Anxiousness

Thoughts on The National – New Australian Art, 2017

The National 2017 – New Australian Art is a diverse, multi-layered and nuanced exhibition, featuring new work by some of the country’s most interesting artists, woven together by an expert and talented group of thinkers. Yet its reception, critical and public, has been somewhat subdued, and its relevance questioned in some quarters. By the time this essay sees print, thousands more words will have been written, and a better critical picture will emerge, so it is not my intention to offer a work-by-work review, but rather to ponder how this first (forty-eight artist, three venue, five curator) edition of The National intersects with the broader cultural landscape, and the future role it might play across its full three-edition, six-year cycle.

While deliberating on a title for this essay, I was mindful of equivalent shows of the last decade, including Optimism at Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) in 2008. That show’s sunny disposition and themes of ‘…hope, energy, passion, playfulness…’1 might nowadays appear a little forced in the face of contemporary anxieties, hence my title. Such surveys, usually mounted by State institutions, are part of a longer history of overviews/snapshots of national contemporary practice, including Sydney’s Australian Perspecta (of which the final edition was in 1999), and the Art Gallery of South Australia’s (AGSA’s) long-running Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, alongside relative newcomers like the National Gallery of Australia’s (NGA’s) National Indigenous Art Triennial, and the Tarrawarra Biennial. And of course the venerable Biennale of Sydney and Brisbane’s Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT), while international in scope, have for many years been important and well-funded platforms for new Australian art, seen by large audiences. These will be joined in December 2017 by the NGV Triennial at the National Gallery of Victoria, also international, and several commentators have invoked the success of the NGV’s Melbourne Now (2013-14) as a precursor. That city-focussed exhibition included some four-hundred participants working across art, design, architecture and performance, and attracted over 750,000 visitors (average 6,244 daily),2 propelling it into the top twenty audience figures worldwide for 2014. It appeared to galvanise Melbourne well beyond habitual art audiences, and its effects were felt across the country—it was a sprawling, messy, must-see, moment-defining exhibition, with something for everyone. And of course a very different and bigger-budget proposition. Just sayin’.

Despite these other offerings, there is plainly a perceived need for a recurrent, East-coast-based national overview of some kind, and combining the resources of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) and Carriageworks makes good sense, given their substantially overlapping commitments to new Australian art. I doubt the organisers were aspiring to the hoopla of Melbourne Now, and without great fanfare they have introduced The National into the mix, consistent with both their own programming priorities and a collaborative ethos. Unlike the existing national and international biennials alluded to above, where a different (usually guest) curator is appointed for each edition, The National has more in common with the approach taken by the APT—delivered by an in-house curatorium, with all the advantages of continuity, sustained research and cumulative knowledge.

However, exhibitions which identify themselves as national surveys, whether intermittent or recurrent, arguably carry an added expectation to express their ‘moment’ in some way that resonates beyond the museum’s perimeter—like the rings that radiate from a stone thrown into a pond, perhaps. In The National’s case, I think it is fair to say that the rings are not tsunami-like. Apart from an initial round of arts press and TV coverage, the ripples have disappeared, the pond’s surface glassy again. Published reviews ranged from outright hostility (in the case of one newspaper critic), to somewhat faint praise among others, best summarised as a ‘no big surprises here’ sort of response. In researching this article, I’ve canvassed many opinions, and beyond the committed contemporary art crowd, there appears to be scant recognition of the project’s existence, still less excitement or controversy about the art on show. Perhaps it is the dearth of big names, or big heads, or big nudes, or shiny, high-tech installations? Where, some ask, are the sure-fire crowd-pleasers (or scandalisers) like Ron Mueck, Patricia Piccinini, Tracey Moffatt, Bill Henson and Fiona Hall? Where are the grand landscapists and desert painters? For whatever reason, Sydney’s art-goers appear to have taken The National in their stride, neither passionately for nor against. I am not sure this matters greatly to either artists or organisers (or to Eyeline readers), however I am curious about the ways in which audience responses intersect with curatorial intentions. If there is a stand-off, how much is it about the exhibition’s content and staging, and how much about changing audience expectations?

