Visual Art

The 2023 Ramsay Prize reveals a constellation of younger artists speaking with courage, intelligence and depth. By Jennifer Mills.

Ramsay Art Prize 2023

Several installations displayed in an art gallery.
Ramsay Art Prize 2023 installations at the Art Gallery of South Australia.
Credit: Saul Steed

The biennial Ramsay Art Prize for artists under the age of 40 has quickly found an essential place in the national arts calendar, providing the Art Gallery of South Australia and its visitors with a glimpse of the specific make-up, materials and energies of a generation. It’s a lot of money – at $100,000, the prize equals the Archibald in value, if not in popularity. As an acquisitive prize, it also invites younger artists to be in dialogue with AGSA’s existing collection. Some have taken a playful approach to the challenge, others a more combative one.

Ida Sophia’s winning work, Witness, is a video performance in which the artist is repeatedly immersed in a body of water. Witness was filmed in one take, the camera at times unsteady and the performers visibly strained. The repeated movement has something of a dance to it, a ballroom dip that becomes more freighted with each iteration. Sophia cites watching her father’s baptism as a child as this work’s point of origin, and the location – a salty lake on South Australia’s Limestone Coast named the Pool of Siloam after an Old Testament site of healing – refers to this ceremonial provenance, while simultaneously evoking a very colonial mood of futility and repetition.

Witness speaks directly to another work in AGSA’s collection, veteran performance artist Mike Parr’s Hold your breath for as long as possible (1972). As in Parr’s film, there is a discomfort in watching the artist experience something that would qualify, in another context, as torture. An invitation to bear witness to the work is offered. Not all visitors accept: the turning-away movements are like ripples cast out from the screen.

Ida Sophia’s film is stylised enough to be experienced with the distance of cinema and is elevated by a deep tenderness from endurance art’s more troubling stunts. The emotions and ideas in Witness are strong enough to stand without its soaring soundtrack. The work has a maturity and poise that suggests, despite its stated themes, an artist with a solid faith in her practice.

Another iterative work, Alana Hunt’s A very clear picture, also resonates with the complexity and complicity of colonial witnessing. Hunt’s image-texts are deceptively simple renderings of incomplete names and details from mining legislation, ostensibly protective acts that hint at profound destruction. Hunt has been in residence at Kimberley Land Council, and the process of working through anonymising labels and bureaucratic processes resonates with other institutional accounting practices, a similar formal seam to that of Narungga poet Natalie Harkin’s Archival-Poetics. Hunt offers an intensely contemporary historical document that draws attention to the process of erasure and to the gallery as a site of public record. With extractive industries and fossil fuel money such a hotbed issue in the arts – BHP is a major sponsor of AGSA, and a growing climate movement has just prompted South Australia to pass harsh new anti-protest laws – the redactions and elisions of A very clear picture take on additional urgency.

A less subtle institutional criticism comes from Abdul Abdullah’s Legacy Assets, a five-panel oil painting of a rural idyll, which directly questions the place of work by “sex pests and paedophiles” in public collections. Abdullah was also represented in the 2020 Biennial, and seems to take a position somewhere between the outsider and the zeitgeist. He has a strong point here, but it’s a fragile place from which to grow.

Between Abdullah’s painting and Ida Sophia’s film, the bold pots of ceramicist Alfred Lowe are a welcome reprieve. Perched on brightly painted stools, Lowe’s joyful, unabashed forms embrace the durability of their material and seem to exist across multiple time lines, moving from the realm of archaeology and anthropology, across mid-century modernism, and landing in a First Nations-futurism of their own.

The selection of the 27 shortlisted artists is typically craft-forward. Olive Gill-Hille’s striking bench sculpture, Nocturne, is carved from ebonised American black walnut. Her forms have an uncanny sense of embodiment reminiscent of James Gleeson: balancing heft and vulnerability, it suggests the flow of human beings being held and undermined.

Two West Australian artists stand out with a bold mix of materiality and irony. Emma Buswell knits about the housing crisis and luxury aspirations. The installation Suburban Turrets is dominated by an enormous jumper bearing the words “Delusions of Grandeur”. So much work went into this sheer absurdity, a piss-take of the Australian urge to strive and snuggle for security on unstable (settled) ground. The other standout is Pascale Giorgi’s triptych video work Ode to Bricklayers, a piece that celebrates and gently mocks migrant ambition. Centred on a replica Tower of Pisa made of house bricks in suburban Albany, and her own efforts to make bricks, Giorgi’s work pays playful attention to what is kept and refashioned, lost and honoured in cultural transpositions, reminding us the labour of migration is also iterative, a living archive.

While all are under 40, many of these artists have already developed a coherent style and some have already established a place in contemporary art. Teho Ropeyarn’s exciting vinyl-cut prints featured at Tarnanthi in 2021, and his work is also hanging in The National 4 at Carriageworks. Here, Athumu Paypa Adthinhuunamu (my birth certificate) depicts anthropomorphic animal totems from Angkamuthi and Yadhaykana clan groups. Blending personal, traditional and contemporary meanings, rendered crisply at scale and printed in a single roll, his images leap with cultural and technical confidence.

Also impressive is Zaachariaha Fielding’s Wonder Drug, a set of 16 connected works on cardboard depicting what the artist describes as “gremlins”. Fielding has layered spray-paint, fluorescents, metallics, charcoal and pencil to produce emotionally expressive paintings that seem to exceed their material origins. This is Fielding’s second appearance as a Ramsay finalist, having just won the Wynne Prize with the more reverent but no less bold Inma – further evidence of an impressive range.

It is unfortunate the space isn’t quite equal to the scale of all the works. Smaller, stiller pieces are sometimes harder to appreciate, particularly works involving sound. The eclecticism here is in line with AGSA’s generally pragmatic and playful approach to spatial limitations. The problem of scale is symptomatic of a big prize that attracts ambitious work. The shortlisted entries reveal a diversity of forms and methodologies; among them, it is not always the loudest voice that speaks the clearest.

Intended as a career-making prize, the Ramsay’s open brief provides a field sample of the living and contentious archive that is Australian art: a variety of disciplines, approaches and moods, a set of preoccupations that continues to shift. Much is made of the James and Diana Ramsay Foundation’s generous prize money. More should be made of the generosity of artists who work hard, in spite of the odds, to strive for maturity in their practice, and who speak back to memory, materiality and the gallery itself with courage, intelligence and depth. 

The Ramsay Art Prize 2023 is showing at the Art Gallery of South Australia until August 27.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 10, 2023 as "Witnessing a generation".

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