Why seek contemporary Australian artwork when you’re in Sydney? There’s one compelling reason. You’ll ‘get’ Australia better through an artist’s practised eyes.
New Australian Art Exhibition
You know about the Sydney Biennale, held on even years. From 2017 Sydney will also have The National on odd years. At least for 2017, 2019 and 2021.
The big difference is that the Biennale has an international flavour. The National, as its name suggests, is dedicated to contemporary Australian artists, whether emerging, mid-career or well established. For a visitor it is a wonderful opportunity to see what’s exercising our Aussie minds.
The National 2017
From 30 March until 18 June 2017.
Here’s a story that captures a lot of what this exhibition is about.
In 1900 an Australian surveyor and anthropologist published one of the first maps purporting to show the boundaries of 28 Aboriginal ‘nations’. A white man defining Aboriginal territorial organisation according to white concepts, with little respect for any indigenous interpretation. The colonial assumption of Australian nationhood took place the next year, in 1901.
The map has been discredited as reductive and deeply flawed, yet the research underpinning it is still used today by Aboriginal claimants to native title, in an attempt to satisfy our legal system’s concept of land ownership.
Brisbane based Archie Moore has devised flags for each of these imagined nations using geographical features unique to the identified areas.
As artworks, they question the underpinnings of our institutionalised knowledge.
Both ambiguous and contradictory they encapsulate many of the issues that Australians struggle with today. Colonisation, dispossession, Aboriginal land rights. And how to build an inclusive, sustainable society given these historical abuses, some of which, appallingly, still continue.
The concept of identity and nation, what it means – to indigenous people, to immigrants, to marginalised refugees, to middle class Australia – is the thread that pulls together the exhibition. It’s a big exhibition – spread across three major Sydney art institutions. It’s a slippery idea, able to encapsulate many different things, and each institution has its own take on it.
Sydney Art Gallery, AGNSW
The dual forces of time and change. That’s the broad idea behind the Australian artwork at the Art Gallery of NSW in the Domain. Looking backwards to be able to look forwards.
An example: Margaret Preston, a famous Australian artist of the 20’s and 30’s, championed a national style founded on the visual language of ‘native art’. You’ll find lots of her work in the AGNSW as well as on numerous mugs, tea towels and cards. It’s very decorative.
She wanted to free Australian art from alien influences and evolve what she saw as a genuine ‘Australian’ art. One of the concepts she and her contemporaries advanced to achieve this, was that of ‘white aboriginality’.
Fascinated by Australian indigenous culture, and by the outback, they appear to us today to have been entirely insensitive to their appropriation of Aboriginal culture.
Sadly, many of these attitudes haven’t really changed that much, although today they’re not expressed with quite the same freedom.
In his Home Décor series, the artist Gordon Bennett re-appropriates Preston’s designs. He offers a new perspective on this historical period and moves us on.
Australian Artwork at Carriageworks
Carriageworks is in Redfern, the heart of Sydney’s Aboriginal community. It is carved out of the site of the old railway yards in Sydney. Today it’s one of the city’s premiere cultural precincts with farmers’ markets, experimental theatre, chamber opera, modern dance and new Australian artwork maintaining the buzz.
For The National 2017 its broad theme is questions of identity. Rather than showing a robust, coherent, single Australian identity, the artists at Carriageworks address anxieties of the self, of how identity is asserted, negotiated, escaped from or erased.
Karla Dickens has assembled 6 canvas straitjackets, with brass buttons, plastic monkeys, printed cotton, plastic combs, human hair, waxed linen thread, artificial flowers and lace, embroidery, cows’ teeth, homemade wire dogs’ muzzles and a printed canvas moneybag.
She’s called it Bound.
An extract from the poem that goes with it:
You asked for it
in front of God
for better or worse
in sickness and in health
’till death do you part
hand-cuffs lock vows
Not in front of the kids
reassure the unborn baby
pegging tiny singlets on the line
hands tied behind her back …
Museum of Contemporary Art
At the MCA the broad concept is continuity in the contemporary. It highlights artists who have produced work through an extended period, which allows patterns to emerge – of issues of concern or of practice. The rhythm of the recurrent gesture reads as a form of resistance to the need for the shock of the new.
One of the pieces I loved for its playfulness, is artist Nell’s With things being as they are ….
Her sculptures riff off the egg-like form in the two-dimensional painting in the background of the photo.
When you come into the Museum of Contemporary Art from the harbourside entrance you’ll be escorted up the stairs by Khadim Ali’s The Arrival of Demons.
These fantastical blue figures are, apparently, the single most shared image of the entire MCA collection. So there’s every chance you will have seen them. Don’t miss them. He painted them directly onto the wall so they’re one of those Australian artwork pieces that can’t survive beyond a few months.
Limited Time? What to Choose
If your time is severely constrained – you might be in Sydney for just one day – then I’d say go to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. As well as The National 2017 it has a great collection of
- Australian aboriginal art
- Contemporary Australian artwork
- Colonial art
- Asian art – because we are, ultimately, part of the Asia Pacific region
All three of the galleries, by the way, have very good coffee shops which also serve light lunches. In both the AGNSW and the MCA you’ll get views to go with the refreshments.
If you’re essentially focused on the area around the harbour then the MCA will be the easiest option. It’s right on Sydney harbour, just where the cruise ships and the harbour cruises berth.
For those who want to see a different side of Sydney, out of the run of the mill tourist hot spots, Carriageworks is for you.
- is easy to get to, it’s one stop from Central
- still has traditional Sydney streetscapes, you’ll walk through them to get to Carriageworks
- is ‘gritty’ but still very safe to walk – women included
- is bursting with new artisanal cafés and eateries
All of which is evidence of rapid gentrification, but it hasn’t got to the tipping point of boring yet, so go while there’s still the energy on the streets.
The National is on until 18 June. For more details on this exhibition go to The National 2017.