‘The National 2019: New Australian Art’ is a series of three biennials that survey Australian art ‘now’. In this second iteration, practices from across Australia are on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA), Carriageworks and the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW). Heralded by its dramatic title, ‘The National’ sets a challenge for curators and artists to respond to past and present conceptions of Australia as a ‘nation’.
Evoking the atmosphere of today the AGNSW presents artists creating ephemeral works in response to a world in a state of flux and attempts to bring it into focus. Engaging with the immaterial experience of the digital world, Eliza Hutchison’s colliding images create an overwhelming flood of visual data that defamiliarises the way we see. Nearby the transitory work of Rushdi Anwar, a sculpture of blackened, burnt and crumbling chairs, rises from the ashes. It is a symbol of destruction and renewal, a charged response to the political unrest faced by humanity.
Despite the imperative to capture the moment, ‘The National’ proves that to unpick the present requires conversations that engage directly with the past. At Carriageworks visitors are welcomed by Utopia (2019), a bright, outlandish sign by Sam Cranstoun appropriating Ken Done’s Australia that marked the entrance to Brisbane’s World Expo in 1988. However unlike Done’s sunny outlook, Cranstoun sets a critical tone, unmasking how ‘Australia’ has been and is mythologised. This reflexivity is continued inside; Tara Marynowsky’s Coming Attractions (2017-19) defaces Hollywood female protagonists, violently scratching into the surface of film of romantic comedy trailers as a feminist response to the state of Hollywood today.
Consistent amongst the artists is the self-conscious examination of greater socio-political underlying narratives that define Australia. Specifically, across the exhibition sites there is a shared preoccupation with undoing the colonial narrative to present it in all its decolonised state. At Carriageworks Mark Shorter lights a match upon Eugene von Guerard’s European recalibration and therefore dispossession of the land, and at the AGNSW Pilar Mata Dupont’s Shuffle (2017-18) is a momentous dance that topples plinths of earth, smashing the fine china atop them.
Looking to new conceptions of home, at the MCA there is a proclamation of a ‘third space’ that weaves different cultures and narratives as a reflection of the multicultural experience. Unifying this line up of artists is experimentation. Sonia Kurarra, Daisy Japulija, Tjigila Nada Rawlins and the late Ms Uhl (1976-2018) from Mangkaja Arts in the Fitzroy Valley region play with perspex. The result is large-scale sculptural works that are bright and fluid, suspended from high ceilings and branching out off the walls, summoning the depths of the riverbanks. Hannah Brontë’s Heala (2018), an installation and video work that ensconces the viewer within the orange glow of a womb, carries on this optimism. Intimate and nurturing, Brontë deals with trauma, grief and renewal as she sings a song of strength and motherhood that looks to the future.
When considering the notion of ‘The National’ Nicholas Folland’s floating exaltation of Lord Howe Island embodies this abstract state that blurs fiction and reality. At first glance the suspended island made up of found crystal objects is a romantic mirage. Disquiet comes when we learn the artist has never visited the island; rather it is intentionally constructed based on the artist’s perception and examination of topographical maps. This constructed landscape creates pause when considering how national consciousness is created and connected to a place, and the role of imagination in constructing our notions of place.
The strength of ‘The National’ lies in how the combination of artists and venues enact a push and pull of distance and proximity, perspective and familiarity with the narratives that make up our sense of place and the experience of it.
Lucy Stranger is a writer and curator based in Sydney.
Museum of Contemporary Art Australia
Until 23 June, 2019
Until 23 June, 2019
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Until 21 July, 2019