There is no shortage of contemporary Australian art, it seems. In art fairs and museums, biennales and commercial galleries, there’s access to the experience of it, and if you want to dig deeper, there’s no shortage of commentary about it online, in print and elsewhere. Yet contemporary art, in Sydney at least, has lacked one of the fundamental types of exhibitions that were a staple of the museum experience in decades past: the large-scale survey show. The National, a three-venue, 45-artist exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW, the Museum of Contemporary Art and Carriageworks, rises to meet the challenge of describing the state of the visual arts.
The key difference between a survey show and most others is that it doesn’t set out to group all the work according to some high falutin’ curatorial premise; rather, the idea is to simply present the work and say: here it is, and isn’t it great? For 18 years, Sydney had its own biennial survey called Australian Perspecta that was staged in the off-years to the Biennale of Sydney. For nearly two decades from 1981, Sydney was spoilt for art: a big themed exhibition of international art followed the next year by a show that gave us a taste of what was happening here.
But for reasons lost in the mists of time, the AGNSW, and its partners in later iterations of Perspecta – including the MCA and the Australian Centre for Photography – decided to end the show in 1999. For the last 17 years, other cities such as Adelaide with its Biennial of Australian Art, and Melbourne with Melbourne Now in 2014, and its follow-up, the Melbourne Triennial, have scooped Sydney in showcasing contemporary art. The National is thus a show that strives to recapture Sydney’s place in the sun.
To do this, The National doesn’t pull out any huge surprises. It’s an institutional show selected by key curators from each gallery, and comes in three distinct flavours: the AGNSW has a studious, thoughtful air with some very beautiful and worthy art; Carriageworks mixes up a colourful and psychedelic hands-on craftiness in a densely packed show; while the MCA, a venue dedicated to mid-career artists, offers a high toned mix of conceptualism and stylish surfaces. Rather than review it venue by venue, a tour through some of The National’s main themes gives us an insight into the show’s successes, while offering at least a glimpse into the breadth of contemporary art practice in the country.
Conceptualism has been a dominant trend in contemporary art for decades, and is represented by several projects. Nicholas Mangan’s Limits of Growth (2016-17) looks like a documentary that’s been expanded into an installation with video screens, photography and a calm narrator’s voice that floats down from hidden speakers. It’s a work that explores abstract exchange systems – in this case, the stone currency of the Micronesian island of Yap, where large hand-carved limestone objects named Rai form a small part of Yap’s exchange system.
Next door to Mangan’s work at the AGNSW is Alex Martinis Roe’s It was about opening the very notion that there was a particular perspective (2015-17). It’s a project that traces the historical and contemporary links between physical locations and philosophies, specifically, the general philosophy department at Sydney University in the 70s and 80s, and the city’s feminist filmmakers. Like Mangan’s work, this is a piece that aestheticises its research, and to engage with it you need time and patience, and a tolerance for things that don’t look like “art”.
Alex Gawronski’s installations, meanwhile, offer a sly commentary on the show itself and the hierarchies behind it. At the AGNSW, he has recreated Carriageworks’ industrial pillars and beams; at Carriageworks, he’s produced at full scale the MCA’s old entrance way; and at the MCA, the artist has installed a copy of the concrete ceiling forms of the AGNSW.
In contrast, there are examples of expressionist works that are much more accessible. Tiger Yaltangki’s trio of paintings at the AGNSW takes contemporary popular media, including Doctor Who and Star Wars, and transports them into the universe of Indigenous art with utterly beguiling effects. Yhonnie Scarce’s Death Zephyr (2016-17) and Megan Cope’s Re Formation Part 1 (2016) use fabricated materials to reflect on Indigenous histories in the Australian landscape: Scarce produces an elegant hanging glass installation that refers to the Maralinga nuclear testing site, while Cope creates a shell monument in concrete that is suggestive of both a topographical map and traditional shell midden.
Over at Carriageworks, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran’s Dirt Deity (2017), a gigantic structure of unfired clay, painted surfaces and pulsing neon flex, overlooks an equally gigantic self-portrait of the artist with an enormous and glowing neon penis. Nithiyendran’s work is both too much and hilarious, as if a self-deprecating ego was given full rein to explore itself in the gallery.
Nearby in an adjoining room, is Heath Franco’s Life Is Sexy (2016-17), another in the artist’s continuing series of absurd videos in which he dances, plays dress-up and makes mockery of masculinity. It’s hilarious and, in contrast to Nithyendran’s giant phalluses, exceptionally modest.
Nithiyendran and Franco’s works represent the strong theme in Australian art of what we might call “identity art”, where the persona of the artist is a vehicle for self-expression, once-removed from the “real” person. Despite how much I enjoyed these particular works, the whole genre feels almost exhausting. I cynically remarked to a colleague at the media tour that I would die happy if I never saw another work of identity art again, yet had I done so I would have missed out on Ronnie van Hout’s I Know Everything (2017) at the MCA – a series of figures, most child sized, with Van Hout’s face attached, looming at the viewer while video screens around the room depict what looks like a drunk monkey at a bar and Van Hout as a stereotypical businessman. This is identity art done right – it’s weird, creepy and uncanny.
The MCA is probably, for my tastes at least, the most appealing of the venues. I’m not sure if it’s because the slightly older artists have more developed practices but I found a lot more to love there. Peter Maloney’s abstract canvases, Elizabeth Pulie’s capes and Nell’s magical sculptural emoticons have visual energy that rewards further reading about the work than relying on elaborate back stories to justify it. The effect of their work is immediate, strong and beautiful.
The most successful room in the whole of The National for me is the combination of Rose Nolan’s Big Words – To Keep Going Breathing Helps (2016) – an installation of an extended spiral that makes up words on a screen from coloured dots – and three abstract paintings from Karen Mills’ Floodline series that explore her ancestral connection to the Australian landscape.
These two sets of works are not necessarily connected by idea or even theme, yet formally they cohere in a way that resonates aesthetically. This is, I think, the key to producing a successful survey show – the happy accidents and coincidences that bring something extra to the survey view.
• The National is showing for free at the Museum of Contemporary Art until 18 June, the Art Gallery of NSW until 16 July, and Carriageworks until 25 June
• This article was edited on 3 April to correct spelling errors