Visual Art

In its third showing, The National – which exhibits new Australian art across three major Sydney galleries – highlights uncertainties about our national identity. By Tristen Harwood.

The National 2021

Works by Mulkun Wirrpanda at the MCA.
Credit: Anna Kucera

This year, The National 2021: New Australian Art feels a little different. Curated and exhibited collaboratively across three Sydney institutions – the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), the Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia (MCA), and Carriageworks – there is a sense that its themes cut against the grain of national unity, both in terms of collective identity and artistic practices. A biennale conceived six years ago with the intention of presenting new Australian art that speaks of shared histories and experiences, the 2021 iteration is marked by an underlying uncertainty: is “the nation” a relevant precondition for understanding art in a region known as Australia?

As I move through each of the exhibiting galleries it strikes me that the best artworks subtly communicate how the nation is multiple and fractured, how the very idea of Australia is fraught.

At AGNSW, Regenerator (2021) by collaborative pair Wona Bae and Charlie Lawler hangs in the main foyer at eye level. A series of seven hovering halos constructed from charcoal fragments, each recalls a stellar corona or, more precisely, an inverted stellar corona. If we consider the relationship of charcoal to fire, light is literally condensed in Bae and Lawler’s black sculptures. An audio track plays nearby, the rippling sound that jagged charcoal shards make when they bump each other in quick succession. I find it pleasantly comforting.

The rings form a conduit. I can picture passing through them. I recall when my nanna used to tell me how, as a girl, she cleaned her teeth with charcoal, or how bark painters, who work with natural pigments, grind charcoal to make black paint.

Regenerator is also a reminder of the 2019–20 bushfires that devastated parts of the east coast and, by extension, the climate catastrophe and the destructive impact colonialism and capitalism have on the liveability of the planet. Charcoal is ruin and renewal – new plant life growing from the charred debris of fire.

I take the escalator down two levels, where the majority of work is on view. Judy Watson’s installation clouds and undercurrents (2021) comprises rectangular sheets of canvas suspended from the ceiling, forming something like a protective canopy. Cara Pinchbeck writes that for Watson blue isn’t just a colour, it’s a “marker of memories both distant and recent that overlap” and pool on the canvas. In this work, blue is impressed on the canvases – or rather, given how the indigo blues seem to trace creases in the sheets, perhaps the canvas is impressed upon the colour blue – as a material memory of process.

Blue is also a dream colour for water, clear water reflecting sky. Watson’s atmospheric installation gently pulls the viewer in with dumularra, the Waanyi word for running water. The audio accompanying the canvases is the sound of water passing over rocks. Near the gallery, the freshwater from what became known as the Tank Stream was vital in Gadigal Country. The stream was polluted by runoff from colonial settlement, becoming an open sewer by 1928. What is left is now underground. Watson walked the subterranean stream and recorded its sound, creating an aural memory that prompts the viewer to consider how ecologies are made and unmade and the historical and ecological contours of the place in which The National is held.

James Tylor’s We Call This Place … Kuarna Yarta (2020) is also specific about place. Tylor’s work comprises 25 small daguerreotypes of Kuarna Country, each engraved with Kaurna Warra words. A photograph of an escarpment is overlaid with the text “Karildilla”, a beach with “Karrkungga”, a cove with “Karta”, and another beach with “Waitpingga”. Are these words descriptors or place names, or both?

In a time when the institutionalised use of Indigenous place names is increasingly prevalent, Kuarna Yarta demonstrates that naming is never simple. Language calls into being sets of relations that are politically, philosophically and socially distinct from those that currently prevail in Australia and the territories it claims.

At Carriageworks, Alana Hunt’s photographic series All the violence within this | In the national interest (2019–20) directs her lens at the banality of colonial violence. Hunt studies the tourist photograph. In one image white tourists wearing swimsuits and backpacks are interspersed among trees, their towels strewn over rocks. Their ease and freedom comes at the price of Indigenous erasure, a cost they refuse to bear in the celebration of their own presence in this landscape.

