Pushing from the edges

Michael Fitzgerald in conversation with Isobel Parker Philip, Daniel Mudie Cunningham, Clothilde Bullen & Anna Davis


As the second of three planned curatoriums exploring the notion of ‘the national’ in Australian contemporary art, curators Isobel Parker Philip (Art Gallery of New South Wales, AGNSW), Daniel Mudie Cunningham (Carriageworks), and Clothilde Bullen and Anna Davis (Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, MCA) consider themselves to be something of ‘the middle child’ in the 2017–21 biennial survey – ‘always finding a way to rebel’ and ‘a little bit rogue’.

The 2019 curatorial team have courted collaboration, embraced experimentation and privileged female, Indigenous and unrepresented artistic voices, while creating three distinct and autonomous visitor experiences. In late September 2018, the four curators sat down at Cunningham’s house in Sydney to discuss the ideas underpinning The National 2019: New Australian Art, what brings their curatorial visions together and what sets them apart.

Michael Fitzgerald (MF): To start off with, how did each of you see your collective brief to curate The National 2019?

Anna Davis (AD): My initial thought was that this was a great opportunity to do some more in- depth research into what artists are making and what they are interested in right now in Australia.

Isobel Parker Philip (IPP): Yes, being given time to do slow, gestational research and talk to artists about their practice without an immediate objective – and in turn allowing those dialogues to shape the show itself – felt like a return to core curatorial principles.

Daniel Mudie Cunningham (DMC): I hit the ground running at Carriageworks at the end of 2017 and started working on this straightaway. So while I was a little bit behind, I was able to put into practice a lot of the travel and research I’d done in my previous role at Artbank, in this instance thinking about that knowledge and how to apply it to this type of exhibition outcome, which was exciting.

Clothilde Bullen (CB): For me, coming onto this project was an opportunity to challenge myself and our curatorial team to take a genuinely national look at artists’ work – to look at regional and remote communities and to go to the furthest reaches of every part of Australia – and I think we have genuinely achieved that.

MF: How do you each see your curatorial interests informing the three separate sites; and has The National 2019 allowed you to flex your muscles in ways you haven’t before?

DMC: I think The National 2019 at Carriageworks does reflect my curatorial interests and engagement with certain ideas around collections, around time and identity, and around performance and popular culture. The exhibition has given me an opportunity to flex my muscles in that it’s a really ambitious space – well, you’ve got to be ambitious to fill Carriageworks, and do it a bit differently to the ways my colleagues would be working in the museum environment. So you’ve got to rise to the challenge of the space.

AD: I guess our exhibition is a bit different because it’s a curatorial collaboration. I was excited to collaborate with Clo and saw it as a chance to curate in a new way. We both have quite distinct curatorial approaches but we’ve managed to bring them together in this exhibition.

It’s important to me to maintain a space for artistic and curatorial experimentation in a show like The National. In my early research, I thought a lot about artists whose works don’t fit neatly into museum or gallery environments, and people who are working experimentally in-between disciplines. But then, as I say, bring Clo and I together and you get something completely different to what either of us would do on our own.

CB: The artists I was interested in for the show have very strong political messages and undertones at play in their work, and across the board this is the case with the Indigenous artists in the show. But what’s been interesting in the collaborative process with Anna is the idea of the ‘third space’. It’s what happens in relationships – you have two people and then you have the relationship, which exists in this third space. When we started researching artists and talking about what we wanted to do, that’s where all that was sitting. And there’s this really interesting set of ideas that have come together in the middle.

AD: I liked the idea of working in the third space because it’s an experimental process. It’s not always easy, and something we’ve talked about is embracing the tension and disharmony in the exhibition, as well as the moments of connection.

CB: In some ways that’s a reflection of what we as a curatorial group have undertaken throughout The National 2019. One of the things Anna and I decided was that we’re actually not trying to create something that’s perfectly harmonious. Australia is not this utopian nation, and it’s okay not to be. It was okay for us not to be assimilated, but to sit in our own space and have integrity within that, and then come together and see what develops.

