The National: New Australian Art 2017

Art Gallery of New South Wales: 30 March – 16 July 2017 Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney: 30 March – 18 June 2017 Carriageworks: 30 March – 25 June 2017

Symptomatic of the proliferation of biennial exhibitions globally, Australia now has three biennial exhibitions dedicated to Australian Art. Spread across three of Sydney’s major cultural institutions, The National: New Australian Art, is the newest. It is a temporary biennial and will have three iterations, staged from 2017 to 2021. Sydney also has a biennale of international art, the Biennale of Sydney, one of the first biennales of international art, it began in 1973. From 1981-1999, Australian Prospecta was Sydney’s biennial focussing solely on Australian art. It was held in the alternate years to the Biennale of Sydney. Australian Prospecta ground to a halt for economic reasons in 1999, but has now been revived in the form of The National: New Australian Art. According to the curators the title of the exhibition is meant to be a provocation; they assert that concepts of nation and nation state are destabilised by the works in the exhibition.(1) The idea of nation is challenged in the discursive material that surrounds the exhibition, in the form of commissioned essays, and by works that deal with colonisation and national identity. The exhibition does not seek to define a national tendency in contemporary Australian art, but rather presents contemporary art being made in Australia or by Australians living overseas, selected to align with specific themes.(2) These include, the environment, colonialism and identity. The particular issues that each institution concentrates on and the way that they are addressed is slightly different. The Art Gallery of New South Wales presents the most focussed segment of the exhibition, dealing exclusively with socially invested work that addresses colonialism, the environment and feminism, while the other venues encompass a broader variety of artistic practices.

Biennial exhibitions are often contradictory events, showing works that confront social issues, while at the same time promoting the cities and nations in which they are located, in terms of their cultural power, as well as capitalising on tourism and perhaps even stimulating gentrification. They publicize countries previously deemed peripheral and undoubtedly play a role in the spread of imperialist politics and trans-national capital.(3) Biennial exhibitions, such as The National: New Australian Art, now increasingly interrogate the concepts of nation, power and sovereignty, on which these kinds of exhibitions were founded. One positive aspect of the exhibition is that it shows a significant proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, whose individual works contest the founding of Australia as a nation, by addressing issues such as colonisation and the effects of European settlement. Through the exhibition’s framing device of showing “Australian” art, these artists are, however, subsumed under the Australian nation state that has been the main agent for their disenfranchisement. The exhibition is strongest where it highlights socially committed and critical art practices, currently produced in Australia or by Australians overseas. Downstairs at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, in the gallery’s dedicated contemporary art space, two Australian artists, Alex Martinis Roe and Nicholas Mangan, use historical research, documentary and archival methods to unearth histories of Australian feminism and the colonisation of Pacific region, respectively.

Alex Martinis Roe’s three channel video installation, It was about opening the very notion that there was a particular perspective 2015 -17, inhabits a domestic-looking purple display structure that divides the room. The work is part of her project, To Become Two, which explores feminist communities in Australia and Europe. The installation centres around a philosophy strike at the University of Sydney in 1973, which was sparked by the rejection of a feminist philosophy course, proposed by two post-graduate students. The striking philosophers were supported by a powerful union, the Builders Labourers Federation, who halted building work at the University of Sydney in protest. Due to the pressure, the philosophy department split and allowed the feminist course to go ahead. Martinis Roe’s own video re-visits sites where these events took place and is shown alongside excerpts from three feminist films from the 1970s and 80s, Pat Fiske’s Rocking the Foundations, Helen Grace and Erika Addis’s Serious Undertakings and Margot Nash’s Shadow Panic. Martinis Roe’s work connects the feminist movement in Sydney with the importation of French theory at the time, which was translated by Australian academics. It intersperses shots of the original site of The University of Paris VIII, now an empty plot overgrown with weeds, with those of overlapping coloured jackets belonging to a small publication, Interventions, printed by feminists and philosophers at The University of Sydney. It shows decrepit terrace houses in inner Sydney that were once formative spaces for feminist and left wing collectives. In an attempt to extend the work beyond archiving this particular moment of radicalism and creativity in Sydney’s history, Martinis Roe has programmed talks and organised workshops to raise feminist consciousness in the present and think about the future of feminist practices. The talks by Pat Fiske and Paul Patton at the Art Gallery of New South Wales that were part of the program, did, however, leave the impression that social change is much more difficult in the present, given the dismantling of unions such as the Builders Labourers Federation, the high cost of living in Sydney and the corporatisation of universities.

Several of the works at the Art Gallery of New South Wales address the intersection of colonisation and environmental destruction. Taloi Havini’s cinematic video installation Habitat, 2017, centres around the Paguna Copper mine in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, which was operated by the Australian company Conzinc Rio Tinto and triggered the Bougainville civil war. Bright turquoise copper toxins still run into streams alongside lush green vegetation, even though mining ceased in 1989. Havini contrasts aerial footage of abandoned mining infrastructure, with images of the Indigenous people who still prospect for gold and live in the area. Working in a small community in remote northeast Arnhem Land, Gunybi Ganambarr is an Indigenous artist whose work also references the impact of mining on Indigenous populations and their land. Ganambarr, not only uses traditional materials, such as wood and natural pigments, but also uses refuse from local mining sites, such as a rubber conveyor belt, to incise intricate diamond shaped patterns, based on sacred clan designs. In a room nearby, the work, Limits to Growth, 2016-2017, by Nicholas Mangan explores the economic effects of European colonisation, using both new and archival imagery to delve into the history of trade and currency on the Pacific island of Yap. Combining photography and video, Mangan’s installation, brings two wildly different currencies into dialogue: Rai, a giant circular form of stone money, and bitcoin. A video constructed largely from archival photographs, shows images of Rai; in one, the currency looms larger than an Indigenous man who stands beside it propping it up for display. Carved from limestone, Rai was quarried manually and its value was determined by size and scarcity. In the early twentieth century it was devalued and superseded by the US dollar, due to foreign intervention in the island’s economy.

Leaning casually against the opposite wall are a number of large scale, colour photographs of Rai, which Mangan financed with bitcoin, that he generated using powerful servers in the basement of the university where he works. Mangan only printed the number of photographs the he could pay for with bitcoin. Both Rai and bitcoin are marginal currencies. Bitcoin is an encrypted digital currency, that is mined using computer servers known as ASIC Miners. The currency was invented in 2008 during the global financial crisis, as result of the loss of confidence in the banking system. The Rai stones, in contrast, have a significant physicality, their surfaces are pock-marked, their shapes and sizes are distinct, and their edges are uneven due to their hand-made nature and the environmental wear that they are subject to. David O’Keefe, an Irish trader, who was shipwrecked on Yap in 1872, attempted to trade with the Indigenous people. The Asia Pacific region was a potentially lucrative trading route. However, the islanders were uninterested in his small and alien coinage and because his currency had no exchange value for the local people, O’Keefe was forced to leave and come back with a large supply of metal tools through which he inserted himself into the Yapese economy.(4) Suspended at the end of the room, a screen shows footage of a scuba diver swimming near a submerged Rai stone. The stones sometimes ended up in the sea surrounding Yap, as the Japanese used them as anchors, during their occupation of the island, and on occasion they were lost during the treacherous journey from Palau, the neighbouring island where they were mined. Mangan’s work investigates the capitalist extraction that islands in the Pacific, such as Yap, were, and still are subject to. He relates these histories of exchange and exploitation, both to Australia and to European settlement in the Pacific region.

The National: New Australian Art brings together exceptional practices of socially and critically engaged art and opens up conversations about history and politics. Ideas of nation and nationality are challenged through works that address the colonisation of Australia and surrounding region; however, the exhibition raises the question of how nation and nationality might be more fundamentally challenged by its overall structure. For instance, is it possible to create a new form of collective identity without reference to existing nation-states or nationality, no matter how contested or conflictual these might be? One attempt to do so is the NSK (Neue Slowenishce Kunst) State Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. Commissioned by Erwin, a collective of Slovenian artists, the project aims to rethink what a contemporary state can be, and offers an open form of citizenship to anyone who is prepared to identify with its founding principles. The state has no physical territory and is not aligned with an existing nation. It aims to build new forms of collectivity and shared histories that cut across national borders. In contrast to The National: New Australian Art, by offering an open form of citizenship, the NSK Pavilion is able to question in a more radical way the idea of nation and of achieving cultural significance through a nationalistic agenda.

