For Primavera, Emerging Australian Artists Propose New Paths
On the shores of Gadigal Country/Sydney, six emerging artists—Tiyan Baker, Christopher Bassi, Moorina Bonini, Nikki Lam, Sarah Poulgrain, and Truc Truong—highlight the inequalities, compromises, and complexities of the world today through their engagement with alternate models for living and working.
Exhibition view: Primavera 2023: Young Australian Artists, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney (8 September 2023–4 February 2024). Courtesy © the artists. Photo: Zan Wimberley.
Staged at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA), Primavera 2023: Young Australian Artists (8 September 2023–4 February 2024) is curated by Aotearoa/New Zealand-born, Sydney-based artist and curator Talia Smith.
The annual exhibition, now in its 32nd year, was initiated in 1992 by MCA in collaboration with the Jackson family and offers early-career artists (aged 35 and under) a ground for experimentation in a major institution. Many Primavera debuts have gone on to become established artists, including Mikala Dwyer, Shaun Gladwell, Agatha Gothe-Snape, Danie Mellor, Nell, Abdul Abdullah, and Hoda Afshar.
The gestation of Smith's exhibition occurred during Covid-19 lockdowns when institutions of power such as the health system, police, and government were challenged and often compromised in their purpose to protect. In each artist's work there is a crossing over of influences, experiences, and genres as they contemplate how complicated histories and their own social and cultural contexts contribute to their practice.
Smith said, 'What brings these artists together is the way they reckon with the perils of history, education, culture, and language to question authoritative structures and systems. They assert that there is more than one way of living and offer impressions of how it might look.'
According to Smith, Naarm/Melbourne-based artist Moorina Bonini's work 'opens and grounds the show'. Bonini, who is a descendant of the Yorta Yorta, Wurundjeri, and Wiradjuri peoples, speaks to the power of the museum, where Indigenous cultural and art materials are collected, catalogued, and stored.
For Place Marks (2023), the artist has burned patterns onto the exteriors of museum archival storage boxes and captured these as a series of photographs in the exhibition catalogue.
Complementing this is Bonini's dapalama (between) (2023), a series of large vinyl text statements interspersed throughout the gallery. The line, 'This is an Indigenous mark' runs along one wall, while the sentence 'You can only replace a structure if you know how it created itself' scales a column vertically and continues across the ceiling. Sitting side by side with other artists' works, Bonini's statements provoke a conversation and challenge museum practice.
Vietnamese-Australian artist Truc Truong, who is based on Peramangk and Kaurna Country, Adelaide, catches viewer attention with her work, I Pray You Eat Cake (2023). The chaotic, colourful installation resembles a teenager's bedroom, littered with junk-food packaging, trinkets, toy ponies, clothing, and soft toys.
However, as Smith said, '[Truong] draws you in with frivolity and humour then sucker-punches you with her rage about what it means to be a good migrant.'
Upon a closer look, also visible are religious icons, looped pig intestines transformed into festive Lunar New Year decorations, and a costume horse head stuffed atop the titular crudely decorated multi-tier cake. A large Pink Panther soft toy wearing fake Chanel pyjamas sits dejectedly alone to the side. It's all too much, the artist seems to suggest.
For Meanjin/Brisbane-based artist Sarah Poulgrain, their practice is an opportunity to collaborate and engage with communities while learning and imparting new skills. For previous projects, they have taught weaving, welding, chair making, hat making, and aluminium casting, culminating in exhibitions that explore these forays.
For Primavera, Poulgrain exhibits Learning to how to build a houseboat: walls, fixings and rope (2023), a long-term collaborative project that responds to the current affordable housing crisis in Australian cities. Poulgrain's multimedia installation comprises plans for the houseboat, as well as components for the boat including a paper-pulp wall, aluminium framing, and ceramic tiling and fixtures for the bathroom. A pair of videos documents the process of learning to make these components and a workshop on blackwater.
Also based in Meanjin/Brisbane, Christopher Bassi, of Meriam, Yupungathi, and British descent, shows Monuments to the South/West Waters of a Great Ocean (2023). In this series of nine oil paintings, Bassi monumentalises shells of Far North Queensland and the Torres Strait in the European tradition of representational portraiture.
In Monuments to the South/West Waters of a Great Ocean, Bassi restores the value of cultural items that have been co-opted historically as objects for museum display and, more recently, devalued by tourism. In choosing to paint shells in a mode traditionally reserved for notable subjects and people, Bassi foregrounds their significance. In doing so, Smith says, Bassi creates 'an alternate art history that speaks to the culture of the artist'.
In the unshakable destiny_2101 (2021), a video installation by Naarm/Melbourne-based, Hong Kong-born artist Nikki Lam, the artist references a phrase from the 1997 handover speech of Chris Pattern, the last British governor of Hong Kong. It is presented along with the eight-minute digital animation, The Unshakeable Destiny: Release (2023), which Lam views as a bridge between the first and second parts of her trilogy.
Both works are glimpsed through a horizontal, elongated window set in a plywood wall. When entering the adjoining darkened space, the viewer becomes part of a film-set display of wallpaper and stools resembling those from Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love (2000), the cult romance film set in 1960s Hong Kong.
In the unshakable destiny_2101 (2021), the protagonist is caught between past, present, and future Hong Kong, opening a space to explore themes around identity, history, and activism.
Malaysian Bidayǔh-Anglo Australian artist Tiyan Baker, who is based in Mulubinba/Newcastle, contributes Personal computer: ramin ntaangan (2022–2023), a miniature construction of a baruk, the communal traditional longhouse on stilts found in the artist's Indigenous Bidayǔh community, which have largely been replaced by Western-style individual dwellings through colonisation.
Housing the artist's custom-built computer hard drive and a monitor with a spinning crocodile graphic displayed on screen, Personal computer: ramin ntaangan acknowledges technology's role in keeping the artist in touch with her family, but, ultimately, it is a metaphor for the hard drive of culture, which is the real support system.
Primavera 2023 brings contemporary life into the gallery space, offering perspectives from an inventive, activist generation of artists thinking about how to make a fractured world more inclusive and functional. —[O]