The National

Australia’s latest contemporary art biennale stretches across Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) and Carriageworks with new, past and commissioned works on display by emerging, mid-career and established artists from around the country. It is the first of three instalments promised across six years. So, what’s in a name and why does this mega multi-year art project take ‘The National’ as its framework at a time when a singular identity is no longer a hallmark of progress?

To answer this question, first take a trip to the AGNSW. There you will see Dale Harding’s Know them in Correct Judgement (2017). A wall stencil, created in situ with his uncle Milton Lawton and cousin Will Lawton using a mouth-blowing technique and ochre sourced from Ghungalu land. Like many of the works in the AGNSW component, it’s an exercise, or perhaps an exorcise, in historical retelling. This work considers the displacement of Aboriginal knowledge by the Christian mission system, which moved communities, cultural practices and objects off Country. Brought into the gallery setting, the irony is rife, but it also adds potency. The stencils take on a ghost-like quality, engaging the viewer firsthand in the cultural displacement the very work speaks to.

Tom Nicholson, Comparative monument (Shellal), 2014-2017, glass tesserae mosaics, wooden boxes, 2-channel digital video, high definition, colour, sound, left channel 6:01 minutes, right channel 14:26 minutes, dimensions variable © Tom Nicholson Courtesy the artist, Milani Gallery, Brisbane and Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Other highlights include Tom Nicholson’s mosaic installation Comparative Monument (Shellal) (2014-2017), Keg De Souza’s vacuum-packed food tent Changing Courses (2017), Nicholas Mangan’s video and installation work Limits to Growth (2016-2017), Taloi Havini’s multi-channel digital video Habitat (2017) and Emily Floyd’s bold and cheeky entrance installation Kesh Alphabet (2017). Wherever you look, artists are mining their lived histories to bring new perspectives to light, not only reflecting but refracting cultural narrative to dislodge patriarchal, colonial and heteronormative fault lines, and to open us up to the breadth of our intersubjective cultural present.

Alan Griffiths, Goorbadjim balmarra, representing the hills of Bullo River and references the late Paddy Carlton, senior lawman and traditional owner of Goorbadjim, 2002, ochre-painted wood, coloured wool © the artist Photograph: Peter Eve. Courtesy the artist, Waringarri Aboriginal Arts and Carriageworks, Sydney

Carriageworks’ program expands upon these themes with a series of large-scale installation and performance works, and a heavier focus on emerging artists such as Claudia Nicholson, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, Jess Johnson, and a performance program that features new work by Justene Williams and Atlanta Eke and Ghenoa Gela. Colour and spectacle threaten to override some of the quieter works that line the walls. It’s worth stealing time for Richard Lewer’s hand drawn animation Never Shall Be Forgotten – A Mother’s Story (2017) and Alan Griffiths’ balmarra boards.

Zanny Begg, City of Ladies, 2017, still. Courtesy the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney

The MCA features mid-career Australian artists from every state and territory, and is noticeably the most conservative arm of the program. Formally and conceptually many pieces employ modernist and early post-modernist concepts and forms, such as Marco Fusinato’s elegant, score-like works on paper that recall avant-garde artists such as John Cage, and Ronnie van Hout’s installation I Know Everything (2017), which eerily shifts ‘the gaze’ from viewer to subject and back again. That being said stand out works include D.108 Moon/Stargate (2009-2017) by Gary Carsley, an intricate, multilayered installation that continues his ongoing investigation into the artifice associated with European-Australian culture; Zanny Begg and Elise McLeod’s durational video The City of Ladies (2016), which references the French historical text ‘The Book of the City of Ladies’ and invites seven young French women from various ethnicities, including Cambodian, Algerian and Tunisian, to imagine seven films that collectively create a utopic, dystopian and dreamlike filmic fiction informed by their personal lives; and Khadim Ali’s giant wall mural at the entrance, titled The Arrival of Demons (2017).

The curators of ‘The National’ have enacted a semantic reverse psychology, taking the perhaps controversial title to turn it on its head, to expand, and overthrow the rigidity of its engrained meaning. ‘The National’ represents the anxiety of identity and hybrid culture that makes up a complex and interesting contemporary Australia. It shows that Australian artists are doing hard work to disrupt popular Nationalism, to challenge and express the lived effects of diverse experiences of knowledge, history, power
and understanding.

Roslyn Helper is an artist, writer and the Director of Underbelly Arts.

Museum of Contemporary Art Australia
Until 18 June

Carriageworks
Until 25 June

Art Gallery of New South Wales
Until 16 July

Sydney