Artists in isolation, the ‘Lockdown Studio’ and a COVIDSafe arts ecology

As galleries and museums across Australia tentatively reopen, what was once envisaged as a return to normality seems more like the unfolding of an entirely new chapter in the progress of the pandemic. The most visible signs of difference are the ubiquitous antibacterial handwash stations and public health signage, yet a more optimistic indicator of change has been the continued dedication to online programs. These initially developed as a response of necessity in the face of dwindling revenue, but are now driven by a recognition of the opportunities that such programs offer for new forms of public engagement. Many of these initiatives have focused on providing channels for artists to speak directly to their audiences, sharing their personal experiences of the global crisis, their visions of a post-COVID future, their advice for those struggling to come to terms with current realities, and, of course, their art.

Griffith University Art Museum in Brisbane took an early lead in this space and has continued to set the tone for other galleries and museums seeking to join the conversation with the ongoing ‘Lockdown Studio’ series of artist videos, initiated on 20 April and updated weekly. In contrast to the high production values and carefully curated adherence to an institutional narrative that distinguishes related projects like ‘Together in Art’, overseen by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, these videos make a virtue of low-tech intimacy and unscripted immediacy. Collaborating artists are given the freedom to choose their topic and format, with the one condition that they use a mobile phone to record in a single take, but with no bars to further innovation beyond this simple instruction.

Like the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Australia’s ‘Artist Voice’ series, ‘Lockdown Studio’ offers a glimpse into the private lives and thoughts of collaborating artists. These participants, however, represent a much wider sample of the arts community, including younger emerging artists as well as more established voices. The initial motivation for the series was the need to support front-of-house and install staff at the museum by increasing the public visibility of their artistic practices. In the first uploaded video, former Sculptors Queensland resident artist Tiana Jefferies sets the tone for the series with a discussion of the ‘threshold between public and private spaces’ and the forms of contact we share even in isolation from friends, family and community. Both Jefferies and Brisbane-based photographer Patrick Lester, the second contributor, note the opportunity that isolation has brought to adapt their usual methods, forcing them to engage with new technologies and settings for their work. While they talk, candid and unrehearsed, the natural chorus of Brisbane provides a steady accompaniment, though the hum of passing cars and human voices is conspicuously absent.

For Richard Bell, one of the more well-known contributors to the series, this absence has been a welcome relief, a calm before the storm of ‘desperate economic times’ ahead. Bell introduces us to a series of monumental panel paintings that offer a prescient foretaste of the crisis now unfolding, ‘a conglomerate of protests around the world’ that he has likely found occasion to greatly elaborate in the past few weeks. Bell and other established contributors to ‘Lockdown Studio’ also starkly illustrate the differential impact of this crisis – while emerging artists like Jefferies and Lester are forced to adapt, he admits that ‘isolation really hasn’t affected me that much’. Lindy Lee gives a comparable assessment, glossing isolation as a fantastic opportunity to prepare for her upcoming survey show at the MCA and introducing her two studio assistants, about the same age as Jefferies and Lester. Also evident in Lee’s contribution, however, is the intimacy of the working relationship between artist and assistant, shedding light on the usually invisible networks of mutual support and reciprocity that animate the arts community.

It is this insight above all that distinguishes ‘Lockdown Studio’ from other online public projects. Each video in the series stands alone as an intimate portrait of an individual coming to terms with the constantly shifting conditions of our shared isolation. At the same time, as a collective endeavour, these videos map a complex constellation of careers, professional roles, social and cultural backgrounds, personalities and perspectives, united by a shared commitment to artistic expression. Raised in unison and speaking from the heart at a crucial moment on our path out of crisis, the voices of those involved offer a template for mutual understanding that dissolves the artificial boundaries too often imposed between the arts and everyday life. 

Dr Alex Burchmore, Publication Manager

Compelling and urgent: Artist initiatives in a New York under crisis

As a curatorial intern in the photography department of the Museum of Modern Art, I was only supposed to stay in New York until April. But it was clear by mid-March, with the Australian borders closed and unpredictable flights, that I would remain quarantined here indefinitely. It has been a strange time, being in a city relatively new to me, observing as an outsider how things quickly unfolded. By late March, New York had become an epicentre of the pandemic with a staggering number of deaths. Studies have revealed that the virus has disproportionately affected black communities at a rate nearly two times higher than other ethnic demographics. There were public outcries at how the pandemic has amplified existing injustices and left the marginalised more vulnerable. These outcries, however, were soon subsumed by a harrowingly familiar incident: the killing of an unarmed black man by police officers in broad daylight. The death of George Floyd on 25 May in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was met with immediate outrage, sparking #BlackLivesMatter protests that continue to resonate worldwide.

Poster House and Between Bridges, two cultural organisations that launched creative communal projects in response to the pandemic, have since shifted their focus to different forms of activism, amplifying the voices of black creatives in support of police reform initiatives and calling for solidarity against racial injustice. Their projects represent a microcosm of grassroots responses by New York artists to the socio-economic impacts of the ongoing crisis.

Among the first New York museums to close due to the pandemic, Poster House initiated one of the largest COVID-19-related projects. An ongoing city-wide public art campaign, #COMBATCOVID commissioned over 20 designers to produce posters of ‘love, gratitude, and solidarity with New York City’s frontline workers’, as well as messages of public health and safety. The posters have been displayed on nearly 1800 digital screens, including the iconic billboards of Times Square. In the wake of Floyd’s killing, Poster House took to Instagram to emphasise their mission of collecting work by BIPOC artists and designers. Most notably, they showcased two 1969 posters by Emory Douglas, the African–American graphic designer who worked as the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party, and contextualised these works within a long history of black activism. As a museum with an educational mission, Poster House also dedicated their Instagram Stories platform to share resources relating to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, continuing their commitment to engage and inform the broad public of significant social issues that posters visualise and communicate.

2020Solidarity’ is a fundraising project by Between Bridges, a non-profit space founded by artist Wolfgang Tillmans in 2006. For this initiative, the Turner Prize-winning German photographer invited over 50 international artists to each contribute a poster design to be sold at a set price of US$50, with all proceeds going towards supporting independent spaces and publications threatened by the economic impacts of COVID-19. Between Bridges prints and distributes the posters free of charge and encourages non-profits to participate. Major New-York based organisations like Artists Space, ISCP and Visual Aids are among some of the many spaces that are involved in selling the posters to fundraise. On his Instagram feed following the recent #BlackLivesMatter protests, Tillmans highlighted Marlene Dumas’s poster of the late African–American writer James Baldwin (2014, from the ‘Great Men’ series), a new print being sold at London’s Black Tower Projects, with all proceeds going to police reform and educational campaigns in the United Kingdom. Such initiatives follow Tillmans’s own activist commitments in the area – he took photographs of one of the first #BlackLivesMatter protests in New York in 2014, one of which, an image of a hand raised in the air, prominently featured on the cover of Artforum’s March 2017 issue Show of Hands. Six years since that photo was taken, the image and the issues that first prompted the formation of the #BlackLivesMatter movement remain as compelling and urgent as ever.

