Dec 02 2016

Sydney Launches New Biennial in 2017 —The National: New Australian Art

by Michael Young
CLAUDIA NICHOLSON, Lost Without You, 2016, sawdust and glitter, 400 × 400 cm. Courtesy the artist.
CLAUDIA NICHOLSON, Lost Without You, 2016, sawdust and glitter, 400 × 400 cm. Courtesy the artist.

The National: New Australian Art, a new biennial of Australian contemporary art will have its inaugural iteration March 2017 in Sydney simultaneously showing at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) and Carriageworks. On December 1, all three institutions came together to announce the names of the participating artists in the first edition. The National could well have been called the “Phoenix” as it has risen from the ashes of the highly successful biennial, Australian Perspecta, which ran from 1981 until 1999 at the AGNSW.

In fact, the gap left by the demise of Australian Perspecta is one that Michael Brand, director of AGNSW hopes to fill. “We [the organizers] felt there was a gap after Perspecta and believed the best way to fill that gap was to work together and to do something big,” Brand told ArtAsiaPacific at yesterday’s launch event.

The collaborative effort is what The National is all about, bringing together the assembled curatorial power of the AGNSW, the MCA and Carriageworks in one big presentation of contemporary Australian art. “We wanted to build a better, stronger, more visible platform for the artists and also give us different perspectives by bringing curators from various institutions and collections. We wanted to create an event in Sydney where anyone interested in Australian or international art would feel that this is the moment to come and get a range of these experiences,” Brand said.

Carriageworks director Lisa Havilah remembers Australian Perspecta. “It was very influential for a lot of young artists coming through at that time. The National is like the next generation but it has been conceived in a different way,” she told AAP.

ATLANTA EKE, Body of Work, 2-14, performance. Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti. Courtesy the artist.
ATLANTA EKE, Body of Work, 2-14, performance. Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti. Courtesy the artist.

The cultural ménage comprised of Elizabeth Ann MacGregor of MCA, Brand and Havilah were on hand at Sydney’s National Art School to spruik the event, along with the curators of the 2017 edition, Blair French (MCA), Anneke Jaspers (AGNSW) and Nina Miall (Carriageworks) (Wayne Tunnicliffe from AGNSW is also on curatorial team but was not present at the press event). Slated for three iterations 2017, 2019, and 2021, The National will alternate with the Biennale of Sydney (BoS), where the focus will continue to be international. Mami Kataoka, artistic director of BoS 2018, who was in Sydney last month, said to AAP that The National was making her consider the role of BoS. “I must come to terms with the fact that there is another biennial happening in Sydney next year. I am not ignoring it but it is interesting to acknowledge Australian art and see how it looks internally and internationally. It is perfect timing for BoS to consider the role of its existence," she said, before asking, "Why do we need BoS? What is it for?”

While not adhering to any one overarching theme, The National will place emphasis on cultural identity, or the search for identity, particularly looking at how indigenous artists reference the land and narratives in their art, subjects well suited to Australia’s multi-cultural landscape. The AGNSW will show artists engaging with marginal narratives and contested histories with many of the works offering an indigenous perspective. Over at Carriageworks, artists will “address the fractures and contingencies of Australian identity” with a focus on performance, while at the MCA, artists will speak to historical perspectives and how repeated motifs can inhabit an artist’s work over time.

“Each institution and each curatorial team has a different perspective, we are also looking at emerging artists, mid-career artists and senior artists. There are some guiding principles but it is not about identity here and politics there,” Brand said.

As for funding, all three directors seemed to keep their hands close to their chests; Brand, who is currently under pressure regarding the as yet absent AUD 450 million needed to fund the AGNSW building extension, Sydney Modern, answered in generalities. “We are shepherding our resources and there are some sponsors, different levels from different institutions. But we are bringing those resources together for the benefit of Australian art,” Brand said.

The National may sound more like a horse race than an art exhibition, but if I were a betting man I would certainly place some money on the exhibition being one cultural event that will stop the nation, not unlike the annual Melbourne Cup.

Participating artists for The National 2017: 

Art Gallery of New South Wales
Artists: Gordon Bennett, Megan Cope, Keg de Souza, Emily Floyd, Alex Gawronski, Gunybi Ganambarr, Dale Harding, Taloi Havini, Helen Johnson, Nicholas Mangan, Alex Martinis Roe, Tom Nicholson, Raquel Ormella, Khaled Sabsabi, Yhonnie Scarce, Tiger Yaltangki.

Museum of Contemporary Art Australia
Artists: Khadim Ali, Zanny Begg, Matthew Bradley, Gary Carsley, Erin Coates, Marco Fusinato, Alex Gawronski, Julie Gough, Gordon Hookey, Peter Maloney, Karen Mills, Rose Nolan, Stieg Persson, Elizabeth Pulie, Ronnie van Hout, Nell.

Artists: Richard Bell, Chris Bond & Wes Thorne, Karla Dickens, Atlanta Eke & Ghenoa Gela, Heath Franco, Alex Gawronski, Agatha Gothe-Snape, Alan Griffiths, Jess Johnson & Simon Ward, Richard Lewer, Archie Moore, Claudia Nicholson, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, Justene Williams, Jemima Wyman.

The National: New Australian Art will be on view at Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales from March 30 to July 16, 2017; Carriageworks from March 30 to June 25, 2017; Museum of Contemporary Art Australia from March 30 to June 18, 2017.

Michael Young is contributing editor at ArtAsiaPacific.

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