Embedded in the land: ‘Material Place’ at UNSW Galleries

Material Place: Reconsidering Australian Landscapes , exhibition installation view, UNSW Galleries, Sydney, 2019, with the work of Bonita Ely, Gunybi Ganambarr, Megan Cope and Mabel Juli; photo: Zan Wimberley

Material Place: Reconsidering Australian Landscapes, exhibition installation view, UNSW Galleries, Sydney, 2019, with the work of Bonita Ely, Gunybi Ganambarr, Megan Cope and Mabel Juli; photo: Zan Wimberley

What is our relationship to place within settler colonial Australia? What methods and materials might be most fittingly employed to represent land use today? In what ways can art address the environmental issues unfolding in our current moment? These are some of the questions posed by the deftly curated exhibition ‘Material Place: Reconsidering Australian Landscapes’, at UNSW Galleries in Sydney until 7 September. Offering a diverse range of approaches that includes Google Earth imaging, drone footage, kinetic sculpture, as well as the more traditional artistic techniques of painting and carving, the exhibition brings together 12 Australian artists, half of whom are Indigenous.

In the first gallery space, the visitor is greeted by a number of distinctive sounds. One of these is an ominous amplified clicking noise that emanates from Nicholas Mangan’s 2018 installation Termite Economies. On top of a purpose-built table sits an earth-coloured model of a termite tunnel that has been amalgamated with a small goldmining structure. The result looks a bit like a theme park water slide in miniature. To the right, a television monitor is supported by a tall wooden plinth. It displays footage of bone-coloured termite mounds that rise into the air like heavily dimpled buildings. The work is based on studies undertaken by the CSIRO into the ability of termites to locate gold. It imaginatively adopts this curious example of capitalism’s desire to transform any form of life into a prospective source of wealth, thereby critiquing the subjection of nature to an economic calculus.

Elevated slightly off the floor, a liquorice-coloured conveyor belt, Ngalkan (2015), is encountered in the next room. It has been intricately incised with sacred triangular and diamond-shaped designs by Indigenous artist Gunybi Ganambarr. Displaying an innovative use of materials that responds to the erosion of his people’s land rights, the discarded rubber conveyor belt signals the removal of minerals from Yolngu land through mines and refineries that have now been decommissioned.

In such ways, ‘Material Place’ explores the intersections of colonisation, mining, Indigenous cultural heritage and attachment to place – ideas that are thoughtfully weaved through the subdued spotlit exhibition to create a compelling dialogue between the works. Meditating on some of the most pressing issues of our time – environmental degradation and our relationship to nature – the exhibition eschews a tone of urgency and catastrophe in favour of foregrounding Indigenous knowledge and culture, practices imbedded in extensive research and those that take an experimental approach to materials.

Benison Kilby, Sydney

Verve and breadth: Virginia Cuppaidge at Newcastle Art Gallery

Virginia Cuppaidge: The Nature of Abstraction , exhibition installation view, Newcastle Art Gallery, 2019, with (from left):  Saix , 1974, and  Lyon , 1972; image courtesy Newcastle Art Gallery

Virginia Cuppaidge: The Nature of Abstraction, exhibition installation view, Newcastle Art Gallery, 2019, with (from left): Saix, 1974, and Lyon, 1972; image courtesy Newcastle Art Gallery

‘Virginia Cuppaidge: The Nature of Abstraction’ has been a major project for the Newcastle Art Gallery. The 19 works, many borrowed from prominent public collections, document a distinguished career, based in New York from 1969, when the Brisbane-born painter first moved to this global centre of artists and galleries to experience at first hand the evolving history of abstraction.

The exhibition, which runs until 21 July, also marks a closer engagement with Newcastle since the artist’s return to Australia in 2017 to live in sight of the sea in this city. Although she painted only in New York, Australia has always played a role, with residencies and regular exhibitions including at the iconic Gallery A in Sydney in the 1970s and 1980s. American critics frequently found an Antipodean breadth and openness in her paintings. By comparison, Australians discovered a cosmopolitan verve on a scale unknown here. (Featured in the exhibition are six-metre paintings, made at a time when canvas of this size was unavailable in Australia.)

At her first New York showing in 1973, Cuppaidge received a favourable comment from Clement Greenberg, doyen of the new abstraction. She continued for 40 years to exhibit successfully as well as teach. The artist is currently writing her recollections of early days in New York, and planning a new studio.

In the exhibition, curated by Sarah Johnson, we see her work evolve from a flat geometry into increasingly vibrant expressionism. The earliest works feature a segmented rectangle in restrained chalky colour. By the late 1970s, the painting has changed radically. A vast work, presented to the University of Newcastle’s art collection, recalls the immensity of the sky in layers of opaline sponged-on paint, punctuated by crisp arabesques, holding back the void. The picture plane deepens in the 1980s and 1990s, when layers of increasingly biomorphic forms writhe and rear in confronting, sometimes frantic colour. The most recent painting in the show, Bee Map from 2012, suggests a new feeling for harmony and resolution.

This has been an important exhibition for Newcastle. Not only does it offer an opportunity to display major generous gifts from the artist, but it also reconfirms the stature of a significant Australian modernist.

Jill Stowell, Newcastle

Dreaming of sleep: ‘Zzzzz’ at MAMA

Zzzzz: Sleep, Somnambulism, Madness , exhibition installation view, Murray Art Museum Albury (MAMA), 2019; image courtesy MAMA, Albury; photo: Jules Boag

Zzzzz: Sleep, Somnambulism, Madness, exhibition installation view, Murray Art Museum Albury (MAMA), 2019; image courtesy MAMA, Albury; photo: Jules Boag

The intimate private-made-public reflection in Andy Warhol’s Sleep (1963), a five-hour film of his sleeping lover John Giorno, is on show at Murray Art Museum Albury (MAMA) as part of curator Mark Feary’s ‘Zzzzz: Sleep, Somnambulism, Madness’, a group exhibition showcasing various media and including work from Australian and international artists. Like Sleep, every piece in this exhibition is designed to carry the audience to a subterranean place – to reflect on consciousness and the fragile human state.

Erica Spitzer Rasmussen’s 2015 nightgown constructed of 2000 sleeping pill prescriptions is a reminder of the reliance of many of us – over two million Australians – on chemical substances to help meet this basic need. The paper gown, suspended in the blackened grand foyer entry, hangs alongside a futon that invites the visitor to enter the exhibition lying down – reclining to watch a filmed performance by Barbora Kleinhamplová in collaboration with Tereza Stejskalová. Presenting the argument for the ‘right to sleep’, the performance contemplates how attitudes to work and life have shifted while highlighting the benefit of transformation through dreams and adequate rest. The performers protest against ‘the myth of the successful sleepless’.

