December 31, 2018
“People only really notice things when they can recognise them. Everything else ferments in the cracks, anxiously awaiting the future.” This is a tiny fragment from a poetic text, typed out on a piece of paper and left quietly on the floor of the Primavera 2018: Young Australian Artists exhibition (Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, until February 3, 2019). The text, written by participating artist Spence Messih, lies next to three of their sculptures – CONFECT, CONJURE and RE-RE-RE- (all 2018) – which rise up as obstacles from the middle of the gallery. These purple steel creations amalgamate the abstract forms of walls, gates, doors, barriers, ceilings; things we use to keep people out, or control the flow of people in, or to contain.
Messih’s work draws attention to the physical and social structures that have excluded particular bodies – in this case trans bodies – from various spaces and histories. The rest of the artist’s text speaks of structures forming and unravelling, of fluidity – of the limits of language and being lost in systems of meaning that weren’t built for you.
Now in its 27th year, Primavera is an annual MCA exhibition that showcases the practices of artists under 35. For many, it’s an initial foray into a collecting art institution with substantial cultural capital. It can propel a young artist’s career forward by getting their work in front of a broad audience. The curator of the exhibition changes every year: sometimes it’s an external curator; this year it’s MCA’s assistant curator, Megan Robson.
In the year leading up to Primavera 2018, Robson undertook scores of studio visits around Australia, meeting with young contemporary artists to get a sense of their practice and their concerns. From there she drew on eight artists to create this exhibition. In this way it’s quite reactive, Robson tells me, to the ideas and practices at the forefront of the up-and-coming generation of artists. The participants are first chosen, and then an overarching theme is developed to tie them together.
This year, the artists – Hoda Afshar, Caroline Garcia, Hayley Millar-Baker, Spence Messih, Phuong Ngo, Jason Phu, Ryan Presley and Andrew Tenison – are brought together around the theme, “Why is identity important today?” The exhibition is indicative of a groundswell of artists who are playing with a range of ideas and concepts at a time when debates about gender, race, colonisation, migration and the like have hit a peak.
On entering, one encounters Phuong Ngo’s Colony (2017): hanging from the room is a cluster of found black-and-white photographs, suspended on individual red fibres at different heights, red tassels coming hanging below them. The ends come down and all touch a domestic table. The photographs, which Ngo has collected, are of Vietnamese people dating from between the French colonial period and the Vietnam War. Over each person’s eyes is plastered a postage stamp emblazoned with the word “Indochine” and the face of a 17th-century French Jesuit missionary who worked in Vietnam. Everyone pictured is blinded by it.
Ngo is interested in how people inherit long histories before them, how it affects our understanding of ourselves, and how it resonates in the present day. Behind this installation is a series of photos of Ngo’s family across generations, leading up to the point where both his parents and his brother fled to Australia as refugees. This is part of Ngo’s Vietnam Archive Project(2010–), where he has collected some 20,000 items including slides, photos, film reels and objects. The items in the archive are found histories and memories that define Ngo’s identity, and that of the wider Vietnamese diaspora that emerged after the fall of Saigon in 1975. It’s a piecing together of lost fragments to make sense of history and one’s place in it.
This sense of engaging with buried histories, narratives and stories continues throughout the exhibition. In other works, it points to the limits of images and narratives produced by the dominant culture about those from outside of it.
Hoda Afshar’s Remain (2018) is a two-channel, 24-minute video piece made in collaboration with a group of men who remain trapped on Manus Island following the 2017 closure of the Manus Regional Processing Centre. With Behrouz Boochani – the well-known Kurdish writer who has been imprisoned on Manus Island since 2013 – working as the associate producer, Afshar’s work seeks to destabilise the dynamic of documentary filmmaking that demands refugees re-enact their misery for the camera, behind bars and criminalised.
It’s powerful. The men involved are filmed in the lush surrounds of Manus Island – a green Eden with beaches. In this landscape they stare defiantly at the camera and tell their stories: about what’s been done to them and the people who have died. “We’ve been hidden from the world,” says one. The stories they recount and the jarring tropical backdrop make it seem all the more unreal that these actions have been carried out in our name.
