Tuesday, 25 May 2021

Exhibition review: The National, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney

You’ll see from yesterday’s post that I just happened to be down this end of town due to the sculpture exhibition that was on at The Rocks. On the way back to the tram I popped in at the MCA to use the facilities and while there moseyed into The National, a show on the third floor encompassing recent works by Australian artists. Some of the items in the show, which runs until 22 August (so there’s plenty of time to see it) are big – very big, as you’ll see – so’re really only suitable for museums. 

It’d be a highly rare private collector who’d buy one of Mehwish Iqbal’s massive pieces!

The thing that first caught my attention and that started me snapping photos is by Lauren Berkowitz. Her intriguing artwork (see below) contains all the elements of a good government ad campaign – something to try to get us to think about the things we casually throw away. Plastic is choking the seas in some parts of the world and it seems as though every other week there’s another dramatic headline that serves to draw our attention to this kind of pollution. Berkowitz’s work was made in 2020-21.

Above: Plastic Topographies

The second work I took a photo of was Mehwish Iqbal’s grey wall hanging. She had another work in the show – a colourful one made with embroidery and with figures in it – but the 2020 work shown below is made up of thousands of paper human figures. Massed together, they form a kind of threatening or warning motif against our personal fears. Immigration is a constant topic these days so, like Berkowitz, Iqbal has been intent on making engaged art in her practice. She wants to talk about issues that are strongly present in the public sphere because this is her choice as an artist.

Above: Grey Wall

Further evidence of such intent is visible in Kate Just’s work. The recent federal political scandal surrounding Liberal Party staff who’d been sexually assaulted makes the creation of Just’s 2019-21 work (see below) appear axiomatic.

Above: Anonymous was a woman

A smaller, more intimate and less overtly political position is taken by Caroline Rothwell, who’s made a curious amination that plays on a loop (see below). This 2021 work has a dreamy feel to it, as though you’d seen something similar one night when you were asleep. Perhaps in a nightmare.

In a way Rothwell’s work was the most ambitious. We’re so used to external actors like journalists and politicians telling us what to think that to find artists arrogating to themselves the same level of discernment is less than radical. In fact it’s customary for outsiders to do this on our behalf. For an artist to bat the burden of creativity and signification into the viewer’s court is stranger and more challenging. Rothwell asks us to interrogate our own experience to find the meaning hidden in her work. What might you find if you visited the gallery? 

What’s your darkest secret? Perhaps the biggest secret today in the art world is the loss of nuance and irony. When bigger works with more and more obvious meanings are the standard fare, what happens to the tone of debate. When there’s no middle ground online and the sensible centre is hollowed out by extreme language, how can we find common ground? Rothwell’s intimate and innocent artwork speaks of feelings of anxiety as all the loud voices clamour for attention. It seems to speak of a concern that, even when the subject under discussion is as pressing as climate change, something equally valuable – not just the health of the planet – is lost when we try to control the message to suit just ourselves. 

Above: Carbon emission 6, aperture

What happened to subtlety and grace? John Wolseley’s massive etching (with other media also included – it’s a striking work) seeks to find some of these qualities in another quadrant of public debate. A series of works with a First Nations theme it’s one that’s also allied with ideas about the natural environment. At first I wasn’t sure if any of his works – the one pictured below was made in 2020-21 – warranted inclusion in my survey as I wasn’t sure if this artist has a strong vision.

Or if he’s just playing – once again – to the gallery. I kinda liked the effects he’s made as they remind me of old things that risk being washed away with use and while the size of the works and their overt political stance fill me with misgivings, the fragility of the medium – they are works made on paper – serves to reassure me that the artist is aware of the danger his approach to his subject might easily incur.

Above: Termitaria: Indwelling I-IV

To round out the survey I’ve included a 2020 work by an Indigenous artist name Mulkun Wirrpanda. This work is currently in a private collection in Sydney. Other works shown by the same artist are also privately owned. With something of this size – these are medium-sized artworks such as you’d find for sale at a commercial gallery – your viewing experience is less confrontational but the effect in a public gallery such as the MCA is also far less powerful. On public display Wirrpanda’s kind of decorative artwork is often overshadowed by more utilitarian works, such as the ones I describe earlier in this post. He is a Northern Territory artist who lives in Arnhem Land.

Above: Pardalotes

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