Visitors may become a little perturbed by the dark space upstairs and the quietly provoking themes. This is not an exhibition that can be casually or quickly strolled through. Classifications of normal and abnormal, reality and illusion are examined in the video work Caligari and the Sleepwalker (2008) by Javier Téllez – filmed in Germany with mental health patients. And Ronnie van Hout’s monotone monologue considers the sensation of being trapped within the sleeping state. ‘Are you asleep?’ he shouts. ‘I’m asleep, you’re asleep … wake up!’

Presented in partnership with Melbourne’s Gertrude Contemporary, and on show until 18 August, ‘Zzzzz: Sleep, Somnambulism, Madness’ successfully cultivates a conversation about the politics of sleep, the potential transformative theatre of dreams, as well as our level of awareness in waking life.

Bec Bromley Humphries, Albury–Wodonga

Oh my God! MONA’s new tunnels to enlightenment

Ai Weiwei,  White House , 2015, installation view, Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), Hobart, 2019; image courtesy MONA, Hobart; photo: MONA/Jesse Hunniford

Ai Weiwei, White House, 2015, installation view, Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), Hobart, 2019; image courtesy MONA, Hobart; photo: MONA/Jesse Hunniford

The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart has unlocked a new subterranean complex of tunnels and chambers dug from the sandstone bedrock of the Berriedale peninsula. The new excavation contains a central nave and connecting passageways that burrow up from the dark underground galleries towards the water’s-edge ‘Pharos’ wing – ‘a temple to light’. Another anti-monumental milestone in MONA’s evolution, ‘Siloam’ is a jewel in the crown for the self-professed secular church and adult Disneyland. What better place to watch the impending apocalypse … but not before you have a go on the art rides, take a ‘journey through the birth canal’ and ‘commune with your inner spotlight’.

With grand gestures to the transcendental, ‘Siloam’ leads us on a modern-day procession ritual involving the idolatrous installation of David Walsh’s contemporary-art memento mori. Just like Jesus leading the blind man to the Pool of Siloam, we too are promised the gift of sight – hallelujah! By way of ascending or descending through Christopher Townend’s sonorous installation Requiem for Vermin (2019), the sloping tunnel unites a spacious split-level temple that is illuminated by an aperture high above. Nestled quietly beneath the Carrara marble floor (of this new-age temple to transfiguration) is the mouthpiece to Oliver Beer’s Mona Confessional (2016–19), a somber experience which, like prayer, requires us to express our deep-seated feelings to a distant, unknown audience located up above.

The raw stone walls of the cavernous chamber dramatically frame the white-washed wooden bones of a Qing dynasty house (Ai Weiwei’s 2015 White House) that tiptoes on crystal balls; these transparent glass ‘foundations’ glibly reduce the surrounding architecture into a tidy visual metaphor: a spiritual horizon inverting dark and light, ‘the MONA experience’ as the medium between our earthly interior and some other Elysian elsewhere.

Ultimately playing out ‘The End’ across three discrete chambers is The Divine Comedy (2019), conceived by Alfredo Jaar (via Dante) and, presumably, executed by an array of assiduous engineers and Tassie labour. MONA literally straps audiences in for a coal-fired, techno-fuelled trip straight from hell, transitioning in purgatory (featuring a curious film with artist Joan Jonas) and onwards into paradise. Like all good comedies, it begins so badly that the successive episodes have to withstand an additional weight of expectation.

Oscar Capezio, Hobart

Beyond geography: ‘Vanishing Point’ at the ANU School of Art & Design

Vanishing Point , exhibition installation view, ANU School of Art & Design Gallery, Canberra, 16 May – 14 June 2019; photo: Ellen Dahl

Vanishing Point, exhibition installation view, ANU School of Art & Design Gallery, Canberra, 16 May – 14 June 2019; photo: Ellen Dahl

An island carries too much detail to comprehend and relies on the creation and implementation of borders. The group exhibition ‘Vanishing Point’ considered the island ‘as a concept where opposing ideas converge’. The participating artists (Consuelo Cavaniglia, Ellen Dahl, Yvette Hamilton, Taloi Havini and Salote Tawale) weren’t interested in just talking about specific places; the show was located in the non-literal vanishing point where specificity and boundaries collapsed. In this way the space became imperceptible; both micro and macro at once. These ideas played out in the exhibition (first presented at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery and, from 16 May until 14 June, at the ANU School of Art & Design Gallery) through a variety of different approaches to the photographic.

Although ‘Vanishing Point’ rarely utilised traditional photography, the works within it all directly engaged with ideas of the photographic through light, and further its futile attempt to capture and inhabit things. Cavaniglia’s Filters (2018) was a prime example of this: comprising three criss-crossed acrylic sheets, transparent and coloured, hung from the roof. It first appeared as something closer to conceptual sculpture, but the photographic emerged through a process of limiting and allowing light in a fleeting endeavour to contain it.

Havini’s an imaginary line I (2018) is a blurry photograph of land, which was reproduced on a big block in the middle of the gallery, verging on monolithic if not for its softness. Photography often employs a subjective and forced viewpoint, but in an imaginary line I the audience was prevented from becoming a casual voyeur, and left struggling to perceive the land in front of them. Regardless of orientation, the island never came into focus, and this indistinct zone is where the show was conceptually situated.

‘Vanishing Point’ was about floating within, around, into, and outside a space, being in the liminal and surrounded by porous borders which maybe never existed in the first place. Much more time and focus could be devoted to these works; I found myself lost for a long period staring back at Tawale in the video component of the absorbing Constant interruption, always changing (2018). Searching for a face to guide me, I could find only Tawale coldly looking back, uncapturable and distant, but very much present.

Angus McGrath is currently Critic-in-Residence at ANCA, Canberra, in a special project partnership with Art Monthly Australasia.

Reigniting the past: Three explosive displays of Chinese art at the NGV

Cai Guo-Qiang: The Transient Landscape , exhibition installation view, NGV International, Melbourne, 2019; © Cai Guo-Qiang; photo: Sean Fennessy

Cai Guo-Qiang: The Transient Landscape, exhibition installation view, NGV International, Melbourne, 2019; © Cai Guo-Qiang; photo: Sean Fennessy

This winter at the NGV International is devoted to the grand sweep of China’s history, from the ancient Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BCE) to the current generation of young artists. Until October, the gallery is home to three displays of Chinese art combining past and present. In defiance of the icy wind and rain outside, each display offers a variation on a central incendiary theme, balancing meditative stillness against explosive spectacle.

As I entered the warmth of the gallery on a late May morning, my eyes were drawn to a blaze of colour in Federation Court. ‘SO – IL: Viewing China’ (until 4 August), a glacial conflagration of pink, green, yellow and blue acrylic vitrines, designed by New York-based architects Solid Objectives – Idenburg Liu, rivals the bombastic splendour of Leonard French’s iconic stained-glass ceiling in the Great Hall. Yet it was the objects within these vitrines that captured my attention: Chinese white porcelain of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, and its European imitations, once valued for their monochrome purity but here rendered kaleidoscopic by the mirrored podiums in SO – IL’s luminescent cases, revealing qualities of surface and tone that might otherwise be missed.

