Exhibition review: Embodied Knowledge, Queensland Contemporary Art

Exploring big ideas and tackling challenging questions, Embodied Knowledge is an insightful and relevant exhibition of contemporary art.

Embodied Knowledge: Queensland Contemporary Art shows off contemporary art from across the state at the Queensland Art Gallery (QAGOMA) in a dynamic, multidimensional exhibition. 

Focused on works created by 19 contemporary Queensland artists and collectives, the group of commissioned and recent projects is wide-ranging in its choices and methods of delivery. Exploring issues centred around identity, heritage and history, it brings into sharp focus the voices of First Nations and people of colour, as well as female and LGBTIQA+ artists.

Co-curated by Ellie Buttrose, Curator, Contemporary Australian Art, and Katina Davidson, Curator, Indigenous Australian Art, Embodied Knowledge was very much a labour of love. Delayed because of COVID. Buttrose said: ‘This was possibly a good thing, as it gave artists more time to gestate their work, in many cases producing more considered and ambitious artworks.’

In questioning the nature of state borders, the curators actively sought artists who had a strong connection to country and place, or those with Queensland connections whose practice was informed by living and working here.

Buttrose continued:  ‘In travelling around the state it was great to witness intergenerational dialogues between elders and young emerging voices, particularly in the inventive use of different materials used in crossover works.’

The result is an exhibition that reveals common threads and interests from early-career and established artists across a diversity of media, encompassing large-scale sculptural pieces and installations, painting and photography as well as digital art and performance. 

Archie Moore, Inert State (installation view in ‘Embodied Knowledge: Queensland Contemporary Art’, Queensland Art Gallery, 2022) 2022; Courtesy Archie Moore and The Commercial, Sydney, © Archie Moore, Photo: Chloë Callistemon, QAGOMA

Artworks on show

Tracing inscriptions (2020/22) is a large-scale kinetic installation and durational mural by Robert Andrew. The work is set in motion by the small movement of a plotter printer that traces an undisclosed script to the back wall, connecting to rocks and branches.  

Megan Cope’s installation of cast-glass dugong bones, The tide waits for no one (2020–21) addresses complex social histories tied to the trade and mining exploration of Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island). The  current work is an exciting progression from her previously exhibited ceramic middens. Lit from below, it offers a dramatic and contemplative artwork for the viewer.

Many of the artworks seek to explore how bodies of knowledge can be used to express lesser-known histories and stories, while others represent subjective and figurative memories mostly through familial portraits. 

Moilang (Rosie) Ware’s largest textile to date, Ngau Buai (2022), refers to her family’s migration from the South Sea Islands to the Torres Strait, which Buttrose described as, ‘an incredible artwork with a unique story.’ 

A series of beautiful textural tributes to traditional rainforest shields by Girramay artist Ethel Murray sets up a dialogue unique to Queensland,  while also having relevance in a wider, global  context.

Similarly, Obery Sambo, a master mask and headdress maker, contributes both his craft and his family’s performance art to the exhibition, in the traditional dance of Meuran Murray Island Dance Group. This work offers a unique perspective on Torres Strait culture, practice and history.     

Private views and rear visions (2021–22), an epic new painting by Jenny Watson, conveys subjective  memories and glimpses of recent events, while The struggle of spokes people (2022), depicts Heather Marie (Wunjarra) Koowootha’s compelling portraits of First Nations leaders and social justice advocates.

Several projects focus on environmental issues and the detrimental impact of consumerism as well as promoting stronger connections between humans and their natural surroundings.

Among the highlights is Justene Williams’ colourful installation of elongated mannequins, The Vertigoats 2021, a humorous look at the obsession with fashion and wellness industries.

Represented by a rock climbing wall, it indicates an ironic gibe at ‘climbing the ladder’ of consumerism. While filled with colour and wit, the artwork’s underlying message warns not to  ignore the real life around us.      

The Reservoir of Cruel Miracles (2022), Erika Scott’s towering sculpture of 40 second-hand fish tanks enclosing rejected found objects, evokes a mood of suburban horror centring around human disregard for waste and debris. With its garish lighting and jumble of disintegrating objects, it is a disturbing work.   

An important and timely new artwork is Inert State (2022), Archie Moore’s major commission on the QAG Watermall. Buttrose described it as: ‘An emotionally engaging artwork that calls attention to the mounting number of Indigenous deaths in custody since the 2008 National Apology to the Stolen Generations.‘ 

Highlighting the 339 recommendations made to Royal commissions, most of which have not been implemented, this temporary memorial offers a poignant reminder of the urgent need for institutional change, reinforcing the political debate on a  Voice to Parliament. 

Reviewing the Collection

Many of these works speak to recent history,  a timely reminder to rethink the current collection in the wake of recent floods in many parts of the state. QAGOMA, which overlooks the Brisbane river, was impacted quite severely by the flooding and managing its future collections must be a current consideration.     

Read: Exhibition review: Susan Jacobs, Buxton Contemporary 

There are many more artworks of significance and interest in this exhibition, featuring new and commissioned works by James Barth, Janet Burchill & Jennifer McCamley, Léuli Eshrāghi, Caitlin Franzmann, Callum McGrath, Ryan Presley, Vanghoua Anthony Vue and Warraba Weatherall.

Embodied Knowledge reveals the current state of creativity in Queensland, with artists responding to diverse personal, political and social experiences of our time.  The distinctive practices we witness in this evocative exhibition express the complexity of modern materials, the vibrancy of our cultures and both social and political critiques that are at the heart of contemporary art today.  

It certainly questions our perceptions of what contemporary art is, and helps us to examine how we might rethink the collections of tomorrow.  

Embodied Knowledge is showing at Queensland Art Gallery from 13 August to 22 January 2023, and is a FREE exhibition. 

Suzannah Conway is an experienced arts administrator, having been CEO of Opera Queensland, the Brisbane Riverfestival and the Centenary of Federation celebrations for Queensland. She is a freelance arts writer and has been writing reviews and articles for over 20 years, regularly reviewing classical music, opera and musical theatre in particular for The Australian and Limelight magazine as well as other journals Most recently she was Arts Hub's Brisbane-based Arts Feature Writer.