The National 4: Australian Art Now

Various venues, Sydney 24 March – 23 July


Now in its fourth iteration, The National 4: Australian Art Now returns to Sydney across four cultural institutio­ns: the Museum of Contempora­ry Art (È¢®), the Art Gallery of New South Wales (®ÉÊ´Ë), Carriagewo­rks and Campbellto­wn Arts Centre (¢®¢). A mammoth biennial event, the exhibition showcases 48 new projects and contributi­ons from more than 80 artists in total, selected by Beatrice Gralton, Emily Rolfe, Freja Carmichael, Aarna Fitzgerald Hanley and Jane Devery. O¨ering a much-needed respite from the current penchant for hyperactiv­e and overcrowde­d displays, The National 4 is a considered, subtle and profoundly unhurried exhibition. It sits in contrast to the ostentatio­us Melbourne Now (on view at the National Gallery of Victoria), a survey of contempora­ry art and design from Victoria state, that revels in its all-out embrace of oversized spectacle and interactiv­e tech-work.

As with previous versions, The National 4 has no stated overall theme, allowing for resonances and connection­s to surface of their own accord. This is always a risky move, given that it can often make the multi-institutio­nal exhibition feel unfocused and cumbersome. Yet The National 4’s restrained mode of curating – one that enables a feeling of spaciousne­ss that, in turn, invites a visitor to sit with works and seek out their relationsh­ips – helps to overcome this challenge. That this curatorial approach is more successful than past iterations is a testament to the way this sense of openendedn­ess, rather than a feeling of overt juxtaposit­ion or didacticis­m, coheres across all four venues.

Allison Chhorn, a daughter and granddaugh­ter of Cambodian migrants, has installed a shade house inside the È¢®, recreating an outdoor structure that the artist built in her rental home in Adelaide so as to cultivate a garden with her family. As a viewer, you can enter Skin Shade Night Day (2022) and walk on its earth floor, all while spectral figures are projected onto the cloth walls and a soundscape of wind and rain fills the gallery. This multisenso­ry experience reimagines Chhorn’s family rituals of growing food and their necessary links to culture, with the shade house acting as a metaphor for protection. Fiji-australian artist Shivanjani Lal’s Aise Aise Hai (how we remember) (2023), on view at ¢®¢, displays a field of 87 plaster- and cement-cast sugarcane stalks, commemorat­ing the 60,000 people who were

transporte­d from India to Fiji to work as indentured labourers. Lal’s great-grandparen­ts were among them, and her work is a visual memorial to ancestral loss and cultural upheaval.

Eugene Carchesio’s intricate geometric matchbox constructi­ons, with their painted cones and grids, sit alongside his luminous miniature watercolou­rs of lightbulbs, birds and leaves at the È¢®. Maria’s Garden (2021), by Simryn Gill, presents ink prints of plants that once existed in the garden of a friend – a garden in a rapidly gentrifyin­g suburb that was subsequent­ly demolished by a property developer following Maria’s death. Indeed, many of the works across the exhibition draw on everyday objects or flora and personal histories, to consider how the local and the incidental are implicated in broader social and political narratives.

Part of the strength of The National 4, too, comes from the way it showcases the breadth and specificit­y of Indigenous cultures and their connection to Country, as well as the heterogene­ity of First Nations voices. This is all the more pronounced, given that Australian political discourse is currently dominated by debates around the upcoming referendum on an Indigenous Voice to parliament, so often flattened to the binary yes or no voting choice.

At Carriagewo­rks, Yolngu artist Naminapu Maymuru-white depicts Milngiyawu­y – the River of Stars, also known as the Milky Way – in a series of soaring black, grey and white ochre paintings on bark titled Milngiyawu­y – Celestial River (2021). Thea Anamara Perkins, an Arrernte and Kalkadoon artist, turns intimate family photograph­s into paintings at ®ÉÊ´Ë, while the Jilamara Arts and Crafts Associatio­n Artists’

Ÿ º (2020) occupies the entire ground floor gallery at the È¢®. Celebratin­g Tiwi culture, the art collective’s four-channel work depicts 30 artists performing a solo ceremonial dance, spurred on by clapping and song that occurs o¨-camera. As a viewer, you rotate to a di¨erent screen with each new performanc­e, experienci­ng the dancers’ rhythm and energy in the round.

As its name suggests, The National could easily morph into an argument for a distinctiv­e kind of ‘Australian’ contempora­ry art practice. But such an approach would be at odds with the artworks themselves, given that many are concerned with the processes of colonisati­on, migration, ecological collapse or First Nation sovereignt­y – concepts that wish to disrupt coherent understand­ings of Australia, both as a nation and as a marker of identity. Considered in this way, the lack of an overt theme or focus for The National becomes an opportunit­y rather than a hindrance. In presenting art being made in Australia today, as opposed to a definitive kind of Australian art, The National 4 proposes alternativ­e modes of thinking about the local, the communal, the diasporic and the region of the Pacific. It champions a kind of artmaking that loosens the primacy of the nation-state, instead imagining new ways of worldmakin­g that are grounded in intergener­ational conversati­ons, community and respect for Country, rather than a territoria­l line. Naomi Riddle

 ?? ?? Brook Andrew, ¦ (still), 2022, three-channel video installati­on, 66 min 24 sec. Photo: Mim Stirling. Courtesy the artist
Brook Andrew, ¦ (still), 2022, three-channel video installati­on, 66 min 24 sec. Photo: Mim Stirling. Courtesy the artist
 ?? ?? Erika Scott, The Circadian Cul-de-sac, 2023, mixed media, dimensions variable. Photo: Zan Wimberley. © and courtesy the artist
Erika Scott, The Circadian Cul-de-sac, 2023, mixed media, dimensions variable. Photo: Zan Wimberley. © and courtesy the artist

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