The state of our art
What does ‘The National’ say about contemporary Australian art?
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It’s bold: an extensive account of contemporary Australian art across three instalments – 2017, 2019 and 2021 – in Sydney’s three leading arts institutions. Remarkably, the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) and Carriageworks are working together, rather than competing, making a big-budget commitment to claim contemporary art for Sydney. And in its scope, generosity and unexpected nuance, the 2017 iteration of The National: New Australian Art fulfils this grand ambition.
First, the backstory. Arguably, Sydney has long been the country’s leading centre of contemporary art, if measured by major institutions and undertakings: John Kaldor’s remarkable projects since the 1960s, the JW Power Bequest to the University of Sydney in the same decade, then the Biennale of Sydney since 1973, the opening of the MCA in 1991, flourishing commercial galleries since the 1980s, the establishment of the Sydney Contemporary art fair in 2013. The city’s artists often led the way: in the late 1970s, Australian artists and cultural workers agitated for greater numbers of locals (and women) in the Sydney Biennale, a campaign that led to the AGNSW establishing the Australian Perspecta series in 1981; by 1999 Perspecta encompassed multiple venues in an increasingly unwieldy festival format, and more or less collapsed under its own weight. The last Perspecta was literally a lifetime ago; Australian artists now inhabit a very different world, and, frankly, they deserve opportunities where they can think (and work) expansively.
The National aims, as the three institutions’ directors say in their catalogue foreword, to provide “a major focus on Australian art of our time”. For the record, it includes artists from every state and territory, nearly half are women, and 13 of 48 are Indigenous; many works are specially commissioned and artists are given ample space, support and respect. I think this project has found its time. Sydney’s art audiences – long accustomed to the Archibald Prize or Sculpture by the Sea – are ready for more demanding work, not bound by traditional genres and expectations. That’s the gamble. I’m betting the numbers will be enormous, and the organisers will certainly be watching the demographics closely – because it’s complicated, and some of the scaffolding creaks: how to get audiences to all three venues, to see the entire exhibition?
At the visible level, The National is knitted together by two key projects. This year, Alex Gawronski’s punctilious architectural interventions gesture to both the awkwardness of the inter-institutional project and the evident goodwill sustaining it. He has placed simulated fragments of each venue in the others – in the dainty domed lobby of the AGNSW, for instance, visitors walk under Carriageworks’ enormous iron girders. The National has also commissioned Agatha Gothe-Snape to connect all three iterations of the project. In 2017 she is showing works in every venue, and over the next four years she’ll make a film about Australian art, mentored by veteran producer John Maynard. The commission allows Gothe-Snape to consider how Australians today think about art, but her starting point is Robert Hughes and his closing sentences from the TV series The Shock of the New, made in 1980, the year Gothe-Snape was born. At the AGNSW, a magnificent wall text floats above the escalators; at Carriageworks she is heard reciting Hughes’ speech from memory.
If this sounds nuanced in a nerdy way, it’s also quietly poetic, though perhaps even a diversion of sorts. Each venue has risen to the occasion of The National, staging spectacular works that confront the deliberate provocation of the title. Archie Moore’s invented flags for Aboriginal nations command the huge entry hall at Carriageworks. In the AGNSW’s Central Court, a fabulous conjunction of works by Emily Floyd and the late Gordon Bennett implicitly claims the entire gallery as the potential site of subversive dialogue: Bennett via Margaret Preston’s tiny notations of Aboriginal designs, here reappropriated into large paintings, and Floyd via a sculptural installation that uses Kesh, Ursula Le Guin’s fictitious script for a matriarchal society, to cheerfully spell “female orgasm”. At the MCA, Khadim Ali, a Hazara artist now living in Sydney, has populated the entry staircase with a flock of demons at the site of the first landing, sitting and simply waiting. Aboriginal culture, women’s voices, the arrival of boat people: these are among the nation’s crucial issues in 2017. And in every case, nationalism is left at the door.
Yet each venue of The National has its specific focus. At the AGNSW, curators Anneke Jaspers and Wayne Tunnicliffe focus on social change in an exhibition that is simply beguiling. Why does the AGNSW look so good? It’s a lesson in the art of juxtaposition, excellent works marshalled with economy and trust. Each is given ample room to breathe. Just some instances: Tom Nicholson’s investigation of the looted Byzantine mosaic held by the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, opposite Khaled Sabsabi’s handpainted photographs of war damage in his native Lebanon; Berlin-based Alex Martinis Roe mining Sydney’s intertwined histories of activism, feminism and intellectual life, next to Nicholas Mangan’s lyrical exploration of the extraordinary stone currency of the Micronesian island of Yap. Not far away, Megan Cope evokes an Aboriginal shell midden with cast concrete shells, making a monument from her Quandamooka heritage for the present. Bougainville-born Taloi Havini’s magnificent three-channel video explores the abandoned Panguna mine, while next door Yhonnie Scarce, born in Woomera, remembers atomic bomb testing just adjacent to her people’s land with a beautiful floating glass cloud. This is a thoughtful looping circuit, each work speaking to many others.
At the MCA, the institution’s longstanding commitment to the work of mid-career Australian artists has manifested in a mini-survey of self-portraits by the irrepressible Ronnie van Hout (leading to many Ronnies jokes) and a magical immersive text work by Melbourne’s Rose Nolan; next door, in a sprightly room playing with materiality and formality, Stieg Persson’s witty, urbane paintings are paired with Elizabeth Pulie’s enchanting handcrafted hessian wall works and the physical poetry of Matthew Bradley’s modern alchemy. Less happily, Nell’s beautifully restrained installation sits alongside a punchy political wall painting by Queensland Aboriginal artist Gordon Hookey, a proximity that serves neither well. Elsewhere in the MCA, seek out Zanny Begg and Elise McLeod’s enchanting video work The City of Ladies, based on the feminine utopia imagined by Christine de Pizan in the 15th century. It was shot on location in Paris, where McLeod is based, one of several considered nods in The National to Australians living outside the nation’s borders.
The opening program explicitly recognised each host organisation’s different artistic DNA, as it is referred to in the catalogue. This was especially true at Carriageworks, which has multiple spaces and venues to stage events that museums can only dream about. If, like me, you were not present at the opening performances, what remains? Outsize installations, now the venue’s other signature: Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran’s exuberant multimedia ensemble, marrying neon with outsize ceramics, gives full rein to his pointed naughtiness. More subtly, the temporal nature of performance is registered in an ambitious polyvocal (to use Carriageworks curator Nina Miall’s adjective) exhibition that weaves together patterns and projects by a number of artists in the handsome space that was Anna Schwartz Gallery’s Sydney home. If this conversation is visually fragmented, that’s one consequence of opting to openly acknowledge how, after the event, performative work exists in scripts, proposal and props, or, in the case of Jess Johnson and Simon Ward’s playful five-channel animation, through moving image. More successfully, Justene Williams’ techno-Dada extravaganza A Metal Cry, performed just twice on the opening weekend, is represented by an ensemble of costumes, scenery and props, and a bank of TV monitors with footage evoking the manic joy of the original. And speaking of temporality, there’s much more, over the coming months: The National will roll out artists’ projects and performances, and public programs, throughout its run.
Back to the provocative title. The AGNSW’s Tunnicliffe was happy to “own” it and all it suggests, even if others were clearly troubled by the spectre of nationalism: What does it mean to speak today of the nation, and nationality? What does it mean, as the curatorial group asked in the introductory essay, to “make art from and for an Australian context”? These questions were answered with passion and insight by catalogue essayists Sunil Badami, Daniel Browning and Helen Hughes. Several persistent symptomatic uncertainties, however, floated through The National’s previews: Does Australia need a national group show? Is its contemporary art not sufficiently established in 2017? My answer: would we say the same of New York’s highly respected Whitney Biennial, now in its 78th instalment and this year the occasion for nationwide debates about race? Or are we condemned forever to being meek provincials, always taking a step back?
Sunil Badami’s concluding line best sums up the value of this intriguing, ungainly, indispensable exhibition: “The national is each of us. It’s all of us. Whatever that may be, whatever we make of it, whatever that makes us.” That’s right: upper or lower case, The National is food for thought, on occasion for great pleasure, the cause of ongoing speculation. It’s the state of our art.
The National: New Australian Art runs until 18 June at the MCA, until 25 June at Carriageworks and until 16 July at the AGNSW. See the-national.com.au and the institutions’ individual websites for more information.
Julie Ewington is an independent writer, curator and broadcaster, now living in Sydney.