Beyond the bustle of Federation Court, an entirely different atmosphere suffuses the blockbuster pairing of ‘Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality’ and ‘Cai Guo-Qiang: The Transient Landscape’ (until 13 October). Entry to this dual exhibition is gained through a dim passageway, with six screens along one wall playing a looped sequence of digital terracotta warriors dissolving and reforming in swirls of shimmering dust. A soundtrack of ethereal chime music recalls the resonant tones of Zhou bronze bells, cleansing the air of polluting influences. Overhead, a trail of porcelain starlings blackened with gunpowder signals Cai’s tutelary presence.

In the main exhibition chamber, after passing through two galleries filled with a dazzling array of Zhou, Qin (221–206 BCE) and Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) treasures, visitors are confronted by eight terracotta warriors in two rows of perspex cases. As in ‘Viewing China’, mirrors are used to great effect: one is mounted behind each warrior, facing another on the back of the case in front to create a mutual reflection in which single figures are multiplied into ranks of identical officers, infantry, archers and bureaucrats, receding into a seemingly limitless optical void. Viewers, too, are reflected, inviting a comparison of clay and flesh in which the imposing stature of the warriors provokes a realisation of our own mortality and vulnerability to the passage of time.

Another parallel with ‘Viewing China’ can be found in Cai's two porcelain installations: Transience I (Peony), a mound of ceramic blossoms, and the 10,000 starlings of Murmuration (Landscape) (both 2019). Like SO – IL, Cai has saturated the white glaze of his starlings and peonies with iridescent bursts of colour, though, rather than the play of light on acrylic, he has deployed his signature mastery of gunpowder. Flowers and birds alike have been exposed to controlled explosions that have left them unharmed but coated with pigmented residue: charcoal black in Murmuration and a festive blend of red, green, yellow and blue in Transience. Cai used the same process to create the three ‘gunpowder paintings’ commissioned for this exhibition: broad expanses of silk and hemp paper scarred with calligraphic trails and crackling pulses which nevertheless, like the Buddhist deities in SO – IL’s vitrines, exude a meditative tranquility amid explosive light and colour.

The dialogue between ancient and contemporary is continued on the gallery's top floor with ‘A Fairy Tale in Red Times’ (until 6 October), a selection of work by 26 Chinese artists on loan from the White Rabbit Collection, Sydney. Many of these artists rival Cai in reputation and their work resonates just as powerfully with the first emperor’s disinterred armies. The slumped shoulders and resigned expressions of migrant workers replicated in resin for Zhang Dali's ‘Square’ series (2014), for example, offer a striking counterpoint to the impassive stoicism of the warriors, while the ragged pigeons tearing at their clothes are a far cry from Cai’s majestic flock of starlings. The display also includes rising stars like Cheng Ran, whose video work with French artist Item Idem, Joss (2013), lingers over the burning of cigarettes, handbags and other luxuries modelled in paper as offerings for the dead, voracious tongues of flame recalling Cai’s controlled explosions.

Yet the people and objects variously immortalised and immolated in these works are not proud warriors or emblems of a glorious heritage – they are the forgotten and overlooked, denigrated emblems of human greed and desire. This is the most incendiary aspect of all three displays: their shedding of new light on things that have long been hidden, ignored or denied.

Alex Burchmore, Melbourne

What’s love got to do with it: ‘Marriage’ at Penrith Regional Gallery

Freya Jobbins,  Party 1 and Party 2 , 2019, installation view, ‘Marriage: Love + Law’, Penrith Regional Gallery, Sydney, 2019; plastic assemblage; photo: Silversalt

Freya Jobbins, Party 1 and Party 2, 2019, installation view, ‘Marriage: Love + Law’, Penrith Regional Gallery, Sydney, 2019; plastic assemblage; photo: Silversalt

In her winning entry to the Australian Women’s Weekly ‘Happy Marriage Contest’ of 1961, Mrs Elsa Hertzberg of Bondi wrote that: ‘a happy marriage is one shared by a couple both of whom possess what I consider the essential ingredient – IMAGINATION.’

Imagination was also the ingredient that lifted the NSW State Archives exhibition ‘Marriage: Love + Law’, recently shown at Penrith Regional Gallery (30 March – 16 June), out of the realm of pure social history. Contemporary artists Blak Douglas, Freya Jobbins, Danie Mellor and Raquel Ormella were asked to respond to the colonial construct of marriage, and the results were more sobering than they were celebratory.

Through a four-tiered wedding cake of cavorting Barbie dolls, Jobbins succeeded in embodying a history of marriage in Australia which has often seen its citizens become playthings of the powers that be – first as a means to further control its convict arrivals, then as a way to bestow ‘respectability’ on its settler class, leading to the more recent contractions and expansions of the Marriage Act 1961 under the Howard and Turnbull governments.

Ormella tackled the most recent turn of events delivered by a national postal survey with her rainbow-coloured collection of bridesmaid dresses. But rather than suggesting liberation, these garments were bound and clamped, with the artist both welcoming marriage equality and wondering ‘at all the restrictions, social constructs and expectations that remain around the ceremony and legal marriage contract. May we continue to undo these too.’

The wider impact of the laws around marriage were explored by Indigenous artists Douglas and Mellor. Through their more withering works, marriage was revealed not as a vehicle for civil union or social cohesion, but for racial division. Douglas’s triptych of pointillist pop paintings pointed out the erasing by-products of the Aborigines Protection Act (1909), which deemed where Indigenous people lived, worked and married. And also employing text, Mellor’s 2019 photographic print Transubstantiation spoke of how the colonial granting of land through ‘marriage portions’ effectively robbed Aboriginal people of their Country.

Despite marking Australia’s recent gains in marriage equality, ‘Love + Law’ left the impression that, through commissioned works such as these, historical inequities remain underlying one of our most sacred social institutions.

Michael Fitzgerald, Penrith

Regional dialogue and homely conversation: ‘Awakenings’ at the National Gallery Singapore

Siti Adiyati,  Eceng Gondok Berbunga Emas (Water Hyacinth with Golden Roses) , 1979/2017, installation view, ‘Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia 1960s–1990s’, National Gallery Singapore, 2019; image courtesy National Gallery Singapore

Siti Adiyati, Eceng Gondok Berbunga Emas (Water Hyacinth with Golden Roses), 1979/2017, installation view, ‘Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia 1960s–1990s’, National Gallery Singapore, 2019; image courtesy National Gallery Singapore

At the National Gallery Singapore’s Coleman Street entrance on my first night in the city, as I left the damp heat of an early June evening for the cool marble chambers of what was once City Hall, my eyes came to rest on a bed of impossibly golden roses, their gilded petals catching the rays of the setting sun. Yet this thriving growth of emerald green, one of 142 works selected for ‘Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia 1960s–1990s’ (until 15 September), a comprehensive survey of over 100 artists from 12 Asian nations, conceals a sinister reality: these are water hyacinths, ravenous weeds that choke rivers and render streams stagnant, while the roses striving upward from tangled leaves are plastic imitations, enchanting yet lifeless, and even more polluting than the hyacinths that surround them.

