The National: New Australian Art is grounded in an ethos of collaboration: between institutions and curators, with artists and writers. As the many participants in this landmark new initiative shape and realise the project over six years, this ethos of collaboration will remain a guiding principle, along with an abiding commitment to supporting new work and sustaining its relationships to audiences.
The title ‘The National’ gives emphasis to the scope of the undertaking and our aim to address the specificities and nuances of what it means to make art from and for an Australian context at this point in time. The intention is not, however, to attempt to encapsulate, delineate or define contemporary art in Australia through a set of shared characteristics or conditions. Similarly, The National is not pitched at presenting an identifiably ‘national’ (Australian) art, or at composing statements regarding national tendencies, characteristics or identities. On the contrary, there is a provocation in the title, certainly towards the manner in which concepts of nationhood and the nation-state are engaged and destabilised by the practice of contemporary artists. Indeed, dynamic, contested and even contradictory concepts and experiences of place feature in this first exhibition. In so much as they address any idea of ‘Australia’, these works do so through a questioning lens and a wider regional and global consciousness.
This critical element of the overall project has been taken up most explicitly and in quite extraordinary manners by the commissioned essayists: Sunil Badami, Daniel Browning and Helen Hughes. They write of the nation as a contested site, an assumed identity, a fiction; of Australia as an entity or idea always under construction. They attend to the dangers inherent in conflating the ideas of nation and state: a confusion of cultural and political forms and selfassumptions. They draw us through the ever-present pain associated with, even generated by, a condition of nationhood built on violence and dispossession. And they point to the complex role that an idea of ‘Australia’ has played in the evolution of art and art history in this place since invasion. We are deeply grateful to them for the rich, clear-sighted lines of thought that they have brought to the context of this exhibition.
The National 2017: New Australian Art unfolds as one exhibition across the three institutions, developed collectively. We have each led the development and delivery of the exhibition within our respective institutions, bearing out the insights and energies derived from our shared conversations. This has greatly enriched the curatorial process and resulted not only in important synergies in our lines of research, as well as dialogues between works in different locations, but in the commissioning and development of two distributed projects – three installations across the three exhibition sites by Alex Gawronski that transpose architectural elements of each institution into another, as well as a film project by Agatha Gothe-Snape that will develop from 2016 to 2021.
There is no single theme or curatorial concern that has driven our combined research or frames the exhibition; there are, however, interconnected threads that are explored in greater detail in the three curatorial essays in this publication. One such thread is an interest in art and social relations, engagement and transformation, or art emerging as an expression of, and sometimes intervention back into, the lives and concerns of particular communities, whether identified through race, gender, class or location. Another involves artists’ reflections upon concepts of progress, and the structures and forms through which it both develops and unravels. Examples of artists’ reassessment and animation of marginal histories feature heavily, as do Indigenous perspectives on issues specific to the Australian context but with global resonances. Work highlighting anxieties of identity – individual and collective, real and imagined – is also prominent. A further thread follows the practices of artists who work with repeated gestures or return to actions, images or motifs consistently through time, again and again. This includes found images, texts and gestures, from appropriation to performance. The exercise of political and social power and, therefore, questions of knowledge, history and agency, both individual and collective, inform much of the work overall, as does the competition of historical viewpoints – of different histories – in work ranging from painting to performance, installation, sculpture, film, drawing and photography.
The artists in The National 2017 are drawn from across Australia, and in some cases Australians living abroad. We thank them all for the rigour and commitment they have brought to this project – it has been both a privilege and pleasure to work with them on realising their vision. We extend this gratitude equally to the many writers who have contributed a wealth of insights to this publication, the staff from our respective institutions who have brought it to fruition – especially assistant curator Kelly McDonald and designer Claire Orrell – and to our assiduous editor, Genevieve O’Callaghan. The spirit of collaboration has been embraced by all and the project has derived enormous benefit from the contribution of so many diverse voices.
Anneke Jaspers & Wayne Tunnicliffe
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Lisa Havilah & Nina Miall
Museum of Contemporary Art Australia