Annette An-Jen Liu, New York

Annette An-Jen Liu is a 2020 Critic-in-Residence at ANCA, Canberra, in a special project partnership with Art Monthly Australasia supported by artsACT.

Seen and heard: ‘Monster Theatres’ at AGSA

At the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide, the pre-lockdown media preview for ‘Monster Theatres’ was conducted in the midst of Karla Dickens’s A Dickensian Country Show (2020). A play on the artist’s name, and an apposite link with the Victorian-era chronicler/critic of the class system and advocate for social reform, the work conjures the atmosphere and itinerant nature of circus and carnival culture to give a piercing commentary on politics, gender and race. It is one of the stand-out works in this 2020 iteration of the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, for which curator Leigh Robb has invited 24 artists and collectives to make present the monsters of our time.

Megan Cope’s interactive and intricately constructed sonic installation Untitled (Death Song) (2020), for instance, offers a critique of ecological mismanagement through the mournful note of the bush stone-curlew, endangered by loss of habitat. Issues of intolerance and abuses of power, of forced migration and the refugee crisis are addressed by Aldo Iacobelli, who references the work of contemporary writers such as Italian poet Erri De Luca (‘the voyage on foot is a trail of backs’). And at the Adelaide Botanic Garden, Yhonnie Scarce’s glass installation In the Dead House (2020) makes visible the gruesome history of the nineteenth-century mortuary building as a site for the illicit collection of Aboriginal remains.

A serpentine mass of richly purple ‘suckered’ tentacles, Julia Robinson’s sculptural installation at the Museum of Economic Botany is a hybrid representation of the monstrous Scylla of Homer’s Odyssey and Beatrice, the beautiful but cursed protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1844 gothic short story. From Medusa to the terrifying Xenomorph in the Alien film series, the dangerous female – an historically disruptive force in literature, art and cinema – almost invariably meets a grisly end.  In a David Lynchian amalgam of the domestic and the abject, Erin Coates and Anna Nazzari’s 15-minute film Dark Water (2019) disturbs comfortable notions of the home (and by extension the nation) as a place of sanctuary and stability. Their meticulous recreation of a 1950s Australian domestic interior rapidly descends into an aquatic and startlingly visceral sci-fi horror film, recalling classics of the genre such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). 

With the reality of a global pandemic, works such as Abdul Abdullah’s almost deserted theatre, Brent Harris’s ‘Grotesquerie’ series (2001–09) and, in particular, Mikala Dwyer’s biohazard banners and discomfiting sick bays, have acquired a more loaded resonance. Her beaked and hooded hospital gowns (a reference to the protective attire worn by medieval plague doctors) strike an especially ominous note.

Critic Andy Butler identified the Wiradjuri words for ‘hear’ and ‘listen’ on the interior of a megaphone-like form in Dickens’s installation. Indeed, in accordance with Robb’s admonition to ‘listen to our monsters, and attend to their cautions, as we move into … a precarious and uncertain future’, sound and/or performance works – by APHIDS, Mike Bianco, Cope, Julian Day, Mike Parr and Stelarc – constitute a significant component of this biennial. Here and elsewhere, Robb allows for the possibility of a redemptive counter narrative to be heard and made manifest.  

Wendy Walker, Adelaide

The Art Gallery of South Australia and satellite venues at the Adelaide Botanic Garden reopened on 5 June for an extended run of ‘Monster Theatres’ until 2 August.

Decolonised gaze: ‘Terra inFirma’ at Blacktown Arts

As Blacktown Arts’s response to the 250 years since Cook’s arrival in Australia, staged across multiple iterations, ‘Terra inFirma’ weaves a narrative of British colonisation and its rippling devastation beyond the confines of the Australian coastline. The first exhibition (on view at the Leo Kelly Blacktown Arts Centre until 10 July) was produced in close consultation with local Darug elders, and features works by Kristone Capistrano, Jumaadi, Shivanjani Lal, Venessa Possum, Teivao Pupu Tamariki, Judy Watson and Fozia Zahid that reflect the diverse local populations and communities within Blacktown. While the British colonial project was one of violence and horror, the exhibition employs soft tones and gentle non-graphic imagery with multiple perspectives to provide a shared narrative grounded in common experience.

The exhibition resides within the high-ceilinged, reverent hall of the former church building. A simple curatorial hang disperses the works evenly throughout, allowing them to breathe and inviting prolonged attention. Situated in this way, the works not only map narratives but also the geographical progression of British settlement. In Murura – Pathways (2020), Possum explores the colonial landscape through the layering and weaving together of old tea towels. Representative of colonial possession, the cloths are reclaimed through illustrations that demark the natural environment. This process of reclamation, also reflected in Watson’s documentation of Indigenous massacres in her video witness tree (2018), aims to decolonise and provide alternative maps to the possessive Eurocentric formula.

The storyboard created by Zahid in her recent series of seven miniature paintings charts the violent history of British colonial rule in India using intricate illustrations in a traditional form also used in the artist’s birthplace of Pakistan. This narrative is continued in Lal’s artwork I am not an island, I am an archipelago (2020), in which khadi paper is stained by burnt turmeric to trace the movement of Indian people to Fiji, brought by the British as indentured labour to work on sugar plantations.

By presenting such mappings that have been largely absent from the Australian public view, and by giving them space to breathe, ‘Terra inFirma’ shifts focus away from the official colonial narrative to gently illuminate the importance of community, collective memory, memorialisation and resilience.

Nikita Holcombe, Sydney

The second iteration of ‘Terra inFirma’ will be exhibited from 5 September until 1 November 2020, with the project continuing into 2021.

Crossing continents and time: Daniel Thomas on the incomparable Christo

On 31 May, the Art Monthly Australasia team and many other art lovers across the world were sad to learn that the incomparable Christo Vladimirov Javacheff (1935–2020) had died at his home in New York. By an uncanny stroke of coincidence, while planning our current Winter issue back in March, we had occasion to include an article from our archives by the equally incomparable Daniel Thomas, first published in December 1991 (AMA #46) and dedicated to Christo’s six-year undertaking, The Umbrellas: Joint project for Japan and USA (1984–91).

As Thomas makes clear in his recollection of the project’s reception, The Umbrellas wasn’t one of the most successful installations that Christo and his artist-partner Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon (1935–2009) developed over five decades of collaboration. The planned three-week duration of this ‘vast bi-continental diptych’, for which thousands of hired labourers installed 1340 umbrellas in Japan’s Satogawa Valley and another 1760 in Tejon Pass, California, at a cost of US$26 million, was cut short in both locations by tragic twists of fate. In Los Angeles, a spectator was killed by an umbrella caught in a sudden gale, while in Japan one of the workers on the project succumbed to a fatal electrocution. This was despite the exhaustive battery of safety tests and approvals on which the artist had insisted prior to installation.