Common to several critiques is the observation that The National does not have an overarching conceptual framework upon which to build audience perceptions. I do not think anyone is calling this an omission—it is clearly deliberate—but it is noted. The group curatorial statement tells us:

There is no single theme or curatorial concern that has driven our combined research or frames the exhibition; there are, however, interconnected threads that are explored in greater detail in the three curatorial essays in this publication. One such thread is an interest in art and social relations, engagement and transformation, or art emerging as an expression of, and sometimes intervention back into, the lives and concerns of particular communities, whether identified through race, gender, class or location. Another involves artists’ reflections upon concepts of progress, and the structures and forms through which it both develops and unravels. Examples of artists’ reassessment and animation of marginal histories feature heavily, as do Indigenous perspectives on issues specific to the Australian context but with global resonances. Work highlighting anxieties of identity—individual and collective, real and imagined—is also prominent.3

The above could be read as coded language for reductive categories best avoided, but nevertheless commonly heard, such as ‘political art’, ‘social-issue-art’, ‘identity art’—usually (as here) in ironic scare-quotes—the last being a genre which the Guardian Australia’s critic confessed to finding ‘exhausting’. Reading between the lines of various reviewers and bloggers, augmented by my own anecdotal straw poll, these kinds of remarks have come up repeatedly. Like it or not, there is a view out there that The National artists are selected from the curatorially pre-anointed (Artshub described them as ‘a familiar roll-call’), chosen for the socio-political boxes they tick rather than, say, popular acclaim. Perhaps more interesting is the nexus between those naysayers who think The National is too focussed on social issues—‘boring and preachy’—and those who think it does not go far enough—‘safe and predictable’. Importantly, many such respondents had only been to one or two of the venues, so were not reading it as a whole, a fragmented perception common to the highly dispersed Biennale of Sydney. Related to this is the way in which, at the MCA and especially at AGNSW, the works in The National are effectively contiguous with other contemporary offerings, however branded. Each day those institutions are crowded with young tourists, school groups and leisured Australians, who do not especially differentiate between the permanent collections and special exhibitions, unless they are paying ones. Only Carriageworks requires a deliberate trip to the inner west, rewarding the adventurous with a compact but excellent show, mainly concentrated in the old Anna Schwartz Gallery space. Here the performance-intensive opening events were thronged, and market days see a steady stream of visitors, but it is otherwise quiet. None of these factors are necessarily detrimental, but they influence perceptions of The National as a stand-alone project.

Having aired a few negatives, which amount to no more than a collective (and arguably lazy) perception of ‘samey-ness’, I want to refute them, and strongly. In not describing itself as a Biennale, resisting an overarching curatorial theme, and working with in-house curators across three institutions, The National avoids the over-heightened expectations and potential pitfalls of more grandiose claims. To my eyes, the result is a thoughtful and well-balanced show. If few works grab you by the lapels and shake you, most reward thoughtful exploration, and many offer great visual delight, even a few belly-laughs (try Heath Franco’s Life is Sexy, 2017, Carriageworks). However this is not spectacle-for-spectacle’s-sake, and the relative restraint and spaciousness of the selection and exhibition design is a compliment to both artists and audiences.

It is not exactly news that installation, video and archivally-based art are less popular than the Archibald Prize or Sculpture by the Sea, but Australian audiences are surely able to deal with a bit of intellectual stretching and cultural self-analysis. Is it so very difficult to contemplate the existence of multiple nations, or monolithic constructs of nationhood as a ‘mass delusion’, in essayist Daniel Browning’s words?4 And, where else but in an art exhibition? In Eyeline 85 I wrote about AGSA’s 2016 biennial, titled Magic Object,5 which in my view (and despite a number of participants in common with The National), ducked curatorial engagement with the societal and geopolitical issues with which so many artists grapple. Its emphasis on visual enchantment seemed to subsume deeper readings of individual works into a superficial rubric that was ‘determinedly anti-intellectual’, in the words of one out-of-town curator. It is possible that The National has gone too far in the other direction, whatever ‘too far’ is. Certainly many works require a little thinking from audiences. It is important to note that the project’s title carries a fair dose of irony, and the curators plainly see it as ripe for critique:

