Sharing time with the past and caring for the future

Matt Cox


Looking back over the past four years since the opening of The National in 2017, and its intention to present new Australian art that observes ‘moments in our collective histories’ (1) and ‘in some modest way shape[s] the conditions of our immediate futures’, (2) we find in this third iteration practices that share time with the past and remain, despite post-modern and post-truth cynicism, optimistic of the transformative value of art.  

While recognising that art writing is an historicising project, there remains a risk of reciting formulaic interpretations of ‘our’ times as ‘challenging’, ‘uncertain’ and ‘unprecedented’, with the inference that we stand at the cusp of a rupture between present and past. As Martin Krygier notes in regard to the intergenerational trauma experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and which also relates to the disregard of Indigenous knowledge and care of Country, ‘the consequences of what is now past are still powerfully present’. (3) The language of resilience and adaptation, imposed on Indigenous people, is now also applied more broadly to universities, museums and governments as the impact of shrinking global economies and climate change becomes more apparent. But such realities have been a long time coming. 

In The National 2017 catalogue, Blair French’s account of the pressure on cultural organisations to be ‘intellectually nimble … entrepreneurial and adaptive’ (4) and their exposure to a dependency on private and external interests was prophetic of Carriageworks’ issues under the financial consequences of COVID-19 visitor-free venues. These difficulties revealed the precarity of not only artist’s labour but also artworkers and organisations. The issue of precarity, described as the process by which the global economic reality has made working life temporary, casual, and thereby unstable, was a theme that Isobel Parker Philip brought into the context of the 2019 edition of the exhibition. (5) 

Partly in response to these pressures, some museums have come to display their permanent collections in thematic arrangements alongside commissions in a series of temporary exhibitions and biennales. Celebrated at the intersection of festival and global audiences, biennales like The National are the sites where contemporary art comes to be known. In Australia, this shift amplified in continuum began in the 1970s as Australia’s renewed understanding of its position in the world coincided with business interests. In Gough Whitlam and Malcom Fraser, multiculturalism and internationalism found bi-partisan support that made Sydney an exciting and conducive city to launch the inaugural Biennale of Sydney in 1973, now the third oldest biennale in the world.

Aside from their role in introducing new forms of practice and canonising artists within national frameworks, biennales draw art into interregional circuits and have the function of elevating local art to the international. Stephanie Bailey asks us to consider this function as not only a space for knowledge and cultural production, but one that also reproduces economic and political structures that are tied to historical processes embedded in ‘world-making’ projects such as colonialism. (6) Although the 21st-century museum is more responsive to community concerns and private support than the ideologies of state, it remains difficult to ignore the connection between economic globalisation, political power and the exploitation of ‘natural’ resources and ‘native’ bodies. (7)

It has also been argued that biennales are sites where the curatorial gesture is most prominent, (8) raising the question as to how curators aggregate the multivalence of contemporary art and what strategies they employ to best present the selected artists? The 2017 curatorial introduction notes that there was no single curatorial theme, opting instead to present artists working in a different range of practices. (9) Anneke Jaspers wrote of the collapse or compression of history into the present giving rise to the recovery of marginalised narratives. (10) Historically the modern avant-garde has held a contemptuous relationship with its predecessors, but more recent practice has embraced a level of fluidity between past and present and complicated our relationship to linear time. Although sometimes registering a post-modern and/or post-colonial criticality towards Kantian ideas of universal truths, this praxis of contemporary art still sits within an ethos of investigation and enquiry that reverberates with enlightenment principles as it moves towards more socially responsive forms of practice. (11) Forms, as acknowledged by both Jaspers and French, that can place an ethical burden on artists to qualify art’s social value in responding to the political and social dilemmas of the day. 

Consistent with earlier iterations, the attention to the local visible in this edition arises not from a sense of peripheral distance or time-lag but rather a desire to problematise a homogenising contemporary globalism. So, while The National was not designed as a national survey, nor to present an ‘identifiably “national” (Australian) art’, (12) and while others within the short history of The National have proposed that Australian art does not even exist, (13) it will invariably articulate a cartography of the local and national, Australian and international. Yet, given COVID-19’s interruption to the international circulation of art and artists one might speculate that the foregrounding of the local will take on new significance among Australian curators as a sense of Australia’s remoteness is reawakened.

