Conceived as “a celebration of contemporary Australian art”, The National has been a strange beast ever since its inception in 2017. One of the problems of this event – a biennial collaboration between the Art Gallery of NSW, the Museum of Contemporary Art and Carriageworks – is that it has occasionally seemed to be a celebration of the curators rather than the artists, with works being chosen because they engage with “issues” the organisers hold dear.
Perhaps it’s an unkind suspicion but I’ve often detected a whiff of self-congratulation about The National, as if the curators felt they were doing something especially virtuous by championing contemporary art. That sense of virtue may be reflected in the two small, drab catalogues produced for the previous installments of the show. This year, for the show’s third and final iteration, there is no catalogue at all. It’s a dreadful omission because even the most basic sort of catalogue confers a posthumous significance on an exhibition. To fail to complete a sequence of three signals an embarrassing lack of commitment.
If the National Gallery of Victoria can publish a monumental 5 volume tome for the 2020 NGV Triennial – an international blockbuster completed and opened within the pandemic year – it’s a poor reflection on Sydney that three leading venues can’t cobble together one small book.
This year each and every exhibitor has been assigned a birthplace within an Aboriginal ‘nation’ regardless of their personal ancestry. This is a cute idea but also rather confusing, leading some viewers to believe the entire show is made up of indigenous artists. The danger with such conspicuous virtue signalling is that it can easily come across as patronising. What does it mean for a person of European heritage to say he or she was born on Wurundjeri or Gadigal country? It could be argued this only diminishes the significance of the indigenous connection to the land.
Having got these gripes out of the way I’m pleased to report that the final installment of The National is an advance on its predecessors. The four curators this year are Matt Cox and Erin Vink from the AGNSW, Abigail Moncrieff working with Carriageworks, and Rachel Kent from the MCA. Maybe it’s just down to experience but Kent’s selection is easily the best part of the show, and, I daresay, the best of the three-year sequence.
While there are some notable works at the AGNSW and Carriageworks, these displays feel a lot more haphazard. At the AGNSW pieces are spread throughout the building, with a large new installation by Fiona Hall in the vestibule and one by Judy Watson at the foot of the escalators. Frankly, neither of these spaces do the artists any favours. Carved up in various ways and full of distractions, it would have been better if each installation had been allotted a big, clear space within one of the galleries.
Alick Tipoti fares better with a room devoted to his huge linocuts and floating sculptures of sea creatures. If there is any work suited to an open space it’s Wona Bae & Charlie Lawler’s Regenerator, which is made up of concentric circles of charcoal fragments suspended in mid-air. The viewer is invited to look through this work from either end, treating it as a giant view-finder.
No prizes for picking the highlight at the AGNSW: two 3 by 5 metre paintings by Pitjantjatjara artists Betty Muffler and Maringka Burton. The title, of what I assume to be a diptych, is Ngangkari Ngura, which translates as “Healing Country”. The predominant use of white, offset with traces of pale yellow, blue and lavender, lends these canvases an ethereal dimension, but the rhymthic use of line and pattern keeps everything tightly organised. What’s truly awesome is the apparent ease with which the artists have tackled such a large-scale project.
It’s an excellent idea to include statements in the artists’ original language on the website, but it would be even better if anybody had bothered to commission an English-language translation.
At Carriageworks the main attraction is provided by Lorraine Connelly-Northey, who has bent and twisted rusty metal and wire into a massive wall display of post-industrial dilly bags (AKA. narrbong), and three large, 3D versions, each taller than an adult. Weaving with iron is not the easiest of tasks but Connelly-Northey seems to bend metal like Wonder Woman.
Among other artists at Carriageworks there’s a mass of quirky, disjointed stuff that doesn’t add up to an engaging display. Nevertheless, where quirky is the rule, quirkiest may be best. Take Michelle Nikou, for instance, whose installation: no sound of water. Behind him the hot dogs, split and drizzled – lies somewhere between the parodic and the portentous. A group of ordinary objects has been subtly recast and transformed in an oblique meditation on the pandemic year. What looks completely random at first gradually reveals a narrative intention.
There’s also a vein of strangeness running through Mitch Cairns’s installation, which consists of three neat, hard-edged (largely) abstract paintings, a brick wall, and an oversized chair. Daniel Moodie Cunningham attempts a decoding on the website, but I suspect Cairns is more devoted to the puzzle than the resolution. There is, at the very least, a quality in the work that prompts one to keep looking.
The first thing one sees upon entering the exhibition at the MCA are the works of the late Mulkun Wirrpanda, one of the most respected Yolngu artists. In recent years Wirrpanda struck up a friendship with John Wolseley, which resulted in two collaborative exhibitions that have no parallel in the history of Australian art. A third show was cut short by Wirrpanda’s death, but much of the work may has been included in this part of The National. (Wirrpanda’s final solo exhibition is being held at Aboriginal and Pacific Art, until 8 May).
Wirrpanda and Wolseley’s subject is the termite mounds of the top end which act as virtual communities, housing not only the termites, but meat ants, birds and bees that all share the space without getting in each other’s way. It’s a remarkable metaphor for peaceful co-existence, drawn from the natural world. Inspired by this topic both artists have produced exceptional bodies of work, in a profound and moving display.
One of the impressive aspects of the MCA show is the sheer ambition of the artists. Deborah Kelly’s CREATION project is operatic in scope, incorporating video, animation, collage, tapestry, costume, dance and performance in a modest attempt to forge “an insurgent queer science fiction climate change religion”. Sally Smart’s The Artist’s Ballet – another multimedia spectacular – takes her work to a new level; while Mehwish Iqbal’s Grey Wall comprises no fewer than 50,000 small human silhouettes cut from paper, drawn and painted by the artist. These tiny figures are assembled into a gigantic cloud (crowd), spread across one long wall of the museum.
There’s a lot of work that deserves discussion here but I’ll settle for just one more: Betty Kuntiwa Pumani’s Antara, a two-panelled 3 by 10 metre painting in eye-popping shades of red, white and blue. Another Pitjantjatjara artist, Pumani has made a painting just as big as Betty Muffler and Maringka Burton’s work at the AGNSW, executed in an even more decisive manner. As Pumani’s subject is her country a large scale seems appropriate. The landscape is fully formed in the artist’s head, requiring only time and effort to get it down on canvas. If this were the last work to be seen in the final installment of The National one might forget about the inconsistencies of the past six years and walk away feeling well satisfied.
The National: New Australian Art
Art Gallery of NSW, 26 March – 5 September, 2021
Museum of Contemporary Art, 26 March – 22 August, 2021
Carriageworks, 26 March – 20 June, 2021
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 24 April, 2021