Art Essays

The National

Published April 8, 2017
Khadim Ali's The Arrival of Demons at the MCA

One wonders if The National: New Australian Art is intended as a subtle riposte to the National Gallery of Victoria’s Melbourne Now of 2013-14. “No navel gazing here in Sydney – we’re bringing you art from all over the country.”
The NGV’s bright idea may have been predicated on Melburnian self-esteem but final attendances topped 750,000. I’ll be surprised if The National does anywhere near as well, even though it’s spread across the Art Gallery of NSW, the Museum of Contemporary Art and Carriageworks.
Melbourne Now boasted 400 artists working in every imaginable medium. The National gives us 48 artists, most of them caught up with the political and cultural ‘issues’ that dominate so much contemporary art. The abiding problem – as the Federal government has found – is that issues of burning importance to one person may be a big yawn to the next.
With a few notable exceptions, The National is a lacklustre affair. Nothing is duller than the catalogue: a small, plain green thing with six essays that expend a remarkable number of words on a handful of banal ideas. The writers are talking to each other, not to the public.
Reading over and over that “Australia” doesn’t really exist, I’m reminded of the way Dr. Johnson responded when asked how he would refute Bishop Berkeley’s proofs of the non-existence of matter. Johnson kicked a large stone, and announced: “I refute it thus!”
Boswell’s Life of Johnson was published in 1791, but the taste for petty sophistry still flourishes today and still cries out for a good kick. I’m afraid I don’t have space for a more in-depth piece of lit crit. Each contributing artist gets a one-page illustration and a mini-essay in this unappealing publication. As The National is conceived as a three-part project with installments in 2019 and 2021, we can expect another two identical volumes, probably in different colours.
What The National does have is a sense of an entrance. At the MCA, Khadim Ali has produced a gigantic mural-sized work on the foyer wall, called The Arrival of Demons. It looks like something one might see in a temple, but its ironic reference is to Australia’s demonisation of refugees.  Ali, who arrived from Pakistan four years ago, demonstrates that he’s a migrant with a full set of skills.
It requires a leap of the imagination to connect the mural with the rest of the show which is on the third floor. The display saves its weirdest moments for the end, with a room of scattered ceramic objects by Nell that will make visitors feel they’ve entered the site of an abandoned voodoo ceremony. Even more unsettling is a room by Ronnie Van Hout, which features videos and life-sized mannequins bearing the artist’s distinctive features. It’s like stepping into a Eurotrash horror movie, with Van Hout cast in the role of the villain.

Nell's voodoo at the MCA
Nell’s voodoo at the MCA

Ronnie Van Host lets it all hang out at the MCA
Ronnie Van Host lets it all hang out at the MCA

The biggest talking point at the MCA, for all the wrong reasons, will be Gordon Hookey’s large painting that aims to score points against “Porcine Hamsin” on behalf of the blackfellas. I’ve enjoyed Hookey’s irreverent humour in the past, but this is not his finest moment. The picture is low on wit and high on vulgarity. I know the same could be said about Pauline Hanson, but that’s no reason to sink even lower.
In the entrance foyer at the Art Gallery of NSW one runs into Emily Floyd’s massive sculptural installation, Kesh Alphabet, which draws on a fictional language invented by science fiction writer, Ursula Le Guin. The work is big, colourful and beautifully fabricated (presumably not by the artist), but its conceptual and feminist ambitions will be lost on most visitors, who may only see an overgrown piece of decorative art.
Emily Floyd's 'Kesh Alphabet' at the AGNSW
Emily Floyd’s ‘Kesh Alphabet’ at the AGNSW

One wonders if audiences will respond in the same way to the series of paintings called Home Décor (after M.Preston) (2012) by Gordon Bennett, which are hung in the foyer galleries. Bennett, who died prematurely in 2014, is treated as the presiding deity of The National, but it’s hard to get worked up about rigid abstractions that borrow details from Margaret Preston’s work which she in turn borrowed from Aboriginal artefacts. It may be a clever idea to appropriate from the white appropriator, but I didn’t feel moved to look at these paintings for more than a few seconds.
From Gordon Bennett's series, 'Home Décor (after M.Preston)' at the AGNSW
From Gordon Bennett’s series, ‘Home Décor (after M.Preston)’ at the AGNSW

Gunybi Ganambarr at the AGNSW
Gunybi Ganambarr at the AGNSW

Like so many pieces in The National, the lack of visual interest isn’t compensated for by intellectual or ideological content. There may be a pleasure in having one’s political prejudices reaffirmed, but there’s more genuine excitement in a virtuoso passage of brushwork. The successful work of art invites us to pause and look more deeply, not simply register agreement as if it were an opinion poll.
At the AGNSW this requirement is ably met by Gunybi Ganambarr, whose astonishing creations in bark painting, wood carving, metal and rubber have shown him to be one of the most original artists in Australia. It’s even more impressive in that his work stands within a tradition stretching back thousands of years. If any artist in this show deserves the epithet “great”, it’s not Gordon Bennett, it’s Gunybi.
Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran's 'The Cave'
Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran’s ‘The Cave’

The razzle-dazzle entrances are continued at Carriageworks, with Archie Moore’s rows of fictional indigenous flags dominating the cavernous entrance hall. It’s another neat idea, expertly accomplished, but it feels like a one-liner. The surprise piece is Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran’s monstrous ceramic installation, The Cave, which lurks on the other side of a doorway. One can only admire an artist who keeps finding extra reserves of crude vitality. There are no obvious political messages but plenty of productive ambiguities.
Carriageworks is probably the best of the three displays, when one takes into account Richard Lewer’s touching animated film, Never Shall be Forgotten –  A Mother’s Story; Karla Dickens’s row of long-sleeve blouses that resemble straight jackets; and the elaborate audio-visual work of Jess Johnson and Simon Ward. Even Richard Bell’s habitual larrikinism was vaguely amusing.
Perhaps it’s best, after all, to read the catalogue before seeing the show. Let your expectations be diminished by the curators’ leaden prose and the exhibition takes on a whole new fascination.

The National: New Australian Art
Art Gallery of NSW, until 16 July
Museum of Contemporary Art, until 18 June
Carriageworks, until 25 June
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 8th April, 2017.