ROSE NOLAN, Big Words—To Keep Going, Breathing Helps (Circle Work), 2016–17, synthetic polymer paint, hessian, velcro, steel, 425 × 600 × 515 cm. Photo by Ken Leanfore. Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne.

The National 2017: New Australian Art

Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Carriageworks, Art Gallery of New South Wales

Sydney’s newest biennial, The National 2017: New Australian Art, was launched across the city’s three major art institutions—the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) and Carriageworks. With three iterations spread over six years and alternating with the more internationally focused Biennale of Sydney (its next edition is to take place in 2018), the debut of The National included the participation of 49 emerging, mid-career and senior artists, most of whom have indigenous heritage.

The National’s aim, according to the three gallery directors, Michael Brand (AGNSW), Elizabeth Ann Macgregor (MCA) and Lisa Havilah (Carriageworks) who gathered to spruik the event last December, is to reflect on Australian art created at present. With its emphasis on indigenous cultural identity, particularly looking at how indigenous artists reference land and colonial history in their practices, The National tends to confront the ensuing oppression of the country’s First Peoples, as interrogated by many of the artists, including Gordon Hookey in his large acrylic painting Terrarists Colonialhism (2008). Known for biting satire, Hookey’s work is about empowerment and inverting the position of indigenous people in today’s society.

Accompanied with a densely worded, 172-page catalog, which seeks to define “national” within an Australian context and the elusive nature of cultural identity, the various essayists—journalists, curators, researchers and even a radio broadcaster—question the notion that there isn’t such a thing as a true Australian identity, especially in art.

If The National were a horse race—and its name suggests that it could well be—then the winner would be the MCA, which has utilized its long narrow main exhibition space and double-height ceiling space to great effect. Rose Nolan’s monumental installation Big Words—To Keep Going, Breathing Helps (Circle Work) (2016–17) is a spiral hanging curtain of painted discs that are strung together. One must walk around or stand back from the work to realize its shimmering and voluptuous presence. Such physical engagement with the piece also allows the text of the work’s title, which is painted on the discs, to be slowly and subtly revealed.

On the other hand, there is nothing subtle about Afghan Hazara artist Khadim Ali’s immense mural painted on the wall alongside the museum’s entrance staircase. Originally a highly successful miniaturist painter, Ali in The Arrival of Demons (2017) uses his signature motifs of demons—here sagacious and benign—inflated to immense proportions to which Ali adds a frieze of eucalyptus leaves appropriated from the translucent images printed in Australian passports. In the current geopolitical climate, The Arrival of Demons tells its own story of how refugees and so-called illegal immigrants are demonized throughout the world.

KHADIM ALI, The Arrival of Demons, 2017, ink, synthetic polymer paint, gold leaf, gouache, 727 × 1568 cm. Photo by Ken Leanfore. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane.

ARCHIE MOORE’s, United Neytions (2014–17) at Carriageworks, Sydney. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific.
ARCHIE MOORE’s, United Neytions (2014–17) at Carriageworks, Sydney. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific.

Over at inner city Carriageworks, Archie Moore’s United Neytions (2014—17), comprised of 28 imagined flags representing Aboriginal nations, hangs from the industrial rafters of the foyer above Claudia Nicholson’s All I Have Are Dreams of You (2017), an installation piece that utilizes a traditional South American sawdust carpet that Nicholson, who is Colombian-born, would be familiar with. Fascinated by the tragic murder of Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla-Pérez in 1995, Nicholson also created a tribute performance for the singer on April 1, a day after Selena Day. The rest of Carriageworks’ artists were tucked into the space once occupied by the Anna Schwartz Gallery before it retreated to its main Melbourne location in 2015. The large, cold space never invited reflection, but two works that metaphorically bookended the gallery were worth lingering over. One was Sri Lankan artist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran’s glorious anarchic installation The Cave (2016–17). The site-specific installation within its darkened, cave-like space brings together a riot of urban symbols made from unfired clay, polystyrene and neon flex light—one of which was formed in an extremely phallic shape—to which the artist adds previous works, such as the ceramic sculpture Snake Tower (2016). Nithiyendran’s core concerns are identity and spirituality; however, the work’s thrown-together appearance belies its sophisticated genesis, which is anchored in a pervasive religious intensity. In an antechamber at the gallery’s far end was Justene Williams’s technological mash-up referencing Italian futurist artist Fortunato Depero (1892–1960), who in 1916 planned a multimedia performance entitled Misamagia that would have simultaneously brought together color, sound and noise. Depero’s work was not realized, but Williams was able to execute the idea by bringing together artificial trees, video screens, flashing lights and brightly colored performance costumes in a synesthetic melange, which is as much about the careful staging of the work as it is about the absurd juxtapositions of the various elements. What would have seemed outrageous in Depero’s day now appears like a regular disco.

Detail of RAMESH MARIO NITHIYENDRAN’s The Cave (2017) at Carriageworks, Sydney. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific.

JUSTENE WILLIAMS, Two Fold, 2016, documentation of performance at the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, Sydney. Photo by Andy Nowell. Courtesy the artist and Sarah Cottier Gallery, Sydney. 

Over at the AGNSW, The National has turned the institution’s drab Central Court foyer entrance into an encounter between the gallery’s architectural brutalism and Emily Floyd’s playful large sculptural installation Kesh Alphabet (2017), a set of colored, interlocking forms that spell out “Kesh noun banhe,” which translates into English as “female orgasm,” as well as “inclusion” and “insight.” The work is inspired by the fictional alphabet developed by science-fiction writer Ursula Le Guin in her 1985 novel Always Coming Home, which is an anthropological study of a matriarchal society called Kesh in a post-apocalyptic world. According to the catalog, Floyd, who has a background in toy-making, seeks to “recolonize the space with a feminist perspective”—an interpretation that seems a touch pretentious. Floyd’s premise, however, is predicated on her observation of the many female gallery visitors who lingered in the Central Court, an architectural space that, with its brutal concrete architecture and louring ceiling, the artist identified as masculine. This was an impression of the space that was underscored by the fact that works by mainly male artists were hung there.

Yhonnie Scarce’s large installation Death Zephyr (2016–17) successfully explores the overarching themes of land and cultural identity, but with a steady eye kept focused on aesthetics. She was born in Woomera, a town in South Australia close to the site where the British tested nuclear weapons in the 1950s and 1960s. Hundreds of hand-blown glass forms hung from the AGNSW ceiling in what could be a descending nuclear cloud, but which also mimic the forms of vegetables that were once harvested by Aboriginal people.


EMILY FLOYD, Kesh Alphabet, 2017, aluminum, two-part epoxy paint, steel fixtures, screen prints on paper, dimensions variable. Courtesy the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.

The National was ambitious in scope, yet to its detriment was side-tracked by over-conceptualization. As a result, it appeared more like a group show that struggled to find a cohesive identity. Instead, visitors were given a heterogeneous mash-up loosely strung together by the political discourse of British colonialism and First Nation dispossession. Given the now multi-cultural makeup of Australia, one could have been forgiven for expecting something more artistically diverse and inclusive. 

The National 2017: New Australian Art is on view at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art Australia until June 18, Carriageworks until June 25, and Art Gallery of New South Wales until July 16, 2017.

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