Even before the early closure of The Umbrellas, Christo faced strident criticism from arts writers at Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times and Time magazine, who accused the artist of pandering to mass appeal. As a self-professed ‘Christo groupie’, however, Thomas refutes these accusations and rescues the ill-fated project from the purgatory of critical disapproval with an erudite reappraisal that illustrates why he is justifiably one of our most beloved arts writers while also demonstrating why Christo, even in the direst of circumstances, remained a consummate artistic innovator throughout his long career.

For Thomas, the public spectacle of The Umbrellas wasn’t its defining or even most distinctive quality: it was the artist’s sensitivity to the settings chosen for his work and the implications of their juxtaposition that set the project apart in the crowded field of global installation art. The blue of the umbrellas in the Satogawa Valley, he writes, ‘exactly matched the Sato farmers’ covering for fertilizer and heaps of soil, their blue gauze for protecting grapes, their blue-painted sheds and equipment’, its watery symbolism suggesting a new addition to the local calendar of seasonal festivities. In California, yellow umbrellas were perfectly suited to the arid desert landscape, shimmer of the sun and vivid blossoms of the sagebrush. For Thomas, these installations indicate a sincere empathy ‘for the settled peasant farmers of a backwater valley in Japan [and] for the peculiarly American nomadic culture of the long-distance highway’. In the joining of these communities he finds a revelation of our shared responsibility for and grounding in the natural environment: ‘Travel light and you escape the earthquakes. Move on and let used land regenerate. Nomadism could be the best future.’

Those who’d like to read more of Daniel Thomas’s canon-defining contributions to the history of Australian arts writing will be pleased to know that 77 of his most influential pieces – including his thoughts on ‘Being a curator’, published in AMA #123 (September 1999) – will be compiled in Recent Past: Writing Australian Art, a magisterial anthology due to be published by the Art Gallery of New South Wales later this year.

Dr Alex Burchmore, Publication Manager

Familiarity and intimacy: ‘Together in Art’

Writing at the start of April about the indefinite closure of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), in the first instalment of an ambitious project inspired by this almost unprecedented eventuality, Director Michael Brand called for action. At first, he conceded, ‘our initial actions might be quite small in scale but they will set the tone for what will follow as we set out larger and longer-term strategies’. In the two months between the gallery’s closure and its scheduled reopening on 1 June, the elaboration of this project – aptly titled ‘Together in Art – through the contributions of artists, educators, performers, gallery staff and art lovers across Australia has more than fulfilled Brand’s aspiration. As visitors return to the physical space of the gallery, this virtual space of ‘creativity, passion and commitment’ will remain a monumental achievement, offering ‘humour, delight, curiosity, beauty and artistic uplift’ not only to those unable to visit in person, but even to those who spend every day within the gallery’s walls.

Alongside Brand’s heartfelt reflection on ‘the power of art to connect people in times of crisis’, visitors to ‘Together in Art’ can now read short articles on a diverse range of subjects from ‘the shapeshifting foxes, living teakettles and otherworldly beings of Japanese art’, to the social role of self-portraiture in the twenty-first century. We can browse a selection of ‘pocket exhibitions’ featuring key works from the AGNSW collection, brought together in response to themes that reflect the whole spectrum of human experience, from the reassuringly prosaic to the mind-expanding and sublime. Those seeking to discover creativity in confinement can turn for inspiration to new work by artists Mitch Cairns, Tom Carment, Emily Hunt, Jumaadi, Thea Perkins, Tom Polo, Jude Rae, Marikit Santiago and Jelena Telecki, commissioned ‘to create an image of something familiar and intimate – the view from their window’.

Familiarity and intimacy can also be found in a series of instructional videos, offering lessons in the making of collage portraits, shadow projections, flower patterns, toilet-roll dolls, monsters, dada poems, faces and the solution of problems through diagrams. Artists Marian Abboud, Tony Albert, Adrienne Doig, Deborah Kelly, Desmond Lazaro, Nell, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran and Ben Quilty take up Brand’s invitation to ‘speak from the heart’, inviting younger family members to join them in their step-by-step demonstration of projects that have likely brought together many families across Australia. Like the ‘Artist Voice series initiated by the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, another Sydney-based institution scheduled to reopen on 16 June, these videos offer a glimpse into artists’ daily lives, dispelling some of the inhibitions that might dissuade those less familiar with the arts from engaging with their work.

As we move into the next phase of our transition into a COVIDSafe Australia, initiatives like these give us some idea of what to expect in a reopened and revitalised arts community. Long before the outbreak of the pandemic and the subsequent closure of museums and galleries across the world, curators, educators and public programs coordinators realised the value of digital platforms. Many had already started to develop online resources and virtual experiences to attract and retain diverse audiences, seeking to entice younger visitors through their doors while fostering new ways of engaging with art outside the bricks-and-mortar gallery. Digital platforms will never completely replicate or replace the experience of seeing a work of art in the flesh, and the ghost exhibitions' of Brand’s imagination will soon be filled once again with the invigorating murmur of hushed conversation. These months of solitude and closure have shown beyond a shadow of doubt, however, that this collective search for meaning, our desire to come together in art, extends far beyond the physical space of the gallery.

Dr Alex Burchmore, Publication Manager

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This week has marked our first cautious steps out of lockdown and into a 'with more likely on the way soon.

MAGNT Darwin, the Museum of Central Australia, Megafauna Central and Lyons Cottage opened their doors on 18 May as part of the second stage in the Northern Territory Government’s ‘Roadmap to the New Normal. Discovery Centres in Darwin and Alice Springs, the Defence of Darwin Experience and Fannie Bay Gaol remain closed, and all reopened venues must enforce strict physical distancing and hygiene measures, but many in the territory will undoubtedly find great cause for celebration and reassurance in this sign of change, perfectly timed to coincide with International Museum Day. Another sign of things to come is the continued commitment to online initiatives reaffirmed by MAGNT Director Marcus Schutenko, indicating that a dual approach to exhibitions and public programs will likely remain a defining feature of our arts landscape for some time yet.

Despite the closure of galleries and museums across Australia and the possibility that visitor numbers will be down for some time, the pandemic has inspired an expansion rather than contraction in other areas of engagement, with podcasts, video tours and interactive encounters opening collections and exhibitions to a broad diversity of regional, interstate and overseas audiences.

