STAGES – Photography through the pandemic: Monash Gallery of Art

Phuong Ngo

29 May - 29 Aug 2021

Photography through the pandemic

Monash Gallery of Art
29 May – 29 August 2021

In response to the social, environmental and economic impacts of the COVID-19 global pandemic on Australian artists and society at large, MGA has commissioned artists Jane Burton, Cherine Fahd, Isobel Knowles + Van Sowerwine, Phuong Ngo, and James Tylor to respond creatively with new bodies of work for the exhibition STAGES: photography through the pandemic.

Photographers image the spaces between us, whether physical or psychological, be it through portraits or landscapes, within the domestic sphere or the public realm. The significance of work and leisure routines and the liberty of everyday behaviours we take for granted is never better understood than when the right and ability to do them is taken away.

Our experience of a twenty-first century response, led by government, to this global pandemic is paradoxical. On the one hand we must work online and remain in the safe haven of home, while on the other hand this shields us from the real world scenario of a pandemic that is being mediated through the 24 hour news cycle. These circumstances of rapid change mark a paradigm shift in the way artists live and work.

As a strategic response to the impacts of the pandemic MGA drew upon our dynamic network of partner institutions, professional colleagues and friends within the Australian photography community and invited them to nominate artists for the STAGES commissions. This approach enabled us to swiftly connect our networks to reach artists whose practice responds strongly to the relevant themes. The STAGES commissions seeks to enable their practice in a time of economic pressure and to creatively reflect on our collective path through the pandemic phenomenon.

Curator: Anouska Phizacklea, Director Monash Gallery of Art

Commissioning Curatorium: Anouska Phizacklea, Director, Gareth Syvret, Associate Curator and Stella Loftus-Hills, Curator


Nominated by Shane Hulbert

Phuong Ngo is a Vietnamese-Australian artist living and working in Melbourne. Ngo was nominated by Shane Hulbert who commented that ‘[Ngo’s] practice is concerned with the interpretation of history, memory and place, and how it impacts individual and collective identity of the Vietnamese diaspora. Through archival processes rooted in a conceptual practice, he seeks to fi nd linkages between culture, politics and oral histories and historic events, which in turn dictate the materiality of his artistic output.’ (Hulbert, 2020)
Ngo’s response to the STAGES commission is one that sought to upend the status quo and to challenge how and to whom public funding is disseminated. He donated the commissioning fee to The IRL Infoshop, a collectively run, independent community space and information point for those in need. The IRL Infoshop used the funds to support struggling families to purchase food and essential goods during Melbourne’s lockdown. Ngo’s work speaks to an inequality that divided communities and the importance of supporting those most vulnerable.
‘We live in an ever-failing state of existence, the privatisation of racism (neo-liberalism) and the ever-growing divide between who is or isn’t deserving has always been a problem on a local, national and international scale. COVID-19 has only exposed this for what it is.’ (Ngo, 2020)
Ngo sought to ‘… capture moments that expose the depth of inequality towards these communities and to provide insights into under-represented parts of our society and make visible the activism currently taking place to support those left out.’ (Ngo, 2020)
Need is, as he says, universal.
The artist placed no restriction on how the donation would be used, asking only for receipts or documentation of receipts in return. Sixteen of these photographed receipts are displayed on the gallery wall, and each of the receipts sent to Ngo documenting how the funds were used have been printed, stacked and piled in chronological order by months and displayed in museological display cabinets. These stacks of prints chart the utilisation of funding provided by The IRL Infoshop to those in need from April 2020 to February 2021, which totalled over $90 000 during the period, making Ngo’s donation just a fraction of a percent of the total amount. In doing so, The IRL Infoshop provided aid to part of the community who were left out of the federal government’s social security net. This highlighted for Ngo, ‘how these failed systems expose inequality’. (Ngo, 2020)