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Making the impossible a reality: Escher X nendo at NGV

The unlikely pairing of the Dutch master of optical illusions and a maverick Japanese design studio will turn the gallery experience upside-down in this huge summer blockbuster, writes Maxim Boon.

There’s a scene in Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending 2010 film Inception which borrows from one of Dutch artist MC Escher’s most iconic works. Transported to a shared dreamscape, a con artist and his grifter apprentice find themselves endlessly climbing a set of Penrose stairs, most famously captured in Escher’s 1960 lithograph Klimmen En Dalen (Ascending And Descending). Cited in the film as a useful piece of “paradoxical architecture” for tricking a slumber-bound mark, it’s a piece of infinite engineering apparently only viable in the unconscious mind, entirely implausible in the waking world (at least not without a bit of Hollywood magic).

So, when the National Gallery of Victoria approached the creative mavericks at Japanese design house nendo about devising an immersive exhibition evoking similar Escher-inspired impossibilities, they too might have questioned if they weren’t, in fact, on the pointy end of a scam. Fortunately for Melbourne’s art lovers, visionary designer Oki Sato and his team not only took on the challenge but in the process achieved a fusion of the curatorial and artistic that (much like Escher’s art) looks set to take the gallery experience into a whole new dimension.

Escher X nendo: Between Two Worlds won’t be the first time the NGV has innovated past the standard “white cube” exhibition model. As senior curator of contemporary design and architecture Ewan McEoin explains, the gallery has established a proud pedigree of “revealing new ideas through curatorial truths.”

It’s also not the first time the gallery has explored uncharted perspectives on a body of work by counterpointing two seemingly unrelated artists, as was the case for 2016’s Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei showcase. However, this latest venture is pushing the envelope of this strategy in a way that is breaking new ground, not just for the NGV but also for showings of Escher’s work internationally.

“When the Gemeentemuseum in the Hague offered to loan us such a large collection of Escher's work [more than 160 pieces in total, dating from 1916 through to his final work produced in 1969], we looked at what had been done elsewhere around the world and found that most of the shows were very much a traditional hang and also almost always chronological,” McEoin says. “We quickly realised there was an opportunity to do something radical with the curation. But once nendo was suggested as being a good fit, because there’s quite a bit of common ground between the way they think and Escher’s practice, the discussion shifted from nendo merely designing a space to them creating a whole new body of work within that environment, both responding to and inspired by Escher.”

Founded by Sato in 2002, Tokyo-based collective nendo has developed a remarkably holistic approach to creative thinking, fusing architecture, graphics, engineering and industrial manufacturing in ways that blur the boundaries between art and design. One of the centrepiece installations of the NGV’s Triennial was nendo’s ’Manga Chairs’, a dazzling exploration of a humble furniture staple, refracted, exploded and reconfigured in 50 different ways. 

A similar push-pull between invention and restraint is also apparent in the Escher spaces. “A different design team might have come up with something corny or gimmicky that tried to exactly replicate Escher,” McEoin says. “Instead, [Sato] has brought the audience inside the mind of Escher in this beautifully subtle and surprising way that just unfolds in front of you.”

In place of the typical free-roaming gallery format, nendo has created a promenade-style experience, through which gallery-goers will travel in a single direction, discovering corridors and chambers shaped through optical illusions. Rather than riffing on Escher’s iconography, nendo has adopted its own motif – a simple house as a universal symbol for the built environment – offering a clear division between the exhibited artworks and the spaces they have inspired. “Like the ’Manga Chairs’, the way the house motif is developed shows this amazing capacity for subtle change, creating a kind of theatre of the object. It makes the experience far more compelling for the audience because it also articulates nendo's viewpoint as a designer, not just as a stenographer for Escher.”

If early 3D-renders of the exhibition are anything to go by, Escher X nendo is sure to be the most Instagrammable show of the summer, and while McEoin admits he personally is “the type of person who likes to live the world through [his] own eyes,” the power of social media is something the NGV sees as pivotal to its future. “The more people who see the show, the better. It should be as diverse as possible and as many people as possible. So if that means that part of the exhibition experience, for some, is about taking that perfect selfie, I think it's our responsibility to nurture it.”

First published 12 November 2018, for Time Out Melbourne.