View of “Unfinished Business,” 2017–18. Photo: Andrew Curtis.

View of “Unfinished Business,” 2017–18. Photo: Andrew Curtis.

“Unfinished Business”

ACCA: Australian Center for Contemporary Art

View of “Unfinished Business,” 2017–18. Photo: Andrew Curtis.

“Unfinished Business: Perspectives on art and feminism” took as its structuring principle the theme of polyphony to demonstrate the maxim “There is no viable feminism, only pluralist feminisms.” And the show had a six-piece curatorial team to prove it, allowing for internal dissent, and for different and even antithetical subject positions to emerge within the exhibition. Though it concentrated on contemporary Australian art and included several new commissions, “Unfinished Business” was anchored by some important historical touchstones. Under the framework of polyphony, central core imagery by figures such as Frances (Budden) Phoenix, and Vivienne Binns from the 1960s and 1970s, and—slightly later—by Fiona Foley could be perceived as opposing without negating gender nonbinary and trans-masculine positions in the show, such as Spence Messih and Vincent Silk’s sculptural/textual meditation on fragility and uncertainty, THESE THINGS WE DO/LONG LIVE SNAILS, 2017.

A multitude of aesthetic and political approaches unfurled across the walls and floor of the main gallery. Sophie Takách’s Evert Manifold 95cc, 2017—a solid bronze cast of the interior of the artist’s vagina that played brilliantly into the history of women’s sculpture and its psychoanalytic evocation of “lack”—was dwarfed (in height only) by Maria Kozic’s fake movie billboard, mounted high up on the back wall, announcing MARIA KOZIC IS BITCH (Bitch,1990). Nearby, selections from Cigdem Aydemir’s absurdist video series “Extremist activity,” 2011–13, followed the artist as she makes her way through Sydney streets in billowing niqabs modified to comically large proportions. In a neighboring space, a delightful clash of style and attitude resounded in the pairing of works by Elizabeth Gower and the team of Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley. Gower’s biographical chronology of photographic self-portraits staged in front of her own works, Portrait of the artist as a young woman, 1974–, showed the artist defiantly staring out of the frame in front of her first exhibitions, then pregnant, holding a squirming toddler, and aging. This gentle, personal reflection on being a female artist faced Burchill and McCamley’s militantly lesbian-feminist Aesthetic suicide, 2013/17, a body of work pivoting around the radical figure of Valerie Solanas and her SCUM Manifesto (1967). Here, a hammy reenactment of Solanas’s attempted assassination of Andy Warhol shot on Super 8 (Silver Bullets, 1982) and a video projection of excerpts from the manifesto intoned by Burchill with two emotionally blank friends (SCUM Tapes 68–96, 1996/2017) were flanked by two towering X-shaped vinyl text pieces on the wall, at once symbols of negation and references to Solanas’s hypothesis that the male Y chromosome is merely an incomplete female X.

The titular phrase “unfinished business” summoned a tension latent in the exhibition, namely the copresence of aboriginal Australian and white Australian “feminisms.” In Melbourne, the saying “unfinished business” is frequently invoked by prominent Gunai/Mara activist Robbie Thorpe in reference to Australia’s violent colonial history, its ongoing expression, and the lack of justice for aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. One of the show’s curators, Paola Balla—a Wemba-Wemba and Gunditjmara artist, researcher, and curator who co-organized “Sovereignty,” the landmark exhibition of South East Australian First Nations art that opened at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in December 2016—explained in her straight-up catalogue essay for the show: “I do not identify as feminist. Feminism has failed us, as it was not designed for us. . . . Our shared womanhood does not make us sisters with white women.” This powerful aboriginal disidentification with feminism manifested in works such as Nyoongar artist Sandra Hill’s oil painting Home-maker #9: The hairdresser, 2014, which depicts a young indigenous woman in ceremonial dress sitting in a 1950s-style hairdressing salon among white women and their children. In this portrait of the enforced assimilation of that era, only she is rendered in color, while the other figures are depicted in homogenous gray scale. Works such as Hill’s threatened to puncture the exhibition’s inclusive logic of polyphonic pluralism, querying the extent to which severe discordance can meaningfully be curated and offering viewers some of the show’s most reflexive and testing moments.

Helen Hughes