In Sydney, AGNSW is scheduled to reopen from 1 June, while AGSA Director Rhana Devenport ONZM has announced that the gallery in Adelaide will reopen from 8 June, again with strict physical distancing, capacity limits and increased hygiene measures in place in both cities. ‘While attendances will be diligently monitored and the safety guidelines outlined by Government adhered to’, Devenport assures, ‘we are so pleased to welcome a limited capacity of visitors … reopening windows to other worlds through art’. Brand makes similar reassurances, appealing to the solace that art can offer as ‘a source of hope and inspiration in difficult times’. Like MAGNT, both galleries will maintain a commitment to their online resources and an active social media presence, with Brand emphasising that AGNSW ‘will continue to affirm the power of art to connect people’ through the Together in Art project, an ‘open, heartfelt and responsive [initiative that] continues to offer a daily boost of art and imagination online’.

For the arts, as for other sectors, our first tentative steps out of lockdown and into an uncertain future have revealed the extent to which the medical and economic devastation brought about by COVID-19 compel a reassessment of our priorities. It cannot be denied that many people and institutions have suffered greatly and continue to suffer as the crisis intensifies elsewhere in the world – a reminder that we cannot become complacent and must remain cautious in our efforts to recover. Yet for those who have had the good fortune to weather the storm, this has also been a lesson in the need to adapt and innovate, to make use of new technologies, and to share our advantages and resources with the widest possible audience. It is this commitment to diversity, transparency and accessibility that offers our best hope for a better future.

Dr Alex Burchmore, Publication Manager

Artist conversations 'dig deep within the soul'

The place of the arts within Australian cultural life has become a recurrent topic of discussion for journalists, arts administrators and commentators in recent weeks, with the threat of insolvency prompting impassioned calls for additional government assistance and a renewed recognition of the central role that works of art can play in our quest for self-understanding. One chorus of voices who have often been excluded or overlooked in these debates, however, are those of the artists and creators whose livelihoods and lifestyles have been most radically affected by our current circumstances.

With ‘Artist Voice’, a new series of audio-visual and written conversations with contemporary artists around the world, curators at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) in Sydney seek to remedy this situation. This ambitious program offers an alternative platform for leading artists who are currently isolated in their homes and studios to share their strategies for dealing with lockdown and their thoughts on the issues now facing the arts sector globally. The series also showcases the close working relationships that MCA curators enjoy with many contemporary artists, capturing moments of great empathy and intimacy that provide a welcome antidote to the existential anxiety with which many of us are now struggling.

In the first conversation of the series, Anna Davis speaks with Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro at their home in the Blue Mountains, where the scarred and blackened landscape still bears witness to the catastrophic bushfires that seemed incomparably devastating earlier this year, but which have now been all but eclipsed by an even more overpowering crisis. Surrounded by such devastation, but comforted as well by the rapid appearance of new growth, Healy and Cordeiro share their hopes that the pandemic will be ‘a wake-up call to our relationship with the environment’, that politicians and policy-makers around the world will recognise the increasingly urgent need to safeguard the health of the planet as well as that of the people who call it home. On a personal level, they confide that our enforced isolation could provide an opportunity for self-reflection, ‘to dig deep within the soul’, finding in art, music, books and film not only some refuge from the tragedy unfolding around us but also inspiration and hope.

Other thoughts and visions for the future take form in conversations with Rushdi Anwar at his home studio in Chiang Mai; Sydney-based artists Mitchel Cumming and Gemma Smith; Karla Dickens and Megan Cope in Lismore, New South Wales; and Lee Mingwei, speaking from one of the most heavily impacted epicentres of the virus, downtown New York. The full series of 17 conversations is scheduled to unfold over the next few weeks, covering a range of topics and a broad spectrum of experiences.

The impact of COVID-19 for the visual arts will also be the focus of Art Monthly Australasia’s upcoming Winter bumper edition, featuring the work of Brian Fuata, Pat Hoffie, Giselle Stanborough and Jemima Wyman, among others. With the future of the arts and cultural industries in Australia and across the planet looking increasingly uncertain, the importance of attaching a human face to what can too easily become a spreadsheet of facts and figures assumes vital importance. Now more than ever, even while we may seem isolated by the need to distance ourselves from others, the value of our human connectedness and the role that art and artists play in communicating this mutual empathy have become all too clear.

Dr Alex Burchmore, Publication Manager

Infection and intolerance: Xenophobic imaginings in the art of Jes Fan

Jes Fan with his installation for ‘NIRIN’, the 22nd Biennale of Sydney at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA), Sydney, 2020; image courtesy the artist and the MCA, Sydney; ? the artist; photo: Ken Leanfore

Jes Fan with his installation for ‘NIRIN’, the 22nd Biennale of Sydney at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA), Sydney, 2020; image courtesy the artist and the MCA, Sydney; ? the artist; photo: Ken Leanfore

Throughout the nineteenth century, the Australian Government embarked on a number of anti-Chinese and anti-immigration policies. The nation was pathologised and its white, pure, uncontaminated body was at threat from invasive diseases from the unknown East. But with the rise of social constructivist theories regarding race, it seemed that identity was no longer determined by biological essentialism. This year, however, COVID-19 has engendered the rise of Sinophobic attacks as the virus has become racialised. 

Jes Fan’s installation as part of this year’s Biennale of Sydney at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (while temporarily closed) is a reminder that the western world’s contemporary fear of contamination and infection is intertwined with centuries of fears of penetration – metastasised and manifested in the biological.

Two of his sculptures, Form begets Function and Function begets Form (both 2020), see glass globules hanging precariously off corners or delicately balancing off thin rails of wooden structures, creating a sense of anxiety. Meanwhile, the sculpture bases are reminiscent of a liquid spill leaking onto the floor, evoking the fear that accompanies what cannot be controlled or contained. The glass parts have been injected with urine, testosterone, estrogen, blood, semen and melanin. Fan recognises that these fluids are highly political, including melanin which is the primary determinant of skin colour and which, in turn, is used to construct racial categories. 

Indeed, Fan’s investigation of the group of natural pigments is extended and developed in the single-channel video Xenophoria (2020), which is projected onto the entirety of the back wall of the gallery and documents the search for and extraction of melanin. Close-up and microscopic shots reveal the dissection of squids, with their ink sacs being emptied, along with fungi being scraped by a scalpel. Most significantly, these shots of scientific experiments in the laboratory are interspersed with close-ups of medical paintings by Lam Qua (1801 – 1860), who was one of the first Chinese artists to be displayed in Europe and North America. From the 1830s, Qua was commissioned to paint portraits of patients at a Canton hospital depicting their distorted bodies. The first images received of the Chinese by the Chinese in the West portrayed malformed disfigured individuals with bulbous tumours. 

The inclusion of these art-historical referents exposes the precedents of racism and the historical narrative of disease associated with Asia. COVID-19 and its societal responses draw on deeply rooted anxieties and a distrust that is embedded in the molecular.