The National is not pitched at presenting an identifiably ‘national’ (Australian) art, or at composing statements regarding national tendencies, characteristics or identities. On the contrary, there is a provocation in the title, certainly towards the manner in which concepts of nationhood and the nation-state are engaged and destabilised by the practice of contemporary artists. Indeed, dynamic, contested and even contradictory concepts and experiences of place feature in this first exhibition. In so much as they address any idea of ‘Australia’, these works do so through a questioning lens and a wider regional and global consciousness. 6

I require no persuading. This, surely, is a proper remit for such a survey? In times of great social unease and political flux, isn’t it appropriate to include the work of artists who interrogate our cultural anxieties, dismember our national mythologies, and puncture our social complacencies?

The catalogue essays are illuminating in this regard, and one criticism of exhibition presentation could be that, aside from the standard, brief descriptors of artists and works, there are few interpretive wall texts, setting out major threads and linkages. These are quite common, often in each room, of historical and thematic exhibitions, people read them attentively, and they can greatly assist audiences to understand what they are looking at. Take for example the late Gordon Bennett’s series of geometrical abstractions, titled Home Décor (after M. Preston) (2012-13), the last major works of his too-short life, and arguably not the artist’s most accessible or visually arresting canvases. These were shown at Documenta 13 in Kassel (2012), where curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev boldly hung some of Preston’s appropriations of Aboriginal motifs nearby, however without this reference, Bennett’s ‘counter-appropriations’ need explanation. AGNSW’s co-curator Anneke Jaspers’s lucid essay contextualises these works as ‘…the untimely culmination of a mode of history painting he had developed over three decades—here masquerading as abstraction—which took aim at the assumptions and occlusions of a white Australian cultural narrative… [and which further critique] the spurious concept of “white aboriginality” advanced by Preston and her contemporaries of the Jindyworobak literary movement, and later revived (to different ends) by Imants Tillers and Paul Taylor during the early 1980s’.7

This is useful stuff for the uninitiated, and Jaspers’s discourse adroitly positions the works at AGNSW at the intersection of ‘acts of historical retrieval’, socially-engaged practice, and what Australian art historian Anthony Gardner has called ‘the demand for locality’.8 She invites us to think translocally, within an internationalist and multi-temporal thoughtscape. There is no dumbing-down going on here, and perhaps an acknowledgement that some of these multi-layered works can be difficult for audiences. Jaspers invokes, among many other writers, American theorist Hal Foster’s seminal 2004 essay An Archival Impulse,9 which memorably begins:

Consider a temporary display cobbled together out of workday materials like cardboard, aluminum foil, and packing tape, and filled, like a homemade study- shrine, with a chaotic array of images, texts, and testimonials devoted to a radical artist, writer, or philosopher. Or a funky installation that juxtaposes a model of a lost earthwork with slogans from the civil rights movement and/or recordings from the legendary rock concerts of the time.

Foster was here referring to works by, respectively, Thomas Hirschhorn (Switzerland) and Sam Durant (USA) however, specifics aside, he could be describing any number of works of the last decade, by any number of artists. Multi-screen video, tending towards the documentary, is often prominent in the visual mix, and the author suggests that the content of such works is often ‘… found yet constructed, factual yet fictive, public yet private… [and arranged] … according to a quasi-archival logic, a matrix of citation and juxtaposition […] in a quasi-archival architecture, a complex of texts and objects’.10

