The National

International showcases for contemporary art are now so prolific, and frequent, that they risk falling into the “blockbuster” trap of becoming a franchise. As biennials roll out the red carpet every two years – managed by a mix of public art museums, government agencies and philanthropic supporters – city marketing, cultural tourism and urban regeneration take centre stage in a bid to draw crowds in the thousands, serving its host city a cultural menu hidden with economical and political trans fats; the unwanted cellulite dimpling the skin of the art world.

The commissioning of large-scale artworks and installations has given rise to a type of “festival art”, monumentally scaled, elaborately produced and veering towards the spectacular. Consequently, the public craves an equal, if not fuller plate each biennial, and to accommodate this hunger, artistic appreciation and recognition can be jeopardised for monetary and civic gain.

In 2010, an Access Economics study recorded a significant boost of $63.9 million in the Australian economy by the Biennale of Sydney alone. Forthcoming funding cuts suggest that only a small portion of the surplus will make it back into the arts.

In the last 18 months, there has been a massive destabilisation of the Australian arts sector, with organisations and artists left with indigestion caused by grant and program disruptions. In desperate need of a gastrectomy, the arts sector has a new practitioner aiming to relieve some of the pain, putting the focus back on the support and promotion of cultural arts and its raw ingredient – the artist.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Carriageworks and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) present The National: New Australian Art, a single curated program across three venues, delivering what Michael Brand, Director, AGNSW, calls “a shared, controlled vision”.

These three premier cultural institutions aim to connect their residing precincts – The Domain, Redfern and Circular Quay – to form the only large-scale recurring exhibition in the city focused solely on contemporary Australian art; sharing the existing objective of the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art and the TarraWarra Biennial.

In an attempt to quash any rivalry concerns, Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, Director MCA, assures, “This is in no way intended as a competitor.” Rather The National acts as a counterpart to these biennals (particularly the Biennale of Sydney and the Adelaide Biennial) occurring every alternating year over a six-year period: in 2017, 2019 and 2021.

However, this schedule, and the avoidance of the terms “biennale” or “biennial” in their name, does not entirely safeguard them from any friction. In fact, the other “b” word might come into play. Yes, that one. These institutions are major venues for the Biennale of Sydney, which is regarded as one of the world’s leading art events alongside the Venice Biennale and Documenta; and now they’ve decided to marinate in the successful juices of a 43-year-old enterprise, seasoned by partial funding from the controversial Catalyst program. But is it a dish well served?

The National emulates the now defunct Australian Perpsecta, a biennial exhibition at the AGNSW surveying Australian contemporary art, initiated by curator Bernice Murphy in 1981. Alternating with the Biennale of Sydney, it provided a regular showcase of contemporary art for the public. In 1997 and 1999, Perspecta expanded from the AGNSW to exhibit in a number of venues across Sydney, including the MCA, the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre in Liverpool, Artspace, Sydney, and the Australian Centre for Photography; each displaying its own separately curated exhibition and addressing an overarching theme encouraging discursive propagation.

By appropriating this model, The National offers a new generation a fresh take on current fundamental questions and issues in Australian art while encouraging and promoting its richness and diversity at this particular moment in time. “What do we need to do right now? What is the basic thing that we in Sydney can do to really profile exciting, interesting and innovative contemporary Australian art?” These were the questions posed by Macgregor at the biennale’s launch in April last year.

In a time when artist opportunities are scarce, The National should receive a warm welcome by both art practitioners and audiences. “The project’s artistic emphasis will be on profiling new work and enabling innovative new commissions over six years – providing substantial opportunities for professional development, exposure and career sustainability for our nation’s living artists,” says Macgregor.

The National highlights the contributions of emerging, mid-career and established Australian artists living at home and abroad, with a strong focus on Indigenous artists.

The 2017 edition will present works in a range of mediums including painting, video, sculpture, installation, drawing and performance. Curators are Anneke Jaspers, Curator Contemporary Art AGNSW, and Wayne Tunnicliffe, Head Curator Australian Art AGNSW; Lisa Havilah, Director, Carriageworks and Nina Miall, Curator, Carriageworks; and Blair French, Director, Curatorial & Digital, MCA. Each institution will exhibit works connected to a specific theme, reflecting diverse subjects from a cultural, political and social perspective.

This year the subtext embedded across all three sites is identity; both individual and collective, real and imagined. Artists examine how structures of identification shape and are shaped by questions of experience, knowledge, history and power. “Underpinning all these works”, says Miall, is “… a contemporary Australia with multi-centred identities which celebrate the uncertainty, the ambiguity and difference that defines belonging, both now and in the future.”

The AGNSW offers new readings of the present and future through marginal narratives and contested histories developed from archival or field research, underpinned by social engagement.

Berlin-based Australian artist Alex Martinis Roe’s current projects focus on feminist histories and fostering relations between different generations as a way of imagining and realising feminist futures. Roe’s work for The National is part of a series of six film performances titled ‘To Become Two’. A theory-practice history project, the work traces a particular genealogy of political practice among a number of different feminist communities in Europe and Australia, and considers their prevalence in the present context. Roe’s new work draws on intensive research to build a narrative about the remarkable engagement with French feminist and post-structuralist philosophy in Sydney in the 1970s and 1980s.

The MCA deals with key concerns through time, dragging history to the present with recurring images and practices seen in the paintings of Northern Territory artist Karen Mills. Exploring identity, connection and disconnection with culture, geology and Australian history, particularly in the East Kimberley, Mills uses a range of paint media including natural ochre and dry pigment, to create layered, textured surfaces to depict “lyrical landscapes of memory”; of journey and the experience of different places.

Carriageworks focuses on the fluidity of identity, addressing the fractures and contingencies of Australian identity, examining the self in the context of history. Its centerpiece is a flag installation, ‘United Nations’, by Brisbane-based Indigenous artist Archie Moore, who draws attention to the cultural and social assumptions on which contemporary Australian society is built. The work responds to surveyor and anthropologist RH Mathews’ flawed 1900 map constructed from ignorance, falsely identifying the Aboriginal nations. More than a century later, Moore’s artworks focus on past inaccuracies and injustices against Indigenous Australians, to present corrected histories. His artworks masquerade as flags, devoid of any official flag protocol. “They are once again ‘false flags’ intended by Moore to be an ambiguous contradictory,” says Miall, “to raise questions of authenticity and to reflect his own fragmented personal identity.”

The concept of identity is implicit in its name. The National: New Australian Art is a well-balanced, nutritional recourse for a growing yet underfunded arts community. Its fresh take on innovation, collaboration and presentation of Australian artists and the complexity of identity within a multicultural landscape sets the table for art to be created and fully consumed.
The National 2017: New Australian Art
Museum of Contemporary Art Australia,
30 March – 18 June, 2017
Carriageworks, 30 March to 25 June, 2017
Art Gallery of New South Wales,
30 March – 16 July, 2017

Images courtesy the artists.

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