Soo-Min Shim, Sydney 

Remembering James Mollison: A flair for collection-building

James Mollison AO and former prime minister Gough Whitlam with Jackson Pollock’s  Blue poles  (1952); ? Pollock-Krasner Foundation, ARS/Copyright Agency

James Mollison AO and former prime minister Gough Whitlam with Jackson Pollock’s Blue poles (1952); ? Pollock-Krasner Foundation, ARS/Copyright Agency

It’s been almost 40 years since Her Majesty the Queen opened what was then the Australian National Gallery in October 1982, with a remit ‘to present art from anywhere in the world, from an Australian viewpoint, to the people of Australia’, under the diligent leadership of the late James Mollison, who passed away in January this year. Daniel Thomas, one of Mollison’s early hires and a highly influential Australian art-world figure in his own right, fondly remembers his former mentor in kinh nghiem danh bai o casino Cá cược bóng đá miễn phí, looking back over the details of Mollison’s long life and his enduring presence at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA), where he is best remembered for a flair for ‘collection-building [that] remains unmatched, in both excellence and diversity’.

Mollison’s untimely death deprived him of the opportunity to celebrate the fourth successful decade of the institution to which he dedicated a large portion of his life. It also cut short his experience of a global crisis that, in January, seemed confined to one city in China but now, just three months later, has become one of the gravest threats to our current world order that many of us are likely to witness in our lifetimes. 

Although the doors of the gallery may be closed for the foreseeable future, the range of online resources available on their website offers unprecedented access to their collections and public programming, from virtual tours to lecture recordings, scholarly articles to learning resources for students of the arts. Mollison began his career as an educator, training at Melbourne Teachers’ College and working in a succession of schools throughout the 1950s, and Thomas recalls that ‘he remained an enthusiastic and occasionally cruel mentor to swarms of junior staff’ during his tenure at the NGA. He would undoubtedly have been proud of the leadership and innovation that the current custodians of his beloved gallery have shown in these unstable and uncertain times.

Dr Alex Burchmore, Publication Manager

Freedom and horror: et al. and Newell Harry at Yuill/Crowley

Newell Harry,  (Untitled) Nimoa and Me: Kiriwina Notes , 2015–16, installation view, ‘575 / TWO PROJECTS: et al. and Newell Harry’, Yuill/Crowley, Sydney, 2020; courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

Newell Harry, (Untitled) Nimoa and Me: Kiriwina Notes, 2015–16, installation view, ‘575 / TWO PROJECTS: et al. and Newell Harry’, Yuill/Crowley, Sydney, 2020; courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

In these days of germophobia, of latex gloves and cashless transactions, the idea of ‘shelling out cash’ can fill us with horror. All those unknown fingertips spreading a network of possible contamination! Indeed, if the COVID-19 crisis has told us anything, it is that the very systems that have unleashed our global interconnectedness – international travel and currency exchange – have also allowed safe passage for the coronavirus.

Art, of course, is another system of exchange, and the idea of walking into a gallery at the moment, either for the purpose of viewing or purchase, can also fill us with horror. Yet that is exactly what I did last Saturday, making an appointment to see the latest show at Yuill/Crowley in Sydney. For much of the visit I was the only member of public in the gallery: just me facing a line of black-and-white photographs and a wall of blankets punctuated by a plinth of shells and, at the back of the room, a small video work.

Viewing art (under controlled circumstances of course) is one of the most perfect activities for social isolation, not unlike the playing of tennis. Observing a respectful distance while remaining alert to things that lob or spin unexpectedly is all part of the game. With the duet of works by et al. and Newell Harry that has been so carefully curated by Ewen McDonald, it was difficult at first to determine the rules. The photographs were by Harry, and they depict episodic scenes of Pacific Island life, framed with typed diary entries, pidgin-style, continuing the Sydney artist’s fascination with the poetic mashing of Melanesian culture. Across from the photographs were et al.’s blankets, scribbled with words like ‘STOLEN’ and roughly hung with black tape and entombed behind clear plastic.

The plinth of shells offered a clue – one of the objects of exchange in the elaborate gift ceremonies of the Trobriand Islands off the east coast of Papua New Guinea. Here Harry found himself on a research trip in 2015, contemplating the uselessness of his credit card. In the Trobriand Islands, shell money is not used as barter in a western sense of commodity, but is passed along in a chain of giving, always returning to the original owner in a circular kind of dance. Harry’s resulting work (Untitled) Nimoa and Me: Kiriwina Notes (2015–16) finds something freeing in this shedding of materialism, and in a wordplay that forever hovers in-between.

Helping unpack the freighted emotion of et al.’s blankets was the New Zealand artists’ accompanying video here and now! (2020). To interior scenes of the Berlin-Hohensch?nhausen Memorial, the Gertrude Stein story about a father instructing his son about the cruelty of collecting butterflies could be heard. The story ends with the father going against his own advice and killing a moth to impress his son. Cruelty and kindness are not that far removed, Stein seems to say.

As is the case with et al.’s blankets. These, in fact, refer to those given to Aboriginal mission children in centuries past, and here inscribed with quotations from the 1997 report into the Stolen Generations, Bringing Them Home. These felted palimpsests record yet another system of exchange, but one cruelly and tragically unequal. It is a contagion made visible, and a reminder why art should not be quarantined but experienced in the flesh, to unmask our horrors, and to free us too.

Michael Fitzgerald, Sydney

Art Monthly and the Australia Council

300 covers: ART MONTHLY in Australia 1987 – 2017 , exhibition installation view, Foyer Gallery, ANU School of Art & Design, Canberra, 7–17 June 2017; photo: Aishah Kenton

300 covers: ART MONTHLY in Australia 1987 – 2017, exhibition installation view, Foyer Gallery, ANU School of Art & Design, Canberra, 7–17 June 2017; photo: Aishah Kenton

In these extraordinarily difficult times for Australian publishing, we stand in solidarity with our colleagues Artlink Magazine, Australian Book Review, Eyeline Publishing, The Lifted Brow and Overland Literary Journal in expressing disappointment at the recent outcomes of the Australia Council’s organisational funding for 2021–24.

Like these other important cultural titles (with a combined 243-year publishing history), Art Monthly’s Four Year Funding was not renewed.

While we congratulate the 95 national arts organisations who were successful, and appreciate the incredibly difficult decision faced by the Visual Arts Peers, this collective withdrawal of government support for Australian arts publishing at this critical juncture needs to be fully acknowledged and reflected on by all.

What does this mean for Art Monthly? While having received Australia Council support for much of our 33 years, we remain resilient (in spirit) and nimble. We continue to explore new partnerships and will soon reveal plans for a revised print schedule for 2020 as we absorb the impacts of this funding decision on top of the devastating effects of the coronavirus.

