‘Counterpowers’, by the Queensland-born, Los Angeles-based artist Jemima Wyman, perfectly encapsulates 2017’s politically disillusioned and hyper-everything atmosphere for Australian art audiences. Staged at Sydney gallery Sullivan+Strumpf, Wyman’s exhibition consisted of kaleidoscopic collages of protesters from around the world, transforming an array of Guy Fawkes, Pussy Riot and Che Guevara imagery – as well as bandanas, balaclavas and black hoodies – into op art-meets-camouflage compositions. While Wyman is undoubtedly empathetic towards her subjects, the works themselves are more ambiguous, their conflation of radicalism and fashionable spectacle appearing as compensation for the protesters’ lack of concrete political demands.
I overheard numerous accounts of art-institutional fatigue this year, lamenting overshot exhibition rationales and public programmes that promise radicality but fail to actualize anything beyond marketing spiel. Brisbane’s Griffith University Art Gallery and Melbourne’s Monash University Museum of Art proved to be two of the best at slipping their educational agendas discretely into their displays, demonstrating that curatorial seriousness doesn’t have to mean more hyperbolic wall text. Christian Thompson’s ‘Ritual Intimacy’ toured to both institutions, comprising elegantly installed works by this Bidjara artist that spanned the last 15 years. Building on the legacy of the photographer Michael Riley, who died in 2004, Thompson’s mannered portraits combine Aboriginal ritual and romantic theatricality to convey not spiritual attachment to the land so much as to the performative codes of identity itself.
Down in Tasmania – the location of some of the most brutal frontier conflicts in Australian colonial history – the privately-owned Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart continued, with the exhibition ‘Museum of Everything’, to reposition contemporary art within a history of the wunderkammer. Coinciding with the winter solstice arts festival Dark Mofo, this exhibition of so-called ‘outsider’ art (which curator James Brett insists should be thought of as anti-market art) opened to the public at the same time as 79-year-old Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch’s bloody performance, 150.Action (2017), was forced to be re-ticketed due to planned disruptions by local animal rights activists.
While MONA attracts considerable media airtime for its spreading of anti-elitist ideas about art as fundamental to human expression, its modus operandi is less about combatting art world pretensions than about obliging gratification. ‘Hobiennale’ – Hobart’s ten-day festival for artist-run galleries from Australia and New Zealand – provided better thrills, with absorbing exhibitions by Adelaide-based Feltspace – critiquing the cult-like character of some artist-run initiatives – and the Perth-based Moana Project Space, showing compelling video works by Grace Connors (I went to a bikram yoga class and all I got was a pat on the back and a grande caramel soy latte, 2017), and the collaborative duo Soda Jerk (After the Rainbow, 2009). Shortly after the festival, Moana announced their decision to close their West-Australian space – a sad but familiar narrative for these important DIY art ventures.
Focusing on 45 contemporary Australian artists across three of Sydney’s leading art institutions – the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Carriageworks and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia – ‘The National’ was slated to define the year’s art zeitgeist down under. Instead, with some notable exceptions, it fell flat, thanks to uninspired curatorial arrangements and purposeless selections, at times resembling a fragmented, multi-sited art fair. But, like most art fairs, there were still some great works to be found, including Justene Williams’s new performance piece, A Metal Cry (2017) – a reimagining of an Italian futurist opera in which musical instruments are embedded in the brightly coloured costumes of performers in conical hats, dancing and parading around scaffold-like minimalist props that symbolize sites of labour. Richard Bell’s Making it Big (2017) couldn’t have been more different yet it made a similarly lasting impression. This wall display of mostly archival material – a collaboration with activist Gary Foley and theatre company director Rachael Maza – brings attention to an early-1970s satirical television show, Basically Black (1973), which evolved out of the National Black Theatre’s merging of civil rights activism and the performing arts, only a handful of years after Indigenous Australians were officially recognized in their country as citizens.
In Melbourne, the local art scene flourished with renewed vigour in 2017, producing an array of top-notch exhibitions too numerous to mention here, including Stuart Ringholt’s ‘Works on Paper’ (Neon Parc), Helen Maudsley’s ‘Our Knowing and Not Knowing’ (National Gallery of Victoria), Darren Sylvester’s ‘Céline’ (Bus Projects), and a new direction for the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), with Max Delany beginning his directorship in the second-half of 2016. Here, Claire Lambe’s superbly installed ‘Mother Holding Something Horrific’ framed precarious labour as if in a horror movie, combining Duchampian and Lacanian metaphors to suggest that art is often at its best when emerging as a site of rupture. Given that 2017 may go down as a year spent grappling with the divisiveness of our times, Lambe’s embrace of the unglamorous and abject sides of countercultural practice feels timely, locating the fallen ideals of contemporary creatives in a surrealist mode of disavowal.
Main image: Jemima Wyman, ‘Counterpowers’, 2017, Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney. Courtesy: the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney