Third Iteration of “The National” Proves to be a Sustainable Spotlight for Contemporary Australian Art

Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda, installation view at “The National 2021: New Australian Art”, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 2021. Photo: Anna Kučera © the artist. Image courtesy of the artist.
Judith Wright, Nature/Nurture, 2020, synthetic polymer paint and wax on Japanese rice paper, installation view at “The National 2021: New Australian Art”, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 2021. Photo: by Anna Kučera © the artist. Image courtesy of the artist .
Deborah Kelly, installation view at “The National 2021: New Australian Art”, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 2021. Photo by Anna Kučera © the artist.. Image courtesy of the artist.
Lorraine Connelly-Northey, Narrbong Galang, 2021, found industrial materials, installation view at “The National 2021: New Australian Art”, Carriageworks, Sydney, 2021. Photo by Zan Wimberley © the artist. Image courtesy of the artist.
Isadora Vaughan, Organs of Cognition, 2021, installation view at “The National 2021: New Australian Art”, Carriageworks, Sydney, 2021. Photo by Zan Wimberley © the artist. Image courtesy of the artist and STATION.
Michelle Nikou, no sound of water. Behind him the hot dogs, split and drizzled, 2021, bronze, low melt metals, lead, neon, ceramic, wool textile, plastic, wood, steel, 128 x 275 x 68 cm, installation view at “The National 2021: New Australian Art”, Carriageworks, Sydney, 2021. Photo by Zan Wimberley © the artist. Image courtesy of the artist and Darren Knight Gallery.
Karrabing Film Collective, A Day in the Life, 2020, five-channel HD digital video installation, colour, sound, subtitles, 32 min 47 sec, installation view at “The National 2021: New Australian Art”, Carriageworks, Sydney, 2021. Photo by Zan Wimberley © the artists. Image courtesy of the artists.
Betty Muffler and Maringka Burton, Ngangkari Ngura (Healing Country), 2020, acrylic on linen, 300 x 500 cm. Photo by Felicity Jenkins of AGNSW © the artists. Image courtesy of the artists and Iwantja Arts.
Wona Bae and Charlie Lawler, Regenerator, 2021, charcoal, glue, steel, sound, installation dimensions variable, installation view at “The National 2021: New Australian Art”, AGNSW, Sydney, 2021. Photo by Diana Panuccio of AGNSW © the artists. Image courtesy of the artists.
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Calligraphy Rhapsody – Retrospective Exhibition of Georges Mathieu

“The National: New Australian Art”, a biennial survey exhibition held across three institutional venues in Sydney, Australia, was originally conceived as a six-year, three-edition initiative. Coming to its third iteration this month, it continues to give insightful response to social and universal concerns while celebrating the country’s uniquely diverse art scene.

TEXT: Chloé Wolifson
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

 

“The National 2021: New Australian Art” is not just one exhibition, but three. A biennial survey exhibition held at The Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA), and Carriageworks, Sydney, “The National” showcases contemporary art being made across the country. This year’s three distinct exhibitions have been developed by four curators and include 39 new commissioned projects by established, mid-career, and emerging artists and artist collectives.

A notable element of the exhibitions’ structure is its de-emphasis of the curatorial ego relative to the international Biennale circuit. Since 2017 each institution has engaged a different curator or curators for their section of the show, all from their own staff (with the exception of independent curator Abigail Moncrieff, curator of Carriageworks’ 2021 iteration). This retains the personality of each institution and gives a variety of voices within the overall exhibition. The other aspect of the exhibition model that has enabled this multitudinous approach is the lack of overarching theme. In a world where Biennale themes become so all-encompassing as to be meaningless, or alternatively employ such convoluted readings of scientific or philosophical concepts as to be alienating to a general audience, it is refreshing to have a show that simply allows curators to select outstanding work reflecting the current conditions of contemporary practice.

