The fourth iteration of Sydney’s biennial overview of local contemporary art is typically mammoth. Here’s where to start.
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Surveys of contemporary art are rarely smooth, coherent affairs and The National 4: Australian Art Now is no exception. In her catalogue essay, Jennifer Higgie tries to answer the unanswerable question “What is Australian contemporary art?” and comes up with a long list of contradictory propositions. It’s not exactly revelatory, but it makes the point – contemporary art can be anything at all.
With 80 artists and 48 projects spread across four (or rather, five) venues, The National 4 demands a commitment from viewers. If one installment doesn’t appeal, will you be motivated to go along to the next? To add a degree of difficulty the Campbelltown Arts Centre has been added to the roster, a good hour’s drive from the Art Gallery of NSW. This is a well-intentioned act of inclusiveness for the western suburbs, but it exacerbates the scattered nature of the show.
Elizabeth Day’s The Flow of Form: There’s a Reason Beyond a Reason. Beyond That There’s a Reason (1797 Parramatta Gaol), 2023, at Carriageworks.Credit: Zan Wimberley
The previous iteration of The National was presented as the final stage of a three-part project that began in 2017. Now the exhibition has bounced back with five new curators: Aarna Fitzgerald Hanley, Freja Carmichael, Jane Devery, Beatrice Gralton and Emily Rolfe. As it’s a strictly female crew, there’s no issue about gender parity. Perhaps male curators are the next category to be systematically eliminated by art museums.
As a purely subjective survey of what a group of curators see as significant contemporary art, The National has always tended to emphasise the selectors as much as their selections. It makes the curators into personalities, with their choices of artist couched as acts of self-actualisation. I may be out-of-step with the times, but I’d appreciate a little more objectivity. The vogue for personalising catalogue essays is just as wearisome as the need to include “creative” writers in every publication, when the connections with the art are far from clear.
It denotes a movement away from analysis in favour of feeling, with those feelings being closely tied up with personal beliefs. If one believes there is an urgent need to “de-colonise” the museum, one gravitates towards like-minded artists. If one feels that queer artists have been unfairly overlooked, then it’s almost a moral imperative to help even up the ledger. Are Indigenous artists more important than non-Indigenous? Do artists who deal with political issues have more urgent claims on our attention than those who paint landscapes or still life?
These are some of the questions The National 4 raises. We shouldn’t be asking: “What is contemporary Australian art?”, but “What are the defining principles behind the curators’ choices?”
To narrow the focus, I’ll look at 10 works from the show, drawn from the four venues. The outlier this year is Natasha Walsh, who has set up her easel in the Brett Whiteley Studio for the duration of The National 4, but I’ve yet to visit this fifth location.
Art Gallery of NSW
From being a virtual unknown, Nabilah Nordin has become an institutional favourite in no time at all. Her work, which can also be found in Melbourne Now at the National Gallery of Victoria and Fantastic Forms at Bundanon, has been given the prime location in the vestibule at the AGNSW. Nordin’s sculptures are self-consciously experimental, using vivid, eye-catching colours and unusual materials. One piece at the AGNSW, Discipline, is made from coloured balloons set in epoxy resin.
Nabilah Nordin’s Corinthian Clump, 2023, at the Art Gallery of NSW.Credit: Mim Stirling
Nordin has one thought with many different variations. That idea is to systematically refuse conventional ideas about sculptural form. Her six pieces at the AGNSW form a single ensemble titled Corinthian Clump. It’s a playful response to the severe neo-classical aesthetics of Walter Vernon’s gallery entrance, in which she takes the geometric preoccupations of the architecture, screws them up and glues them together in a new randomised incarnation. It’s a game that relies on the continuous fertility of the artist’s imagination to keep coming up with forms that break the unspoken rules of art – rather like having to compose sentences without using one or two vowels.
Pierre Mukeba occupies a special place in Australian art, as a representative of an African diaspora gradually finding its way into all aspects of life in this country. Born in the Congo, Mukeba spent time in refugee camps in Zambia and Zimbabwe before coming to Adelaide in 2006. His lively, brightly coloured drawings have been embraced enthusiastically by private and public collectors, making him a familiar inclusion in surveys such as The National.
His work, The last supper and the sheges, takes the Biblical story and recasts it with a group of central African outcasts. The theme is universal, the figures a reminiscence of the artist’s origins, the medium a floating piece of calico backed by offcuts of Dutch wax fabric, an accepted symbol of Africa. Like many émigré artists, Mukeba finds himself positioned between two cultures and falls back on the one he knows best. The appeal for local viewers is to catch a glimpse of this unfamiliar reality, and accept it as part of the new, globalised world we all inhabit.
In What Do We Want?, a three-channel video of less than three minutes’ duration, Reko Rennie conjures a strange, disturbing scenario of Indigenous people training in martial arts under the guidance of a tough-looking Aboriginal sensei. The aim, as it is chanted at the end and flashed on screen, is “No more cops killing our mob”. The message is that everyone wants peace, love and understanding, but, if necessary, will fight for what they see as just.
There’s an aggressive edge to this film that undermines all the fine sentiments. Rennie’s martial arts students are akin to the Black Panthers, ready to combat violence with violence. If Rennie aimed to make us conscious of the impact of police brutality, he may only succeed in alarming his audience.
Museum of Contemporary Art
Hoda Afshar’s Aura, 2023, at the Museum of Contemporary Art.Credit: Anna Kucera
Yet another artist who seems to be an obligatory inclusion in contemporary surveys, Hoda Afshar has justified her surge to fame with one thoughtful body of work after another. A photographic artist from Iran, she is intensely conscious of the political currents that underpin everyday life, even in a country as complacent as Australia. Her series Remain (2020) was shot on Manus Island, making visible those refugees who have been filed and forgotten by the Australian government.
