and haptic, that was what we thought the magic was,” Brunsdon says. “There’s this thing we spend our lives swimming through and interacting with completely subconsciously.”
The Booklist is a weekly newsletter for book lovers from books editor Jason Steger..