It’s 9pm on a Saturday, and the gallery attendant watching over Ron Mueck’s Mass is looking slightly panicked. Swarms of people are pouring into the small room and elbows are going everywhere.

Mass – the Australian sculptor’s largest work to date – is the stunning centrepiece of the National Gallery of Victoria’s inaugural art and design Triennial, at which 100 oversized human skulls tumble from the ceiling to the floor. Placed among the gallery’s permanent collection – 18th century oil paintings of rich white nobility, posing and picnicking as was their wont – the sculptures bring to mind the stacked skulls of the Catacombs or Cambodia’s killing fields; they force us to confront our own mortality, our shared histories of genocide, the universal and undeniable bigness of death itself.

When the work opened in December, the public’s proximity to it was rigorously policed. These enormous skulls are placed precariously atop one another, an attendant explained; a misplaced limb could send them scattering like an unfathomably expensive game of Jenga. A woman’s tote bag flirted with the edge of a skull and the attendant rushed forward, hissing: “Step back!”

But a month later, it’s the opening weekend of Triennial Extra: a free festival that takes over the exhibition for 10 nights of performance art, poetry readings, talks and parties. The hundred or so people cramming into the space are less hushed, more chatty, stepping closer than they probably should.

They’ve been led there by choreographer and dancer Thomas ES Kelly, of acclaimed contemporary dance group Chunky Move. The collective are premiering five new solo works inspired by the exhibition, inviting hoards of people to chase dancers through the galleries all night. Read more