Visual Art

Now in its third iteration, Australia’s richest art prize for people under 40 has been won by South Australian artist Kate Bohunnis. By Eve Sullivan.

Ramsay Art Prize

The winner of the Ramsay Art Prize for 2021, Kate Bohunnis, and her work Edges of Excess.
Credit: Saul Steed

Kate Bohunnis is the winner of the $100,000 Ramsay Art Prize 2021, the nation’s most generous prize for Australian artists under 40. Her work, on exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) with 24 other short-listed contenders, was a bold choice.

In this kinetic sculpture a pendulum with an axe blade swings over two stainless steel pillows, each suspended by small chains and indented to receive the draped ends of a thick pink silicon ribbon. The slump in the middle of the ribbon, and the scarified internal cuts and markings, help to create a sense of vulnerability and violence. Certainly, a notch lower and the axe would meet its mark. Over time, the weight of suspension might achieve the same end as the malleable belt stretches and thins to breaking point. Edges of Excess is a machinic body, efficient and regular in its perpetual motion. It also communicates this sense of “in betweenness” that puts gendered identity into question. The gender trouble and latent sexual violence as well as the bodily colour remind me of the teetering legwork of Louise Bourgeois’s C.O.Y.O.T.E in the National Gallery of Australia (the work was previously known as The Blind Leading the Blind).

Bohunnis is following a trajectory of women, queer and transgender artists who challenge the binary as a way of “knowing” about sex, that has been inherited from Western metaphysics and psychoanalysis.

There are other strokes at play here, and Bohunnis has her own backstory. Of Czech and Latvian descent, her grandmother had experienced the bombing of Dresden and was forced to migrate as a displaced person. Her mother, in turn, used a pendulum of the more conventional drop-weighted kind to divine things and submit to chance in making decisions, inspiring in Bohunnis a similar reverence for its portent that could be construed as “both harmful and intoxicating”. Daniel Mudie Cunningham, one of the presiding judges, led the way in an interpretation: “Edges of Excess speaks to the precarity of our times. It is a visceral portrait of both wellness and anxiety … a work full of contradiction.”

Art prizes also present a world of contradiction as they risk treating a relatively unknown artist as a 15-minute celebrity. As George Monbiot has said, competition can be a double-edged sword. His idea that “untrammelled competition rewards people who have talent, who work hard and who innovate ... breaks down hierarchies and creates a world of opportunity and mobility,” does need qualification. The decline in public funding for our cultural institutions has meant the field has diverted back to earlier models, including the rise and rise of the art prize.

The Ramsay Art Prize, supported by the James and Diana Ramsay Foundation and now in its third iteration at the Art Gallery of South Australia, is still feeling its way as an acquisitive art prize, with the winners of the 2019 edition curated into an exhibition in the stairwell. In this accompanying exhibition, Pierre Mukeba’s Ride to Church, which received the 2019 Lipman Karas People’s Choice Award, bookends Vincent Namatjira’s Close Contact, which took out the main prize that year. Namatjira notably went on to win the 2020 Archibald Prize, with his paean to Adam Goodes, Stand strong for who you are.

Securing a place in the program in the alternate year to the Adelaide Biennial, “The Ramsay” has the potential to be a major survey every two years of recent art by younger artists. But without a substantial budget for its installation, the exhibition value of the Ramsay is what lets it down.

Considering its regrettable failed bid to secure the Adelaide Contemporary on North Terrace’s highly contested Lot Fourteen, AGSA has certainly stretched its resources to present the work of 24 artists across video, installation, glass, painting, photography and a range of different media, from the colourful video pools literally issuing vapours in Ella Barclay’s Dense Bodies and Unknown Systems to the beautiful mandala woven with emu feathers and orbiting quandong seeds, Yurndu (Sun), by the Adnyamathanha and Luritja artist Juanella McKenzie.

Crowded in a few rooms like an art fair, the lack of space around the works creates further contest for their viewing. Barclay’s tanks and Sam Cranstoun’s Look Out! sculptures of every conceivable type of watchtower each needed a room of their own. The video and photography works by Hoda Afshar and Cigdem Aydemir would have benefited from a screen space.

It is hard not to compare the audience impact of the work with the way they would have originally been exhibited. Afshar’s portraits of whistleblowers in Agonistes, erected on billboards outside St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne like Stations of the Cross, part of PHOTO 2021, conveyed a greater sense of tragedy and moral rectitude. Likewise, to view Cigdem Aydemir’s Veils on Veils, an elegant fashion shoot commissioned for the UTS Broadway Screen, you had to stand right back in the space of other works in the Ramsay.

The democracy of prizes is undoubtably part of their appeal, and also why artists can be reluctant to enter them. There is always in them the risk of not being able to control the presentation of the work. Every Australian art prize lives in the shadow of the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman’s rampant popular appeal, but their historical forms and genres can also be seen to perpetuate a colonial mindset of kin, kit and country.

Many prizes are specific to an artform and can expand the thinking around these practices to evolve conservative models. And, of course, many prizes are about fulfilling access and program requirements, sometimes with costs involved that are potentially exploitative.

But beyond these qualifying notes of caution, the “You have to be in it to win it” motivation is self-determined, and the attraction to be included in an exhibition, or in this case a collection, and walk away with a cheque is a big drawcard.

For her part, Bohunnis is working on three large bodies of work for exhibition at Station Gallery and COMA in Sydney, and a collaborative work with Kate Power at Outer Space in Brisbane.

Australia has largely failed to find a contemporary art prize of endurance to match international counterparts of consequence such as the Turner, Hugo Boss or Walters prizes. It has similarly failed to do in a broader field what the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards have achieved for Indigenous art. In time, the Ramsay might become this prize.

The Ramsay Art Prize 2021 is on display at the Art Gallery of South Australia, until August 22.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 29, 2021 as "Winning edges".

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Eve Sullivan is an Adelaide-based arts writer and a former editor of Artlink.