The Nation­al: New Aus­tralian Art

Toni Ross
Artforum
It’s been near­ly twen­ty years since Syd­ney host­ed a sub­stan­tial sur­vey exhi­bi­tion of con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralian art. The Nation­al: New Aus­tralian Art offers wel­come relief from this inex­plic­a­ble drought, with three key insti­tu­tions join­ing forces to show­case new work by fortyeight emerg­ing, mid­ca­reer, and estab­lished artists, with fur­ther edi­tions planned for 2019 and 2021. Although no over­all theme pre­vails, com­mis­sioned cat­a­logue essays by Sunil Bada­mi, Daniel Brown­ing, and Helen Hugh­es char­ac­ter­ized ideas of nation and Aus­tralian­ness as con­test­ed and always under con­struc­tion. Blair French’s cura­to­r­i­al essay echoes his selec­tions for the Muse­um of Con­tem­po­rary Art Aus­tralia (MCA). Push­ing against the val­oriza­tion of instan­ta­ne­ity in con­tem­po­rary cul­ture, French accents how artists work at process­es or ideas over long peri­ods of time. A stand­out exam­ple is an instal­la­tion by Rose Nolan, whose career spans four decades. At a height of rough­ly six­teen feet, Big Words — To keep going, breath­ing helps (cir­cle work), 2016 – 17, occu­pies one of the MCA’s dou­ble-height spaces. A mul­ti­tude of paint­ed burlap disks are linked togeth­er to form a sus­pend­ed cur­tain arranged in spi­ral form that vis­i­tors can enter and walk around. Recall­ing the strik­ing red-and­white graph­ics of Russ­ian rev­o­lu­tion­ary art, the disks form the words of the title in the round. Nolan has con­sis­tent­ly pro­duced great works that inten­si­fy the aes­thet­ic shape-shift­ing of lan­guage as a visu­al art. Else­where at the MCA, Ron­nie van Hout’s instal­la­tion I know every­thing, 2017, presents self-por­traits utter­ly devoid of van­i­ty. Vis­i­tors are sur­round­ed by mul­ti­ple Ron­nies play­ing crime-show thugs and hor­ror-film vil­lains on video screens, or as bewigged and clothed polyurethane sculp­tures of naughty lit­tle boys bear­ing the artist’s worn adult face. Anoth­er per­verse mode of self-por­trai­ture is on view at Car­riage­works, where the exhi­bi­tion is curat­ed by Lisa Hav­i­lah and Nina Miall. Heath Fran­co’s LIFE IS SEXY, 2016 – 17, is a hilar­i­ous video work fea­tur­ing a cast of wild­ly libidi­nous char­ac­ters, all played by the artist. Fran­co’s fren­zied exhi­bi­tion­ism stages being sexy as hard labor. Car­riage­works also hosts Aggre­gate Icon (Roset­ta RBW), 2017, a mas­sive pho­to­col­lage by Jemi­ma Wyman, direct­ly adhered to the wall. Inter­net-sourced, hand-cut images of masked and cos­tumed pro­test­ers from around the world cre­ate kalei­do­scop­ic pat­terns with­in uni­fy­ing cir­cu­lar tem­plates, and the man­dala-like form of the work emu­lates rose win­dows in Goth­ic church­es. While shift­ing opti­cal effects cre­at­ed by the com­plex inter­nal pat­tern­ing and a palette of red, white, and black sug­gest fric­tion and dis­sent, the larg­er tem­plate hints at a utopi­an fan­ta­sy of con­fed­er­a­tion. Assem­bled by Anneke Jaspers and Wayne Tun­ni­cliffe, the exhi­bi­tion at the Art Gallery of New South Wales con­tains com­pelling works by Abo­rig­i­nal artists. With exact­ing pre­ci­sion, Yol­ngu artist Gun­y­bi Ganam­barr, from north­east­ern Arn­hem Land, incis­es or paints intri­cate designs asso­ci­at­ed with ances­tral law on var­i­ous sup­ports. These range from tra­di­tion­al hol­low poles and bark sheets to debris from min­ing and build­ing sites. Gapu (Water), 2017, is a length of rub­ber con­vey­or belt col­o­nized by incised designs and exhib­it­ed flat on a plinth. In Mil­ngurr (Sacred Spring Water), 2015, the same cut­ting tech­nique is applied to a sheet of gal­va­nized steel. Ganam­bar­r’s art nego­ti­ates Yol­ngu and West­ern worlds with con­vic­tion. Anoth­er room hous­es the instal­la­tion Death Zephyr, 2016 – 17, by Yhon­nie Scarce. Hun­dreds of hand­blown glass pel­lets are sus­pend­ed from the ceil­ing to form a swirling cloud in hues of white, gray, and black. The work ref­er­ences British nuclear tests of the 1950s and 1960s at Mar­alin­ga, South Aus­tralia, that for decades were sur­round­ed by state silence over radioac­tive fall­out and the like­li­hood that some Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple were not evac­u­at­ed from test sites. From a dis­tance, Scarce’s sim­u­lat­ed radioac­tive cloud looks divine, yet as you walk beneath the glass tubes they trans­mute into poi­so­nous lit­tle mis­siles aimed at you. By com­bin­ing works from dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions, the cura­tors have avoid­ed a mar­ket-ori­ent­ed approach fix­at­ed on nov­el­ty and the wow fac­tor. Many works reac­ti­vate con­tentious his­to­ries of Aus­trala­sia, or artis­tic tra­di­tions of the dis­tant and more recent past, accen­tu­at­ing their con­tin­u­ing rel­e­vance to our present and future. There is noth­ing espe­cial­ly Aus­tralian about cast­ing con­tem­po­rary art as shad­owed by the past and addressed to the future, but it sure­ly beats an arid pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the now.”
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