Still basking in the success of its Clarice Beckett survey the Art Gallery of South Australia is now pushing hard in the field of contemporary art. The Beckett exhibition was a major feat of historical restitution but the 2021 Ramsay Art Prize is focused on the future. The $100,000 first prize is awarded not simply on the basis of current achievement but in the expectation the winner will go on to become a force in Australian art.
The prize is the most high profile initiative of the James and Diana Ramsay Foundation, which perpetuates the legacy of a couple who must rank among Australia’s most dedicated (and disinterested) philanthropists. In a country with more than 120 billionaires one wonders why genuine philanthropists are so few and far between. The poorest Australians are known to give generously to good causes but with a few notable exceptions the richest are a bunch of stingy bastards.
The Ramsay Art Prize picks up where earlier projects such as the Moet et Chandon Art Prize left off. The most desirable art competition of the 1990s, the Moet’ was awarded to an artist under the age of 36. The Ramsay is awarded to an artist under the age of 40 working in any medium. The inaugural prize of 2017 was won by Sarah Kontos, the second, in 2019, by Vincent Namatjira, who have gone on to justify the judges’ endorsements.
This year’s winner, 30-year-old Kate Bohunnis, might be seen as a bolter in the field. Up to this point she has been scarcely known outside of her home state of South Australia, although I have a feeling this is about to change. My usualmodus operandi is to discuss the art rather than the artist but in this case a small digression is in order because Bohunnis has the kind of image that would delight any publicist. Along with the inevitable tats and piercings there’s a peroxide hair-do reminiscent of the heroine in Pablo Larráin’s impressive new movie, Ema. The artist is a super-stylish dresser who claims to be influenced by ‘queer’ aesthetics, and – most important of all – she is completely composed and articulate.
Bohunnis is an example of an artist who has taken herself as a work of art. This harks back to the dandy – that 19th phenomenon celebrated by writers such as Baudelaire and Barbey d’Aurevilley. Female dandies were “dandizettes” but in these gender-fluid days that word can be safely forgotten.
Despite all the effort of creating a public persona if a dandified writer or artist had no talent his or her fame would not outlast their most recent public appearance. Therefore it’s significant that for her prize-winning sculptural installation, Edges of Excess, Bohunnis did all the metal and silcone work herself. Nowadays, nine out of ten artists would happily take the Jeff Koons/Patricia Piccinini route and hire skilled artisans to to do the job to their specifications – and be admired by curators, critics and collectors for never getting their hands dirty.
Edges of Excess consists of a long strip of rubbery pink silcone draped over two shiny metal pods suspended on chains. A metal pendulum with rounded edges, swings back and forth overhead, driven by a motor attached to the top of a metal scaffold that frames the entire piece.
The work has such obvious family connections to figures such as Louise Bourgeois and Rebecca Horn that it takes a little time to get beyond those resemblances. The inspiration allegedly came from Bohunnis’s New Age mother, who liked to use a pendulum to help with life’s choices. I know nothing about this kind of pendulum but the sculpture is an unsettling mixture of softness and aggression. If the pendulum had sharp edges, like something dreamed up by Edgar Allen Poe, it would feel positively menacing. The rounded ends create an ambiguity, as if a mechanical device were exercising a coercive influence over a frail human body reduced to the minimal dimensions of a strip of pink flesh.
The work is about control: about being controlled and taking control. It’s about how we are formed by our childhoods, and how hard it is to break free. It’s not a violent process, but a soft and subtle one. Nevertheless, the idea that a body may be reduced – metaphorically – to a single, limp strip of bacon, is unsettling. There’s a suggestion of the hospital in this piece along with a touch of the Marquis de Sade.
Bohunnis may have benefited from having her work installed in a small side-gallery. Most of the other finalists are crammed into a cacophanous display in which pieces impinge upon each other. The AGSA, which has the second-largest collection in Australia and one of the smallest exhibition spaces, is practised in making a congested hang look like an exciting one but there’s no disguising the busy-ness of these galleries.
It’s a thankless task to hang a show that consists of diverse works by 24 different artists, selected from 350 submissions. Most of the finalists are represented by only a single piece, which may have multiple components. Sam Cranstoun, for instance, has made a series of sculpltural towers that take up most of the floorspace in one gallery, whereas Liam Fleming contributes a small glass piece on a plinth. Anna Louise Richardson and Tom O’Hern have both produced complete walls of tiny images whereas Tom Polo and Zaachariaha Fielding have contributed large, commanding paintings that feel squeezed in these spaces.
The two artists displayed to best advantage are probably Hayley Millar Baker and Hoda Afshar, both represented by suites of photographs – and in the latter case, a video as well. Afshar’s Agonistes includes 8 photographic portraits of whistleblowers and their stories. As a work that incorporates social commentary with a high degree of aesthetic finesse, it’s a piece that commands sustained attention from the viewer.
Millar Baker’s I Will Survive has nothing to do with Gloria Gaynor’s famous disco anthem. In this series of manipulated photos, the artist inserts multiple versions of herself into stark, haunted landscapes. The setting is primordially Australian but the black-robed Millar Baker could just as easily be Ariadne or Medea looking out to sea from the shores of ancient Greece.
I’d be hesitant to make sweeping value judgements about any of the Ramsay finalists because the exhibition is ultimately a sampler – a snapshot of Australia’s rising talent. Some will go on to greater things, some have already begun that journey. As the Archibald Prize proves, year after year, being selected as a finalist in any art competition is no guarantee of quality, only visibility. If one takes the Ramsay Art Prize as a check-up for Australian contemporary art the patient seems to be in rude good health but terminally confused.
Ramsay Art Prize
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide,
22 May – 22 August, 2021
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 29 May, 2021