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The National: New Australian Art 2017

May 23, 2017

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?

Mt Lyell open mine, Queenstown

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.  Continue Reading…