Imaginary Bang is an approximately monthly column about art shows.
Circular Quay is heavy with tourists hankering for their snap in front of the white crests of the Opera House, around the harbour huddle souvenir shops selling boomerangs and didgeridoos and plush koala bears, two aboriginal men with white clay faces dressed in their traditional garb play instruments and take selfies with fanny-packed tourists for cash and card donations. On the other side of the quay, Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), a stripped classical building of a modest size holds artworks which try to tell the story of modern Australia. Inside its tall glass doors, the annual Primavera exhibition enters its 32nd year. On holiday in Sydney last month, I was feeling myself towards an understanding of the southern land, a place which was in many ways very alien to me. The exhibition was a useful introduction.
The room overlooking the harbour, was relatively small, with few works in it. Being a group show the themes, styles and mediums were diverse though there was a rather broad question linking them together, the young artists were searching for Australia. The questions posed by the country, it seemed, were ones of: post-coloniality, modern ethnic identity, multiculturalism and climate. From the artists, one received fragments of answers, reflections of feelings. But the rest of the picture you were left to figure out for yourself, and that is perhaps the best you can hope for, given the vastness of the question and the land.
I‘d been reading Praiseworthy by Alexis Wright for a month or so. The 700 page tome makes an ambitious bid to capture Australia’s present and future. The novel centres on Planet (also known by many other names) who looks to save the town Praiseworthy through his donkey transport scheme. For Wright the questions of the day centre around aboriginal survival. Primavera’s Moorina Bonini presented a text-based art work dapalama (2023) which focused on aboriginal Australia. She printed lines of poetry on and up the walls of the tennis-court-sized room. The work read:
Bamunga / Feel (to) / With my hands
Mirramna / Look (to) / With my eyes
Bunyma / Make (to) / With my bawu (body)
Angurram / Be (to) / A winyarr (Aboriginal woman)
The institution is a vessel / A transient empty / Structure
You can replace a structure if you know how it created itself
*Dashes indicate spacing/stanzas and are my own. See Figure 1.
I didn’t find dapalama particularly striking, much bolder language would have been required to make a statement in the rather limited and competitive space it occupied, it was important nevertheless that the presence of aboriginal Australia be felt. It is of course central to who Australia is and has been. Everywhere the Australian and Aboriginal flags fly side by side, and land acknowledgements litter the pavements, and everywhere there is unease, as the post-colonial project rattles on along its long and tiresome way.
Figure 1: Moorina Bonini, dapalama (2023)
Figure 2: Truc Truong, I Pray You Eat Cake (2023)
My favourite piece at Primavera was I Pray You Eat Cake by Truc Truong (Figure 2). It was a spinning wheel of cultural detritus; what you might find if Sydney’s King’s Cross threw up on itself: KFC, Barbie, Chinese lanterns, Chinese dragon, Supreme, Jesus, Marge Simpson. It spoke to the mix of Anglo-American and Asian culture fomenting in Sydney: Tai chi in Belmore Park, banh mi for lunch and pad see ew for dinner, it has become somewhat of an unfair cliché to see older white Australian men remarrying later in life with younger Asian women. The status of aboriginal people is not the only contemporary racial question. With the death of the White Australia Policy 50 years ago waves of migration from nearish (for nothing is truly near) neighbours in Asia, have made for thriving Asian-Australian communities. Australia, a white nation, in a decidedly non-white part of the world reckons with a burgeoning multiracial identity.
Figure 3: Sarah Poulgrain, Learning how to build a houseboat: walls, fixings, and rope (2023)
In Wright’s Praiseworthy, climate disaster takes the form of an enormous dust cloud which has planted itself over the town, within the cloud it is unbearably hot and humid and the inhabitants suffer respiratory illnesses as a result. Australia is getting hotter and the weather is more volatile: El Niño is becoming petulant, La Niña is sour-faced, bush fires barbecue koala populations, flooding is increasingly a problem, in Western portions of Sydney residents pass out from the heat. In her work Learning how to build a houseboat: walls, fixings, and rope (2023), Sarah Poulgrain prepares for the Deluge (Figure 3). In her multimedia piece, she and her collaborators build a houseboat to act as an artist-run community space. Poulgrain’s addition to Primavera 2023, builds out my picture of the doughnut country, whose major cities cling to the water nervous of the vast arid lands which lie between them but who with recent changing weather patterns must be equally wary of the waters which keep them safe. Poulgrain’s video work is accompanied by preparatory sketches and a script where a writer friend talks about skill-sharing, community, and escaping the flood (Figure 4).
There are many artists who I have not mentioned and will not here given time and space. All of the group however provided thoughtful and inventive interventions that I appreciated even when I found that I did not understand. I felt lucky to catch Primavera 2023, Australia was coming into focus.
i. YouTube video of a press conference given by the Liberal Party, Australia’s conservative Party and current oppositional party. They are one part of Australia’s soft two party system, the other party being the Labor Party. The Labor Party proposed the Voice referendum in hopes to improve policy making and Aboriginal outcomes, the Liberal Party opposed it. The Liberal Party however did not argue that action was not needed to improve outcomes for Aboriginal people.
ABCNews [YouTube Channel] “IN FULL: Peter Dutton confirms the Liberal Party will oppose the Voice to Parliament | ABC News” https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=eL5dEa7GqXg&pp=ygUUUGV0ZXIgZHV0dG9uIHZvdGUgbm8%3D