In some good news, Art Monthly was successful in having its smaller amount of VACS Priority Organisation Funding renewed for 2021–24, and we look forward to updating our loyal readers, subscribers and supporters in the coming weeks.

Stay home (subscribing to Art Monthly) and stay safe,   

Ann Stephen, Chair

Michael Fitzgerald, Editor

Turning inwards, and outwards: Galleries in the time of coronavirus

With galleries and museums around Australia forced to close their doors to ensure the health of staff, volunteers and visitors, opportunities to enjoy and support the arts seem to have been dramatically reduced, almost overnight. The appreciation of art might be the last thing on many minds right now but, as United Kingdom-based arts educator Louis Netter observed in a recent piece for The Conversation, our mutual confinement compels us to turn ‘inward, to the vast inner space of our thoughts and imagination’, a space in which artists have for centuries served as our most faithful navigators. A recognition of this need has prompted artists, curators and gallery owners across the country to explore new platforms for their insights into our shared human condition, demonstrating clearly that, although the doors of our homes and businesses may be closed, those of our imagination remain defiantly open.

At Raft Artspace in Alice Springs, a selection of works from Mimili Maku Arts celebrating family, home and community can be viewed on the gallery’s website or enjoyed in situ in a video tour shared to their Instagram. From the ruddy tones of Judy Martin’s Ngayuku Mamaku Ngura (My Father’s Country) to the vivid, pulsating polychrome palette of Linda Puna’s Ngayuku Ngura (My Home), these paintings offer a reassuring reminder of the support and creative inspiration that this arts centre in the Everard Ranges provides, even in times of global crisis. Solander Gallery in Wellington have made works by New Zealand-based artist Jacqueline Aust available to browse and purchase online. Aust’s fascination with the experience of displacement and her respectful engagement with the aesthetics of calligraphy, inspired by a recent trip to Japan that coincided with a devastating typhoon, reinforce the pressing need to empathise with the suffering of others as prejudice and paranoia infect the world.

A new series of photographic works by Lisa Reihana, another renowned New Zealand artist, are available to view and purchase on the website of the newly opened Gallery Sally Dan-Cuthbert in Sydney. Drawn from her immersive three-dimensional film Nomads of the Sea, Reihana’s empowering images weave together history and fiction in a manner that followers of her work will recognise as an extension of ideas explored in her first major video in Pursuit of Venus [infected], available to watch on the artist’s website. Nomads of the Sea is also featured in this year’s Sydney Biennale, currently developing a range of ‘digital activations and experiences’.

Fans of Melbourne-based artist Jan Murray’s technicolour portraits of stylish jackets, shirts and dresses, their ‘optically dazzling designs of black-and-white polka dots, green and pink chevron weaves, and red and white zigzagged stripes … set against eye-popping backgrounds in citrus and neon tones’, in the words of AMA regular Chloé Wolifson, can browse her paintings in all their glory on the Charles Nodrum Gallery’s website. Those who’d like to learn more about Murray’s work will enjoy an extended essay by art historian Helen McDonald, also available online.

The AMA team is working to expand online accessibility in response to our current global circumstances – digital subscriptions (including access to an archive of back issues from March 2008 to March 2020) are available as always for purchase on our website, and we’ll continue to bring you our coverage of the latest events and exhibitions on this blog, proudly open access. Keep an eye on our new Twitter profile and our Facebook page for more updates!

Dr Alex Burchmore, Publication Manager

April issue's letter from the editor

Simon Denny,  Amazon Worker Cage Patent (US 9,280,157 B2: ‘System for transporting personal within an active workspace’, 2016) with King Island Brown Thornbill renders , 2019, installation view, ‘Mine’, Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), Hobart, 2019–20; photo: Jesse Hunniford, MONA

Simon Denny, Amazon Worker Cage Patent (US 9,280,157 B2: ‘System for transporting personal within an active workspace’, 2016) with King Island Brown Thornbill renders, 2019, installation view, ‘Mine’, Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), Hobart, 2019–20; photo: Jesse Hunniford, MONA

When writer Sophia Halloway interviewed artist eX de Medici in her Canberra studio in late January, the air around our nation’s capital was still filled with bushfire smoke, and the sense of alarm at our climate emergency extraordinarily intense. De Medici told Halloway how the biggest long-term threat is apathy: ‘slowly, slowly, then all at once.’

Two months on, and our national attention has already moved on to another health emergency, and summer seems a long time ago now.

If a thematic thread can be found in this April edition, it is the refusal by artists to look away from the complicated issues around the impacts of climate change. In her review of the ‘Water’ show at the Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, Rebecca Blake notes how, through the artworks on display, ‘we are made to viscerally feel the physical shifts in the environment that are slowly but surely spilling over to impact each individual’. While in his essay on Simon Denny’s ‘Mine’ exhibition at the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Oscar Capezio writes how ‘there is uncertainty about the place of art in a time of climate crisis, particularly its ability to affect real change or sustain our concern towards engagement’.

While proofreading this April edition, it struck me how writers have become important mediators in this growing art discourse around the environment, and it is also interesting to note that Halloway, Blake and Capezio are all emerging alumni of the ANCA Critic-in-Residence (CiR) program, which has allowed Art Monthly Australasia to respond more actively to the artistic concerns that impact on our national psyche here in Canberra.

Our thanks go to artsACT for once again generously supporting our partnership with the ANCA CiR program, and to all the artists and writers who continue to act against apathy. 

Michael Fitzgerald, Editor

April issue and art in the age of coronavirus

Keith Haring preparing an artwork on the Waterwall of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), Melbourne, 1984; image courtesy the NGV, Melbourne; photo: Geoffrey Burke

Keith Haring preparing an artwork on the Waterwall of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), Melbourne, 1984; image courtesy the NGV, Melbourne; photo: Geoffrey Burke

In our age of coronavirus, art takes on a heightened role in communicating and connecting audiences – whether through online encounters, or through the written, published word.

With Art Monthly Australasia’s coming April issue, our cover story ‘That distant galaxy: Haring and Basquiat in the 1980s’ reminds us of the creative legacy of another health emergency, while elsewhere in the magazine we witness a range of artists responding to the complex issues around climate change. Again and again we see art’s ability to reflect, enlighten and expand our understanding of a world in tumultuous change and flux.

Art Monthly would also like to take the opportunity to assure all our loyal readers and followers that we will keep you connected and informed in the coming weeks and months with special content responsive to the current health crisis, and with new initiatives in print and online. Stay tuned and keep safe.