It would be erroneous to group the diverse installations at AGNSW into some catch-all historiographic/archival category, however in keeping with the curators’ interest in historical retrieval, many works engage with aspects of the past, while offering multiple sight-lines within the contemporary. The elaborate materiality of such installations, and their scaled-up, art museum staging (as opposed to an experimental / ARI, library or historical museum setting), tempts us to approach them in formalist/aesthetic terms, however this is not always the intention of the artists who (again I quote Foster) ‘… often aim to fashion distracted viewers into engaged discussants’. The more interesting question, then, is how successfully they do this, whether audiences have become more adept at ‘reading’ such works as intended, and with what degree of engagement. I think it is fair to say that such works are most accessible when their discursive and aesthetic armatures intersect as compelling visuality—form and meaning indivisible, embodied within the work. Some would disagree, but you have to want to engage in the first place.

Keg de Souza’s Changing Courses (2017) is one such work—a metaphorical shelter and refuge, yes, but constructed from unsustainably mass-produced vacuum-storage bags, into which a variety of foodstuffs, spices, seeds, leaves and ‘dialogic elements’ have been sealed, imbuing her temporary, self-critiquing structure with a greenhouse-like fragility. De Souza trained as an architect, and is no stranger to utopian thought, however her practice is firmly grounded in trans-local, grass-roots, people-to-people exchange, and she always manages to braid these threads together with simple visual panache. Similarly beguiling is Yhonnie Scarce’s delicate, aerial glass-work Death Zephyr (2016-17) referencing the ill wind blowing from the 1950s nuclear test-site at Maralinga in South Australia, while Dale Harding’s Know them in correct judgement (2017) materialises a deeply personal take on his family history. Also of note is Tom Nicholson’s large, multimedia installation Comparative Monument (Shellal) (2014-17), a complex work inspired by an ancient mosaic fragment recovered by Australian Diggers in Palestine during WW1, and later incorporated into the Australian War Museum in Canberra. More literally archival is Alex Martinis Roe’s three channel video installation It was about opening the Very notion that there was a particular perspective (2015-17), which meditates on feminist histories and futures through the prism of the so-called Philosophy Strike of 1973 at the University of Sydney—a very situated history indeed. Nicholas Mangan’s multi-screen installation, Limits to Growth (2016-17), ‘… cheekily connected visitors to the rhythm of Bitcoin mining, installing the software in the gallery basement throughout the duration of the exhibition [alongside] references to the stone currency of the Micronesian island of Yap, large hand-carved limestone objects named Rai that continue to form a small part of Yap’s exchange system’.11 Wow.

At the MCA Zanny Begg and Elise McLeod’s absorbing video project The City of Ladies (2016) invites viewers into a series of seven intimate worlds, by way of a 1405 text wherein author Christine de Pizan, ‘… an Italian migrant in France and arguably the mother of present-day western feminism, imagines a didactic feminist utopia in Paris’.12 The sequencing of the short films is randomised, so on multiple visits you will see different components of the project. Here too you can explore Ronnie van Hout’s autobiographical ‘mini-me’ installation I Know Everything (2017), where ‘… a coterie of sculptural Ronnies flank the viewer at every turn, staring and looming as one enters’13; or spend some quiet time with Erin Coates’s intriguing collection of small, reticent drawings, a portal to her climbing and parkour-inspired urban imaginary. Other personal favourites were Northern Territory artist Karen Mills’s quietly lovely series of six paintings, Floodline (2016); Peter Maloney’s large abstract canvasses; Gary Carsley’s hilariously quirky room; and Rose Nolan’s large-scale painting/sculpture Big Words – To keep going breathing helps (circle work) (2016–17).

MCA curator Blair French’s short essay Continuity in the contemporary14 is well worth a read, and he notes how the work of the MCA component and elsewhere ‘… complicates distinctions too easily made between socially engaged practices and those that are supposedly not. There is much work here that more obliquely probes thought patterns and knowledge systems, quietly engaging socially or politically yet privileging an exploration of its modes of poetic address’. Implicit in his selection is an emphasis on mid and late-career artists who ‘… intelligently persist in the material practice of art practice—a thinking through and realising of ideas in physical and visual form—as a means to stake artistic agency in the continuous present of the contemporary age’. In this regard, French continues an admirable and long-standing commitment by the MCA to ensuring that important senior artists remain represented in national collections and surveys, even if their artworld star may be momentarily eclipsed.