Hunt’s camera is on the periphery of the action, as if surveilling a crime scene. It’s not a stretch to recall four-wheel-drive vehicles tearing up sand dunes, rock climbers chipping away at rock walls in the Grampians and the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara elders’ pleas to stop tourists climbing Uluru. The poignancy of Hunt’s work is in how she chooses to focus on subtle gestures of colonialism, suggesting that the tourist photograph is both artefact and evidence.

On the wall next to Hunt’s photographs is Lorraine Connelly-Northey’s massive Narrbong Galang (2021), a collection of about 250 small “string bags” made from scrap metal, hung side by side. Connelly-Northey uses materials associated with pastoralism, reconfiguring them into sculptures that reference weaving techniques practised by many Indigenous groups.

One is made with a coil of barbed wire, one with a folded square of corrugated iron, another with a flattened tin. All are coloured with rust. Is rust a natural pigment? How does it speak of and to the red ochre so synonymous with Indigenous artistic practice from the north? The scale of Narrbong Galang brings the relationship between the body, land and labour into relief.

A violence lingers over her materials – barbed wire in particular evokes the body’s vulnerability – but I feel myself drawn to hold them. There is something tender about Connelly-Northey collecting and refashioning these materials into forms that exist at the scale of the hand. And there is a resurgent joy in seeing the material fragments of pastoralism made into beautiful objects.

Over at the MCA, Sancintya Mohini Simpson’s kūlī/karambu (2020–21), a watercolour and gauche painting on handmade wasli paper, also deals with labour. kūlī/karambu uses 15 panels to portray a story of indentured labour, focusing on the exploitation of South Asian labourers forced to work in sugarcane plantations in Durban, South Africa. Scenes within the scene – a bloodied corpse, an assault – show the personal, lived consequences of this familiar colonial milieu.

Simpson’s work emerges from family stories shared by her mother, oral testimony and archival records. Her single-channel video Dhūwã (2020–21), accompanied by a scent that’s spritzed in the gallery daily, is a heightened repetition of this scene, produced by moving images of fire, the sea, windswept grass and sparse diegetic sound. Simpson’s work resonates with MulkuWirrpanda’s (1947–2021), which is shown next to it. Dhūwã is a transliteration of the South African Bhojpuri word for smoke, but spelled Dhuwa it is also one of the two Yolŋu moieties, the other being Yirritja. Dhuwa and Yirritja structure everything in the Yolŋu universe.

Dhuwa is Wirrpanda’s moiety, so both these artists tell Dhuwa/dhūwã stories. Wirrpanda has made use of natural pigment to make granular paintings on bark and larrakitj (memorial poles) and notably flatter, more translucent works on composite board that study termite ecosystems.

i ga Gudirr (2019) features a wedged termite mound, painted in white and red ochre. Inside the mound, a network of streaky white circles and dotted tubes form a network where munyukuluŋu (magnetic termites) live, but here i (meat ants) inhabit the termite mound. In other paintings she depicts birds and their eggs in the mounds. The sounds of Simpson’s Dhūwã melds with the polyphonic imagery of Wirrpanda’s paintings, the noises of wind, bird calls, insects and rolling waves.

Wirrpanda’s painting sits at the core of The National’s themes, allegorically unravelling the very idea of a singular nation. Her bewildering paintings, which are brought to life through the intricacy of the termite mound and its contesting occupants, are open to conflicting desires – a marked contrast to the foundational idea of Australia, which excludes anything that threatens a uniform national identity. 

Arts Diary

CULTURE The National 2021: New Australian Art

Venues throughout Sydney, until September 5

FASHION Mary Quant: Fashion Revolutionary

Bendigo Art Gallery, until July 11

SCULPTURE Abdul-Rahman Abdullah: Everything Is True

John Curtin Gallery, Perth, until April 23

VISUAL ART Cut Copy: Brisbane music posters 1977–87

State Library of Queensland, Brisbane, until May 9

VISUAL ART Leila Jeffreys: Birdland

Manly Art Gallery and Museum, NSW, until June 20

Last chance

DESIGN Melbourne Design Week

Venues throughout Melbourne, until April 5

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 3, 2021 as "Multiple fractures".

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Tristen Harwood is a writer, cultural critic and researcher, and a descendant of Numbulwar.