Michael Fitzgerald, Editor

Voices of survival: ‘Rite of Passage’ at QUT

Jenna Lee, un/bound passage , 2019, installation detail, ‘Rite of Passage’, QUT Art Museum, Brisbane, 2020; hand-dyed and folded paper installation from pages of  The Voyages of Captain Cook  (Ladybird Books), with video projection; courtesy the artist; photo: Louis Lim

Jenna Lee,un/bound passage, 2019, installation detail, ‘Rite of Passage’, QUT Art Museum, Brisbane, 2020; hand-dyed and folded paper installation from pages of The Voyages of Captain Cook (Ladybird Books), with video projection; courtesy the artist; photo: Louis Lim

With its many anxieties and tragedies, it is possible to forget that the year 2020 also marks the 250-year anniversary of this land’s biggest disruptor of all – that of colonisation. It is from this legacy of environmental and cultural destruction that there emerges the contemporary autobiographical survival stories of the 11 strong Aboriginal women who are showcased in ‘Rite of Passage’ at Brisbane’s QUT Art Museum (until 10 May). Here their art defines them as powerful voices of their families and ancestors.

Jenna Lee looked to her vintage copy of The Voyages of Captain Cook by English children’s publisher Ladybird Books to respond to the whitewashed mainstream narrative of first contact. un/bound passage (2019), a paper and projection installation by Lee, creates an ocean of small boats folded from the pages of the book as an exercise in deconstruction and translation of the past.

For Nici Cumpston, landscapes are a defining relationship. Her large-scale photographic images of bleached bare tree trunks standing amid dry riverbeds in the Murray-Darling basin are tragic reminders of a massive ongoing environmental failure. As a descendant of the Barkandji people of these waterways, Cumpston describes in the exhibition catalogue that ‘we rely on them to sustain us physically, emotionally and spiritually’. Inseparable from her country, the artist captures and beautifully renders Ringbarked II, Nookamka Lake (2011–14) in subtle greens, blues and browns.

Karla Dickens’s mixed-media sculptures of vulva-shaped leather saddles express the physical and sexual subjugation of Aboriginal women. Featuring rusted chains and a dinner bell wrapped around a gaping orifice stuffed with empty tin cans, Dickens’s Workhorse III (2015) speaks of the women and girls in her family who had duties to be ‘useful ... on farms and homes by both day and night’ to quote the artist’s description.

Together, these artists observe the painful transition of a thriving pre-colonial civilisation into being forced subjects of the Commonwealth, in an exhibition provocatively titled by curator Shannon Brett as a ‘rite of passage’. This term is elaborated on in Brett’s curatorial essay as the artists’ Aboriginal rites as carriers of their families’ stories, but the proposition also equates the rite of passage with a ‘change for this nation’. If white Australia can truly reconcile and amend for deeply entrenched systems of rape, slaughter and dispossession – the three listed in order on Judy Watson’s butcher’s apron series flag 1 (1994) – perhaps the nation can undergo a difficult process to reach a new stage of maturity. 

Emily Wakeling, Brisbane

Gods and monsters: ‘Japan supernatural’ at AGNSW

Japan supernatural , exhibition installation view with the work of Takashi Murakami, Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Sydney, 2019–20; artworks ? the artist; photo: Jenni Carter, AGNSW

Japan supernatural, exhibition installation view with the work of Takashi Murakami, Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Sydney, 2019–20; artworks ? the artist; photo: Jenni Carter, AGNSW

Summer in Japan is largely an occasion for the underworld, when ancestors’ spirits are closest to the living realm, and goose bump-inducing ghost and monster stories help cooling off during hot humid nights. ‘Japan supernatural’ at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (until 8 March), on show over Sydney’s own summertime, offers a richness of yōkai (monsters and spirits) and yūrei (ghosts) from the Japanese visual arts field from the eighteenth century until now and ranging in genre from bawdy comedy to terrifying horror. 

The exhibition begins with Toriyama Sekien’s handscroll Night procession of the hundred demons (1772-81), presented as a seminal representation of yōkai that influenced centuries of artists to come, with further scrolls, theatrical masks, netsuke and woodblock prints demonstrating how the exciting visual potential of ghosts and monsters became a fixture of the Edo period (1603–1868) and beyond. Room after room of tree spirits, river-dwelling kappa, large-nosed tengu, merry shapeshifting tanuki, mountain crones, blood-drenched women in childbirth and sinister foxes follow Sekien’s codification. Likewise, visual consistency is evident in the pale and legless yūrei hanging scrolls and prints.

Contemporary works are woven through the exhibits, with Miwa Yanagi’s ‘Fairy Tale’ photographic series (2004–05) freshly contextualised within the tradition of yōkai crones. Chiho Aoshima, who has been making nature and death cute since the late 1990s, presents large-eyed tree spirits and musical gravestones. In contrast, the gothic splendour of Nihonga-style painter Fuyuko Matsui’s expressions of human decay can be read as part of the maternal yōkai convention. 

A 25 metre-long work by Takashi Murakami, In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow (2014), shares room with nineteenth-century woodblock prints. Made for his self-described ‘debts’ to Edo masters, Murakami’s work connects to his forebears to thrill viewers with bold imagery of skulls, immortals and giants, while his towering blue and red ogres of Embodiment of ‘A’  and Embodiment of ‘Um’ (both 2014) deliver a large dose of kitsch.

Emily Wakeling, Sydney

For the full article, see Art Monthly’s forthcoming April 2020 issue.

History afoot: The sixth Singapore Biennale, ‘Every Step in the Right Direction’

Hera Büyükta???yan,  A Study on Endless Archipelagos , 2017–19, installation detail, National Gallery Singapore, 2019–20; cement, bronze and wood, dimensions variable; courtesy the artist and Green Art Gallery, Dubai; photo: Singapore Art Museum

Hera Büyükta???yan, A Study on Endless Archipelagos, 2017–19, installation detail, National Gallery Singapore, 2019–20; cement, bronze and wood, dimensions variable; courtesy the artist and Green Art Gallery, Dubai; photo: Singapore Art Museum

In Singapore, which architect Rem Koolhaas has described as ‘pure intention … a unique ecology of the contemporary … an apotheosis of urban renewal,’ history lurks just below the shiny new surfaces, waiting for artists to coax it out. Indeed, history, and its many multiple readings, is the subject of Artistic Director Patrick Flores’s current Singapore Biennale, ‘Every Step in the Right Direction’ (until 22 March).

From the six-member curatorium’s dense and eclectic offerings, centred mainly at the National Gallery and Gillman Barracks, Flores’s more personal excavations of late twentieth century Filipino art rang out most strongly, particularly in the works of Alfonso Ossorio (1916–1990) and Carlos Villa (1936–2013), and their visceral assemblages of bone, blood and feather. Their rich materiality found a contemporary echo in new commissions by Manila-born Lani Maestro and Istanbul-based Hera Büyükta???yan, with both employing the translucent oyster shells from Capiz in the central islands of the Philippines, creating poetic windows and thresholds to navigate through.

