Exhibition review: Deep inside my heart, NGA

The NGA's collection show has oomph and demonstrates the importance of collecting lineages.
Deep inside my heart. Image is a bronze figure bending right over from the waist and holding their feet. There are beads all around their feet. Elsewhere in the gallery space are plinths with sculptures on them and art works on the walls.

Often collection shows get overlooked, especially at this time of the year, which is heavily populated with major summer exhibitions and buy-in blockbusters. The National Gallery of Australia’s (NGA) recently opened Deep inside my heart is a great example, however, of using this timing to remind punters why institutions collect, and the oomph that those holdings can have for viewing audiences.

Deep inside my heart pulls together a group of new acquisitions into the NGA Collection since 2019 – all by major internationally celebrated female artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. It is a staggering line-up: Louise Bourgeois, Nancy Spero, Ana Mendieta, Lynda Benglis, Kiki Smith, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, I Gusti Ayu Kadek Murniasih – and joining them, with a suite of six incredible sculptures, is the late Australian artist, Bronwyn Oliver.

Read: Exhibition review: Louise Bourgeois, Art Gallery of New South Wales

While acquisition and programming budgets are separated at our state and national institutions, this exhibition demonstrates the value of long-tail engaged relationships with artists and how they can feed into stellar programming. After all, this is how Benglis’ rare floor sculpture, Untitled (Polly’s pie II) (1968) came to be here in Australia.

Curator of the exhibition Lucina Ward explains to ArtsHub: ‘The Gallery has a relationship with Lynda Benglis that goes back to the 70s. We were thrilled that she wanted to gift this work, and part of the reason was because of our really early acquisitions – Hotel (1974) and Roberta (1974) – which were acquired before she came to world renown, as she is now.’ These earlier acquisitions are included as anchors to this exhibition.

What is extraordinary about Untitled (Polly’s pie II) is that it is one of Benglis’ few remaining works made from pigmented polyurethane foam, having survived for more than 50 years. It is the oldest of the acquisitions on display, and is a great example of her ‘fallen paintings’, which are void of a canvas or painting stretcher.

Exhibition Review National Gallery Australia
Installation view ‘Deep inside my heart’, National Gallery of Australia 2023. Front: Lynda Benglis; L-R rear: I Gusti Ayu Kadek Murniasih, Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin. Photo: ArtsHub.

‘She’s got this fabulous approach to materials, which is so grunge, but she’s also making a bit of a dig at the machismo of the New York School and the austerity of minimalism,’ says Ward. Her subtle references to the body are echoed all around the Gallery, in particular in the newest work acquired, Sarah Lucas’ TITTIPUSSIDAD (2018), which was purchased off the back of her 2022 NGA exhibition, Project 1: Sarah Lucas.

The dropping breasts and flowing limbs of Lucas’ figure on a chair have a sensual visual connection with Benglis’ pooled polyurethane mass, and Do not abandon me, the collaborative suite of drawings by Tracey Emin and Louise Bourgeois, which dominate the end wall of the gallery. Presented as a random salon hang of 16 digital prints on fabric, the latter collaboration was acquired by the National Gallery in 2020.

Bourgeois suffered terrible insomnia in her later years and produced vast numbers of small watercolours with a diaristic verve. ‘There’s obviously a fantastic connection between the two artists’ works – the impact of motherhood, the impact of the lack of motherhood, the impact of sleep or no sleep, the writing of voiceless voyeurism, the confessional. So Bourgeois sent Emin a selection of her watercolours, saying, “Do whatever you want.” Emin was terrified for an amount of time … but just kind of graffitied them with a whole lot of little figures. And what’s so terribly interesting is, it’s actually kind of difficult to tell it’s two hands,’ explains Ward.

Bourgeois is currently featured in a major exhibition that opened the same week at the Art Gallery of NSW, while Emin will be in Australia for the NGV Triennial (opening 3 December) and gave a talk this past weekend on working with Bourgeois.

While these artists are “hot property” at the moment, overwhelmingly the star of this exhibition, however, is a cluster of new acquisitions by Kiki Smith that bounce around the gallery – from a trio of massive tapestries, Sky, Earth and Underground (2012, woven by Magnolia Editions), to two large collaged lithographs from 2005/7 and to the sculptural installation, Untitled III (Upside-Down Body with Beads)(1993).

The beads swirl around an androgynous figure like DNA threads, their starry sparkle in contrast to the metallic cast bronze figure, which folds in on itself. The rough seams of the casting process are left raw. It is a stunning piece, and no doubt will be a favourite for social media fans.

Further celebrating women sculptors is an extraordinary group of six early works by the late Bronwyn Oliver that sit central to the Gallery. Also fragile for their materiality, they predate her more recognised metal works (of which the Gallery holds four in the Collection). These new pieces are from the mid and late 80s when Oliver was working in London, and very much influenced by the New British Sculpture movement. Acquisitions such as these not only tap some of the gaps in the Collection, but Ward says also ‘insist on that idea of female lineages’.

Apart from Lucas, all of these new works refer to a key period of the 1980s when representations of the body were used to assert politics, gender and identity. By adding Lucas, and pulling these acquisitions into the Know My Name project, they are just as rigorously political today.

Read: Your 2023-2024 summer exhibition planner

Overall, this is a very tightly curated show and the longer one spends with it, the more those bodily connections can be seen across a broad sweep of mediums and styles. On a side note, the lighting in this show – especially given its diverse materiality – is worth mentioning. We have all been patient as long overdue building works have been completed at the Gallery, closing spaces over this past year. This exhibition is a great example of the outcome. The new lighting system allows the lux levels for this mash of materials – from sensitive polyurethane foam, to textiles, works on paper, glass beads and sculpture – to be adjusted appropriately for each work without compromising the overall show. It may read like a small thing, but the visitor experience (not to mention the conservation impact) is huge.

Definitely an exhibition for your summer viewing calendar.

Deep inside my heart
Curator: Dr Lucina Ward, Senior Curator, International Art
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
25 November 2023 – 19 May 2024; Free

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina