The Na­tional

The Monthly (Australia) - - NEWS - Julie Ewing­ton

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 GotheS­nape 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’ tech­noDada 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-na­ and the in­sti­tu­tions’ in­di­vid­ual web­sites for more in­for­ma­tion.

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