Indonesian artist Siti Adiyati conceived this fusion of nature and artifice for a 1979 exhibition by Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru (the ‘New Arts Movement’) which formed in response to the ‘Black December Affair’ of 1974, a dispute between student artists and the Indonesian Academy of Fine Arts. Her work vividly captures the three main curatorial themes of ‘Awakenings’: the questioning of convention by artists across the region from the 1960s to 1990s; the influence of the city and consumer capitalism in these decades; and the emergence of new forms of social activism and political organisation. As one of 14 artists to sign the ‘Black December Manifesto’, Adiyati was committed to that document’s vision of a new Indonesian art typified by diversity and innovation, as shown by her radical turn away from conventional media for Eceng Gondok Berbunga Emas (Water Hyacinth with Golden Roses) (1979/2017). The combination of living plants and plastic flowers also reveals an incisive social critique, exposing the consumerism encouraged by President Suharto as little more than a semblance of prosperity that failed to conceal the suffocating realities of poverty and authoritarian control.

The location of Adiyati’s work in an entrance courtyard reveals another broader theme, not only in ‘Awakenings’ but throughout the gallery’s exhibition program, and even in the institution as a whole: the activation of transitional spaces. The architectural identity of the gallery rests on its fusion of City Hall with the former chambers of Singapore’s Supreme Court, transformed by glass-and-steel canopies and bridges into a 64,000m2 edifice. This architectural union finds an echo in the 2018 projects commissioned for the gallery’s ‘OUTBOUND’ initiative, in conjunction with ‘Awakenings’: Australian Gary Carsley and Singaporean Jeremy Chu’s The Regency Made Me Blind, and Nowhere by Jane Lee, another Singaporean. Both are installed, like Adiyati’s garden, in transitional spaces – the steps and landings between floors – that have become sites for encounter, transgressing conventional boundaries between artist and viewer. For Nowhere, the tangled skeins of paint in Lee’s Raw Canvas, first shown at the 2008 Singapore Biennale, are repeated in the seat of a bench on which viewers are invited to sit and contemplate a mirror mosaic on the opposite wall, their distorted reflections incorporated into the painting behind them.

On the floor below Nowhere, the murmur of voices draws gallery visitors to another recreated installation: Korean artist Lee Kang-So’s Disappearance, Bar in the Gallery (1973). For the first iteration of this work, Lee transplanted tables and chairs from a much-loved chumak tavern to Myeongdong Gallery, Seoul, introducing a homely camaraderie to the austerity of the ‘white cube’, with the promise of makgeolli rice wine and friendly conversation. For ‘Awakenings’, Lee’s vision has been revived in the largest of two passageways connecting the three gallery spaces in which the exhibition is installed, roughly coinciding with its core themes. Visitors must walk past these tables to reach the final section containing some of the most politically charged works, including Tang Da Wu’s They Poach the Rhino, Chop Off His Horn and Make This Drink (1989) and FX Harsono’s What Would You Do If These Crackers Were Real Pistols? (1977/2018), the impact of which lingers as the sequence of galleries leads back to Lee’s tavern.

Here, the underlying aim of the exhibition emerges most clearly: to inspire discussion, reflection, a realisation of connections between works, and between different cultural, political, social and personal worlds. Set against the backdrop of bleachers with a capacity of thousands on the green of the Singapore Cricket Club outside the gallery, readied for National Day on 9 August, these discussions recall the civic functions for which the gallery buildings were intended. More importantly, they reiterate the guiding ambition at the heart of ‘Awakenings’: to seek a shared purpose uniting the tangled threads of history and everyday life, not by imposing a single point of view, but by recognising the multiple perspectives that have developed across the region from the 1960s to today.

Alex Burchmore, Singapore

Flaunting it: The 2019 Ravenswood Australian Women’s Art Prize

Joanna Braithwaite,  Bold and the Beautiful,  2019, oil on canvas, 137 x 121cm; courtesy the artist and Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney

Joanna Braithwaite, Bold and the Beautiful, 2019, oil on canvas, 137 x 121cm; courtesy the artist and Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney

‘If you’ve got it, flaunt it,’ said artist Joanna Braithwaite on accepting the 2019 Ravenswood Australian Women’s Art Prize last Friday night in Sydney. She was referring to the subject of her winning painting: a fierce-eyed cassowary which flaunts a hat brimming with palpably trilling budgies and rainbow lorikeets.

Ravenswood alumnus and artist Jennifer Turpin, one of the prize’s three female judges, praised the richness and precision of Braithwaite’s rendering, which ‘draws our attention to the importance of biodiversity, the rights of animals and the joy of bestowing them with compassion and care’.

In the emerging category, Chris Casali was singled out from a record 1200 entries for her Mutawintji Dreaming, a dizzingly detailed and staggeringly skilful watercolour of graphite on silvery Yupo paper. ‘An intriguing shimmering dreamscape,’ Turpin opined, ‘this complex work conjures the space of the imagination.’ And befitting for Australia’s richest female art prize; the exhibition is currently on view at Ravenswood’s Centenary Centre in Gordon until 9 June.

Michael Fitzgerald, Sydney

Size matters: The 2019 Auckland Art Fair

Auckland Art Fair 2019 , installation view, The Cloud, Auckland, May 2019, featuring the work of Séraphine Pick; image courtesy Michael Lett, Auckland; photo: Josef Scott

Auckland Art Fair 2019, installation view, The Cloud, Auckland, May 2019, featuring the work of Séraphine Pick; image courtesy Michael Lett, Auckland; photo: Josef Scott

New Zealand’s only major art fair, the Auckland Art Fair, came into being about a dozen years ago as a biennial event organised by a charitable trust. The fair received a major reorientation in 2016 with new sponsorship, a fresh management team of Co-directors Stephanie Post and Hayley White, and a new specific focus on the art of the Pacific Rim. In 2018 it became annual, attracting around 10,000 visitors and with a turnover of about NZ$7 million in sales.

The 2019 reiteration, held in the first week of May, drew 41 commercial galleries – almost 30 from various parts of New Zealand, with the rest from Hobart, Jakarta, Melbourne, Rarotonga (Cook Islands), Santiago, Shanghai and Sydney. Its location in the scenic Cloud building, at Queens Wharf on the Auckland waterfront near the city centre, made it both a very accessible venue, but also one that imposed its own space constraints. The management team is happy to retain the venue into the future, so the Auckland Art Fair will remain a relatively ‘boutique’ event compared even with Sydney Contemporary (which this September will boast some 90 participating galleries), not to mention Art Basel, Expo Chicago, FIAC in Paris or the various Frieze fairs, all of which require a motorised scooter to travel their full length.

