The National: New Australian Art exhibition is impressive. It is spread across three of Sydney’s major art institutions (the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) and Carriageworks), and it claims to provide a major focus on Australian art of our time. ‘Our time’, presumably, is the contemporary postindustrial era of digital media, global capitalism, mass entertainment, constant flux, culture of excess, and the proliferation of screens. This is a time of a profound shift in orientation and sensibility as 21st-century Australia seeks to reimagine itself and to secure its identity within an increasingly globalised and interconnected world.
This inter-institutional project of contemporary art continues Sydney’s claim to be the country’s leading centre of contemporary art. This claim had been previously based on the Sydney Biennale, and then the Australian Perspecta series from 1981 to 1999 at the AGNSW. The National in Sydney–Australia’s global city–is a six year initiative, with three editions in 2017, 2019 and 2021, and it will profile a mix of emerging, mid-career and established artists from around the country and practising overseas.The websites of the above three institutions say that the new and recently commissioned works encompasses a diverse range of mediums, including painting, video, sculpture, installation, drawing and performance.
There is no photography was my immediate reaction. This is confirmed by going though all the artists exhibiting in 2017. No photographers or photo artists. The closest is video art. Photography, one can infer, is not a part of contemporary art in post colonial Australia. Neither are artists working in South Australia. Or Tasmania for that matter. So why these exclusion? Do photographers and the contemporary artists in the two excluded states lack intellectual sophistication, critical nous and the requisite knowledge of art history?
The exclusion of photography from this exhibition of contemporary art suggests the obsolescence of photography. It is outmoded, like the juke box.
My understanding of contemporary art—the works exhibited at international Biennali or Documenta — is that it refers to that period frequently characterised by an inherently decentred, cosmopolitan, digitalised and globalised world order. In Australia it would be the post conceptual art after the Australian Bicentennial in 1988, and in situating itself reflexively within the contemporary, it is art in which formerly peripheral Indigenous and Australian art now has a key role to play. There are different forms of artistic agency – aesthetic, poetic, social, political— in the present, multiple perspectives on contemporary life in Australia as a country, nation and state, the emergence of repressed histories, an archival impulse, and the turn away from medium specificities.
The question is, given the importance of digital images on the internet, why are art photographers not seen as a part of the networking of mainstream contemporary art? This is one that explores the fault lines in any fixed notion of Australian national identity, the different issues of contemporary life, and the ruins of modernity? It’s a puzzle, especially when you see this kind of Photography Festival; a puzzle that suggests the obsolescence of photography.
How then are the art works in the exhibition situated in a historical context? How do the curators help us to make sense of the world of images which we inhabit in the three art institutions. The curators say that:
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…… 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…the nation [is] a contested site, an assumed identity, a fiction; of Australia as an entity or idea always under construction.
The curators add that though there is no single theme or curatorial concern that has driven their combined research or the frames of the exhibition, there are several interconnected threads to The National.
(1) One 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.
(2) another thread 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 included.
(3) another 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.
These narrative pathways, which are a mode of transversing three exhibitions in the space of three galleries, conceive the art exhibition as a narrative structure where the curators as collagists (i.e., the curator-as-auteur) create an “original” through the recombination of already existing works. This narrative organisation, which is a central factor in our ability to navigate and make sense of all the artistic production, can be seen as apossible solution to the loss of futurity and memory of our looped-image present.
So we infer that contemporary photography is excluded because it doesn’t address the issues these three threads? Or that it doesn’t disturb” , “frustrate”, or contest the conservative conception of the national? There is no such thing as a critical photographer? What seems to be operating here is that contemporary art with its conceptual heritage is on the side of ideas whilst photography with its machinic vision is on the side of semblance.
Photography’s exclusion means that The National is not the state of our contemporary art as Julie Ewington claims in The Monthly. Surely contemporary art photography, like the body of much of the work presented Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), also asserts the particularities of place and of subjective, situated experience in opposition to the global a time when there is a deep questioning of Australia’s identity in the postcolonial present.
The curatorial frame of The National opens up an issue about photography’s relationship with contemporary art. Is there a unified thing called contemporary art? Contemporary art does look to be a convenient generalizing term for many art institutions such as auction houses, galleries and art history departments; one in which there is less and less photography (and photographers) in contemporary art exhibitions. The curation can be seen as a critical intervention into ways of comprehending contemporary culture and, with the curatorial turn, the large-scale curated exhibition is akin to making the new autonomous art work. This is one based on research, investigation, discovery and critical reflection, with their rhetoric of the art spaces providing a space for debate and criticism of contemporary art. One gains the sense that what makes the exhibitors artists is their affiliation with specific institutions (nonprofit spaces, biennials, residencies, or international curators).
What is notable about the curatorial practices of contemporary art is that if photography is included in contemporary art, it is not as a autonomous tradition. With the critical destruction of the modernist conception of medium specificity (and the purity and unity of the medium) and the emergence of the hybrid media or the post-medium condition of contemporary art, photography is included in contemporary art as a mode integrated with wider practices. The consequences of the destruction of the medium is that photography’s tradition, it’s value and its potential to be disruptive are pushed into the background.
In the face of these kind of curatorial exclusions a critical art photography needs to counterpose itself against contemporary art with its rankings, museum shows, money, and newness as markers of something within its institutional forms. How it can do this is unclear. Sone photographers remain photography as a specific art or pictorial medium– or more radically as revitalising o reinventing the idea of medium. Another approach is to shift from photography as an autonomous art form to the photographic, which groups indexical images of various sorts including digital images. This allows us to think of photography in terms of the form of the image it produces; and secondly, that the photographic image is the main social form of the digital image (the current historically dominant form of the image in general). Image is emphasised over medium.
Peter Osborne in Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art says that the photographic is constantly shifting, and that it is not merely a particular kind of art. The photographic present is clearly digital with the digital data playing the role of the original, rather than the event or object that is depicted. Osborne adds that the photographic:
…is the currently dominate form of the image as such, and developments within photography, along with image based image production more generally, are driving the historical development of art. This is so not just reactively, as was initially mainly the case in the second half of the nineteenth centrist and the first half of the 20th century (in the transformation and internal retreat of other forms of representation), but affirmatively, in the use of photographic technologies to produce ‘art’ of various kinds.
The photographic is the domain of the image in general.
So the photographic is present in The National (e.g., video) but not photography.