Australia. Antipodean Stories

‘AUSTRALIA. ANTIPODEAN STORIES’ at Milan’s Padiglione d'Arte Contemporanea (PAC) is the largest exhibition of contemporary Australian art to be presented outside Australia. Featuring the work of thirty-two artists from different generations, cultural backgrounds and stages in their careers, the major exhibition explores the connections and chasms between international cultures.

New and recent painting, performance, sculpture, video, drawing, photography and installations – including works made specifically for the show – map a metaphorical journey through the multicultural landscape of Australian contemporary art. Cultural identity pervades the presentation, with artists influenced by their individual and collective histories, experiences, languages, ethnicity, religions and traditions – from Aboriginal and Islander cultures, to those of European, Pacific, Asian and American descent.

Curated by Eugenio Viola and Judith Blackall, the exhibition traverses a vast spectrum of artistic practices communicating cultural, historical, political and social perspectives orbiting the Australian context. Artists reveal the ways in which Australia is unique – geographically opposite, or ‘the antipodes’ to the northern hemisphere – yet how it also pulses with profoundly universal experiences.

The exhibiting artists are: Vernon Ah Kee, Tony Albert, Khadim Ali, Brook Andrew, Richard Bell, Daniel Boyd, Maria Fernanda Cardoso, Barbara Cleveland, Destiny Deacon, Hayden Fowler, Marco Fusinato, Agatha Gothe-Snape, Julie Gough, Fiona Hall, Dale Harding, Nicholas Mangan, Angelica Mesiti, Archie Moore, Callum Morton, Tom Nicholson (with Greg Lehman), Jill Orr, Mike Parr, Patricia Piccinini, Stuart Ringholt, Khaled Sabsabi, Yhonnie Scarce, Soda_Jerk, Dr Christian Thompson AO, James Tylor, Judy Watson, Jason Wing and Nyapanyapa Yunupingu.

‘AUSTRALIA. ANTIPODEAN STORIES’ includes a number of new works created by artists specifically for the show. Among them, Salvado de Que? (2019) by Archie Moore is a four-metre length of fabric – the same blue as Australia’s national flag – that hangs from the ceiling, on which Moore has painted ‘SALVADO’, Spanish for ‘saved’. This work references Rosendo Salvado, a Benedictine monk who founded the New Norcia Catholic mission (132km north of Perth, Western Australia) in 1847. Salvado was responsible for taking several Yued Noongar Aboriginal boys to Rome in order to present to the courts of Europe examples of successfully evangelised ‘native children’, all of whom died during or shortly after their time in Europe. These actions are hauntingly akin to the ‘Stolen Generations’. Moore’s work questions colonial ideas of ‘salvation’, which drove Australia’s horrific interventions on Aboriginal people and resulted in tragic deaths, generational trauma, and extensive cultural erasure.

Another newly made work that unpacks Australia’s fraught history is Ask us what we want, still (2019) by Jason Wing – a new interactive wall-work based on Wing’s bronze sculpture Captain Crook (2013), a bust of Captain Cook with a balaclava over his head. A digital print of this work has been reimaged onto a wad of found street posters, the balaclava rendered in UV-sensitive ink, best viewed by shining a UV torchlight onto the image.  Wing painted around the image in flat ‘Mission Brown’ acrylic house paint, which the artist says ‘speaks to the erasure of free speech on the streets and the overarching mission of erasure of all aspects of Aboriginal culture which is still perpetuated by the Australian government policies and celebrations … the UV light resembles a crime scene and seeing things in a different perspective. An Aboriginal perspective that challenges the dominant colonial narrative.’

In Fiona Hall’s Lay me down (2018-19), the artist enlists her practice of archaeological display – in this case, thousands of glass shards from broken bottles bearing painted skeletons have been arranged to forge a field: a massacre site. It conveys an aura of foreboding, the aftermath of genocide. Positioned in front of a glass wall with a view outside onto trees and grass, this critical mass appears to extend beyond the gallery space.

Among the many dialogues forged between artists in the show, Mike Parr and Dale Harding have been brought together throughout the exhibition development in a dialogue that is both inter-generational and cross cultural. Their works in the space speak respectfully to one another about Country, the environment, knowledge, language, the body and family.

Parr presented two early photographs from his 1975 series Identification No.1 (Rib Markings in Carnarvon Range, southeast central Queensland, January 1975) documenting an action in the landscape forty-four years ago. Using charcoal from a nearby burnt tree, the 30-year-old Parr drew on his torso, marking his ribs. In Milan, Parr revisited the mark-making in a performance on the opening night (16 December 2019), this time painting a black square directly onto the gallery wall. With eyes closed, he felt and mapped the walls’ surface with his body and utilised his fully extended arm to make a black square, painting blind for about forty-five minutes until he felt it was complete.

Parr’s 1975 action took place on the traditional lands of Dale Harding’s ancestors, the Bidjara, Ghungalu and Garingbal people, several years before Harding was born. In his work at PAC, Harding references the tree in Parr’s image as a landmark, rendering it directly onto the gallery wall. Harding also included aspects of his research of Aboriginal wall-painting sites in Carnarvon Gorge. For centuries the walls of the gorge have been a surface where Indigenous artists and communities have imprinted their histories through stencilled images of weaponry and shields, domestic tools, ceremonial objects, and indexes of the human body. Harding’s work Longing for Recognition (2019) included two small glass squares sprayed with liquefied plant resin extracted from the grass tree Xanthorrhea australis and wall-mounted at a height in relation to Harding’s left arm.  The amber-coloured resin is sprayed with the mouth like ochre, and is a strong spiritual metaphor for Harding.

Together, the works in ‘AUSTRALIA. ANTIPODEAN STORIES‘ present a portrait of the hybridity and complexity of our current times.

16 December 2019 – 9 February 2020
Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea, Milan

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