Art Gallery of New South Wales, 30 March – 16 July
Carriageworks, 30 March – 25 June
Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, 30 March – 18 June
Featuring work by 45 artists and uniting a trinity of Sydney’s arts institutions, The National is a sprawling group exhibition that nominally attempts to gloss the discourses and practices that define the state of contemporary art in Australia. Given the title (there will be two further iterations of the project, in 2019 and 2021), identity is its key issue by default, both in terms of how this is articulated (more or less directly) in individual works and by the show as a collective whole. And yet anyone expecting to be presented with a group of works that neatly defines some sort of aesthetic DNA of Australian-ness is going to be disappointed by a lightly curated exhibition (or three lightly curated exhibitions, depending on how strong is your sense of the whole) that offers a polyphonic celebration of difference as much as anything else. But you won’t really by surprised by that: everyone knows that the general point of an art exhibition these days is to destabilise rather than reinforce received wisdom, and to complicate any notion of that language, particularly the language of art, is a matter of simple definitions, whether they pertain to the art itself or to the context in which it is shown. Archie Moore’s United Neytions (2014–17), centred on the relationship between the inhabitants of Australia and the land they inhabit, and on show in Carriageworks, typifies the way in which this works.
United Neytions comprises a series of 28 flags suspended from the ceiling of the shedlike building, each of which represents one of the ‘28’ Aboriginal ‘nations’ identified by the amateur anthropologist R.H. Mathews on a map of mainland Australia produced in 1900. At a time when Indigenous peoples were generally assumed, by the country’s colonial invaders, to be nomads who were unattached to any particularities of place, the map offered a counternarrative, albeit one that was no more honest (research was limited: there were certainly more than 28 tribes, etc). Moore’s flags ‘represent’ each of those nations through aspects of the flora and fauna, and dominant constellations native to each territory, and in the process construct a system of definitions that is only a little less abstract than Mathews’s map, but certainly one that mocks the very idea of identifying a multicultural society under one aesthetic or flag, let alone an artist’s ability to construct one. An echoing and updating of Moore’s work can be found over at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, in which stands Keg De Souza’s Changing Courses (2017), essentially a shed made out of clear plastic panels into which a variety of dry foodstuffs – from pasta and breakfast cereals to fruits and sweets – that make up the preferred diets of various ethnic communities in Sydney have been vacuum-packed. The structure itself serves as a place for a series of discussions during the course of the exhibition about the country’s changing food culture. These types of work (and there are many others on show that document – sometimes literally, as is the case with Alex Martinis Roe’s three-channel video installation It was about opening the very notion that there was a particular perspective (2015–17), which looks at cultural movements centred on the General Philosophy Department of the University of Sydney during the 1970s and 80s – links between indigeneity, migration and alterity with suffering, abuse, struggle and oppression, to the point that it becomes a kind of haunting presence in the show) echo French writer Georges Perec’s warning about rushing to describe a city or country: ‘it’s far too big and there’s every chance of getting it wrong’.
If we can remove the sense that The National is a show instrumentalised to set out a stable sense of nation (which is not to say that the exhibition undermines itself, rather that it thrives on destabilising fixed meanings), experiencing it becomes more a question of picking through recent production in Australian art. And there are some definite highlights. Chief among these is Nicholas Mangan’s Limits to Growth (2016–17), a work that has appeared in various guises in various exhibitions around the world over the past 12 months, but is here on show (at the Art Gallery of New South Wales) in the form of a video with an installation (which includes a series of computers engaged in Bitcoin mining). The work explores money as a concrete/material currency and as an abstract/immaterial commodity by telling the history of the currency of the Micronesian island of Yap – rais are hand-carved limestone disks, so large they were often virtually impossible to move, but directly reflecting the value of the labour of which they are evidence – and how it was exploited by colonial traders. To complete the circle, Bitcoins mined by computer software pay to produce large photographic prints of rais. Equally striking is the film installation City of Ladies (2016), by Zanny Begg and Elise McLeod, housed in the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. Inspired by a fifteenth-century novel of the same title by Christine de Pizan that aimed to promote a female view of the world (and in doing so undermine masculine-dominated perspectives), the complex nonsequential video (it recomposes itself, via an algorithm, for each 20-minute iteration) documents the issues that affect the lives of a group of young, ethnically diverse Frenchwomen in Paris, interspersed with interview sessions with prominent contemporary feminist thinkers including Hélène Cixous, Silvia Federici, Sam Bourcier, Fatima Ezzahra Benomar and Sharone Omankoy, in such a way that the whole fuses the historic, contemporary, theoretical and quotidian into a rivetingly poetic whole. And does so in a way that makes no overt references to Australia, other than the coincidence of its makers’ nationality. Indeed, perhaps it’s only on an institutional level, as Alex Gawronski’s three works, each of which displaces an architectural element that might constitute a signature of one the three host venues (the postindustrial Carriageworks, the colonial AGNSW and the contemporary MCA) into another, demonstrate, that The National grounds identity and geography into something approaching a truly local terrain. Certainly art has a habit of waving the bricks and mortar of the institutions that house it like some new tribal flag. But even that’s been complicated. Naturally.
From the Autumn 2017 issue of ArtReview Asia