The National 2021

There’s a great deal of uncertainty when it comes to contemplating what a post-Covid Australia might look like. Do we want to return to some comforting idea of normality? Or would we prefer to take the opportunity to try and build a better and more just world?

These big picture questions might seem worlds away from a discussion about contemporary art in Australia, but in many ways the art world embodies all that is both conservative and progressive in wider culture.

The just opened third iteration of The National in Sydney is an ideal case in point.

Launched in 2017, The National was conceived as Sydney’s answer to a growing number of regular survey exhibitions held elsewhere in the country that attempt to capture the zeitgeist in contemporary art – such as Adelaide’s Biennial of Australian Art, and the Melbourne Triennial.

The National also drew inspiration from the much missed Australian Perspecta: a large-scale survey exhibition spread across numerous venues that ran from 1988 to 1999, in the alternate years to the Sydney Biennale.

Regenerator (2021) by Wona Bae Charlie Lawler, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, for The National 2021. Photograph: Diana Panuccio

So, looking both forwards and backwards, the National was launched as a three venue show at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Carriageworks and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). It would be a celebration of contemporary Australian art curated by in-house experts and given a short shelf life: three outings, and then done.

As we’ve seen in the first two editions – the first in 2017 and the second in 2019 – the show has had mixed success. The National has offered some beautifully curated and stylishly presented selections of art and, in its first iteration at least, a genuine sense of excitement that the moment was being captured.

On the other hand, much of what we have come to expect in contemporary art was also faithfully re-staged: generic forms, familiar ideas and, most disappointing of all, a lack of resources to really make the most of these shows, both in terms of their physical presence and in their promotion.

And then came a global pandemic, and many were left wondering: how would The National respond to a global and developing crisis, as the world changes in real time?

Instead, The National 2021 (TN21) continues its forward/backwards embrace of ideas and themes, with works – including 39 new commissions – addressing a number of contemporary issues: climate change and the environment, Indigenous rights, political protest, sociality, kinship and intergenerational learning among them.

The most consistently enjoyable part of the show is at the MCA, where an elegant conceptual and formal thread joins works through successive gallery spaces – Cameron Robbins, Betty Kuntiwa Pumani, Lauren Berkowitz and Caroline Rothwell, for instance, translate nature and the environment into art with, respectively, drawings produced by a machine that reacts to the weather; a gorgeous flowing painting; hanging sculptures made from plastic hoops and refuse; and a video animation drawn in engine exhaust soot.

This section of TN21 – which also features large-scale works from Judith Wright, Kate Just and Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda among others – benefits from plenty of space, big rooms and a focused curatorial selection.

By comparison, the AGNSW’s exhibition is in a cramped and awkward downstairs space that hooks around the gallery’s escalators.

There are works to enjoy there, such as Justin Shoulder’s AEON TITAN ARUM (2021), a sci-fi landscape of animated, floating forms; and Gabriella Hirst’s Darling Darling (2021), a mesmerising video of a landscape outside Bourke, and the restoration of a 19th century painting of the same location.

But curatorially speaking, compared to the MCA, this show is far more diffuse and abstract; I could not find a connection between the works, in an exhibition which felt more like a riff on shared ideas and puzzling asides that were often engaging, but equally perplexing.

Over at Carriageworks all but a couple of pieces are hung salon-style in one giant room. This is a visually demanding experience that asks the viewer to almost literally put the blinkers on to focus in on one piece at a time – from Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley’s giant graph-like work The Definition of Now (2021), to Darren Sylvester’s neon niches spread around the room, to Isadora Vaughan’s vaguely upsetting installation Organs of Cognition (2021), an artfully arrayed selection of fluids, beeswax, steel fixings and other obscure materials.

If the plan was to create an everything-at-once feel – perhaps a model of the whole world – then they have succeeded.

It is perhaps a category error to ask of an exhibition something that it was never really designed to do – but for me, art needs to lead from the front, to be part of the solution, not a commentary from the sidelines. The National has the capacity to find and champion the art that does this – and for an exhibition with so much potential, it would be a shame for it to end here.

But if rumours that the series might be extended are true, then the whole project needs a shake-up. The exhibition needs more space and resources, more publicity and fanfare, a more adventurous curatorial gambit, more artists you’ve never heard of, and the daring to step outside the safe confines of familiar ideas and themes.

It’s only then that a show like The National could conceivably carry on for another decade – not just charting where we have been, and the valuable things we want to take with us, but where we one day might arrive, and the kind of world we want to build.

Published by Guardian Australia March 29 2021

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