Signs of change: thinking through The National
Six years on since the first edition of The National opened at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Carriageworks, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA), and the world has changed. It might seem an obvious thing to declare, but this relatively short period of time has been riven by upheavals of a magnitude that was inconceivable back in 2017. As I write this text, the pandemic is re-intensifying and the multiple social, political, and environmental crises that have marked this span of time continue to reverberate with local and global consequences. Even time itself seems to be changing unpredictably, as we emerge warily from a period of restriction and now find ourselves accelerating at an unnerving pace and with a renewed sense of urgency.
Over the past 12 months, my own research for The National 4: Australian Art Now has taken some unexpected detours and undergone several rounds of recalibration, coinciding with a time when the art world in Australia has been finding its feet again after years of delays and disconnections. Grounded in conversations with artists and studio visits across the country and beyond, the questions we have circled back to are varied and generative: What does it mean to be Australian in an increasingly connected and globalised art world? How does the current socio-political landscape manifest (or not, as the case may be) in the art being made by Australian artists today? What do they make of the prevailing conditions of uncertainty and instability? How do the ideas that they generate cut through the complex conditions that characterise contemporary Australia, and how do they suggest new ways of seeing and being?
Thirteen artists and two collectives feature in The National 4 at the MCA. They include established artists with extensive exhibition histories and others at the beginning of their careers, in some cases not long out of art school. They include artists I’ve worked with previously, some whose careers I’ve followed for many years but with whom I’d not yet had the chance to work, and others who were new discoveries for me when I started my research for this project. The National 4 includes works that are as varied in their format and media as they are in their intent, including new works made especially for the occasion and recent works that, in many cases, have resulted from long gestation periods and intensive studio time during successive lockdowns in recent years. There are artists in this year’s exhibition who live and work in the major cities around the country, and others who live in remote communities. Some live and work beyond our shores (either periodically or permanently) in places including Aotearoa New Zealand, Canada, Cambodia, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Samoa, Thailand, Tonga, and the United States. Collectively, these artists represent diverse aesthetic, cultural, and methodological perspectives.
Like past editions of The National, the fourth iteration does not attempt to offer a definition of, or identifiable position on, contemporary Australian art. This might seem at odds with an exhibition whose remit is to represent the art of ‘here and now,’ and particularly one with such a loaded exhibition title as The National. However, as the curators of the first exhibition cautioned in their introductory statement in 2017, ‘The intention [of the exhibition] is not . . . to attempt to encapsulate, delineate or define contemporary art in Australia through a set of shared characteristics or conditions.’ (1) This principle remains true for The National 4, and its emphasis on transnationalism, one of the defining characteristics of the exhibition at the MCA, casts any fixed notion of ‘Australian-ness’ or ‘Australian’ art into doubt. Indeed, several artists’ works in the exhibition challenge the very idea of nationhood, and speak to different notions of country or belonging, bringing other forms of community into view.
Similarly, in keeping with past iterations of the exhibition, The National 4 at the MCA is not distinguished by a single overarching theme, but rather is structured with a deliberate openness in mind, allowing space for artists and their works to address their own specific concerns without aligning to any thematic or conceptual framework. That said, there are several identifiable currents that run throughout the exhibition and, from the selected artists and their works represented in the exhibition, certain observations can be made which reflect broader trends in contemporary art. They include community-oriented and collaborative practices; transnational perspectives; decolonising and decentralising strategies; an emphasis on ecological and environmental concerns; interdisciplinary and experimental working methods; the diversification of roles of artists across disciplines; the endurance of abstraction, painting and lens-based practices; the contemporary recuperation of historical artforms and processes; and, lastly, an emphasis on personal or historical narratives that speak to broader social and political contexts.
In the context of the ongoing Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, and in 2023, a year when Australians will vote at a referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament for constitutional change to enable greater representation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, (2) the amplification of marginalised voices is a concern that resonates with particular urgency. In The National at the MCA, it finds expression in diverse ways and across diverse media, through projects ranging from Daniel Boyd’s critical reframing of Eurocentric historical narratives that addresses the consequences of colonisation for First Nations peoples; to Nicholas Smith’s gentle assertion of a queer aesthetic in his investigation of masculinity and personal identity; to Isabelle Sully’s sound installation which addresses the under-acknowledged role of women in the history of Australian broadcast media; and in Léuli Eshrāghi’s recentring of the global Indigenous diaspora and fa‘afafine-fa‘atane, māhū, queer, trans, and non-binary peoples throughout the Great Ocean.
