Featuring the work of 49 artists, ‘The National 2017: New Australian Art’ is the inaugural edition of an initiative staged across three of Sydney’s major art institutions – Art Gallery of New South Wales, Museum of Contemporary Art and Carriageworks – and set to continue over three biennial instalments until 2021. Curated by Blair French (MCA), Lisa Havilah and Nina Miall (Carriageworks) and Wayne Tunnicliffe and Anneke Jaspers (AGNSW), the show situates itself in contradistinction to Australia’s longest established large-scale exhibition – the Sydney Biennale – as well as parallel events such as the Adelaide Biennial and the Asia Pacific Triennial.
The exhibition is premised on providing a platform for contemporary Australian artists and fostering institutional and curatorial collaboration, yet also seeks to address the legacy of colonialism and the ways in which the concept of the nation-state is queried by contemporary art. While AGNSW and Carriageworks examine political themes – in particular, contested histories and Australia’s postcolonial identity – the MCA primarily focuses on painting and drawing.
There are several highlights: Archie Moore’s United Neytions (2014–17) is an installation of 28 flags in the foyer of Carriageworks that hypothetically correspond to the 28 Aboriginal nations identified by the anthropologist R.H. Mathews in 1900. A document of its time in all its colonialist inaccuracy, Mathews’s schematization of Aboriginal nationhood has nonetheless become a template in native title claims, which are pressed to conform to Western legal constructs of sovereignty.
At AGNSW, Helen Johnson’s three paintings – Empire play (2016), Or else (2016) and Hills of Hate (2017) – similarly zoom in on colonial history, resuscitating iconic figures such as the bushranger, squatter and police constable. Johnson has spoken of a deliberate flattening of these figures: although positioned in the composition’s foreground they are ghostly and devoid of detail, allowing background motifs to thrust forward like the return of the repressed.
Occluded narratives feature in Taloi Havini’s Habitat (2017), a three-channel video depicting a contaminated landscape in Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea. In 1972, Bougainville Copper Ltd, a subsidiary of the Australian company Conzinc Rio Tinto, began excavating the mineral-rich land through the Panguna mine. After a decade of conflict that mired the country in civil war, the mine was eventually shut down in 1989; much of the land and water is now degraded and toxic.
The exhibition’s standout is Tom Nicholson’s Comparative Monument (Shellal) (2014–17), an installation at AGNSW of mosaic fragments in archive boxes and a two-channel video. The work traces the history of the 6th-century Byzantine Shellal mosaic in Palestine discovered by Australian soldiers in 1917; it was subsequently freighted to Canberra and built into the Hall of Valour in the Australian War Memorial. Nicholson’s conception of repatriation is not to return the actual work but to dismantle another mosaic in the museum – Napier Waller’s commemorative dome in the Hall of Memory – and reconstruct the Shellal mosaic using Waller’s glass tesserae.
Yhonnie Scarce’s floating mass of hand-blown glass yams, which reference British nuclear tests in the 1950s and ’60s, and Richard Lewer’s hand-drawn animation narrating a mother’s account of an Aboriginal death in custody are also powerful and sensitive examinations of unresolved political events. Agatha Gothe-Snape’s unadorned reading from the late art historian Robert Hughes’s seminal text The Shock of the New (1980) is cause for reflection on the dream of art’s restorative capacities.
Next to the probing historical conscience of these artists, many others in the exhibition, however vibrant, seem somewhat out of synch. The curatorial essays astutely explore connotations conjured by the exhibition – nationhood, patriotism and sovereignty – which so often operate as unquestioned concepts in broader political discourses. Ultimately, ‘The National’ attempts to straddle two objectives: to survey current trends in contemporary Australian art and to present works that engage with its overarching thematic. These disparate aims remain in fluctuating tension.
Main image: Tom Nicholson, Comparative Monument (Shellal), 2014–17, glass tesserae mosaics, wooden boxes, two-channel digital video, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist and Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney