Introducing The National: New Australian Art

A new biennial dedicated to contemporary Australian art looks set to reinvigorate the country’s cultural scene.

A performer in costume for the concertina dance Two Fold by Justene Williams.

A performer in costume for the concertina dance Two Fold by Justene Williams.

It was one of the most successful—not to mention significant—shows on the domestic art calendar. So when Australian Perspecta announced its last exhibit in 1999, after a biennial run of 18 years, the local art community let out a collective cry. In the event’s final edition, some 76 Australian artists and 30 speakers were involved. There was some overlap with the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, which came along in 1990 with a similar remit of showcasing homegrown talent, and a few of Sydney’s larger galleries have since committed to regular themed exhibitions. But none have been on the scale of Perspecta.

“Across Australia but specifically in Sydney, there’s a lack of space for a sustained, large-scale showcase of contemporary Australian art,” says Blair French, director of curatorial and digital for the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). “There is the Adelaide Biennial, but a lot of east-coast audiences don’t get to see that.”

It was this gaping hole that led French and the MCA to team up with two of Sydney’s other premier cultural institutions, the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) and Carriageworks, to create The National: New Australian Art.

Launched on March 30, the multi-venue event has now created an art quadrant of sorts linking each of the galleries—in Circular Quay, The Domain, and Eveleigh, respectively. It also marks the first time that Sydney’s three visual-arts giants have come together. “We’d been wanting to collaborate for some time,” says Carriageworks curator Nina Miall. “We recognized that the whole really was greater than a sum of the parts. The Australian contemporary art scene is vital, dynamic, and exciting, and we wanted to showcase this across various disciplines.”

Like Perspecta, The National will be a biennial event, held on years alternating with the  Adelaide Biennial and the city’s other major cultural event, the internationally focused Biennale of Sydney, with a commitment to three exhibitions between now and 2021. Over that time, the trio of institutions aims to work with 150 Australian artists, both emerging and established. The inaugural event will feature a lineup of 49.

Despite the ambitious scope and scale of the project, The National came to fruition in just over 18 months, perhaps thanks to the fact that there are five curators involved: French, Miall, and Wayne Tunnicliffe, head curator of Australian art at the AGNSW; as well as the AGNSW’s contemporary art curator Anneke Jaspers and Carriageworks director Lisa Havilah.

A detail of With things being as they are… by single-named artist Nell.

A detail of With things being as they are… by single-named artist Nell.

French considers this collaborative approach to be one of The National’s strengths. “We brought different experiences and interests to the table, and I think that’s reflected in the show. We were responsible for what is in our own venues, but decisions were made in conversation with each other.”

Miall points out that while The National will be a single exhibition held across three sites, each institution has led its own delivery. “We’re different in our programming and spaces, after all,” she says. As such, the AGNSW will focus on themes underpinned by social engagement, showing artists navigating and reinterpreting various histories, largely from an indigenous perspective. Carriageworks will “address the fractures and contingencies of Australian identity” with a focus on performance, while at the MCA, artists will work with key concerns through time, looking at repeated actions, images, and motifs to pull history through to the present. Visitors can also attend artist talks and discussion panels staggered over the first couple of days.

The Arrivals 6 by Khadim Ali.

The Arrivals 6 by Khadim Ali.

Significantly, most of the art on show will be new and commissioned. “The whole experience is creating a new opportunity in the landscape for Australian artists,” French says. “It’s putting money into their practices, and giving them a great opportunity to raise their public profile.”

Miall adds, “The artists have been hugely enthusiastic. There has been a sizeable financial and curatorial investment, and the project has considerable scope and platforms for artists to work with.”

Among the new work on show at Carriageworks is an Archie Moore installation that reinterprets a map published by anthropologist R.H. Matthews in 1900, in which he identified 28 Aboriginal “nations.” Moore’s piece, a series of colorful flags created for each of Matthews’ imagined nations, not only explores the contradictory and flawed nature of the anthropologist’s 
endeavor, but also raises questions about his own fragmented identity. Another installation by Dada-inspired performance artist Justene 
Williams will unite sculpture, dance, music, and a gymnast who will bring the work to life on The National’s opening weekend.

Over at the AGNSW, highlights include Tiger Yaltangki’s new Doctor Who painting, which offers a unique insight into contemporary life in his community in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands of South Australia. There’s also a video installation by Taloi Havini that traces the environmental and cultural impact of mining on Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, the artist’s home before she immigrated to Australia. And at the MCA, Khadim Ali’s The Arrivals is a dramatic new wall mural reaching 15 meters high in the 
gallery’s entrance foyer, while Zanny Begg’s sin-
gle-channel video piece The City of Ladies offers a filmic exploration of one of Europe’s earliest feminist texts, Le Livre de la Cité des Dames, written
 in 1402 by Christine de Pizan.

With so much on offer, can it all be seen in a single day? “It would be a great day, but it would be a lot of work,” French says. “We recommend people start at one venue and see how their natural rhythm evolves,” adds Tunnicliffe.

Co-curators Blair French, Nina Miall, and Anneke Jaspers.

Co-curators Blair French, Nina Miall, and Anneke Jaspers.

Datebook

Launched on March 30, the first edition of The National: New Australian Art (the-national.com.au) is being held at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art
 until June 18, Carriageworks in Eveleigh until June 25, and the Art Gallery of New South Wales until July 16.

This article originally appeared in the April/May 2017 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“National Pride”).

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