The still-unfolding effects of colonisation and its consequential histories of violence and cultural displacement are undercurrents that inform other works in the exhibition. Allison Chhorn’s poignant video installation Skin Shade Night Day (2022) meditates on the daily routines of her Cambodian– Australian family in Adelaide, and, in doing so, recalls traumatic memories associated with their migration here as refugees in the 1980s. Simryn Gill’s installation Maria’s Garden (2021), a one-to-one scale inventory of her elderly Italian neighbour’s garden that was demolished to make way for property development in inner-city Sydney, similarly traces patterns of migration and connects local and personal experiences to broader questions of displacement and survival. Amanda Williams’ large-format silver gelatin photographs depicting endangered ecosystems in Victoria’s Alpine National Park give rise to similar questions of place and belonging, and bring to light entangled histories of photography and national parks, both products of the 19th century, and the roles each has played in the construction of national identity as well as unresolved issues of sovereignty.
Community and collective practices feature strongly in this iteration of The National at the MCA. The immersive four-channel video installation produced by artists from Jilamara Arts and Crafts Association was collaboratively filmed and performed on Country in the remote Milikapiti community in the Tiwi Islands. YOYI (dance) (2020), can be seen as a kind of collective self-portrait featuring 30 members of the community each performing their individual ceremonial totem dances on Country on Nguyu (Bathurst Island) and Yermalner (Melville Island). Indeed, many of the community-oriented projects that feature in The National 4 are dynamic in nature and exist in other forms beyond the walls of the museum, in many cases reflecting long-term research projects of which The National 4 is just one part. Kato Kakala (2023), for example, by the collective Ivi comprised of members based between Mt. Logan in Queensland, Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, and Tonga, is an ongoing project that focuses on the production of nagtu (barkcloth) in workshops and exhibitions held regularly throughout the region and which emphasise knowledge-sharing, wellbeing, unity, and social harmony.
If anything, the past several years have occasioned a renewed appreciation of social cohesion and interconnectedness within the global community. Aura (2023), a new installation by Hoda Afshar, articulates recent turbulent events that have marked this period of crisis through images she has sourced from news footage and social media depicting riots and protests associated with Black Lives Matter, the US air strikes on Iraq in 2019, the Australian bushfires of 2020, and the global response to the ongoing pandemic. Afshar’s installation invokes Edward Steichen’s influential exhibition The Family of Man (1955), which brought together hundreds of images by photographers from around the world to highlight universal aspects of human experience as an expression of solidarity following World War II. (3) Its title, Aura, which means ‘breath’ in Greek, also summons the spectre of Walter Benjamin and his concept of history which suggests that humankind is set to repeat past events. (4)
A preoccupation with time informs other works in The National 4, from Rudi Williams’ photographic installation which registers time and its passing through an investigation of the medium’s ability to affect what is remembered and what is forgotten, to Diena Georgetti’s anachronistic works that graft together fragments of modernist paintings, suggesting a rupture between the historic and the contemporary. Internal dialogues traversing contemporary and historic references similarly inform Kieren Seymour’s paintings, which combine arcane fields of knowledge such as macroeconomics with psychologically charged subjects from the history of modern art. Eugene Carchesio’s works impart an out-of-time quality and draw upon various art-historical trajectories relating to abstraction and spirituality. His delicate works on paper and ephemeral assemblages, which can be understood as expressions of unity between all matter, find an unexpected echo in the musical scores of Mia Salsjö, whose idiosyncratic practice involves a complex system of translation using the structures of architectural forms – the Sydney Harbour Bridge, in the case of her new work for The National 4 – as the basis of a musical composition.
As we edge closer to completing this project, I am reminded of an early conversation I had with the artist Ruha Fifita, who explained to me the meaning of ‘ivi,’ the Tongan word given to the collective to which she belongs. A wonderfully elastic term that translates as ‘energy, power, strength, ability, influence – as found in nature, people, or activities which have the capacity to grow, evolve and be catalysts of change,’ (5) it is a fitting metaphor for the role of art at this disconcerting moment in time: a period of great uncertainty and instability, but equally one of great possibility.
(1) Blair French, Lisa Havilah, Anneke Jaspers, Wayne Tunnicliffe, Nina Miall, ‘Curatorial Introduction’, The National: New Australian Art, 2017, accessed 4 November 2022, https:// www.the-national.com.au/essays/curatorial- introduction/
(2) At the time of writing a date has not yet been set.
(3) The exhibition subsequently toured the world for a period of eight years including to Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, and to Tehran, the city of Afshar’s birth. For more information see ‘The Family of Man’, MoMA, retrieved 20 December 2022, https://www.moma.org/ calendar/exhibitions/2429.
(4) Walter Benjamin, ‘On the concept of history’, in Illuminations, New York, 1969, p.249.
(5) Ruha Fifita, email to the author, 29 March 2022.