 

Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda, installation view at “The National 2021: New Australian Art”, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 2021. Photo: Anna Kučera © the artist. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Having said that, MCA Chief Curator Rachel Kent has drawn on the motif of symbiosis when bringing together works concerned with the environment, storytelling, and intergenerational learning. All three of these ideas are interwoven in the first gallery where visitors encounter the powerful juxtaposition of works by John Wolseley and the late Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda. The two had collaborated and exhibited together during Wirrpanda’s lifetime and Wirrpanda’s final body of work, ochre paintings on bark and hollow log, explores termite ecosystems, as do Wolseley’s mixed media prints which became a way of honouring his friend after her death in early 2021.

 

Judith Wright, Nature/Nurture, 2020, synthetic polymer paint and wax on Japanese rice paper, installation view at “The National 2021: New Australian Art”, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 2021. Photo: by Anna Kučera © the artist. Image courtesy of the artist .
Deborah Kelly, installation view at “The National 2021: New Australian Art”, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 2021. Photo by Anna Kučera © the artist.. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Kent knows these galleries like the back of her hand and has allowed the space for the works to breathe and communicate, with the human figure a recurring empathetic image. Judith Wright’s series Nature/Nurture (2020) invites the viewer to move between suspended paintings on skin-like rice paper, surrounded by flocks of winged pairs of breasts. In contrast to Wright’s intimate, intertwined tree-figures, Mehwish Iqbal’s Grey Wall (2020) is a sickening accumulation of bodies, comprised of 50,000 hand-cut and painted paper silhouettes which evoke the anonymising effects of mass global displacement.

The MCA presents expansive new bodies of work like Deborah Kelly’s suite CREATION (2021), which features collaborative works including an animated collage of surreal creatures, alongside tapestries, works on paper, and costumes employed in video works, exemplifying how “The National” is able to not just showcase but facilitate the development of contemporary practice through these commissions.

 

Lorraine Connelly-Northey, Narrbong Galang, 2021, found industrial materials, installation view at “The National 2021: New Australian Art”, Carriageworks, Sydney, 2021. Photo by Zan Wimberley © the artist. Image courtesy of the artist.
Isadora Vaughan, Organs of Cognition, 2021, installation view at “The National 2021: New Australian Art”, Carriageworks, Sydney, 2021. Photo by Zan Wimberley © the artist. Image courtesy of the artist and STATION.

 

At Carriageworks, guest curator Abigail Moncrieff has explored connectedness through difference, asking “who is speaking?” and “what is being said?” The presentation embraces the particularities of the heritage rail workshops, with most of the work exhibited together in a single large exhibition bay. Peeling paint comes into dialogue with the sculptures of Lorraine Connelly-Northey and Isadora Vaughan, the former repurposing scrap metal into narrbongs (string bags) using traditional Indigenous weaving techniques, and the latter presenting a number of orifice-like vessels propped on stilts. Across the gallery, Michelle Nikou’s installation of everyday objects cast in lead is draped in a carpet woven with a close-up image of a sink plug. This playful approach to installation and scale encourages unexpected conversations to take place.

 

Michelle Nikou, no sound of water. Behind him the hot dogs, split and drizzled, 2021, bronze, low melt metals, lead, neon, ceramic, wool textile, plastic, wood, steel, 128 x 275 x 68 cm, installation view at “The National 2021: New Australian Art”, Carriageworks, Sydney, 2021. Photo by Zan Wimberley © the artist. Image courtesy of the artist and Darren Knight Gallery.
Karrabing Film Collective, A Day in the Life, 2020, five-channel HD digital video installation, colour, sound, subtitles, 32 min 47 sec, installation view at “The National 2021: New Australian Art”, Carriageworks, Sydney, 2021. Photo by Zan Wimberley © the artists. Image courtesy of the artists.

 

The counterpoint to this material cacophony in the main gallery, can be found in the adjacent space where Karrabing Film Collective’s five-channel video work A Day in the Life (2020) commands focus. Featuring an extended group of family members in a fictional-realist take on daily life in a Northern Territory community, the film is underscored with the refrain “The crush of lies, leave them behind.
No one interferes. No one fucking cares. Someone’s making money here”. Karrabing’s mastery of their craft results in a powerful work which reminds us that the concept of unified nationhood in the exhibition’s title requires ongoing interrogation.

