The National is an ambitious undertaking; Sydney’s ‘big three’ art agencies committing to a biennial series (2017, 2019, 2021) of collaborative ventures with the intent of providing a major focus on Australian art of our time.
First the name, ‘The National’. Gloves off first round – because everyone knows that laying claims to being national is contentious. We all know that Australia, let alone something called ‘Australian contemporary art’ can’t be represented by around 50 artists. Give the usual curatorial biases, let alone the trade-offs resulting from the three curatorial teams that produced this project, it would seem unlikely that any coherent overview of what’s going down across this wide brown land could be achieved. But no such claims have been made. It suggests that rather than confirm generally held assumptions about ‘Australia’ as a social entity, the works are engaged with the frameworks by which ideas about nationhood are formulated and sustained. In this process a number of these frameworks, according to the curators, are destabilised and contested.
Taloi Havini, Habitat, (2017), multi-channel digital video, high definition, colour, surround sound, 10:40 minutes, Courtesy the artist, Sydney and Andrew Baker Art Dealer, Brisbane, © Taloi Havini
To misquote history, when I encounter overuse of such phrases as ‘destabilise’, ‘contested sites’, ‘marginalised’, ‘contingency’, ‘alternative histories’, ‘fault lines’ and ‘uncertainty’, I reach for the switch off button. It’s not the fault of the curators or other essayists on this occasion because the thematics of much contemporary art practice tracks such territory and stock in trade art language tags exist because they suggest that it is possible to impose some order on what is essentially chaos theory in action.
That’s why Blair French’s essay ‘Through time: Continuity in the contemporary’, offers an accessible point of entry into the project. It deflects the broad themes or cross currents (art and social relations, reflections of progress, marginal histories, anxieties about identities, the exercise of power, competition of different historical viewpoints, and more) by asking the viewer to consider the centrality of any individual artists’ practice as something that results from “repeated gestures or return to actions, images and motifs”. This process, French contends, has a serial nature that aggregates and accrues through time.
Matthew Bradley, Vessel no.1, from One Hundred Vessels, 2015, cast aluminium and copper alloy, image courtesy the artist and GAGPROJECTS | Greenaway Art Gallery © the artist, photograph: Grant Hancock
From such a perspective, and indeed the hang of works at the MCA, it becomes possible to engage with the works in terms of their material and formal presences, rather than scan them for signs of ‘newness’ or ‘politico/socio/cultural’ relevance or message. There are many such examples: Matthew Bradley’s One Hundred Vessels installation, conveying a compression of commitment to create a meta reality, consistent with the artists’ practice to date; Nell’s With things being what they are…, unlikely associations of totemic objects and sacralised forms informed by a visual vocabulary developed over 20 years of work; Gary Carsley’s installation based on Gough Whitlam’s 1972 campaign speech at Blacktown Civic Centre, which incorporates the artist’s transformation of items of furniture, through his signature ‘Draguerreotypes’; Tiger Yaltangki’s surreal fusions of fictional and cultural heroes reminder through and Chris Bond’s (& Wes Thorne) In Praise of Shadows which, in characteristic fashion, use the book as a vehicle for speculative consideration of alternative possibilities and parallel realities.
There are many other instances of work throughout The National which compel attention on the basis of an internal logic of intent expressed through ritualised gestures and hard won relationships with materiality and form.
Yhonnie Scarce, Death Zephyr, (2017), hand blown glass yams, nylon and steel armature , dimensions variable, Courtesy the artist, Melbourne and THIS IS NO FANTASY + dianne tanzer gallery, Melbourne, © Yhonnie Scarce
The question of what constitutes ‘Australia’ as a sensed identity rather than geographic and political fact gets the full round of the kitchen in essays by Sunil Badami, Daniel Browning and Helen Hughes. They eloquently and with great passion tells us what we already know or believe about ‘Australia’ being variously “immaterial, a work in progress”, a “contested site” and so on. This conversation has been going on for a long time. Break out your old copies of the Sixth Biennale of Sydney (1986) Origins, Originality + Beyond catalogue and you’ve got a prequel for The National in that project’s interest in Australia as a natural post-modern culture.
The bulk of The National is composed of works that, to varying degrees, are socially or politically engaged to the point where it is difficult to look without thinking of their ‘about-ness’ (injustice, marginalised history, national myths and so on). The question remains, how many works with such worthy content will endure in the public imagination as images that define the experience of belonging in some way to this thing called ‘Australia’?
Nell, With things being as they are… (installation), (2017), mixed media, Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney and Station Gallery, Melbourne and © the artist, Photograph: Jessica Maurer
In offering such works as Julie Gogh’s compelling rake-over of colonial mind sets expressed through grandiloquent enclosures and entrances (The Gathering), Yhonnie Scarce’s haunting and ironic response to British nuclear tests at Maralinga in the 1950s and ‘60s (and consequences for Indigenous people) Death Zephyr, Taloi Havini’s Habitat video unpacking the devastation of land and culture associated with the Panguna mine in Bougainville, Tim Nicholson’s extraordinary revisitation of a moment in time when ANZAC, Ottoman and Palestinian histories intersected (The Shellal Mosaic) and Richard Lewer’s bare-boned retracing of a tragedy involving the death of a lad in police custody, Never Shall Be Forgotten – A Mother’s Story, is to suggest that the carriage of the idea, the form that it adopts, and dare we say, its visual and material aesthetics, gives it the edge. Might even be remembered when The National 2019 comes around.
The National: New Australian Art
Carriageworks, Art Gallery of New South Wales and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney
Currently showing until mid-June/later July (Check venue sites for close dates)
Header image: Tiger Yaltangki, Doctor Who, (2016), synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 112 x 167 cm, © the artist, courtesy Iwantja Arts