Regarding Carriageworks, again I commend the relevant essay, Anxieties of the Self,15 by co-curator Nina Miall. Here Archie Moore’s ironically self-critiquing flags (United Neytions, 2014-17) are hung in the vast theatre lobby, and the denizens of Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran’s massive installation (The Cave, 2016-17) act as priapic guardians to the subtle delights within the main space. Among the more sombre of these are Karla Dickens’s two adjacent and equally compelling works Bound (2015) and Fight Club (2016), which demonstrate her growing command of whatever medium she turns her hand to. Richard Lewer’s hand-drawn, low-tech video animation (Never Shall Be Forgotten – A Mother’s Story, 2017) shows just how powerful simple storytelling can be, and both Justene Williams’s and Claudia Nicholson’s opening day performances were highly memorable, alas now fallen silent. Two other artists must at least be mentioned—Alex Gawronski, whose large-scale architectural project Ghosts (2017) is spread across all three venues, and Agatha Goethe-Snape, who participates across all three venues and also future editions of The National in 2019 and 2021.

Returning, then, to earlier remarks around critical and public perceptions of The National. These are no doubt influenced by the socio-political, cerebral and/or discursive nature of many works, but are also bound up with audience responses to contemporary art in general, nationally and internationally. Despite statistics which tell us that contemporary art audiences are increasing exponentially each year, I am not convinced this goes much deeper than the ‘museum-as-destination’ phenomenon, and I am not sure how much patience audiences have with conceptual complexity. Contemporary art has many publics, from inattentive courting couples to industry insiders, and (borrowing momentarily from marketing terminology) they can be segmented into rejecters (hostile to indifferent), non-rejecters (indifferent to mildly interested), and embracers (moderately interested to enthusiastic and knowledgeable). Even within the latter group—people who are active attendees at contemporary art galleries and museums—there is a divide between those who willingly engage with conceptual and discursive art, and those who do not. Their predilections may be medium/genre-specific or agnostic, but all are enmeshed with a heavily-mediated image economy, with attention spans getting ever-shorter.

It sometimes appears to me that contemporary artists (like society more broadly, faced by global uncertainties) are turning ever-more-inward, their work increasingly focussed on private mythologies, personal histories, introspective states and therapeutic approaches to art-making, including aspects of social practice. Perhaps, within the networked edifice of the Global Contemporary, we are witnessing a fatal collapse of the quarantine zone between art and the anxieties of ‘ordinary life’? Blair French notes that ‘A shift in conditions, with the photographic serving the instrumental purposes of communication rather than the witnessing and questioning functions of representation, has created a culture in which almost anyone might lay claim to being an artistic producer or curator, a “creative”’, and he references Boris Groys’s proposition that ‘…the majority of any public might be best described as producers rather than spectators’.16 More pungently, the Japanese German artists Hito Steyerl has said:

Contemporary art is a kind of layer or proxy which pretends that everything is still OK, while people are reeling from the effects of shock policies, shock and awe campaigns, reality TV, power cuts, any other form of cuts, cat GIFs, tear gas—all of which are all completely dismantling and rewiring the sensory apparatus and potentially also human faculties of reasoning and understanding by causing a state of shock and confusion, of permanent hyperactive depression.17

What then are we to make of this apparent tension (or perhaps collision) between contemporary practice and some of its publics? Could it be as simple as the fact that, in general, audiences want escapist, instagrammable spectacle, and do not care to be reminded of colonial and contemporary misdeeds? That they prefer art museums to sustain cheerful mythologies of national exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny? That they do not like art you have to think about? That contemplating environmental destruction is a turn-off, any mention of refugees a barbecue-stopper? Well maybe, but my advice is: harden up snowflakes, this exhibition is subtitled New Australian Art, this is what some artists are making nowadays, and some of it is quite sombre. Although I have discussed only a few, I hope this article articulates the strength and diversity of the artists and works featured in The National. Across its three editions as many as 150 artists may be included—a major, international Biennale-sized offering—and a picture will emerge of the art that our institutional curators believe to be important and noteworthy. I guess we will see in 2019 and 2021 how it all plays out, but based on this year’s edition, I believe the organisers are doing a lot right, and that the model is well worth sustaining.

