Heath Franco, LIFE IS SEXY, 2016–17, two-channel HD video, color, sound, 15 minutes 12 seconds. From The National: New Australian Art.

Heath Franco, LIFE IS SEXY, 2016–17, two-channel HD video, color, sound, 15 minutes 12 seconds. From The National: New Australian Art.

The National: New Australian Art

Museum of Contemporary Art Australia/Art Gallery of New South Wales/Carriageworks

Heath Franco, LIFE IS SEXY, 2016–17, two-channel HD video, color, sound, 15 minutes 12 seconds. From The National: New Australian Art.

It’s been nearly twenty years since Sydney hosted a substantial survey exhibition of contemporary Australian art. The National: New Australian Art offers welcome relief from this inexplicable drought, with three key institutions joining forces to showcase new work by forty-eight emerging, midcareer, and established artists, with further editions planned for 2019 and 2021. 

Although no overall theme prevails, commissioned catalogue essays by Sunil Badami, Daniel Browning, and Helen Hughes characterized ideas of nation and Australianness as contested and always under construction. Blair French’s curatorial essay echoes his selections for the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA). Pushing against the valorization of instantaneity in contemporary culture, French accents how artists work at processes or ideas over long periods of time. A standout example is an installation by Rose Nolan, whose career spans four decades. At a height of roughly sixteen feet, Big Words – To keep going, breathing helps (circle work), 2016–17, occupies one of the MCA’s double-height spaces. A multitude of painted burlap disks are linked together to form a suspended curtain arranged in spiral form that visitors can enter and walk around. Recalling the striking red-and-white graphics of Russian revolutionary art, the disks form the words of the title in the round. Nolan has consistently produced great works that intensify the aesthetic shape-shifting of language as a visual art. Elsewhere at the MCA, Ronnie van Hout’s installation I know everything, 2017, presents self-portraits utterly devoid of vanity. Visitors are surrounded by multiple Ronnies playing crime-show thugs and horror-film villains on video screens, or as bewigged and clothed polyurethane sculptures of naughty little boys bearing the artist’s worn adult face.

Another perverse mode of self-portraiture is on view at Carriageworks, where the exhibition is curated by Lisa Havilah and Nina Miall. Heath Franco’s LIFE IS SEXY, 2016–17, is a hilarious video work featuring a cast of wildly libidinous characters, all played by the artist. Franco’s frenzied exhibitionism stages being sexy as hard labor. Carriageworks also hosts Aggregate Icon (Rosetta RBW), 2017, a massive photocollage by Jemima Wyman, directly adhered to the wall. Internet-sourced, hand-cut images of masked and costumed protesters from around the world create kaleidoscopic patterns within unifying circular templates, and the mandala-like form of the work emulates rose windows in Gothic churches. While shifting optical effects created by the complex internal patterning and a palette of red, white, and black suggest friction and dissent, the larger template hints at a utopian fantasy of confederation.   

Assembled by Anneke Jaspers and Wayne Tunnicliffe, the exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales contains compelling works by Aboriginal artists. With exacting precision, Yolngu artist Gunybi Ganambarr, from northeastern Arnhem Land, incises or paints intricate designs associated with ancestral law on various supports. These range from traditional hollow poles and bark sheets to debris from mining and building sites. Gapu (Water), 2017, is a length of rubber conveyor belt colonized by incised designs and exhibited flat on a plinth. In Milngurr (Sacred Spring Water), 2015, the same cutting technique is applied to a sheet of galvanized steel. Ganambarr’s art negotiates Yolngu and Western worlds with conviction. Another room houses the installation Death Zephyr, 2016–17, by Yhonnie Scarce. Hundreds of handblown glass pellets are suspended from the ceiling to form a swirling cloud in hues of white, gray, and black. The work references British nuclear tests of the 1950s and 1960s at Maralinga, South Australia, that for decades were surrounded by state silence over radioactive fallout and the likelihood that some Aboriginal people were not evacuated from test sites. From a distance, Scarce’s simulated radioactive cloud looks divine, yet as you walk beneath the glass tubes they transmute into poisonous little missiles aimed at you. 

By combining works from different generations, the curators have avoided a market-oriented approach fixated on novelty and the wow factor. Many works reactivate contentious histories of Australasia, or artistic traditions of the distant and more recent past, accentuating their continuing relevance to our present and future. There is nothing especially Australian about casting contemporary art as shadowed by the past and addressed to the future, but it surely beats an arid preoccupation with the “now.”  

Toni Ross