Through time: Continuity in the contemporary

Blair French, Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia


The artists exhibiting in The National 2017: New Australian Art at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA), while employing a diversity of media and with a similarly wide-ranging set of concerns, have largely produced work that develops (and rewards viewing) through extended periods of time, pulling together multiple components or sitting within a longer patterning of consistent practice on their part. Many explore competition between historical viewpoints, or different histories, or convey a palpable belief in the socially transformative agency of art practice. But most critically, all intelligently persist in the material practice of art practice – a thinking through and realising of ideas in physical and visual form – as a means to stake artistic agency in the continuous present of the contemporary age.


There are artists whose practice I have followed closely for many years and those whose work I only first encountered through research for this exhibition. One apparent line of interest has been the manner in which many artists work with repeated gestures or return to actions, images and motifs in their practice. This includes found images, texts or gestures in work that pushes back against a sense of the instantaneous, against a folding in of multiple temporalities creating a singularity of temporary experience (and crisis) that is often considered a condition of the contemporary. This partly comes through social engagement as it underpins work (as well as that engagement providing a trope or motif). It is also present in work of a serial nature that aggregates and accrues through time – a painter returning to a motif or gesture, pulling it into the present within their work, or a sculptor returning again and again to the body – and in works with layered material qualities or narrative elements that build across a gallery space. This rhythm of the recurrent gesture, image or form can be viewed as a means of quiet, understated resistance to a culture in which attention-grabbing spectacle and rapid-fire change has come to perhaps dominate, certainly infuse, our expectations of cultural production of all sorts. There is an emphasis upon painting and drawing in the final selection for The National 2017, or more accurately upon work produced through and evidencing the marks of labour, whether materially in cast, stitched, painted, filmed, edited and drawn forms or in processes of social organisation. However, this was not an early curatorial intent but emerged through this line of research as a gathering fascination with the temporal element of insistent return, of working an idea or process over and over again, of slowness.


Curatorial practices have their own rhythms of continuity and change. They build, aggregate but adjust also in relation both to the work of artists and the emerging social and political urgencies of the day. Much of my curatorial career has been spent working within contemporary art spaces of one form or another, entities largely committed to collaborating with artists to produce exhibitions at the experimental core of artistic impulse, practice and discourse, committed to producing both present and future. This is not, and certainly should not be, significantly distinct from the curatorial approach developed within a museum of contemporary art; only here, the very form of the institution requires those artistic, curatorial and critical practices to be more consciously encountered and acknowledged – the tempering of both present and future by the past. And so, in working towards The National 2017 we return to and draw on the past, contemplating time and transition in contemporary art, and acknowledging that while contemporary art is of and critically pitched at the conditions of contemporaneity, it also has histories, trajectories of incremental development, of subtle, deft shifts and shimmies, and of deep, cataclysmic rumblings.


These histories have been touched upon in numerous group exhibitions in Australia over recent years, a number of which have sat at the back of my mind through the research process for The National 2017. (1) Despite the quality of work often presented within, these exhibitions exemplify a broad and problematic tendency within contemporary art and curation in Australia to gloss over the more subtle details of our own recent art histories in favour of excited discoveries of the apparently new or rediscoveries of supposedly lost or dismantled histories. Such exhibitions, however diverse in subject, scope and approach, often reveal as much about the inconsistency of curatorial and critical appetites as about the driving determinants of artists’ practices. That is, they often serve as markers of art (and cultural) fashion. The social media age loves a brief exclamation of discovery, an excited exhortation to ‘look what I’ve found/made/seen/said’. Contemporary art is a different matter. And most often, it is artists who deserve more in terms of in-depth, long-view consideration of their work as it sits within a generative tension between continuity and change. These projects would examine the reverberations of the past in the present, as well as the present’s ability to recast historical artistic and representational activity without claims to rediscovery, without treating new generations of artists as if they were proselytising archaeologists of art history.


Considering such exhibitions particularly set me thinking about the recent history – or histories – of the new in Australian art. This process encouraged me to think of continuity in terms of change and vice versa, both within the practices of a wider range of artists and less significantly within my own curatorial work. One line of continuity – one consistent interest – has long been the insistence of artists upon the representational agency of image media, particularly when overtly presented in material forms (from the architecture of the screen to serial sequencing of images). This may be pursued with an emphasis upon an evidential and persuasive relationship of image to time and place – the remaining potency of the image as a means of witness, as evidenced, for example, by the use of mobile devices to document acts of violence and the shaping of contemporary artworks from such material – or through a nuanced consideration of the material, productive form of images – a focus on understanding and harnessing the forces through which images produce experience and knowledge. This was the principal subject of Agency (1999) at the Australian Centre for Photography in Sydney, (2) as well as in quite a different form within the two-part exhibition Everything Falls Apart (2012) at Artspace, Sydney. (3)


The section of The National 2017 at the MCA is quite different from the above two projects, containing a great deal more work eschewing the easily recognised representational image. However, a similar principle of agency remained core to its development, not just in terms of the capacity of contemporary artwork to have some agency in the world – whether through promptings to reflection and knowledge production or via their contribution to the material substance of the world, their very presence among all the other things we encounter about us – but on this occasion also in terms of aesthetic and poetic agency.