Archie Moore, United Neytions, 2014–17. Installation view, The National 2017, Carriageworks. Photograph Zan Wimberley.

Keg de Souza, Changing Courses, 2017. Vacuum storage bags, food, dialogical events, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist. © Keg de Souza.

Gordon Bennett, artworks from Home Decor (after M. Preston), 2012. Synthetic polymer paint on linen. © The Estate of Gordon Bennett.

Gary Carsley, D.100 Wave Hill – A Tree Struck By Lightening, 2014. Lambda unique state print applied to IKEA PAX Wardrobe, IKEA GILBERT Chair and IKEA FROSTA stool. Image courtesy the artist and Torch Gallery, Amsterdam and Thatcher Projects, New York. © The artist.

notes: 

1. Online text: ‘Contemporary Australia: Optimism’, Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art, 15 November 2008–22 February 2009. https://www.qagoma.qld.gov.au/whats-on/exhibitions/past-exhibitions/contemporary-australia2 (accessed 16/5/2017).
2. ‘Visitor Figures 2014’, The Art Newspaper 267, April 2015.
3. Anneke Jaspers, Wayne Tunnicliffe, Lisa Havilah, Nina Miall, Blair French, ‘Curatorial Introduction’, The National: New Australian Art, MCA Australia, AGNSW, Carriageworks, 2017.
4. Daniel Browning, ‘Unceded: Contesting the national, or Australia is a foreign country’ in The National: New Australian Art, ibid.
5. David Corbet, ‘Enchantment and Its Discontents: Magic Object – the 2016 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art’, Eyeline, no.85, 2016.
6. Anneke Jaspers, Wayne Tunnicliffe, Lisa Havilah, Nina Miall, Blair French, op. cit.
7. Anneke Jaspers ‘Past origins, present politics’, ibid.
8. Anthony Gardner ‘The demand for locality’ in Natasha Bullock and Alexie Glass-Kantor (eds), Parallel Collisions: The Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2012. p188-189.
9. Hal Foster, ‘An Archival Impulse’, October, Vol.110, Autumn 2004, pp.3-22.
10. Ibid, p.5.
11. Text by Jan Bryant on Nicholas Mangan in The National: New Australian Art, op. cit.
12. Text by Jiva Parthipan on Zanny Beg and Elise McLeod, ibid.
13. Text by Mark Feary on Ronnie van Hout, ibid.
14. Blair French ‘Through time: Continuity in the contemporary’, ibid.
15. Nina Miall ‘Anxieties of the self’, ibid.
16. Blair French, op. cit. He goes on to cite Boris Groys, ‘Introduction: Poetics vs. Aesthetics’, in Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood and Anton Vidokle (eds), Going public, Sternberg Press, Berlin and New York, 2010, pp.9-19.
17. Hito Steyerl, ‘Duty Free Art’, e-flux journal, #63, March 2015, New York.

The National – New Australian Art was exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia: 30 March – 18 June 2017; the Art Gallery of New South Wales: 30 March – 16 July 2017; and Carriageworks: 30 March – 25 June 2017.

Curators for the 2017 edition of The National: New Australian Art were Anneke Jaspers, Curator Contemporary Art and Wayne Tunnicliffe, Head Curator Australian Art, Art Gallery of New South Wales; Lisa Havilah, Director and Nina Miall, Curator, Carriageworks; and Blair French, Director, Curatorial and Digital, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia.

David Corbet is a freelance writer and curator, currently engaged in PhD research at Sydney College of the Arts, The University of Sydney.