Review: The National 2019 – New Australian Art

Insisting it is not a survey, this tri-venue exhibition takes the pulse on art making in Australia - middle-ground thinking where the artists are ‘the canaries in the coal mine’.
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Curator Daniel Mudie Cunningham engaging with Nat Thomas, Postcards from the Edge, The National 2019, Carriageworks. Image credit: Zan Wimberley

Two years ago, The National: New Australian Art was introduced, a survey-style exhibition in the off years to the Biennale of Sydney that sought to take the pulse on contemporary art practice in Australia. At the time the sector asked ‘Why? Why do we need The National?’

Its agenda was laudable – to give more space to Australian artists at our major institutions – but the fear was that it could fall down when a stronger lens was put to the exhibition over its three editions, caught in the eddies of trends or competition.

Read: Do we need The National?

Those fears were allayed this past weekend, as the second edition was unveiled across the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW), Carriageworks and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA).

Did the curators get any closer to capturing the zeitgeist of Australian art now? Does it have “a look”, concerns, tends? As AGNSW Curator of Photographs, Isobel Parker Philip asked: ‘How do you historicise a feeling?’

Philip continued: ‘The exhibition at AGNSW considers (and bears witness to) the way artists grapple with the present moment and wrestle with states of change and flux, precariousness and uncertainty – whether it manifests through personal or political contests or is asserted through a poetic agenda.

‘The works in the show serve as snapshots, soundings and records of the present – a chronicle of change as it happens.’

In her welcome to media, Philip described the artists as the ‘canaries in the coalmine’ capturing this sense of moment in our contemporary world.

She is joined by Carriageworks’ Senior Curator of Visual Arts, Daniel Mudie Cunningham; MCA Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Collections and Exhibitions, Clothilde Bullen; and MCA Curator, Anna Davis in creating this year’s exhibition. 

It is this collaborative spirit that sets The National apart – a tri-venue initiative that seemingly takes a giant leap forward from the competitive turf wars that have traditionally plagued the arts.

So what can four of Australia’s most exciting curatorial minds of our times deliver together?

Installation view, The National 2019, Carriageworks. Photo: ArtsHub.

Canaries in the coalmine

Carriageworks – a venue that is celebrated for its vast, raw industrial character – had a warmth to it with colour punching from dark-painted walls, heightening the retinal drama of the already impressive site. Driving that energy was Sean Rafferty’s installation of fruit boxes, Cartonography (FNQ), and Eric Bridgeman’s grouping of fictional shield patterns reminding us that ‘every fiction holds truths’.

The gallery space has been “built-out” to create a more intimate engagement for the viewer, offering a journey of discovery in bite-sized chunks. It was perhaps a reaction to the criticism that this venue was over-curated, or congested in its first edition.

Precariousness is introduced from the start with a giant house of cards by Tony Albert alongside Nat Thomas’ video installation Postcards from the edge (2019) – a Marvel-esqe view of roleplaying from victim to super-hero, where punters can white-knuckle it and hang from a skyscraper and grab their “Insta-moment”.

Thomas is accurately aware of cultural consumption, as Abigail Moncrieff describes in the catalogue: ‘Dangerous without the danger, the work is a literal representation of precarity within the gallery, offering an implicit critique of blockbuster exhibition curation, where works are required to play to audience expectations of immersion and participation.’

Other highlights at Carriageworks include Melanie Jame Wolf’s OH YEAH TONIGHT (2019) and Amala Groom’s The Union (2019), which speak to gender stereotypes and contemporary art’s recent trend for performative video.

It should be noted that for The National 2019, 42 of the 65 artists and groups identify as female, while at AGNSW, for example, the generational divide in artists ranges from 29 to 72 years of age. It is another striking factor that this year’s exhibition has settled into a maturity, rather than the hype of the festival box-ticking exhibition.

The exhibition expands tremendously at AGNSW, carrying the idea of precariousness and moment across a greater number of works. It was the only venue to use various galleries and levels, as if to totally immerse Australian art into an holistic conversation.

Tom Polo’s monumental installation, When windows are walls (2019) at AGNSW, The National 2019. Photo: ArtsHub.

There is no escaping that impact as a viewer – Andrew Hazewinkel’s busts welcome one at the vestibule and then lead audiences through the forecourt; Tom Polo’s monumental painting installation When windows are walls (2019) interjects a potential side-line to the traditional galleries, where contemporary art shouts like a placard.

There is no real correct way to navigate this exhibition, and that is reiterated in both the AGNSW and MCA hangs.

For example, Mira Gojak’s installation at AGNSW, at once a tactile mass and an elegant line, offers a sensorial segue to Nicholas Folland’s fragile glass landscape hovering in space, Flirt (2019), to Pilar Mata Dupont’s expansive three-channel video Shuffle (2017-18), where a dancer tries to ‘destroy institutional order’, and Rushdi Anwar’s charred precariously stacked chairs.

The very aroma of the chairs in the gallery forces the viewer to bear witness, what writer Zoe Butt describes in the catalogue as a ‘waking amnesia’.

Mira Gojak, Exhaled Weight 2019, Steel rod, acrylic yarn, copper, dimensions variable, Courtesy the artist and Murray White Room, Melbourne © the artist Photo: AGNSW, Diana Panuccio

At the MCA, navigation offers several paths; from the museum cases holding Janet Fieldhouse’s works that meld her Torres Strait Islander cultural memory and knowledge with the non-traditional medium of ceramics, to the fabric sculptures of Julia Robinson and the stunning drawings of Teo Treloar’s The Black Captain series (2018), which are a kind of mapping through a landscape of depression.

Again there is that sense of what Philips described as the ‘canaries in the coalmine’, working through memory and aggregating it with contemporary life. 

Martuwarra (2018) by Daisy Japulija, Sonia Kurarra, Tjigila Nada Rawlins, Ms Uhl. Photograph: Jacquie Manning/Museum of Contemporary Art Australia

What excited me most, however, was the pairing of APY Lands artist, elder and political activist, Kunmanara Williams with Abdul-Rahman Abdullah, followed by a gallery pairing an installation by Eugenia Lim with artists from Mangkaja Arts (Daisy Japulija, Sonia Kurarra, Tjigila Nada Rawlins and Ms Uhl): a jaw-drawing painting on acrylic panels floating in space.

They are incredibly interesting juxtapositions, and testament to the way that curators Davis and Bullen have found that middle ground. Bullen described: ‘What’s been interesting in the collaborative process with Anna is the idea of the “third space”. It’s what happens in relationships – you have two people and then you have the relationship, which exits in this third space.’

Collectively, they allow the viewer to dwell in this middle-space where ideas are can flourish on their own. Philips described it as an ‘elasticity’ across the works in The National 2019. I would have to agree.

Overall, this exhibition is beautifully presented across all three venues. It is hard to find fault. And while it is an incredibly diverse – at times disparate – suite of art works, there is an underlying empathy that stitches this exhibition together. It is that magical ingredient that we are all desperately seeking in our contemporary times, and The National 2019 shows – with a soft glove – that if we make it to that middle ground, our vulnerabilities will dissolve into celebration, and just like this co-institutional initiative, competition and aggression will give way to maturity.

5 stars: ★★★★★

The National 2019: New Australian Art 2019
Art Gallery of New South Wales 29 March – 21 July 2019
Carriageworks 29 March – 23 June 2019
Museum of Contemporary Art Australia 29 March – 23 June 2019

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina

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