March 31, 2021


Held in common: ‘The National’ at the MCA

By Erin McFadyen

Antara by Betty Kuntiwa Pumani. © The artist, Mimili Maku and Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne 2021

Foregrounding women’s practice, this exhibition of contemporary Australian art proposes a poetics of inclusion

The Museum of Contemporary Art Australia’s preparation for The National 2021, led by curator Rachel Kent, was marked by a birth and a death. Mulkun Wirrpanda, a Yolngu woman from Yirrkala, in north-east Arnhem Land, whom Kent describes as “an extraordinary artist”, had, at the time of our conversation in late February, recently passed away. “Mrs W”, as Kent calls her, leaves with us her contribution to a collaborative work made with painter and printmaker John Wolseley. “John has been travelling to Arnhem Land and spending time with her for many years – Mrs W had adopted him as her brother, so they had a familial, adoptive relationship as well,” Kent says. She explains that their work is created in a process that is dialogic, but not quite dialectic: theirs is a relationship of intellectual expansion, sharing of knowledges across traditions and cultures, rather than one in which some singular correct answer might be sought, or insisted upon.

Occurring alongside this death, though, was the birth of artist Mehwish Iqbal’s child. There is something sorrowfully apt about this shrouding of the exhibit in real-life endings and renewals. Kent points out that cyclical conceptions of time, intergenerational knowledge-sharing and matrilineal inheritances are key themes of the exhibition, and here they find their expression not just in the works, but in the very process through which the show has come into being.

It’s not necessarily a given that key themes should emerge at all in the MCA’s portion of The National – particularly in light of its positioning as a show that foregrounds women’s practice. Certainly, in this past year, we have seen a number of shows the full organising aim of which has been to exhibit art by women: the National Gallery of Australia’s Know My Name, but also many smaller shows across both commercial and community-led spaces. In light of these, how can we insist, as The National does, that a show encompassing (predominantly) the work of women artists is necessarily organised by shared concerns, without proposing a reductive – or worse, essentialist – understanding of what women are, or what our art could be? What can we reach for, beyond a plain politics of inclusion, that wouldn’t lead us back interminably to the same familiar stories of ourselves?

Kent has had long relationships – “some since the very start of my career, a few decades ago” – with the exhibiting artists. Perhaps these long relationships – and the way she tells stories of the artists’ practices, lives and attachments to each other – underpin Kent’s tactics of evasion, helping her to duck under and weave around essentialism in her issues-driven exploration of women’s practice. That is, she is attentive to the common concerns that women artists in Australia actually do have, and have had; she thinks historically, and begins with the most delicate, open-ended particulars, resistant as these are to the violences of totalisation and prescription.

One such long relationship has been with Lauren Berkowitz, whose installation in the show, Plastic Topographies, is created from an act of salvation. Berkowitz takes plastic waste matter and makes from it installations that flicker between high artifice and the appearance of a natural growth. These are troubling, and delicious, because they look both natural and supernatural at once. Are Berkowitz’s structures bioluminescent, or just putting on a sinister kitsch performance of colour? “I’ve worked with Lauren on and off for over 20 years,” says Kent. “Lauren is someone who works often with the organic matter of the planet, but also with detritus, the discarded and the things we throw away. There is a transformation of materials, as well as the idea of recuperation. Lauren has been trying to clean up, and also to redress imbalance, to create a sense of healing.”

This concern with ecological cycles – spiralling out of balance in our Anthropocene, as Berkowitz sees them – also underpins the show’s works by Wolseley and Wirrpanda. Thinking together but differently, in a kind of non-diatonic harmony, Wolseley and Wirrpanda explore what Kent calls the “new social communities” of termites who live in concert with other species in Arnhem Land. Wirrpanda’s Pardalotes paintings are flushed with movement, and thick with glossy linework articulating the animals’ wings. There is a deep animal intelligence acknowledged in the way that clusters of these termites sweep across the fields of the paintings, as well as an interest in cyclical rhythms of consumption and production in the world beyond the human, and beyond systems of capital. Kent extrapolates: Wirrpanda was “looking at the termites of north-east Arnhem Land, where you have all kinds of different communities cohabitating. You have termites, carnivorous ants, many different bird species, some of which nest their eggs within the termite mounds.”

This image of the egg laid in the home of another creature figures the exchange of knowledge – frequently, matrilineal – that Kent traces in the show: between Wirrpanda and Wolseley, but also between featured artist Betty Kuntiwa Pumani and her mother and grandmother, through whom an aesthetic tradition has been passed down. This pedagogical figuration rings clear not only through the lives of the artists, but through the MCA’s institutional history; as director Liz Ann MacGregor prepares to leave the museum after 22 years, the legacy of women’s contributions to the arts in Australia is a fitting, and bittersweet, line of inquiry for the show.

The egg and termite mound might also figure, though, the affective stance that the show takes toward the question of women’s contributions to the arts – or, perhaps, the more fraught question of “women’s art” as such. In the mound, there is a sense of the heaviness of what we have built for ourselves and all its shortcomings, from prescriptivism and essentialism to the enduring regimes of exclusion that leave women under-represented and under-regarded – even now, after all these “women’s art” shows. Surely, however, in the figure of the egg, there is also some orientation toward the future, in hope and humility. In the scene of interspecies encounter, there is a genuflection to difference; to its importance, to its necessity. There is also a gesture toward interdependence – or to what the writer Maggie Nelson calls “the pleasures of ordinary devotion”.

Nelson is on my mind when I think about this show because my book club – another site of knowledge-sharing among mostly, but not exclusively, women –  just read The Argonauts. Before that, we read Ellena Savage’s Blueberries, in which Savage wonders, “what good is it to be a woman except to resist the universal that denies us specificity (as does the category ‘woman’), to occupy a position as a female person in solidarity with other women?” To me, Kent’s approach to The National wonders the same thing, and, in full knowledge of the difficulties of its project, aims not at a politics, but a poetics of inclusion. This “poetics” suggests a form, or a structure, as well as an interest in the repeated and the held-in-common, which nevertheless remains attentive to different particulars/particular differences. It also suggests a plurality: an opening out of what women’s art can be about, and whom (among, and also beyond, us humans) it can call into itself, dialogically, if not dialectically.

Erin McFadyen

Erin McFadyen is a writer, editor and teacher based on Gadigal land.

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