IPP: For the most part, in my ‘day job’, I’m a medium-specific curator who engages with photography in all its elasticity. For The National 2019, I’ve enlisted artists who work across a wide range of media, which has been exciting and expansive. What I slowly became aware of, however, as the show developed, is that a photographic logic has infected and infiltrated my thinking. The exhibition at the AGNSW considers (and bears witness to) the way artists grapple with the present moment and wrestle with states of change and flux, precariousness and uncertainty – whether it manifests through personal or political contexts or is asserted through a poetic agenda. The works in the show serve as snapshots, soundings and records of the present – a chronicle of change as it happens – and, in effect, preserve an experience of the present for future audiences. I realise now that this particular mode of temporal address is inherently photographic. I find this quite comical; here I was thinking I’d gotten away from photography!

DMC: Interestingly, the show at Carriageworks is bookended by this kind of precarity with a work at the start by Nat Thomas called Postcards from the Edge (2019), which is about the illusion of precarity, underpinned by a kind of punchline that we’re even better off than we perhaps realise. And then at the end of the show is Mark Shorter’s work, which in some ways is a bit of a Plato’s Cave; itself a kind of photographic or cinematic metaphor of illusion. So I feel like some interesting things overlap between all of our exhibitions.

AD: We’ve had a lot of meetings, all four curators, and the three shows are very different in their ways of thinking through the provocation of ‘the national’. And while there are connections, there are also very strong individual and collaborative approaches that we were interested in maintaining.

IPP: And leaning into.

AD: Yes exactly. So even though The National 2019 is presented as one single project, with one catalogue, it’s been important to maintain these three distinct experiences or exhibitions and ways of thinking at each site. Then there are these moments when they come together. For us, The Unbound Collective’s interventions are important in that they not only ground a lot of the ideas in our exhibition, but they connect all three exhibitions in some way.

MF: I was also interested to hear how you brought a distinctly Aboriginal methodology to the MCA in your groupings of men’s and women’s ‘business’.

CB: It’s happened physically in the space, and in the way that we’ve talked about the space and weighted or positioned things.

AD: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island artists are put into non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island curatorial frameworks all the time, but it doesn’t really happen the other way around. So it was an interesting proposition for me, and I think for Clo as well, just to explore that a little bit ... A different way of looking at things.

MF: I wanted to ask you, more generally, about the importance of female, Indigenous and commercially unrepresented voices. These seem to have been privileged, with over a third of the artists being Indigenous (building on the similarly strong representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists in the previous iteration), and a high proportion of commercially unrepresented artists. How, as curators, have you sought out these artistic voices?

IPP: I am hyper-conscious of the importance of foregrounding female practitioners in all curatorial contexts, and this show is no different. I am also aware of the incredible work being done by female artists around the country that is deserving of more attention than it receives. I think this is an awareness that all four of us share as curators and, indeed, it was something that oriented our conversations from the very beginning, alongside our insistence that there needed to be a strong Indigenous presence across the three venues. If you’re going to call a show The National, you have to seriously and emphatically consider Indigenous art practice within the context and spread of your research. Which returns us to that point about expansive research and core curatorial principles. When I travelled – and I know this was the same for the others – it was important to look beyond the list of names you often see in large-scale institutional shows. A lot of emerging and unrepresented artists are included in the exhibitions. This was decisive; we all wanted to offer artists an opportunity to develop projects of a scale and ambition they might not otherwise be able to resource.

DMC: I think The National 2019, in the way that we’ve approached it, reflects how the commercial gallery model has changed as well. There are more non-represented artists in The National in 2019 than previously, and possibly that is reflective of the change in the sector. A lot of galleries have closed around the country, and artists are doing it a bit differently, running their own ways, their own platforms.

AD: Maybe it’s a bit about being the middle child as well.

CB: We always find a way to rebel.

IPP: We’re a little bit rogue.

CB: I think with us deliberately and consciously seeking something really different, and bringing something else to the table, that’s our little rebellion. That’s our way of saying, as a generation – and the four of us are not that far apart, age-wise – we want something different. We want to have different conversations.

MF: As Gina Fairley recently pointed out, while the majority of blockbuster exhibitions announced by Australian institutions for 2019 feature male artists, by contrast, The National 2019 includes 43 female to 27 male artists. (1)

CB: We have over 60% representation of women, so what does that tell you?

AD: That’s why it doesn’t make sense that major shows don’t have at least equal representation, because it’s not for a lack of female artists, that’s for sure.

MF: In Fernando do Campo’s review of The National 2017 (2), he spoke about the inevitable institutionalisation that accompanies surveys such as these. How do you see your exhibitions working within the institutions? How rebellious can you be?

