The National; all the best of new Australian art

Australia's big new exhibition at The Art Gallery of NSW, Carriageworks and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia.

The National – New Australian Art
Museum of Contemporary Art: Until June 18
Art Gallery of New South Wales: Until July 16
Carriageworks until June 25 

The three-storey high banner on the side of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney advertising The National is dramatic, unnerving and also very recognisable. It also raises some issues about Australian art as it features an image by New Zealand artist Ronnie van Hout.

Are we exporting artists or are they importing them? The idea fits into some of the themes in the show about cultural identity, which Australians (as do New Zealanders) struggle with defining and comprehending.

The National is the biggest show of contemporary Australian art for a long time, featuring nearly 50 artists both big names and a lot of emerging talent.

The show is being held at three venues; the Art Gallery of NSW, Carriageworks and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia.

Over three exhibitions, this year, 2019 and 2021, The National will profile a mix of emerging, mid-career and established artists from around the country and practising overseas. New and recently commissioned works will encompass a diverse range of mediums, including painting, video, sculpture, installation, drawing and performance.

While there are common themes in the three shows the curators have been fairly loose in their groupings of work, with not a lot of pigeonholing, though there are a number of strong social and political threads linking the works.

Ronnie van Hout’s installation I know everything features sculptural versions of himself as well as a video with a number of ghostly doppelganger versions. The sculptural works are reminiscent of weird figures that inhabit horror movies including the full-size Punk on a bed, the image of which hangs on the facade of the MCA. Most of the sculptures are of child-sized figures in pyjamas but with adult faces. One sits on the toilet with a cigarette, one pulls a string of sausage from his stomach, which appears to have been vomited up by another child.  There is an unsettling sense to these figures, which have a mixture of the comic and macabre. They all hint at the way in which the artist can create versions of himself, confounding what we might think of the idea of the artist revealing the truth of themselves in self-portraits.

Alex Gaweronski is the one artist who has work in all three galleries. His three works under the title of Ghosts is an intriguing architectural series of works which addresses issues of cultural borrowing and the use and meaning of “a style.” He has constructed an architectural feature of each of the three galleries and placed them in other venues. So the modernist lintel and metal doorway of the Museum of Contemporary Art is in one of the back areas of the Carriageworks exhibition and the metal columns and beams of the old railway building of Carriageworks fill the entrance foyer of The Gallery of New South Wales. At the MCA Wales he has reproduced a section of coffered ceiling from the new extensions at The Gallery of New South Wales.

Some of the works in the show are strongly political as in Khaled Sabsabi’s series of 33 photographs of the Israeli/Hezbollah conflict in the 2006 Lebanon War, which lasted 33 days. The small images of destruction contain no bodies but have been modified by artists, with small highlights added in red ink as though adding in the traces of death. The images are like snapshots from a family album documenting the destruction of war as well as the futility. One image shows a yellow “No Trespassing” sign draped over a pile of rubble. The sign in Arabic also bears the words “The Divine Victory,” a rebuke to those who believe that there is a god and he is on their side.

A more complex work related to the Middle East is Tom Nicholson’s The Shellal Mosaic. It is based on the discovery by Australian troops fighting the Ottoman Turks during WWI of a floor mosaic of an early Christian church in Gaza.

The tiles were removed and eventually installed in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Nicholson’s work consisted of several sections of the mosaics, some crated, which it is envisaged would be returned to the area and be reinstalled. The work highlights some of the intractable problems of the area which has been ruled over by the Jewish nation, the Islamic Ottoman Turks, European Christian crusaders, British Occupation troops, the State of Israel and Hamas.

It also parallels the debate that surrounds Britain's acquisition of Greece's Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon, which are now in the British Museum despite calls for their repatriation.

At the MCA, Rose Nolan’s Big Words – To keep going breathing helps (circle work) consists of painted hessian discs, strung together to form a large curtain suspended in a spiral formation from the ceiling which the viewer can walk around and into.

The installation can be seen as a performance of labour in the making of the laboriously painted discs and the construction of the piece along with performative actions of the audience. Viewers cannot take in the whole text of the work from a single viewpoint, they must move around and within it.

A number of the works in the exhibition concern the history, colonisation social and political issues of the Aboriginal people. This is addressed by both indigenous artists as well as European artists.

One such is work by the New Zealand artist Richard Lewer who has created an elaborate video work which revisits the death in police custody of a young Aboriginal man, John Pat, in 1983.

In tracing the boy's history and the impact of his death, Lewer interviewed the boy’s mother and created a video which tells the boy's story from the mother's perspective.

The story is told in the style of a lecture using interview material, photos, Lewer’s drawings and animations along with a video of the artist assembling his material and displaying it on an overhead projector.

Julia Gough, who is of Tasmanian Aboriginal heritage, has created a musicological installation The Gathering, which features a 19th-century drawing room with Axminster carpet a colonial table, chairs and decorations. On the table are 28 small wooden crosses, each bearing the name of one of the European estates of Tasmania along with a rock from each of the properties.

A video scans the landscape, identifying the entrance to each of the estates and also displays various texts about the treatment of Aboriginals in the 1830s including a government order for colonists to assemble to form the Black Line of men used to sweep across some areas of Tasmania in an attempt to corral and eradicate Aborigines, along with letters from colonists expressing annoyance at the presence of Aborigines on their property.

At The Gallery of New South Wales, aboriginal artist Gordon Bennet has a series of works entitled Home Décor (after Margaret Preston). In a reverse of the more common European practice of borrowing from the indigenous, Bennet has used designs of the early 20th-century artist who had in turn been influenced by Aboriginal designs and seen them as central in developing an Australian art and identity.

The exhibition is not just an opportunity to see the works of a wide range of Australian artists and their current practices. It also allows viewers to understand connections between the interests of these artists – aesthetically, socially, politically, personally and spiritually.

Artist in the Exhibition

Museum of Contemporary Art Australia
Artists: Khadim Ali, Zanny Begg, Matthew Bradley, Gary Carsley, Erin Coates, Marco Fusinato, Alex Gawronski, Agatha Gothe-Snape, Julie Gough, Gordon Hookey, Peter Maloney, Karen Mills, Rose Nolan, Stieg Persson, Elizabeth Pulie, Ronnie van Hout, Nell

Art Gallery of New South Wales
Artists: Gordon Bennett, Megan Cope, Keg de Souza, Emily Floyd, Alex Gawronski, Gunybi Ganambarr, Agatha Gothe-Snape, Dale Harding, Taloi Havini, Helen Johnson, Nicholas Mangan, Alex Martinis Roe, Tom Nicholson, Raquel Ormella, Khaled Sabsabi, Yhonnie Scarce, Tiger Yaltangki

Artists: Richard Bell, Chris Bond & Wes Thorne, Karla Dickens, Atlanta Eke & Ghenoa Gela, Heath Franco, Agatha Gothe-Snape, Alex Gawronski, Alan Griffiths, Jess Johnson & Simon Ward, Richard Lewer, Archie Moore, Claudia Nicholson, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, Justene Williams, Jemima Wyman


John Daly-Peoples travelled to Sydney with assistance from Destination New South Wales