The series Aura at the MCA brings together images from the year 2020, scavenged from the internet, that remind us of the pandemic, the bushfires and other momentous events. Afshar has isolated details, rendered them in grainy black-and-white, and adopted a mode of presentation that echoes the famous exhibition The Family of Man (1955), put together by Edward Steichen for New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It’s an ironic reference because the “family” of man is radically divided today, even though we have never been more connected.
Diena Georgetti’s work is an extended meditation on one of the perennial problems of the modern artist: how to be original. Her solution is to rove freely over the history of art, borrowing and recombining motifs in the form of a digital collage that is painstakingly translated into a painting – or so I understand it. Unlike most artists she has no signature style, as every series looks as if it was painted by a different person.
The paintings at the MCA – part of a series called Community of the People – present a mashed-up blend of abstraction and schematic figuration from the 1950s and early 1960s. I can’t identify specific paintings, but there’s a retro feel to each canvas. Stylistically these pictures take us on a trip down the time tunnel, in which everything gets a little garbled. Turning a corner and coming across this series is disconcerting, as if one has left the realm of contemporary art and stumbled into another era.
Is Carriageworks always empty, or does it just feel more empty than most places because of its cavernous interiors? Either way, Naminapu Maymuru-White’s small bark paintings of stars, clustered on an end wall, hint at a space much vaster than the gallery. Yet another outstanding artist from Yirrkala in the Gulf of Carpentaria, Maymuru-White’s theme is Milniyawuy, or as we know it, the Milky Way.
It’s much easier to see the stars at night in north-eastern Arnhem Land, and these paintings make us feel as if we are gazing at a panorama divided into small segments. In their simplicity and directness, Maymuru-White’s pictures are among the most engaging in the show. Although the Yolgnu have their own stories about the cosmos, the experience of star-gazing and seeing patterns in the heavens is common to all people of all times. If you have any doubts look to the story of the Seven Sisters, which begins among the stars and is echoed independently by civilisations from Scandinavia to Persia to China to Australia.
Installations on display at Carriageworks, left to right: Susan Balbunga’s Bamugora, 2023;Naminapu Maymuru-White’s Milŋiyawuy – Celestial River, 2023; Katie West’s The women plucked the star pickets from the ground andturned them into wana (digging sticks), 2023.Credit: Zan Wimberley
Perhaps it’s the challenge of those towering ceilings, but Elizabeth Day has made a huge effort with an installation that covers a wall at Carriageworks with wool unravelled from old garments. In The Flow of Form: There’s a Reason Beyond Reason (1797 Parramatta Gaol), Carriageworks Redfern, Day has re-created a phantom image of the facade of the old Parramatta Gaol, coated in clusters of threads, in the manner of a quilt or tapestry.
The sheer scale of the work lends it a sense of drama, while the bunches of coloured threads mimic an Abstract Expressionist canvas. Day, who has spent much of her career working with people in prisons and mental institutions, has taken this opportunity to create a piece about the many lives that have disappeared behind closed doors. Each unravelled garment suggests an anonymous person closeted away from friends and family. Day conjures up the “broken threads” of personal relationships, with all that colour concealing a great weight of melancholy.
Campbelltown Arts Centre
Since coming to study in Sydney from his native Indonesia in 2000, Jumaadi has appeared in numerous exhibitions, both in this country and overseas. He has worked in diverse media, making paintings, drawings, paper cuts, puppets and videos. His subject matter, however, remains rooted in his birthplace near Yogyakarta, drawing on everyday life and folklore to create magical scenarios.
Jumaadi’s pictures have a strong graphic quality and a mysterious symbolism; for instance, a large field of tree stumps, each with a single eye. It seems to suggest that nature is observing every depredation we inflict upon it. His largest work at Campbelltown features a black wall festooned with white paper cutouts, showing trees, figures and animals. We are looking at a story told in sign language, a language that revels in ambiguity.
Julian Martin has long been a mainstay of Melbourne’s Art Projects, crossing over from the world of so-called outsider art to the mainstream. His pastel drawings are equally adept at crossing the divide between abstract and figurative art. Each picture begins with an observation, which is refined and transformed into blocks of pure colour. Yet these seemingly abstract works retain a sense of the object, hovering on the verge of recognisability.
Martin is an artist with a highly distinctive touch. A suite of his small works, as seen in this exhibition, reveals his skill with colour, which has an obvious emotional inflection. Although he has been exhibiting since the late 1980s, Martin’s work has been comparatively neglected by the major institutions. This display at Campbelltown should get the galleries to pay closer attention.
Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan with the Fruitjuice Factori Studio’s Another Country (The Juncture of Between Becomes Comfort Zone), 2010-2023, at Campbelltown Arts Centre.Credit: Mim Stirling
Isabel & Alfredo Aquilizan with the Fruitjuice Factori Studio
The Aquilizans were well-known in Australia even before they migrated here in 2006. Since then, this husband and wife have constructed huge installations made from cardboard and various scrap materials, at the Art Gallery of NSW and other venues. Their work, which draws on the folk traditions of the Philippines, is always playful and often made in collaboration with amateurs and would-be artists.
The Aquilizans’ installation in Campbelltown, Coherent Narratives, incorporates an upturned boat, a jam-packed wardrobe, and a large cross encrusted with pieces of wood and cardboard. Their collaborators, the Fruitjuice Factori Studio, are their five children, Miguel, Diego, Amihan, Leon and Aniway, who have been able to rejoin their parents after three years of separation, due to the pandemic. The work is at once a many-layered reflection on migration, and a family reunion.
The National 4: Australian Art Now is showing at the Art Gallery of NSW until July 23, the Museum of Contemporary Art until July 9, and Carriageworks and Campbelltown Arts Centre until June 25.
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