AD: That’s the funny thing about being a curator at a major institution – you want to fight against it. It’s something I find myself doing, and it’s definitely part of my thinking. This is what I mean in terms of leaving space for experimentation. Many of the artists I meet with are creating work that can be difficult to put into a museum context. So for me I think it’s a matter of reflecting what artists are thinking about and doing. And I do think it’s important to push at the edges of the institution where possible.

IPP: Rebellion can come in different guises. There are passages in the exhibition at the AGNSW that invite visitors to trace allegorical echoes or narratives through the show like a pathway; where motifs and materials reverberate across adjacent works to encourage thinking between distinct projects. This can be seen as a poetic prompt – it’s there for the visitor if they want it. There are other ways in which the exhibition dismantles expectations and prompts alternative modes of engagement. Fayen d’Evie’s work addresses the experience of blindness. In its physicality, d’Evie’s work is beautiful and compelling, but it is meant to be ‘seen’ through touch. Different typological systems derived from Braille and sign language are encoded into each piece in her installation. These artworks demand interaction, but more importantly, they are gently assertive in the way they prioritise modes of reading and interpretation that do not privilege or pander to people with full vision.

CB: From my perspective, the narratives of the Indigenous artists in our show expand well beyond the borders of the institution. I’ve always seen the institution as irrelevant in some ways, because the principles and ideas that the artists are focusing on have this direct link back to community and Country and custodianship – all those things exist whether the work is shown in an institution or not. What’s really critical for me is that the Indigenous artists in our show have been given free rein to stand in their own truth and direct the narrative as they see fit, because history in this country has not allowed for that.

MF: Carriageworks is probably the least ‘institutional’ of the three sites. Daniel, is that something you have tried to play with? I am thinking here of Tom Mùller’s fog work Ghost Line (2019).

DMC: Yes, I was looking to see how I could push the show outside. And Tom Mùller is an artist I have been following for some time. Tom had done a similar project in Italy called Floating Castle (2017), and I thought immediately, ‘Do that here, at Carriageworks’. Because of the steam trains of the past, there were so many different levels and metaphors that could be applied to the use of fog.

AD: Carriageworks really lends itself to site- specific work.

DMC: And to really theatricalised presentation, because it is ultimately a space that is activated in such a multidisciplinary way. There are so many different things that go on at Carriageworks. Every Saturday there is a farmers’ market, and for me it was really interesting to work with someone like Sean Rafferty, whose work is all about farmers and fruit boxes, and to see where some of our commercial and public programs could overlap with the artistic programming.

MF: And, lastly, what do you hope the curators of the third and final iteration of The National in 2021 will take from yours?

DMC: So, if we’re the middle child, the youngest will probably get away with murder.

CB: All I hope is that they ensure that there are just as many female artists and there are just as many Indigenous artists from across the country, regionally and remotely. It has been a challenge, as it always is working with remote-area artists.

AD: Giving artists the opportunity to create new work has been important to all the 2019 curators, but it’s a challenge, especially financially. So you have to really push to do it.

CB: You do have to push, but it’s absolutely worth it and critical to a national narrative. We cannot forget that there are many, many artists based regionally and remotely, and if we don’t support them and if we don’t encourage them to be in these kinds of national survey exhibitions, we will start forgetting. And there’s a national habit of forgetting about people who exist anywhere other than the coast. But we can’t forget them. They’re such an important and critical part of our national arts ecology.

IPP: We’ve inherited an exhibition framework that has been pitched as a survey of Australian practice. This is, in truth, an impossible task. If you have around 150 artists across three iterations and venues over six years, you’re barely scratching the surface. This project can never be comprehensive; it is not authoritative; it can never offer a complete or objective list of notable contemporary Australian artists. I would hope that the final iteration – as I hope we have done – allows space for nuance and play; that there remains room for rigor and speculation, openness and difference.


(1) Gina Fairley, ‘Gender parity questioned as seven major exhibitions announced’, ArtsHub, 7 September 2018, https://visual.artshub.com.au/news-article/news/visual-arts/gina-fairley/gender-parity-questioned-as-7-major-exhibitions-announced-256419. At the time of the article’s publication, there were 42 female artists to 27 male artists confirmed for The National 2019.

(2) Fernando do Campo, ‘The national “INSTITUTION”’, Art Monthly Australasia, no.301, September 2017, pp.60–63.