With art fairs size does matter, and a small and tightly focused format permits the organisers to be discerning in the galleries they accept. The mounting prestige of the Auckland fair has enabled the curatorial selection committee, consisting of two curators from public galleries plus two from commercial spaces, to vet the competing entries for admission. In 2019 there was also a modest budget for a series of ten non-commercial projects introducing cameo displays largely by emerging artists frequently lacking gallery representation. The fair also subsidised related art events. In 2019 the highlight was ‘China Import Direct’, a curated cross-section of digital and video art from across China, helping make this iteration a gem of a fair.

Sasha Grishin, Auckland

Waxing faith: Matthew van Roden’s ‘Apocryphilia’ at the NCCA

Matthew van Roden: Apocryphilia , exhibition installation view, Northern Centre for Contemporary Art, Darwin, March 2019; photo: Fiona Morrison

Matthew van Roden: Apocryphilia, exhibition installation view, Northern Centre for Contemporary Art, Darwin, March 2019; photo: Fiona Morrison

Matthew van Roden’s first major solo exhibition was the culmination of a master’s thesis investigation into the qualities of wax in its relationship to printmaking and video projection. Installed in four parts at Darwin’s Northern Centre for Contemporary Art during March this year, ‘Apocryphilia’ made manifest a confronting, visceral and transgressive aesthetic in which wax serves as both a form of printed text and a fleshy textural surface on which the artist creates multimedia self-portraits.

Considering ‘Apocrypha’ refers to biblical texts, and to things of unknown or doubtful origin, Van Roden has defined ‘apocryphilia’ as ‘an orientation, a desire towards text, specifically apocryphal text’. This desiring orientation imbues the relationships between the artist’s material process (of wax), his subjectivity as a queer body (of flesh) and his biography as a former Pentecostal student (of text) with palpable and compelling determination.

The exhibition’s six spaces formed a series of conceptual and escalating stages reminiscent of the stations of the cross. This journey began at street level with the earliest of Van Roden’s works: a set of nine paddles, each printed with the phrase ‘YOU TRAIN YOUR CHILD’. Inside the gallery, this work was followed by I AM A TEXT, a wall of digital and wax plate prints mounted on wooden panels. These hung opposite a video of Van Roden addressing the viewer in androgynous drag regalia, superimposed onto excerpts of text from The Second Book of Maccabees. Below the video, a plinth supported an open bible, the majority of its pages gutted. The third work, titled THE//WORD//BECOMES//FLESH, comprised nine text-scarred wax boards installed in grid formation, and projected with a video of the artist undulating in stark and distorted tonalities.

The exhibition culminated in the main space with its titular work. Here, a moving dual-form image of the artist was projected onto a fleshy disc of wax. Melted directly onto the surface of the gallery walls opposite were two competing and repeated statements: ‘NORMATIVITY IS THE CANONISATION OF THE BODY’ and ‘THE APOCRYPHISER WILL RIP THROUGH THE SEAMS OF THE EPISTEME’.

Declaring that his ‘queer body is always reading biblically’, Van Roden created with ‘Apocryphilia’ a relational space between the seemingly contradictory drives of his fundamentalist textual past and his re-territorialised queer present. In doing so, the artist affirmed his queerness as an apocryphal relation to heresy and the periphery, with wax becoming the binding yet fluid medium that names, unites and destabilises the divine word of God.

Carmen Ansaldo, Darwin

Pictures of transition: Contemporary paintings from Myanmar

Pictures of Transition: Contemporary Paintings from Myanmar , exhibition installation view, ANU School of Art & Design Gallery, Canberra, March 2019; photo: David Lindesay

Pictures of Transition: Contemporary Paintings from Myanmar, exhibition installation view, ANU School of Art & Design Gallery, Canberra, March 2019; photo: David Lindesay

Myanmar, though not as widely associated with contemporary art as neighbouring China, India and Thailand, has established a presence at international biennales, art fairs and auction houses following the dissolution of military rule in 2011 and easing of restrictions placed on artists, both in subject matter and access to global audiences. ‘Pictures of Transition: Contemporary Paintings from Myanmar’, an exhibition of 40 works by 23 artists presented at the ANU’s School of Art & Design Gallery in March, was a product of this shift and had the distinction of being the first public display of such work in Australia since the inauguration of Burmese democracy. The works chosen varied widely in style and content yet were given coherence by their arrangement into five themes: abstraction and individualism, urban life, rural life, sociopolitical life, and beliefs.

For most Australian viewers, the last two themes were likely most familiar, calling to mind Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and the country’s Buddhist temple architecture. Daw Suu (2016), a sensitive portrait by Zwe Yan Naing, fulfils the first expectation. What seems at first an expression of devotion is complicated, however, when closer inspection reveals a collage of postage stamps, transforming Aung San Suu Kyi into a symbol for a new nation united in diversity, and celebrating the freedom of communication brought by her election as State Counsellor in 2016. Yet the fracturing of the political leader’s face could also be read as a subtle allusion to the cracks that have started to appear in her public image as news of persistent human rights abuses continues to emerge from Myanmar.

Buddhist themes predominated further into the gallery, most clearly in Shine Lu’s The Buddha’s Face (2014), one of a series of canvases recreating past schools of Buddhist art, from ancient Indian Gandhara to the nineteenth-century Burmese Mandalay style. Like the faded protagonists of a timeworn temple mural, comparable Buddha images emerged from inscrutable drips and fields of colour in Htoo Aung Kyaw’s Narrative (2013) and Lola Hasta (2017), fusing the refined iconography of the Pyu and Bagan eras with an emotive response to the pressures of contemporary life.

More than recognisably Burmese subjects, it was this range and mastery of technique that proved most appealing in ‘Pictures of Transition’. The artists, ranging across generations, handled their materials with sensitivity and expressiveness. A dizzying array of drips, slashes, voluptuous strokes, ethereal washes and impasto outcroppings of paint carried viewers through an equally eclectic range of inspiration, leaving little doubt about the defining trait of contemporary art in Myanmar: its strident individuality after five decades of government repression.

