Sydney Morning Herald Column

Ramsay Art Prize 2023

Published June 13, 2023
Ida Sophia, 'Witness'

To the best of my knowledge, until late last month there had never been a major Australian art prize awarded to   a performance piece. It had to happen eventually, and the breakthrough moment came at the Art Gallery of South Australia, where local girl, Ida Sophia, took out the $100,000 Ramsay Art Prize, for her work, Witness. It seemed a daring decision at first, and even now I can imagine readers huffing and puffing in indignation, but as one wanders around the exhibition, Sophia emerges as a very credible winner.

The Ramsay takes its lead from the Moet et Chandon award for artists under the age of 35, which ran throughout the 1990s. The current prize is open to artists up to the age of 40, generously allowing contestants another five years to define themselves as “young”. It’s a slightly arbitrary figure anyway, as some artists mature early, some late. Emily Kngwarreye was in her late seventies when she painted her first pictures!

Jacobus Capone, ‘Forewarning (Act 4: Demarcation)’

In its fourth iteration this biennial prize is gathering momentum. The show offers an overview of emerging talent from all over Australia – a potential shopping list for curators and collectors. While a handful of the 27 finalists have already featured in major exhibitions and collections, most are relative newcomers. The prize is being funded in perpetuity by money provided by the late Diana and James Ramsay, two of Australia’s most generous patrons of the arts.

One wonders why the Ramsay Foundation and the AGSA haven’t gone the extra yard and published a catalogue. The Moet et Chandon people put out a small catalogue every year, and these booklets contain almost all memory of the event. The absence of on-line material should serve as a warning about our over-reliance on a virtual record that omits a great deal of important information, and easily devolves into hearsay and propaganda.

I wasn’t familiar with Ida Sophia’s work, but like the 2021 winner, Kate Bohunnis, she is impressively organised and focused. The name alone is striking, as “Ida” is reputed to mean “hardworking”, while “Sophia” means wisdom. It sounds like a winning combination.

Witness consists of a video of a mock baptism, set in a lake in regional South Australia, with the wonderfully Biblical name, the Pool of Siloam. For twelve long minutes the artist is dunked under the water by another artist, playing the priest. It’s gruelling to watch, as there are many moments when Sophia is gasping for breath as she is shoved back down into the pool. It’s hard to imagine how physically and emotionally draining this process must have been, especially when one learns the film was made in a single take that lasted half an hour.

Daniel McKewen, ‘A Dark Forest’

It feels as if we are watching someone being water-boarded rather than baptised. It conjures up thoughts of all the suffering and privations people go through in the name of religion, where the mortfication of the flesh is often the first step towards the purification of the soul. The work is based on the artist’s childhood menory of watching her father undergo a “profound baptism”, feeling resentful that he apparently loved Jesus more than he loved his daughter.

In this sense, the work is an exorcism, banishing those selfish thoughts while trying to experience the same sensations felt by her father. If it resembles a self-inflicted torture session, this is not unusual for the “endurance” school of performance art, most closely associated with Marina Abramovic. Sophia has already studied at one of Abramovic’s performance boot camps, in Greece, and has imbibed the steely mental attitude one needs to succeed in this difficult field.

Abdul Abdullah, ‘Legacy Assets’

The intensity of Sophia’s work makes many of the other entries seem light and superficial, so it’s best not to venture direct comparisons. Another striking video, Demarcation by Jacobus Capone, provides a panoramic view of a massive glacier in Norway. Across the edge where the ice flow meets the sea, we see the ant-sized figure of the artist tentatively walking the line. In this film the self is submerged in the vastness of nature and the looming threat of global warming. The glacier is a breathtaking sight, but also cold and ominous. It’s a contemporary reflection on the Romantic concept of the Sublime, in which beauty is always tinged with fear and anxiety.

Alison Puruntatameri, ‘Wings (Tidal Movement)’

Daniel McKewen seems to be making a statement about the interface between nature and culture in A Dark Forest, a work that takes its title from a complex science fiction novel by Chinese author, Liu Cixin (a highly recommendable writer). At this point the artist departs from the book, depicting a gigantic iPhone floating in the darkness, emitting a stream of emojis. It’s at once portentous and comical, although I can’t speak for McKewen’s intentions.

Abdul Abdullah would have done well not to say so much in relation to his work, Legacy, a ten-metre painting of a nondescript part of Berrima, executed with near-photographic accuracy. Over the top of the image he has written, in big white letters: “What would our public collections look like if we divested them of sex pets and paedophiles?” If this feels simultaneously vague and inflammatory, things get even more confusing when we read that Abdullah believes colonial Australian landscape painters were “propagandists for a broader, violent colonial ambition.” Really? I doubt the Heidelberg school saw it that way.

Teho Ropeyarn, ‘Athumu Paypa Adthinhuunamu (my birth certificate)’

All told, this huge painting presents us with a relatively uninteresting image and a lot of garbled ideology. It’s a textbook case of an artist of some talent who is trying too hard to establish his cutting-edge credentials. What would our public collections look like if we divested them of cliqueish political statements?

It was a pleasure to turn to Alison Puruntatameri’s painting, Wings (Tidal Movement), which represents something new in the familiar Tiwi style. The dense, repetitive patterning is a way of portraying the motions of the tides, although it might just as well be the wind or any other element in the natural world. The Futurists would be impressed with Puruntatameri’s ability to convey a sense of movement and speed as we are whisked across the sea in open boat.

Zaachariaha Fielding, ‘Wonder Drug’

Teho Ropeyarn, from Cape York Peninsula, has contributed four large mythical figures, which I believe is the same work shown during last year’s Sydney Biennale. Rather than wish for something new I was pleased to see this piece again, as it’s one of the few works in the Ramsay that is indubitably of museum quality. The four animal-headed figures stand like superheroes, as fierce defenders of traditional beliefs and knowledge.

Finally, it’s impossible to overlook Wynne Prize winner, Zaachariaha Fielding, who is included with a block of fifteen small, square paintings of squiggly figures he calls “gremlins”. It’s curious to look at these works alongside the Wynne Prize entry, which is bigger, bolder and obvously meant to impress. The gremlins are scrappy, colourful entities that gain force from being shown as a group. In terms of scale, they are much more what one would expect of an artist who only took up painting during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

With those standardised, large-scale APY works now coming under scrutiny, Fielding’s paintings may offer a glimpse of a more modest future for the collective. He’s probably not the only artist from that part of the world to be plagued by gremlins.



Ramsay Art Prize 2023

Art Gallery of South Australia, 27 May – 27 August, 2023


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald,  10 June, 2023