‘My friends all said don’t move to Melbourne, everyone’s an artist’

In Rel Pham’s vivid, glowing installations, online and physical worlds collapse into one, just as our digital and real-life selves have increasingly merged.

“There is no logging off,” says the 32-year-old Melbourne-based artist, dressed in a purple hoodie, discussing our lives today. “All actions you do in the physical world are in response to the virtual, and vice-versa.”

Artist Rel Pham has created a new work for the upcoming Melbourne Now exhibition at NGV. He’s pictured with a prototype piece that is a very small part of a much larger piece.Credit:Penny Stephens

Pham will build a room-size artwork called TEMPLE at the Ian Potter Centre as part of the second edition of the National Gallery of Victoria’s massive Melbourne Now exhibition. Opening in March 2023, it will showcase more than 200 works by Victorian artists.

TEMPLE will be roomy enough for several visitors to enter at one time, the interactive floor lighting responding to their footsteps, the walls comprising some 850 of the fans used by gamers to cool their computer towers.

At the artwork’s centre will sit a bagua: eight symbols used in Taoist cosmology espousing principles of reality.

The artist’s hyper-saturated colour palette is influenced partly by his interest in gaming culture, but also by the Vietnamese religious movement of Caodaism, “essentially a fusion of Buddhism and Christianity”, and dragon-style motifs seen in Melbourne’s Chinatown.

Rel Pham TEMPLE 2022 digital render. © Rel PhamCredit:Courtesy of artst

Pham was born in Sydney to an Australian-born mother and a Vietnamese-born father who left his homeland during the Vietnam War at the age of three and was raised in Paris.

As a younger artist, Pham made murals and street art under the name TERHOR, before moving to Melbourne five years ago. “My friends all said: don’t move to Melbourne, everyone’s an artist; it will be rougher.”

What does his family make of recent works such as TEMPLE? “It’s funny, my dad doesn’t really understand it: his idea of artworks is paintings and objects that get sold in galleries,” says Pham.

“He likes it though; he finds it interesting. My mum likes it as well. They’re happy now – and this sounds awful – that there’s money coming in, to a degree, some kind of institutional success,” he laughs.

Rel Pham pictured with prototype pieces for his upcoming Melbourne Now artwork, TEMPLE.Credit:Penny Stephens

Pham is optimistic meanwhile about how digital realities will play out in our physical lives – with some caveats.

“We’re going to learn how to use [online] as a force for good – we’re still very much in the dark ages with it,” he says.

“We’re going to slowly learn how to exist alongside it, or how we exist in both realities, and that’s going to affect how we use it. For now, it’s very chaotic, it depends on which stone you turn.”

Pham says the recent discourse over the sale of digital art through NFT (non-fungible tokens) has demonstrated the bleed of the virtual into our physical lives, specifically the realisation of the energy and environmental impact required for blockchain technology to transmit the artworks.

Pham increasingly meets people “overwhelmed” by the time they spend on social media. He says while art cannot be made as quickly as an internet meme, posting on social media can sometimes create an illusion of having acted on a political or social issue.

“With Twitter, Instagram and so on, it’s always a one-way channel, with a feedback box. It’s not conversational. Everyone is fitting it into word limits, so we’re getting these tiny droplets of communication and connection.

“There’s so much negative space – if you’re trying to figure out what someone is thinking, you don’t know, and in that vacuum, you can put every possibility. As that becomes more the cultural norm, we do less physical action.”

Melbourne Now, first staged in 2013, will include 62 premiere works, and will range across emerging, mid-career and senior artists. National Gallery of Victoria director Tony Ellwood promises the exhibition will be a “showstopping and dynamic survey”.

Welcoming visitors to the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia at Federation Square will be Lee Darroch’s 10-metre-long installation Duta Ganha Woka (Save Mother Earth), comprising driftwood pieces representing men and women from 38 Indigenous language groups of Victoria. Larrakia/Wardaman/Karajarri artist Jenna Lee’s Balarr (To Become Light) will illuminate the gallery with hand-painted paper lanterns in the shape of dilly bags.

Lou Hubbard’s Walking with Dinosaurs, 2021-23, will place a mass of inflatable walking frames in the third-floor foyer, while Troy Emery’s largest soft sculptural work to date will stand over three metres high, “a feline-like animal perched on a mountain top”.

Melbourne Now runs from March 24 to August 20, 2023.

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