Is the middle child the most rebellious? It’s a question that could collectively be asked by Clothilde Bullen, Anna Davis, Daniel Mudie Cunningham and Isobel Parker Philip in their roles as co-curators of the second iteration of the trilogy of biennial exhibitions that constitute ‘The National: New Australian Art’, which launched in 2017. Featuring 70 artists, the majority of whom are women and a third of whom are Indigenous, hosted by Sydney’s three premier public art institutions – Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Carriageworks and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) – The National 2019 is squarely in its middle phase. While the inaugural 2017 exhibition teased open the political complexities of its grandiose remit with a sense of probity and gravitas, this year’s presentation is more flamboyant and headstrong.
Each venue hosts a cluster of artists specific to its site, giving them a singular sensibility. These constellations of artworks loosely align with the motifs the curators have summoned to encapsulate their aims. Bullen and Parker Philip (AGNSW) speak of a ‘third space’, Davis (MCA) invokes the apparatus of the ‘black box’ and Mudie Cunningham (Carriageworks) borrows Iggy Pop’s phrase ‘black sunshine’.
While these framing monikers may be overly slight, what is clear across all venues is a rejection of settled or unifying narratives. Instead, the exhibition glints with dynamism and ruminations on survival: at times, it nose-dives into poignant reflection, acknowledging the free fall; at others, it spins with feverish energy. The exhibition wears its eclecticism on its sleeve, revelling in its wayward mix. Yet, in spite of declarations against unity, some themes emerge.
Détournement is one. Kaylene Whiskey’s bustlingly alive fandom paintings present a maze of celebrity sprinters, flying nuns and the character of Wonder Woman re-envisaged as a kick-ass black heroine. These exuberant cultural mash-ups set pop icons against ochre-coloured grounds, suggestive of the terrain of the Aboriginal community of Indulkana in the remote north of South Australia from which the artist hails. Troy-Anthony Baylis’s ‘Postcards’ (2010–ongoing) is a series of metal meshes formed out of recycled glomesh handbags that references early settler culture’s use of breastplates to subjugate Indigenous people. Emblazoned with place names in stark sans serif font, these new designs convert an oppressive colonial practice into bold statements of reclamation, their shiny reptilian surfaces slinking over the wall as flexible armour.
Some works wrestle with memory and loss (both personal and cultural), carving out a space of tenderness in movingly redemptive images. Abdul-Rahman Abdullah’s dimly lit installation, Pretty Beach (2019), shows a fever of wooden stingrays arranged beneath a translucent mesh of suspended crystals. Vividly invoking water, marine life and sparkling rain, the piece functions as a poignant memory image of the artist’s late grandfather, who lived in the waterside locale. Hannah Brontë’s video floor installation, Heala (2018), with its irrepressibly catchy tune sung by orange-robed women gyrating in lakes in the region of Minjerribah, belies the commemoration of a loved one’s untimely death. The work metaphorizes the notion of swimming in grief, yet the song’s vitality – its baseline replicating a heartbeat – manifests resilience and love.
Other works operate as forms of retrieved knowledge, such as Janet Fieldhouse’s series ‘Hybrid’ (2017): a throng of raku objects adorned with emu feathers and jute twine that utilizes traditional pottery techniques from the Pamunkey and Tewa peoples of the Pueblos, Bougainville and the Solomon Islands to reinterpret the lost practices of tattooing and female scarification specific to the artist’s Erub community.
Refashionings and compressions characterize further works, including Mira Gojak’s Exhaled Weight (2019): a constellation of slender steel structures semi-encased in massive lengths of pale blue yarn, the resulting bulbous accretions of which metaphorically compact the sky. The total length of yarn used corresponds to the distance from the earth’s surface to the top of the stratosphere where the colour blue fades out. Sandra Selig’s Content in a Void (2018) comprises an act of poetic erasure, in which the artist cuts into extracted pages of unnamed books. Hovering with minimalist simplicity, the handful of remaining words birth new literary phrasings like ‘telegrams … for comets’ as a mode of paper-cut poetry.
The chaos and precariousness of contemporary life, and the ongoing ramifications of colonialism, form touchstones in other works but, amidst the hybridity, the artists’ strengths in reworking accepted paradigms and proposing alternative visions shines through. A middle child tendency might be visible after all, in the collective works’ demonstrative conviviality, shot through with radiant light.
The National 2019 is on view at various venues in Sydney until 21 July 2019.
Main image: Abdul-Rahman Abdullah, Pretty Beach, 2019, installation view, The National 2019: New Australian Art, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney. Courtesy: the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia; photograph: Jacquie Manning