 

(1) “Curatorial Introduction,” Accessed April 24, 2017, http://www.the-national.com.au/essays/2/

(2) “Curatorial Introduction,” Accessed April 24, 2017, http://www.the-national.com.au/essays/2/

(3) Anthony Gardner and Charles Green, introduction to Biennials, Triennials and Documenta: The Exhibitions That Created Contemporary Art, (West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons Ltd, 2016), xiii

(4) Nicholas Mangan, Limits to Growth, (Berlin and Melbourne: Sternberg Press, 2016), 232

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Taloi Havini, Habitat (still,detail) 2017, Multi-channel digital video, high definition, colour,sound. Image courtesy the artist and Andrew Baker Art Dealer.

Taloi Havini

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Taloi Havini, Habitat, 2017, Multi-channel digital video, high definition, colour,sound. Image courtesy the artist and Andrew Baker Art Dealer. 

Taloi Havini

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Nicholas Mangan, Limits to Growth, 2016-2017, single-channel video, high definition, colour, sound, 2:29 minutes (continuous loop) single-channel video, high definition, colour, silent, (continuous loop) single-channel video, high definition, black and white, sound, (continuous loop), 6 hand-printed C-type photographs on Kodak premier 90 digital HP design jet colour prints black and white archival image, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne, Hopkinson Mossman, Auckland, and LABOR, Mexico City.   

 

Nicholas Mangan

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Nicholas Mangan, Limits to Growth, 2016-2017, single-channel video, high definition, colour, sound, 2:29 minutes (continuous loop), single-channel video, high definition, colour, silent, (continuous loop), single-channel video, high definition, black and white, sound, (continuous loop), 6 hand-printed C-type photographs on Kodak premier, 90 digital HP design jet colour prints, black and white archival image, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne, Hopkinson Mossman, Auckland, and LABOR, Mexico City.   

Nicholas Mangan

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Nicholas Mangan, Limits to Growth, 2016-2017, single-channel video, high definition, colour, sound, 2:29 minutes (continuous loop), single-channel video, high definition, colour, silent, (continuous loop), single-channel video, high definition, black and white, sound, (continuous loop), 6 hand-printed C-type photographs on Kodak premier, 90 digital HP design jet colour prints, black and white archival image, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne, Hopkinson Mossman, Auckland, and LABOR, Mexico City.   

 

Nicholas Mangan

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Alex Martinis Roe, It was about opening up the very notion that there was a particular perspective 2015-2017, 3-channel video installation, 2 channels: digital video, high definition, colour, sound, 16:39 minutes, 1 channel: digital video transferred from 16mm film, standard definition, colour, sound, 16:21 minutes, display structure in collaboration with Fotini Lazaridou-Hatzigoga: powder-coated aluminium, wood panels, projection foils, books and archival materials, framed A1 offset printed poster: in collaboration with Chiara Figone, dimensions variable.

 

Alex Martinis Roe

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Alex Martinis Roe, It was about opening up the very notion that there was a particular perspective 2015-2017, 3-channel video installation, 2 channels: digital video, high definition, colour, sound, 16:39 minutes, 1 channel: digital video transferred from 16mm film, standard definition, colour, sound, 16:21 minutes, display structure in collaboration with Fotini Lazaridou-Hatzigoga: powder-coated aluminium, wood panels, projection foils, books and archival materials, framed A1 offset printed poster: in collaboration with Chiara Figone, dimensions variable.

Alex Martinis Roe

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Alex Martinis Roe, It was about opening the very notion that there was a particular perspective (still) 2015-16, two-channel digital video, high definition, colour, sound, 15:00 minutes, single-channel digital video transferred from 16mm film, standard definition, colour, sound, 10:00 minutes, powder-coated aluminium, wood panels, projection foils, books and archival materials, framed A1 offset printed poster, AGNSW, The National. 

Alex Martinis Roe

Benison Kilby is a writer and curator. She is currently undertaking a PhD at Monash University in Art History and Theory, looking at the relationship between photographic technologies in contemporary art and artistic labour. She has curated exhibitions at Kings Artist Run Initiative in Melbourne and Skydive in Houston.