 

Judy Watson, clouds and undercurrents, 2020–21, indigo, acrylic, natural pigments, embellishment on canvas, bunya leaves, nets, vinyl, sound, installation dimensions variable, installation view at “The National 2021: New Australian Art”, AGNSW, Sydney, 2021. Photo by Felicity Jenkins of AGNSW © the artist. Image courtesy of  the artist and Milani Gallery, Meanjin (Brisbane).

 

The AGNSW presentation of “The National 2021” is co-curated by Erin Vink, Assistant Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, and Matt Cox, Curator of Asian Art. The exhibition is woven throughout the building, rather than being contained in a single gallery. In the neoclassical vestibule at the gallery’s entrance, Fiona Hall’s charred trees mourning the extreme loss of biodiversity in the 2019–20 bushfires meet AGNSW’s traditional sandstone archways. Then into the main central court of AGNSW, where the ethereal paintings of collaborating aunt and niece Betty Muffler and Maringka Burton sit at the entrance to the Old Courts, and a series of suspended charcoal rings by Wona Bae and Charlie Lawler form a conduit through the space. Visitors descend the escalators towards the main section of the exhibition, marked by Judy Watson’s suspended arrangement of dyed canvases. Eurocentric notions of time, place and categorisation are challenged in Vink and Cox’s selection, and the exhibition here feels like a process of uncovering, venturing from the light-filled entrance court with Muffler and Burton’s ochre-white paintings, and the translucent qualities of Watson’s hanging shrouds into darkened spaces to meet with intricate, intimate and otherworldly moments.

 

Betty Muffler and Maringka Burton, Ngangkari Ngura (Healing Country), 2020, acrylic on linen, 300 x 500 cm. Photo by Felicity Jenkins of AGNSW © the artists. Image courtesy of the artists and Iwantja Arts.
Wona Bae and Charlie Lawler, Regenerator, 2021, charcoal, glue, steel, sound, installation dimensions variable, installation view at “The National 2021: New Australian Art”, AGNSW, Sydney, 2021. Photo by Diana Panuccio of AGNSW © the artists. Image courtesy of the artists.

 

There are many positive aspects to “The National” as an exhibition model, both in theory and execution. It provides an opportunity to focus on art being made in Australia, by artists of diverse backgrounds. It supports a cross-generational selection of artists, demonstrating that artists are emerging, flourishing and innovating at a range of ages and stages. The model of “The National” encourages Sydney audiences to see the major art institutions in their city in relationship to one another, to consider their individual characteristics and strengths as they each tackle the exhibition brief in their own way. While international blockbuster shows continue to be museum drawcards, “The National” boosts the dialogue around contemporary Australian art practice, and Australians become more accustomed to seeing themselves reflected in their own institutions.

“The National” was originally conceived as a six-year, three-edition initiative. The idea of a limited-time-only, local exhibition format in a world of perpetual international fairs and biennales is somewhat unusual. Ironically, it seems now in a pandemic world that this type of exhibition is the most sustainable—avoiding issues of freight holdups and border closures that scuppered so many other elements of these institutions’ programming calendars for the last 12 months. It is also sustainable in the sense of its environmental impact, forecasting a tendency that has also been picked up in the two Biennale of Sydney iterations that will bookend “The National 2021”. It’s not surprising then that the three institutions have committed to continuing “The National” beyond this third edition.

Reflecting artists’ continued responses to the significant occurrences of our age, and a broader societal shift towards questioning dominant colonial narratives and listening to the voices of those marginalised by those narratives, “The National” is ultimately a successful experiment in evolving exhibition-making practices.

 

 

The National 2021: New Australian Art

Art Gallery of New South Wales
26 March – 5 September 2021

Carriageworks
26 March – 20 June 2021

Museum of Contemporary Art
26 March – 22 August 2021

 

 

 
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