For more information, see: https://issuu.com/anuschoolofartgallery/docs/pictures_of_transition_catalogue_fi

Alex Burchmore, Canberra

Collective fantasies: ‘The TV Show’ at Wollongong Art Gallery

The TV Show , exhibition installation view, Wollongong Art Gallery, 2019; photo: Document Photography

The TV Show, exhibition installation view, Wollongong Art Gallery, 2019; photo: Document Photography

When thinking about television, what we watch and how we watch are two things that consistently change. The recent exhibition ‘The TV Show’ at Wollongong Art Gallery curated by Daniel Mudie Cunningham (30 November 2018 to 24 February 2019) took television as a ubiquitous reference point and considered how it frames personal and collective experiences of the world. Including work by Liam Colgan, Sarah Contos, Amala Groom, Sara Morawetz, Liam O’Brien, Philjames, JD Reforma and Giselle Stanborough, it existed as a reflection of a particular moment. Themes of gender and social media, hierarchies of taste, nostalgia and narrative offered multiple entry points that relied on shared social coordinates. The next generation of digital natives may not share the same nostalgic references, but that’s not really the point.

Beneath the nostalgia running through the exhibition was the poignancy of deep and lasting affection – for the characters we remember and the times they mark. Contos presented Friends (2018), a hanging mobile of plush, stuffed shapes referencing journalists, TV characters and Jeanne Little. Coupled with Contos’s poetic artwork description, Friends captures the power of TV to epitomise a moment of hope, escape, ambivalence, aspiration and family turmoil.

The nostalgia invoked throughout the exhibition was also one of contested images and meanings. Groom’s single-channel video presented on multiple small monitors, Lest we...get over it (2017), cuts up and re-edits together archival footage of the bleatings of Australia’s media mainstream – politicians and shock jocks alike. Reforming their words of Australian, British and Anzac pride, assimilation and national unity, Groom’s video imagines a situation where the same kind of energy used to defend Australia’s colonial project is redirected to centralise indigeneity at the heart of the nation. The tricky-to-follow, choppy nature of the cuts imbues the powerfully satisfying narrative with anger and frustration; the affirming and accountable statements Groom draws together are a far cry from the rhetoric of Australian nationalism. Narrative restitching, selective memory and our relationships to dominant representations were multiple threads unifying ‘The TV Show’.

Part of the charm was its thematic pairing with Wollongong Art Gallery’s concurrent and adjacent exhibition ‘The Box in the Corner’ (30 November 2018 to 17 March 2019). Curated by Nigel Giles, it presented TV ephemera from 1956 to 1999, including TV guides, advertisements, costumes, signed headshots, stills and an ‘applause’ light box from the heyday of studio audiences. For all the difference between the two moments – the internet of the twenty-first century and analogue of the twentieth – these exhibitions fed off each other and reflected our collective fantasies around TV as social object and personal artefact. Both, in their own way, archived the impact of TV on our lives.

Paul Kelaita, Wollongong

Re-runs and re-enactments at the Perth Festival

David Noonan,  Untitled , 2019, installation view, ‘A Dark and Quiet Place’, Fremantle Arts Centre, 2019; Jacquard tapestry, stainless steel hanging system, 190 x 300cm; photo: Rebecca Mansell

David Noonan, Untitled, 2019, installation view, ‘A Dark and Quiet Place’, Fremantle Arts Centre, 2019; Jacquard tapestry, stainless steel hanging system, 190 x 300cm; photo: Rebecca Mansell

Thinking about the visual arts program at this year’s Perth Festival, I was struck by a peculiar and noteworthy pattern in its offerings. At the Fremantle Arts Centre (FAC, until 31 March), David Noonan’s sombre projection piece A Dark and Quiet Place (2017) is on its third showing, after earlier presentations in London and Melbourne. At the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (until 14 April), a large solo exhibition by Canadian artist Cassils was opened with a performance of Becoming an Image, first executed in Los Angeles in 2012. The show consists substantially of documentation from that and other previous performances. At John Curtin Gallery (until 18 April), a two-person show features Candice Breitz’s 2016 video work Love Story alongside Angelica Mesiti’s two-channel projection Mother Tongue (2017), both shown before in other festivals and exhibition formats. In 2019, the festival has become a venue for re-runs and re-enactments, whose presentation in this context is often incongruous or unconvincing.

Noonan’s contribution is exemplary in this regard. The show – given just two small rooms in FAC’s labyrinthine nineteenth-century building – takes its name from the headline work, a 28-minute sequence of slowly dissolving black-and-white found imagery. Quotation and iteration are the primary terms: A Dark and Quiet Place elaborates on themes from Noonan’s broader oeuvre, especially the suggestive, overlapping juxtaposition of images from different formal or thematic genera. Here they are theatrical performance and painterly abstraction; the work unfolds rather like a slide show, recording the debut of a frightening suprematist opera (Malevich’s 1913 designs for Victory over the Sun seem like an unavoidable reference point).

In a book produced to accompany the work, an essay by the Irish author Brian Dillon provides it with a kind of textual frame, but in most senses it comes to us rather bare, almost naked. The exhibition’s second room features several prints, but these tell us little about the artist’s project, and nothing about who he is speaking to. The curatorial contribution is remarkably limited – a short wall text, with the mere fact of the artist being internationally successful seeming to stand in for any sturdier notion of why this material matters and why it is here, in Perth, today. As with much of the festival’s visual arts program, there is the uncomfortable sense that all of this, like a hazy transmission from some distant star cluster, is shortly to end and leave us all suddenly, shockingly, alone again.

Christopher Barrett-Lennard, Perth

Maximising minimalism

Gerard Byrne,  A thing is a hole in a thing it is not , 2010, still; five-channel HD video projection, 2mins to 30mins duration; image courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery; © Gerard Byrne

Gerard Byrne, A thing is a hole in a thing it is not, 2010, still; five-channel HD video projection, 2mins to 30mins duration; image courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery; © Gerard Byrne

In Gerard Byrne’s five-channel video installation A thing is a hole in a thing it is not (2010), the Irish artist recreates several key moments in our generally accepted history of minimal art. There is a 1964 radio conversation between three of the New York art movement’s high priests, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd and Frank Stella, for example. And the cosmic 1951 drive by Tony Smith along the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike, illuminated only by his car lights, that was later mythologised in his famous 1966 interview in Artforum. That drive, he said, revealed to him a new way of seeing things in the world: ‘It seemed that there had been a reality there which had not had any expression in art.’ It was a reality that had to be reckoned with and experienced afresh.

Minimalism brought the art object into a new and direct relationship with the viewer, as if pulled out of the darkness and into intimate focus by the high beam of Smith’s car, and contemporary art was forever changed. But a new exhibition in Southeast Asia suggests that we may have been on the wrong road in our historical thinking about minimal art.

A project conversely and, perhaps ironically, maximal in scale, ‘Minimalism: Space. Light. Object’ spans two Singapore venues (the National Gallery and the ArtScience Museum) and around six decades of art, corralling some 70 international artists under the mantle of minimalism. It is an enormous and immaculately executed undertaking, drawing important works from far-flung collections, including many from Australian institutions (though not Malevich’s Black Square from the Hermitage; that’s been in Sydney), with the curatorial research deepened by a satisfyingly scholarly catalogue that lives up to Stella’s maxim of ‘what you see is what you see’. What can be gleaned from all of this is something as revelatory as Smith’s drive: a new understanding of the relationship between minimalism and Asian art.

