‘Why is identity important today?’ asks Megan Robson, this year’s curator of ‘Primavera’, the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia’s (MCA) annual exhibition of artists under 35 years of age. As she notes in her catalogue essay, ‘identity politics has once again become a significant issue in public debate.’ For the artists in this exhibition, however, identity represents not an externally imposed categorisation but a framing of multivalent expressions of self, notched by the currents of history.
Hoda Afshar’s stunning 2-channel video work Remain (2018) returns narrative agency to men whose stories have been distorted, discarded and ignored. The work was shot on Manus Island and made collaboratively with seven refugees who remain trapped in Australian immigration detention. Kurdish writer Behrooz Boochani, who has been detained on Manus since 2013, served as a collaborating producer, acting as translator and facilitating access to shoot on the island.
Remain is a tender and powerful portrait. The camera lingers on their faces and bodies as they walk through the dense jungle, describing the terror and tedium of their existence on the island. A series of choreographed actions – reenacting the pieta in the crystal clear shallows, Boochani cradling a gutted fish – punctuate the work. The hopelessness of their indefinite situation hangs in the air like humidity.
Spence Messih’s sculptural installation also resists external categorisation. Large welded steel sculptures divide the gallery space, subtly manipulating the movement of visitors through the exhibition. Their geometric abstract forms recall decorative ironwork – fences, balconies, gates – and evoke, as the artist states, ‘how cis-heteronormative power structures feel on a bodily level and how they fundamentally intend to keep certain bodies on the outside.’ Far from decorative pattern, the designs incorporate abstracted letters from the handwritten papers left by the late transgender activist Lou Sullivan. The works recalibrate the viewer’s perspective on the room, framing a multiplicity of potential experiences.
Reappraisal of historic narratives features prominently throughout the show, as in Caroline Garcia’s pair of video works Primitive Nostalgia (2014) and Imperial Reminiscence (2018) which skewer the trope of the ‘exotic other’ in Hollywood cinema. The artist is superimposed into dance sequences in full costume, her deft performance allowing her to pass through each time and place elegantly, even as the clash of new with old footage jars the viewer. From the Tahitian women dancing for a leering Marlon Brando in ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ (1962) to the Puerto Rican women dancing in defiance of the Jets gang in ‘West Side Story’ (1961), these dances are performed for white audiences, both on-screen and off. In Imperial Reminiscence Garcia further destabilises the white patriarchal gaze by superimposing herself over white actresses costumed to play ‘exotic’ roles, highlighting the whitewashing that homogenises, alienates and erases people of colour.
A thread running through the exhibition is the demolishing of the dominant Australian identity that denies the experiences and contributions of Indigenous Australians. Works by Ryan Presley and Hayley Millar-Baker redress historical injustices, reinstating narratives erased from the Australian story. Millar-Baker’s series titled ‘A Series of Unwarranted Events’ are black and white digital photomontages that reanimate hostile encounters between Gunditjmara people and European colonists. Their painstaking detail rewards careful attention. Works from Presley’s ongoing series ‘Blood Money’ (2010-ongoing) urge a reconsideration of the symbols of Australian national identity we encounter daily. In large-scale intricate watercolour paintings based on Australian banknotes, Presley centres the lives and legacies of Aboriginal leaders such as Fanny Cochrane Smith, whose wax cylinder recordings are the only record of Tasmanian Aboriginal speech and song, or Dundalli, a Dalla man who fought European colonisation. In a similar vein of overturning white Australian dominant narratives, Jason Phu’s large scale dioramic installation The 5th Reincarnation of Sam Poo, Infamous Bushranger and The Mustard Horde: The Last Stand (2018) draws attention to the little-documented Sam Poo – ‘Australia’s only Chinese Bushranger’.
Beyond myths of nationhood, ‘Primavera’ also explores the impact of global conflict on the stories we tell about ourselves. Andrew Tenison’s series Let Me Imagine You (2017-ongoing) is a speculative narrative based on a photograph of a German Luftwaffe serviceman the artist found in Berlin antique store. Tenison’s silver gelatin photographs are spare and emotive, and belie months of careful set construction and prop sourcing.
Phuong Ngo’s Vietnam Archive Project (2010-ongoing) also deploys found photographs, along with slides, objects and artefacts, in an ongoing effort to uncover the unreliable, unstable and inherently biased record of Vietnam as captured by foreign soldiers and other 20th century colonial forces. As a rehabilitation of this archival material, the project creates space for historical narratives and new stories to emerge.
Eleanor Zeichner is a writer from Sydney and current Assistant Curator at UTS Gallery.
Museum of Contemporary Art Australia
Until 3 February, 2019