In Giambattista Tiepolo’s The Banquet of Cleopatra (1743–44) – a jewel in the NGV’s collection of eighteenth-century art – a dining table shows the Egyptian queen Cleopatra facing the Roman consul Mark Antony, her hand elegantly clasping a pearl earring that she is about to drop into a flute glass filled with vinegar, which she will subsequently drink. In doing so, the sheer value of the pearl will make Cleopatra the winner of a wager as to which of the two could stage the most extravagant feast.
This fable of ostentation and one-upmanship acts as a fitting symbol of the NGV Triennial, a survey exhibition of international contemporary art, design, and architecture hosted by the National Gallery of Victoria and inaugurated in 2017. The 2020 iteration outdoes its predecessor in its flourishes and opulence. Structured by four themes – illumination, reflection, conservation, and speculation – the Triennial features eighty-six projects by more than one hundred artists, designers, and collectives from more than thirty countries, and like the prized Tiepolo, displays similar grandiloquence.