One of the potential curatorial challenges will be in resisting the attraction of certain locations as foci of difference or the expectation that artists from so-called peripheries can and should represent a subjectivity of marginalised cultural difference; of being, in some way, construed as more authentic or more representative as Richard Bell has observed in his criticism of curators who seek remoteness rather than urbanity as a sign of Indigenous authenticity. (14) 

So, how can curators and institutions account for locality without reverting to an ethnography of difference? How do curators provide a platform for ‘difference to function critically’ in large-scale exhibitions where the arrangement of works based on visual similarity frequently trumps questions to do with unequal relationships of power? (15) As Catriona Moore observes, despite the best intentions, displays of cultural difference within institutional frameworks risk being reduced to a set of essentialising statements around identity and authenticity. Likewise, positions of hybridity, while offering a counterpoint to the same essentialising statements, are exposed to issues related to biographical interpretations of art based on identity politics. (16) For Melissa Chiu, curatorial strategies built around the biographical details of artists’ lives often correlate with an expectation that artists produce work about their cultural or family heritage. (17) By extension, insistence on biographical and biological determinants is problematic regarding sexuality, gender, religious and national affiliations and highlights inconsistencies in Australia’s perception of its own cultural porosity.

One possibility might be to consider the local, inherently specific but also globally connected as part of a constellation of unequal fragmentation, produced from an imbricated set of localities. The possibility that sites of trauma and grieving, for instance, can become generative sites for new relations and multi-centred identities, (18) as suggested by Nina Miall in the 2017 catalogue, might be greeted by correlative institutional change. Long-term collaboration and consultation as taken up by Clothilde Bullen and Anna Davis in their curation of The National 2019 and the implementation of Indigenous and community advisory committees in major organisations present concrete models for the transformative potential of art. 

Yet, when we are hopeful of art’s transformative potential to offer answers to present or future crises, we are reminded of art’s history as a mechanism for conceiving of and ordering the natural world. We have known for a while that art does not operate distinctly from economic, governmental or environmental systems – it is inextricably linked to them and works with and within them. In fact, art has had a long history in the service of the natural sciences, the study of optics and medicine, creating a means of perspective illustration and photography to capture and present the world.   

In Australia we have seen this interplay, particularly in the construction and ‘interrogation of place in dynamic relation to culture’. (19) The visualisation of land into landscape or the reimagination of Country as image in Australian art has long been discussed. Terry Smith, for example, ‘locates landscape as an artistic genre within a broader range of visualising practices … those of clearing land for settlement … until it conformed … to … frameworks of order’. (20) It is clear that the concept of landscape and landscape painting as an exercise of culture over ‘nature’ is made available via epistemologies that are based on the separation of the human and natural world and more specifically in the Australian case a neglect of Indigenous knowledge of Country. The imaging of Country registers two distinct understandings of human relationships to nature. Nature has never been a neutral term; it is always invoked in polemical, political, moral and spiritual contexts. Where once the ‘natural world’ may have offered a stable moral basis and where ‘laws of nature’ were met with respect, wonder, awe and fear, we are now finding that the order of nature is neither stable nor reliable. In both the real and political landscape of the Murray–Darling Basin, for instance, Margaret Simons believes that, ‘The natural state lies outside living memory, in the realm of dreaming and anecdote … nature is often … used as justification for action, but increasingly it is out of reach, a concept rather than a reality’. (21) Facing this estranged relationship with nature and existential danger, how do we recognise the deceit of our attachment to growth and progress and yet simultaneously find hope to act on our earlier misjudgments?

Just over 50 years ago, in 1969, the American artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles wrote a Manifesto for Maintenance Art, in which she proposed a subsequent exhibition entitled CARE. Ukeles’ three-tiered approach to care – personal, general and earth maintenance – presents a rationale to consider the kind of labour entailed in domestic duties, in the work undertaken by the service industry, technical staff, waste-collectors, park rangers and scientists as a labour of care within an extended definition of art practice. Ukeles’ proposal distinguishes between two forms of behaviour that relate to art within a broader societal framework, positing the avant-garde and the succession of the New as forms attached to ‘Development’, while acts of care, preservation and empathy are associated with forms of ‘Maintenance’. The question ‘after the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage?’, posed by Ukeles, in some ways encapsulates our current predicament, in both its relationship to the promises of progress in art and society and the revaluation of art’s role in sustaining social and environmental ecologies.

As secular institutions begin to reconcile the exclusion of tradition, ceremony, ritual and sacredness from definitions of the contemporary with a new understanding of the art of today, not as all-encompassing but with respect to autonomous histories, then perhaps the model of care as advocated by Ukeles can provide a framework for the equal attention of forms of craft, miniature painting, flower arrangement and the New. It might also provide a guide for the ‘maintenance’ of ‘the environment, care for material culture and heritage, care for institutions and processes’, (22) which would include respect for the professionalism of artists and arts workers. In sum it might support a focus on the regimes of care at the intersection between the arts sector and the environment.  