Alongside this work is Hayley Millar-Baker’s A Series of Unwarranted Events(2018). A Gunditmjara artist originally trained as a painter, Millar-Baker brings a painterly sense of composition to a digital assemblage and photographic practice. From thousands of images, Millar-Baker creates proto-graphic works that tell stories of her ancestral country around Portland, Victoria. In one image, a whale lies beached on the sand in front of a composition of clouds reminiscent of a 19th-century European landscape painting – the work is a reference to a massacre of Gunditmjara people by European whalers in 1833. In another, an assemblage of basalt stone walls is turned into a mountain, with a church on top – it speaks to the stories of the Lake Condah Mission Station of the late 1800s. Millar-Baker uses her practice as a poetic way to highlight stories that would otherwise have faded from colonial records.
Ryan Presley’s series, Blood Money (2018), replaces the colonial figures usually found on Australian banknotes with portraits of significant First Nation people. In large watercolour works on paper, Presley embeds people’s stories and achievements onto banknotes as a way to “broadcast and promote” a history of people who are usually written out of colonial history.
The name Blood Money is significant, insofar as it highlights the fact that colonial wealth has been built off the back of the labour, lands, culture and lives of Indigenous Australians, while simultaneously writing a history with colonial figures centred as heroes. During the Sydney Festival in January, Presley will stage his performance Blood Money Currency Exchange Terminal, where visitors can exchange legal tender for “Blood Money Dollars” – banknote-sized prints of Presley’s work. The money raised will go to Aboriginal youth organisations.
Across from this work is Jason Phu’s The 5th Reincarnation of Sam Poo, Infamous Bushranger and the Mustard Horde: The Last Stand (2018). In this diorama-like installation, Phu enacts an imagined history of Sam Poo, a near forgotten and little-known Chinese Bushranger, hanged in Bathurst in 1865 for killing a white police constable. According to historians, Poo has been neglected by history because of his race. “We still celebrate white men behaving badly in Australia, so if we’re gonna celebrate Ned Kelly then we might as well celebrate Sam Poo,” says Phu of the work.
In the installation Phu has created a hilarious jade suit of armour reminiscent of Ned Kelly’s, and a group of Phu’s Asian-Australian friends and family are shown enacting a shootout at an inner-Sydney bowls club. Poet Omar Musa is wearing a pirate hat with a gold sequinned vest, artist Abdul Abdullah sports a tiger-print cap, and artist Zoe Wong plays pool while wearing a makeshift samurai outfit.
Andrew Tenison’s Let Me Imagine You (2017) features a photographic series based on an image of a German Luftwaffe soldier that the artist found in a Canberra second-hand shop. Tenison knew nothing about the man, yet the artist has created what could be the man’s life. Through research the artist discovered the history of German nationals who migrated to Australia, and through staged photographs he creates images that could tell a story of a German soldier moving to Australia. Tenison blends fact and fiction to think about the way we create narratives and histories through archival material – of filling in the gaps ourselves – and the way we often accept the veracity of archival photographs in an institutional setting.
Caroline Garcia inserts herself into histories too. In one video work, Primitive Nostalgia (2014), she has made a montage of various dance sequences of “exotic” cultures in Hollywood movies. Garcia, a dancer too, greenscreens herself in full costume into or onto these sequences. She transitions from one to the next, unravelling ham-fisted constructions of non-Western cultures that were made for white consumption. In another video work, Imperial Reminiscence (2018), she inserts herself into scenes of “whitewashing”, where white actors in full “brown face” make up take on the roles of an “exotic” other. In this way Garcia draws attention to how the stories, cultures and subjectivity of the orientalised figure in Western cinema has a long history of being erased.
The works at Primavera 2018 deeply engage with a contemporary moment where we are reckoning with a history and a present built on power and inequality, that defines our understanding of each other and how we see ourselves. In bringing the question “Why is identity important today?” to the works of these artists, it becomes clear that identity and power have been issues bubbling under the surface for some time, insofar as there are structures within our society that consistently determine the limits of how those outside of a dominant culture move through the world. Taken together, the practices of the Primavera 2018 artists ask the audience to consider the fractured pasts that are coming to bear on our present, and raise complex questions about the dominant political and cultural constructions of who we are.
Andy Butler is a Melbourne writer, curator and artist.