Rel Pham TEMPLE: ‘Now’ at Melbourne
Joshua Yong reporting from NGV Australia, 13 July 2023
Ian Potter Center: NGV Australia
24 March - 20 August 2023
NGV Australia's survey exhibition Melbourne Now is an extraordinary showcase of more than 200 artworks of Victorian-based artists, designers, studios and firms. The free exhibition is currently being shown at the National Gallery of Victoria at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia. In its second edition, Melbourne Now displays an ambitious and thought-provoking exhibition that provides viewers of all ages with an awe-inspiring experience as they roam endlessly. The exhibition is housed on all three levels of the NGV and is the perfect example of Melbourne’s current art landscape: “a showstopping and dynamic survey of work” as NGV Director Tony Ellwood describes.
One work in particular stands out from the crowd, and should be given the utmost attention. TEMPLE, created by 32-year-old Australian-Asian artist Rel Pham is one of 70 works that has been specifically commissioned by the NGV to be debuted at the Ian Potter Centre. It is an enormous room-sized installation that has been constructed using thousands of colourful computer fans. TEMPLE is a continuation of the previous work named Electric Dirge, 2021, another similar digital work that was commissioned by 4A Centre for Contemporary Art in Sydney.
Rel Pham is a multidisciplinary artist whose work is based on technology and the digital world. Originally born in Sydney, the artist currently resides in Melbourne. He explores themes of digital reality, and the manner in which the digital realm interconnects with the physical world, through mediums such as screen-based video, animation and installation. A central idea that informs his practice is how the world would operate without the internet. As a child of the 90's Pham is part of that generation that experienced the world prior to the ubiquitous presence of instant, accessible wi-fi. Overall, Pham’s work intends to expose the mysterious and secret nature of social media, questioning the concept of being ‘intrinsically connected online’ in our world today.
His mixed Australian and Vietnamese heritage makes this work even more multifaceted and significant. The vibrant atmosphere of TEMPLE is directly influenced by Pham’s interest in gaming culture, his religious background in Caodaism,a monotheistic syncretic religion that retains many elements from Vietnamese folk religion such as ancestor worship, and ancient motifs of dragons that surround Chinatown in Melbourne. The shrine-like appearance of the temple also stems from Pham’s particular curiosity regarding traditional Cao Dai temples and Western classical art. Thus, the artist’s beliefs in Caodaism, a blend of Buddhism and Christianity acts as the fine blueprint of what he calls the central piece of the artwork, the Bagua - the set of eight symbols used in Taoist cosmology epitomising the fundamental principles of reality. Surrounding the Bagua are four towering walls of approximately 800+ interactive, flickering computer fans, creating a cyberpunk and vivid technological world that responds to the footsteps of several visitors that fill the floor space.
TEMPLE is an immersive and dynamic installation that is filled with historical and technological meaning. TEMPLE is a virtual manifestation that seeks to blur the boundaries between the physical world and the digital age we live in where technology dominates. The temple itself aims to explain the complicated yet explicit connection between humans and digital technology. It is a social commentary on how real life and what the young generation call ‘IRL’, AKA In Real Life has merged with the online. As Pham explains, “all actions you do in the physical world are in response to the virtual, and vice-versa.”
Rel Pham’s TEMPLE gives the audience an immersive experience unlike any other artwork found in Melbourne Now. There are many elements that contribute to this installation that makes it so unique. Upon entering the space, one is immediately hit with an array of neon colour. Journeying through the archway of TEMPLE, unsettling and stimulating sounds excite the viewer to move further inside and explore the installation ‘in the round’. Custom font design and Asian writing is found on all surfaces of the four archways situated parallel to each other. I found myself transported into a futuristic and dystopian-like world whilst absorbing everything that I was seeing in front of my eyes.
TEMPLE provides an interesting perspective on Australian Asian art with a focused lens on an artist who has Vietnamese and Australian heritage. The artwork aims to possibly answer several questions and issues the world holds against technology, and the confusion it poses. The artist explains how technology will slowly become part of society, as humans “learn how to exist alongside it”, despite the uncertainty it still has for many people. It is an artwork that has brought together technology, design, classical Asian architecture and religious iconography, whilst simultaneously creating many different conversations surrounding it from all corners of the room. Is technology and social media becoming the new norm in the art world?
Computer fans, lighting
Installation view: Melbourne Now, NGV Australia
Photo by Joshua Yong, 2023