On ViewMuseum of Contemporary Art
March 26 – August 22, 2021
March 26 – September 5, 2021
March 26 – June 20, 2021
The National 2021 is the latest in a biannual series of survey exhibitions initiated in 2017 showcasing new Australian art in major venues across Sydney. This year, The National is staged at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and Carriageworks, Sydney, with a separate curatorial team at each location.
On the face of it, the exhibition’s title would seem to run counter to the cosmopolitanism upheld across much of the contemporary Western/Westernized artworld. At the same time, it resonates locally with the diverse settler states and Indigenous nations which constitute and cut across the internal and external borders of present-day federal Australia. The National can therefore be understood to also reflect the particular cultural complexity of Australia’s contemporary art and its distinctive commingling of cultures.
As is generally the case with survey exhibitions, the artworks on display are of variable quality and interest. More than a few reprise the all too familiar tropes of international contemporary art in unsurprising ways—this is by no stretch a uniquely Australian malaise. There is a technically homespun feel to some works, amplified, perhaps, by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on access to resources.
Variability also extends to the ways in which artworks are displayed. In contrast to conventional white cube and black box formats at the MCA and the AGNSW, Carriageworks is a largely unaltered post-industrial setting (the building was once the site of Sydney’s Eveleigh Railway Workshops). The display there and the works it showcases have a not entirely unpleasing rawness, again, perhaps, due to limited resources. At the same time, a discernible theme runs across all three venues connecting some of The National 2021’s best works.
At press events marking The National 2021’s opening, organisers acknowledged the extraordinary difficulties each venue had faced in mounting the exhibition under pandemic conditions. They also drew attention to The National 2021’s increased concentration on local subjects and concerns. Prominent among these is an engagement with the Australian landscape and the socioeconomic, cultural, and ecological questions which currently hang over it. Australian land is a site of continuing de-colonial contestation and also subject to the disastrous effects of climate change—in 2019-20 there were devasting bush fires across Australia and in early 2021 extraordinarily destructive floods in New South Wales, the state in which Sydney is located.
Resonant with both issues is Darling Darling (2021) at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, a two-channel video by Gabriella Hirst made with the guidance of local indigenous Barkindji elder, Uncle Badger Bates. One channel of the video shows landscapes filmed at various sites in western New South Wales’s Baarka/Darling River basin—an immemorial place of ritual significance for indigenous people—accompanied by a soundtrack of ambient natural sounds.
The other documents conservation of the painting The flood in the Darling 1890 (1895) by William Charles Piguenit—part of the permanent collection of the AGNSW. Although a more stripped-down version of the work might simply have placed the landscape channel of the video next to the actual nineteenth-century painting, there is nevertheless a highly effective bringing-together of quasi-luminist transcendent sublimity and cyclical devastation which portends ominously of worse to come.
At the Museum of Contemporary Art there is another juxtaposition of artworks that speaks to Australian land and the intersection of cultures. British-born John Wolseley’s multi-media works on paper, Termitaria: Indwelling I-IV and Magnetic, arboreal and subterranean termite nests on the savannah plains of East Arnhem Land (both 2020-21) draw us into landscapes and animal communities within the earth, not simply through painterly depiction but by layered transference from subject to image. Resulting are mesmeric visual documents that reward sustained contemplation with rich, nuanced, and indefinable feeling.
Wolseley’s works are hung close to others by the recently deceased senior indigenous artist and Dhudi-Djapu clan elder, Mulkun Wirrpanda. Wirrpanda’s (ostensibly) non-figurative paintings on bark and wooden poles using natural earth pigments give traditional localised visual form to her and her community’s felt and perceptual relationships with the territory of North-Eastern Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory. Included in that subject matter is the inner life of termite mounds, as represented by Wirrpanda’s painting Pardalotes (2020). Until her death, Wolseley produced his work in close conversation with Wirrpanda for over a decade.
Works exhibited at Carriageworks, Sydney include a stand-out video by The Karrabing Film Collective, an indigenous media group based in Australia’s Northern Territory. A Day in the Life (2020) is a five-channel video structured around episodes of “Breakfast, Play Break, Lunch Run, Cocktail Hour, and Take-out Dinner,” which montages film of the everyday life of contemporary indigenous communities in northern Australia with documentary footage showing the impact of settler colonization accompanied by a soundtrack including indigenous hip-hop. While the video’s main purpose is to highlight social inequalities between indigenous and settler communities, it does so with a self-empowering as well as a hospitable mash-up of humour and pop-culture style.
Prior to COVID-19, one might have been tempted to criticise The National 2021 for being parochial. In the present context, the exhibition’s insularity is both inevitable and a conspicuous strength. Press statements about The National 2021 make understandable references—given the apocalyptic tenor of present times—to art’s transformative powers as well as the exhibition’s staging as a focus for hope and coming together after grieving. Some of the artworks featured in the exhibition strike a different tone, however. A number, including those described above, are far from being straightforward in their significances and the feelings they engender. In each case, there is an affective richness and, at times, “gloomthy” introspective depth that defies easy, wholly uplifting, categorization.
By showcasing artworks that turn contemplatively towards their immediate surroundings and in ways that project feeling over cognition, The National 2021 has taken a much-needed detour from the now widespread curatorial convention of making artworks coincide with prescribed, institutionally vetted, meanings. At The National 2021, aesthetic uncertainty refreshingly overwrites anchoring through spoken words and written texts. If this is a glimpse of the new post-COVID-19 artworld to come, then bring it on.