Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne
14 March – 17 May, 2015

The Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) opened its 2015 season with the 13th instalment of its emerging/mid-career artist survey, ‘NEW’. As in past years, selected artists were allocated a grant to create a new work specifically for NEW, and were given no prescribed conceptual premise or theme. This year’s iteration, however, did break with past instalments in the decision to invite a previous NEW artist to co-curate NEW15. Melbourne-based sculptor Matt Hinkley curated the selection of eight Australian and New Zealand artists―George Egerton-Warburton, Richard Frater, Jessie Bullivant, Kate Newby, Ash Kilmartin, Paul Bai, Alex Vivian and Adelle Mills. As the exhibition’s education kit puts it, the artists selected for ‘NEW15’ each embody some quality of Hinkley’s own practice of intricately detailed small-scale sculptural pieces. Irrespective of what may be thought about this as a motivation for his selection, ACCA’s decision to co-curate ‘NEW15’ with Hinkley was the right one. His desire to create something different within the institution was fulfilled, not through one particular curatorial directive, but through the unprecedented freedom each artist was granted to realise their commission. Consequently NEW15’s success is located within the ambition each artist brought to the project, and the interplay between the works that resulted from such open-ended conditions. This is despite Hinkley’s odd decision to structurally re-arrange ACCA’s main gallery into a more open-plan Kunsthalle, a presentation which is usually employed for the viewing of spectacular, polished, large-scale works. Although the modest conceptual pieces on display appeared slightly incongruous with this art-event layout, the works adequately filled the space as they were well conceptualised and thoughtful in approach. 

For some artists, utilising this freedom has meant extracting their works from the bounds of the exhibition space entirely. Two of the most talked-about artists, whose concepts led them to do exactly this, were Jessie Bullivant and Kate Newby. Bullivant’s entry, Inside Job, was a work entirely realised through a performance executed by the Centre’s invigilators—ACCA’s particular brand of gallery service officers. Bullivant requested that the invigilators, when asked a question by the public during the exhibition, find a way of working the action of a shrug into the conversation. Newby’s entry involves three works, none of which were installed within the gallery space. One of these, Pocket Charms, comprises a set of seven bronze casts of small, hand-held knick-knacks that you could expect to accumulate throughout the processes of everyday life: buttons, coins, pull-tabs from cans. Newby distributed the sculptures among the seven other ‘NEW15’ artists, so that the pieces could be carried around, shown or used according to the artists’ wishes. Bullivant’s and Newby’s works are powerful, not simply because they reconceptualise the properties of the artwork and gallery space itself, but because they execute this reconceptualisation by facilitating disarming, illuminating, contemplative moments. It is the genuinely heartfelt intention motivating their practices that allows the possibility of a similar intention continuing outside of the artistic context.

George Egerton-Warburton’s mixed media installation, Foul Mouth, similarly takes place outside of the gallery context (for the most part), focussing on the Melbourne region of Altona where American artist Agnes Denes’s environmental installation A Forest for Australia has been slowly dying since its completion in 1998. Denes planted 6000 endangered trees in a circular formation which, due to drought and council inattention, is now thoroughly decayed. Egerton-Warburton, in consultation with Denes, hung woodblocks of his own works on what trees remain within the sparse forest and then documented this for his ‘NEW15’ entry. Richard Frater’s installation, April, installed on a steel bar stretched across the doorway between the first and last exhibition rooms, featured a digital SLR camera impaled through the lens and facing a similarly impaled 2014 Greenpeace calendar. The work interrogates the agency and intent of the NGO sector and the apparent hollowness of ‘conscious consumerism’. When the viewer investigates the piece further, they discover the story of the bombing by French government operatives of a Greenpeace anti-nuclear testing vessel in Auckland in the 1980s. The calendar had been turned to the month of April and featured a wildlife shot by one of the imprisoned operatives, which was unwittingly selected by Greenpeace for their fundraising calendar twenty years later. Ash Kilmartin cut out a portion of the ACCA gallery wall to the exact dimensions of the front entrance, turning the wall around to expose years of construction and patching work, encouraging genuine curiosity about the Centre’s inner workings. Paul Bai explored Edward Soja’s notion of the Thirdspace through the creation of a mixed media installation that was articulated through the reuse of the work of other artists, in this case Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley’s light sculpture Inland Empire, which was erected in front of a video projection of the viewer entering the room. Bai’s work was created in the interplay of these three essential elements which converged and then departed again with the viewer. Alex Vivian combined a self-conscious usage of Australiana with antiquated technology and resources from the museum, into a semi-organic, decaying installation. Adelle Mills, another stand-out artist within the group, created a small collection of self-reflexive performances and recitals that were filmed and projected alongside the text of the poetry recited. 

Each work created for ‘NEW15’ showed, in different ways, that conceptual art is not just about laying bare the existence of contradictions and unanswered questions regarding the world around us. It is about the ability to process such situations through the visual and the performative, and the possibility that these media can offer us a way to come to terms with, even participate within, the complexity of the world (even if just by the gesture of a shrug). It is about a thoughtful dedication to the stuff of life. Each artist seems to seriously rely on the goodwill and competency of the next to ensure that all entries function at their full potential. This collective approach was a refreshing and welcome gesture that made ‘NEW15’ an even more compelling presentation than the sum total of its parts.

Kate Newby, And they kicked her out of New York City (George, Richard, Jessie, Kate, Ash, Paul, Alex and Adelle), 2015. Cast silver and bronze, ceramics. Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Hopkinson Mossman, Auckland. Photograph Andrew Curtis. 

Jessie Bullivant, Inside Job, 2015. Shrug performed by invigilators, 8 stock images used as advertising for NEW15, including JCDecaux posters. Images courtesy of Getty Images. Courtesy the artist. 

Kate Newby, The way I feel when I'm in your hands, 2015. Bronze and ceramic bells, rope dyed in saffron. Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Hopkinson Mossman, Auckland. Photograph Andrew Curtis.