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National Identity in The National

As a term, “the national” has various connotations, some of which are explored more effectively than others in this survey of Australian art.

The National 4: Australian Art Now features exhibitions at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Campbelltown Arts Centre (C-A-C), Carriageworks and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA Australia). The National’s five curators: Aarna Fitzgerald Hanley, Freja Carmichael, Jane Devery, Beatrice Gralton and Emily Rolfe offer a selection of works in line with the webpage’s description, displaying “artists across Country, generations and communities.”

However admirable, there is something presumptuous about the term “the national.” No survey can do justice to the art of a particular country or have enough foreknowledge to encapsulate the elusive “now.” And surprisingly, only a few of the chosen works explore Australian nationalism head-on.

That is not to say that myth and politics are absent. There are no male curators, and that seems softly political (concerned more with representation than argument). This conforms to a type of myth that holds that Australia – a new country with an old history – is on the way to becoming a multicultural, less blokey utopia that is proud of its immigrant and Indigenous histories. Amid moves toward the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, the selection of works seem to both affirm and challenge this possibility.

Particularly interesting in this regard is the newcomer to The National, C-A-C, with the works evoking issues of identity. Adopting an enigmatic register, Christopher Bassi’s installation, Island Revelation, 2023, consists of a series of paintings and ceramic tiling that inturs the remnants of a church in the manner of Torres Strait Island tiled tombstones. Bassi is of Meriam, Yupungathi and British heritage, and the church ruin comes from Moa island’s old Poid settlement, not far from Bassi’s grandmother’s birthplace. The work is layered and suggestive, both of the Torres Strait Islands’ iconography and the western art canon, exploring ideas of the sacred, memory and tradition. Meanwhile, Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan have created fascinating sculptural assemblages and cardboard works through Fruitjuice Factory Studio. Their work, Another Country (The Juncture of Between Becomes Comfort Zone), 2010–23, an upside-down boat, seems to foreground the materiality of memories in journey, as well as the jumbled-together nature of identity. Also on display is a powerful video installation by Brook Andrew. The 2022 three-channel installation, titled GABAN, means “strange” in Wiradjuri, and explores representation, the museum and colonialist archiving and extraction, with a Queer undercurrent. The work consists of a recording (over an hour in length) of a reading of Andrew’s play, GABAN, juxtaposed with “artefacts,” as the actors give voice to the objects in collections.

The other galleries offer impressive works but aren’t as thematically directed. Carriageworks exhibits Naminapu Maymuru-White’s stunning Milŋiyawuy – Celestial River, 2023, depicting the milky way. Art critic John McDonald noted that these paintings of the starry night sky are out of place amid the artificial white surrounds, but at least the work stands out. Bamugora, 2022, created by Warrawarra artist, Susan Balbunga, is more incongruent with the woven mat’s protective function. Balbunga explains that “it shields us from the sun and wind.” Sadly, the warehouse aesthetic eclipses the work.

Not all the works are incongruent. Erika Scott’s The Circadian Cul-de-sac, 2023, suits the industrial look. Covered in tubes and on top of a floatation device, Scott’s steampunk hourglass exploration of systems through waste may invite consideration that time is ecologically running out, and evoke the uneasy and the unnatural.

An intended incongruity is achieved in the AGNSW with Nabilah Nordon’s colourful sculptures, Corinthian Clump, 2023, occupying its neoclassical entrance. But what does this contrast say? Such a gesture may seem like another example of the AGNSW attempting a makeover and saying, “this is so contemporary, so contemporary” and Nordon’s stated spatial considerations concern form(s) more than content. But the AGNSW redeems itself with Heather B. Swann’s sculptural works depicting Leda and the Swan where Leda rejects Zeus’s advances in contrast to European art’s eroticisation of the myth.

If the AGNSW were serious about challenging itself as a heritage institution, why not feature more works that rethink the canon? Consider Nicholas Smith’s decorator’s touch, 2023, displayed at the MCA. The work pays tribute to Adrian Feint, accentuating Queer sexuality. Feint was an Australian modernist painter, often of flowers, whose images assumed a surrealist bent. Smith extends on the idea of Feint’s masculine flowers, by creating a floral sculptural form that almost recast Feint as a precursor to Cronenberg’s mutating sexual organisms. The work is effective in the MCA but could work alongside Swann’s sculptures.

This points to a problem with The National. The National could be more effective if it offered more distinct shows exploring the different aspects of Australian art – or more critically exploring the name itself.

One would be remiss not to underscore the high quality of many of the works. AGNSW offers strong video installations from Robert Fielding, Milpatjunanyi, 2022, and Reno Reko’s What Do We Want, 2022. And the MCA exhibits multiple arresting video installations. Allison Chhorn’s Skin Shade Night Day, 2022, emulates her parent’s shade house. Exploring memory and the migrant experiences of her Cambodian-Australian family, it is hard not to lose oneself in the golden glow of the installation.

Meanwhile Hoda Afshar’s video installation of bombed buildings collapsing, Undone, 2023, act in concert with her selection of photographs, entitled Aura, 2022-23. Reversing the explosions, she restores the buildings, recalling the early magic of Lumiere’s reverse motion in Demolition of a Wall, 1896. But this magic only heightens the destruction. The photographs are images of disaster, grief, catastrophe, tragedy, and survival, gathered from the internet, decontextualised and enlarged. Although nodding to Edward Steichen’s 1952 curation of The Family of Man, shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the images arguably recall Russian constructivist agitprop. The work can be understood as protesting injustice amid a connecting and diconnecting media environment.

The National features a number of “traditional” forms, such as painting. There are watercolours from Heather Koowootha (Carriageworks), stunning ink works from Symrin Gill (MCA), abstracts from Julian Martin (C-A-C) and Madeleine Kelly paintings (AGNSW). Painting is sometimes elided in conceptualisations of the contemporary, and the National attempts to remedy the situation.

I fear, however, that a smorgasbord approach dilutes the messages of the more overtly political works. Still, part of what renders The National worth the pilgrimage (especially to the impressive C-A-C) is that it offers art that affords viewers the ability to examine ideas and experiences of nationality.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 63

EXHIBITION
The National 4: Australian Art Now 
MCA: 31 March – 9 July, 2023
Carriageworks: 30 March – 25 June, 2023
AGNSW: 24 March – 23 July, 2023
C-A-C: 30 March – 25 June, 2023

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