National Anthem

Loaded in ways the show’s title might not immediately suggest, ‘National Anthem’ is the cri de couer the Australian art world — and the nation at large — so desperately needs. The works on display yank at your collar and shake you to the core; they demand better of you, of me, and our institutions.

Curated by Dr Kate Just, ‘National Anthem’ comprises pieces from 24 artists sourced from the Michael Buxton Collection, and beyond. Posed among them are a thrilling variety of mediums and protests from Australian notables Tracey Moffatt, Mike Parr and Tony Garifalakis, as well as exciting early career artists Paul Yore and Siying Zhou, Abdul Abdullah and 18 others. Together they ask us to consider everything from ‘how we acknowledge our colonial history and its impact on the present,’ to ‘how queerness challenges and extends questions of national identity,’ and ‘how we appear to nations outside our borders,’ explains Just.

Installation view, National Anthem, (left to right) Christian Thompson, Dead tongue, 2015 (detail); Paul Yore, THIS MOMENT IS CRITICAL, 2014. Photograph: Christian Capurro. Courtesy the artists and Buxton Contemporary, Melbourne

Upon entering the show, what you’re looking at, and why you’re there, becomes unequivocally salient. Almost immediately, Abdullah’s Home #2 (2012), leaves one swarmed with dread over Australia’s armistice with colonisation and xenophobia — a parley which is yet to rear its head — during a time when the majority of our nation’s revered politicians, academics, CEOs, and even artists, are of central casting, complicit in silencing voices which aren’t their own. The work, quite literally, is a white flag, in every sense of the phrase.

But the collective assessment of our national identity within ‘National Anthem’ isn’t limited to race and immigration — there are voices from just about every section of Australian culture, and the ways in which they’re excluded from our national identity abroad is apparent. For instance, with Yore, we clatter our way through pop-cultural dissonance, as he employs gathered materials and text to reinstall faith in the future, and cries for help today. In Welcome to Hell (2014), the word ‘HELP’ scrawls the bottom left-hand corner of the work, budding alongside an imprint of the Eureka flag — an emblem of the Southern Cross and the cultural disparity it represents. And to the left of Welcome to Hell, hangs another of his works, This Moment is Critical (2014), which depicts a rainbow-laden, erect penis, mid-ejaculation.

Installation view, National Anthem, with (foreground) Richard Bell, A prelude to imagining victory 2012–13; (background, left to right) Tracey Moffatt, Job hunt, 1976-1994; Callum Morton, Glenville souvenirs, Mt. Irvine, NSW 2001; Tony Albert, CLASH 2019; Hoda Afshar, The Westoxicated #1, #2, #4, #5 (detail), all 2013–14. Photograph: Christian Capurro. Courtesy the artists and Buxton Contemporary, Melbourne

The exhibition offers a new slant on the ways our national identity fails to reflect every corner of Australian society. Identifying instead, how it mirrors what we think it is, or what it once was. We are confronted with a multitude of questions of what it truly means to be Australian, and whether questioning the smorgasboard of cultural hierarchies observed within our national identity, is un-Australian. Or if, in fact, it would be un-Australian not to ask. No longer are these questions being asked on parallel lines — here, they unite to ask serious questions of who we are, and where we’re headed. However blunt and confronting the questions may be, it’s with a tempered balance of valiant satire and robustness, that the works truly pack a punch.

‘National Anthem’ arrives to counter the overwhelming voices from an invariably singular, mostly male, ultimately white cultural narrative. And sadly, the trickle-down effect of such narratives is seen in the art world too (only a brief glance at the rhapsodic headlines and praise for such artists, as recently as a few months ago confirms this).

As Buxton Contemporary celebrates its first anniversary with two shows you would be hard-pressed to discover elsewhere, in ‘National Anthem’ and ‘New Order’, let’s just hope that they are the first of many. Let’s hope that a space emerges within commercial and public galleries, where the delivery of shows such as these aren’t considered a risk. Before ‘National Anthem’, it had been a long time since I’d winced, twitched, and suffered physical reactions of discomfort to art in a legitimised, Australian space. Dr Kate Just has culminated an undeniably visceral voice — and show, which emerges with a defiant buoyancy. It is impolite, unapologetic, and hopefully, here to stay.

John Buckley writes on art, fashion and popular culture.

Buxton Contemporary
Until 7 July, 2019
Melbourne