Michael Fitzgerald, Singapore

For the full article, see Art Monthly’s forthcoming March 2019 issue.

Intimate illuminations: ‘Daughters of the Sun’ at Bendigo Art Gallery

Daughters of the Sun: Christian Waller and Klytie Pate , exhibition installation view, Bendigo Art Gallery, 2018–19; image courtesy Bendigo Art Gallery

Daughters of the Sun: Christian Waller and Klytie Pate, exhibition installation view, Bendigo Art Gallery, 2018–19; image courtesy Bendigo Art Gallery

The recent two-artist exhibition ‘Daughters of the Sun’ (10 November 2018 – 10 February 2019) explored the close relationship between the printmaker Christian Waller (1894–1954) and her niece, the ceramicist Klytie Pate (1912–2010), one of Australia’s most significant potters. Waller had a strong influence on the practice of Pate, who she and her husband Napier helped raise at their arts and crafts-style home at Fairy Hills in Melbourne. Both artists shared a deep spirituality that underpinned their work and practice, and the exhibition noted their mutual interest in astrology, mythology, theosophy and the occult.

Showcased in ‘Daughters of the Sun’ was Waller’s belief in all-encompassing design, featuring a small selection of works from her broader oeuvre that included illustration, painting, printmaking, mosaic and stained glass (for which the artist was especially revered). Indeed, the exhibition provided visitors the rare opportunity to glimpse her designs in-depth. The round window Untitled (Angus Og and Caer Ormaith) (c. 1930s), created for the musician and close friend Hilda Meadows, was displayed backlit to illuminate the vibrant colours. When viewed up-close, the intricate handpainted daisies, stars and halo of swallows surrounding the lovers were revealed.

The centrepiece of the exhibition was Waller’s artist book of seven original linocuts, The Great Breath (1932), which explores the seven theosophical stages of human evolution through intricate symbolic designs. These small yet powerful prints were displayed in a special freestanding room accompanied by three of Waller’s original linocut plates that emphasised the great skill of the artist.

The main exhibition room included a remarkable display of Pate’s vibrant viridian green earthenware, showcasing the rich colour plays and innovative glazes that she became renowned for. The surfaces of these vessels are incised with elaborate art deco designs that recall the drama of theatre but are grounded in Pate’s theosophical beliefs and connection to nature.

Sensitively curated by Emma Busowsky Cox, ‘Daughters of the Sun’ celebrated the life and work of Waller and Pate through an intimate retelling, bringing these important female artists to the fore.

Rebecca Blake is currently Critic-in-Residence at ANCA, Canberra, in a special project partnership with Art Monthly Australasia.

Coming together: ‘Termasuk: Contemporary Art from Indonesia’ at Darren Knight Gallery

Termasuk: Contemporary Art from Indonesia , exhibition installation view, Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney, 19 January – 16 February 2019, with the works of Setu Legi and Mohamad ‘Ucup’ Yusuf; image courtesy the artists and Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney

Termasuk: Contemporary Art from Indonesia, exhibition installation view, Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney, 19 January – 16 February 2019, with the works of Setu Legi and Mohamad ‘Ucup’ Yusuf; image courtesy the artists and Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney

The Bahasa Indonesia word ‘Termasuk’ refers to inclusiveness or togetherness. This exhibition at Sydney’s Darren Knight Gallery (until 16 February), curated by art adviser and collector John Cruthers and the cross-cultural networking organisation Indo Art Link (led by Lauren Parker with Melissa Burnet Rice), has a deliberately broad remit which is brought together neatly in its title, exploring ideas of belonging, both personal and political, within this diverse country of 265 million people.

There is a variety of media across the 12 participating artists, including drawing, painting, printmaking, textiles, ceramics and installation. However, these emerging and mid-career practitioners working in Jakarta, Bandung, Yogyakarta and Bali share a refinement of the hand and a conceptual confidence which combine to produce nuanced, beautiful works encouraging slow and considered appreciation.

Mohamad ‘Ucup’ Yusuf’s reduction woodblock prints feature impossibly dense scenes containing pop and traditional cultural references surrounding the imposing visage of a Javanese bride. Fika Ria Santika employs alternately delicate and robust found and industrial materials such as felt and chiffon, resin and beads, creating abstract sculptural reliefs which evoke organisms and landscapes. Surya Wirawan’s richly detailed comic strips, executed in aquarelle and coloured pencil, wittily narrate encounters within the art world and beyond, while Maharani Mancanagara explores Indonesia’s history of exiled political prisoners as an allegorical tale using wooden toy-like objects and a storybook.

‘Termasuk’ also serves as a reminder of the significant role that art collectors and commercial galleries can play in the art ecosystem and, more broadly, in cultural exchange. The exhibition was put together dynamically and responsively during 2018 and realised with professionalism and rigour – each artist is introduced via a suite of recent works, public programs include a presentation on the history of contemporary Indonesian art by academic Brigitta Isabella and a panel discussion on collecting Indonesian art, and the show is accompanied by a catalogue including a foreword by Aaron Seeto, Director of Museum MACAN, Jakarta.

With Indonesian art forming the focus of recent and forthcoming shows in several major Australian art institutions, ‘Termasuk’ makes for a timely and exciting introduction to the world of contemporary Indonesian art and provides important insight into our near neighbour.

Chloé Wolifson, Sydney

Transporting delight: The 14th Cuenca Biennial

Cecilia López,  Red , 2018, installation view, Museo del Monasterio de las Conceptas, 14th Cuenca Biennial, 2018; audio cables, double basses, stereo; photo: Natalia Ottolenghi Bradshaw

Cecilia López, Red, 2018, installation view, Museo del Monasterio de las Conceptas, 14th Cuenca Biennial, 2018; audio cables, double basses, stereo; photo: Natalia Ottolenghi Bradshaw

How refreshing to attend an art biennale that isn’t an identikit model of international art events. In Ecuador, the Cuenca Biennial is one of the world’s oldest-running such surveys, and one that is consistently original and arresting – with the current fourteenth iteration (until 3 February) not disappointing.

Aptly reflecting the region, the Cuenca Biennial focuses primarily on Latin American art, and miraculously – given a total budget of less than US$1million – includes significant works by major international artists.

As previous director of the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation in Miami, Venezuelan-born Chief Curator Jesus Fuenmayor is one of Latin America’s leading art figures, and he here delivers a biennial that is thoughtful, unique and exciting – no opening week parties and public programs required.