Büyükta???yan’s accompanying suite of cement and ceramic fragments balanced on tiny bronze feet pointed to the Biennale’s other preoccupation: walking. Inspired by the 1930s Filipina revolutionary Salud Algabre, who said that ‘no uprising fails – each one is a step in the right direction’, the Biennale’s title invoked walking as both a physical and radical act akin to the experiencing of art, and answered best by senior Singaporean artist Amanda Heng. In her ‘Let’s Walk’ series, and documented here, the action is performed with a heeled shoe placed doggedly in the mouth, and navigated by a handheld mirror, going sometimes backwards, and in a group, moving tentatively by touch and sight – a powerful metaphor for how art, and biennales like this, can meaningfully occupy space and time.

Michael Fitzgerald, Singapore

For the full article, see
Art Monthly’s forthcoming March 2020 issue.


Soft power: ‘Antipodean Stories’ in Milan

AUSTRALIA. Antipodean Stories , exhibition installation view, Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea (PAC), Milan, 2019–20, with the work of Patricia Piccinini, Fiona Hall, Judy Watson and Jill Orr; image courtesy the artists and PAC, Milan; photo: Nico Covre Vulcano

AUSTRALIA. Antipodean Stories, exhibition installation view, Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea (PAC), Milan, 2019–20, with the work of Patricia Piccinini, Fiona Hall, Judy Watson and Jill Orr; image courtesy the artists and PAC, Milan; photo: Nico Covre Vulcano

Milan is one of Europe’s most vibrant cities, and the Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea is its centrally located contemporary art space. Its annual program includes solo projects by major Italian and international artists – Tania Bruguera is upcoming – and in recent years has focused on a series of exhibitions of contemporary art from specific nations. It is in this context that the current exhibition ‘AUSTRALIA. Antipodean Stories’ (until 9 February) is presented to Italian audiences.

Guest curator Eugenio Viola has invited 32 artists and collectives, of different cultural backgrounds, interests and experience to participate: Vernon Ah Kee, Tony Albert, Khadim Ali, Brook Andrew, Richard Bell, Daniel Boyd, Maria Fernanda Cardoso, Barbara Cleveland, Destiny Deacon, Hayden Fowler, Marco Fusinato, Agatha Gothe-Snape, Julie Gough, Fiona Hall, Dale Harding, Nicholas Mangan, Angelica Mesiti, Archie Moore, Callum Morton, Tom Nicholson (with Greg Lehman), Jill Orr, Mike Parr, Patricia Piccinini, Stuart Ringholt, Khaled Sabsabi, Yhonnie Scarce, Soda_Jerk, Dr Christian Thompson AO, James Tylor, Judy Watson, Jason Wing and Nyapanyapa Yunupingu. Viola worked with many of these artists while he was Senior Curator at Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, and he travelled widely during his two years based in Australia. He is now Chief Curator at the Modern Art Museum of Bogotá in Colombia.

‘Antipodean Stories’ does not present an overriding theme or statement; rather, Viola’s curatorial approach encourages conversations between works and meaningful juxtapositions. He is interested in practices that reflect the diversity of cultural, political and social perspectives in Australia, informed by current thinking and everyday realities. The exhibition assembles a strong representation of artists whose works examine a range of concerns such as race, identity, gender and class; colonisation and its legacies; national issues of history, knowledge and agency; and contested stories and suppressed narratives. Many of the artists critically engage with social and political issues; others draw more broadly on conceptual, linguistic and performative approaches. The exhibition unfolds with meaningful connections from room to room. Several works were made specifically for Milan, and the program includes performances by Fusinato, Parr and Ringholt, screenings of Soda_Jerk’s TERROR NULLIUS (2018), workshops, talks and roundtable discussions. A major publication features photographic documentation of the installations and performances.

Here, artists of all disciplines lead the critical inquiry, enlisting their individual circumstances, histories and intellectual rigour in the service of cultural provocation. ‘Antipodean Stories’ reflects on themes that invariably relate to an Australian context; yet in times of international ‘soft power’ – including artist projects that specifically address the state of society and the world – the exhibition transcends the local and resonates globally.

Judith Blackall is an independent curator and writer. She contributed a catalogue essay for ‘AUSTRALIA. Antipodean Stories’ and travelled to Milan for the exhibition installation and opening.

Resonance: Fiona Foley at the National Art School

Fiona Foley: Who are these strangers and where are they going? , exhibition installation view, National Art School (NAS), Sydney, 2020; image courtesy NAS, Sydney; photo: Peter Morgan

Fiona Foley: Who are these strangers and where are they going?, exhibition installation view, National Art School (NAS), Sydney, 2020; image courtesy NAS, Sydney; photo: Peter Morgan

Fiona Foley’s last survey exhibition to be seen in Sydney was in 2009–10 with ‘Forbidden’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. A decade later, ‘Who are these strangers and where are they going?’ at the National Art School (until 8 February) includes her most recent work that describes the depth of her interest in Queensland’s vexed histories and their control of Aboriginal people, as well as photographic series and installations since 1984. Her largest series of photographs, ‘Horror Has A Face’ (2017), acknowledges her family connection to the Bogimbah Mission (on K’gari/Fraser Island). It tells the story of the failure of this colonial intervention, exposing the power imbalances that existed between Aboriginal people and their ‘protectors’, and the role of opium in enslaving the Aboriginal population.

‘Who are these strangers …?’ premiered at the Ballarat International Foto Biennale last year. It was shown in Ballarat’s historic mining hall, a building with high warehouse ceilings and small anterooms along the side. More works are presented in Sydney, with a smaller footprint that in many ways tightens its delivery.

It opens with Foley’s new film Out of the Sea Like Cloud (2019), which tells the first contact story between Badtjala people on K’gari/Fraser Island who witnessed the passage of Captain Cook’s Endeavour past Takky Wooroo/Indian Head. The film segues into a colonial opium den, then conducts the lead character through a dreamlike passage where he wakes on K’gari to reclaim his place, innocence and sanity. The words of the song echo the film’s hypnotic mix of reality and fantasy throughout the exhibition spaces, with works that discuss opium on the ground level, and those more focused on identity and racism upstairs.

It is the (literally) shifting ground (with corn, carpets and oyster shells on the floor) of what curator Djon Mundine refers to as Foley’s ‘memory, truth and consciousness’ that is most evident in the exhibition. While it highlights the consistent conceptual core of Foley’s art, the soundtrack of the film gives the work an emotional resonance which is hard to resist. Her ongoing challenge to the ways in which Aboriginal people have been represented, and wresting back control to narrate a different story (drawn from Queensland’s archives) build powerfully. Foley’s ‘Badtjala Woman’ photographic series of 1994, featuring herself in the guise of one of her ancestors, is a reminder of how well she has delivered a resonant image – always.

Louise Martin-Chew, Sydney