Yet, even if it is possible for artists to find forms of practice that are generative of an ethics and labour of care towards fellow artists, audiences and wider publics and the greater living world as articulated in Ukeles’ model, shifts will also be needed in the work of curators, institutions and audiences to embrace the way artist’s work and share the responsibility of social and environmental reform.

With this in mind, The National, as a platform to present new Australian art and as a way to build stronger relationships between curators, artists, institutions and publics and ‘reflect the diversity of … perspectives that preoccupy our artists, and our Australian community’ is a step in the right direction. (23)


(1) Michael Brand, Lisa Havilah, Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, ‘Directors foreword’, in The National 2017: New Australian Art, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Carriageworks, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 2017, p.9.

(2) Blair French, ‘Through time: Continuity in the contemporary’, The National 2017: New Australian Art, ibid., p.30.
(3) Martin Krygier, Between Fear and Hope: Hybrid Thoughts on Public Values, ABC Books, Sydney, 1997, p.85.
(4) French, op.cit., p.30.
(5) Isobel Parker Philip, ‘Black box logic’, in The National 2019: New Australian Art, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Carriageworks, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 2019, 17. Here Parker Phillip seeks an understanding of precariousness in form.
(6) Stephanie Bailey, ‘A world affair: Biennales, art fairs and the 1851 Great Exhibition’, Di’van: A Journal of Accounts, no.5, Dec 2018, p.21.
(7) Jane Chin Davidson, ‘Performance art, performativity and environmentalism in the Capitalocene’, Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature, Oxford University Press, New York, 2019, pp.4–5.
(8) This has been frequently noted. See, for example, John Clark, ‘Histories of the Asian “new”: Biennales and contemporary Asian art’, in Vishakha N. Desai (ed.), Asian Art History in the 21st Century, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2007, p.233, and Barry Schwabsky in Carolee Thea, Foci: Interviews with Ten International Curators, Apex Art Curatorial Program, New York, 2001, p.11.
(9) Anneke Jaspers, Wayne Tunnicliffe, Lisa Havilah, Nina Miall and Blair French, ‘Curatorial introduction’, The National 2017: New Australian Art, op.cit., pp.10–11. The list includes: socially engaged art; critiques of progress; retrieval of marginalised histories; Indigenous perspectives; issues of anxiety; repetition of gesture; performative embodiment of motifs; and the revision and rewriting of histories associated with privileged epistemologies.
(10) Anneke Jaspers, ‘Past origins, present politics’, in The National 2017: New Australian Art, op.cit., pp.17–18.
(11) Paul Gladstone, ‘Going over the edge: COVID-19, the global artist industrial complex and NIRIN’, Di’van: A Journal of Accounts, no.8, Sept 2020, p.9.
(12) Jaspers et al, op.cit., p.11.
(13) Helen Hughes’ reference to Richard Bell’s painting Judgment Day (Bell’s Theorem) (2008), in Helen Hughes, ‘Upside down, right way up: Historiography of contemporary “Australian” art’, The National 2017: New Australian Art, op.cit., p.45.
(14) Richard Bell in Robert Leonard (ed.), Richard Bell: Positivity, Institute of Modern Art, Fortitude Valley, 2007, in Anthony Gardner, ‘Whither the Postcolonial?’, in Hans Belting et al. (eds), Mapping Contemporary Art and Culture, Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, 2011, p.144
(15) Rasheed Araeen, ‘Our Bauhaus Others’ Mudhouse’, Third Text, 3, no.6, 1989, pp.7–8
(16) See Catriona Moore, ‘Local international or international locals?’, in Edge of Elsewhere, Campbelltown Arts Centre, Sydney, 2010, pp.57–64.
(17) Melissa Chiu, ‘The transcultural dilemma: Asian Australian artists in the Asia debate’, Journal of Australian Studies, vol.24, no.65, 2000, pp.27–34.
(18) Nina Miall, ‘Anxieties of the self’, in The National 2017: New Australian Art, op.cit., pp. 23–26.
(19) Judy Annear, Photography and place: Australian landscape photography 1970s until now, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2011, at, accessed 13 Mar 2021.
(20) Terry Smith, Transformations in Australian Art, vol.1. The Nineteenth Century – Landscape, Colony and Nation, Craftsman House, Sydney, 2002, p.44.
(21) Margaret Simons, ‘Cry me a river: The tragedy of the Murray–Darling Basin’, Quarterly Essay, no.77, 2020, p.8.
(22) At the 2018 AAANZ Conference Catriona Moore and Jacqueline Millner presented two sessions of Care: Forging an Alternative Ethics through Contemporary Art, which proposed a model for thinking about art and curatorial practice informed by Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ Manifesto for Maintenance Art and related notions of care.
(23) Brand et al, op.cit., p.8.