Thankfully the artworks escape the pretension of the edition’s title ‘Living Structures. Art as a plural experience’. In total, 53 artists have work displayed at 24 sites across Cuenca – some of them the most charming venues imaginable. For example, works by Patricia Dauder, Cecilia López and Juliana Vidal are set in the sixteenth-century Museo del Monasterio de las Conceptas. As DJ, López provides an outstanding example of site-spedificity with Red’s audio cables and musical instruments creating a memorable transportation in what once served as a crypt. Vidal’s work won the prestigious ‘Premio Paris’ residency prize for her sublime Geographies of Mortality (2018) – 123 seemingly simple plaster casts that embed the walls of a former nun’s study.

Though both continents straddle the Pacific Ocean, it is surprising that there is not more dialogue between Australia and Latin America. This significant biennial art event, in one of the world’s most fascinating university cities with such a rich melding of Inca and colonial histories, has the potential to attract far wider audiences.

Natalia Ottolenghi Bradshaw, Cuenca

Border anxiety: The 12th Gwangju Biennale

Chen Wei,  New City/History of Enchantment – Tunnel , 2010–18, mixed-media installation: neon lights, inkjet prints, light box, LED display module, prints, dimensions variable; image courtesy the artist and ShanghART Gallery, Beijing, Singapore and Shanghai

Chen Wei, New City/History of Enchantment – Tunnel, 2010–18, mixed-media installation: neon lights, inkjet prints, light box, LED display module, prints, dimensions variable; image courtesy the artist and ShanghART Gallery, Beijing, Singapore and Shanghai

With around 236 biennales held around the world, there are few perennial exhibitions that carry the same global resonance and clout as South Korea’s Gwangju Biennale. For its recent twelfth edition (which ran from 7 September until 11 November 2018), the biennale abandoned the traditional single artistic director model and, instead, wove together the contributions of 11 local and international curators across seven exhibitions and four site-specific commissions and 153 artists.

This edition’s theme, ‘Imagined Borders’, drew on political scientist Benedict Anderson’s 1983 book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, and also alluded to the inaugural 1995 Gwangju Biennale ‘Beyond the Borders’. With South Korea’s own recent political turmoil surrounding former president Park Geun-hye’s arrest, Anderson’s ideas of how communities form and interact with systems of capitalism, the media and opposing communities – along with an appreciation of the biennale’s own 23-year history – served as an intriguing open proposition.

Within the Biennale Exhibition Hall, the curators each empowered a selection of artists who imparted nuance to global news and national narratives. Curator Clara Kim’s ‘Imagined Nations/Modern Utopias’ conjured a cohesive exposition of nation-building through the optics of modernist architecture in her striking exhibition. A highlight was Tanya Goel’s Carbon (frequencies on x-y axis) (2017), in which the artist reconfigured building remnants from her native New Delhi into a mud-map that portrays the city’s rapid urbanisation.

Gridthiya Gaweewong’s exhibition of 50-plus screens explored notions of migration and geopolitics focusing on Southeast Asia. Drawing on veterans including Agnieszka Kalinowska, Dinh Q. Lê and Ho Tzu Nyen, she presented a successive string of short films that collapsed fact into fiction to create haunting enquiries into the multiple registers in which borders operate.

David Teh’s Gwangju Biennale history archive/anti-archive project ‘Returns’ memorably collaged together a series of performances and artist interventions, including those by Australians Brian Fuata, Agatha Gothe-Snape and Tom Nicholson, into a ‘walk-in magazine’ that posed questions about biennales, contemporary art and the history of Gwangju itself.

As with many biennales, the curators of the Asia Cultural Center venue were occasionally guilty of overreaching in their determination to shoehorn ideas, geographies and aesthetics into the biennale’s thematic. Good artists operate on multiple registers and this does not necessarily lend itself to a specific curatorial framework. Nevertheless, glorious moments could be found. For instance, Chen Wei’s New City/History of Enchantment – Tunnel (2010–18) offered a large tableau of neon-lit evening streetscapes of the burgeoning Chinese nightclub culture, drawing commentary on accepted social practices and changing realities for China’s youth.

Despite these occasional moments of disparate exhibition-making, ‘Imagined Borders’ was rich with determined globalism. Each exhibition served as a paragraph in a larger polemic that spoke to the porous borders of democracy and what this means – and more importantly – what this can mean in our increasingly Balkanised age. In the current context of vertiginous political, social, economic and artistic change, the opportunity to explore this proposition was alone worth the visit.

Micheal Do, Gwangju

Syncretic thinking: ‘Manifesta 12’ in Palermo

Patricia Kaersenhout,  The Soul of Salt , 2016, installation view, Palazzo Forcella De Seta, Palermo, June 2018; photo: En Young Ahn

Patricia Kaersenhout, The Soul of Salt, 2016, installation view, Palazzo Forcella De Seta, Palermo, June 2018; photo: En Young Ahn

Under the title of ‘The Planetary Garden: Cultivating Coexistence’, the most recent iteration of the European nomadic biennial, ‘Manifesta 12’ attempted to cultivate a model for the harmonising of diverse identities with different cultural and historical roots – as if going against the tide of the current polarising politics in Europe, the United States and elsewhere. To this end, a curatorial team of four ‘creative mediators’ (a journalist and filmmaker, two architects and a curator) linked a metaphor of the planetary garden with the Sicilian cultural syncretism inherent in the history of Palermo. In addition, the biennial also tried to address many current issues, ranging from migration by sea, climate change and rapidly increasing economic inequalities to Artificial Intelligence technologies.

A highlight of ‘Manifesta 12’, which ran from 16 June until 4 November, was Patricia Kaersenhout’s The Soul of Salt (2016), housed in the Moorish Palazzo Forcella De Seta with its mosaic-covered walls and colourful inlaid marble floors. Referencing a legend among Caribbean slaves that eating salt prevented them from becoming lighter and flying back to Africa, the installation of a mountain of salt by this Dutch artist with Surinamese heritage sought to show the connection between the past slave trade across the ocean and the current refugee crisis. Visitors could take a bag of salt home to dissolve in water, thereby symbolically diffusing the pain of the past. For this reviewer, however, the taste of the Sicilian salt was reminiscent of the migration of Sicilians, who worked naked in the hazardous sulphur-salt mines, to Australia and elsewhere.

The best part of ‘Manifesta 12’ was an exploration of Palermo, especially its fascinating and richly multilayered architectural history, encountered in the process of locating the main exhibits and collateral programs, spread out across the entire city, taking in a variety of venues: Arab-Norman churches, the crumbling yet magnificent Renaissance palazzi, neoclassical theatres, fascist-era buildings and the modernist concrete social housing estates.

The complexity of the multicultural influences in the Sicilian capital today was summarised in Marinella Senatore’s Palermo Procession (2018). The festive performance of over 300 volunteers from all walks of life paraded through the historical city centre, adding a growing number of audience members and onlookers as it went along. It evidenced the nomadic biennial’s meaningful engagement with its host city and its inhabitants.

En Young Ahn, Palermo