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Designs on the gallery: the NGV is changing the way you see art

Ingrid Ruhle
Photograph: Graham Denholm

When you walk into a major art exhibition, chances are you aren’t thinking much about the work that Ingrid Rhule does. Your focus is probably on the artworks, but without Rhule’s expertise and guidance, your experience of them would be wildly different, and nowhere near as entrancing.

Rhule is the head of the National Gallery of Victoria’s exhibition design department and is one of the unsung heroes of the gallery’s enormous success in recent years. The gallery is currently attracting around 2.5 million visitors each year, and while that’s largely due to the big names they’ve presented (Warhol, Weiwei, Van Gogh and Escher have all featured in recent years) people have come to expect NGV exhibitions to go that extra mile when it comes to design.

“We have an opportunity to immerse our visitors and to take them on a journey, and give them a moment that’s outside of their everyday lives,” Rhule says. “I think people look for those opportunities and those immersive spaces, and it doesn’t even matter if they’ve seen the artwork before.”

A new design outlook

In recent years, exhibitions like The House of Dior and Melbourne Now have transformed the gallery spaces, making them unrecognisable and adding a new dimension to the artistic experience. For The House of Dior, Rhule created a spectacular two-storey structure complete with a grand staircase, allowing visitors to view haute couture gowns from a range of perspectives.

Last summer, the NGV threw the focus on exhibition design in a joint exhibition between Dutch graphic artist MC Escher and Japanese design studio Nendo. Nendo created designed environments that were inspired by Escher’s work – using a repeated motif of a simple house structure that was just a few centimetres tall in some rooms and in others stretched several metres high – to create a new setting in which to experience his art.

“We use design to connect people to art, and sometimes we use art to connect people back through to design,” Rhule says.

Between Two Worlds: Escher x Nendo at NGV. Photograph: Sean Fennessy

“We consider the pacing of an exhibition and how a narrative unfolds, so it’s really important that we’re connecting in with that curatorial content and telling that story. We use tools like colour and light, and sometimes multimedia and sound. And we use all of those things in a space; sometimes they might be really subtle and understated, and sometimes they’re punchy and totally immerse you.”

It’s a rather natural occupation for somebody who was initially uncertain as to whether they should study interior design or fine arts. Rhule was drawn to the practical applications and problem-solving of design, but had always referenced art in her work. She says it was an enlightening and liberating moment when discovered that such a role as “exhibition designer” existed, and immediately set about forging a path to the role she currently has.

Choreographing a museum

Outside of major exhibitions, Rhule and her team are constantly considering and renewing the design of the gallery’s almost 20,000 square metres of space across its Federation Square and St Kilda Road galleries. They’re vastly different buildings and hold enviable collections of local and international art, but there are all sorts of considerations that need to be taken into account, including the fact that the St Kilda Road gallery, known as NGV International, doesn’t have particularly good access for bringing in large artworks.

On a smaller scale, Rhule has to consider very practical issues about how a visitor experiences the collection – both keeping them safe and keeping the artworks safe. But what Rhule finds inspiring is the creative challenge of solving problems and designing a fully integrated experience for visitors, leading them through a collection of extraordinary art, whether it’s in a traditional gallery space, or a monumental structure under the 16 metre-tall glass roof in Federation Court.

Xu Zhen 'Eternity-Buddha in Nirvana...' (2017) at the NGV Triennial. Photograph: John Gollings.

“How do we, as designers, choreograph the whole experience of somebody walking into this building from the waterwall, all the way across the ground floor, up to level one, up to the mezzanine to get a beautiful view across the court, up into our third floor contemporary art galleries, and back out into our garden? How do we choreograph every element and every inch of these spaces?”

Forging the ancient and contemporary

Rhule’s latest challenge is designing an environment for the NGV’s winter masterpiece exhibition, which combines the work of contemporary Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang with Chinese antiquities including eight Terracotta Warriors from the third century BCE.

The most obvious challenge is bringing together artworks separated by more than two millennia (although Guo-Qiang references Chinese history in his work), but Rhule describes the combination as “two exhibitions in one”.

“You encounter them in context of each other, but there are moments when it’s purely about the antiquities and moments when it’s purely about Cai Guo-Qiang’s work,” Rhule explains. “The journey or story ebbs and flows, and it moves you backwards and forwards in time.”

A centrepiece of Cai Guo-Qiang’s portion of the exhibition will be an installation made up of 10,000 suspended porcelain birds, as well as an epic painting created by exploding gunpowder on silk. Rhule is using unexpected colours and materials to bring the two sides of the exhibition together – there may even be a pop of bright pink in there, which actually reflects some of the colours present in terracotta.

Photograph courtesy NGV.

The other major challenge is capturing a sense of the massive human achievement that is the Terracotta Army. While the army has more than 8,000 warriors, the NGV is only able to show eight, alongside one of their chariots and other antiquities.

Rhule is creating a pavilion inside the gallery in which each of the warriors stands in their own case, reflective of the grid structure of the site where they were discovered in northwestern China. You’ll be able to get up close to the warriors from multiple angles, but mirrors standing behind them reflect and replicate the warriors. As you look across them, the effect is of infinite warriors through the space.

“The beautiful thing about us showing a collection of the warriors is that we get to focus on the stories and individuality of every one of those,” Rhule says. “By presenting them in this way, you’re able to home in and see them as works of art. You’re able to appreciate the individual facial features, the folds of the clothing and the unique carvings. They’re all unique.”

Terracotta Warriors & Cai-Guo Qiang are at NGV International May 24 to October 13.

Need more art in your life? Check out the best exhibitions in Melbourne this month.