Primavera 2018, Museum of Contemporary Art
by Emma-Kate Wilson
Given that the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) claims that ‘the eight artists explore the politics of identity, visibility and representation’, diversity seems to be at the forefront for Primavera 2018 curator Megan Robson.(1) This was reinforced by contributing artist Caroline Garcia, who has said that these exhibitions are “largely representative of diversity (a white word), spaces to share stories, histories and politics”.(2) In an exhibition by a predominantly white curatorial team, leadership team and board, and for a predominantly white audience, this focus brings with it questions around tokenism and voyeurism. The lack of representation of people of colour across the three management teams suggests it is time for a significant shakeup. There is a need for exhibitions like Primavera, but the real key to disrupting and dismantling the colonial art canon is visibility, and not just on the gallery walls or floors. So how do contemporary artists navigate this complex web of diversity and multiculturalism? This response looks at the artworks in Primavera 2018 and their representation of Australian identities.
Installation dominates the floor space in Primavera. Phuong Ngo’s Vietnam Archive Project (2010 - ongoing) and Spence Messih’s CONFECT (2018), CONJURE (2018), and RE-RE-RE (2018) activate sizeable spaces within the gallery. Ngo presents a living repository comprising over five thousand items; tassels, antique furniture, and photographs collected as an act in acquiring and curating found histories and memories that have come to define the artist’s identity and that of the wider Vietnamese Diaspora that has emerged since the fall of Saigon in 1975. Messih’s minimalist structures, made from steel, sand, and glass, create tension and divide the room. The sculptures and accompanying text unobtrusively seek to challenge primary values and deliberate the construction of a new trans-identity. The third installation takes place in the back of the space; Jason Phu’s The 5th Reincarnation of Sam Poo, Infamous Bushranger and the Mustard Horde: The Last Story (2018). Here, Phu plays with forgotten narratives in a retelling of Australian figures, with his famed comic devices set in a classic Aussie pub in Sydney. Phu and Ngo use portraits to represent ways of identifying ourselves within the contemporary Australian art vernacular.
Ryan Presley’s series Blood Money (2010-18) similarly uses the face to explore the politics of power. On bank notes, Presley immortalises figures in Australian history that have been ignored and forgotten by popular media: Bebulwoyan, Fanny Balnuk Tooreel, Fanny Cochrane Smith, and Dundalli. Nearby, Hayley Millar-Baker’s A Series of Unwarranted Events (2018) harnesses postcolonial narrative, her photographs telling the horrific stories of systematic murder by white colonisers of the Gunditjmara people in western Victoria and using oral history and layers hundreds of photographs to reveal the “Eumeralla War” (1854-1849). Another narrative is revealed in Andrew Tension’s subdued photographs. In Let Me Imagine You (2017 - ongoing) and Found Negative (circa 1933 - 1945, reproduced in 2017), Tension assembles the story of a German migrant, highlighting the significant effect of migration in this country.
Drawing on a collective identity is key to creating a true representation of place, and can reveal grand narratives of contemporary communities. But, what is the impact of individual identities on the greater narrative? Exhibitions like Primavera rely heavily on the voices of its artists. Yet until we see the dismantling of established white structures that surround these exhibitions, visibility and representation cannot hold as much power.
Primavera 2018, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney
Conversation with the author