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There was palpable buzz and an air of controversy at the opening night of the 2016 Alice Prize. On the day of opening, the Prize was the subject of a local newspaper story which played up suggestions of financial woes, and by evening a local ABC crew was working the gallery floor for comments on one of the Prize entries deemed illegal.1
As an Alice Prize virgin, I have no idea if this kind of publicity is normal fare, though it does in some ways confirm the exhibition’s local stature. At 39 editions, new angles are needed with local media only too willing to run with them, feeding into heightened anticipation surrounding the Prize, especially now that it is a biennial affair (since 2000).
In my own case, anticipation had been brewing since February with my role as one of three independent pre-selectors for the Prize, along with Edwina Circuitt and Raymond Arnold. Our job was done by the time the exhibition opened in April, making way for guest judge Chris Saines, Director of the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art. I wanted to attend to see the final display of works and because I had never seen an Alice Prize exhibition, although I was well aware of its standing as perhaps the most all encompassing national contemporary art award exhibition in the Northern Territory. It is not predicated on race as is the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in Darwin (entering its 33rd year), nor by medium, as is the annual Alice Springs Beanie Festival, also held at Araluen Art Centre, and also less award-based and open to international artists.
Araluen Cultural Precinct’s new Director, Mark Crees spoke to a packed house on opening night. Fellow speakers included Jason Quin, President, Alice Springs Art Foundation which founded the Prize in 1970; Araluen Curator Stephen Williamson; and Chris Saines who revealed that it was his first visit to Alice, praising the quality of the Prize exhibition itself, and Alice—the place, landscape, country; the nation’s symbolic heart.
The lure of Alice and the Central Desert is strong in the national psyche and is why a national contemporary art award there has so much traction. The Alice Springs Art Foundation’s intention in starting the Prize was ‘putting Alice Springs on the map’, to give the town a key artistic event of national significance which, in terms of the spread and calibre of work and its display, it clearly achieves. In many ways, the town and its Central Desert locale already work to the Prize’s advantage. A good number of finalists from all over Australia were present at this year’s opening, and some not for the first time.
This attraction to the Centre has also meant a degree of misconception about the Alice Prize as an award just for landscape painting. It does get a good dose of that, but otherwise reflects the gamut of contemporary art media. The symbolic sway of Alice seems to foreground a preoccupation, not so much with ‘landscape’, but rather ‘place’, with its broader ontological and political associations. This is, no doubt, enriched by the fact that a year after the Prize was founded, the seeds of an Aboriginal desert painting revolution were planted at Papunya, that would put Alice Springs on the map in ways the Foundation could never have envisaged.
I did expect to see a preponderance of Aboriginal desert work in the Prize, but as a national award this might also seem parochial. There were some notable desert finalists, including Elizabeth Kunoth Kngwarray’s painting Yam Seeds and Flowers (2015), with its subtle schema—not a particularly outstanding work in my books but one of Saines’s three Highly Commended artworks. I found the work of Peter Mungkuri (Iwantja Arts, Indulkana) more compelling in the flesh, along with the bold and totally original graphic figurative style of Tiger Yaltangki (also from Indulkana) with his work Malpa Wiru (Good Friends) (2015).
The relatively low number of entries from desert Aboriginal artists was more a matter of timing, explained Prize coordinator Julie Taylor, with an entry deadline early in the year when most of the remote-area art centres were yet to re-open. It was however an Aboriginal artist, Naomi Hobson, from Cape York, Queensland, who prevailed as Saines’s number one pick, her large (2 x 2 metre) accomplished High Pine (2015) acrylic on canvas now part of the Araluen Art Centre collection. With just six of the sixty-seven finalists (Naomi Hobson, Jason Fitzgerald, Jo Lankester, Baoying Li, Dasha Riley, and Kerry Williams), Queensland fared well in the overall honours. Riley’s digital photograph, Thoughts of Spring (2015) was also Highly Commended and part of an impressive photographic presence in the Prize—almost one-third of finalists’ work. Other standout examples including Alice Blanch’s Box Brownie Colour Panorama #18 (2015), Denise Martin’s Ron & Brodie (father & son) (2015), and Chris Byrnes’s Villager with Magritte Appropriation Hat in her home landscape (2015), a digital print from a Holga wide-angle pinhole camera.
Saines’s other Highly Commended work was also a photograph, young Melbourne photo-based artist Kristian Laemmle-Ruff’s Pine Gap (a photograph of the Centre of Australia) (2015), beautifully presented as a panoramic Duratran print in a blackwood timber light-box. This was the work the ABC crew was buzzing about, given the illegality of photographing and publishing photos of this top-secret, joint US-Australian intelligence base. Some, including Saines, dismissed the attention as a beat-up—images of Pine Gap are easily found on the web. Laemmle-Ruff did sit on this image for some time before releasing it into the public domain, initially through the security research organisation, the Nautilus Institute. The clarity and detail of Laemmle-Ruff’s photograph has given Nautilus new information about the site and how it has more than doubled in size.
Laemmle-Ruff’s work in the Prize is not just forensic documentary. Apart from its refined light-box presentation, the panoramic image is spliced with thin vertical bands of colour, reminiscent of a frequency pattern, but also suggestive of the complex political and security tensions characterising Pine Gap. As a work, a critical object, Laemmle-Ruff’s Pine Gap emits its own aura in the flesh, striking at local, national and international ramifications of place.
Kristian Laemmle-Ruff, Pine Gap (a photograph of the Centre of Australia), 2015. Duratran print in blackwood light-box (edition: 1/5 + AP), 37 x 128 x 19cm.
Peter Mungkuri, Ngura (Country), 2015. Acrylic on canvas, 167 x 243cm.
Naomi Hobson, High Pine, 2015. Synthetic polymer paint on linen, 200 x 200cm.
Denise Martin, Ron & Brodie (father & son), 2015. Photography, digital C-type print (edition of 10), 96 x 118cm.
1. See Shuba Krishnan, ‘Pine Gap: Photo of joint US-Australian spy base revealed in Alice Springs as part of exhibition’, 17 April 2016. Accessed www.abc.net.au/news/2016-04-17/pine-gap-photo-revealed-in-alice-springs/7332114
The 39th Alice Prize – A National Contemporary Art Award opened at the Araluen Arts Centre on 15 April 2016 and showed until 13 June 2016. Judge: Chris Saines; Winner: Naomi Hobson; Highly Commended: Kristian Laemmle-Ruff, Elizabeth Kunoth Kngwarray, Dasha Riley; Commended: Patrick Heath, Lindy McSwan, Sarah Dugan; Unpackers’ Award: Lucy Irvine.