Acknowledgement, even assertion, of different forms of artistic agency – aesthetic, poetic, social, political – is particularly important at present, for it is, without doubt, an incredibly difficult time to be an artist in Australia. I have enormous admiration simply for the way in which artists persist, for the very fact of their refusal to succumb to a form of cultural (and practical) paralysis. A shift in conditions, with the photographic serving the instrumental purposes of communication rather than the witnessing and questioning functions of representation, has created a culture in which almost anyone might lay claim to being an artistic producer or curator, a ‘creative’. A situation where, as Boris Groys describes, the majority of any public might be best described as producers rather than spectators, and thus a situation where art as a set of practices needs to be apprehended on terms shaped by its producers rather than spectators (in terms of poetics rather than aesthetics). (4) It is not necessarily liberating for artists to operate in a scenario where their specialisation is diluted, questioned, even denied.


This is also a time of great uncertainty within and for the institutional networks that underpin contemporary art. While traditionally well funded by international standards, contemporary art infrastructure in this country has had to be intellectually nimble, forward-thinking, entrepreneurial and adaptive. It has played a major role in supporting and sustaining the work of contemporary artists in Australia through the life cycles of their practices, in proposing and shaping critical contexts around the work, connecting the work to its public and, importantly, laying out international pathways. This activity has been by degrees tolerated or celebrated, successes occasionally appropriated by political or corporate Australia as evidence of cultural health and social tolerance. Those days, for all the struggles experienced by artists and infrastructure throughout, seem faintly benign now as some longstanding contemporary art organisations are defunded and many more are under siege operationally, their very worth (and, by implication, that of the practices they work hand-in-glove with) called into question across the socio-political spectrum. This situation is paralleled within art education, with art schools in universities and TAFEs closed or under threat, the matrices of economic rationalism and neoliberalism now dominating universities being antithetical to almost all the values we might associate with contemporary art. Direct funding available to artists is increasingly squeezed. And the contemporary art market remains limited, even out of reach, for large numbers of practising artists.


Art infrastructure and the conditions of the art-world ecology constitute one – critical – matter. In addition, there are all the other negatively determining conditions of present-day life that artists are often implicitly or otherwise expected to hold a mirror to, to somehow engage with and propose pathways through: economic and social disenfranchisement; disengagement with the realities and legacies of invasion history; state rejection of Indigenous sovereignty; low standards of Indigenous health, housing and education services; Indigenous incarceration rates and deaths in custody; the bind of the working poor (including in the arts) and the casualisation of labour; property prices and rent; disenfranchisement from the mechanics of civic planning and political processes; border ‘protection’ policies and refugee detention camps; denial of same-sex marriage rights; the politics of hate, fear, misogyny, racism; climate change and environmental destruction, and so on. I list a litany of problems, for despite all that is positive and productive about contemporary Australia (and there is a recital of the positive to be made as extensive as the one above), the celebration of contemporary life is rarely the expected impulse of the contemporary artist.


These expectations and issues can, I imagine, weigh heavily. This is an age when art is doubly pushed towards self-justification of social value and attacked when it produces rather than represents activist positions. The suffocating, excoriating conditions of the contemporary world produce a further double bind for the artist who is damned if they do, damned if they don’t engage politically or in some form of social critique. Both positions presume narrow views of what constitutes social agency, even activism, in art – again, that art has to be demonstrably ‘about’ the social or operate fundamentally as social practice. (5)


Therefore, in reflecting upon the artists involved in The National 2017 at the MCA, as well as those at the other venues, I believe it is important to note how often their work complicates distinctions too easily made between socially engaged practices and those that are supposedly not. There is much work here that more obliquely probes thought patterns and knowledge systems, quietly engaging socially or politically yet privileging an exploration of its modes of poetic address. This deft examination of and across representational registers – political (content), aesthetic (form) and poetic (communicative) – is the tendency or impulse that most threads together the selection of artists for The National 2017. It is also the lens through which we might best apprehend their pulling of history through to and beyond the present, proposing, indeed insisting upon, a continuity of commitment to art’s capacity to predict and even in some modest way shape the conditions of our immediate futures.


(1) Exhibitions that immediately come to mind include the 2016 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Magic Object, drawing upon the historical form of the ‘Wunderkammer’; The Alchemists: Rediscovering Photography in the Age of the JPEG (2015) at the Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney; Feminism Never Happened (2010) at the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane; or, indeed, my own curatorial project Nothing Like Performance (2011) at Artspace, Sydney. 

(2) Agency was part of the last Australian Perspecta project, subtitled Living Here Now: Art and Politics and involving a consortium of nine organisations working collaboratively across Sydney – a precursor of sorts to The National: New Australian Art

(3) Everything Falls Apart was co-curated with Mark Feary and timed to coincide with the 2012 Biennale of Sydney. 

(4) See Boris Groys, ‘Introduction: poetics vs. aesthetics’, in Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood and Anton Vidokle (eds), Going public, Sternberg Press, Berlin and New York, 2010, pp.9–19.

(5) All this is far more acutely and eloquently laid out by Nato Thompson in a comparative study of the impulses towards ‘didacticism’ and ‘ambiguity’ in contemporary art in his book Seeing power: art and activism in the 21st century, Melville House, Brooklyn and London, 2015.