This weekend is the last opportunity to see Sculpture By the Sea. I can’t justify a full-scale review at this late stage but in its 19th year the event’s popularity shows no sign of waning. When I walked from Bondi to Tamarama one afternoon there was the usual hubbub of foreign languages, the relentless clicking of cameras, the laughter and murmurs of amateur art critics.
It’s best to approach Sculpture By the Sea in the spirit of a festival. There is always grumbling from professional sculptors about the slight, gimmicky pieces that get included every year, but this is an established part of the mix. One could argue there was a strong central core to the 2015 selection, including Jörg Plickat’s Divided Planet, which won the Macquarie Group Sculpture Prize. A dynamic set of interlocking curves that never quite meet, it projects a discreet political metaphor.
Dave Horton has followed in Anthony Caro’s footsteps with In pace (in peace), after Verocchio’s Doubting Thomas, by taking a famous work by an Old Master as inspiration for a complex play of abstract forms. It’s impressive but almost too densely packed. By contrast, one can appreciate the simplicity and elegance of works such as Linda Bowden’s The Bridge, Ayako Saito’s Step X step II and Koichi Ishino’s Wind blowing.
My real focus this week is outside of Sydney, in Albury and Bathurst. In the Riverina the cultural event of the season has been the opening of the Murray Art Museum Albury, forever to be known by the comforting acronym of MAMA. The new building, which has literally grown out of the old Albury Regional Gallery, provides an up-to-date exhibition venue that will do much to raise the city’s cultural profile.
The director is Jacqui Hemsley, who has managed the project since 2009. She was the perfect woman for the job, having already negotiated gallery redevelopments in several different cities, including the expansion of the Broken Hill Regional Gallery in 2004. The new MAMA has space for multiple exhibitions, including a changing display from a permanent collection that puts a special emphasis on photography.
At the moment one can also see a video installation by Andrew Pearce, and Deborah Kelly’s show of full-length nude photo-portraits, No Human Being is Illegal (in all our glory), which debuted at the Art Gallery of NSW during the 2014 Sydney Biennale. The central attraction, however, is Wiradjuri Ngurambanggu, which features work by five indigenous artists of Wiradjuri origins – Brook Andrew, Lorraine Connelly-Northey, Karla Dickens, Nicole Forshew and Jonathan Jones.
To open the new gallery with an indigenous show is an entirely appropriate gesture. Although MAMA has big plans, including a ‘blockbuster’ based on Marilyn Monroe early next year, it’s important to acknowledge that the region had a cultural identity long before the city of Albury was founded. This is not tokenism but a way of settling accounts with the past and building a bridge to the future.
Wiradjuri Ngurambanggu is a show that reveals the dynamism of Aboriginal art, as opposed to the ideas of British artist, Grayson Perry, soon to be showing at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. In a recent interview Perry argued against Aboriginal artists “borrowing from the status of contemporary art,” as if they were living fossils.
While he’s in town Perry might like to discuss his theories with Nicole Forshew, who acted as curator for this year’s Primavera exhibition at the MCA. Like Perry, Foreshew also works with clay, but not in order to subvert cutting-edge taste. One presumes Forshew’s photos and abstract clay sculptures are an expression of her affinity with that all-important concept – “Country”.
Brook Andrew has transformed MAMA’s foyer, with a trademark black-and-white wall painting, while Karla Dickens has contributed a series of assemblages and a large-scale installation called Clipped wings, made from antique bird cages. The piece might be read as a symbol of colonisation, which curtailed the freedoms of the Wiradjuri. As the cages are empty does this mean freedom has been restored, or did the birds perish in captivity?
Lorraine Connelly-Northey stands out because of the sheer, ragged energy of her sculptures. For this show she has made bags made from fencing wire, and a group of carrying dishes from pressed metal taken from the ceilings of the old Albury Regional Gallery. She has also worked with local artists who have transformed the same metal sheets into wall sculptures.
By using discarded materials, including the rusty iron and wire used by farmers, to create recognisable indigenous artefacts, Connelly-Northey suggests that the age-old power of Aboriginal culture has survived the onslaught of western technologies. Her oversized bags crafted from rusty metal seem to challenge our ideas of obsolescence. Nothing is so old, worn or damaged that it can’t be turned into an imposing object that transcends any utilitarian purpose.
I’ve left Jonathan Jones until last because aspects of his work at MAMA have echoes in the exhibition he has produced for the Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, notably a group of mussels cast in bronze, memorialising a food source that has now been decimated.
Like Brook Andrew, Jones draws on the patterning indigenous people used as marks of identity, decorating both bodies and implements. Jones is known for reproducing these patterns in rows of white fluorescent tubes. Yet this relates so strongly to western Minimalism one can imagine viewers engaging with the formal aspects of such pieces with never a thought as to their origins.
I always felt the light tubes represented a game of diminishing returns, so it’s been pleasing to see the increasing diversification of Jones’s work, perhaps since his ‘oysters and teacups’ installation in the Sydney Biennale of 2012. In the Albury show he has made a piece from household sponges used to wash dishes. Covered in stripes and propped up on shelves they have the same formal neatness as the light installations, but the material sends a very different message. Compared to the severity of a fluorescent tube, a sponge is infinitely malleable.
In Bathurst Jones has produced his most elaborate exhibition to date. They made a solitude and called it peace – or guwiinyguliya yirgabiyi ngay yuwin. gulbalangidyal ngunhi – borrows a famous line from the classical historian, Tacitus, who was quoting a Caledonian chieftan on the depredations inflicted by the Roman army in the name of Empire.
To commemorate the bicentennial of the city of Bathurst, the local gallery has gone down a similar path to Albury – examining the indigenous history of the region in an exhibition that draws connections between past and present.
Bathurst is also part of the vast Wiradjuri lands, and in 1822-24, the site of a fierce confrontation between natives and settlers that prompted Governor Brisbane to declare martial law. It was a bloody affair on both sides, but the settlers were especially brutal, with many arguing that the only solution was to exterminate the blacks. The war ended when the Wiradjuri leader, Windradyne, marched to Parramatta to sue for peace, after seeing women and children indiscriminately slaughtered.
In this show, Jones mingles bronze mussels with lead musket balls. In another room he alternates early colonial maps with Aboriginal parrying shields, in a way that dramatises the settlers’ hunger for land and the local resistance. There are fallen tree trunks painted gold, in reference to the despoliation of the countryside that occurred during the gold rushes.
There is a circle of flint stones and honeysuckle branches, a table draped with possum skin cloaks and a wall covered in simple potato print patterns – referring to the incident that started the ‘war’, when a group of natives were fired upon as they dug for potatoes. The centrepiece is a panoramic video that sweeps slowly through a deserted forest. Another multi-channel video shows six local elders standing at important historical sites.
In its close involvement with the local community, painstaking historical research, and recognition that indigenous issues are inseparable from environmental concerns, Jones’s exhibition is tremendously cohesive. It uses the language of contemporary art to create an historical portrait of a region where the horrors of the past have been quietly laid to rest. His message echoes those sentiments we voice every year in relation to the First World War – Lest We Forget.
Murray Art Museum Albury, until 29 November
Jonathan Jones: guwiinyguliya yirgabiyi ngay yuwin. Gulbalangidyal ngunhi – they made a solitude and called it peace
Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, until 22 November
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 7th November, 2015