Who the bloody hell are we

Published in Art Collector, Issue 79, Jan-Mar 2017


Jane O’Sullivan previews the multi-venue exhibition that the Australian contemporary art world has been waiting for.

The National. Another gumtree exhibition about what it means to be Australian? “Absolutely not,” says the MCA’s curatorial & digital director Blair French with a laugh. He admits it’s a provocative title but says that’s part of the point. “What it does is throws up the question, if you’re not creating a nationalist show or trying to work at ideas of nationhood, which we’re not, then how can you use that title to problematise those ideas?”

French is one of five curators from three Sydney institutions who have worked together on The National: New Australian Art 2017. The idea is to take “a snapshot of key practices, key concerns, key trajectories in Australian contemporary art now, and to follow that over a period of three exhibitions,” he explains. The next ones will be held in 2019 and 2021.

This year there are 50 artists across the MCA, Art Gallery of New South Wales and Carriageworks. All the work is either very recent or previously unseen (including commissions) and the East Coast curators have travelled widely to ensure the exhibition is indeed national.

“It’s actually a show with a very global outlook, but also one that thinks about the specifics of place,” explains curator Anneke Jaspers, who worked with Wayne Tunnicliffe at AGNSW. As she sees it, artists are not so much thinking about the “idea of Australia” but locality and difference, using specific contexts and places to do so. Tom Nicholson is one example, she says. His work connects Canberra with Israel/Palestine by recreating at a 6th century mosaic currently in the Australian War Memorial.

Many of the artists are working around what Carriageworks’ curator Nina Miall describes as the “fractures and fault lines of identity” and how it is negotiated in the 21st century. This plays out in very different ways.

Richard Lewer’s animation about the death of an Indigenous teenager after a brawl with police touches on issues of cultural appropriation and who has the authority to tell the story. “Those negotiations of cultural territories relate very closely to questions of identity,” Miall explains.

Archie Moore has responded to a spurious, Federation-era map of 28 Aboriginal nations and their borders, creating what Miall describes as “false flags” for each. “They’re very ambiguous, they don’t follow Australian traditional flag protocol at all so they’re kind of artworks masquerading as flags… and encapsulate Moore’s own fragmented sense of identity.”

Gordon Hookey and Zanny Begg also cast an eye to history and historical objects, while in other works it’s the choices about materials that speak the loudest. Emily Floyd’s commission for AGNSW turns an alphabet invented by the novelist Ursula Le Guin into a large-scale sculptural installation. It’s a reminder that language shapes our world in fundamental ways, but it is constructed and can be changed. (AGNSW is acquiring the work, a further sign of director Michael Brand’s commitment to improving the representation of female artists in the gallery’s collection.)

At the MCA, Matthew Bradley exhibits some of his experiments in DIY metal casting. French says his attention to the act of making and materiality “points to how we create our world, both physically and intellectually.”

Other artists included in this year’s exhibition are Tiger Yaltangki, Justene Williams, Erin Coates, Karen Mills and Ronnie van Hout. Without forcing any kind of thematic in their pick of the now, it seems the curators have set up a space for some very interesting conversations to play out.


The National: New Australian Art 2017 runs 30 March to 18 June 2017 at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Carriageworks, and to 30 July 2017 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.