Pond[er]: NGV Architecture Commission 2021

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National Gallery by Victoria’s current architectural commission – the sixth in a program that is now an annual event – is a rose-lined swimming pool with an adjacent garden bed of native wildflowers. A low ramp – also paved in rose – separates these elements. At the end of the pool, a large pink terrace is fitted out with a large pink bench from which you can contemplate the pink pool. The setting is the green space at the back of the gallery – the Grollo Equiset Garden, if I must give it the name of its corporate patron – which has various sculptures permanently installed among its trees, and the borders of fashionable perennials in gardens today. Pond[er] is somewhat awkwardly built around one of the garden’s key sculptures – Henry Moore Draped Seated Woman (1957-1958), rather transformed by its new but provisional framing.

The NGV’s press release suggests that the pink pool is “reminiscent of Australia’s inland salt lakes”. Having read this reference before seeing the installation, I wondered how the muddy salt mixture of the salt lakes would be recreated on site; I imagined a confrontational artificial ecology that mimicked the environmental conditions of inland Australia to produce a blooming pool of pink algae. How do you introduce such a stinky mess into an art gallery? I was a bit disappointed that Pond[er] turned out to be much more benign – a shallow pool in which children can play and visitors tired of the exhibition are invited to refresh their feet. His references may therefore seem more linked to childhood memories of municipal parks and their paddling pools than to the interior of Australia.

Materials used for installation are, where possible, intended for distribution and re-use by various community groups during de-installation.

Image: Derek Swalwell

Pink complicates these memories. It’s artificial, assertive, sweet. A color that architects hardly use. It reminds of Luis Barragán – the pink of Pond[er] appears to be the same pink Barragán used for the walls of his own home in Mexico City and the famous Cuadra San Cristóbal equestrian center, with its shallow pool in which horses can train. Barragán’s chromatic audacity can be seen in the work of other Mexican architects – notably Ricardo Legorreta – so much so that he has almost become a cliché of Mexican design. During my visit to Grollo Equiset Garden, a few purple jacaranda trees in full bloom rather underlined such an exotic reading. The innovation here is that in Pond[er]the pink is in the pool.

Barragán aside, on the one hand, pink seems to emphasize joyous innocence; but on the other hand, in its coherence and fullness of conception, it seems very “learned”. The playfulness evoked by Pond[er] is evident on social media, where the NGV’s feed features plenty of images of happy children frolicking in the pink glow. More to come as the summer progresses, no doubt. Given Melbourne’s temperate climate, these antics will likely cease by April and Pond[er]The city’s cheerful summer colors will begin to read quite poignantly as the city’s winter dullness approaches. Will the management regime tolerate drifts of decaying leaves from adjacent oak trees, or will the pond remain undisturbed? Either way, pink will be an energetic jolt in Melbourne’s gloomy winter mood. I can not wait !

For Paul Walker, “the audacity of pink, its sheer audacity” defines this year's winning collaboration.

For Paul Walker, “the audacity of pink, its sheer audacity” defines this year’s winning collaboration.

Image: Derek Swalwell

But pink isn’t just innocent. What exactly does Pond do?[er] to know? What should he know? I guess the PR references to inland salt lakes invite us to look at the project through an environmental lens, to recall Australia’s slow-burning water crisis. But I think that invitation will largely be missed – the pond just doesn’t look enough like a salt lake. Pink has various other contemporary connotations, mostly oscillating between feminine and feminist. “Think pink” may be the slogan currently used by an Australian breast cancer charity, but it probably originated in the “Think Pink” number from the 1957 film Funny Face (“Think pink! Think pink! When you shop for summer clothes / Think pink! Think pink! it belonged – pink as power, not as subordination. Contemporary feminist appropriations of pink seem to play with this. Perhaps this is what Pond[er] asks us to contemplate, even if it’s not quite what the designers had in mind.

Does any of this matter? I think so. What makes Pond different[er] of the average wading pool is 99 percent its tint. Sure, the native planting in the flowerbed is exquisite, the pond is more elegantly designed than its average municipal wading pool brethren, the bench details are Donald Judd-ish. But it’s the pink that takes your breath away. And I have no doubt that it was the boldness of pink, its sheer audacity, that earned Taylor Knights and James Carey the commission. It goes back to pink. What do you think?

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